Friday, October 30, 2015

For All The Saints

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I am quite sure I first saw the painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme when I was perhaps four or five years old. The artist’s piece, “The Christian Martyr’s Last Prayer,” was reproduced in black and white on the pages of an early edition of Grolier’s Book of Knowledge.
“The Christian Martyr’s Last Prayer”
Jean-Léon Gérôme. 1883.
(Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

I still remember the black binding of that set of encyclopedia for children. That was when parents intentionally kept things like encyclopedias and dictionaries for rambunctious kids to find. Back then, there were no cell phones or home computers. Neither were there video games. Television sets offered black and white programming, most of which was dull for children. In my house, the volumes populating a modest bookcase became fair game when the weather prohibited outdoor play. Hence, my first exposure to fine art, along with articles on the finer points of kite construction and splint assembly for broken bones.

From the world’s point of view, I was innocent back then. A lot of us seemed to be. Of course, we weren’t really innocent – we were simply ignorant. We were insulated against the realities of life; of the world, and, unless we broke a toy or stuck a fork in the wall outlet, we were happy. And then we grew up.

It should come as no shock that I now see Gérôme’s painting with different eyes. It’s not that I have greater respect for the artist. Rather, what the artist painted now strikes me more deeply.

Now I understand the contrast between my childhood and the contents of Gérôme’s painting. While I haven’t yet been set ablaze in an arena as a kind of human Tiki torch, and even though I haven’t been offered as the main course for animals of prey, my thoughts now lean decidedly closer to the once and future martyrs, what they gained, and what all the saints left behind.

For the martyr’s in the painting, their life of persecution and annoyance is about to get a lot worse before it gets infinitely better. The artist has created high drama in a setting of ancient Rome. One can easily forgive the erroneous location of the hippodrome, as our minds swell with a cacophany of muffled prayers, painful cries and the crowd’s roar. A male lion, given prominence in the composition, lifts a proud head, and that awful, guttural growl cuts to the quick of our imagination.

I could here dive into a litany of complaints and confessions surrounding my life and yours in a vain attempt to compare the earth-bound living with those who now live eternally in heaven. We all know, however, the misery we endure and the crap with which we frost it is a product of the Fall and our own sinful shortcomings, and those in heaven have been finally rid of the same. Some day, those of us who feebly struggle will be in the same boat as those who now shine in glory. Some day.

That the martyrs in Gérôme’s piece counted their lives as of no value in order to finish the race sheds Divine Light on our own course. We look forward to that day when we, too, will shine and when perfection will be fully ours. Then the struggle will be over. Then we shall see Him as He is. Then we shall have days-long conversations, without blinking. And complete joy will be ours.

For now, we give thanks for the saints – both martyrs and otherwise – who have gone before us. We give thanks for their admonitions; for their instruction; for their example. We give thanks to Our Lord and Savior, The Christ Jesus, for putting them in our lives, and for allowing them, through His Grace, to show us how it’s done.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Cranach Confessions

Copyright © Edward Riojas

In a little more than a week the Church will be celebrating All Saints Day. It is festival in which we thank God for His blessings showered on those who have gone before us with the sign of Faith, and for the blessings bestowed on us through their confession of the Gospel. It is both joyful and sobering to recognize this intersection of time and eternity. The reality of saints departed brings both sorrow and the knowledge of its eventual remedy. Today we won’t address ALL the saints – just one.

We can now call him simply Saint Lucas, though before he left this world he was like you and I – a sinner/saint. He came into the world naked and filled with sin as you and I did. He put on his pants – as my Father used to say – one leg at a time, just like you and I. Okay, maybe they weren’t technically pants; maybe they were Renaissance hose, but you get the gist.

Lucas Cranach the Elder was a talented artist, successful businessman, wealthy landowner, schmoozer of royalty, and a friend of Martin Luther. He was a mover and shaker in Germanic society of the Northern Renaissance. But Cranach realized he was something much less: A sinful human very much in need of a Savior.

The artist left us a monstrous trove of art. Some of it shows his deep devotion, reflected in confessional images. Other portions show an amazing portrait portfolio of those close to him, without which we would be bereft of the face of the Reformation. His studio also produced the more mundane images of classical antiquity that the Renaissance appetite demanded. But there is one image which, perhaps more than any other, defines this master of Northern Renaissance art as a confessor of Divine Truth, and it is one of my favorite images.
“Crucifixion” [Detail of “The Weimar Altarpiece”]
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Lucas Cranach the Younger.
1555. (Stadtkirche Sankt Peter und Paul, Weimar, Germany)

The Weimar Altarpiece, located in the church of Saints Peter and Paul, was not entirely done by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The artist was commissioned to create an altarpiece that would act as an epitaph for John Frederick of Saxony and his family, but Cranach died in 1553 – two years before the altarpiece was finished. It was completed by the artist’s son and artistic progeny, Lucas Cranach the Younger. So much of it was worked by Cranach’s son that the Altarpiece is often attributed to him alone. We must assume, however, that the basic composition and imagery reflect the thoughts, if not the hand, of Lucas Cranach the Elder.

The central panel of the altarpiece is packed with heavy theological imagery. Beginning with the left background, a demon and death push a man away from the tablets of the Law, which condemns man, toward the flames of hell. The right background prefigures the Divine plan of salvation – the bronze serpent is lifted up, offering salvation for the children of Israel wandering aimlessly in the desert. Behind this is a vignette of angels heralding the Gospel to shepherds watching their flocks.

As is common for visual narratives of the period, some figures are repeated. Christ is shown in victory on the left. Death and Satan, which once dogged man, are defeated under the wounded feet of a resurrected Christ. A second figure of the Christ crucified dominates the composition, and His corpus is underscored by John the Forerunner who, in a twist of time, points his living finger at the dying Lamb of God. A weighty figure of Martin Luther points to a weightier edition of Scripture, emphasizing that all of the inspired writings point to Jesus Christ. And between John the Baptist and Martin Luther stands a likeness of the artist – Lucas Cranach the Elder.

The artist’s presence would normally be missed in similar altarpieces, where patrons and their families typically show up on the fringes of such sacred settings. But the Weimar Altarpiece contains a singular device that stares the viewer in the face – the flow of Christ’s blood directly onto the head of the artist.

Cranach has painted the profound, for the issue of blood is, in this case, exclusive – it neither touches Luther, nor the Baptizer nor anyone else. It is personal. It is deeply confessional, nearly ignoring Christ’s sacrifice for sinful mankind, showing lack of any action or merit on a man’s account, and pointedly highlighting The Savior’s sacrifice for sinful Lucas. The altarpiece was intended as a epitaph for nobility, but, in reality, it is a noble epitaph for Lucas Cranach the Elder, and an even greater witness to The Christ and His redeeming love for the individual. Seeing the artist in a simple, inactive pose, helplessly receiving the blood of our Savior, we mentally step into that painting and beg of The Savior the same redeeming flood.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Painting Under the Radar

Copyright © Edward Riojas

Believe it or not, history can be fun.
“Head of a Lady in Medieval Costume”
Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola.
1900. (Private collection)

Around the time when modern art was going through growing pains and gaining momentum, the world in general was running on a track to become unglued and divided. Not that this sorry rock has ever done well in the why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along department, but global powers were once again jostling into position against one another, just as the art world was beginning to splinter into various cells.

On the art front, artists were attempting to find a place in the wake of the Impressionist movement. Some stuck with older ideals. Others were experimental. Yet others straddled lines, while being influenced by change. Like-minded artists gravitated toward each other, seeking visual and ideological comfort zones.

Lucien-Victor Guirand de Scévola was a product of the late 19th century French Symbolism movement. This particular movement was an evolutionary product of the old way of doing things, and kept elevated standards handed down from the grand salons in Europe. Their work, however, focused on metaphorical meaning behind images. Figures were usually larger-than-life heroes from times past. Working primarily in pastels, de Scévola had one foot in the strongly-modeled realism of the École des beaux-arts de Paris, where he received his education, and another foot in the loose techniques of Impressionism. His female portraiture is also reminiscent of Rosetti’s indulgent opulence, and at other times shows influence of Art Nouveau – another post-Impressionist movement to come out of France.
Abbott Handerson Thayer. 1887.
(Smithsonian, Washington D.C.)

de Scévola’s “Head of a Lady in Medieval Costume” is a handsome piece that is also a good indicator of art style in flux. While using an symbolist’s device of placing the sitter in an obscure historical context, it shows influence from several artistic movements, but doesn’t really fit well in any of them. If anything, it strangely foreshadows trends that will later show up in illustration.

Across the pond in the U.S., American artist Abbott Handerson Thayer was also trying to find his niche. His art education began at the Brooklyn Art School and the National Academy of Design, but he later wound up in the same Beaux-Arts academy that de Scévola attended. Thayer studied there under Jean-Léon Gérome, a leading figure of yet another splinter group, the Academicists. Thayer’s work runs deeply in the group’s vein of artistic classicism. It clings to the old school and its high academic standards. His portraiture of idealized women appeals to a classical revival of Greek and Roman mythology. There is neither a hint of Impressionism nor of other modern trends.

In his attempt to elevate the feminine ideal, Thayer finally resorted to giving his figures wings and [erroneously] named them ‘angels.’ His “Angel,” painted in 1887, is typical of this feminine ideal, and he would crank out several variations on this theme.
“An Aztec Sculptor”
George de Forest Brush.
1887. (Private collection)

When studying at the École de beaux-arts de Paris, Thayer met fellow artist George de Forest Brush. They were to become close friends, occasional antagonists, and neighbors. Brush had a strong interest in native Americans, and translated the same ideology and approach of the Academicists to images of the dwindling indigenous people. However, instead of following in the train of George Catlin’s near-scientific approach in recording the native Americans, Brush stripped his figures of most cultural minutiae and placed them in classical settings – sometimes with ridiculous props such as leopard skins and marble bas-reliefs. His portraiture leans heavily on the “noble” profile to a fault, and elevates a people to places they would neither recognize nor desire to visit.

This odd lot of post-Impressionistic artists serves as a sort of sampling of what was happening in an art world going through modern growing pains. These relatively unknown artists flew under the radar that otherwise highlighted artistic movers and shakers with names such as Klimt, Gauguin, Munch and Matisse. Their work, however, was indeed influenced by the splintering visions of the artistic ideal. They, like all artists, were also influenced by growing global tension, the threat of war, and its ugly manifestation.

This artistic trio became immersed in the threat of war as perhaps few others.  While truly capable artists in their own right, de Scévola, Thayer and Brush garnered fame in a much different arena – they all were major players in the design and development of military camouflage. I bet no one saw THAT coming.

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Flip Side of Art

Copyright © Edward Riojas

I’ll be honest: I’m pretty normal most of the time, but when I go to a good art museum, as I did some weeks ago while visiting St. Louis, I sometimes turn into a different animal – a geek. No, not the "omigosh-I-can’t-believe-I’m-going-to-see-wonderful-pieaces-of-art!" sort of geek. Looking at images is only part of what makes me go to art museums. The other reason I go to art museums is this: I want to know what’s behind those paintings. Literally.

“Judith with the Head of Holofernes”
Lucas Cranach the Elder. c. 1530
(Imperial Gallery, Vienna)

A large part of my goofy interest comes from learning long ago to build my own canvas supports, wooden supports, and frames. It’s no secret that art supplies are expensive, and as a student you either sell your siblings into slavery to afford canvases or you build them yourself. Being the youngest in my clan and not wanting to even suggest the former, I chose the latter and taught myself how to build painting supports.

Because my art projects very greatly, their construction is always custom work. Things get even more weird when one tinkers with projects like doored altarpieces and solid-wood panels and 4 by 11-foot painting surfaces. You will never find economy packs of those in Hobby Lobby or Michaels. I’ve checked. After a while, the randomness of projects and the varied success of each simply makes one wonder how our artistic forebears accomplished greater things, with far greater results and without power tools.

So when all the blue-haired ladies are gushing over a little Monet in the Impressionism room, and when the stiletto-healed gals and horn-rimmed hipsters are fussing over the avant-garde junk in the Moderne wing, I race past them all to find an old, German altarpiece in a plexiglass box. Then I peer around the side of it to get a peek at it’s hinges. And I inspect its joinery. And I find where the artist and artisans concealed pins and nails. And I mentally move the doors to see how they would have articulated. And I look like a geek.
“Suzanne in the Garden”
Claude Monet. c. 1886.
(Private collection)

Of course, museums prefer to modestly keep a painting’s backside to the wall. In those instances when a painting’s privates are off limits, instead of waiting until the guards and docents take a potty break so I can turn over a nifty Cranach, I go online and find photos of painting backs and radiographs of painting supports. Then I see all of the painting’s secrets and try to understand how things were put together.

If the artist was an old master, the preferred painting support was most often stretched linen or solid wood. And because both types of support can warp, what is not seen by the general public always piques my curiosity. Corner keys, stretcher bars and cradling can come into play, along with a smattering of conservator’s hardware, catalogue marks and stamps. Like inspecting an old piece of furniture, there are often little moments of enlightenment that cause increased appreciation for what lies behind the piece’s pretty face.

I’ll be honest again: I don’t care if I do look like a geek when exploring an art museum. This is my craft, and the dead guys always have a thing or two to teach me even though it’s been centuries since they breathed their last. They still quietly lead by example. As an old fart, I love going to this school. I always will.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Art of Conservation

Copyright © Edward Riojas

First, do no harm.

Like the Hippocratic Oath that binds the medical profession, conservators of art take a calculated approach in the treatment of those under their custodial care. Conservators are the guardians of museum artwork. With strict monitoring and occasional inspection, the objects are kept in pristine condition.
“Expulsion from Eden”
Masaccio. 1426-27.
(Brancacci Chapel,
Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence)

Pieces of art, however, are destined to rot and decay as is everything else in this fallen world. After a few centuries, a handful of works seem as fresh as when they first saw the light of day. Others are in need of various kinds of help. Some are beyond any such consideration.

The root of the problem often occurs when the artist first touches his material. Best practices of different media are taught in art academia by the voices of experience. This has been so throughout the centuries, but there is a modern mentality capable of undoing the most enduring methods impressed on students. There are also inferior materials, lack of patience, and sheer stupidity that become factors in the longevity – and lack thereof – in any particular piece of art. In my own experience, I have paintings that have not visibly changed at all, and I have at least one painting that is already cracked in a most unhealthy way. And my pieces are relatively newborn.

What of the pieces who have endured the ravages of history and remain our dearest friends? How is the care of centuries-old beauty managed? This is where art conservation steps in with its painstaking research and applied science, exhaustive methodology and a host of treatment options that are all meant to be utterly invisible.
“Madonna of the Yarnwinder”
(The Lansdowne Madonna)
Studio of Leonardo da Vinci.
c. 1500 (Private collection)

Conservators also work under an umbrella of ethics that runs parallel with medicine’s first tenet, and they are as concerned over their “patients” as the most skilled surgeon. Of course, their patients are not human, but millions of dollars are often at stake, and so is the reverence of descerning art lovers and patrons. And every case is different.

Take the fresco, “Expulsion from Eden,” by Masaccio. It needed general restorative cleaning. But there was another consideration: Like an improperly-set bone, Masaccio’s masterpiece suffered a slight makeover 300 years after it was first painted, and the question of correcting the historical event became an ethical question. Should the conservators “re-set” the alteration done by Cosimo III de’Medici, or should it remain unchanged? Was the hundreds year-old change more important that the original intent of the artist? These kinds of questions are undoubtedly the source of migraines for conservators.

For Masaccio’s piece, it was decided to carefully eliminate leaves painted over Adam’s and Eve’s privates. The original intent trumped the later addition. That was a relatively easy fix. Sort of.
“Harvard Murals”
Mark Rothko. 1961-62.
(Harvard Art Museums)

Now consider one of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Madonnas of the Yarnwinder,’ and more specifically, “The Lansdowne Madonna.” This piece may not have been entirely done by da Vinci, but it most certainly came from his studio and bears the master’s signature handling in some of the details. Like some paintings on wood, this piece had extremely serious problems that required radically invasive surgery. More pointedly, it needed an entire body transplant. Leonardo da Vinci’s image was fine; the wood on which it was painted, not so much. It was rotting.

The remedy was based on the traditional manner in which an oil painting surface was prepared in the first place – a water-based glue “size” was brushed on the surface, followed by gesso, followed by the oil paint, followed by varnish. The plan was to transfer the painting from the wood to canvas, and the water-based glue size was the key.

The process is nerve-wracking. First, canvas saturated with water-based glue size is laid on the FRONT of the painting. Layers of the canvas are built up, and the whole is allowed to dry. Then the painting is laid face down, and the wood support is carefully planed away from the back until it is a mere film over the original layer of glue size. Water is then carefully applied in sections to dissolve the original glue size and allow remaining wood fibers to be removed. Once the wood is totally gone, the painting is laid on new, sized canvas support and allowed to thoroughly dry. Finally, the canvas on the painting’s face is carefully removed by dissolving its glue sizing. Ugh! The process gives me hives just writing about it.
“The Black Madonna”(”Our Lady of the Pillar”)
1508. (Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France)

Of course, conservators weren’t quite finished with this Madonna. The painting was later removed from the canvas and re-laid on a new wood panel to reflect the original intent.

Folks at Harvard University also sought original intent when it came to restoring a badly-damaged mural by modern master Mark Rothko, but with a far different technique. The mural had suffered extreme fading in a room whose window area exceeded the collective intelligence of those who studied therein, but the remedy was brilliant.

An original panel not included in the final mural was located in storage. It had been painted with the same colors as the mural, but was kept from light. A highly sophisticated program digitized the panel’s colors and, pixel by pixel, the difference between the original colors and the faded paint of the remaining panels was calculated. A low-light projection system compensated for the missing color, allowing viewers to see what was originally intended. All this without any invasive or irreversible conservation technique.

While conservation techniques have advanced light-years since crude attempts were first made a few centuries ago, the ethics of conservation can still be a challenge. The Chartres Cathedral is a case in point. Like many pinnacles of architectural and artistic achievement, the structure was in need of restoration both inside and out. So it was finally restored in a project beginning in 2009. But many did not take kindly to the brutal results. At all. And when the French get mad, it’s never a pretty thing.

The Chartres Cathedral’s poster child of nasty restoration was its “Black Madonna.”  Beloved to parishioners and patrons alike, the wooden sculpture’s patina had darkened the skin tones of Mother and Child to a rich ebony. And then it was restored. A rather low-budget technique used what appears to have been a steel brush and Janitor-in-a-drum. The Madonna is no longer black, and the French are not pleased.

But at least the Chartre Madonna is still recognizable as the Mother of our Lord. It is nearly impossible to do an internet search of painting restoration without stumbling over countless images of the worst restoration fail ever that happened not so long ago in Spain. Unapproved restoration efforts on Elias Garcia Martinez’s fresco of Jesus Christ were attempted by an elderly amateur.  All of the original brush strokes were painted over without a hint of conservation research or artistic talent. Not only is the face of Christ unrecognizable, but the resulting primate is also hysterical.
“Ecce Homo” Elías García Martínez. c. 1930
(Santuario de Misericordia, Borja, Spain)

When you finally stop laughing, please remember that the care of artwork – even those pieces you might have in your home – is serious business. Resist the urge to haul out a jug of 409 all-purpose cleaner when considering that old painting over the fireplace mantel,  and remember: First, do no harm.