In Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe" (1882), the insomniac Lord Chancellor struggles mightily to get comfortable in bed. "First your counterpane goes...moreIn Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe" (1882), the insomniac Lord Chancellor struggles mightily to get comfortable in bed. "First your counterpane goes and uncovers your toes, and your sheet slips demurely from under you," he laments. "You're hot, and you're cross, and you tumble and toss till there's nothing 'twixt you and the ticking."
Victorian slumber accessories—counterpanes, coverlets, eiderdowns, canopies—can seem bewildering to modern eyes, unaccustomed to the lace and velvet that once adorned nearly every surface of a well-appointed bedroom. But the furnishings of a bygone day can reveal much about the people who used them—or, as historian Lucy Worsley observes in "If Walls Could Talk," a charming, fairly light chronicle of British private life since the Middle Ages: "Every single object in your home has its own important story to tell."
As chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, the nonprofit foundation that maintains and operates Hampton Court, Kensington Palace and other sites, Ms. Worsley has become a familiar face on television, creatively guiding viewers through the lifestyles of the notable and long dead...
The rest of my review is available at the website of The Wall Street Journal:
In 1907, when Austrian artist Gustav Klimt painted his famed portrait of the Viennese socialite Adele Bloch-Bauer, he could not have known that the so...moreIn 1907, when Austrian artist Gustav Klimt painted his famed portrait of the Viennese socialite Adele Bloch-Bauer, he could not have known that the sophisticated world inhabited by the sitter's wealthy Jewish family would be destroyed by the Nazi takeover of the country in 1938. Adele's heirs fled to Switzerland – their business interests in tatters and their art collection, including the portrait, confiscated by Hitler's minions...
The rest of my review is available free online at The Huffington Post:
Albert Einstein wrote that the mind “always has tried to form for itself a simple and synoptic image of the surrounding world.” During the Renaissance...moreAlbert Einstein wrote that the mind “always has tried to form for itself a simple and synoptic image of the surrounding world.” During the Renaissance, when the ancient Greek idea of man as the measure of all things leapt to the forefront of intellectual life, the human body became a preferred object for this type of “synoptic” speculation. In a widely read treatise titled “Divina Proportione” (1509), the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli echoed fashionable opinions of the day by declaring that our body measurements express “every ratio and proportion by which God reveals the innermost secrets of nature.” Pacioli’s close friend Leonardo da Vinci provided illustrations.
In the richly rewarding history “Da Vinci’s Ghost,” Toby Lester, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, shows that Leonardo had long been fascinated by the concept of man as a microcosm of the universe. Before the Pacioli collaboration, the idea had inspired what has since become one of Leonardo’s most famous images, “Vitruvian Man” (circa 1490), a careful line drawing of a nude male figure whose outstretched arms and legs fit perfectly in the bounds of a circle and a square. “Vitruvian Man” has entered popular culture as an emblem of Leonardo’s genius — redolent of secret knowledge, referred to in the initial crime scene of “The Da Vinci Code” and reproduced on the face of...
The rest of my review is available free online at the website of The New York Times:
This is the catalogue for an exhibition of 15th-century Italian portraiture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show was remarkable for the quality...moreThis is the catalogue for an exhibition of 15th-century Italian portraiture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show was remarkable for the quality of the works on display, the care with which they were chosen, and the sensitivity with which they were installed. Reviewing it in Apollo, a UK art magazine, I wrote:
To walk through this exhibition and see so many objects of momentous cultural importance presented in intelligent groupings [that] bring out subtle visual relationships is a privilege both rare and profound. Top-quality pieces from the organising institutions – the Met and the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin – join loans from distinguished museums around the world as well as select private collections. Exquisite sculptures by the likes of Donatello and Verrocchio complement master paintings by Botticelli, Mantegna, Pollaiuolo, Filippo Lippi and others.
And yet, the catalogue itself is disappointing. Uneven, chaotic, filled with tendentious hobbyhorse arguments, it provides a very poorly structured account of Renaissance portraiture's overall development:
Poor co-ordination of the essays in [this] multi-author volume...yields needless repetition of topics and information. There is no proper lead essay to establish the narrative, and no uniform standards of quality or relevance appear to have been enforced on the contributors. Whereas Patricia Rubin’s essay on the purposes and forms of portraiture in Florence is very fine, and Peter Humfrey offers a solid overview of portraiture in Venice, Rudolf Preimesberger’s parsing of the Latin and Italian versions of Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise 'De Pictura' (1435–36) is a veritable caricature of excruciating, obscurantist pedantry.
The majority of the catalogue is devoted to object entries. These are too long to serve as convenient reference material and too short to allow for the extended development and substantiation of ideas. Certain contributors – notably Andrea Bayer, Francesco Caglioti and Stefan Weppelmann – manage to produce sterling work within these constraints, but others flagrantly abuse the format, making sweeping assertions uncorroborated by facts. Marco Collareta finishes his entry on Donatello’s 'Reliquary Bust of San Rossore' (c. 1425) by asserting that 15th-century Italian portrait busts were fundamentally different from contemporaneous Netherlandish portraits on panel because an interest in psychological expression ‘was absent from northern European art at that time’. While his statement has the undeniable virtue of surveying the broad compass of art history with apparent authority, it lacks the far more important virtue of being true. The portraits of Jan van Eyck alone – his 'Portrait of Jan de Leeuw' (1436) and ‘Man in a Red Turban’ (1433), for instance – are sufficient refutation, being justly renowned for their psychological nuance.
(The complete Apollo review is online and available hassle-free while the March 2012 issue is current, but once the piece is archived, beginning in April, you may have to register with the Apollo website to read the text in its entirety: http://www.apollo-magazine.com/review... )
The catalogue contains beautiful, high-quality color reproductions of all the works in the show and is useful as a documentary record of a truly fine exhibition; there are also some entirely sound observations scattered throughout. That said, John Pope-Hennessy's The Portrait In The Renaissance--even though it is more than 40 years old and somewhat out of date on certain fine points of scholarship--remains, in my opinion, a much better and more insightful treatment of this subject.(less)
"A History of the World in 100 Objects" is probably the best book I read this year. It's by Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum. He use...more"A History of the World in 100 Objects" is probably the best book I read this year. It's by Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum. He uses items from the museum's collection--the Rosetta Stone, Zhou Dynasty bronzes, Victorian tea sets, and much else--to trace out the development of civilization across all the cultures of the globe, bringing in science, commerce, agriculture, art, religion, politics.
One of the places I write for asked me to do their year-end roundup of the best books in the visual arts, and the MacGregor book was my top pick, in part because it's so accessible. There are some other good books on the list too, but the topics are all somewhat narrower:
A universally recognized Anglicization of an artist's name can be a sign of posterity's long-standing acceptance and affection—think of Titian or Raph...moreA universally recognized Anglicization of an artist's name can be a sign of posterity's long-standing acceptance and affection—think of Titian or Raphael, also perhaps of Van Gogh. In the English-speaking world, we generally pronounce the surname of Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel (c. 1525–69)—creator of masterly rural scenes like "Hunters in the Snow" (1565) and "Peasant Wedding" (c. 1568)—as BROY-guhl. Yet in Antwerp or Brussels, where the artist spent most of his adult life, it would be closer to BREW-khul. Whatever we may call him, Bruegel surely merits a place alongside the greatest of the great.
"Pieter Bruegel," a superb and sumptuous monograph by the scholar Larry Silver, is an object of beauty in its own right. This large-format volume presents all 40 or so of Bruegel's surviving paintings and a wide selection of his drawings and prints in color plates that render tone and hue with scrupulous accuracy. Mr. Silver's text offers an indispensable introduction to Bruegel's achievement—in Mr. Silver's phrase, "the epitome of naturalism in art, the climax of the Netherlandish tradition."
Of Bruegel's early years very little is known. It is believed that he was...
The rest of my review is available free online at the website of The Wall Street Journal:
One of the places I write for asked me to do their year-end roundup of the best books in the visual arts, and this was very high up the list. I descri...moreOne of the places I write for asked me to do their year-end roundup of the best books in the visual arts, and this was very high up the list. I described it this way:
With a febrile intelligence and an unerring eye for detail, filmmaker Errol Morris considers the ways in which photography frames our perceptions of truth and falsehood in "Believing is Seeing" (The Penguin Press, 336 pages, $40). The book consists of six detailed case studies on topics including the Crimean War photography of Roger Fenton, the Depression-era photojournalism of Walker Evans and press images from conflict-riven Lebanon. Mr. Morris interweaves larger questions of how we assess evidence and draw conclusions about the world around us.
There are some other good books on the list too, on wide variety of topics:
"The Surrender of Breda," a midcareer masterpiece by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), depicts a rare, graceful moment of Spanish triumph during the Eighty...more"The Surrender of Breda," a midcareer masterpiece by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660), depicts a rare, graceful moment of Spanish triumph during the Eighty Years' War, which pitted imperial Spain against the fledgling Dutch Republic. After capturing the city of Breda in 1625, the commander of the Spanish forces, Ambrogio Spinola, declined to humiliate the Dutch under Justin of Nassau, saying he considered it "a point of wisdom to be merciful rather than severe." Velázquez shows Spinola placing a consoling hand on Justin's shoulder as the Dutchman turns over the key to the city—two military men meeting in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
Spinola's behavior at Breda was not altogether characteristic of Spain's conduct during the war, which tended to be quite brutal, particularly toward Dutch Protestants, who faced torture and execution. Thus some have seen Velázquez's "Breda" as little more than brilliant propaganda, portraying a fleeting instance of Spanish munificence. But others have perceived a poignant piece of wish-fulfillment, evidence of Spain's desire for an honorable outcome to a largely futile war. As it turned out, Breda reverted to Dutch control just two years after Velázquez completed his picture, and the Spanish crown relinquished its territorial claims to the Dutch Republic in 1648, a testament to Spain's decline as a great power.
In "Velázquez and the Surrender of Breda," Anthony Bailey chronicles Velázquez's life and career in the light of Spain's political and social history, using the siege of Breda as the fulcrum of the story. Central to his narrative is the question...
The rest of my review is available free online at the website of The Wall Street Journal: