Category Archives: Sixteenth-Century

Three hundred and sixty

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Bags Waiting, Night

2014 by Mairead O’hEocha
mother’s tankstation, Dublin (seen at Frieze London 2014)

mother’s tankstation – near the Guinness factory in Dublin – had a great stand at Frieze London 2014. Centred by Ara Dymond’s surrealist looking sculptures – organic-like forms that hang angularly, they are in fact ‘hoodies’ dipped in resin – the walls were lined with the paintings of Mairead O’hEocha, inviting our eyes into her mysterious and painterly way of seeing. O’hEocha appears to translate reality through the process of painting, casting objects or shapes with an angular stroke of a brush. They are not impressionistic flutterings but geometric interpretations, where something as collapsable as a soft bag is transformed into a pile of angular shapes. This unfolding of the world in shape gives a great sense of depth and perspective to O’hEocha’s paintings that, though small in size, hold our gaze. Alhough they are sharply angled, O’hEocha’s paintings are far from strictly graphic, as her lines are interspersed with colour so textured we see the melting of tones through the ripple of hairs on the brush. This pattern of block colour and textured brush strokes gives the painting itself a changing surface, with subjects appearing in a melody of emphasis. In Bags Waiting, Night the bags appear waiting in a line, their shadows cast in colourful shapes that creep across the floor. A blur of lights in the dark is caught in the mustard yellow stroke across the enveloping black of background; a scattering of marbled brush strokes its reflections caught in the night. The angle of the little bird is triumphant; perched and raising its breast, its presence is touching in O’hEocha’s otherwise industrial – perhaps edging on bleak – scene. O’hEocha’s quiet palette of soft pastel colours gives her painting an integrity – a subtly muted and thoughtful portrayal of the world.

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Three hundred and forty nine

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Mars and Venus United by Love

1570-5 by Paulo Veronese
Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice, National Gallery

The National Gallery’s Veronese exhibition enveloped one sumptuously. The walls were thick with work – with portraits of Venetian gentry, angels and allegories, and figures of both myth and religion. The driving forces of Renaissance imagination are all explored here, the stories and symbolism that artists desperately reinvented for their possibilities of beauty. And the paintings are beautiful, over-powering in both size and detail, illuminated with the wealth of colour – cascading and luxurious in folds of material, sensually soft in the blushes of skin. While some of Veronese’s work lacks the depth and richness of Titian, for example, the exhibition plunged us so deep into the mind of the Venetian sixteenth-century we hardly noticed. We are surrounded, pulled through each room picture by picture; any exhibition text was happily infrequent and subtle, the work giving us enough narrative on which to contemplate. Mars and Venus United by Love is one of three paintings that depict the iconic couple, and it is a treat to compare all three. Here, Mars pulls a navy night-like shroud across Venus’s dignity, yet her abundant body, fleshy and milky pink, triumphantly glows out from the burnt yellow light that ignites the rest of the painting. Mars’ armour is warm with gold, echoed in the trees that bend over, bowing in respect it seems, to the happy union. The foliage itself appears magical; when nature creeps into Veronese’s work it is celebrated, something we also see in The Rest of the Flight into Egypt, where the tree that reaches above the resting party is wildly lush and exotically green. The faces of Veronese’s Gods are far from omnipotent; they are human-like, empathetic, gazing kindly down to the putto that holds Venus’ leg. Veronese allows us to identify so with many of his protagonists in this way, their faces betraying emotion that reminds us of our own. That is magnificence indeed.

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Two hundred and ninety nine

Tall Grass

1503 by Albrecht Dürer
Albertina, Vienna

German born Dürer has been hailed as one of the greatest artists of the Northern Renaissance. His works are widely celebrated, but perhaps the most interesting element to Dürer is the sheer range in both subject and medium. A remarkable collection of his work has stood the test of time, from large religious paintings to woodcuts, and of everything from self-portraits to animal studies. Being able to see such a breadth of Dürer’s work allows an insight into his passion for both observation and imagination. He not only creates the visions of his mind, but documents the images of reality as we see here. Those of you who saw Lucien Freud: Painted Life on the BBC will remember that Freud himself had this image on the wall of his studio as an example of pure observation. Like Freud, who would return to the clarity of observational painting from the painterly, we must assume that Dürer liked to flit between styles, and why should one not. Many of the greatest painters did so; just look at Picasso — see 67, 109, 171. It isn’t hard to see why Freud had this image on his wall, as the crisp rhetoric of fine needles of grass topped with soft clusters of seeds, emerging from glassy waters, is comforting in its detail of familiarity. Watching plants reach upward for the light of the sun is an art tinted with the happy naturalism of Romanticism. The greens, gently ranging from the dark to the light, embody the freshness of organic growth; the water and its reflections demonstrate the true beauty of nature; and the dandelion heads waver with the energy of life. Watching the world so closely as to remember it visually is a talent, yet to recreate it to last hundreds of years is another thing entirely.

 

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Two hundred and three

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leciester

c.1560-5 attributed to Steven Van Der Maeulen
The Wallace Collection

The Wallace Collection is pleasingly hidden away from the London tourist crowds, a welcome break from viewing historical art through throngs of people. The collection is also laid out in the old style, throughout a house rather than regimented in galleries, so one is free to wander through the ornate and elaborately decorated rooms taking in the surroundings as much as the art itself. Robert Dudley is certainly one of the most arresting paintings in the collection, set off by his almost celebrity-like status even now, notorious for his rumoured romance with Elizabeth I. The portrait carries this air extremely well, possessing an element of realism so often lacking in the Dutch portraiture style which usually appears rather two-dimensional. Here Dudley’s face is beautifully executed; subtly formed, paint summons this face with effortless precision, brush stokes barely showing and colour blended to skin perfecty. The lightened face, the piercing yet inquisitive stare, is almost Italian stylistically in its expression of emotion. This portrait appears to be in a different league than Van Der Maeulen’s others; if indeed it is Van Der Maeulen, a question probed by a recently discovered will due to the stated date of death. The flatter, more dull, way of painting is returned to in Dudley’s clothing, though painted in exquisite detail, and his hands, which are drawn rather childishly in comparison to the head. The power of this portrait is in the face, as in Neel’s postcard yesterday (202), creating a lasting impression through a profile, introducing us to the character of the picture.

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One hundred and twenty seven

Mary Magdalene

c.1577 by El Greco
Szepmuveszeti Muzeum, Budapest

The paintings of El Greco, ‘the Greek’, are fascinating to examine alongside his contemporaries. His angular shapes, muted but expressive colour, and experimental style trick us into thinking we are looking at a painting from much later. His paintings have a drama of theatrical lighting and pale skin that is premeditative of Gainsborough. Turning to the side, as Gainsborough has so many of his sitters do, Mary’s skin pallor is as ghostly as Gainsborough’s high society. Yet El Greco’s figures have none of Gainsborough’s simpering delicacy, his Mary has a strong full face that absorbs us as we attach it to her narrative; it provides a personality. El Greco’s Mary is beautiful because she is real, with wide and honest eyes that seem to express and tell of both her woes and absolution. The way El Greco builds his figures is different too — Mary’s neck, shoulders and hands are broad and smooth; El Greco does not try and embellish her skin with fleshy tones, but leaves us to enjoy these limbs for their strength and simplicity. Taken further perhaps El Greco would have begun to break his depictions down even more, becoming Picasso-like in his figurative painting; indeed, his background seems to echo that of the Cubists. The colours used also likens El Greco to this unlikely group of painters. Such muted and rich blues paired with white and brown summon comparisons with the like of Picasso’s Dryad (postcard 67), where paint builds and merges in a similar way, the brown serving to ground in the earth and reality. There is the freedom of later compositional traits in El Greco’s work, where paint and subject seem to flow and move about the canvas; he paints under no restraint. Yet, like a Cubist, El Greco tightens his detail when he feels he needs to — in the shadows that define the significant elegance of Mary’s hands and the deathly symbol of the skull. The small trail of plant that crawls up the side of the canvas too is crispy executed, defining these unexplained dark leaves that juxtapose the painterly cascades behind them. There is a spontaneity to El Greco’s paintings that leaves his contemporaries behind; both subject and style seem to leap with a passion that pushes and contracts against the molds of his time.

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One hundred and seventeen

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Studies for the Libyan Sibyl

1508-12 by Michelangelo Buonarroti
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This preparatory drawing was for the Libyan Sibyl, one of the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Phemonoe, the Libyan Sibyl, was the prophetic love child of Zeus and Lamia, a Libyan queen, and tales tell of her chanting oracles. It is interesting that Michelangelo has used a male model to draw his studies for a portrayal of a female, telling perhaps of what was appropriate when it came to life drawing in the sixteenth-century. The idea that someone would study the body of man in detail, only to turn him into the figure of a woman (with an un-provocative agenda) is now slightly absurd, especially in light of this figure’s muscular definition. However, Michelangelo draws in the wake of the many Roman sculptures that approached their bodily depiction as such; women were often as muscular as the men. There is something to be said about the strength demonstrated in the deep contours of this figure’s muscular tone; not only illustrative of power and might, this drawing is also a celebration of man’s potential, the natural beauty of what a body can become through perseverance. This is particularly appropriate in a depiction of a God; it is only right that this mythical creature’s supremacy of mind is reflected in her outward depiction. Of course the exposing of natural beauty’s potential is as much down to Michelangelo’s mindset of painting as any reality of rippling of muscle. Such delicacy in execution, such soft and subtle shading and the precise perspective on details such as the hands and feet, contribute to the quiet magnitude this drawing possesses.

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One hundred and eight

Samson Slaying a Philistine

c1562 by Giovanni Bologna
Victoria & Albert Museum

Bologna’s sculpture is one of the many spectacular works of art now on show in the V&A’s new Medieval and Renaissance galleries. Curated with intrigue and precision, the new rooms are an overwhelming success; they are fascinating to wander through, the displays of art ranging widely, from armour and tapestry to the installation of the magnificent fifteenth-century Santa Chiara Chapel. Florentine art features throughout the exhibition; though Bologna was originally from Belgium, he was highly influenced by Michelangelo’s work and moved to Florence to work. Samson Slaying a Philistine is a wonderfully dramatic piece; full of movement it freezes Samson mid-blow as he brings down an ass’s jawbone, what legend tells he killed a whole army of Philistines with, on the recoiling man below. The power of this lifted arm, paired with the tensed other that tightly grips, makes Samson’s God-like strength immediately apparent; his rippling torso a stronghold for his towering stance. The cowering Philistine is awkwardly twisted in comparison, pulled back brutally, yet creating a pose that is strangely beautiful. He is contorted, made to be weak with the ease of his possession, but curling in a pose that demonstrates the natural curve and agility of the human body. The manipulation of these bodies is what gives this statue its awesome presence, they are filled with such movement; indeed, the bodies seem to move as one walks round, the pose changing from the different angles of viewpoint.

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