I have, believe it not, thought to write daily. Unfortunately I have been bogged down with ‘the job search.’ It is a bitter subject! So here are the masterpieces for 16-18 January:
Bacchus and Ariadne (detail) by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini. Oil on canvas, 1720s.
At first I had difficulty with this painting. My heart said Renaissance, but my mind said, “1720s?” It turns out Pellegrini did paint in a partly Renaissance style, though he did not live during the Renaissance period. Being able to make such distinctions is one of the goals here, so I’m fine with having felt a bit confused! So first, the content–what’s happening? Often when we see Bacchus (aka Dionysus), he is easy to identify by symbols bunches of grapes, wine chalices, or simply a ruddy, drunken-looking face. Not so here. Here, he looks rather young, rather ordinary, and despite the unrealistic pose, is simply presenting a ring to the fair-skinned, blushing Ariadne.
The story as far as I know is that Bacchus found Ariadne abandoned by her father on an island, and eventually married her. I suppose the sky devoid of a city line and also what I believe is the horizon over open ocean indicates their location.
What made me think Renaissance? Firstly, the subject matter. Renaissance art was full of Greco-Roman mythology and the Bible. Maybe some patrons, but that was most of it. Secondly, the relatively low drama. Sure, Ariadne has somewhat of an expression and is blushing, but overall, there is not a lot of emotion on either face; the subject matter itself is rather mundane (I mean, compared to such popular Baroque subjects such as the beheading of Goliath, Holofernes, and John the Baptist); the soft lines and colors, lack of contrast, and treatment of fabric; and the ideal aspects of the figures’ appearances.
What, besides the date, made me say, No… not Renaissance? Firstly, the composition. Renaissance art is typically quite balanced and can be outlined by a triangle, maybe there is some clear perspective added. Think of Michelangelo’s David or Leonardo DaVinci’s The Last Supper. But Pellegrini’s painting is built from a strong diagonal from the upper right down to the lower left corner of the piece, a common characteristic of Baroque art which adds a sense of action, drama, and sometimes a “snapshot” quality to the image. In fact, this is a snapshot, a moment in time, the offering of an engagement ring (though I do not know if the tradition of engagement rings goes so far back).
Anyway, there is really a mix of the Renaissance and Baroque styles in this painting, mainly with respect to composition and subject matter. For instance, though Pellegrini chooses to depict Classical figures, at the same time, he doesn’t choose to paint them symbolizing or enacting some virtue, as you might expect from a Renaissance painter. Rather, he chooses something emotional, perhaps even passionate (a characteristic of the Baroque): a marriage proposal. It is not my favorite painting, but it is good for showing that art does not always fit neatly into the styles and periods taught in school, but is something that grows and evolves and depends on the individual artist, too.
Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara in Water Moon Form (Shuiyue Guanyin). Chinese, Liao dynasty, Willow with traces of pigment, 11th Century.
Man, I do not know a lot about Asian art! I’ll say what I do know: This is a very old and beautiful sculpture, around four feet high, made of wood. I do not know about Chinese art, but I do know the Japanese historically favor natural materials like this, which makes sense considering Eastern spiritual views. If I were to see this sculpture, I would identify the figure as Buddha by the outstretched ear lobes, which represent wisdom–or perhaps an authority figure being portrayed as wise by using a symbol of the Buddha (just as Western patrons have had themselves depicted with symbols of wisdom from the Bible or Greco-Roman mythology).
I remember the word “bodhisattva” from a lecture a long time ago, but had to look it up. A bodhisattva is indeed not the Buddha, but has wisdom like him. Here’s what it means: someone who has reached Enlightenment, but delays Nirvana in order to help others reach Enlightenment. Actually a really beautiful concept and someone worthy of immortalizing in sculpture, I’d say. An analogy would be like if The Virgin Mary would have had the option not to ascend into Heaven, but to stay on Earth for a while to help lead others to Heaven (or maybe she did, I don’t know).
I can’t say much more because I know practically zero about Chinese history or art. The composition is rather serene and balanced, slightly stylized, perhaps representative of physical ideals of beauty in China at the time (maybe now as well). More information is available via the link above. I’ll have to check it out myself.
Ah, time has flown by pretty quickly actually. I’ll go read a bit more about the piece above, and delve into Cézanne and tomorrow’s masterpiece, well, tomorrow.