Sunday, April 21, 2013

Velázquez, Ovid's Myth and the "Spinners" of Fate

Diego Velázquez, Las Hilanderas (The Spinners), oil on canvas, H: 220 cm (86.6 in) x W: 289 cm (113.8 in)
The Prado, Madrid
(Not for beginning art students; I was not able to understand or interpret this painting at all until teaching a class in Mythology.

The study of myths in all cultures, like the study of art, may seem obscure but it can illuminate some truths about humanity.  Around the world, the beauty of weaving has some association with magic. So we look to Diego Velázquez's Las Hilanderas (also called The Spinners, The Tapestry Weavers or The Fable of Arachne) which focuses on the weaving contest between Pallas Minerva and Arachne described in Ovid's Metamorphoses.  The foreground scene is about a competition which includes spinning and carding, preparations that come before the weaving of tapestries. The final outcome of the story is implied, not shown. Velázquez used a complex composition of diagonals to weave a tale,  a fable that lovers of Charlotte's Web should appreciate.

Velázquez often put humor into his mythological scenes, but The Spinners is not a satire. It's related in theme to Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), considered by a majority of art experts to be the greatest secular painting of all time.  The painterly effects of hair and material which dazzle us in Las Meninas go even further in The Spinners, which has a similarly complicated meaning.  Its format is horizontal rather than vertical, but it also features a foreground and background for two tiers of storytelling connected by an opening of light and stairs. As Las Meninas is a group portrait disguised as everyday life in Velázquez El Escorial Palace studio, Las Hilanderas is a narrative posed as a genre scene in the dress styles or 17th century Spain.  It's dated one year after Las Meninas, 1657.

Detail of Pallas Athena (Minerva) and a "spinning" wheel
According to Ovid, Arachne was a girl born to humble parents in Lydia (an area of Turkey famous for beautiful weavings). She was reknown for her remarkable skill, but did not see her art as a gift from the goddess of weaving.  Arachne accepted praise that set her above Pallas Minerva (Pallas Athena--also the goddess of wisdom) in the art of weaving.  She said, "Let her compete with me, and if she wins I'll pay whatever penalty."  So Pallas Athena disguised herself as an old crone, saying "Old age is not to be despised for with it wisdom all the fame you wish as best of mortal weavers, but admit the goddess as your superior in skill."

Arachne wasn't humbled and said "Why won't (the goddess) come to challenge me herself?"  Athena then cast off old age and revealed herself.  Arachne was not scared and immediately took up the challenge of the competition.   In foreground of Velázquez's canvas, Athena (in a headscarf) and Arachne set up their spinning and carding operations in preparation for the weaving competition.  At least three assistants are helping in the task.  There are balls and balls of wool and thread and even a cat, but no looms in sight. 

Just as Shakespeare liked to insert plays within his plays to elucidate the story, Velázquez was fond of putting subsidiary stories in his paintings.  Another episode takes place in the background, although Velázquez skipped parts and hinted of the conclusion under the archway. Here Athena wears her goddess of war helmut. There are the same number of people in front as in back, five.  It would be reasonable to believe that the young women in the back are the same assistants who help in the foreground, but have changed their clothing into fancy dresses.  Only the lowly-born Arachne, furthest from the viewer, is modestly dressed.

From the girl "Fate" in shadow, we peer into a scene where Athena is about to strike Arachne.
Arachne's belly is the center of the painting, hinting of the spider's belly she will become.
According to Ovid's tale, when goddess and girl had completed their tasks, Athena revealed her tapestry with its central subject of Athena winning her competition with Poseidon to be the patron of Athens.  She wove an olive vine from her sacred tree into the tapestry's border. Secondary scenes showed the power of gods and goddesses as they triumphed over humans. The subject of Arachne's tapestry was stories of trickeries by gods and goddesses, at the expense of mortals. She had shown as her central subject as the rape of Europa by Zeus in the form of a bull.  This scene is recognized in the back of this painting as a replica of Titian's famous painting of that subject in the Spanish royal collection.  
"Bitterly resenting her rival's success, the goddess warrior ripped it, with its convincing evidence of celestial misconduct, all asunder; and with her shuttle of Cytorian boxwood, struck at Arachne's face repeatedly."  In the painting, Athena holds her shuttle in the foreground, not the background, but Velázquez cleverly placed it in Athena's left hand where it points to the next image of Athena in armor.  Velázquez highlighted the goddess's anger against a light blue background and emphasized the force of Athena's striking arm.  Arachne's head is nearly the center of the painting, but the viewer realizes she will exist no longer. "She could not bear this, the ill-omened girl, and bravely fixed a noose around her throat: while she was hanging, Pallas, stirred to mercy, lifted her up and said:

"Though you will hang, you must indeed live on, you wicked child; so that your future will be no less fearful than your present is, may the same punishment remain in place for you and yours forever!"  Then, as the goddess turned to go, she sprinkled Arachne with the juice of Hecate's herb, and at the touch of that grim preparation, she lost her hair, then lost her nose and ears; her head got smaller and her body, too; her slender fingers were now legs that dangled close to her sides; now she was very small, but what remained of her turned into belly, from which she now continually spins a thread, and as a spider, carries on the art of weaving as she used to do."   Note that the belly of Arachne which will be the spider's core is at the exact center of the painting.

The Spinners, right side, detail of Arachne 
With the fable explaining the origin of spiders, it makes sense that the preparatory activity in the foreground is all about the thread (and the spinning of fate), because there is so much winding to that thread.  I interpret the young helpers to Arachne and Pallas Athena as the three Fates.  The Fates can be described as Moira in singular name, or Moirai. Their specific names are Clotho meaning "Spinner," Lachesis, who measures the thread, and Atropos who is inflexible and cuts it off. The three Fates are goddesses and daughters of Zeus who are sometimes considered more important than Zeus in their ability to seal destiny.  They come in various disguises, and wouldn't be surprising if these young women seen as helpers are really the ones who ultimately are in charge. In myth and life, there is always the question of how much free will or how much fate determines outcome.

Velázquez uses highlights and shadows strategically for his story telling goals.  Arachne stands out because she is highlighted to a much greater degree than Minerva is, yet we see nothing of her face.   How ironic that he, Velázquez who proudly showed his face in Las Meninas, his allegory of painting, does not allow Arachne to show hers.  Her back is to us, as she labors deftly and diligently. Both Athena and Arachne are barefoot. The goddess, who is older though not an old lady, even shows some leg! 

One of the women in the background is looking back to the foreground, a complexity that pulls the composition together. Perhaps she had been the only one of three Fates who supported Arachne and was pulling strings for her.  The woman or Fate dressed in blue shows her back to the viewer, but she appears again immediately below in the foreground, though separated by stairs.  Here Velázquez has deliberately darkened her face in shadow, in deeper shadow than is necessary for the composition.  As in other Velázquez paintings, shadowed figures can signify that a character in the painting is an actor, an actor who is playing a role in an act of deception.  Though she aids Arachne in the guise of as a common peasant girl, her concern with thread could actually be in the process of spinning a different fate.

Peter Paul Rubens, Pallas and Arachne, oil, 1634, at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond

Velazquez was familiar with the fable of Arachne from a Peter Paul Rubens painting of Pallas and Arachne which was owned by the Spanish royal family. The Rubens composition is more violent, with Pallas Athena striking Arachne to the ground. A copy of this painting was in the background of Las Meninas, Velázquez's most famous painting of 1656, a composition which raises the status of art and the artist. Velázquez must have thought of the art of weaving as a noble pursuit, similar to the art of painting.  Both require exceptional talent and skill.  Weaving and spinning have additional, magical connotations in mythology, such as the woven clothing of goddesses, the weavings of Odysseus' wife and the thread which let Theseus out of the labyrinth.  Velázquez was a great artist, but, like the prodigy Arachne, he was not of noble birth.

Detail of self-portrait in Las Meninas, with
the red cross added later

Las Meninas -- which contains a portrait of the artist in the act of painting -- is about the role of the artist, the origins of creativity and the attainment of status.  The Spinners further explores these subjects and elucidates some of the same ideas. Our talents are divine gifts and, as mortals, there are limitations on us.  No matter what the artist's genius is, there are warnings against boasting.  In the end, we are left with a reminder of the punishment which comes from carrying pride too far.  

The paintings compare artistry and skill, and the status of the artist, to the non-negotiable status of higher beings, i.e., the Spanish Royal family, and an Olympian goddess. There is a crucial difference, however. Arachne, an upstart weaver, was just a girl when she challenged the goddesses of wisdom and weaving and the Fates. Velázquez, on the other hand, was 56 when he painted Las Meninas, and his self-portrait looks outward asserting the importance due to him.  Remember how Athena in the guise of an old lady had warned Arachne that with old age comes wisdom.  
Velázquez, The Water Seller of Seville, c. 1620
Apsley House, London

Velázquez had also been an extraordinary prodigy, only about 20 when he painted The Water Seller of Seville. There, an elderly man is passing a glass of water to an adolescent boy while a young adult man stands behind. It was nearly 40 years later that he finally gained knighthood status, the Order of Santiago. A red cross, painted on his chest three years after completing Las Meninas, indicates that title he attained shortly before death in 1660. However, from Velázquez's other paintings, we know he treated royalty and peasant with equal respect and dignity. The old man in The Water Seller of Seville wears a torn cloak indicating his humble means compared  to the young boy he serves.  So it is not Arachne's lowly birth, but her youthful pride which denied the wisdom of age that Velázquez sees as her ultimate downfall.  The attainment of greatness is possible if one waits, for only with age comes wisdom.

Velázquez's stylistic change over the years from tight and controlled to very painterly is typical.  He painted two allegories of deception, one mythological, when he was around 30 and in Rome, a turning point in his career.   (You can some of the changes of his style from early to middle and late in a blog about him.)  

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Dürer, French Drawings and the Stages of Life

Albrecht Dürer, The Head of Christ, 1506
brush and gray ink, gray wash, heightened with white on blue paper
overall: 27.3 x 21 cm (10 3/4 x 8 1/4 in.) overall (framed): 50 63.8 4.1 cm (19 11/16 25 1/8 1 5/8 in.)
Albertina, Vienna
The National Gallery of Art is hosting the largest show of Albrecht Dürer drawings, prints and watercolors ever seen in North America, combining its own collection with that of the Albertina in Vienna, Austria.  Across the street in the museum's west wing is the another exhibition of works on paper, Color, Line and Light: French Drawings Watercolors and Pastels from Delacroix to Signac.  The French drawings are spectacular, but it's hard to imagine the 19th century masters without the earlier genius out of Germany, Dürer, who approached drawing with scientist's curiosity for understanding nature.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait at Thirteen, 1484
silverpoint on prepared paper, 27.3 19.5 cm
(10 3/4 7 11/16 in.) (framed): 51.7 43.1 4.5 cm (20 3/8 16 15/16 1 3/4 in.)
Albertina, Vienna
Dürer's famous engravings are on view, including Adam and Eve, but with the added pleasure of seeing preparatory drawings and first trial proofs of the prints.   Some of his most famous works such as the Great Piece of Turf and Praying Hands, are there also. In both exhibitions, as always, I'm drawn to the beauty and color of landscape art, especially prominent in the 19th century exhibition. However, both shows have phenomenal portraits to give us a glimpse into people of all ages with profound insights.

Dürer drew his own face while looking in the mirror at age 13, in 1484. He still had puffy cheeks and a baby face, but was certainly a prodigy. Like his father, he was trained in the goldsmith's guild which gave him facility at describing the tiniest details with a very firm point.  Seeing his picture next to the senior Dürer's self-portrait, there's no doubt his father was extremely gifted, too.

Albrecht Dürer, "Mein Agnes", 1494
pen and black ink, 15.7 x 9.8 cm (6 1/8 x 3 7/8 in.)
(framed): 44.3 x 37.9 x 4.2 cm (17 3/8 x 14 7/8 x 1 5/8 in.)
Albertina, Vienna
In his native Nuremburg, the younger Dürer was recognized at an early age and his reputation spread, particularly as the world of printing was spreading throughout the German territories, France and Italy. We can trace his development as he went to Italy in 1494-96, and then again in 1500, meeting with North Italian artists Andrea Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini and exchanging artistic ideas.  Dürer is credited with bridging the gap between the Northern and Italian Renaissance.  I personally find all his drawings and prints  more satisfying then his oil paintings, because at heart he was first and foremost a draftsman.

Though we normally think of Dürer as a controlled draftsman, there are some very fresh, loose drawings. An image he did of his wife, Agnes, in 1494, shows a wonderful freedom of expression, and affection.  He married Agnes Fry in 1494 and did drawings of her which became studies for later works.  She was the model for St. Ann in a late painting of 1516 and the preparatory drawing with its amazing chiaroscuro is in the exhibition.  

Albrecht Dürer, Agnes Dürer as Saint Ann, 1519
brush and gray, black, and white ink on grayish  prepared paper; black background applied at a later date (?)
overall: 39.5 x 29.2 cm (15 1/2 x 11 1/2 in.) overall (framed): 64 x 53.4 x 4.4 cm (25 1/4 x 21 x 1 3/4 in.)
Albertina, Vienna

 Also on view are Durer's investigations into human proportion, landscapes and drawings he did of diverse subjects from which he later used in his iconic engravings.  We can trace how the drawings inspired his visual imagery.  There are also several preparatory drawings of old men who were used as the models for apostles in a painted altarpiece.

Albrecht Dürer,  An Elderly Man of Ninety-Three Years, 1521
brush and black and gray ink, heightened with white, on gray-violet prepared paper
overall: 41.5 28.2 cm (16 5/16 11 1/8 in.) overall (framed): 63.6 49.7 4.6 cm (25 1/16 19 9/16 1 13/16 in.)
Albertina, Vienna

My favorite drawing of old age, however, is a study of an old man at age 93 who was alert and in good health (amazing as the life expectancy in 1500 was not what is today.) He appears very thoughtful, pensive and wise. The softness of his beard is incredible. The drawing is in silverpoint on blue gray paper which makes the figure appear very three-dimensional.  To add force to the light and shadows, Durer added white to highlight, making the man so lifelike and realistic. 
Léon Augustin Lhermitte,  An Elderly Peasant Woman, c. 1878
charcoal, overall: 47.5 x 39.6 cm (18 11/16 x 15 9/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James T. Dyke, 1996

In the other exhibition, there's a comparable drawing by Leon Lhermitte of an old woman in Color, Line and Light.  Lhermitte was French painter of the Realist school.  He is not widely recognized today, but there were so many extraordinary artists in the mid-19th century.  What I find especially moving about the painters of this time is more than their understanding of light and color.  I like their approach to treating humble people, often the peasants, with extraordinary dignity.  Lhermitte's woman of age has lived a hard and rugged life and he crinkled skin signifies her amazing endurance.  We see the beauty of her humanity and the artist's reverence for every crevice in her weather-beaten skin.

Jean-François Millet
Nude Reclining in a Landscape, 1844/1845
pen and brown ink, 16.5 x 25.6 cm (6 1/2 x 10 1/16 in.)
Dyke Collection

There are many portraits of youth in the French exhibition, too, including fresh pen and inks such as Edouard Manet's Boy with a Dog and Francois Millet's Nude Reclining in Landscape, who really does not look nude.

Camille Pissarro's The Pumpkin Seller is a charcoal without a lot of detail.  She has broad features, plain clothes and a bandana around the head.  She's a simpleton, drawn and characterized with a minimum of lines but Pissarro sees her a substantial girl of character.  The drawing reminds me of Pissarro himself.  He may not be as well-known and appreciated as Monet, Renoir, Degas, yet he was the diehard artist.  He was the one who never gave up, who encouraged all his colleagues and was quite willing to endure poverty and deprivation for the goals of his art.  Berthe Morisot's watercolor of Julie Manet in a Canopied Cradle has a minimum of detail but is a quick expression of her daughter's infancy.
Camille Pissarro, The Pumpkin Seller, c.1888
charcoal, overall: 64.5 x 47.8 cm (25 3/8 x 18 13/16 in.)
Dyke Collection

Taking in all the portraits of both exhibitions, I'm left with thoughts of awe for beauty of both nature and humanity. The friends I was with actually preferred the French exhibition to the Dürer. There were surprising revelations of skill by little known artists like Paul Huet, Francois-Auguste Ravier and Charles Angrand.  The landscapes by artists of the Barbizon School and the Neo-Impressionists, are important and beautiful, but perhaps not recognized as much as they should be.  In both exhibitions, we must admire how works on paper form the blueprint for larger ideas explored in oil paintings.
Berthe Morisot, Julie Manet in a Canopied Cradle, 1879
watercolor and gouache, 18 x 18 cm (7 1/16 x 7 1/16 in.)
Dyke Collection

It was a curator a the Albertina who wisely connected a mysterious Martin Schongauer drawing of the 1470s owned by the Getty to a Durer Altarpiece.  The Albertina is a museum in Vienna known for works on paper, much its collection descended from the Holy Roman Emperors, one of whom Dürer worked for late in his career.  The French drawings come from a collection of Helen Porter and James T Dyke and some of it have been gifted to the National Gallery. They're on view until May 26, 2013 and Albrecht Dürer: Master Drawings, Prints and Watercolors from the Albertina will stay on view until June 9, 2013.