Rachael Herman

Month: March, 2012

Self Portrait (1691), Michael Dahl

Browsing Michael Dahl’s back catalogue feels, for some reason, like one is gazing upon an identity parade of caricatures. This has ultimately lead to the conclusion that either Dahl was not the most flattering of painters, or that his subjects were simply just plain butters. We may never know. Repugnancy aside, I would instead like to focus on one of Dahl’s more easy-on-the-eye paintings, which resides at – you’ve guessed it – the National Portrait Gallery. The piece I am talking about is a self portrait of Mr Dahl himself and, rather surprisingly, isn’t hideously ugly. What initially drew me to the study was not the unusually flattering style of the painting, however, but its uncanny resemblance to The Young Ones comedian, Rik Mayall – funnily enough… (As an aside, the boyf maintains strongly that this is untrue and that in fact there is a striking similarity between Michael Dahl and Mamma Mia actor, Dominic Cooper . The silly fool, it looks nothing like him.) So without further ado, here is the painting itself for you to come to the correct conclusion:

Yes, I know what you are thinking: what on earth is Rik Mayall doing in a 17th Century painting? This likeness is astounding! Well worry not, little reader, I shall explain everything… (disclaimer: explanation does not actually contain any information about the funny man. Idiot.)

Born Mikael Dahl (that’s Swedish for Michael Dahl) on 29th September, 1659 in the city of Stokholm, Sweden, Dahl was educated and trained in the ways of the painter by Baroque artist David Klöcker Ehrenstrahl.  Twenty three years later, Dahl left Stokholm for the English capital, where he produced most of his work under the patronage of folks such as Queen Anne and Tory family, the Harleys. During this time Dahl only had one major rival: fellow portrait painter, Godfrey Kneller.

This particular painting of Dahl was completed in 1691 when the artist was thirty two years old. A suitably handsome man, as I’m sure you’ll agree, the charming Michael can be seen dressed in what appears to be a rather pleasant fern-green velvet jacket, with a dark aubergine and navy cloak draped around him. Now the green to me alludes to youth and inexperience, suggesting that Dahl perhaps views himself as something of a new-guy-on-the-block. The purple tones, on the other hand, could refer to his work in the royal courts at a fairly young age.

Next on the agenda would be to take a closer look at the composition, hand gestures and facial expression of our figure. As you can see two thirds of the painting comprises of the artist himself, whilst the remaining third contains what one can only assume to be an example of his own work, complete with tools of the trade positioned precariously adjacent to it. The positioning of the body directs the gaze onto said artwork and tools, which, combined with those blatant hand gestures, give the impression that the artist is potentially dissatisfied with the recognition – or lack thereof – he has been experiencing with regards to his artistic prowess, and consequently feels obliged to express this malcontent through his medium of expertise. I am almost willing myself to interpret the look upon the poor man’s face to be one of impatient disdain, as if to say, ‘Yes, I am an artist. I have painted for royalty at such a young age. Well done for noticing…’ But then again, I do have an unhealthy penchant for sarcasm. In all seriousness though, what  fascinates me is how different the style is of this piece is when compared with an example of one of his commissions, such as the one below entitled, The Flesher Family (1734):

What a motley crew. Especially that middle one… W.O.W. Not pretty, not pretty at all. In all honesty, I cannot imagine a single family that would be happy to pay for a piece of art that depicts their offspring as featuring heavily in the nose department, but there we go. Perhaps beak = bucks, or something like that.

Another variation between the style of his commissions and Dahl’s own self portrait is that the tones of the latter are far more stripped back and muted than those of the former, evoking, what I believe to be, a more empathetic reading of the piece. The viewer is more inclined to want to take on the gaze of an unassumingly handsome artisan, rather than of the gaudy-yet-sickly, elongated faces of aristocracy. Perhaps this was Dahl’s way of ‘sticking-it-to-the-man’, a constant bitterness toward a dependancy on patronage. The echoes of the Renaissance are doubly at play here in the way that Dahl painted his own face with such due care and attention to tradition, mimicking those Antiquity-loving 15th century artists of the south; as well as cleverly drawing the audience member’s attention to the stone sculpture in the archway, which, to me, pays additional homage to that Golden Age of Classical art.

To close, I would like to simply say that if I ever decide to paint others and myself for a living, I only hope that I would have the Michael Dahl-esque sense of humour to paint myself as beautiful and everyone else as gawky, waxy-looking freaks. Ha.

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Emma, Lady Hamilton (1785), George Romney

Here is number two in my series of posts-that-are-an-excuse-to-chat-about-artwork; hopefully it will live up to the high critical acclaim received as a result of the first… Rofling aside, the following ten or so will be in response to a recent visit I made to the National Portrait Gallery in London, which just happens to be one of my all time favourite galleries – actually, it is my all time favourite gallery – playing host to a long list of British faces since 2nd December, 1856. The primary collection contains 11,000 paintings, drawings and sculptures ranging from the 16th century to the present and, in the summer, includes the famous and highly competitive BP Portrait Award competition – a marvellous platform for any aspiring portrait artist.

Right then, on to the business of the paintings. Oh and please forgive me if you happen upon any blinding inaccuracies regarding the artist and his/her artwork. It is purely ignorance.

I discovered this beauty by George Romney whilst meandering my way through room seventeen of the Regency section. Emily, Lady Hamilton (née Hart) is her name and extra-marital relations was her game. Tut-tut. Yes, the baby-faced twenty-year-old daughter of a blacksmith you see in the picture was somewhat of a professional mistress; one lover even being that well-known man with one arm, Horatio Nelson. A face like this demands a proper introduction, don’t you think?

Born Amy Lyon to blacksmith Henry Lyon and Mary Kidd, she grew up in the Welsh village of Hawarden with only her mother for company, due to the untimely death of her father when she was only two months old. She later changed her name to Emma Hart for some reason (perhaps ‘Amy’ was associated with being poor, I dunno). Blessed with good looks and aspirations to perform, Emma had several stints working as a model, dancer and amateur actress, before securing her first mistressing gig, aged only fifteen, for Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh. Sir Harry proved to be an insensitive host, however, inspiring the transferral of her affections onto one of his more honest and honourable friends, Charles Francis Greville. It appeared to be a happy ending, apart from the fact that Emma was pregnant with the child of former lover, Harry. Whoops. She decided that the most practical solution would be to entrust the infant into the care of relatives, yet making sure to remain in regular contact.

It was whilst she was mistress to Greville that Emma met the artist, George Romney, who was inspired – if not besotted – by her charming looks, thus resulting in a glut of ‘Emma’ portraits from the fellow. This elevated Emma’s status and she soon became known as ‘that beautiful, clever and funny girl’ amongst high society. Sickening. This dream was to be shattered, however, and to cut a long story short, Greville wanted to get married so palmed off twenty-six-year old Emma onto his uncle, sixty-year-old Sir William Hamilton, whom she later married. Nice.

This is all very interesting, but what about that talk of Nelson, someone I’ve actually heard of? Well, Emma’s new hubby, William, happened to be the British Envoy so, whilst visiting Naples, they naturally welcomed in the wounded admiral with open arms. What a mistake. Nelson and Emma quickly fell for each other; became lovers (classic Emma) and had a child together. Phew. An international scandal over their heads, they returned to England to live for a few years. Once her various lovers/husbands had died/left for war, she ended her days in poverty. The End. (I thought I’d better wrap it up otherwise I’d lose you, if I haven’t already…!)

When it comes to assessing the meaning behind the piece/s in question, we need to refer back to Romney’s encounters with young Emma. They were introduced through Francis Greville, who intended to only have a few paintings commissioned of the lady for reasons close to his wallet, but subsequently George became rather struck with her, deeming Emma to be ‘the divine lady … superior to all womankind’ (Letter, 19 June 1791). Quite the complement, don’t you think? It appears that the chap became rather obsessed with Miss Hart, impelling the production of more than sixty pieces, which could be divided into four categories: life studies; allegorical and symbolic; genre scenes; and expressive sketches. The paintings above fit nicely into the life study category, making use of Romney characteristic soft, muted colours – I know I mention this all the time, but it is such a nod to the sfumato technique as employed by the Renaissance masters, da Vinci and Raphael. There are, in particular, strong Raphaelite qualities about the style in which Emma was painted; a style which prides itself on immortalising any subject into a sublime and ethereal beauty, where perfection is but a whisper away. Of course, it did help that Emma was stunningly gorgeous in the first place – there is a definite aura of porcelain doll about her.

If we look back then to assessing what exactly Romney’s designs were for these two studies, we can see that he is trying to subtly represent the various personality traits (mentioned above and here: wit, charm, grace, intelligence etc.) of the captivating individual through use of suggestive gestures and looks – the playful tilting of the head; the meaningful glance and the positioning of the hands.

Lastly, I shall explain to you just why I absolutely love the work by the hand of the infatuated George Romney. Primarily I think that, along with most human beings, I am fascinated by the notion of aesthetic perfection – the flawless, velvet skin; glossy, wide eyes; button nose and pert, berry lips – and on this, Romney delivers in abundance. There is also nothing harsh about the images, as the subject appears to melt into view from the darkness; creating a charming appearance of curiosity and coyness. I am one for using this technique in my own work, for the main reason of making the subject stand out against the background – like in Annie for example – but obviously Romney does it far better. In addition, I take great delight in following the paths of the expressive brushstrokes used in the second piece to illustrate the flowing attire worn by Emma. As a sucker for great drapery, this is somewhat of a refreshing alternative to the refined techniques of, say, da Vinci.

Overall, fantastic artist, gorgeous sitter; the dream combination for any portrait exhibition, no?

A cheeky triptych

Here are a few shots showing off the wonderful colours that feature in the countryside around where I live. I am experimenting with different colour combinations and arrangements, ie. let’s put a highly saturated photograph of the grass next to one of the sky, which is also sporting a similarly ridiculous level of saturation. But seriously, the grass is greener where I live…

Madonna del Cardellino (1507), Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael)

I have got it into my little head that I would like to talk to you, kind soul who is listening, about my favourite pieces of artwork. What I intend to do is pick a piece –  from any period, in any medium and from any artist, subject to my very refined taste, naturally 😉 – and then (briefly) prattle on about its historical background; generally agreed interpretation and its relevance to my own work. I hope it proves to be of vague interest in any case…

To kick things off I have decided to take a peek at this sepic beauty by Raffaello Sanzio – Raphael to his mates – entitled, Madonna del Cardellino, which literally means Madonna of the Goldfinch. The subjects can clearly be seen as the Virgin, John the Baptist and Christ, placed in triangular formation with the central focus being on a small goldfinch: the object of interest between the two holy infants.

What is the symbolic relevance of this seemingly insignificant bird? you may chirp. Well, according to the RSPB, the humble goldfinch is one for rooting around in thorny hedgerows and thistles in order to find a nutritious seed or two. In my mind, there is an instant connection that can be formed between the habits of the goldfinch and the Parable of the Sower, Mark 4:3-9. The seed that fell amongst the thistle patch was an allegory for the word of God being heard but overshadowed by the temptations of the world, likewise the seed that the goldfinch is feeding on … Hmm, where am I going with this…? Right, yes the more obvious reading of the goldfinch is that its thorny habitat is a direct nod to the humiliating crown of thorns the unbeknown infant Jesus was to later endure, heads up courtesy of Johnny boy. (Actually, He must’ve been ‘beknown’ as according to Christian belief He is God and consequently privy to the master plan, therefore the kind heads up from John wouldn’t really have been necessary, but instead a kind, cousinly gesture…).

In addition to the goldfinch, the book that is delicately held in the Virgin’s left hand provokes a certain degree of inquiry in itself. In this case it is seen to signify wisdom, thus attributing the Virgin the title of Sedes Sapientiae; the Seat of Wisdom; the Mother of God. In other words, she’s in on the whole thing; deep down, she knows how things are sadly going to pan out for her son.

The painting itself has had to undergo a fair amount of restoration in order for it to look as it does today. No doubt this has been partly down to the wear and tear that comes with the territory of a 500 year-old existence, however, the main contributing factor would have to be the fact that the building it was housed in collapsed at the end of the 16th century due to an earthquake; breaking it into seventeen pieces. The building in question was the home of Lorenzo Nasi, a friend of Raphael to whom the painting was gifted  as a wedding present. What an amazing present! Although, I don’t envy Nasi the daunting duty of having to tell Raphael that his masterpiece had just been creamed by an earthquake.

And now to the symbolism found in the colouring of the Virgin’s clothing. Here we see red, the colour of passion and love – a palpable reference to the love shared between family members, the most natural of them all being the unyielding bond between mother and child. Also, the red could connote the blood that was to be shed by Jesus, linking to the crown of thorns reference from the goldfinch. The blue denotes a sense of calm and stability – a reflection of the natural surroundings we find the Virgin in – as well as the obvious: royalty.

In terms of how this relates to my own practice, I would first like to highlight the technique employed by Raphael. Yes, he was very much influenced by the heavyweights, Michaelangelo and da Vinci – noticeably with his use of da Vinci’s sfumato method – however, there is something that one simply cannot deny Raphael and that is his representational view of beauty. This beauty is discovered in the way that he composes his figures – their playful yet exquisite interaction with one another; his understanding of the tenderness shared between mother and son – just look at how the barefoot Jesus stands gently on top of the bare foot of his mother, such a subtle form of closeness; and, most prominently, his use of graduated sepia tones that melt together to form the perfectly soft skin of his subjects. An altogether wonderful combination that I have repeatedly tried to recreate; whiling away hours blending and blending and blending again my oils in an attempt to reach skin-supremity. But alas, I have not reached it. Yet.

Just a little bike ride…

Here are a few snaps from one of the first instalments of my Spring/Summer stint of bike rides. As you can see I have shamelessly boarded the ‘Hipstamatic’ band-wagon – you know, with the stereotypical faux-medium format appearance; the vignetted edges and deeply contrasted monochromatic colour-scheme – which is a tool used to fool anyone into thinking that you are an achingly hip indie photographer. I completed this look not by the conventional iPhone approach, but instead by using my average Nikon D80 (with 50mm fixed lens) – and then editing them to smithereens on iPhoto, of course. I do hope that you are not too appalled by my desperate attempt to look cool…

Tilly

Yes, we all know that pet photography is utterly lame and frankly offensive to what one would call art. And yes, I realise that I have just posted a photograph of my cat. What. A. Loser. But seriously, even the most enthusiastic of animal-photo-haters would have to admit that she looks pretty damn adorable here perched on top of the porch. I simply could not keep this cuteness to myself any longer. I had to share it with the world. Forgive me.

Chocolat, Joanna Harris

‘Witches… Jeez, great. And it was all going so well.’ – Just some of the thoughts that materialised in my slightly irked mind mere moments after reading the first few chapters of Joanne Harris’ Chocolat. Adamant that I was not going to enjoy the rest of the book, having so prematurely resigned myself to the fact that I was to be following the life and times of a hip and happening single witch mother for the next 200 or so pages, I was thrilled to discover that I had, in fact, made a serious misjudgment. Thank heavens. Yes, there are undercurrents of witchcraft, tarot and folklore, however they are not the driving force behind the story, à la Harry Potter and pals. Instead, Chocolat is principally centred around the efforts of a 30-something single mother aspiring to successfully integrate herself and her young daughter into quaint rural French life; all the while trying to avoid stepping on the wrong people’s toes along the way – it is a tale of fitting in and finding one’s place.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at the protagonists. Our leading lady is the charming, yet suitably mysterious Vianne Rocher, who quietly sets up shop in the middle of parochial French village, Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. Vianne is not alone in her quest to adapt to rural living after a long stint of temporary urban abodes, as she is accompanied by her delightful 6-year-old daughter, Anouk – owner of a very Pantalamon-esque (see Philip Pullman about that one) animal friend Pantoufle – who serves us well as the voice of innocence and enquiry. On the other side of the fence we find Lansquenet’s resident priest, Francis Reynaud, whose efforts to rid his perfect church-going village of those heathens, the Rochers, come to a rather comical climax. I won’t go into detail as I don’t want to give anything away – you need to read it! – but what I will say is that the whole affair is thoroughly well executed due to Harris’ excellent writing skills. There is a steady and subtle build up over the course of the novel, so that when that glorious moment finally arrives, we are cringing away with the best of them. It is very much a case of chocolate on the chops, as opposed to egg on the face.

If I had to pick a favourite character it would have to be stubborn Armande – an outlandish old dear with a feisty spirit, an affinity for folklore and everything gypsy. I simply love the precious relationship that she shares with her bashful grandson and I find the fact that he bought her red silky underwear for her birthday downright hilarious. Now, one not-so-precious relationship was the ‘coming together’ of Roux and Vianne. I think I can safely say that I did NOT enjoy this at all as it was so totally unnecessary and unbelievable. I mean I realise that Vianne probably hasn’t entertained a gentleman in a fair while – saying that the book only documents a time period of 40 days. How libidinous is this woman?! – but a grizzly red-haired old water dweller? Really?! No, it just wouldn’t happen. Sorry, Joanne.

The entire piece is told from an interesting perspective; interesting in that it is from two perspectives: an alternation between the extremes of Vianne and Francis. Due to the pair voicing opinions that are worlds apart, there was never a problem – when it came to making the distinction of who was narrating – that couldn’t be solved by reading the first 3 lines, thus allowing for smooth continuation in the telling of the story. Also, I’m sure the fact that both voices are centralised around the same plot and close-knit community helped matters. This juxtaposition of ideals was a different and thoroughly engaging way of reading people. On the one hand we had indulgence and the other, abstinence; the unorthodox and the religious in the form of the villager. Some other themes that turned my cogs were: the outsider contemplating one’s own moral views in the face of such opposite insularity; rebuilding one’s image after being chagrined by the clique; the lengths one will go to in order to ‘save face’; the everyday – I absolutely love the way Harris deals with the everyday. It is so tactile, so sensual; the sights, sounds, tastes, aromas. Delicious.

With the word count being 750 I feel that I should end now, and what better way to do it than with my favourite quote of the book, which basically sums it all up far better than I could write:

‘The battle of good and evil reduced to a fat woman standing in front of a chocolate shop, saying, ‘Will I? Won’t I?’ in pitiful indecision.’