Tuesday, May 20, 2014

MWA XXIV: Bronzino's Man

Over the past few years, I have posted news when some major museums began to release images of works of public domain art for free for academic use. Each year the number of institutions is increasing, and the number of high-quality, high-resolution images now available for free for downloading is in the millions, because of these open-access initiatives. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has just announced the release of over 400,000 high-resolution images now available for free as part of their Open Access for Scholarly Content initiative. They join the Getty Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Rijksmuseum, the British Museum, and Yale University in making these images available for non-profit, academic use without charging any fees. This, I can tell you, is an incredible advancement, and makes the work of writers who need images so much easier to be able to discuss works without paying hefty fees. In celebration of the Met's announcement, I decided to share as the May Monthly Work of Art one of my favorite paintings in the European Paintings galleries: Bronzino's Portrait of a Young Man, oil on wood, dated to the 1530s. The elegance of this young man and Bronzino's Manneristic approach in painting his physique, beauty, and self-assurance make him a striking subject. And the odd quirkiness of his lazy eye unsettles you enough to make you question whether it is in fact an abnormality or Bronzino's attempt to fool you into wondering at what or at whom the young man is gazing.

The release of these images means that, for the first time, X-rays and conservation photos will be made available for some works as well. So in looking through images of this painting, one finds a number of technical details that X-rays reveal through the layers of paint. You can see here an X-ray of the painting, and how it shows great differences in the original design of the architectural background. His face also is thinner and more attenuated, and the hand on his hip is posed differently, but this is indeed the same subject. Rather than cite more information about the painting, here is what the curators and conservators have to say about the painting.

"This arresting portrait of an unidentified young Florentine is dated by most scholars to the 1530s. During that decade Bronzino was often engaged in painting members of a close-knit circle of acquaintances with whom he shared literary interests, and this sitter—who so conspicuously holds open a book—may be from among that group. Vasari mentions the names of several of these sitters early in his biography of the artist and it has recently been suggested that this panel may portray Bonaccorso di Pietro Pinadori (born 1502), mentioned by the author alongside Ugolino Martelli and Lorenzo Lenzi, both of whose portraits have been identified (an earlier hypothesis that the picture is a self-portrait has not been taken up in the literature).

"The elegant young man wears a black satin doublet, with fashionably slashed sleeves, over a white camicia with a ruffled collar, and with a brilliant blue belt. Both his hat and the ties supporting his codpiece are decorated with gold aglets, and he wears one ring. He stands between an elaborately decorated table and chair within an architectural setting meant to suggest a Florentine palace. Both pieces of furniture include grotesque masks; that of the remarkable table is stretched as if made of fabric rather than stone. A third "mask" is suggested in an insistent pattern resembling a face within the drapery of the lower part of the costume. The meaning of these grotesque masks is debated; it may be that they are in some way analogous to poetic ideas of the time and refer to identity as a kind of mask. Bronzino was himself a poet. It is clear that they are meant to provide a contrast to the sitter's refined facial features and bearing.

"The numerous and important changes made by the artist as he painted were documented in x-radiographs as early as 1930. These have been clarified, and Bronzino's artistic process further elucidated, through new x-radiography and infrared reflectography of 2009 revealing underdrawing. Most conspicuously, the architectural setting was transformed: initially a straight molding ran at a diagonal behind the sitter (the underdrawing includes a corbel below that visible now at the left to coincide with this first idea for the setting). Two types of underdrawing have been revealed. The more unusual was done, probably with the butt end of a brush, directly into the panel's thick white imprimitura, or preparation layer. It was used vigorously to describe the draped grotesque mask at the left, outlining contours but also indicating shadows with diagonal hatching. Many of the artist's original compositional ideas are indicated in this type of drawing (these can be seen as well in the x-radiograph): they include the first position of the proper right hand and book, with the hand in stricter profile and the book shown with its spine facing the viewer and covers splayed; the placement of the proper left hand with the thumb tucked behind the waist; different contours of the sleeves, collar, and cuffs of the costume; and an elaboration in the area of the codpiece, into which an article of clothing—almost certainly gloves—was originally tucked. More traditional underdrawing in black chalk or charcoal and carbon-based ink or paint applied with a brush is found throughout the head and the hands. As seen in the x-radiograph as well, drawing of the head shows its initial shape to have been much narrower but with the features identically placed (dispelling the possibility that the final version is of a second sitter). The x-radiograph also indicates changes in the furniture at right that are not easily decipherable. Because of the extent of these changes, it has sometimes been speculated that the painting was begun at one time and then finished later—perhaps years later."

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

AAMG in Seattle

I'm heading to Seattle, Washington for the weekend for the 2014 Association of Academic Museums & Galleries (AAMG) annual conference. It will be the first time I've ever attended this conference. Fortunately, I will know at least one person who is going. AAMG is a somewhat of an off-shoot of the American Alliance for Museums (AAM), and their annual conference with a big expo starts right after AAMG, but I actually have to miss that part of things to get back to work, which is a little disappointing. The AAMG conference seems interesting, with sessions on museum education for undergraduates and the role of visual literacy in writing about art as just two examples. I'm also attending an intensive "Bootcamp for Academic Museums" workshop on Sunday morning, for which I actually have homework to do! I haven't been to Seattle since 1997, when I attended the Special Libraries Association conference, and I enjoyed the visit then, so I'm looking forward to strolling through Pike Place Market along the waterfront, checking out the Seattle Art Museum and its Olympic Sculpture Park, and maybe even climb the Space Needle (even if it is a bit of a kitschy thing to do). The crazy thing is that this is a marathon visit--60 hours! And then I fly back in NYC for a work event. Yes, sometimes I am a little nutty.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

SECAC 2014

I received word over the weekend that my proposal was accepted to give a paper at the 2014 Southeastern College Art Conference (SECAC), which will be held in Sarasota, FL this coming October. Although it is an independent organization, SECAC is often seen as an off-shoot of the College Art Association (CAA), at which I have spoken before, but this will be my first SECAC paper. I've heard from colleagues that this conference is often eagerly attended by art historians working in the Southeast who often don't have the opportunity to travel to larger conferences. As a result, the conference is considered more collegial, with a warmer, more encouraging reception to presentations than one often gets from the CAA crowd  of highly-competitive academics. SECAC seems to draw a number of colleagues that I know rather well, professionally and personally, so I will be among a number of friends when I'm there in October. (Conveniently, I also will be near the Padre and la famiglia in St. Petersburg so I will also go for a visit to see them as well.)

I am part of the panel session entitled "The Color of Sculpture," discussing the revitalization and different applications of polychromy in sculpture during the 19th and 20th centuries. Two of my CUNY Graduate Center colleagues are also on the same panel, so that was a nice surprise. The image you see here is a photograph I took a few years ago showing a close-up of the Tinted Venus, 1851-53, by John Gibson, at the Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool, which will be the subject of my talk. The statue is installed in a glass-walled tempietto, hence the off sheen seen in the photograph. Here is the brief proposal that I submitted.

Tinting Venus: John Gibson and Polychrome Sculpture, from the Studio to the Fair
by Roberto C. Ferrari, Columbia University

Art history has both credited and derided the British sculptor John Gibson for the reintroduction of polychrome sculpture in the nineteenth century. The display of his Tinted Venus at the 1862 International Exhibition in London is seen by most as the highlight and death knell of his career. Perceiving Gibson as a Victorian Pygmalion, critics and scholars—then and now—claim he tinted his statue to make marble appear like flesh. In fact, this is but one of a number of erroneous misconceptions about his Tinted Venus and other polychrome works. Rather, Gibson’s intent was to introduce an ancient Greco-Roman decorative practice, reinvented for a modern audience.

This paper will redress art history’s misconceptions about Gibson and his polychrome sculpture. Among the areas to be discussed will be his sources of inspiration, his studio practice, and the display of the Tinted Venus in Rome long before its premiere in London. This paper also will consider the surprising number of positive reviews that this statue received at the time. Gibson’s experiment was certainly polarizing, but only by correcting assumptions about his practice can art historians today better understand his important role in the history of polychrome sculpture.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Meera Thompson Returns

Regular followers of bklynbiblio may recall my posts on the art of Meera Thompson, first mentioned here and then here, followed by our collaborative video production with Anna Fahr two years ago (a project of which I am still quite proud). Meera has a new exhibition opening this week at the Atlantic Gallery entitled "The Landscape Listens," premiering new works in watercolor and gouache on hand-made paper. You can take a sneak peak of the exhibition by going to her website here. The work you see above is entitled Prelude and is one of the many pieces in the exhibition that immediately suggest to me music. A "prelude" is a brief composition, but in this case Claude Debussy's Impressionistic Prelude to the Afternoon of the Faun seems an appropriate analogy to the complexities of color and atmospheric moods that permeate this work.

I will be giving a gallery lecture this Friday afternoon about her work to her students and other invited artists. I know I will be speaking about the musical connections mentioned above, but more importantly I will be talking about synesthesia, the way one sense can respond to a stimulus applied to a different sense. For instance, one hears a piece of music and it conjures an image of colors or a physical sensation in one's hands. Meera uses the title of her exhibition as a form of synesthesia itself, referencing the poetry of Emily Dickinson, who was a master at blending sensations using words that can conjure images and make you hear sounds. I could go on and say more, but I will reserve those thoughts for the talk on Friday. If you're in the NYC area and want to stop by, feel free to do so, or at the very least visit Meera's exhibition and see her beautiful paintings in person. The Atlantic Gallery is located at 548 W. 28th St., Suite 540, in Chelsea.