Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Good Friday

The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and Saint John the Evangelist Mourning by Rogier van der Weyden, 1460-65.

From the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 167.
by Katherine Crawford Luber, 1995:

The greatest old master painting in the Museum, Rogier van der Weyden's diptych presents the Crucifixion as a timeless dramatic narrative. To convey overwhelming depths of human emotion, Rogier located monumental forms in a shallow, austere, nocturnal space accented only by brilliant red hangings. He focused on the experience of the Virgin, her unbearable grief expressed by her swooning into the arms of John the Evangelist. The intensity of her anguish is echoed in the agitated, fluttering loincloth that moves around Christ's motionless body as if the air itself were astir with sorrow. Rogier's use of two panels in a diptych, rather than the more usual three found in a triptych, is rare in paintings of this period, and allowed the artist to balance the human despair at the darkest hour of the Christian faith against the promise of redemption.

I only add to Ms. Luber's beautiful discussion that the duality of the two sides of the diptych, with the overwhelming emotion in Mary on one side, and the austere presentation of the suffering Christ on the other, is not total but is broken by the small piece of Mary's garment that slips to the other side.

You can see this painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where its presence dominates the Medieval section of the museum.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Two Little Sisters

It has occurred to me that the films Atonement and Bright Star mirror each other in many ways. Both center on the doomed relationship between two young women and their unsuitable lovers, although John Keats and Fanny Brawne's relationship was never consummated. In both, a sub-theme is the relationship between an older sister and a younger sister, and the younger girl's growing awareness of the relationship between her sister and lover. Both of the young girls love the older sister's beloved.

But the similarity stops there, as the characters of the two younger sisters are nearly opposites. Briony in Atonement is controlling, curious almost to the point of prurience, which is partially understandable in a girl thirteen, but also highly suspicious. Her mis-apprehensions and her willfulness lead her to actions that are not-so-inadvertently destructive.

Toots, in Bright Star, is a sweetheart, and as I listen to this movie while I am ironing or knitting, I always pause to watch her every line. I could eat her with a spoon. Far from standing outside and judging wrongly, she helps her sister, most poignantly when she hands Fanny the pillowcase to give John Keats upon the death of the poet's brother. "She stayed up all night sewing it," Toots proudly tells Mr. Keats.

The contrast between these two girls matches the differences in their home life. The fathers are absent; in Atonement, he is held up in London by work; in Bright Star he is deceased. The difference is with the mothers.

Mrs. Brawne is intimately involved with the lives of her daughters. She is readily at hand, with sympathy but also cautioning. Mrs. Brawne insists that her children "stick together," as Toots chides Fanny. They take dance lessons together. Toots and Fanny sew together. The family visits friends together; the children go for walks together. The Brawne family lives a shared life.

In this ambiance, Fanny and Toots understand and trust each other. In one scene Toots asks Fanny to "check her stitching," but a love-sick Fanny grumpily shoos her away with harsh words: "No. I don't give a damn for your stitching, Toots!" Toots patiently walks back outside, sits down on the stoop, and resumes her sewing. She is secure enough in her sister's love to feel disappointment but not insecurity and not anger. She knows that when Fanny feels better, she will be loving again--as happens. And Fanny brings Toots into her relationship with Mr. Keats. When Toots goes a-searching for Fanny when the two lovers are lying in a wood, they hear her voice, get up, make themselves known, and follow her out. But they play a charming game with her during this walk--a reassurance to the younger girl that she is within their circle of love.

Atonement opens with Briony searching--up and down and all around and down to the servants in the kitchen--for her mother in the family's English country house. Briony wants her mother to read the play she has just authored to celebrate her brother Leon's visit home from university. Briony basks in her mother's sincere praise. Next we see Briony and her older sister Cecilia lying on the lawn talking, with Briony asking questions and Cecilia answering evasively.

Later, when Briony intrudes on the lovers--first by reading the letter and then interrupting their love making in the library--Cecilia recovers herself and stalks out of the room, leaving her stricken younger sister to her own devices. No reassurances here. Except for dinner that evening, Briony's mother is out of sight, lying upstairs with a headache. Each person in the family goes their own way--Briony, on her own and alone, spins her dramatic fantasies. My heart goes out to her.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Fine Arts Friday: Mother, Daughter, and an Unseen Grandfather

Mother Caressing Her Convalescent Daughter by Charles Willson Peale, 1818.

This painting is a marvel of emotional openness among three people--the mother, her daughter, and the artist--the grandfather we don't see. Peale painted this portrait of his daughter Angelica with her own daughter, Charlotte. The composition and coloration bind the two subjects as much as the caress and their expressions: the grey dress of the daughter matches the grey of the mother's hair bow. Their collars and the girl's sleeve ruffle all echo each other. They have the same dark curls. Their faces seem cut from the same stamp. The mother's shawl extends her arm to almost completely encircle her daughter. The outer lines of their heads and of the mother's shoulder encloses them in a triangle.

While the intimacy shared by mother and daughter is captured in many other paintings, what is special about this painting is that with their gaze to the unseen artist, the subjects are also reveling in their happiness and love for him. They are completely at ease. And it is hard to imagine such freshness except in a portrait painted by an artist beloved by the subject.

Thus, the painting not only celebrates the love between this mother and daughter, but also the love within the family. Peale himself sired 11 children of two wives during the strenuous times of the American Revolution and its immediate aftermath. He made his living as a portraitist, with a specialty in miniatures. He was a member of the Sons of Liberty. Despite his political life and associations, he was a dedicated family man and taught his children to paint, with four going on to become prominent artists in their own right. His many paintings of his children include the famous trompe d'oeil in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Staircase Group , where the stairs extend out of the painting to the museum floor.

The Staircase Group, or Titian and Raphael Peale, by Charles Willson Peale, 1795.

My great grandmother was descended from the Peale family through three lines, from whom she must have inherited her very joyful love of nature and family.

Fine Arts Friday: Girls and Their Grandmothers and Great Grandmothers

Elinor, Jean, and Anna by George Wesley Bellows, 1920.

The great baritone William Warfield (1920-2002) was born to a family of sharecroppers and gave his first recital in New York's Town Hall in 1950. He performed in concert tours throughout Europe and was married to the great contralto, Leontyne Price. Once Warfield was asked why he bothered to study other languages, poetry, and history, and his answer went something like this: The more that I am able to take into myself of humanity and great art, the richer I become and the more I have to give. It is the whole person not just the voice that goes into the song.

I have never forgotten this and have since believed that we are not merely what we remember, as Jan Struthers' Mrs. Miniver says, but the totality of all that has gone into us and our interaction with it.

I am reminded of this idea when I see this painting by George Bellows (1882-1925). Don't we pour our hearts and souls into our children and are they are not filled with us, as we are filled with the hearts and souls of our parents and grandparents? Our role models have a special place in our hearts--we carry them with us throughout our lives. "See what we have wrought and offer to the world?" the great-grandmother seems to say with her gesture toward her descendant.

Although the painting is all in one particular time, and the subjects are alive and sitting together in one place, the depiction of three generations seems to capture the very passage of time and humanity in one image. All the past time is in the present moment and is in the child. This compression of generational time into a single moment reminds me of this fascinating painting, which the great Venetian artist Titian painted at the age of 77.

Allegory of Time Governed by Prudence, 1565.

Returning to Bellows' trans-generational portrait, I never go through a day that I do not see before my inner eye an image of my grandmother or my mother. Sometimes it's as if my mother is merely obscured by my own body as I feel her presence in my own actions and thoughts -- as I pour a cup of tea, wipe the sink, talk to my daughter, or think of how I should emulate her generosity -- just below the surface of my own being.

We are never alone but are bound by love and learning to the continuity of generations, which our heart remembers, even if our mind might sometimes forget.

See more of the art of George Wesley Bellows, a man who was clearly in love with life.

Listen to William Warfield here, here, and here.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Today in 1776: Women Honored for Their Contributions to the American Revolutionary War

Martha Washington by Gilbert Stuart. She accompanied Washington throughout the war, exemplary of many women, whose portraits we of course do not have, who supported the American soldiers in the War for Independence.

Today, March 12, 1776, in Baltimore, Maryland, a public notice appeared in local papers recognizing the sacrifice of women to the cause of the American Revolution: "The necessity of taking all imaginable care of those who may happen to be wounded in the country's cause, urges us to address our humane ladies, to lend us their kind assistance in furnishing us with linen rags and old sheeting for bandages?" On and off the battlefield, women were known to support the revolutionary cause by providing nursing assistance.

But this was only one way in which women helped. From the earliest protests against British taxation, women's assent and labor were critical to the success of the cause of independence. There were also heroines such as Molly Pitcher and others who not only helped the wounded on the battlefield but even took up arms against the British themselves. There were also women who in spite of the war and having to move their families from one free area to another or to live under occupation, tirelessly worked to keep their families together and take care of their children.

Spinning: an act of defiance in the boycott of British manufactured fabric.

The boycotts that unified the colonies against British taxation required women's participation because the women had to make up for the deficit in the consumer products in their homes and work. For instance, before the war, manufactured cloth was inexpensive and in urban areas cloth was usually bought rather than manufactured. Thanks to the boycott, women again turned to spinning as a necessity, and as with Mahatma Gandhi in India a century and a half later, to an act of political protest. At one political gathering on Boston Common, women brought their spinning wheels and worked a full day.