Friday, July 31, 2009

The Bridge of Sighs

I know scaffolding can be ugly, but I can't say I find coating the sights and landmarks in advertising any more beautiful. Sigh.

St. Mark's Campanile

I love to get to the top of buildings – I just never tire of the bird’s eye view. Maybe because it’s fun to point out the things I recognize, or maybe because it re-calibrates my world view a little.

Dome climbing is no longer on the approved list of activities my heart can manage, so I have wistfully passed up climbing these last few days. But today I was gifted with a tower that had an elevator – the Campanile at St. Mark's. The 8 euro charge was a bit of a rip-off, and it was hard to justify a post climb gelato when I had felt no burn to earn it, but I got to see the view of Venice from the top. And it was good.

Venice Biennale

Today I had a second chance to see a Venice Biennale, the first being two years ago. Last time there was much art that engaged some of the more difficult things going on in the world at the time, especially things to do with war and its aftermath, and the violation of human rights. It was tough to get through in some places, but I felt it was worth the effort.

This time, I’m not so sure. There was certainly enough art to wear me out, but I didn’t really get a relationship going with much of it, even after reading the signs, which were drowning in artspeak. I get that at these upper echelons of formal art exhibitions, artspeak is necessary, and a valid form of communication with other artspeakers, but I also feel that perhaps it can be used in an exclusionary way, keeping those of us with less art theory and criticism education at arm’s length. Do we really only want to make art for other artists? Or should we aim to reach a broader audience? Interesting questions to ponder.

In the end, though, formality and artspeak aside, I think we just plain love what we love. When you are moved by art, it doesn’t matter how you got there. If you find beauty in a piece of asphalt (and yes, there was a work that was a patch of asphalt) then that’s where your beauty is. I don’t think we can allow the critics to tell us what good art is. I think we know it when we see it.

And so on that note, I offer you a couple of pieces I liked. The first is by Lygia Page, and it was made of delicate strands of gold thread that created beams of ethereal light. The second, all made from black bungee elastic, was by Tomas Saraceno. The pix don’t really show the dimensionality and the geometry of the work, but it was wonderful to see, and we could climb into the installation.

The last piece was outside the venue. I thought it was a hoot – I guess anyone can be an art critic!

Postcard #3

The Duomo from Piazzale Michelangelo.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Performance Art on the Streets

Leonardo's Madonna of the Rocks, performed.

Florence from Above

If you want to see the whole city at once, head up to the Piazzale Michelangelo. It’s up a pretty big hill in the south east corner, south of the Arno. No, dear friends, I didn’t walk it. I took a bus up the hill (number 12 or 13 for future reference), although I rewarded myself with refreshing lemon gelato as if I had hiked!

FYI - the panoramic pic above was done with the iPhone Pano app - pretty slick for a phone camera, eh?

The square boasts an odd tribute to Michelangelo: a bronze copy of his David, on a pedestal bearing the four unfinished figures from the tombs of the Medici. Perhaps it is an apt representation as David was early in his career, and the Medici tombs late.

Rick Steves’ guide book says that in the evening, the local youth go to this square to “lick ice creams and each other.” I bugged out while the sun was still shining!

An Angel Paints an Angel

Today I went to the Museum of San Marco, a well restored 15th C monastery that boasts the largest collection of Fra Angelico’s work (so named because he painted like an angel). No pix were allowed, which was a shame as they didn’t take up the slack in the postcard department. Sigh. The image above is from the web.

Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation” fresco is an important stop on the art history road. We get introduced to it right before the juicy Renaissance stuff, and what we usually see is a rather pale picture in one of the two main art history tomes used for introductory classes. There is a winged angel in a pink robe, kneeling before the Virgin Mary, who is sitting in a stunning (for its time) 3D space. Fra Angelico straddled the place between his flatter, medieval style training and the explosion of dimensional realism that was to become the Renaissance.

Fresco is one heck of an art discipline. My friend Adam pointed out that fresco demands immediate commitment and precision. You paint directly onto a section of wet plaster, catching it in the sweet moments between too wet and too dry. No indecision, no noodling. If you goof up, you have to chisel it out – but then you run the risk of damaging the part next to it and having to chisel it out too. One would think that this would lead to less detail, but no, not at all in the case of artists like Fra Angelico who commanded it.

One of the things we struggle with at the university these days is getting students to understand that the mediated experience of seeing it on the internet just isn’t enough. Location matters. Light matters. Your viewing position matters. The group experience of the crowd matters. Size really does matter!

This “Annunciation” is a case in point. The angel’s wings traverse a rainbow of colors from the golden leading edge to the deep red flight feathers, which are infused with a subtle shimmer. The edges of the robe are leafed in gold pattern, along with both halos. The angel’s face is concentrated, intent, focused on Mary. Mary’s face is a wonder of somber emotions – comprehension, a little fear, perhaps even a slight resignation. The Latin inscription below gets straight to the point, beginning “Salve Mater…” “Greetings Mother…” This is heavy stuff, finding out that you are to be Mother to the Son of God… no wonder Mary has some trepidation. And this was all done in FRESCO.

My point is that none of these details showed up for me in Art History 101. I’m not really sure there is a way that it could, given the limitations of projected photography in a lecture hall, and the speed at which the information has to be delivered. Suffice to say that I’m so very grateful I got to see it in person today. And I think I’ll pass on trying fresco!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Postcard # 2

A door in a building close to Santa Croce. But I left out the graffiti.

Santa Croce

Florence’s Santa Croce is home to the remains of many of her most famous folks. The church is big – almost as long as St. Peter’s in Rome, though not quite as tall and nowhere close to as wide. It’s based on a T shape rather than the more common Latin cross, and so the lack of space behind the altar leaves the proportions feeling a little stumpy and non-majestic. At the moment, a bunch of conservation is happening, and most of the altar and a good stretch of the right nave are blanketed in scaffolding, populated respectively by patient restorers and buff construction workers.

This church and the adjacent monastic buildings were dedicated to St. Francis, and run by Franciscan monks. Much of the iconography in the church points to this, with crossed hands showing Francis’ stigmata appearing in places where one would expect to find more scenes of Christ or the Crucifixion.

Among the famous buried here are Galileo, Dante, Alberti, and Michelangelo. Galileo upset the church so much before his death that there were special rules in place to forbid his burial on sacred ground. The Franciscans hid his body until everybody wised up to his brilliance, and then proudly buried him in Santa Croce.

Georgio Vasari, principal biographer of the Renaissance, re-designed much of the interior space during the Counter Reformation, and took special interest in some tombs to make them more harmonious with the interior. Michelangelo’s was one such tomb. Although Michelangelo died in Rome and wanted to be buried there, the Medici family pulled powerful rank over him yet one more time, and decided he should be honored with other famous men of arts and letters in Florence. Vasari at least softened the blow by designing a sumptuous tomb, topped by frescos in the brilliant colors of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling, and with allegories of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture frozen in marble mourning at the base.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Working with the materials available

Caught this on a side street… a humorous retouch on an obvious paint-out of graffiti…

It's in the Details

Tourism often means cramming it in at breakneck speed, and sometimes becomes part scavenger hunt, part endurance test. Did you see the Duomo? Santa Croce? Santo Spirito? Santa Maria Novella? Yes? Can you remember anything about them? Well… they were all important Florentine churches, right?

One of the great things about visiting a place twice is that you have an opportunity to see something different on the second round. It can be that you skip your nth peek at the Mona Lisa to spend some time instead in a room full of Dutch Masters that you didn’t catch before. It can also be that you again visit your favorites, but instead spend some time going deeper, seeing the things that are hidden from the high level pass.

So these are some images of my second pass at the Duomo here in Florence. The word for the day was DETAILS. It seems that it wasn’t enough to make a grand cathedral, it had to be crammed full of decorative elements, and even then, the patterns were changed up. It was almost as if they looked at the available geometric shapes that could be cut from marble and decided to see how many ways they could be combined to make different patterns. Hmmm… sounds like quilting!

Understanding that they had no power tools, this feat becomes yet more remarkable. Craftsmanship becomes as important as design – it’s all very well and good to have a top notch architect dreaming up the impossible, but I think the heroes include the nameless stonecutters who could knock out perfect pillars for the nave, and hundreds of perfectly sized diamonds for the pattern around a window. Think about what magic must have happened between Frank Gehry’s crumpled ball of paper “sketch” and the reality of swoopy steeled Disney Hall – and you know it wasn’t him figuring out how to route the plumbing!

I’m always impressed by details that are almost hidden from view. A rosette under the corner of an eave, way high up. A flourish on a capital. A row of faces that are not cookie-cutter same. Carving all the way around something we only see from the front. Elegantly rendered details in the backgrounds of the most minor scenes. These are the wonders you see when you slow down a little.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Performance Anxiety in Florence

In a city brimming with art, ranging from kitsch to the spectacular, there is a certain amount of anxiety involved in sitting in a public place to sketch. I sometimes carry a small box of watercolors when I travel, and I occasionally grab my courage and break them out where people can see me.

You see, I know the other side of the game… I often stop to watch public artists in action. I like to observe how they construct the composition, how much time it takes, how they mix the colors. The artist in Montmartre that drew my friend Alexis a couple of years ago spent the most amount of time on her getting her eyes just right (being the windows to the soul and all that) and cleverly chose a lovely burnt sienna conte crayon to best capture her pre-Raphaelite hair.

Another facet of the observation is the unavoidable formation of judgment. Is it proportionate? Are the colors right? Are they out of the tube or are they made complex through combinations? Is the perspective off? Does the artist actually have the chops for this public performance?

So with this in mind, I sat on an outcropping of the Strozzi Palace today and tried my hand at a quick sketch. I don’t draw all that well, nor all that confidently (being a word person, I tend to write my ideas out rather than sketch them). But I was taught to draw by a master technician, the late (and great) Frank Sardisco. Know to some of us as “Professore,” he had a penchant for crying “Mama Mia!” when he was cheering on a good drawing or painting, or aghast at a disaster. He demanded the very best of his students, no matter their skill level, and taught us to draw in a technical, nuts and bolts way. By the time he was done with us we knew how to break down just about anything to draw it passably. He was a man of many sayings, and frequently used “You don’t learn to draw by talking about it” on us when we whined about the heavy homework load.

He was right, of course. Only the truly gifted shine on their first outing – the rest of us must practice, practice, practice to mold our gifts or make it to Carnegie Hall, and even sweatily perform that practice in public at times. What matters most is that we show up and try - we’re just not going to get better if we don’t. So here’s my humble offering to the art gods today… I didn’t just talk about it – I painted!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Another White Guy

My friends Matt and Monica Furmanski are off on a world tour with their children for a year (wouldn't you like to be a kid in this family?!)

They were recently in Paris, and they just posted a picture of another White Guy. Check it out: