Picture Perfect

Today, on a venture into Washington, D.C., I was hoping and praying that I would have enough time to make a trip to the National Gallery of Art – unfortunately, the meeting that I had scheduled went until 4:30, which would have left me only 30 minutes at the museum, so I breathed a sigh of sadness and drove away. I was feeling the need for some gallery-strolling, so instead I’ll have to indulge myself with a post on one of my favorite artists.

We’ve recently been studying the Northern Renaissance, and I have quite literally fallen in love with Albrecht Dürer. His works are just breathtaking, and rather than focusing on one painting, I’ll just give you a million reasons why I am in love with this particular German artist.

Reason #1

Albrecht Durer, "Self Portrait", 1500; oil on wood panel

I am literally obsessed with this painting. Here, Dürer has a commanding presence, a self-assuredness that draws us to him and confronts us. This particular painting fascinates me because it seems so far ahead of his own time – besides the fact that he looks sort of like a rock star from the 1990’s (doesn’t he?), Dürer also creates a timelessness, and spacelessness, that gives him a God-like presence before us, which is only further enhanced by his semblance to Christ himself, particularly his hair. Dürer’s rich clothing also gives the effect power and influence, not to mention wealth. However, the most striking part of this painting for me is his hand gesture: although he disguises it as a stroke of his fur jacket, Dürer directly references the gesture of the benediction, a popular iconography during this time that immediately associates, in the viewer’s mind, the artist with Christ himself. What I love most, though, is his gaze – Dürer is by far one of the most technically gifted artists, but his ability to create this tension between himself and the viewer is, in my opinion, what makes this painting stand apart from the rest.

Reason #2 & #3

Albrecht Durer, The Hare, 1502; watercolor and gouache on paper

This is a watercolor painting. Just think about that for a minute. Amazing.

This hare is perfection – Dürer must have studied every last centimeter of this hare (poor thing) for days on end as he was painting this. Dürer’s hare is lifelike, real, and impeccably executed – don’t you just want to pick it up and hold it? And this from the same artist who painted his enticing self portrait with oil on wood panel.

Albrecht Durer, The Great Piece of Turf, 1503; watercolor and gouache on paper

Don’t you just want to be there? Dürer’s simple watercolor is detailed, immaculate, and intensely studied – it is like something out of a science textbook today only a hundred times more beautiful. I love both of these pieces so much – they are beautiful, perfectly executed, and an incredible example of Dürer’s master skills in such a diverse range of medium. Just think about what else was going on in 1500: 90% of the art being produced (okay, hyperbole, forgive me) was of a religious subject, or a depiction of the monarchy, or of battle, and here we have nature: Dürer documents the pure, undisturbed beauty of nature, and creates a study so perfect that the viewer is instantly transported there.

Reason #5 & #6

Albrecht Durer, "Melencolia", 1514, engraving

Ever wondered where the idea of the dark, brooding artist came from? You can thank Dürer for that. This is his famous engraving “Melencolia”, which depicts a personification of one of the four humors in the body, melencolia. During this period, people believed that the body was ruled by four humors:

  1. Blood – ancient name: sanguine – qualities: courageous, hopeful, amorous  /  modern: artisan
  2. Yellow bile – ancient name: choleric – qualities: bad tempered, irritable  /  modern: idealist
  3. Black bile – ancient name: melancholic – qualities: despondent, sleepless, pensive  /  modern: guardian
  4. Phlegm – ancient name: phlegmatic – qualities: calm, unemotional  /  modern: rational

They believed that the imbalance of these humors caused sickness, and that people had a sort of temperament that was associated with which humor dominated their body. In his engraving from 1514, Dürer creates an association between the melancholic humor and the artist: his personification of this temperament – the angel who sits pensively, like Rodin’s famousThinker – is surrounded by tools of the trade, including an untouched block of marble. In addition, he includes various symbols of time, including an hourglass, that reminds us of this creature biding her time without true creation. Her passive nature, evidenced in the way she dawdles with a compass and leaves a book unopened on her lap, is offset by the cherub’s active nature, as he scribbles away in a journal. This only serves to highlight the artist’s pensive and brooding personality, creating an association that has stuck for centuries.

Albrecht Durer, Adam and Eve, 1504, engraving; The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dürer’s take on the infamous scene between Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is another favorite. Dürer shows off his knowledge of Italian art by creating figures reminiscent of Michelangelo’s sculpture – the contrappasto of the figures demonstrates a knowledge of the body and references iconic sculptures of Apollo and Venus. However, Dürer’s engraving gives us more to consider.

Close up of Durer's Adam and Eve

First, he brings our eye directly to the moment of Eve taking the apple with the strong tree trunk straight down the middle of the engraving, as well as the opposing positions of the pair’s arm and legs, which seem to fit together like a puzzle and draw our eye towards their meeting point – Eve’s hand. But, of course, the devil is in the details. Dürer creates this suspenseful moment by inserting little about-t0-happen instances that only our imagination can fill in from what we see in the engraving. For example, the bottom of the page shows us a cat, in that state when they are seemingly dormant but will pop awake at any moment, about to pounce on the mouse that Adam is holding down with his foot. And we know that as soon as Adam’s foot comes up, the cat will jump after the mouse and chaos will ensue. And in the very far back right corner of the work, look closely – there is a moose on a ledge, balancing as if he will spring off any moment. This all draws us in and makes us ponder what will happen next – the moment is there, the apple is in Eve’s hand, and it seems as though all hell is about to break loose.

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That’s my art indulgence for today. Next time: Oscar dresses!

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on the banks of the seine

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’ll share my all-time favorite couples painting ever: Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Danse á Bougival (French, 1883, oil on canvas; at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston). I absolutely adore the Impressionists (les impressionistes) and have an even greater love for them after seeing some of their greatest works on display in Paris.

La Danse á Bougival, Pierre-August Renoir; 1883

Of course, this painting can be seen at the MFA in Boston (my “home” museum), and is one for lovers everywhere. In fact, when I imagine what kind of relationship I want in my life (ideally, a while from now), this image is what instantly comes to my head – it is perfection. “Bougival” was a suburban town outside of Paris, on the banks of the Seine, where people passed leisurely time dancing and eating at cafés – a place that the Impressionists would have spent much time.

Renoir and the Impressionists were a group of painters that worked during the mid to late nineteenth century, primarily in France (although the Germans had a similar movement, Expressionism), with the exception of Mary Cassat, an American who is widely known as a great Impressionist painter, and one of only a few women who became known as “Impressionistes” (she did spend most of her life in Paris). This movement was a direct result of French society at the time: as Baron Haussmann re-designed the entire City of Lights, creating order out of what was once medieval chaos, Paris became the spot to see and be seen – the place to leave an impression. What grew out of this was the Impressionist movement: they were concerned not with miniscule details, but with what instantly caught your eye. Up close, many of their paintings seem like a jungle of textured and unintentional brush strokes, but from afar, your eye catches that one moment that they want you to see. The Impressionists also seem to be saying something about their new city, juxtaposing the new order and symmetry of Paris against the softer colors and whirling strokes of their artwork. These artists were the first to break from réalisme – realism, which strove to depict everything just as it was in real life, but in reality idealized many of its subjects. They brought to the world a truly innovative perspective, and some of the most iconic pieces of all time (think Starry Night).

This isn't the best close-up of their faces, but it works.

What I love about this painting in particular is the interaction between the man and the woman, and the way that Renoir presents them to us. Our eye is immediately drawn to the woman, using her bright red bonnet as a personal frame for her face. He creates a space using her white-clothed arm against his dark suit in which their faces sit, his mostly covered by a hat and hers gazing furtively downwards, a subtle smile playing on her lips. It is significant that the man’s face is obscured: Renoir wants us to focus on her, just like her partner is.

Her red bonnet and white dress stand out starkly against the darker background, and even against his navy suit, which almost blends in to the scene behind them. I love that these two are the exact opposites of each other, and they fit together almost like puzzle pieces: her head looks out, while his looks in at her; her arm reaches out, while his pulls in to hold her hand there; her body leans forward into his, and he presses his body into hers; her skirt sways outward as they dance, and his foot comes forward. The artist creates the most beautiful tension, a sort of sexiness that pulls us in to this moment. And Renoir masterfully creates this swirling feeling, like she is being whooshed, and we get a true sense of movement as our eye travels up and down their bodies. I have always wondered, too, whether there was any significance to the two trees that extend up out of the painting, just above their heads – it seems to help ground them, or perhaps suggest that these two  lovers are as deeply rooted to one another as the two trees behind them.

This painting used to hang in our old house, and when we moved it got tossed into the basement. While I was home recently, I resurrected it and hung it on my wall, and literally could not stop staring at it for the entire month I was at home. I am just so drawn to the colors, the movement, the interaction between them, I suppose because I’m pretty sure that this is all I could ask for in life – my perfect opposite dancing the night away with me on the banks of the Seine.

 

Happy Valentine’s Day ❤

life unplugged

Every day after sailing practice, when we sit down as a team to discuss the day’s accomplishments and challenges, my coach makes each one of us place our cell phone in a box, and then he places it at the front of the room, out of reach of our eager hands. This simple gesture allows us to focus entirely on one thing for that 45 minutes of our day, and to really pay attention without being distracted. I hate to sound like an old person, nagging the young generation about “that texting” and “the Facebook”, but there is some beauty to living life unplugged: do we really need to constantly check our Twitter, Facebook, and text messages? Probably not. Whatever it is, it can probably wait until you’re done with that important conversation or have put down that book that you’ve been meaning to finish for a few months.

When I was little, I read: I had a voracious appetite for books, and for amusing myself with stories and characters, and this gave me unparalleled creative skills and an insatiable thirst for adventure. There are times when I wish I could be one of those girls who kicks every guy’s butt at video games, but I’m not. Instead, I could kick your butt in an iambic pentameter-off. And that’s something that I am far more proud of than being able to play Super Mario Brothers.

I don't need all of this information about your donut. Save it for when you're alone.

When I lived in Paris, I lived without a cell phone for quite a few months. After losing my phone at a concert (don’t judge, I was studying abroad), I thought about getting a new one, but it seemed unnecessary: the group of friends that I traveled with was made up of the kind of people that you could depend on, and who didn’t need a digital tool to be amused. Instead, we would make plans on the Internet or when we saw each other, and stick to them. We enjoyed the beauty of the city, gluing our eyes to the splendor of the City of Lights and its rich culture rather than to our computer screens. Were there times that not having a phone was frustrating? Yes. But overall, I am glad that I gave it up for a while. Now, when I go to the gym, or more importantly, to an art museum or movie, I leave my phone in the car or at home. When you do that, you allow yourself to completely immerse yourself in what you are doing in that moment, and isn’t that what life is all about?

True statement.

So here’s my plea to you, the people of the world:

1. Learn when to leave your phone at home. An hour-long yoga class does not require a Blackberry, and the last thing I want to hear when I am admiring a piece of priceless art is your cheesy ringtone echoing through the halls. If you are at dinner with friends, or especially a date, leave it in the car. Focus on who you are with – that’s what you will remember.

2. And most of the time, keep it on silent anyway. No one wants to hear “Eye of the Tiger” go off 5 times before you pick up the phone.

3. Pick up a book. I’m serious. Pick up a book and focus on that and only that for an hour. You will feel like a better person because of it, I promise. Or do a puzzle. Focus on something, anything, for 1 hour a day, without checking your voicemail, and you will be 100% happier.

4. Learn how to have a conversation! Make eye contact with the person you are talking to. Be animated. Have an opinion. Care about something. Ask questions, and then listen to the answer. Asking me to explain my senior project while looking down at the game on your phone is rude and inappropriate, and I will call you out on it.

I guess all I’m saying is this: there is a beauty to disconnecting from the world. Today we place so much emphasis on connectivity – and I know, because I’m doing my Senior Project on the impact of social media on different regime types – but in our everyday lives there is enough space to set aside our technology and appreciate not only what we are doing, but the people we are with and what’s going on in their lives. Sending a written Thank You note, or a post-card when you’re traveling, rather than an email will instantly make you the classiest, most fabulous person in all of your friends’ lives. And asking a friend out for lunch or coffee to see how they’re doing will always trump a text or a Facebook chat. Stay classy, everyone – unplug yourselves!

Loco for Rococo

When we think of France during the mid to late 1700’s, the following image is probably what comes to mind:

Jean-Honoré Fragonard, "The Swing", c. 1767 - French, from the rococo period

Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s famous painting, “The Swing”, is perhaps the most famous example of rococo artwork, a movement that succeeded the Baroque period and was defined by luxury, frivolity, and bordered on absurdity. Artists during the Baroque period were concerned with order: symmetry, geometry, and neatness. However, the reactionary movement, which came into vogue during the reign of Louis XV in France, is perhaps the exact opposite. Rococo artists had an affinity for more oganic lines and shapes, more naturalistic composition, and excess, excess, excess. It is important to note that the rococo stretched beyond painting and into clothing, theatre, interior design, and furniture. It was, as we might say today, somewhat of a lifestyle.

Fragonard is one of the iconic painters of the period – and his “Swing” makes it obvious why. Fragonard’s composition is masterful: starting from the upper right corner of the frame, we see the rope first and from there he creates a perfect diagonal down the swing, over the woman, and straight to her husband who is reposed on the forest floor. Behind her, a lover hides in the bushes, hardly visible and shrouded from view – a sort of voyeur sneaking in to the scene. Besides the diagonal that draws our eye straight to the woman and her husband, the three subjects also create a literal love triangle – and near each man are cherubs, a traditional symbol of love and passion.

Fragonard creates an obvious sexual tension here: the young woman looks down at her husband, kicking her shoe (oh my!) off towards the cherub, a gesture of carefree sexuality. But below her, she knows she has two adoring fans, and she plays with them: note how her skirt is floating up, allowing the two men a surreptitious but clear view.

A closer view of Fragonard's 18th century painting "The Swing", an icon of rococo art and style

My favorite part of this painting, however, is the woman herself: she is like a giant, frosted cupcake in the middle of the composition, giving the work a light, breezy, airy feel that lends itself to the theme of carelessness and sexual love. I love the tension between the woman and her husband, the way he reaches his hand up and meets the diagonal, as if about to catch her, but she literally bounces between her two lovers.

Fragonard’s painting gives us a clear idea of the rococo ideals at work not only in “The Swing” but in many other pieces of from the period. The over-the-top feel of this piece shows how powerful the aristocracy was, and the ideal of excess and frivolity in reaction to the order and structure of the Baroque period. Although Fragonard does not completely throw out structure – this is evident in his careful composition and geometry in presenting his subjects – he creates shapes in the bodies and clothing that are more soft, round, and almost fluffy, giving an aura of carelessness and luxury. This period almost makes a caricature out of itself, but we love it – how can we not?

What girls think about during…..yoga.

I think my butt looks big in these pants…ok now twist to the right….hm, maybe I’d say muscular. I think my energy’s good today. Crap. Now I’m thinking about that depressing movie we watched in Spanish. Good vibes, good vibes. I’m totally kicking everyone else’s butt at this move. Hehe. Now be a tree. Be a strong oak…reaching up to the sky…..and falling. Damnit. I wonder if everyone else enjoys looking at themselves in the mirror as much as I do…I’m just a perfectionist. No, I’m actually incredibly vain. No! Peaceful thoughts….peaceful thoughts….be one with the earth. God my head hurts doing downward dog…and my face kind of looks like it’s melting off my face….that’s what it feels like too. Chipmunk cheeks!! Ha…no don’t laugh. Be serene. Tranquil. Yogaaaaa. Eew my mat smells like rubber and sweat. Gross. I kind of don’t want to put my face anywhere near it. Ick. I like that girl’s top…yeah, it’s lulu. Of course it’s lulu. She would. Whatever, mine is more flattering. No! Think peacefully, you love everyone, we are all flowers…..mmm. Calm. Why does this move make my muscles feel like sponges twisting out water? Am I dying? I think I’m dying. Breathe. Breeeaaatheeee. Okay, not so loudly next time. But my  hips feel kind of like they are going to just pop off like a chicken wing or something. Eew, awful image. Breathe deeply. Aaaaah silent screams! Seriously woman!? There is no such thing as good pain. It’s okay…shirvasana….my favorite part, nappy time. Mmm. Quiet. Now I just get to lie on my mat and go to sleep for five minutes. Ooh yay food! I can’t wait for lunch. French fries….maybe an apple and peanut butter….I wonder if there’s sushi today? Whatever, I just want a huge plate of french fries. God I’m so hungry. No, be silent and serene. Yes…inner peace. Nice.

Inner peace, yay.

Namaste, ladies.

Goltzius’ Right Hand: A Strange Fascination

Goltzius' Right Hand, Hendrik Goltzius, 1588, pen and brown ink

After a very long hiatus of blogging, I’m back. I hope you all enjoy the new look – I needed a change of scenery.

This semester I’m taking a class called “European Art from 1500 – 1850”, which essentially covers the Renaissance and various movements that began after it (my favorite being the rococo period in France – the women looked like cupcakes). My professor is particularly interested in print-making, and on the first day of class she presented us with this image.

Take a good, hard look. Just look.

Okay, now let me explain. This is a print by Hendrik Goltzius, a Dutch printmaker who worked in the 16th century. He was born with a malformed right hand, which normally would hinder such incredible artistic ability. However, Goltzius not only thrived as an artist, he was amazing. Look at this! The  lines, the curves, the incredible attention to detail – this is masterful work, and he wants us to know it.

Farnese Hercules, Hendrik Goltzius, ca. 1592: I love he brings your eye straight to his butt, it's like he wants us to giggle a little. And I do. Every time.

This itself is a representation of his deformed right hand that should have stopped him from making such beautiful art, but he instead shows it off, detailing it with such beauty that we can’t help but be drawn, fascinated, and intrigued by it. He says, “Not only can I do what you do with this hand, but I can do it better.” Incredible.

And there’s something about this print that I am just so drawn to – when I first saw it, I thought it was cover art for some indie band’s album. It’s so visually striking, so interesting, and so unbelievably well done. I’m just in love – and I love his message: you can do anything, and often it’s our “deformities” that make us beautiful, so why not show them off?

 

For more information, check out the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History at the Met Museum’s website: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/golt/hd_golt.htm

 

In the Big Apple

Central Park

After six months in the City of Lights, it feels like home to be back in a big city, with an overwhelming amount to do and see, and an ample amount of restaurants to choose from (because for me food is the best part of any journey). When I first visited NYC a few years ago with my family, I determined that it wasn’t my cup of tea: it was big, overwhelming, dirty, and far from the humble Boston atmosphere I was accustomed to. As much as I enjoyed our backstage passes to the New York City Ballet’s production of “Romeo & Juliet”, I decided I would never want to live there or work there. I would never be a Carrie Bradshaw, or a determined journalist making her way in the big city. No, I would remain a Boston girl.

David photo-bombing a shot of Van Gogh's self-portrait at the Met
A raspberry tarte from Le Pain Quotidien

Well, I was wrong. I am absolutely enchanted with New York. I don’t know why, either. I can’t put my finger on it, but I love it. My summer here, I can tell, will have a delightful duality: I am spending my weeks working for a non-profit organization called the Waterfront Center, where I am the resident blogger (go figure). You can check out the blog here. The center focuses on sailing courses, boat-chartering, marine science programs, and community-oriented waterfront activities that allow people to get involved in waterfront activities who wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to. It’s a great organization, and my job requires little more than mediocre photography skills, writing, and an outgoing, adventurous attitude. I’m stationed in Oyster Bay, but living on Centre Island, a little island with one road, many estates, and a yacht club with a view worth millions. It’s a great gig, and it means that I get to hang out in a Hamptons-esque area for four to five days and then head into the city on the weekends to hang out with the Paris gang. Not too shabby.

An up-close of Van Gogh's painting. I love the texture of his work!
Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jette" at the Met

My first day in the city was spent with David, who just arrived to his new apartment in Brooklyn and is currently on the lookout for a job (please comment if you know of anything :)). We went to the Met to see Savage Beauty, the exhibit of Alexander McQueen’s dramatic fashion creations. We explored the Impressionist wing – my favorite – and I taught David all I knew about my favorite group of painters. It was amazing to finally see him, since he spent the year in Paris and I hadn’t even spoken to him in months. It was just like old times: exploring, eating, and generally tiring ourselves out while taking advantage of all the culture available in the city.

Puzzling at the Met
A beautiful Van Gogh work. I love the way he depicted cypress trees - he used an incredible amount of texture and color that completely stuns me.

By the time we finished art-ing in the Met, we headed to Le Pain Quotidien, which we went to one of the first times we hung out in Paris. We shared an assiette de fromage, and enjoyed some indulgently good food while reminiscing and catching up. We took our coffee and pastries to go, and sat outside the Met eating them while we pieced together the puzzle of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” that I had bought earlier. What a lovely afternoon! We relaxed and enjoyed the sun, and then took the train to East Village for drinks. The evening was gone in a flash, and before I knew it I was headed back to Penn Station. But not before stopping for a famous NYC hot dog! It was on my bucket list, and even after my wonderful lunch/dinner at Le Pain Quotidien, I couldn’t resist a late night indulgence.

Me enjoying my late-night hot dog. Delicious.

Hopping back on the train, I felt like Cinderella: my wonderful day in the city was over, and my dress would now turn to rags and my coach into a pumpkin. But nevertheless, I felt fulfilled. I needed, more than anything, some time wtih my friends after a week of solitude, and seeing David was just what I needed. It convinced me that my summer will, in fact, turn out okay, and I could not have asked for a more perfect day in the Big Apple.