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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Honorable Mention

Having set forth a list of the greatest paintings of the last thousand years, I probably raised some eyebrows not so much for the artists and paintings I chose but those I didn't mention. Everyone has their favorite artists and I'm no exception. I tried not to let favoritism play a part in my selection, and, indeed, some of the paintings I mentioned are definitely not among my favorites. I'm starting to feel like a self-appointed, one-man jury in the greatest art show of all time. Very well, having awarded prizes for the ten best, I think I should now list the "also-rans" who richly deserve at least an "Honorable Mention" ribbon. I had intended to list only ten but ended up with at least fourteen. I whittled away somewhat at that list but still ended up with eleven, which is, at least, close to ten. In no particular order they are:

Nude Descending a Staircase #2,
1911, Marcel Duchamp
Marcel Duchamp: Nude Descending a Staircase #2, 1911, Philadelphia Museum of Art. While the painting certainly had a landmark effect upon art, its effect was mostly in this country rather than world-wide, and it was, after, a derivative painting based upon ongoing studies in Cubism at the time by Picasso and Braque.

Triptych of the Descent from the Cross, 1612-14, Peter Paul Rubens
Peter Paul Rubens: Triptych of the Descent from the Cross, 1612-14, Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp. Like Michelangelo's ceiling, this work involves multiple paintings, each one exquisite in its own way, though unlike Michelangelo, only the central panel depicting the actual descent from the cross can really be considered a masterpiece. What must have been a clumsy, awkward undertaking in reality, comes across with a powerful, loving grace that is as deeply moving as it is beautiful.

Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-86, Georges Seurat
Georges Seurat: Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884-86, Art Institute of Chicago. While technically, a breakthrough in the use of color and a sort of "scientific Impressionism," the overall scene is one of stiff formality in no way capturing the relaxed, playful quality of the setting. Too much attention to technique, not enough warmth to break a sweat.

The Bathers, 1906, Paul Cezanne
Paul Cezanne: The Bathers, 1900-05, National Gallery, London. I felt terribly guilty leaving Cezanne out of the original ten, but it was impossible to come up with one work that stood out above his others. And even the choice of this painting is somewhat arbitrary in that he is probably best known for his landscapes. Here though, there is the element of landscape amongst his figures, which are more still-life objects as living "bathing beauties."

The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, Theodore Gericault
Theodore Gericault: The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, Musee du Louvre, Paris. The choice here was not so much which painting but which artist in that Eugene Delacroix was a Romantic artist of equal stature and his outstanding Liberty Leading the People is at least as dramatic. However the award goes to the work having the greatest impact on art from this much misunderstood era, and here, without question, "The Raft" in its depiction of a scandalous, actual event, edges out the competition.

The Holy Trinity, 1426-28, Masaccio
Masaccio: The Holy Trinity, 1426-28, Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Probably the greatest pre-Michelangelo fresco, I narrowly had to give Giotto the top billing in that his Lamentation Over the Dead Christ was earlier and had a more profound effect upon fresco painting (including the work of Masaccio), even though this work is much more complex in composition and technically superior (as well it should be having been done 125 years later).

Oath of the Horatii, 1784, Jacques-Louis David
Jacques-Louis David: The Oath of the Horatii, 1784, Musee du Louvre, Paris. The kickoff to the Classical era in painting, undoubtedly David's most outstanding work. The problem I had with it was not the painting itself (who could fault David technically) but with the violent, melodramatic, sexist theme of the work. Often touted as the first painting of the modern era, if that's the case, it mostly serves to underscore how different the Postmodern era has become when wars can be fought and won by remote control rather than blood.

Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Claude Monet
Claude Monet: Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Musee Marmottan, Paris. Like Cezanne, Monet was difficult to pass over in the original ten, as was this painting. But again, there are so many good Monet's and so few great ones. This painting, while an excellent example of what Impressionism was all about, had little impact on either Impressionism or Art. Its chief claim to fame is its impact on a single journalist/critic in his derogatory coining of the word "Impressionism."

The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last
Berth to be Broken up, 1838, JMW Turner
J.M.W. Turner: The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838, National Gallery, London. Turner, as a precursor to Impressionism, was hard to omit from the "big ten" and this is as good as he gets. The problem was, Turner was little appreciated by his contemporaries and had a far greater effect upon American art than he did on the mainstream English or French painters who largely had to "rediscover" during the Impressionist era, that which he'd already known some forty years before. (Notice I didn't include any Impressionists in my original top ten either.)

The Third of May, 1808: the Firing Squad on Mount Pius, 1814, Frncisco Goya
Francisco Goya: The Third of May, 1808: The firing Squad on Mount Pius, 1814, Museo del Prado, Madrid. A very strong, journalistic/propagandist work with few precedents in painting at the time, and unfortunately, few antecedents, at least until Picasso's Guernica a 130 years later. Goya is a much-underrated painter who deserves better.

The School of Athens, 1509-10, Raphaello de Sanzio
Raphaello de Sanzio: The School of Athens, 1509-10, Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican City. Had he not stood in the shadow of Michelangelo, Raphael might well be considered the most outstanding painter of the Renaissance. However, had it not been for Michelangelo, he might have been known only for his syrupy-sweet Madonnas. This outstanding, thought-provoking work, painted while Michelangelo was at work nearby in the Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo accused Raphael of "spying" on him), certainly proves him to have been a fast learner.

There you have it. Even though I've listed them as "also-rans", none of them are second-rate artists. And notice I've not included other outstanding work by any of the "big ten" even though paintings such as Picasso's Guernica, Manet's Olympia, or Leonardo's Last Supper, for instance, had a greater impact on the development of Western art than did some of these. But I've not listed those in an effort to spread the spotlight focus a little broader, bringing to light art and artists that should have had a greater importance in art history than they did.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Greatest Painting

The Creation of Adam (detail), 1508-12, Michelangelo.
 The hand of God touching Michelangelo's?
Having promulgated a list of the "Greatest" paintings ever painted, maybe here at the end I should mention the criteria I've used in doing so. First of all, the overall quality of the work, not just for its time but for all time was considered. How does the work rate gauged beside both previous and later work? Second the influence of the individual painting and that of the artist in general over later artists. Did the work have a lasting impact on the course of art history? And third, I considered the various works and their popular standing among those who appreciate art but are not "absorbed" by it as are artists and art historians. The list admittedly has some tendency to be more heavily weighted by "modern" works simply because there are so many more paintings and painters in the modern era and with the increased pace and ease of communication now as compared to the distant past, they've had a much greater impact on us as artists today.

Sistine Chapel Ceiling, 1508-12, Michelangelo:
"I'm a sculptor, not a painter."
In choosing Michelangelo Buonarroti's Sistine Chapel Ceiling (above) as the greatest painting of all time, I could not help but consider the fact that it is the almost universally beloved and admired painting in the world, especially in the light of its restoration a few years ago. Moreover, it is not merely one, but a whole art gallery of over a dozen major masterpieces, (and scores of minor ones) brilliantly composed into a massive, permanent, one man show of the highest caliber, painted under the most miserable physical circumstances imaginable. Despite its prodigious population of nude and semi-nude figures, even school children are aware of its story of Genesis told in such expressive splendor as to be "awesome" in the current adolescent vernacular. At the time of its completion, school children weren't the only ones who found the work awe-inspiring. Thanks to the restoration efforts, only in this era can we get a feeling for the truly awesome impact this incredible spectacle must have had on clergy and laity alike.

The Temptation of Eve (detail) 1508-12, Michelangelo.
Michelangelo, the misogynist?
The Drunkenness of Noah, 1509-12, Michelangelo
Nude sons mocking their father's nudity.
On the other hand, Michelangelo was not without his critics, roughly dividing into what we might think of today as "conservatives"--those who were shocked by the widespread nudity he employed, and "liberals"--those who didn't particularly mind the humanist nudity, but were totally dismayed by the radical, writhing, un-classical, almost painful contortions through which the sculptor-turned-painter put his figures. Of course, when it came to controversy, Michelangelo was hardly blameless. He dared to depict the serpent in the Temptation of Eve (above) as a female figure. He blatantly portrayed an almost obscene nakedness in the Drunkenness of Noah (directly above). And, in the panel depicting the Creation of the Sun and the Moon (bottom), he not only repeated earlier, groundbreaking depictions of God himself, but had the audacity to portray him from the rear, perhaps even for God, not his most flattering side.
The Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Plants, 1508-12, Michelangelo.
God moves on; He was a busy man.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Top Ten Greatest Paintings

Every so often writers like to delve into the past and dote on the most historic events having taken place, defending their choices, outlining for the historically illiterate some of the background of these events. Sometimes, for a change of pace, they focus just on individuals, or even places or things, and expound on the circumstances and why they were chosen. In the same vein and in view of the fact that there are few surviving paintings more than a thousand years old, I'd like to propose my own personal list of the ten greatest paintings of the last thousand years. Reaching to be the David Letterman of art, I'd like to start with number :

10. Lamentation over the Dead Christ, Giotto
10. Giotto: Lamentation over the Dead Christ, 1304-06, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy. This is just one scene in the fresco cycle covering "The Life of Jesus" which decorates the chapel. Undoubtedly the most influential painting of the Medieval period, largely responsible for the resurgence of fresco painting during the Renaissance, remarkable in its pathos, it's audacious handling of grouped figures, movement, color, and composition.

9. The Calling of St. Matthew, Caravaggio
9. Caravaggio: The Calling of St. Matthew, 1597, Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. The first of three in a series covering the ministry of the the tax collector turned apostle. Famous for its dramatic, Baroque use of light, realistic modeling of figures, and its profound, narrative qualities. The best of the three paintings, this series was responsible for spreading Caravaggio's name and influence all over Europe.

8. The Night Watch, Rembrandt van Rijn
8. Rembrandt van Rijn: The Night Watch, 1642, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Considered to be Rembrandt's best work, this painting broke the mold insofar as group portraits at the time were concerned. Newly cleaned today, the painting stands up well as the best Northern Europe had to offer.

7. The Scream, Edvard Munch
7. Edvard Munch: The Scream, 1893, Kommunes Kunstsmalinger, Oslo. Though painted in the last century, this painting has become an icon for the pounding stress and strain of  this century, grappling with the horrors of war, economic and ethnic desperation, social and personal psychological conflict.

6. Luncheon on the Grass, Edouard Manet
6. Edouard Manet: Luncheon on the Grass, 1863, Musee du Jeu de Paume, Paris. Probably the most revolutionary painting on the nineteenth century, with this work, Manet sounded the opening shot in the war between Modern Art and the Academics by skillfully combining elements of classicism, Realism, Impressionism, and even photography.

5. The Blue Poles, Jackson Pollock
5. Jackson Pollock: Blue Poles, 1953, Australian National Gallery, Camberra. Considered by many to be Pollock's best work, the painting marked the zenith of the Abstract Expressionist movement, striking out on a grand scale with it's color and movement far beyond anything seen or done before or since.

4. Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci
4. Leonardo Da Vinci: Mona Lisa, 1503-06, The Louvre, Paris. This mysteriously smiling face has become synonymous with art itself. It is certainly the most famous painting ever painted, and arguably the most influential portrait of all time.

3. The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh

3. Vincent Van Gogh: The Starry Night, 1889, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Without question, this work has come to represent the best of the best from this beloved, but troubled genius. The painting was to influence the expressive use of color and paint for several generations of international artists during the next half-century or more.

2. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Pablo Picasso

2. Pablo Picasso: Les Demoiselles d' Avignon, 1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York. The painting is a ground-breaking landmark for Modern Art as well as Picasso himself, delivering a loud, strong, breathtaking departure in style, composition, and subject matter that is still being felt in art today.


1. And the greatest painting of the last thousand years? (Check out the posting above this one.)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

William Hogarth

Self-portrait at the Easel, ca. 1757, William Hogarth
Several years ago, in the movie, Primary Colors (and in others since), we have had thinly disguised bits of social commentary centered upon recent all-consuming bids to obtain political office. Were such works of art to have been created in the 1700s, they would, of course, have been done in the form of paintings. Moreover, the "producer" of such works would have undoubtedly been William Hogarth. Born in England in 1697, Hogarth was primarily an engraver, specializing in prints satirizing current events or social mores. Such works were immensely popular, and more than that, quite profitable. Shrewd, witty, and somewhat straight-laced, his work quickly attracted the attention of the evolving middle-classes while needling the upper classes, which the often lampooned. Nonetheless, even the wealthy seem to have bought them and must have secretly enjoyed them in spite of the fact they may have struck close to home.

The Harlot's Progress, 1731, William Hogarth,
Moll Hackabout arrives in London.
Hogarth however, aspired to more. He wanted to be a painter. About 1731, he moved up from prints to a series of paintings through which he told moralizing tales he made up himself, illustrated in oils, usually four to the set, something like a play in four acts. One, for instance, The Harlot's Progress (left), depicts the story of a young farm girl lured into prostitution. Color prints were sold based upon the paintings (which were destroyed in a fire). The first set was so successful, he flipped the coin over and followed it with The Rake's Progress (below right), a tale told of similar, male debauchery. Though he worked hard to establish himself as a painter, and showed considerably ability, the more expensive color prints did not sell as well as those he'd done before so he gave up his dream and never painted again after 1745.

The Rake's Progress, 1734. William Hogarth,
Tom Rakewell, squaders his inheitance in
riotous living.
Hogarth was successful however in leaving us a number of sharp insights into what it must have been like to live among the moneyed classes in the eighteenth century. In 1743, Hogarth began his last, and perhaps his best series, a group of four paintings. The series was called Marriage a la Mode. The opening painting, titled The Marriage Contract (bottom), depicts a wealthy merchant about to sign papers committing his attractive, teenage daughter in marriage to a penniless nobleman. The scene is a riot of subtle comedy and satire complete with lawyers, accountants, and even an architect peering out a window at the young nobleman's new house under construction, paid for no doubt by the wealthy merchant as part of his daughter's dowry. One look at the indolent, spindly-legged, playboy viscount she is to marry, admiring himself in a mirror, and we know the arranged union is in trouble before they even speak the vows. Obviously, striving to tell elaborate stories in paint, Hogarth must have found the limitations of his chosen medium quite frustrating. Perhaps he was simply born in the wrong century. He would have felt right at home in Hollywood.
Marriage Ala Mode,  1743, William Hogarth, The Marriage Contract.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Hopper's Contrasts

Self-portrait, 1906, Edward Hopper
In a previous posting here I referred to Edward Hopper as the liberal art establishment's answer to Norman Rockwell. I got no disagreement. I pointed out some surprising similarities between he two artists and needlessly underlined their differences (as in day and night). Even though I like both artists' work, Hopper is much harder to like. With Hopper you have to "feel" the artist--get under his skin, so to speak. In many ways Hopper could also be compared to Grant Wood--quiet, austere, probing, but not quite as cold and without the dry humor. Hopper goes out of his way to be profoundly humorless. He instead, dwells on contrasts--wordless contrasts and color contrasts.

Automat, 1927, Edward Hopper
Words are superfluous in Hopper's subject matter, indeed, almost a sacrilege, like bubble gum in church. No words are needed to heighten the solitude of Hopper's 1927 Automat (left), or the silent, joint solitude of his 1942 Nighthawks (below). No one ever speaks in Hopper's paintings. In his landscapes, only the wind dares break the silence. No TVs blare in his bleak, Midwestern hotel rooms. No passing cars, not even a car horn invades his city streets. His figures avert our gaze, lost in thought, but never thoughtless. They are as silent as his architecture, and as motionless. And like his architecture, whether starkly Victorian or starkly Modern, they seem just as starkly noble in their timeless, mundane worlds.

Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper
Balancing the contrasts of his subjects is his color contrasts. His is a world of sunlight seen through dilated pupils--pure, unadulterated whites blatantly smashed against deep, colorless blacks. But in between is a walloping palette of fire engine reds, strident yellows, rusty browns, and patriotic blues sufficient to make even Claude Monet rub his eyes in amazement. And there is the greatest contrast of all. Despite the almost photographic realism, Hopper colors like an Impressionist. In peering at his colors, between the sometimes excruciating high contrasts, one finds a quiet, wealth of breathtakingly subtle transitions--an intermingling of his daunting primaries into an endless array secondaries too rich to merit such a term. Hopper's paintings, unlike Rockwell's, demand respect, not love.
High Road, 1931, Edward Hopper

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Plight of History Painters

Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, 1648, Claude Lorrain
Painters today often complain that they've been reduced to servants of interior decorators. And it's a valid complaint, except among those artists only too willing, for a price, to fulfil the need to match size, style, shape, and colors with couch and carpet. It might surprise artists on all sides of the issue to know there's nothing new in all this. As far back as the Renaissance, painters were asked by wealthy patrons to cater to certain expected norms in the subject of their work (sometimes even size and colors) to its location within their new ducal palaces. Scenes with philosophers were expected in studies; feast scenes went into dining rooms (last suppers if they were monastery dining rooms). Paintings of battles or great pomp and ceremony were required for reception rooms and, naturally, semi-erotic scenes of Greek gods pursuing nymphs and maidens were all important for the bedroom. What's an artist to do?

Et in Arcadia Ergo (even in Arcadia I am there), 1639, Nicholas Poussin 
Most of those we recall today happily complied. Those who didn't mostly don't get recalled. In general, except for some religious scenes for perhaps the chapel, and the obligatory mythology for the bedroom, this early form of interior decorating amounted to the then relatively new genre of history painting. Which was fine for the first hundred years or so, but as the number of frescoed walls kept growing, the number of historic anecdotes to fill them did not. I mean, what's a rich young ruler to do? If the neighbors on one side have Claude Lorrain's Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (top, 1648) and the neighbors on the other side have Poussin's Et in Arcadia Ergo (above, 1639), the last thing you want in your grand salon is more of the same. But then again, it can't be too different. Maybe that new guy, Guercino, might be able to come up with something?

Hersilia Separating Romulus from Tacitus, 1645, Guercino 
Guercino came up with Hersilia Separating Romulus from Tacitus (above, 1645) which might go a long way in explaining why few of us recall Guercino. In other words, the more history painting that gets done, the harder it is to come up with history that needs to be done. By the 18th century, would-be history painters were reduced to painting what we'd call now historic trivia--some of their scenes so trivial that art scholars today are reduced to outright speculation as to what they depict, much less what they mean. History painting became such a prestigious striving for artists that they were reduced to combing through contemporary literature, Shakespeare and the like, for even second-hand accounts from which to create new work. Just about anything would do, so long as it hadn't already been done to death, and it wasn't so mundane as to look like genre.

Raphael and La Fornarina, 1814,
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres
Of course, history tried to supply its legions of history-painting artists as best it could. The 18th and 19th centuries were both filled with all manner of wars, skulduggery, political scandals, beheadings, firing squads, burnings, and other dramatic events--enough to fill volumes of history books, but not enough to sate the appetites of those who, in effect, illustrated them. Jean-Auguste Ingres went so far as to turn to Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in search of subject matter. In 1814, he painted Raphael and La Fornarina (left), becoming the first history painter in history to paint another history painter. The work depicts the dashing young artist with the love of his life (a baker's daughter) on his knee, his attention not upon his lovely bride-to-be (he died mysteriously before they could be wed), but looking back over his shoulder at the drawn image of her on his easel--an artist to the end.

The Death of General Wolfe, 1770, Benjamin West
As early American artists were prone to do, painters such a Benjamin West and John Vanderlyn went to Europe to learn the technical principles of history painting. In so doing, they turned to the history of their own continent, as in West's The Death of General Wolfe (above, 1770) or Vanderlyn's The Murder of Jane McCrea (below, 1804). And while Wolfe's depiction might fall well within the European tradition, Vanderlyn's pleading, screaming, white woman about to be scalped by two stripling Native-Americans (based upon Greek models of course) so they could sell her tresses to the English strikes us as abhorrently violent, not to mention terribly inconsequential. Blessedly, there was never much market for history painting in the U.S., and anyway, much of what was done gravitated toward tired, static, but quite civilized group portraits depicting the signing of peace treaties and other historic documents.

The Murder of Jane McCrea, 1804, John Vanderlyn 
For all its much vaunted, thematic, high (and low) mindedness in the past, fortunately, history painting today is even "deader" than genre. I use the word "fortunately" because, quite frankly, artists have never been very good at this sort of thing. Today we have news photos and taped instant replays flashed on TV and the Internet within mere seconds of the event, some of which are destined to become the modern equivalent of history painting. And as much as we may bemoan the various slants and outright distortion of the news by those charged with documenting it, visually at least, that which passes for historic art today is a far cry more accurate (and no less artistic) than the storybook art that passed for history in years past.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Hiking Cross-country--Ben Mahmoud

Several Tales and Some Things, 1999, acrylic with leaf on panels with
dried apples, paper, glass , Ben Mahmoud
In this day and age, the search for "newness" is, perhaps, the most difficult task for the serious artist. I'm reminded of a quotation I saw the other day (wish I could remember the source), a takeoff on Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken, something to the effect, "two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel I struck out cross-country." The analogy is apt. To take either road would be to follow the lead of others. To strike off cross-country is not just to take the "...road less traveled", but to take the road un-traveled--to make your own road.

Ex Fictura Ad Verititas, 1999, acrylic with leaf on panels
with dried apple, glass and rib, Ben Mahmoud
An artist friend brought to my attention a site on the Internet created by Ben Mahmoud, a professor emeritus of Northern Illinois University who died in 2009. She seemed fascinated, but disturbed, by his work, questioning me as to what particular "ism" she might be seeing. Basically, he was juxtaposing small, framed, "icons" (for lack of a better term) next to paintings done in a highly refined, surrealist painting manner. The easy answer to what she asked is that his work is Postmodern, which is not very descriptive. It's like saying Impressionism is 19th century art in that Postmodernism is an era more than a style. His most obvious stylistic element is Surrealism, but again with a Postmodern twist. Recently there has been a concerted effort to blur the lines between art media, which I applaud. These "lines" have always been artificial--traditional, but nonetheless man made.

Miraculum (Curiosity), 1999,  acrylic with leaf on panel with dried apple, rib, and glass, Ben Mahmoud
Mahmoud's work is a classic illustration of Postmodernism, pulling up the past--Surrealism, icons, photo-realism, etc.--then breaking down old, artificial barriers, adding to that some kind of never-before-seen twist, which is probably what my friend found disturbing about it. Real "newness" is more often than not disturbing. That's what Ben Mahmoud is doing by relating framed icons employing real objects to his painted work. Simply revisiting a successful style from the past is what we call "retrograde" art. Mixing these past styles while also mixing media, and knowing when, where, and how to "break the rules" is postmodern. On a personal note, along this same line, I've considered creating a still-life of objects in a shadow box (archival objects of course) which would be physically attached to a framed still-life painting of the same objects; something like an artist attaching the photo(s) from which he or she worked to the final painting. (Something I[ve sometimes done with portraits.) Even though I'm a "realist" painter, so far, I've not had the guts to invite that close of comparison, but it's a "cross-country" trek I may take sometime in the future once I "get in shape" and find my compass.

Note: This item was written several years ago. Since then, I've managed to complete the painting I was then only contemplating. It's titled Memories in Bits and Pieces (below). Notice how the ribbon has faded in the still-life on the left and the cloth backdrop has become slightly rearranged.
Memories in Bits and Pieces, 2001, Jim Lane

Sunday, September 23, 2012

George Frederick Handel

George Frederick Handel, 1726-28,
Balthasar Denner
Most great artists have grown up in homes where one or both parents nurtured their talents, often at great personal sacrifice of their own dreams and well being. In the small German town of Halle in 1685 a child was born to a surgeon and his wife. Early on, the boy showed interest and talent in music, but his father, wishing to insure a secure future for his son, forbid the presence of musical instruments within his house. He wished for his son George a career as a lawyer instead. And George might well have become a lawyer except for a fortuitous business trip on which his father took him along to visit the court of Duke Johann Adolf at Weisenfels. Somewhat bored, young George wandered through the palace until he came to the chapel and its organ where he sat down and began to improvise. The wonderful sounds the boy of twelve was making caught the ear of the Duke, who was so impressed he implored the gifted boy's father to let him study music. Back in Halle, the young man trained with his hometown cathedral organist, Zachau, who taught him to be a composer and performer on several keyboard instruments as well as the violin and oboe.

Handel's birthplace, 1685, Halle, Germany.
George Frederick Handel soon outgrew Zachau and a succession of other instructors in Hamburg and elsewhere in Germany. He then moved on to Italy where he mastered the art of composing operas. He spent several years performing and travelling from one Italian court to another as his reputation grew to the point that in 1710, at the age of 25, he was invited back to Germany by Prince George Ludwig of Hanover who offered him the position of court musician. The only drawback was it meant composing music to the demands of others, a restriction the young composer quickly grew to hate. With the knowledge that Italian opera had become fashionable in London, Handel petitioned the prince for a temporary leave of absence to travel to England. The prince graciously granted him permission to go for a "reasonable time." That "reasonable time" eventually became fifty years.

Music sheet, Rinaldo, 1711,
Handel's first opera.

Handel's first opera, Rinaldo came only a few months after he hit London. For 15 straight nights it performed to sold-out crowds. Over the next few years, Handel turned out opera after opera, becoming the most popular composer in England. After three years, Queen Anne gave him an annual stipend of 200 pounds. However, when the queen died in 1714, the last of the Stuart royal line, she was succeeded by Prince George Ludwig, the first of the Hanover kings and the very same Prince George Ludwig that had granted Handel a "short" leave of absence. However what might have been a career breaker, or at least a source of embarrassment, ended in his stipend being doubled by his forgiving friend - the new king. The next ten years were the pinnacle of Handel's popularity on the London stage. But, during the next ten years, tastes changed, music changed, and the great composer's Baroque style music became dated. In 1728, he was forced into bankruptcy and found himself resorting to concert performances to survive. In 1737, when one of his final operas was a dismal failure, he suffered a stroke and lost the use of his right arm. Partly to escape creditors as well as to seek treatment, Handel journeyed to Achen, Germany to a famous health spa run by an order of nuns for treatment in their hot, bubbling waters. In 1741, in something approaching a miracle, Handel made a complete recovery. He returned to England and what he hoped would be a fresh start in the opera business, only to have his next several works also fail on the stage. Then, at this nadir in his life, he received a bulky package from the poet Charles Jennens - a play manuscript and a request that Handel compose a musical accompaniment.

The Messiah, autographed score, 1741, George Frederick Handel
Handel looked over the work and was disappointed to find it far from original, mostly a skillful weaving of biblical texts with a stirring narrative of Christ's birth, death, and resurrection. Jennens called it, Messiah. Though there was no mention of compensation, Handel began to write in the early hours of August 22, 1741. Working almost day and night, twenty-four days later the enormous score was complete. Handel went to bed and slept 17 hours. His music copyist, fearing another stroke, or that he'd died, called a doctor. He needn't have bothered; Handel lived for another 17 years. Messiah, at Handel's insistence, was first performed in Dublin, Ireland during the Christmas season the following year. Repeatedly, the crowd of concert-goers was so great, women were asked to forgo their hoop skirts and men were encouraged to leave their swords at home so that a greater number could be packed into the concert hall. More than 400 pounds were raised for charity, going to hospitals and infirmaries and toward the release of 142 inmates from debtors' prison - a cause no doubt dear to the heart of the debt-ridden composer.

Handel caricature, Joseph Goupy, 1754
In 1743, expecting the same rousing success, Handel moved the production to London where, to his shock and despair, he found the clergy organizing protests of his work and preaching sermons against the Messiah on the grounds that it was a sacrilege for Christian truths to be mouthed by actors on a theatre stage (actors were still considered the dregs of society at the time). The London performance was a dismal failure (right); Handel was ruthlessly ridiculed. And so it was for the next several years as Handel nonetheless worked tirelessly to promote what he considered his greatest work. It wasn't until 1750 that the work gained critical acceptance. At a performance for England's King George II, the monarch suddenly rose to his feet in a spontaneous emotional outburst of joy as the trumpets blasted out the great "Hallelujah" chorus. A ripple of surprise and dismay swept over the audience as they too joined the king on their feet.  (To see why, click here: ) To this day, when the stirring "Hallelujah" chorus is heard audiences traditionally stand, out of respect for the composer and the Messiah. Handel was blind during the last seven years of his life yet continued to produce and conduct his musical masterpiece until his death on Good Friday, April 13, 1759.

Handel's Messiah at Carnegie Hall, New York

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Hadrian's Villa

Even in ruins, the lives of men are reflected in their homes.
The man himself, the Roman
Emperor, Hadrian, 76-138 CE.
Though I have no idea who first penned it, there's an old saying, "The greatest of all works of art are the lives of men." (And presumably women.) Certainly any number of great men and women, from Thomas Jefferson to Bill Gates to Catherine the Great serve to illustrate the truth of this phrase. Evidence of their greatness can usually be seen in what they built, whether it's a great nation or a huge, powerful corporation. Very often too, important insights into the personal character of these individuals can be seen in the physical structures they build for their homes as well. Our own Thomas Jefferson left us Monticello, Microsoft's Bill Gates has his techno-mansion on the shores of Lake Washington, and Russia's Catherine the Great still haunts the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and her palace in Pushkin. Each is an indelible, sharply accurate reflection of its builder, whether they actually drew the plans and supervised construction (many did), or merely dictated whims and preferences to professionals. In some ways, we can all identify with this very human trait, albeit on a smaller scale, as we ourselves look about at what we've built with our hands, heads, and hearts for our own human habitation.

This model recreates with a fair degree of accuracy Hadrian's country villa "city."

Unfortunately, other reflective architectural fa├žades have not survived along with their builders' historic presences. Some are known only through legends, contemporary accounts, or through the arts and sciences of the architectural pathologists we call archaeologists. Today, one such reflection of a man lies in ruins near Tivoli, a small town in the Apennine foothills north of Rome, two-thirds the way up the Italian boot. At the height of its glory around 134 CE, it rivalled Rome itself in size, occupying some seven square miles (three-fourths the size of Rome at the time). It was so large; in fact, that area peasants in the Middle Ages thought it was the remains of an ancient Roman city. Today we know it as the country home and principal architectural remnant of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Today, and for the past fifteen hundred years since it was sacked by the Goths, it is little more than a maze of decimated walls covered with ivy among which tourists stroll, trying to picture what once was one of the most beautiful palaces in the world.

If the ruins seem impressive, imagine what Hadrian saw and enjoyed.
Hadrian came to Rome as emperor in 117 CE, upon the death of Trajan, following a lifetime of service in the Roman Army. He had little use for the city of Rome and Rome had little use for him. Hadrian was the son of a provincial Roman family in the far western part of Spain. He'd spent all his life sleeping in tents or temporarily ensconced in borrowed homes from farmers' huts to seaside villas. In a sense, his sprawling complex of colonnades, loggias, temples, waterworks, and gardens was a sort of architectural travelogue, an assemblage of pillars, statues, fountains, and other art and artifacts he had collected as souvenirs during his incessant travels all over the Roman Empire. Even as emperor, he spent the first ten years of his reign on the road. It was only in his later years, as arteriosclerosis set in and he began looking for a retirement home, that his palatial villa began to take on his own persona.

Hadrian's island villa within a villa.

Hadrian was a lover of all things Greek. In style, his home was more Greek than Roman. Beyond this, it had no overall plan. Various structures (28 in all) were built at various times, not in relation to one another, but in relation to the site itself and their various functions. It was still being decorated when he died in 138 CE. The layout looks surprisingly informal even though there appear to have been many formal areas, as in the highly rectilinear garden layouts. But in looking at a model of the complex, one gets the feeling the Medieval peasants were right, it was more like a small city, yet one dedicated to the tastes and whimsy of a single man. At the heart of the palace was a large circular pool, surrounded by a colonnade. In the centre of the pool was a marble island (above) that could be reached only by two drawbridges. It was here, in a sort of open apartment of but nine small rooms, that Hadrian came to be alone - a sort of villa within a villa. Elsewhere could be found long marble pools reflecting landscaped courtyards for gymnastics, ball games, wrestling, and other forms of exercise. There was a huge library, hundreds of sculptures, and flowing waterways used to cool rooms, supply the kitchens, the gardens, the fountains, the baths, and finally to sluice out the latrines before flowing back into a river. Mosaics decorated the floors and walls which were also adorned with frescoes and tapestries.

A nice place to visit and, in its time, you might have enjoyed living there.
Even today, as ivy climbs these same walls, stripped of their finery, even of their marble facings, the villa has the lingering ambiance of a movie set, its slightly restored panoramas as photogenic now as when men in togas enjoyed the quiet, reflective beauty of the site. Ancient as it is, we feel as if we, as modern creatures of comfort, could be very much at home here; that its mix of formal informality and tasteful luxury would have been surprisingly pleasant even by today's standards. Hadrian was one of history's wisest rulers and one of Rome's better emperors. But recorded history aside, in seeing the wasted walls of his plundered palace, we have the feeling we know this man, and would like to know him better.
For hundreds of years, Hadrian's ruins have fascinated artists.