Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Madonnas Then and Now

Madonna and Child, Eastern Rite

Madonna and Child, Fra Angelico, 1423-24

Nursing Madonna, Bernardino Luini, 1520

Madonna and Child, Albrecht Durer, 1520

Sleeping Baby, Mary Cassatt, c.1880-95

Mother and Child, Pablo Picasso, 1921-22

The Holy Virgin Mary, Chris Ofili, 1996


  1. I thought I was gonna see
    Madonna Queen of Stage.. , oh well, I;ve been disappointed before!

  2. I had never seen that Picasso.

    I've always found it interesting how each culture casts religious figures in its own understanding

  3. Ah! You appear to be a true man of your time, Hardassami.

    I'm here to try to make it possible to broaden your perspective, develop a sense of historical perspective and to stimulate your imagination.

    I guess that makes me a radical in daring to pit myself against the neo-Philistinism that keeps us all in chains as much or more more than the original nineteenth-century Philistinism that inspired rebellion and fired the imagination of artists, musicians and writers once did.

    It's high time we had a New Renaissance. Our "liberated" culture is the most boring, stifling oppressive thing to come along since The Inquisition.


  4. There are so many beautiful works of art with Madonna and Child.

    Raphael's Madonna of the Candelabra is one of my favorites; a version of that one recently appeared on a postage stamp.

    Raphael painted several Madonnas, of course. I like all of them, really.

    I have more than a passing interest in the works of Mary Cassatt, so from this post, I pronounce the Cassatt as my favorite although the manner of dress doesn't indicate Mother Mary.

    I know that there must be symbolism involved in the Fra Angelico pictured, but I'm not sure what the symbolism is, particularly of the red and white flowers. Clearly, the Baby's halo in that one foreshadow both His later death on the cross and his doing spiritual battle (shield).

  5. Yes, SilverFiddle, there are any number of Black Madonnas as well. I wish I'd had room to include at least one of them.

    I first learned that The Holy Family had been depicted as black in fourth grade. My teacher had seen this in one of her trips to the Caribbean. The way she told us bout it was very touching and respectful -- not in the least patronizing.

    She was able to explain to us that since the Bible tells us we are created in the image of God it was only natural for black people to see God as black just as we see Him as white and often blond and blue-eyed. She said that since God is really a SPIRIT He truly CAN be all things all people.

    I've always thought that was a great moment in my young life. I wish we had teachers like that around today!

    Did you recognize the controversial Elephant Dung Madonna at the end? That caused quite a stir in 1996. In this context I have to say it has a beauty all its own -- especially juxtaposed to Picasso's grotesque, misogynistic portrayal of the scene.

    Even though he was known to be a roué, I feel he must have hated women down deep. They are portrayed for the most part unflatteringly -- often as monsters -- in his paintings.

    ~ FT

  6. To my regret now, I never took a college course in art appreciation. My eyesight was in transition at that point in my life, and I was concerned that I couldn't see well enough to get much out of such a course.

    However, I did have a wonderful professor of modern Russian history and a wonderful Western Civ professor! Both of them touched upon art appreciation and symbolism in art, and I got a lot out of those particular class lessons.

    I also spend as much time as I can at the National Gallery of Art. I always get an audio tour if available because such audio tapes explain symbolism.

  7. FT,
    I wasn't going to post today, but your post with images of Madonna and Child "forced" me to do so.

    There is so much beauty in the world! A pity that mankind spends so little time enjoying that beauty.

  8. Symbolism in Renaissance paintings is a study in itself, AOW.

    In this case the rose and lily are signs of purity.

  9. Duck,
    Thanks for explaining.

    But the color red as purity?

  10. Duck,
    Don't faint.

    I actually like the link you posted. I don't love is as much as some other Madonna art, but the Avery is okay.

  11. Yes, AOW, in this case the red rose is acting as a modifier, if you will.

    The iconography of roses maybe peaks with Botticelli's studies of Venus which were meant as a link between Christianity and the classics.

  12. Ducky,

    Your Avery link has been unresponsive all day. I just looked him up on my own, however, and found a picture entitled Mother and Child from 1944.

    It's highly reminiscent of Matisse's famous portrait of Gertrude Stein -- the styles are closely related if not identical.

    As Cassatt was to Renoir, perhaps Avery was to Matisse?

    It may surprise you to know that I've been great MOMA fan since the late 1940's, when the present building was still only a few years old.

    Odd I never heard of Avery before -- perhaps because his style is derivative? Well so was J. S. Bach's. ;-)

    Thank you for bringing him to my attention. I like what I've seen of his work.

  13. His composition was not particularly original, FT but his color palette was radical and he NEVER made a mistake.

  14. Well, it seems I was wrong. It took a little bit of digging, but I found loads of Madonnas painted for churches and chapels in the eighteenth-century. Just a quick overview, however, seems to indicate almost too great a similarity to the sixteenth and seventeenth-century art that came before.

    I DID find a gaggle of Pre-Raphaelite Madonnas,. which I think more interesting. I had always tended to dismiss this late-Victorian style as purely imitative and rather saccharine -- there's something sickly and a bit overripe about much of it -- but the SKILL demonstrated is frankly immense, and the juxtaposition of images significantly different from its predecessors to make it worth a thorough examination.

    I may do a post on Pre-Raphaelite Madonnas as a follow up to this.

    Art sure beats endless diatribes on the Fiscal Cliff, the Middle East and the deficiencies of the Obama White House.

    When you're down and out -- dead broke to be exact -- it's time to take the last few pennies and buy some hyacinths to feed your soul.

    ~ FT

  15. AOW, if you're interested in the topic, George Ferguson's Signs and Symbols in Christian Art is a good inexpensive reference work.

  16. Would be interested to hear more about what's misogynistic about the Picasso. What I notice is its weightiness and solidity, maybe the point being to exclude the spiritual realm by so forcefully conveying the physical one?

  17. duckman,

    What do you mean by the statement "his colour palette was 'radical' and that he never made a mistake?"

    A mistake to the application of said "radical" colour palette?

  18. He's not painting in the infra-red spectrum, is he? ;)

  19. ps - False color palettes CAN be very useful... but I wouldn't necessarily call them "radical".

  20. For as Socrates once stated in Plato's "Meno"... Figure is the only thing which always follows colour.

  21. I think the Eastern Right protrays her closer to what her actual physical features would have been like, especially in skin tone.

    I mean, Mary was Middle Eastern, so she was probably olive-skinned and much looked like an Arab.

    Jesus likely shared the same racial/ethnic characteristics.

    I love it when black people try to tell me that Jesus was black. He was not black. He was not white. He was Arab(ish).

    Many people don't like thinking of their savior as the same skin color as the "terrorists."

  22. Good morning, Jack. All of us "in the know" have been aware for decades that the Virgin Mary looked exactly like the young Barbra Streisand and that Jesus once he grew up could easily have doubled for Woody Allen.

    After all, these venerated figures were Jews, weren't they? Why shy away from calling a spade a spade?

    What you may not understand about Art is that until the twentieth century its primary raison d'etre was to transcend or greatly improve upon reality.

    Since the turn of the last century that goal seemed to have been reversed -- many would say willfully perverted. In most fields of endeavor artists, writers -- and many leading composers of "serious" music -- have been fiendishly busy portraying life as far worse than it is with a not-so-subtle implication that life is probably not worth living at all.

    Everything that's "pretty," charming, cheering, encouraging, or intended to be uplifting is dismissed by "scholars" and "critics" as KITSCH. It's far more complicated than that, however.

    Kitsch exists all right. The commercially successful artistic endeavors of Thomas Kincaid make a handy example. So in my opinion does the "art" of Andy Warhol of Campbell Soup can fame. An honest -- non-politically-correct, non-agenda-driven evaluation of what is and is not Kitsch would make a fascinating study all by itself.

    [NOTE: By the way it's RITE not RIGHT when you are speaking of a particular branch of a religion -- especially in reference to the Christian religion.]

  23. Ducky,

    I wish you would explain what you mean by such an absolute statements as "He never made a mistake," in reference to Milton Avery.

    That appears to elevate him to godlike status -- a place reserved only for the very greatest of the greats.

    Comparisons are supposed to be odious, even though I couldn't help but notice a certain resemblance to the portrait style of Matisse. I enjoyed looking at Avery's work and would be glad to see an exhibition "in the flesh," but I saw nothing so commanding and evocative that would persuade me to think his achievements godlike.

    What say you?

    ~ FT

  24. @jez == Would be interested to hear more about what's misogynistic about the Picasso.
    The fist.

  25. Madonna's own fist?? Is she planning to strike herself?

  26. @Farmer --- What do you mean by the statement "his colour palette was 'radical' and that he never made a mistake?"

    Would you prefer "unconventional"?

    Maybe Gauguin's "Jacob Wrestling the Angel" was radical.
    But Avery was doing in a figurative mode what Albers was doing in a minimal mode. But Avery moved away from primary color and used varied combinations.

    I'd say he doesn't make a mistake because the palette always compensates for the loss of detail.

  27. For as Socrates once stated in Plato's "Meno"... Figure is the only thing which always follows colour.

    I wonder if Ellsworth Kelly would agree. At least in a representational sense.

  28. Duck,
    My local library system had copies of Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. I've just reserved a copy to look over. If I find that I want my own copy, I'll get one.

    Thanks for the recommendation! I appreciate it.

  29. FT,
    When you're down and out -- dead broke to be exact -- it's time to take the last few pennies and buy some hyacinths to feed your soul.

    Amen to that!

    At the public library today, I found a book of Christmas stories -- stories with which I'm not familiar, so they are "the usual" stories ("The Gift of the Magi," A Christmas Carol, Capote's "A Christmas Memory," and the like).

    I hope that reading some of the stories in the volume that I found today will help me to "get into the Christmas spirit."

  30. If Ellsworth Kelly didn't then Edward Wadsworth certainly would. They had "similar training" in dazzling.

  31. Jez,

    I probably should have said misanthropic, because the appearance of the baby with his malproportioned limbs is even more grotesque than the mother's.

    May I take it then that you regard clumsy, colorless, badly proportioned, thick-limbed, thick-waisted, blunt-featured, peasantine representations of the human form as flattering and not in the least misanthropic?

    I could believe that, because it seems so much in accord with my understanding of the perverseness of modernity.

    Please don't take that as a personal attack on you. I don't blame you for your attitudes anymore than I would blame someone for catching a cold.

    When disease for which one has not developed immunity is rife, it's hardly fair to blame anyone for getting ill.

  32. I'm so visually illiterate I hesitate to make that judgement. Picasso always warps something, on this occasion geometry; it hadn't occurred to me that it should signify disgust for his subject.

    Can't your despair for modern humanity be accurately understood as misanthropy?

  33. Not at all, Jez.

    I don't dislike humanity; I just feel terribly sorry for our present condition. I can see quite clearly that the once-civilized-now-rapidly-disintegrating world has fallen under the spell of poisonously seductive ideologies.

    I regard these trends as a tragic misuse of our innate capacities to enjoy life to the fullest and occasionally perform great wonders. Perhaps "missed opportunities" would be a better term than misuse?

    We've become unbearably timid, cynical, mired in a wilderness of perplexing specifics that have no meaning unless seen from the macrocosmic as well as the microcosmic perspective.

    ~ FT

  34. It's always possible, of course, that Picasso had such a strong penchant for the grotesque that it simply cancelled out or obliterated his capacity to appreciate classical beauty.

    I don't dislike Picasso. I found him fascinating as a child, and still do. He found a way to appear unique -- a highly regarded phenomenon in the world of art criticism.

    It's possible to find fascination and excitement in forms of expression one would ever wish to emulate, thank God.

    I lament only when cynicism and grotesquerie seem to succeed in eliminating or supplanting earlier forms of expression that only an imbecile or a pervert would see as having no merit.

    Music is my primary field, of course. The notion often floated by academic "theorists" in search of notoriety that Haydn and Mozart were an IMPROVEMENT on Bach, or that Beethoven was an IMPROVEMENT on Haydn and Mozart,or that Wagner was more "advanced" than Chopin, Schumann and Brahms, etc. is fiendishly misleading.

    Each of the composers generally regarded a significant in the history of Western Music, added something remarkably fresh inventive, brilliant -- even UNIQUE -- to the literature.

    Mahler is NOT more "advanced" than Bach or Mozart, he simply built new structures on the foundation they supplied.

    It's really a very big subject.

    ~ FT

  35. I assure you I am neither timid nor cynical. Mired I could well be, but how can we avoid it without willfully ignoring bothersome details?

  36. That appears to elevate him to godlike status -- a place reserved only for the very greatest of the greats.

    He's considered the greatest American colorist of the 20th century. The palette was always inventive.

    He might have been challenged by Arthur Dove but I think Dove's use of saturated primaries made him a little more derivative.

  37. Well Jez you can compare the Picasso to the tenderness shown in the other Madonnas.

    Picasso's mom is not the mothering type.

  38. @FT --- I probably should have said misanthropic, because the appearance of the baby with his malproportioned limbs is even more grotesque than the mother's.

    In the early Renaissance the Christ was often "malformed".
    It was an attempt to show the Christ as innately mature and wise. This did lead to some very curious depictions throughout the early Renaissance.

    Picasso's figures seem ready for war.
    Never much cared for him. Matisse was always one step ahead.

  39. In the journey into the realm of the abstract and away from the real, the Left has ALWAYS been "one step ahead". But then, as Nietzsche said... (Gay Science 110)

    The thinker is now the being in whom the impulse to truth and those life-preserving errors wage their first conflict, now that the impulse to truth has also proved itself to be a life-preserving power. In comparison with the importance of this conflict everything else is indifferent; the final question concerning the conditions of life is here raised, and the first attempt is here made to answer it by experiment. How far is truth susceptible of embodiment - that is the question, that is the experiment.

    ...and just so I'm not misunderstood as to the "nature" of "the truth"...

    Wtp 493 (1885)

    Truth is the kind of error without which a certain species of life could not live. The value for life is ultimately decisive.

    WtP 534 (1887-1888)

    The criterion of truth resides in the enhancement of the feeling of power.

  40. Thank you for the information about early representation of the Christ Child.

    I had noticed early on that many of the babies were unattractive, and lacked the sentimental appeal we normally associate with infants. I vaguely wondered why, but never knew it was deliberately done for symbolic purposes.

    Many of the myriad Renaissance Madonnas are not very pretty. Luini's Nursing Madonna is a notable exception. I feel a goed deal of human warmth in the rosy glow of Albrecht Duerer's as well.

    I found one by Tintoretto where the traditional figures appear downright homely to my eyes, so despite Tintoretto's "name recognition," I didn't include it.

    To tell the truth I may have fudged a bit, because both the Cassatt and the Picasso were not labeled to indicate any intention to represent the Holy Family.

    Hundreds -- possibly thousands -- of Madonnas are available for inspection online. Too many is too many for a small item such as this, so we were highly selective.

    I thought you and others would have a lot say about Ofili, but nary word.

    I've decided now that the controversy has died away that the thing is rather beautiful. The use of color is outstanding, and flowing forms are wonderful. So good they make me forget the startling aspects of the face, which isolated from the rest might easily be considered monstrous.

    I'd love to year what Sister Wendy would have to say about it.



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