Frederic Lord Leighton – Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna

Today sees the return of our occasional series featuring some of the finest pictures in London’s National Gallery, as Nige admires a vast procession…

Norbiton Toby’s reflections on processions brought to mind a National Treasure that has so far escaped the attention of Dabblers – Frederic Lord Leighton’s Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence. This vast work – a full 17ft by 7ft – is a bravura showpiece designed by the ambitious young artist to show what he was capable of (and perhaps to hint that more works of art – Leightons, say – should be treated thus triumphantly in a rightly ordered society). Painted over three years, it was shown at the Academy in 1855, and Queen Victoria was so impressed that she bought it on the opening day for 600 guineas. In her diary she wrote:

There was a very big picture by a man called Leighton. It is a beautiful painting, quite reminding one of a Paul Veronese, so bright and full of light. Albert was enchanted with it – so much so that he made me buy it.

Bright and full of light it is indeed, though Veronese would have given the subject a softer, more sumptuous, less Pre-Raphaelite treatment. It takes its subject from a passage in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists:

After his return to Florence he [Cimabue] made for the church of S. Maria Novella a picture of our Lady, which work was of larger size than those that had been made before that time, and the angels that stand round, although they are in the Greek manner, yet show something of the modern style. Therefore this work caused such marvel to the people of that time, never having seen a better, that it was borne in solemn procession with trumpets and great rejoicing from the house of Cimabue to the church, and he himself received great honours and rewards. It is said, and you may read it in certain records of old pictures, that while Cimabue was painting this picture, King Charles of Anjou passed through Florence, and among other entertainments provided for him by the people of the city, they took him to see Cimabue’s picture; and as no one had seen it before it was shown to the king, there was a great concourse of all the men and women of Florence to see it, with the greatest rejoicing and running together in the world. From the gladness of the whole  neighbourhood that part was called Borgo Allegri, the Joyful Quarter, and though it is now within the walls of the city, it has always preserved the same name.

The personages depicted include Cimabue himself in a laurel crown, with his young pupil Giotto; various other Florentine artists; Charles of Anjou, on horseback; and Dante looking on, extreme right. The painting being carried in procession is the Madonna known as the Rucellai Madonna (now in the Uffizi) – which in 1889 was found to be incontrovertibly the work not of Cimabue but of Duccio.

But never mind – Leighton’s is a grand painting, executed with terrific verve and technical skill (Leighton had his limitations as a painter, but none of them was technical). Such is its size that it hangs not in any of the National’s galleries but over the grand staircase – look up on your way out and there it is, still ‘bright and full of light’.

Investing in History: Sands Films Studio Share Offer

If you are looking for something to do on a Saturday between now and the end of the month, I can recommend a visit to Sands Films Studio in Rotherhithe. Go along for tea and cake at 4.0 pm, followed by a tour of the premises and a screening of the film, Anonymous, for which Sands Films made the Oscar nominated costumes.

Whichever part of the country you’re coming from, you are likely to get some great views of the Shard on the way. And if you’re not up to splashing out your life savings, or lottery winnings, on a f**k off apartment overlooking the whole of London, then a much more affordable (and generously tax deductible) investment may be of interest…

It’s not only philanthropic types who are rushing to snap up shares in the EIS (Enterprise Investment Scheme) set up by Sands’ managing director, Olivier Stockman, to purchase the home of the film production studios, set making, theatrical costumiers and dress hire facility.

Investors with as little as £500 to spare are invited to share in the ownership of a jewel in our British film industry’s heritage. The 19th century warehouses, (solid brick-fashioned buildings with venerable old beams), which the company has occupied since 1975, also house a wealth of educational resources known as the Rotherhithe Picture Research Library, in addition to a cosy arthouse cinema club.

Other delights just a stone’s throw away include the Brunel Museum and the Mayflower pub, with a terrace that offers stunning views over one of the widest City stretches of the River Thames (especially formidable at high tide). There’s also the award winning Simplicity restaurant – romantically candlelit at night.

Incidentally, this just happens to look out onto a piece de resistance of historical architecture –  St Mary the Virgin Church, built in 1716 by an associate of Sir Christopher Wren.

The church’s website explains that, “memorials inside and outside the building tell of the vision and philanthropy of former worshippers, of sacrifice, and of faith in times of suffering and adversity.” Something worth considering at this time, when so much of our history is being lost to shortsighted materialism.

The Sands Films Studio share offer is open until 2nd April, 2012.


Hieronymus Bosch – Christ Mocked (The Crowning of Thorns)

Continuing our occasional series featuring some of the finest pictures in London’s National Gallery, Gaw looks at a crucifixion scene that’s unusually troubling even for this genre…

The current work-in-progress of Mark Alexander, a painter and friend of The Dabbler, is inspired by Christ Mocked (The Crowning by Thorns) by Hieronymus Bosch. He urged me to have a good look at it as he found it had an uncomfortable power. I took his advice and since then I haven’t been able to stop returning to it: it left me feeling uneasy, and puzzled.

Certainly there are some straightforward reasons for this to be an unsettling painting. There’s the portraits of the four mockers, each a disturbing psychological study in variously sadism, pomposity, malice, cynicism, complacency. Together they give an impression of misplaced propriety. They’re what the Viennese call Respektpersonen; men who expect a little deference as their due, communal pillars, even perhaps dignitaries.

Then there’s the gaze of Christ. At first this seems straightforwardly gentle, resigned and compassionate. But there’s something about its fixity, its steadiness as well as the set of the mouth that suggests something more complex: it’s quizzical, perhaps even sardonic.

Combine all of this and one is left squirming. That gaze has put you on the spot. Why are we being quizzed? Is that fleetingly sardonic look actually mocking us?

Despite the ambiguities and subtleties of the psychologies on display here, I, for one, can’t avoid the conclusion that we’re being presented with a challenge, and quite a blunt one: so, what are you going to do about this then, this crime? Nothing? Scared of these men, their authority, are you? But what sort of authority is it that does this? …I think the appropriate phrase is passive aggressive.

But no less aggressive for that. Christ here is clearly the lamb of God, sacrificed for our sins. But Bosch’s skill also has him also portraying another promise:

Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

Matthew 10:34 

The painting is divisive, in fact it demands division: us, the viewers, against them, the mockers. And isn’t it quite a welcome division for the rebel-at-heart? Look at them: they’re the officious bureaucrats, place-holders, brown-nosers, expense cheats, paper-shufflers, vindictive bullies, preening hypocrites, slippery connivers that we all know and resent.

All this done through that gaze.

Bosch painted Christ Mocked some time between 1490 and 1500, just before the dawn of a century and a half of religious conflict. I wonder if it contains both prophecy and provocation.

Veronese – The Family Of Darius Before Alexander

Continuing our occasional series featuring some of the finest pictures in London’s National Gallery, Nige looks at an under-appreciated Venetian master…

These days restfulness and sheer undemanding beauty are not qualities we value very highly in the art of the past, preferring emotion and drama – hence our preference for Caravaggio over, say, Veronese. Yes, Paolo Veronese, the unfashionable, underrated third in the great Venetian trio, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese…

The Veroneses in the National Gallery are among the most restfully beautiful pictures in the collection, and among the most purely pleasurable to the eye. Yet nobody seems to linger long in front of them. The biggest of them is The Family Of Darius Before Alexander, a grand refectory painting depicting an incident after the Battle of Issus, when the family of the conquered Darius pay homage to Alexander – and Darius’s mother mistakenly makes her obeisances to Alexander’s splendidly dressed friend Hephaeston.

Not that it matters – Veronese makes little of the incident itself (in fact it’s not even clear which is Alexander, which Hephaeston), absorbing its drama into the static repose of a frieze-like, flattened composition. This painting is all about beauty – the beauty of the draughtsmanship, the play of light and shade, and, above all, the beauty of the colours. Even among the Venetians, Veronese is the supreme colourist.

The Family Of Darius is not dramatic, not expressive – it is a painting to enjoy, to let the eye roam at leisure over its surface, enjoying the details (the animal life is great value), relishing the colours and textures of flesh and dress and stone. It is beautiful, it is restful, it is staggeringly accomplished.

Next time you’re in the National, seek it out (it’s in Room 9), spend some time with it, enjoy it – you’ll feel better for the experience.

Marinus van Reymerswaele – Two Tax Gatherers

Continuing our series looking at great paintings housed in London’s National Gallery…

Dating from around 1540, this arresting painting depicts an unlovely pair of taxmen, evidently just as popular in 16th century Zeeland (in the Netherlands) as they are everywhere today.

It is agreed to be unlikely that Marinus painted from a real scene: the costumes are ludicrous and the details improbable (the pot containing ink-blotting sand stands on the shelf rather than handily on the table). Instead, it is a satire on covetousness.

The chap on the left, with more than a hint of the Wicked Witch of the West about him, is compiling a list of municipal revenues from imposts on produce (wine, beer and fish are legible) in the town of Reymerswaele, from whence the artist hails.

The one on the right, who could be played by Paul Whitehouse, gropes like Gollum towards the viewer, his face distorted in what looks like a sort of permanently deforming pain. Perhaps it prefigures the eternal torment that awaits him beyond the grave, for his unforgivable sin of collecting monies on behalf of the state and enjoying it.

I like Two Tax Gatherers for the same reason I like Massys’ grotesque Old Woman and Bruegel’s Adoration of the Kings: because I am drawn to well-made ugliness as much as beauty. There’s an uncanny, hyper-real clarity about it that reminds me of Kit Williams’ Masquerade - a book which I would study at length as a child because it was mysterious and disturbing. Several times I have found myself standing in front of Two Tax Gatherers, looking in vain for an elusive hare amongst the papers and candlesticks.

National Treasures: Bellini – Doge Leonardo Loredan

Continuing our series looking at great paintings housed in London’s National Gallery…

Bellini’s Doge Leonardo Loredan is a commanding portrait in two senses: the subject has an unmistakably authoritative presence; and, like the Arnolfini Portrait, the painting hogs viewers’ attention in its room (62, in the Sainsbury Wing).

It has in common with Van Eyk’s masterpiece a convincing depth, the more striking for being surrounded by  ‘flat’ 16th Century contemporaries.  But whereas the Arnolfini couple have a sort of pixie-like charm which raises a smile, there’s a sternness and also a sadness to the Doge’s depth.

Leonardo Loredan (1436-1521) was the Doge (head of state) of the Venetian Republic.  He’s dressed in suitably ridiculous ceremonial gear –  purposefully-roughed paint brings out the gold thread in his frock, and the hat, with its pointy rear, must be amongst the silliest on record, yet there’s a melancholy truth about the man’s gaze which forbids any sniggering.

It’s do with the light. This picture actually adorns the cover of one of the current National Gallery companion guide books (which, considering the choice of more famous paintings, is testament to its power to grab) and the author Erika Langmuir claims that Bellini achieves a “meditation on old age” with Doge Leonardo Loredan.

Her theory, which I will précis, is that by graduating the background blue (getting lighter from top to bottom), Bellini evokes the sky, and by casting the left half of the Doge’s face in shadow Bellini suggests that he is looking into sunlight. Because the sun is low but not yet setting the viewer gets a hint of time passing and this, “combined with Loredan’s aged face, recalls the old comparison between the duration of a day and the span of human life, and the inevitable coming of the night.”

Far be it from me to try to improve on that interpretation. But whether you buy the theory or not, the Doge Leonardo Loredan surely manages something which is, when you think about it, a bit miraculous. We stop and stare at a portrait of a long dead man who means nothing to us; and we think about ourselves and everyone we know and everyone who has ever been. This is what art can do and, at the National, it’s free.

National Treasures: Raphael – The Mond Crucifixion

Continuing our series looking at great paintings housed in London’s National Gallery…

The National Gallery has thirteen Raphaels (if you include the dubious Madonna of the Pinks, recently ‘saved for the nation’). The one that always draws me towards it is the Mond Crucifixion (in Room 8). There’s something about the sheer daunting perfection of mature Raphael that I find faintly alienating, whereas his early work has an inviting freshness and openness.

The Mond Crucifixion is very early, painted under the influence of his master, Perugino – those elegant angels on their tiny clouds could indeed be straight out of one of the National’s Peruginos, The Virgin and Child With Saints Jerome and Francis. But the beauty of the young Raphael’s painting of, in particular, the faces and figures at the foot of the cross, and the glorious, softly lit Umbrian landscape that opens up in the background, suggest that he had already learned all his master had to teach him.

It is the sweetest, serenest crucifixion, with not a hint of anguish – even Christ’s blood is no more than a discreet jet of claret into a waiting chalice. How could there be anything but peace and love under a sky of that heavenly blue?

National Treasures: George Stubbs – Whistlejacket

Continuing our series looking at great paintings housed in London’s National Gallery…

I took my youngest son to the National Gallery last week. As we stood before Stubbs’s Whistlejacket I asked him what he thought: “It’s a bit scary, Daddy”. I could see his point.

Stubbs’s series of paintings depicting a horse being surprised and attacked by a lion (Horse Frightened by a LionA Lion Attacking a Horse) is usually taken as the contemporary demonstration of Burke’s theory of the sublime in art: how witnessing the terrible can produce an ultimately satisfying aesthetic sensation:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.

Despite a hint of nervous fragility and the almost coquettish turn of the head, there’s something of this in Whistlejacket. The lion/horse encounters are the sublime as narrative – it’s thrilling to see, frame by frame, a lion preying on a terrified horse (in fact, this sort of thing is a YouTube favourite). The portrait of Whistlejacket, on the other hand, is more subtly sublime, it shows rather than tells. It’s a purer representation: he’s a thrill in himself.

It also happens to fulfill a couple of Burke’s criteria for the sublime not present in A Lion…: it possesses qualities of vastness and of the infinite. The horse is literally vast, mountainous, at least for a painting (he’s life-size), and he’s placed in infinite space. He’s entire, a stallion rearing alone on an unbounded field of neutral colour; there’s no background, no context, nothing present to distract us and by which he can be diminished.

Another important element: he has no rider. Unlike nearly all representations of rearing horses, from Classical times onwards, there’s no regal personage astride him. He’s literally nature unbridled; the star, not a supporting actor. (Of course, Whistlejacket also happens to be an astonishingly lifelike representation of a horse, from the bulging veins on his muzzle to his feathery tail, but that’s another story).

Incidentally, both Burke and Stubbs found a backer in the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham who, through his sponsorship of these two individuals, has a good claim to be the greatest patron this country has ever seen.

Burke, of course, went from theorising on aesthetics to become the greatest critic of the French Revolution, for him a source not so much of sublime terror as of Terror outright. It’s fitting perhaps that Napoleon, the Revolution’s culmination and nemesis, was portrayed at the height of his powers triumphantly crossing the Alps on a rearing stallion. Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David (below) is painted with the same Romantic intensity as Whistlejacket but with the horse more traditionally mounted by a great man, one who was in the business of mastering Alps and armies, as well as horses.

But then Whistlejacket – and Burke – have the last laugh, I think: after a great deal of rather crazed destructiveness, Napoleon came to a sorry end. Proof that the sublime should be reserved for horses and mountains and suchlike.

Scottish National treasures – Raeburn: The Skating Minister

For a Burns Night special, we take a break from London’s National Gallery and head to Edinburgh in our series looking at artistic national treasures…

The Skating Minister or, to give it its full title, The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch (c.1795) is a much-loved painting, and indeed, who could fail to love it? Certainly it’s the one I’d steal from the excellent and manageable-in-a-morning National Gallery of Scotland (though I’d be tempted by Quiller Orchardson’s scene of Voltaire yelling his head off at some fops – a terrific painting which for some reason is almost unrepresented online).

There’s a school of thought that says the duty of art is to bring joy. It’s a small, eccentric, suspicious little school and most sensible people give it a wide berth, as with Steiner Schools. Nonetheless The Skating Minister is an exceedingly joyful painting, guaranteed to raise a smile.

Obviously there’s the fact that the skater is a man o’ the cloth, soberly dressed and with perfectly benign expression, yet executing a manoeuvre the grace and poise of which Jane Torvill herself would be proud. (The Reverend Robert Walker, minister of the Canongate Kirk, was a member of the Edinburgh Skating Club, the first figure skating club formed anywhere in the world.)

Such incongruities are always pleasing, but the interesting thing about this painting is that it is so joyful and lively despite such drab colours: a black silhouette against murk. The background of frozen loch, mountain and sky is so muted as to be almost no-background; all the joie de vivre comes from the form – in which striking respect it reminds me, if we can skip south again, of George Stubbs’ equally-loved Whistlejacket.

The Skating Minister is an anomaly in Sir Henry Raeburn’s work –a full-figure miniature whereas he usually painted life-size portraits – and about five years ago there was a serious debate about whether it was in fact the work of French painter Henri-Pierre Danloux, who was a master of depicting movement and happened to be in Edinburgh during the 1790s. It’s now largely accepted that The Skating Minister is indeed correctly attributed to Raeburn, but you can read a summary of the arguments on both sides here.

National treasures – Van Gogh: Wheatfield, with Cypresses

Continuing our series looking at great paintings housed in London’s National Gallery…

For such an intimately and widely known painter it’s amazing how the works of Vincent Van Gogh retain the ability to make you look again, even when seen on screen. Even his landscapes and still lifes remain gripping. In fact, perhaps his landscapes and still lifes are especially gripping.

Why? Well, when I see the National Gallery’s A Wheatfield, with Cypresses I’m rather overwhelmed by its liveliness – it seems to crawl and teem with life. Each of its subjects – all distinct: the wheat, the bushes, the trees, even the inanimate ones such as clouds and hills – seem furiously concerned with existence.

Van Gogh’s landscape paintings are usually accounted part of the Western Romantic tradition: a picturing of God in nature that elided into making nature serve to express the feelings of the artist.

Certainly, the natural phenomena present in Van Gogh’s paintings of this period – the late-1880s – seem particularly agitated; they almost vibrate with a desperate desire. They remind me of hothouse plants that are just about to outgrow their strength, elongate, curl and fall back on themselves: a growth that’s so furious that it’s destined to become self-defeating. Wheatfield, with Cypresses was painted whilst Van Gogh was in the asylum in Arles.

However, I prefer not to see the character of these paintings merely as extensions of the artist’s mental state. The elements seem too powerfully themselves, somehow. I wonder whether Van Gogh’s well-attested debt to Japanese art – stylistically and in subject matter – also extends to some of its spiritual content.

Shintoism, Japan’s official religion, has its roots in animism, which ‘encompasses philosophical, religious, and/or spiritual beliefs that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in all other animals, plants, rocks, natural phenomena such as thunder, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment.’ The customs and values of Shinto are inseparable from those of Japanese culture, not least its painting. It helps explain the Japanese artistic reverence for landscape:

Some of the objects or phenomena designated as kami [loosely, spirits] are qualities of growth, fertility, and production; natural phenomena like wind and thunder; natural objects like the sun, mountains, rivers, trees, and rocks…

In the ancient animistic religions, kami were understood as simply the divine forces of nature. Worshippers in ancient Japan revered creations of nature which exhibited a particular beauty and power such as waterfalls, mountains, boulders, animals, trees, grasses and even rice paddies. They strongly believed the spirits or resident kami deserved respect.

Perhaps Van Gogh – in his close study of Japanese woodcut prints, for instance – had absorbed some of this animistic sensibility?

I’ve found the closest analogy to what Van Gogh achieves in these landscape paintings in the work of another whose personal myth has almost overshadowed his work. He’s also someone whose exuberant expressionism is somewhat unfashionable, at least in fashionable circles – we appreciate a more restrained, understated, ironic approach in our arts nowadays.

However, in The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower Dylan Thomas comes far closer than I can to illustrating why Wheatfield, with Cypresses possesses such fascinating and undiminished power:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

It’s not just the forceful – almost excessive – expression that parallels Van Gogh: it’s the feeling of kinship evoked between man and tree, flower, stream; all kami, all subject to the same forces.

Was Thomas influenced by Van Gogh? Or did they arrive at similar destinations by drawing on different sources of animism, in Thomas’s case the druidical? But I’d better stop – that’s enough wild and windy speculation for today…