Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Lions Come to Life in Replica of Cave from 32,000 Years Ago

This month a replica of Chauvet Cave -- which holds the oldest known paintings of Paleolithic art --will open to the public in Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, Ardèche region of southeastern France.

As the April issue Smithsonian Magazine details, the early dating of 32,000 - 30,000 years ago has been analyzed and verified by various means. Stone age humans used this particular cave, and so did hibernating bears! Carbon dating confirms the early date of the charcoal pigments, but the bear bones found inside the cave have also been shown to be from around the same time.  A rock slide that occurred 29,000 years ago covered up the entrance -- keeping out the people and bears until just 20 years ago.   Chauvet Cave was discovered in December 1994.

Although the style of art and cultural heritage has continuity with the numerous cave paintings of southwestern France and northeastern Spain, such as Lascaux, there are also species not seen elsewhere, including lions and bears.  The cave artists had an amazing ability of the artists to evoke the spirit of the animals and suggest their power. Their forms follow the convex surfaces of the cave walls, often making their forms come out into space if they were carvings in relief.  Other animals are bison, aurochs, hyenas and horses.

As in most caves, no humans are shown. There's actually a bear head on an altar.  It's reasonable to thing that the animals were considered as having more power than humans.  There's actually a bear head placed as if on an altar. As in most other caves, there are handprints, probably both male and female, mainly done with a stencil technique.

The superimposed horses have remarkably realistic features.  As all other cave paintings, they're superimposed without respect to creating a composition.  Instead, there seems to be an attempt to evoke the spirit of the animals and bring their power, vitality and energy in some type of shamanistic ritual.  Of course, determining exact meaning and reasons for these works will always be a mystery.   There is, though, a fascinating image that links the paintings to Paleolithic statuettes.

The Chauvet artists used pigments of charcoal and red ocher. The two things that come to mind as being different from later Paleolithic paintings are fewer colors and the profile views of horns.  (The bulls of Lascaux have horns are painted in twisted perspective, a frontal view on profile body.)

Only a few years before the discovery of Chauvet, scuba divers near Marseilles discovered a cave under the Mediterranean, by following a channel leading to an underground lake.  Named Cosquer Cave for an diver who found it, no public access possible.  Unwittingly, three divers died while searching for this monument.  Cosquer Cave probably dates to about 5,000 - 7,000 years later than Chauvet, but 5,000 plus years earlier than the earliest paintings at Lascaux.   Horses, reindeer and other images at Cosquer are similar to later paintings, but what are we to think of the penguin, or auk (see below)?
Auk or penguin?  Cosquer Cave near Marseille, France

Few people have been allowed to enter the Chauvet Cave since Eliette Brunel, Jean-Marie Chauvet and Christian Hillaire discovered it back in December, 1994.  The desire was prevent the carbon monoxide damage caused by visitors between 1940 and 1963, when it closed to the public.  A replica of Lascaux welcomes visitors, who can admire the magnificent rotunda with its Hall of Bulls.  However, the replica and visitors center at Vallon Pont d'Arc is far bigger than Lascaux.

Friday, April 3, 2015

"Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea" Brings Top Quality to Washington

Andrea Pisano, relief from Giotto's Bell Tower in Florence, 14th century
One of the things I appreciate most about living in Washington is the quality of its art exhibitions. A National Museum for Women in Arts (NMWA) exhibit,“Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea,” brings some of the best images from Italy in Washington.  This magnificent show dedicated to the mother of Jesus has a Botticelli, two Della Robbias, a Michelangelo and a Caravaggio.  It’s almost better to see it in Washington, DC, than in Italy, because so many of the most beautiful images are brought together in one place.  However, the exhibition is only going to be there one more week, until April 12.

The exhibition also has a significant number of early Italian sculptures, a stained glass window and even an image made in India.  Paintings and sculptures come from several museums in Florence, Rome, Milan and Paris. The National Gallery of Art in Washington has loaned several pieces to the exhibition, which stand up in quality with some of the best in Italy.  Furthermore, NMWA added paintings from its own collection.
Sandro Botticelli, Madonna of the Book, c. 1480

The exhibition begins with the late Gothic period/early Renaissance. Above all, it captures one aspect of Mary that is most appreciated, her motherhood.  In  Andrea Pisano’s beautiful blue and white relief sculpture from the 14th century bell tower of Florence Cathedral (above), Mary is tickling the baby Jesus.  Italian artists at this time broke from the medieval and Byzantine artists by bringing Mary down to earth.  She is just like any other mother and Jesus is just your typical baby, no longer a miniature adult with an imperial demeanor.  They  have fun and are very playful.  He's a true Italian bambino.

If anything to notice about this exhibition, it's about love. There's so much love.  Some images are incredibly sweet, such as a Madonna by the Master of the Winking Eyes (see bottom).  In this painting and others, Mary wears coral jewelry, a symbol of protection.  In an iconic Botticelli, Madonna of the Book, Mary shows the Baby Jesus a book as he looks up at her.  He holds three nails, foreshadowing His death, while her eyes hints of the sadness in knowing what will come.  Yet the sweetness and love in Botticelli's imagery is heavenly.  Botticelli’s Mary is both a loving earthly Mother and an ideal of beauty that belongs in the perfect world of heaven.  

A spectacular painting in the show is by Botticelli’s teacher, Fra Filippo Lippi.  In his image, Jesus pulls his mother’s veil and snuggles very closely.  Jesus stands on a ledge and Mary holds him in a niche behind.  Lippi’s Madonna and Child does what Renaissance art strove so much to do — bridge that gap between the earthly and heavenly.  He also creates an illusion of three-dimensional depth into space which reaches into our space so convincingly. 

Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child (detail)
Fra Filippo Lippi was a priest by accident.  Orphaned as a child, he raised in a monastery, and raised to be a priest.  It wasn't what he was meant to do. He fell in love with a nun, Lucretia Butti, and had a son who grew up to be the marvelous painter Filippino Lippi. The Pope gave Lippi a special dispensation to leave the priesthood and get married.  Lucretia and Filippino were probably the models for his Madonna and Child.

The Michelangelo in the exhibition is a well-known drawing from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence. Its beauty is amazing even though it's an unfinished masterpiece.  Mary is nursing the Baby Jesus.  Michelangelo drew the baby Jesus with a great degree of light and shadow (chiaroscuro), to make him far more three-dimensional than the image of Mary.  I'm reminded that as an infant, Michelangelo was sent to live with a stone cutter whose wife became his wet nurse.  His own mother didn't have enough milk to feed him.  It is said that living with the stone cutter for the first few years of life primed Michelangelo to become a sculptor.   His baby Jesus is very sculptural.
Michelangelo, Madonna and Child, from Casa Buonarroti, Florence, c. 1520-25

There’s an Artemisia Gentilleschi painting I had never seen previously.  She’s holding out her breast for Jesus, offering to nurse him.  She looks  down at Jesus very lovingly. He stops to think about it ,rather than jumping right to her breast. Artemisia Gentilleschi is the first female artist to have achieved an international reputation.  Her own biography. is very compelling. 
Orsola Maddalena Caccia, St. Luke Painting the Virgin

One of the artists I had never heard of is Orsola Maddelena Caccia, a prolific painter who also was a nun in the 17th century.  There are six large paintings of hers in the exhibition, each with an elaborate iconography.   Her St. Luke Painting the Virgin reminds us that many of the stories surrounding Mary are purely imaginative.  Much of what is painted about Mary's life is the result of popular legends.   

This exhibition is significant and scholarly for a number of reasons.  It delves into the meaning behind the imagery.  It also reveals significant stories in Mary's life and the lives of the artists who painted her.  The NMWA blog has much good information about the symbolism.  It also can teach viewers a great deal about the Renaissance and Baroque styles of art, particularly in Italy.  

However, I appreciate the exhibition mostly for other reasons. When we look at these Madonnas and we see the maternal love, we know that Mary's message is that she can be mother to all of us.  One doesn't need to be Christian or even religious to understand that the love between a mother and her child is a universal truth.  

The NMWA used images from its own collection to enhance the show,  pieces by Elisabetta Sirani and Sofonisba Anguissola.  The museum continues to make a significant contributions to the community, to promote women artists from around the world and to cultivate relationships with significant donors. Generous donors and supporters of NMWA underwrote the cost of insuring individual works of as they traveled from Europe.  The result of their gifts is that Washington has put on another exhibition of universal importance and appeal.

At the National Gallery, there's another exhibition about the Italian Renaissance in Washington, Piero di Cosimo.  It taps into a completely different aspect of the Renaissance, the rebirth of interest in classical mythology.    
Master of the Winking Eye, Madonna and Child, c. 1450