Of Light, Shadow, and Context

I recently read some of my poems at The Writer’s Studio monthly reading series at Cottage Bistro.

One was about an artwork the Artist and I stared at the longest out of all the art we saw on our Europe trip last fall: The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio in San Luigi dei Francesi, a Catholic church in Rome decorated in the ornate Baroque style.

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At the reading, I mentioned how we typically enjoyed the experience of seeing art in churches more than in museums and galleries for a couple reasons: 1) churches were often less crowded 2) there’s something significant about seeing art in the context it was made for.

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Take Caravaggio’s painting above. The Calling of Saint Matthew is one of three paintings Caravaggio was commissioned to make for a chapel, off to the left side of the nave, dedicated to the disciple. A dramatic swath of light cuts across the canvas, mimicking the way the natural light from the chapel falls on his painting—something Caravaggio was aware of as he was making the work.

Caravaggio’s mastery of chiaroscuro (the effect of contrasted light and shadow) got me noticing dramatic plays of light and shadow across the canvas of Rome.

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I’ve begun thinking about other artworks we saw in churches that wouldn’t be the same if we had seen them on the nondescript walls of a museum or gallery.

The photograph above shows a view of St Peter’s Basilica. Bernini’s soaring four-columned bronze canopy (called a baldachin or, as Rick Steves refers to it, “God’s four-poster bed”) that sits above the altar and below the dome is one such example. As soon as you walk into the massive cathedral, there is so much height and width to feel lost in (it covers 6 acres!) But the relentlessly long nave acts like the shaft of light in Caravaggio’s painting, leading your eye to a focal point.

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This seven-story bronze canopy hovers over the Eucharist table, emphasizing the significance of this sacrament and enveloping it in a kind of “holy space” if you will. You get a sense of how big this sculpture is for it not to look dwarfed in the largest church in the world. The canopy connects the congregants gathering around its base to the dome above, lifting your eyes, as cathedrals brilliantly do, towards heaven. The bronze and gold also draw your eye to Bernini’s similarly coloured sculpture in the apse behind, enshrining the chair of St. Peter and the alabaster dove window that turns natural light into artificial rays of gold.

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The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari was a treasure chest of artworks and our favourite place for viewing art in Venice. The heroic-scale Titian painting behind the altar beckons you closer, the light flooding in from the windows amplifying the light of glory the Virgin is ascending to.

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Titled the Assumption of the Virgin, this artwork is infused with energy and motion. All gestures lead your eye up—from the earthbound apostles with reaching hands to the putti’s arms holding the cloud and to Mary’s raised arms. Notice how the colours do this too. Titian forms the base of a triangle out of the red-clothed apostles on the ground (Peter and John), with Mary in red as the apex, emphasizing her translation from earth to heaven.

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Photo by Didier Descouens from Wikipedia.

Even the shape of the painting, with its rounded top, mimics the choir-screen arch you see when standing in the centre of the nave. So much intentionality. I love this consideration between art and space and wish the experience of stepping into modern churches was as inspiring.

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What art have you seen that wouldn’t be the same in any other space? Maybe you’ve come across it in a church, or maybe it was in a gallery or museum. I’d love to hear!

Finding the Silver Lining in Florence

Florence was our least favourite city visited on our European trip last fall. I say that reluctantly because of its fame and hey, it’s Europe and aren’t all European cities supposed to be charming? But when we divulged this opinion to other travellers near the end of our journey, it turns out we weren’t the only ones.

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View of Brunelleschi’s dome and the terracotta roofs from Giotto’s bell tower

After coming from the delightfully colourful Cinque Terre, we found Florence uniformly dull. Brown as far as the eye can see (except for those hills in the distance). And no green space. I suppose it also didn’t help that Paris was our introduction to Europe where patches of green abounded and the Seine was as animated as a grand boulevard. Hardly anyone walked along the Arno, and it seemed more like a ditch than a river in some places.

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Ponte Vecchio spanning the Arno River. I do love the light in this photograph though.

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Ground and building blend into each other at Pitti Palace. Also, where are the benches?

Negative comments aside, we did enjoy Florence for its art (and gelato). This is the place to see Renaissance art. I’ll highlight a few works we stared at for awhile.

Michelangelo’s Deposition (or Florentine Pietà)

Florence is a crowded mid-sized city. We noticed the tourists here more than anywhere else on our trip. So when we had almost ten minutes alone with this sculpture in the Duomo Cathedral Museum, it felt nothing short of miraculous. Depicting Jesus’ removal from the cross, Michelangelo’s figures encircle Jesus’ limp body slumping towards earth—the pained Virgin Mary on his left, a mysterious-looking figure above (believed to be Nicodemus), and a very dwarfed Mary Magdalene on Jesus’ right. All four figures look a different direction, in their own worlds with grief, yet your eye tends to circle the group counter-clockwise, starting in the middle with Jesus’ serpentine form. The work is captivating in its gravity, how three figures struggle to support the weight of a dead body. Interesting to note is that Michelangelo is said to have carved his own features into the face of the hooded man. This was his final sculpture, and he never finished it.

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Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise

Ghiberti’s bronze doors for the Baptistery of the Duomo Cathedral formally launched the Renaissance in Italy. They were so popular he was commissioned to create this second set depicting scenes from the Old Testament. The originals are in the Duomo Cathedral Museum. We had great fun studying and guessing, along with another keen tourist, which story each panel depicted. I love how Ghiberti packed so many narrative details into the tiny frames, showing off the new technique of linear perspective developed by Brunelleschi and employed by Masaccio. For example, look at the depth of the space in the bottom left panel, showing Isaac blessing his younger son Jacob.

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A replica of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise on the east doors of the Baptistery

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Ghiberti’s original two sets of bronze doors in the Duomo Cathedral Museum

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The Baptistery with Giotto’s Bell Tower on the right in the background

Michelangelo’s David

He’s situated like the bride at the end of a church aisle. I felt so much expectation walking towards him, and for good reason. Everything about this sculpture is big and invites a full walk-around: What’s that expression in his eyes? Is this before or after the battle with Goliath? How does that sling work? This masterpiece is the reason to go to the Accademia Gallery.

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Fra Angelico’s Annunciation

We saw many Annunciation paintings on our trip. This is one of my favourites because of its simplicity and how the artist, a Dominican friar, situated the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel in a vaulted space very similar to the architecture of the convent he lived in—San Marco. No gilded hall pregnant with symbols, just a bare room emphasizing Mary’s ordinariness. The figures mirror each other in terms of their folded hands and bent torsos, a posture of divine submission. In religious communities, artwork like this aimed to enhance a life of prayer and contemplation for the friars. There’s also something special about seeing artwork in the location it was made for (usually a church or in this case, a convent) and beats the walls of a museum almost anytime.

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This work is the first thing you notice when you enter the dormitory of San Marco

More artwork to come in another post. Have you been to Florence? How did it rank in your books?

Charmed by Onegin

In the opening song in the musical Onegin, the actors sing, “We hope to please, we hope to charm, we hope to break you open.”

There is plenty of all three. I left the Surrey Arts Centre feeling like Onegin was everything I didn’t know I wanted in a play.

It’s Russia in the 19th century. Handsome rogue Evgeni Onegin returns to St. Petersburg to inherit an estate after the passing of his uncle and his parents. He visits his neighbours, the Larins, upon the encouragement of his friend Vladmir Lensky who is dating Olga, the younger Larin daughter. The older daughter Tatyana immediately falls for Onegin, hoping for someone to see her the way she has seen the world through the many books she reads.

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Onegin played by Jonathan Winsby. Photo by Arts Club Theatre.

It’s not often a play comes along that feels so original. But it’s not original in content. There’s unrequited love. There’s a dual ending in death (foreshadowed in the opening number). There are missed chances and irrevocable decisions. Nothing too out of the ordinary, especially for a Russian play inspired by Pushkin’s verse novel and Tchaikovsky’s opera.

What was original is the way the story was told, written by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille who updated it for the 21st century. There’s a stage of characters dressed in period costumes, writing letters and riding horse and buggy, and then along comes a line in Onegin’s song “Three Horses” introducing us to his history, mystery, and apathy: “Where are my back-up singers?” who go on to croon, “He’s fuckin’ gorgeous.” Despite his good looks, wealth, and charm, you get the sense Onegin’s a lonely, unhappy man who, in his own words, “doesn’t care” and even asks the audience, “Am I someone you want to know?”

It’s that mix of traditional and contemporary that makes the play so striking. Integral to the story is the music. Three musicians are on stage the whole time (Jennifer Moersch on cello, Marguerite Witvoet on piano, and Barry Mirochnick on percussion and guitar). Songs that you hear in the first act are echoed in the second, sometimes sung by different characters, adding layers of meaning. And then multiple characters will sing pieces of former songs over each other within a new song and it’s all woven together so seamlessly, a fugue you don’t want to reach the end of. “Good Evening, Bonne Soirée” stood out as the epitome of this overlapping.

The songs fit the story so well, but they also fit our times. They are honest about love and mortality, malaise and meaning. Tatyana’s “Let Me Die” is a powerful ballad featuring an electric guitar that ends with the request, “Let me live before I die.” Onegin will sing this line later on and it is entirely transformed because of the action that’s happened in between.

Another flip is when Tatyana sings Onegin’s line back to him after the tragic duel: “You don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care.” This repetition could easily become overdone, but each “you don’t care” is delivered by Lauren Jackson with such sincerity and a slightly different register of disappointment/anger, that it actually works and feels truer to speech.

The last song between Tatyana and Onegin was perfection. The physical distance between the characters on stage paralleled the gap in their stories, how long it had been since they last saw each other and the things left unsaid. I’ve never experienced negative space on stage became so activated with meaning.

Because of all the intertwined layers, Onegin is a play you could easily see again to catch all the references made in the opening that only come to light in the second act.

Compared to the long introduction, the ending is quick, almost abrupt. But after two hours, the love story has been told and in such an unforgettable way.

Onegin is running until March 3 at Surrey Arts Centre.

 

In Monet’s Secret Garden Part 2

You may remember Part 1 when Monet came to the VAG in summer. Last month I had the delight of walking through his gardens in Giverny.

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It was a crisp and beautiful October day. As much as I loved Paris, getting outside of it to experience the French countryside was time well spent. The Artist and I arrived by train in the town of Vernon where shuttle buses are waiting to take loads of tourists to Monet’s house and gardens in the nearby and much smaller town of Giverny.

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We hopped on the first “shuttle” we saw (Le Petit Train Givernon), which was actually a rickety open air train that came with a pre-recorded tour of sites along the way from Vernon to Giverny—a nice bonus. We loved it!

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Looking back through my Europe photos, this was the day of brightest colours. I’ve been telling people since I’ve been home that Europe doesn’t have the vibrant fall hues like Vancouver has (particularly the reds), but lo and behold, we did see red!

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Monet is famous for painting outside but he also had a studio in his house, which looks more like a living room. My artist-husband was jealous of all that light. You can see Monet’s love for colour even on the exterior. When you do step through the front door, you notice each room is painted a different colour. My favourite was the yellow kitchen.

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Touring Monet’s house doesn’t take long so we spent most of our time wandering under arches and walking down aisles of geraniums, roses, daisies, sunflowers, and other flora I don’t know the name of. What a visual feast! I could see why Monet wanted to spend the last part of his life here.

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Imagine having this pond in your backyard! There are actually two green Japanese footbridges at either end. I also saw some dilapidated wooden boats and pictured Monet sitting in one, transcribing light onto canvas to come up with these masterpieces on display in Musée de l’Orangerie.

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Giverny is basically a one-street town. At the far end of the main road is the church where Monet is buried, along with his family.

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This view capped off a peaceful day spent in the place that brought Monet such joy.

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If you’d like to know more about Monet’s gardens and who tends them now, read this fantastic article.

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In Monet’s Secret Garden Part 1

He’s arguably the best known painter in the world. His scenes of nature and Parisian life grace calendars, purses, notebooks, umbrellas, teapots, and even socks (check the VAG gift shop).

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Of course I’m talking about Claude Monet (1840-1926), the French Impressionist painter who influenced the course of modern art with his unconventional techniques. He painted outside (which wasn’t done at the time), and his quick, loose brushwork aimed to capture an impression of something, not the thing itself (hence the label Impressionist, which was first used by critics in a derogatory sense).

The Vancouver Art Gallery is currently showing 38 of Monet’s works from the Musée Marmottan in Paris. In an interview with the CBC, the exhibition’s curator Marianne Matthieu says:

[Guests] have to visit this exhibition as if they were an invited guest of Monet. All the paintings have been selected personally by Monet [while he was alive] to describe his career, his life.

I visited the VAG last Tuesday evening (when admission is by donation) along with everyone else in Vancouver, so it seemed.

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The exhibit takes you chronologically through Monet’s work, beginning with some scenes with figures in them before the majority focuses all on nature.

I liked knowing Monet picked these works out himself. It made me wonder, Why this one? What did he like about it? What did he achieve with this one?

I enjoyed seeing paintings of his I had never come across in other galleries or books:

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Claude Monet, Le chatêau de Dolceacqua, 1884, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

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Claude Monet, Vétheuil in the Fog, 1879, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

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The picture does not do this piece justice.

Monet painted the same scene many times, in different seasons and different times of the day to study the effect of light on a subject. Light was his subject.

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Claude Monet, La Seine à Port-Villez, effet rose, 1894, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

The two below were the only figurative works included. You can see the loose Impressionist style best by looking at the undefined faces. And the little boy practically blends in with the flowers.

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Claude Monet, En promenade près d’Argenteuil, 1875, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

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Claude Monet, Sur la plage de Trouville, 1870–71, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

The didactic panel for the image above talks about how sand was lodged in some of Monet’s canvasses because he painted these beach scenes outside. Talk about the nitty gritty.

I had assumed there would be more water lily paintings given the title is Secret Garden and Monet’s gardens in Giverny are synonymous with his grand, rectangular water lily paintings. This was the most “quintessential” one shown at the VAG, with the characteristic pastel blues, pinks, and purples:

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Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1903, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

There were also these two beautiful wisteria panels hung to mimic the oval rooms at Musée de L’Orangerie where Monet’s famous water lilies live.

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But there were other paintings that were darker and challenged what I thought I knew about the painter.

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Monet devoted the last two decades of his life to painting and cultivating his gardens in Giverny, a work of art in themselves. After touring the exhibition, I was surprised Monet chose so many of these works to depict his career  when he has hundreds of others to choose from. But perhaps these works came closest to communicating his artistic vision?

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Claude Monet, Le Pont japonais, 1918-24, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

In 1902, Monet was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes, and his works during his later years became increasingly abstract and darker. Notice also how much of the blank canvas he lets show through. The curator’s remarks accompanying this room below suggest the anguish and grief of WWI seeped into Monet’s canvasses, particularly his weeping willow series.

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Claude Monet, Saule pleureur, 1918-19, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

After all this heaviness and twisty contortions, Monet’s very last work closes the exhibition, returning to the light and soft palette that infused his earlier work (albeit looking unfinished). I thought it was a perfect farewell.

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Claude Monet, Les Roses, 1925-26, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

Seeing these works has only increased my anticipation of setting foot in Monet’s gardens this fall and immersing myself in his inspiration.

I highly recommend you take in this exhibit at the VAG before it closes October 1!

The Conditional Figure

I had just heard Said the Whale talk about their new album As Long As Your Eyes Are Wide at CBC’s Musical Nooners. Stephen Quinn asked frontman Tyler Bancroft about the inspiration behind this noticeably darker album that deals with the deaths of friends, neighbours, and babies. Tyler said something like, “After turning 30, life gets a lot more difficult. There are many beautiful things too, but it comes with a bunch of rough stuff.”

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As a recent 30-year-old, this concert me in a contemplative mood as I wandered downtown on my way to the HSBC building to see David Robinson‘s sculptures at the Pendulum Gallery.

I had seen Robinson’s work previously—in his Parker Street studio during the Eastside Culture Crawl and at Regent College.

The works command attention in the high-ceilinged, glass-covered atrium, as if the lines and angles of his sculptures play off the architecture.

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There is usually an element of tension in his works, whether it be balancing precariously while blindfolded, falling out of a safety net, or pushing and pulling against larger-than-life forces.

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David Robinson, Chair (2013), mixed media. 67 x 33 x 74 inches.

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David Robinson, Draped Figure (2009), paper, resin, 31 x 44 x 15 inches.

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David Robinson, Dead Reckoning (2017), ed. 5. Sitka spruce, Baltic birch, polymer-gypsum, bronze, 96 x 64 x 11 inches.

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David Robinson, Departure (2015), bronze/Douglas fir, 27 x 33 x 9 inches.

The way curator Chris Keatley wrote about this exhibit, aptly named The Conditional Figure, seemed to piggyback on what Said the Whale had just talked about.

This exhibition presents large-scale sculptural works that consider the figure as a conditional entity, created to exist in a dynamic, rather than a static state. Figures are split and penetrated, surfaces are textured and rough. The idea of the unassailable body, strong, solid and resolute, is brought into question, bringing forward the view of ourselves as systems in flux, constantly changing and evolving in time and space. In some works, the figures themselves retain a solidity of form, and it is their extended bodies – boats, planes, wings, ladders etc. – that suggest the fragile nature of both structures and beliefs in which we wrap ourselves.

How has my view of self changed as I’ve aged? What do other people see and what do I see when I look in the mirror? Has the blindfold come off? Am I as secure as I think I am? Am I paddling alone? Against the current? What load am I pulling?

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David Robinson, Binary Vision (2003), ed. 6, polymer-gypsum, glass steel, 90.5 x 45 x 20.5 inches.

I view David Robinson’s sculptures as poetry in space. They ask the tough questions about existence. The vast white walls serving as the background to many of the works create breathing room to consider these questions in a gentle, unhurried way that almost feels too bare.

This exhibit complemented the permanent public artwork in the atrium by Alan Storey I’ve been meaning to see for a while now. Talk about balance and tension. This 1600 kg aluminum pendulum swings back and forth from the roof about 6 metres out, aligning with its base briefly before departing again.

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If you’re downtown, I highly recommend you see Robinson’s exhibit before it closes today!