Tag Archives: painting

Madonnas and memory

April 8, 2015

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Raphael's The Conestabile Madonna

Raphael’s The Conestabile Madonna

Lessons in history and humanity plus drama, unconditional love and insight into one of the most difficult to understand of all diseases — Alzheimer’s — make Debra Dean’s “The Madonnas of Leningrad” a superb, satisfying read.

There’s a sampling of an art appreciation class, too, and brief, maybe too brief snatches of modern family dynamics. But those glimpses into contemporary life form the perfect background to better contrast with the values of the Russians who survived — and even those who didn’t survive — the Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II.

Da Vinci’s The Litta Madonna

With the war there is starvation and death and ruin, to be sure, but tremendous self sacrifice, too, and life, life so valued, life so amazing, captured so well in one scene, where women who have survived the siege learn that the story’s protagonist, Marina, is expecting and, after a winter of death, line up to touch her stomach and to feel the baby kick in her womb.

A tremendous sense of irony pours from the pages. In the godless Soviet Union the invaluable art collection of the Hermitage Museum, including precious images of the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child, is crated and trucked away to be saved from ruin or confiscation by the approaching German army.

At the suggestion of another Hermitage tour guide, young Marina, who later in life cannot remember the names of her own family members, commits to memory of all these wonderful madonnas — the Rubens, the da Vinci, the van Dyck, the Rembrandt and more — storing in her “memory palace” not only the details of the works and the stories they tell but even where they hung on the walls of the czar’s former Winter Palace.

It’s an act of mutual benefit. Not only does Marina save the memory of the art to share with those who may never have the chance to see them, but doing so gives her a reason to live, to survive at a time when bombs, cold, starvation and illness take the lives of thousands during the siege.

van Dyck

van Dyck’s The Rest on the Flight into Egypt

And, while this isn’t an outwardly religious novel, as the situation worsens for those freezing, starving, cowering from the bombs and removing the corpses of those who die each day, even a strict non-believer decides a little prayer couldn’t hurt.

“The Madonnas of Leningrad” is not a new book. Published in 2006, it garnered a number of honors. But as timely as the topic of Alzheimer’s is, you would think someone would make a movie of this terrific story.

If you choose to read the book — and even if you don’t — you’ll find images of some of the famous works of art named within at this website, along with excerpts of how they were described in the book. Start googling the paintings and you could lose several hours of your day!

Dean also mentions the Jordan Staircase in her novel. Here’s why:

The Jordan Staircase in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.

The Jordan Staircase in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.

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Don’t miss this Minnesota art exhibit

March 17, 2015

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Dawn and Sea, by George Morrison

Dawn and Sea, by George Morrison

Modern Spirit: The Art of George Morrison, is amazing for the variety of works produced by the late native American and Minnesotan.

20150210__150213wl-Morrison_78Untitled1994_Belvo_200The various genre of paintings alone is surprising, but when you see the carvings and the puzzle-like collections that compose huge landscapes, you’ll appreciate the varied gifts of the man.

Landscape

Landscape

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New England Landscape

George-Morrison-CUBE-at-Minnesota-Museum-of-ArtThe exhibit runs through April 26 at the Minnesota History Center, Kellogg Blvd. and John Ireland Blvd. in St. Paul.

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Publishers must think church saints are back in

July 28, 2011

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Saints are cool again. At least book publishers must figure they are.

Here’s a quick look at recent releases that target niche markets — teens and moms — people who might be searching for role models among the heavenly blessed — and one that could be for just about everyone.

Liguori Publications is aiming both at teenage readers and on-the-go mothers who might be looking for a spiritual boost — or at the least empathy.

In “Ablaze: Stories of Daring Teen Saints,” Colleen Swaim (http://www.liguori.org/productdetails.cfm?sku=820298) tells the real-life biographies of eight young people who lived relatively recently, all in an effort to help today’s young people understand that holiness is real and attainable.

Catholics will recognize names like Maria Goretti and Dominic Savio — well-known teens saints, but names new to me like St. Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception, an Indian nun, and St. Kizito, a  Ugandan martyred for his faith.

What makes the this 130-page paperback work is that Swaim knows her audience has short attention spans so she keeps the stories brief and interesting, but she also challenges teens to put themselves in the situations the saints found themselves, asking them to reflect upon questions like:

“Think back to the last time you were in physical pain. How did you react to it?”

And, “Do you remember making your first Holy Communion? How did you feel? How do you approach the Eucharist differently today?”

Even the brief text is broken up with definitions and info boxes scattered throughout along with prayers, quotes, and “Saintly Challenges” like, “With the zeal of a new convert, fearlessly tell one person about your faith.”

 

For Moms-on-the-go

In a similar vein but purse-size and just 79 pages is “Saints on Call: Everyday Devotions for Moms” (http://www.liguori.org/productdetails.cfm?PC=11903. Author Christine Gibson takes common, real-life situations — for example, “When you feel ‘sacrificed-out’ for your family…” — and offers a simple explanation how a saint dealt with a similar issue. Each brief story is followed by a quote from scripture to ponder and a prayer.

For the sacrificed-out mom, Gibson holds up St. Gianna Molla who chose to deliver her baby knowing it would cost her her own life. Gibson’s prayer hits home:

“St. Gianna, you made the ultimate sacrifice for your little one. I ask you to please pray for me that I may rejoice in the sacrifices I can make for my dear children.”

Among the more than four dozen other situations — each tied to a saint — are issues such as “When you feel like life is not going as you planned it…” (St. Rose Philippine Duchesne); “When you can’t stand another house guest…” (St. Lydia Pupuraria); “When you are worried about your wayward child…” (St. Monica).

Every single one is a winner.

 

For scholars, art lovers and, well, everyone

Finally, there’s this book that will appeal to a number of niche groups — and perhaps a general audience, too —  with stories about saints from Agatha to Zachariah.

“The Lives of the Saints through 100 Masterpieces” (http://www.dupress.duq.edu/pubDetails.asp?theISBN=9780820704364) is a Duquesne University Press paperback is going to be loved by those who cherish Christian art, but those interested in saints’ stories, myths, legends and history will find it compelling reading and viewing.

Written by Jacques Duquesne and Francois Lebrette and translated from the French by M. Cristina Borges, this 221-pager is a collection of saints’ biographies — and tales, to be honest — each accompanied by classic paintings that hang is places both well-known — The Louvre, The Prado — and obscure (to me at least), and almost all in Europe.

Even if you think you know the stories of saints you’ll find new information here. I especially appreciated the transparency of the authors who frankly acknowledge when something about one of the saintly heroes may have been passed down as mere legend.

Readers will appreciated learning why a saint is pictured in a certain way — St. Denis carrying his own head! – or typically painted with a certain object — a sword, a palm leaf, a stag, which would be St. Hubert, patron saint of hunters.

There are saints, too, that you may never have heard of — St. Fiacre, for example — that show the European bent of the authors. But those tales are interesting, too, and the paintings that help tell the story are indeed masterpieces. Warning: The retail cost is a bit steep at $29.95, but it isn’t cheap to print all those color paintings, and the print job is superb, even in the smaller format.– bz

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Van Gogh for children? Story and illustrations paint new book into a confusing corner: Who is the audience?

April 19, 2011

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Are young readers ready for the life story of a famous artist who commits suicide?

That question nagged at me upon several passes through “Vincent van Gogh and the Colors of the Wind.”

Author Chiara Lossani’s text – driven by the 19th century artist’s own letters to Theo, his brother and best friend – offers biographical information, of course, but, even better, insight into the creative mind.

It’s a troubled mind, as we know, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many young readers at the lower end of the target age (seven and up) could handle the alcoholism, the insanity, the frank description of the artist’s roommate, Paul Gauguin, waking up to find van Gogh “standing at the foot of his bed, staring at him with cold eyes, a razor in his hands.”

No less slicing off a piece of his own ear and shooting himself.

Age-appropriate for young readers?

It’s content more appropriate for older students, it would seem, but then I wondered if the children’s book size and the illustrations were such that might turn off, say, a junior high reader.

The fact that the illustrations by Octavia Monaco are full-page for the most part points to that lower-age target audience, yet Monaco’s work is hardly childish. In many instances her use of bright colors echoes van Gogh’s famous paintings, but the artistic subtleties are way above my perception of anything a second-grader would appreciate.

As an adult, I really liked the book, yet I couldn’t help but think this effort in the Eerdmans Books for Young Readers series could have benefited from better design.

First, the reproductions of 14 of van Gogh’s paintings are too small. Just from a size comparison, the art of the book’s illustrator overwhelms the art of the renowned subject of the book! Let me see: Do I want to see van Gogh’s work in a book about van Gogh, or Monaco’s?

Secondly, black type overprinted on dark-colored illustrations is simply difficult to read. Lossani packs lots of information into the 34 pages — I didn’t know van Gogh once had been in the ministry, did you? — but the design does her text no favors.

On the plus side: Giving elementary school students an introduction – any introduction – to the creative arts and the cultural heritage of a van Gogh is an admirable project. Just the lesson Vincent shares with Theo – “Painters teach us to see” – is a lesson worth learning at an early age. – bz

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Art books captures angels captured by heavenly artists

November 18, 2009

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“The Glory of Angels,”
by Edward Lucie-Smith

Seraphim, cherubim, archangels and guardian angels.

That’s the sum total of my knowledge of angels before working my way through Edward Lucie-Smith’s huge, beautiful coffee table book.

Its pages are filled with so much about angels I never knew.

“The Glory of Angels” covers the waterfront about the heavenly host. Readers will find there is a hierarchy or “order” of angels — and archangel is only one category. Each level of angel supposedly has a job to do. This pecking order, if you will, appears in neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor the New Testament, but only shows up in the 4th century, so take that as a word to the wise.

On the other hand, there are numerous references to angels in both the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament, and this book reminds us of a number of them through use of well-placed and eye-catching quotations from the Psalms, Genesis, Revelation and St. Paul’s letters. There are pertinent quotes as well from artists, saints and historic figures.

But the written copy or text is really secondary in “The Glory of Angels.” The text simple is the skeleton for the real flesh of this book.

This is one marvelous gathering of stupendous art.

Works by the masters
Lucie-Smith may have captured on these pages a majority of the world’s great renderings of angels in art. Paintings, frescoes, tapestry, sculpture, bas relief, icons, stained glass, mosaics, even dishes and jewelry — they’re all here, and by scores of the most famous artists across the ages.

A Tiffany window, color-bursting modern works by Kandinsky, Kim, Gauguin, Dali and Chagall, pieces by masters such as Rubens, Giotto, Bernini, El Greco and Manet.

Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Titian all have their own version of God’s angel stopping Abraham as he’s about to sacrifice his son Isaac.)

One of my favorites is the beautifully framed Nativity done by Della Robbia in brilliant white marble on a stunning blue field. In it, God the Father and a host of angels want from above as the Virgin prays over the Christ Child in the manger.

Images both familiar and fresh
Readers with even a slight connection to religious literature will immediately recognize the sword-bearing angelic figure as the Archangel Michael. More than half-dozen images depict the warrior angel, the best being a two-page spread that carries the near-science fiction scene of “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” that Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted in the 16th century. The characterization of the bad angels turning into grotesque beasts rivals anything from the cantina scene in “Star Wars,” and a golden-clad Michael is prominent in the center of the action.

Gabriel appears in any number of renderings of the Annunciation. The angels often come in dreams — to Jacob and St. Joseph, for example –and they come from scores of countries, including China, Japan, Senegal, India and Ethiopia. Angels even illustrate pages of some copies of the Muslim Qu’ran.

Not a believer in angels?
The 192-page Collins/Design large hardcover offers a chapter titled “What Angels Do For Us” that invites readers to walk through works of art that show that, in the authors words, “we perceive things through our encounters with angels that might otherwise be hidden from us.” A handful of works bring guardian angels into the picture, saving mostly children from danger, but adults as well.

The coolest: “Cowboy Angel” complete with chaps, by Delmas Howe. The most different: Rom Mueck’s “Angel,” an elfish male sans clothing perched atop an old stool.

In a wonderfully designed and elegantly printed book, two elements stand out. The first is the interesting way the art is identified, with caption information about title, artist and era available on the page or nearby and clear via a numbering and icon system.

The second is a superb index — slugged “Picture Resource” — with thumbnail versions of each work, the page on which it appears, the title, artist, time frame, current location, medium and genre.

That alone turns a gorgeous coffee table book into an invaluable art resource. — bz
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Take a Sistine Chapel tour without ever leaving home

January 19, 2009

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“Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,”

by Andrew Graham-Dixon

If you’ve ever taken a tour with a guide who wasn’t connecting with his or her group, you come to appreciate really good tour guides, people who not only know their subject but engage you in the topic, bringing information, insight and even entertainment.

My wife and I had that excellent kind of guide — Liz Lev — with a group touring the Vatican Museums. Everything we saw became so much more meaningful thanks to a great guide who was able to help us see not just artistic value but intention and the works’ place in history.

With “Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,” Andrew Graham-Dixon offers much of the same insight to his readers.

It’s not quite halfway into his book that the London-based art critic begins an absolutely thorough interpretation of Michelangelo’s famous paintings on the ceiling and wall of the Sistine Chapel.

But that’s because he sets up his art instructing by first giving readers a rather complete picture of the artist and his world at the beginning of the 16th century.

Inside Michelangelo’s world
No piece of the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti is left untouched, and I came to feel that the biographical section of this book was as helpful and important for understanding the Sistine Chapel as the interpretation of the world-renown paintings itself.

We learn of the artist’s family background, his training, his benefactors — and most importantly his faith.


Graham-Dixon’s analysis is that Michelangelo felt the hand of God in his life:

“Before he was ever chosen by the Medici, or the pope, he had been chosen by God. . . . He felt that he had been given his gifts by God, and charged with serving the purposes of the divine will.”

Using those God-given skills then, “Michelangelo did not just invent a new kind of art, but a new idea of what art could be,” Graham-Dixon claims. “He put his own sensibility, his own intellect, his own need and desire to fathom the mysteries of Christian faith, centre stage.”

A superior user’s guide
The heart of the book, written in observance of the 500th anniversary of the start of the work by Michelangelo in 1508, is Graham-Dixon’s interpretation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling itself. While not ignoring style, he focuses on what Michelangelo meant by what he painted, how the pictures’ meanings unfold, the subtle ways through which the artist gave expressive life to this amazing group of interlinked compositions.


As a user’s guide to the Sistine Chapel, this book is superb.


Graham-Dixon walks us through each section and each panel of each section, pointing out not only beauty and the technical skill but why each figure is painted the way it is.

What we learn is that Michelangelo was a student of Holy Scripture — especially the Hebrew Books — and that he aimed to paint “his own vision of what he believed to be the eternal truths of Christianity,” the author states.


Readers will come to understand the geography of the chapel ceiling, how the famous depiction of creation — with God’s pointed finger reading out to touch the finger of Adam — fits into the rest of the biblical history, with the great cast of characters including Eve, Noah, David and Goliath, Judith, Jeremiah, Jonah and on and on.


Graham-Dixon gives his excellent interpretive skills to helping readers grasp in much the same way Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement,” painted 15 years after the ceiling. Taking up the entire wall behind the chapel’s altar, it is a monumental fresco as rich with meaning as the ceiling above.


Sadly, details of this beautiful work are depicted only in black and white photos, which hardly do justice to this colorful masterpiece.

Bigger would be better
And, if there is any fault at all in “Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,” it is the small size of the pages — six inches by nine inches. There are 32 full-color pages that bring the Sistine’s ceiling right into our hands, but I couldn’t help but think how much more delight to the eye would have been deivered in a larger format. Perhaps Skyhorse Publishing will be able to work that out in a later edition.

As it is, though, I compared the printing in this latest book with the same Sistine Chapel panels printed in a larger, coffeetable-sized book given to me as a gift several years ago.

The color work — the brightness and the clarity — in “Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel” is far superior.

If you plan to visit the Vatican, take this along to read on the plane ride. It’s a fact-filled yet easy read with the beautiful prose that is the hallmark of a fine writer.– bz

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