Rachael Herman

Tag: Renaissance

Diana and Actaeon (1556-9), Titian: The Norwich Edition

Being somebody who is paid to teach children the very basics in literacy – with the most recent focus aptly being on those darned VCV words – AND something of a Renaissance-worshipper, the fact that I have been calling today’s featured artist ‘T-ee-tian’ – as opposed to the phonetically correct ‘T-i-tian’ – is no less than mortifying. I can only beg for your forgiveness and ask that you take me seriously for the rest of the impending spiel.

Norwich has undoubtedly upped its game in terms of artistic offerings. I mean a Titian, in sleepy, backward Norfolk – the communication black hole of the UK – amazing. (How did they physically organise this when the mobile phone reception and broadband connections are practically pre-historic?! ) But then, let’s be honest with ourselves, what else can one expect from the self-professed ‘Fine City’; the Venice of England? The painting itself, Diana and Actaeon was kindly on loan from the prestigious National Gallery, London to the more humble setting of the Castle Museum, Norwich. The Castle Museum is much loved by all in Norfolk, being a favourite destination for school trips, therefore the news of Titian’s attraction being temporarily housed inside those medieval walls filled me with unbridled happiness. I simply had to take a peak…

Diana and Actaeon (1556-9), Titian, Oil on canvas, 185.5cm x 202.2cm – courtesy of artfund.org

Determined to leave the masterpiece until last, I busied myself with the exhibition filler, which firstly provided a bit of background for Titian’s work; and secondly supplied alternative interpretations of Ovid’s great Metamorphoses. One of these alternatives was London-based photographer, Tom Hunter‘s recreation of the mythical scene, featuring a scantily clad Kim Cattrall. Classic Cattrall. Now I’m not really one for casual nudity but I must admit, however, that I did find the comparison between the attenuated figures of Hunter’s recent piece juxtaposed with the voluptuous forms of Titian’s age thoroughly engaging. A stark look at how the attitude towards beauty has undergone a dramatic transformation in the last 500 years.

As far as the background on the work was concerned, we were fed with the details on Titian and also the original poem that the piece had been derived from. For the benefit of those not so well-aquainted with the Roman poet, Ovid, I shall give a brief rundown of events. During a usual day’s hunt, Actaeon (just your everyday Roman chap) happened to stray from his hunting party. In doing so he stumbled across the secret bathing place of Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt, a most unfortuitous mishap. Now Diana, aka Artemis, did not take too kindly to this intrusion; so much so that she bestowed a wonderful punishment upon dear Actaeon, one that would involve his transformation into a splendid stag if he ever spoke again. For a huntsman, you can imagine that this would be quite inconvenient: the hunter taking the place of the hunted. Another lesson learnt for all of us there, courtesy of those barmy – almost wrote balmy there, whoops – Greeks. Saying that, the only lesson I can see here is that either Diana/Artemis was what some would call an ugly beast, therefore was inspired by humiliation to punish Actaeon; or more likely, Actaeon was not worthy to cast his eyes upon a beauty so divine, so pure that if he ever spoke of this encounter to anyone, it would be the last thing he ever did. Except for safety’s sake, Artemis extended the silence to any word that he spoke about anything, you know, just in case.

One of Actaeon’s hounds that would later turn on him, Diana and Actaeon (1556-9), Titian, Oil on canvas, 185.5cm x 202.2cm – courtesy of artfund.org

Once I had had my fill of the pre-painting palaver, I finally (and tentatively, for there was an oddly tense atmosphere surrounding the painting) sidled up next to an elderly lady who appeared to be the guardian of the painting. She was a heavily-cloaked creature whose nose was hovering mere inches away from the 450 year-old surface – as if sharing in a whispered secret from the oils themselves. Seeking to imitate this apparently satisfying method of painting perusal, I too peeked and craned as far as my little neck could manage from the spot I’d rooted myself to, near the left corner of the piece (I wasn’t as brave as the aforementioned dear in strolling casually in front of the painting, perhaps due to the bench of judging eyes behind me, regardless of how captivating the moue of Diana happened to be).

The painting itself was every bit as beautiful as I’d hoped. The highly saturated colours and angelic forms, painted with the utmost of grace and ease, are just two of the trademarks typical of the Venetian legend. Looking more closely at the colours present in the piece, we will notice that red is certainly one of the predominant shades, linking both protagonist and antagonist. We can interpret this to thus signify the impending bloodshed of Actaeon, as a result of his transgression against the divine lady.  Next we turn to the periwinkle enshrouding one of the nymphs which, reflecting the true blue of the sky, we can interpret as a clear representation of the purity and femininity present within a crowd as chaste as this. These blue hues, paired with the crimson, present quite a startling contrast against the neutrality of the earthy sepia and ochre.

Close-up of nymph, Diana and Actaeon (1556-9), Titian, Oil on canvas, 185.5cm x 202.2cm – courtesy of artfund.org

One aspect of the piece I personally deem to be the most interesting is the inclusion of the black female tending to Diana, hastily tugging at the cloth to ensure the goddess regains her modesty due to being uncovered. One wonders why Titian made the decision to paint the female attendant amongst Diana’s naiad-like aides, and the resultant significance this had on the Renaissance world. This calls for a separate essay methinks… In addition, the interaction between the pup yapping furiously at the heels of Diana and the haggard hound belonging to Actaeon provides a great paradigm of hostility and affront: the overall themes of the piece.

Close-up of Diana and female attendant, Diana and Actaeon (1556-9), Titian, Oil on canvas, 185.5cm x 202.2cm – courtesy of artfund.org

On the whole, it was a great privilege to be able to view a genuine piece of Renaissance mastery, and at somewhere so close to home. But to the neatly placed comments book, inviting us to simper a grateful thanks for our stay at Hotel Titian, I must say no thank you. It’s true that the Castle Museum should be applauded for their efforts in managing to eke an entire exhibition out of this one great painting, however, I do not wish to kiss their medieval bottoms over it. Maybe that’s a bit harsh… One thing that did make me chuckle, though, were the twenty people clinging to the only seat in the room – as if walking around such a small exhibition required this agent of respite – appearing  as an island of middle-age pretenders amongst a sea of Renaissance finery.

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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.

Leonardo da Vinci, Painter At The Court Of Milan (1482 – 1499)

The exhibition that had been 5 years in the making; comprised of over 90 pieces, borrowed from 30 separate institutions and collections in over 21 different cities worldwide. Who’d’ve thought it would take this much doing to get this amount of Leo’s artwork together in one room? (And that’s not even all of it). Being a massive fan of the big man, I decided to pop along and have a look for myself (courtesy of the generous yet unsuspecting boyf)…

Skipping up the famous front steps of the National Gallery – with ticket in cold, clammy hand – it was only feverish anticipation that was running through my mind for an exhibition I had been waiting for what seemed like a decade to finally see. Having been kindly bought a ticket, I was confident that nothing could get in between me and my precious Madonna of the Rocks (Paris version, of course), however, it so transpired that I had misjudged this somewhat. Not only did it take us a good ten minutes to reach our supposed goal – involving careful negotiation of the heavily-coated, typically slow-moving tourists, interspersed with a frantic exchange of whispered directions from me to the boyf – but once we had reached it, it was only to be met by a kind-but-tired-faced guard who regretted to inform us that we were in fact in the wrong place. Where we needed to be meant retracing our steps back into the claustrophobic main gallery, before taking a few lefts, a few rights, some stairs and you’re there. Simple.

15 miles below the surface later and we had made it to da Vinci’s underground extravaganza. First impressions were pretty good and perhaps enhanced by the fact that we were able to breeze past the queues of fools who forgot to pre-book – also making up for the initial confusion of finding our way. The information leaflet told us that the exhibition itself comprised mainly of da Vinci’s work completed during his time as the court painter of Ludovico Sforza – the ruler of Milan – spanning from 1482 to 1499. Venturing in, we were enlightened as to exactly how much work that was. Reams of buff-coloured pages taken from his famous sketch-books paved the way through the semi-darkness – perfect conditions for viewing such delicately handsome artwork – pausing only for something grander and more colourful, those majestic paintings of his. I won’t spend my time nattering about each individual painting and sketch, as that is what the guide book is for – and frankly, you probably couldn’t care less – however I will provide a small lowdown on what I would consider to be the top three pieces.

At number three we have Saint Jerome (1488-1490), which provides that all important insight into the painting process of Mr da Vinci. The unfinished picture not only shows the master’s first laid darkened shadowy areas, but the beginnings of the desperation depicted in the penitant expression on the face of the Saint, sufficiently haunting the viewer even in its incomplete state. In addition, the physical contact that our subject has with the rocky setting makes direct reference to da Vinci’s obsession with nature and the way that it is so clearly mirrored in humanity. (For more information see Oxford World’s Classics, Leonardo da Vinci – Notebooks.)

Lady with an Ermine (1489 – 1490) came in at a close second. Here the immortalised-in-oil sixteen year-old, Cecelia Gallerani – a favourite mistress of the Duke of Milan himself, Ludovico – is seen to be clutching a pristine, white ermine. One can only marvel at the way Leonardo manages to nothing more than excel in his efforts to interpret the true innocence and exquisiteness of youth, using his famous sfumato technique. Slightly more in depth dissection of this piece can be found at, you guessed it, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lady_with_an_Ermine

My favourite piece, though, had to be, The Burlington House Cartoon (1499-1500). This softly captivating charcoal and chalk sketch was a major source of inspiration for me during my Sixth Form years, where my foray into portraiture really began. Again, the sfumato technique so often employed by da Vinci undoubtedly leaps to the fore. There is veracious beauty to be found amongst the burnt charcoal, smokey sepia and ochre tones; the fluid movement of the drapery and the tender thoughtfulness of the composition – altogether portraying perfectly the unyielding bond shared between mother and child.

Disregarding the fervent jostling for position one was required to take part in in order to see the masterpieces on show – one would assume that the idea of the ticketing system would allow for more than a glimpse of the corner of a caption for a painting – the exhibition was well worth a visit. The sheer quantity of Leonardo’s sketches alone is enough inspiration to shake any complacent artist out of their stupor, not to mention the blindingly brilliant skill he had for capturing the very essence of the human form. I, for one, now vow to paint more and procrastinate less.

Portraiture

A collection of portraits spanning from the A-level years to the present, taking my inspiration from the Renaissance painters, in particular, the great Raphael.

Jonathan, acrylic on canvas, 45cm x 30cm
Terence – senior, graphite pencil on cartridge paper, 10cm x 7.5cm
Terence, oil on MDF board, 20cm x 20cm
Cheryl, acrylic on canvas, 50cm x 30cm
Annie, oil on canvas, 80cm x 80cm
Jonathan, acrylic on canvas, 60cm x 40cm