Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Ideal City

A staggeringly boring 'Ideal' cityscape by Fra Carnevale

The idea that an ‘ideal city’ is even possible is a tantalizing dream born of a desire to escape our current situation, wipe the slate clean and start afresh. It’s part of the reason colonizers get so glassy-eyed when it comes to setting up shop in a newly colonized space; the attempt to transcribe the perfect world that exists in our imagination into real bricks and mortar has excited both creativity and hubris for ages, from cave-painters to conquistadores. The downside - that you can’t just run away from human nature - hasn’t failed to excite its own brand of dystopian creativity too, where writers and artists have pointed out just what a disaster these utopian delusions invariably turn out to be. 

Vitruvius, Plan of an Ideal City

From hippy communes to Brasilia, the attempt to corral people into synchronous alignment is like trying to stop a spinning drill bit with your lips: You’re welcome to give it a shot, but it’ll end in tears. At the end of the day, we monkeys don’t like to share our banana. The synonymy between “idea” and “ideal” means that, by definition, a thought must stay in our heads if it’s to remain perfect, because as soon as it turns into action it is reduced and corrupted by the physical world. 

Renaissance ideal cities inspired by Vitruvius (15th-16th c.) 1. Filarete, 2. Fra Giocondo, 3. Girolamo Maggi, 4. Giorgio Vasari, 5. Antonio Lupicini, 6. Daniele Barbaro, 7.  Pietro Cattaneo, 8/9 di Giorgio Martini. [source]

Werner Herzog’s documentary, “Encounters at the End of the World,” has its share of misfits and oddballs all drawn like lemmings to the polar research station at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica, in some ill-conceived attempt to “get away,” only to end up living in closer proximity with other oddballs than they ever would have if they’d just stayed back home. What sustains and enables them to stay cooped up inside for months on end is simply the idea of all that space around them, far away from the big bad world, demonstrating the power of a good concept to overwrite empirical reality. 

From Hugh Ferris’s “The Metropolis of Tomorrow” (1929)

Plato would argue that Ideal Forms are not just in our heads, that they have a very real existence outside of space and time, and that they are the models from which our world is built. They prevent us from sinking into depravity and weekend marathons of Duck Dynasty by reminding us that we are better than that; that as we careen through life we should be more honest, more courageous, more compassionate. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Which one is the Golden Rectangle?

Imagine that you are floating inside the center of a very large transparent sphere, like Leonardo’s Vitruvian man above. The yellow area is our normal 60º field of undistorted view. Outside of that yellow field, things start getting weird. Our binocular vision receives two sets of images (our overlapping yellow circles in the illustration above), and sends them back to the brain for processing via the curved camera lenses of our eyes. Through comparison between these two images and a little high-speed triangulation our brains tell us how far away things are. Harry Moss Traquair described our visual field in 1927 as, "an island of vision surrounded by a sea of blindness." 

Numerous studies by “Golden Sectionists” trying to prove Man’s natural attraction towards the Golden Rectangle have found that people are just as likely to choose any horizontal rectangle that roughly conforms to the one that circumscribes the yellow shape, above [Or roughly 1:1.5, and not the Golden Ratio of 1:1.618]. 

Which one is the Golden Recatngle?

Our natural affinity for this shape is possibly its relation to our undistorted field of vision and not, after all, anything to do with nautilus shells. See if you can pick out the Golden Rectangle from the group of quadrilaterals, above. 

[I'll put the answer in the comments, below] 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Landscape Painting Lessons from Constable, Gainsborough and Corot

Landscape with Hagar and the Angel, John Constable 

There's an anecdote about Constable that shows, apocryphally or not, how revolutionary he was for his time regarding the use of color: "The story goes that [Constable's friend and patron, Sir George Beaumont] remonstrated with him for not giving his foreground the requisite mellow brown of an old violin, and that Constable thereupon took a violin and put it before him on the grass to show the friend the difference between the fresh green as we see it and the warm tones demanded by convention." [Incidentally, Landscape with Hagar and the Angel (above) was Beaumont's favorite painting].

The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, Claude Lorrain

Of course, Constable wasn't the first to notice that grass is green and violins brown. Both of them knew that such matching was against the strict requirements of contemporary taste, however, and possibly even aesthetics. The point at issue was a much more subtle one - how to reconcile what we call "local color" with the range of tonal gradations which the landscape painter needs to suggest depth. We find an echo of these discussions in an observation by Benjamin West recorded in The Farington Diary

"He thinks Claude [Lorrain] began his pictures by laying in simple gradations of flat colours from the Horizon to the top of the sky, and from the Horizon to the foreground, without putting clouds into the sky or specific forms into the landscape till He had fully settled those gradations. When He had satisfied himself in this respect. He painted in his forms, by that means securing a due gradation, from the Horizontal line-to the top of his sky, and from the Horizontal line to the foreground. Smirke remarked how entirely all positive colour was avoided, even to the draperies of the figures. Turner said He was both pleased and unhappy while He viewed it, it seemed to be beyond the power of imitation." 
Flatford Mill, John Constable

These experiments with gradations from a pale blue to a mellow brown by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century artists taught Sir George Beaumont (an amateur painter himself) how to suggest light and distance in a landscape. The eighteenth century had even invented a mechanical device to aid the painter in this transposition of local color into a narrower range of tones. It consisted of a curved mirror with a toned surface that was appropriately often called the "Claude glass" and was supposed to do what the black-and-white photograph does for us, to reduce the variety of the visual world to tonal gradations. Eighteenth-century masters achieved most pleasing effects with foregrounds of warm brown and fading distances of cool, silvery blues.

Lady Elizabeth Delme and Her Children, Sir Joshua Reynolds

Looking at Reynolds' Lady Elizabeth Delme and Her Children in the National Gallery in Washington or, for that matter, at Thomas Gainsborough's Landscape with a Bridge, we realize the value of an even gradation based on the brown of the foreground. Indeed, a glance at Constable's View of Salisbury Cathedral convinces us that he, too, achieved the impression of light and depth by modulating tone.

View of Salisbury Cathedral, John Constable

Constable questioned the need to remain within the compass of one scale. He wanted to try out the effect of respecting the local color of grass somewhat more-and, indeed, in his Wivenhoe Park he is seen pushing the range more in the direction of bright greens. Looking at Wivenhoe Park now, it looks so natural and obvious that it's easy to forget its daring originality.

Wivenhoe Park, John Constable

Once we realize this basic fact, the master's contention that all paintings should be viewed as experiments in natural science loses much of its puzzling character. He is trying to produce what he called the "evanescent effects of nature's chiaroscuro" on canvas, within a medium which excludes matching. Indeed his experiments resulted in discoveries. For instance, there was resistance at first against so much green, which was thought to upset the needed tonal gradation. 

There is a story about Constable's sitting on the jury of the Royal Academy, of which he was a member, when by mistake one of his own paintings was put on the eascl for judgment, and one of his colleagues said rashly, "Take that nasty green thing away." 

Landscape with a BridgeThomas Gainsborough

A quick walk walk through any major gallery shows that in the end Constable's method found wide acceptance. We know that when his Hay Wain was shown in Paris, French artists were stimulated to repeat his experiments and lightened their palettes. We can now read much brighter pictures, such as the landscapes by Corot and, what is more, enjoy the suggestion of light without missing the tonal contrasts which were thought indispensable. We have learned a new notation and expanded the range of our awareness.

Ville d'Avray, Corot

[The previous passage was excerpted from Ernst Gombrich's Art and Illusion]

Monday, January 6, 2014

A New Perspective on Rubens

Rubens painted a set of massive canvases (including two measuring 28 x 20 feet and two others at 40 x 10 feet) for the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall in 1630. Despite boasting to his customer, James I, that he was “by natural instinct better fitted to execute very large works than small curiosities,” he seems to have made a bit of a mess of the linear perspective. In one of the panels (above), the seated figure of the King, his retinue and even the putti floating above with the royal coat of arms, are all painted as you would expect in di sotto in su painting; they're all foreshortened from below. The columns, however, are parallel to the picture plane which is incorrect.

I took the liberty of sketching on top of Rubens painting (below) using the correct viewpoint (according to linear perspective, at least), such that the columns and the figures appear to recede towards the same - singular - vanishing point.   

This discrepancy in Rubens' paintings was first noted by 18th century painter James Highmore, who published his "Critical Examination of paintings on the Ceiling at the banqueting-Hall at Whitehall," in  1754. Below, on the right, is the row of columns as Rubens painted them, and to the left appears Highmore's engraving of the corrected view. Highmore points out that Rubens used up to three (!) vanishing points in each of the panels. Why? We'll never know. Certainly, he wasn't especially used to painting on ceilings. I leave it up to the viewer to decide which version of the scene is the better view.

Here they are again, side by side for easier comparison.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

It's a Man's World

Portrait of a woman attributed to Ghirlandaio.

In case you’re thinking that Florence sounds like a good first stop when you build that time machine, consider that it was strictly a man’s world during the early Renaissance. Florentine women were not afforded anything like the freedoms that men enjoyed. As evidenced in the tightly framed and compact portraits of buttoned and bodiced women of the time (above), they suffered under the yoke of the ‘fallen Eve’ archetype. Considered untrustworthy creatures, they were deemed better off indoors. In 1610 a French traveler commented after a visit to Florence that "women are more enclosed [here] than in any other part of Italy; they see the world only from the small openings in their windows." You'd never accuse Ghirlandaio's woman of looking happy.

Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora, "Chaste Women in a Landscape," 1480s

These "chaste" women do look a little surprised to find themselves wandering about outside. No wonder they're in battle formation. One of the most highly regarded humanist scholars of the age, Marsilio Ficino, uttered the shocking revelation that, "women should be used like chamber pots: hidden away once a man has pissed in them." The exchange of women was a conversation between men. As Florence prospered, a bride offered in matrimony had to convey increasingly exorbitant sums as a dowry upon the groom: everybody knew that men, as the true source of value, were worth more. In exchange, grooms would offer their new bride some jewelry or fancy clothing (preferably something with lots of buttons to assuage their untrustworthiness), or perhaps a pin with his family crest so that everyone would know that she literally belonged to him now. Trussed up in corsets to temper their “irritating volubility,” they were nevertheless prized in the way of a peacock. 

Lorenzo Lotto (b. Venice, ca. 1480-d. Loreto, 1556), Venus and Cupid, late 1520s
"The male gaze" anyone? The great painter Taddeo Gaddi, oblivious to his own idiocy, paid dubious compliment when he said: “I do not think Giotto or any other painter could color better than [Florentine women] do; even a face which is out of proportion and has goggle eyes, they will correct with eye’s like to a falcon’s. If they have jaws like a donkey, they will correct them.” [“The Living Age,” Volume 197, Eliakim and Robert S. Littell, Littell & Co. (1893) page 265]

“Those poor Florentine mothers had to be contented with such humble activity as the tyranny of their husbands permitted to them, and to live, or rather drag out, their lives in those gloomy squalid houses, taking care of the children.” [“Private Life of Renaissance Florentines,” Dr. Guido Biagi, R. Bemporad & Sons (1895)]

If it seems as though not much has changed between then and now, at least consider infant mortality: 75% of children did not live to see their sixteenth birthday, and if your dad died you were as likely as not shipped off to your paternal grandparents, watching as your mother was sent packing back to hers, never to be seen again. To have twenty or more children was quite normal. Female children who lost their mothers might receive a knitting needle or doll of hers to remember her by, but everything of monetary value went straight to the men.

Portrait of an African Slave Woman is attributed to Annibale Carraccicirca 1580s

Not to mention that the slave trade between East and West was already a thriving business by the fourteenth century in Florence. A little-spoken-of stain on the proud name of the morally haughty Florentines, there is ample evidence of its existence. The distinguished Florentine painter, Alessio Baldovinetti, who belonged to a wealthy family of good standing in the community (and was said to have been a pupil of Paolo Uccello), kept a memorandum containing entries for three slave girls that he bought including one, ‘“Veronica, sixteen years old, whom [he] bought almost naked from Bonaroti [sic], son of Simon de Bonaroti.” That is to say, an ancestor of Michelangelo himself.” [Quoted in “Blackwood’s Magazine,” Volume 153, page 333 (1893)]

Monday, October 28, 2013

For the Love of Books

The shelves over at Surface Fragments.
Hey readers, I sent out a request on my Facebook page for people to send me photos of their shelves and guess what: it appears we have some avid book collectors out there. Here is a glimpse at the shelves of some of them. I've tried to link to each of the titles, but I couldn't possibly link to them all, as I do occasionally have other stuff to do. 

Inevitably of course, there are a lot of Amazon links. Do make sure to support your local bookstore, however. A lot of these titles can be found there. I've picked up many of the titles on display here by visiting second-hand bookstores wherever I go. My favorite site for buying books is Go there first, plug in the title, and browse from second-hand sellers across the country. Often, I've grabbed titles for as little as $0.01 and simply had to pay for shipping. Happy browsing, people!

[By the way, I did an entire post on artist and author Pierre Finkelstein's bookshelves, which can be found here.]

Situated in the heart of the ancient city of Florence, is a studio school specializing in the finest artisan creations and teaching students traditional Italian decorative arts. The shelves are predictably bursting with mouth-watering Italian titles.

Top shelf:
Abruzzo, pub. Gruppomontepaschi
Bottom shelf:
Fasto di Corte (mural decorations of the Medici residence)
Mille Mobili Veneti (Venetian furniture from XV - XIX Century)

Sharon Leichsenring
Sharon Leichsenring has got some real classics of the decorative arts on her shelves, each one of them a great reference for the working decorative artist. 

Theresa Cheek
Theresa Cheek, of art's the answer blog, has a massive collection of books and as you can tell from this small photo, she actually uses them!

Demeures Peintes, by Pascal Amblard (Pascal's shelves appear below)
Décors Peints et Trompe-l'oeil, by Jean Sablé (a great book by a master of the craft)
Santa Maria Novella (Home of Massaccio's Trinity among other spectacular murals)
Steve Shriver
Anyone who doesn't know the awesome Steve Shriver (aka art + works) should do themselves a favor and like his Facebook page, and don't forget to dig through all his Flickr sets too. His generosity with knowledge is inspirational, and he's the source of many fantastic reference photos. Not surprisingly, he's got more than a few good reads on his shelves.

In Stabiano, Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite 
Art and Illusion, the classic tome by Ernst Gombrich
The Sense of Order, E. H. Gombrich, another fascinating read by Gombrich.

Fred Cox
Fred Cox is a great mural artist, blog reader and an avid book collector based in Atlanta. His collection of large format antique decorative folios is stellar, but you won't find them on Amazon. Here is a glimpse of some of his more terrestrial titles that you will find interesting.

Drawings of the Masters, French Drawings (15th C. through Gericault)

Fred Cox
Fred Cox
Pascal Amblard
Pascal Amblard is a world-renowned artist, teacher and author. Basically, he's really really good, and you should know his work. What inspires an artist like Pascal? An eclectic mix for sure...

Fragonard, one of Pascal's favorite artists, makes an immediate appearance.
Followed by the irrepressible Veronese, Henry Francis du Pont's Winterthur Museuem.
and Betty Edwards' perennial favorite, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Pierre Finkelstein wrote pretty much the best book out there on decorative painting; The Art of Faux. It's on everybody's shelves, or at least it should be.
I don't have this one, but the Amazon description makes me very curious: The Fabric of Vision by Anne Hollander. 
Splash 2: Watercolor Breakthroughs (Wolf): The Splash series focuses on artists working in watercolor, highlighting their technique. Pascal's use of casein can be seen to have technical parallels in gouache and watercolor, so it's no surprise that he'd be curious about this material. 
Pascal Amblard
Espace d'Art - Arts d'Espace
Les Enduits Decoratifs
Stolar, Tabureiter & Fatoljer [I've linked to the English Ed. of thiis fantastic book by Lars & Ursula Sjoberg]
Classical Painting Atelier, Aristides {get this, and her other books - indispensible]
Chateaux de Famille
Anders Zorn
The Library of Congress, Art & Architecture of the Thomas Jefferson Building
Roomscapes {Hopefully you picked up a copy of this when it was cheap]
Garden Ornament [Great black and white reference photos for murals]
Du Maroc Aux Indes [I linked to books on Orientalist painting, as the French edition is $$$$]
The Most Beautiful Villages of Tuscany
Les Plus Belles Demeures d'Italie
Roma/ Villa Medici, pub. FMR
Alberto Pinto, Classics
Images de Venice
Classical Architecture, pub. Porphyrios
La Grande Decorazione a Genova
Jean-Loup Daraux
Charles Bargue

Pascal Amblard

Noel Donnellan
Decorative artist Noel Donnellan sent some fantastic shots of his collection. Here are just a couple with links to titles that caught my eye.

Noel Donnellan
Hugh Alan Luck
Thanks, Hugh, for the lovely clear shot of some excellent titles, including the newly released Rufus Porter Murals. Folks, you're just going to have to dig for yourselves for these. I have to go back to work. There's enough here for any book lover to have palpitations running up the credit card bill. 

A huge thank you to everyone who sent in photos. I feel as though I've left a couple of people out, including Lynne Rutter of The Ornamentalist blog. But Lynne, in true bibliophile mode, has compiled all her titles on Library Thing for easy browsing. Be sure to check it out.

Mark Ruffner, of "All Things Ruffnerian" blog

Jeff Huckaby

Jeff Huckaby