Nov 30, 2010

The Ghent Altarpiece: Secret History Of Art Podcast

Since its completion in 1432, this twelve-panel oil painting has disappeared, been looted in three different wars, burned, dismembered, copied, forged, smuggled, illegally sold, painted over, censored, attacked by iconoclasts, hidden away, hunted by Nazis and Napoleon, prized by The Louvre and a Prussian king, damaged by conservators, returned as war reparations, stored in castle vaults and secret salt mines, used as a diplomatic tool, nearly been blown up, ransomed, rescued by Austrian double-agents, and stolen a total of thirteen times.  This podcast introduces The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, the most victimized, and perhaps the most influential, painting in history.

Nov 29, 2010

Valdes Leal "In Ictu Oculi" & "Finis Gloriae Mundi"

Juan de Valdés Leal 
“In Ictu Oculi” & “Finis Gloriae Mundi”
The Brotherhood of Charity (La Caridad) was founded in Seville in 1565, one of many religious confraternities active in Spain. Its goal began as the provision of proper Christian burial for the poor, but they eventually established a hospital for paupers. There were groups of men who gathered for social and charitable functions, much like today’s Knights of Columbus or Rotary Club. Patron of the Brotherhood Don Miguel de Manara commissioned these artworks to decorate the hospital that his confraternity established. Members of the confraternity would pool resources, and were therefore able to commission such wondrous works as this pair of paintings by Juan de Valdes Leal.

The Brotherhood commissioned a series of work within an overall theme—the way to Salvation through Christian charity. This pair of paintings, as intriguing as they are macabre, show the futility of earthly vanity. The second part of the series shows the way to salvation through the Seven Acts of Mercy, six of which can be seen in paintings by the celebrated Bartolome Murillo (1617-1682), also on display. The seventh, burying the dead (the specialty of this Brotherhood) is shown in the altarpiece Entombment sculpture group by Pedro Roldán. The final element of the series, on the lateral altars, comprises two other painting by Murillo, showing Saint John and Saint Elizabeth, exemplars of charitable goodness.
The location of the works of Juan Valdes Leal (1622-1690), just by the entrance, means that visitors are first confronted by the grim warning they provide against earthly vanities, before walking along the “path to salvation” past the Seven Acts of Mercy. This gruesome pair also must be passed on the way out of the chapel, a stern reminder not to forget the lessons learned inside.

But why so gruesome and macabre? The 17th century saw a worldwide fascination with witchcraft, inspired by the most popular book of the era, Malleus Maleficorum (“The Hammer of the Witches” published in 1487 and republished in countless editions), which was essentially a handbook on how to recognize and prosecute witches. Spanish and Italian artists fed this popular interest by incorporating supernatural elements into their allegorical paintings. It was an era in which skeletons, crypts, and occult implements found their way into paintings that, a century earlier, would have settled for less dramatic allegorical attributes. This was, to some extent, a reaction against the strict demands on how art should look, imparted by the Counter-Reformation (particularly after the Council of Trent in 1545). Artists enjoyed expressing themselves in a particularly unorthodox manner when the opportunity presented itself. The revolution that Caravaggio’s work inspired throughout Europe, with his heavy chiaroscuro (figures emerging out of darkness into dramatic spot-lighting) and his unidealized, often shocking naturalism, gave artists of the Baroque period a licence that more traditional, academic contemporaries and painters of earlier periods did not enjoy.

The painting labelled Finis Gloria Mundi (“The End of Earthly Glory”) is meant to be both a warning and of some comfort. The scene is a charnelhouse (a bone respository in a crypt) with the open coffin of a bishop and a decomposing corpse beside it. Hanging on scales held by a disembodied celestial arm are items associated with the occult (a goat, a human heart), balanced out against holy Catholic objects (including a heart topped with the coat-of-arms of Christ, the IHS). The occult objects are labelled with “NIMAS” (“no more”) while the Catholic objects bare the label “NIMENOS” (“no less”). An owl lurks in the back, is an ancient symbol of night and witchcraft. The canvas labelled In Ictu Oculi (“In the Twinkling of an Eye”) shows Death as a skeleton, carrying a scythe and lugging a coffin under his arm, standing in triumph atop attributes of earthly glory: a globe, armor, fine garments, architectural books, missals, gold crowns, even a bishop’s staff and headpiece.

Don Miguel, patron of these works, was an ardent adherent to a life against vanity. In his Will, he describes himself as not only as a sinner, but also as an adulterer, thief and servant of the Devil. The epitaph carved, at his request, on his tomb reads: “Here lie the bones and ashes of the worst person who ever lived on earth." He must have been an awkward guest at dinner parties. The moral for this allegory of death? Everyone dies, the highly moral and the highly immoral, the bishop and the sinner. We all become bones, we all decompose: all are equal in death. Cold comfort for hospital decoration.

Nov 28, 2010

Van Eyck "The Ghent Altarpiece"

Jan van Eyck 
The Ghent Altarpiece
This monumental altarpiece, one of the most important works in the history of art, also has the dubious distinction of being the most frequently stolen artwork of all time.  It is therefore the most desired and victimized painting in history.

Since its completion in 1432, this twelve-panel oil painting has disappeared, been looted in three different wars, burned, dismembered, copied, forged, smuggled, illegally sold, painted over, censored, attacked by iconoclasts, hidden away, hunted by Nazis and Napoleon, prized by The Louvre and a Prussian king, damaged by conservators, returned as war reparations, stored in castle vaults and secret salt mines, used as a diplomatic tool, nearly been blown up, ransomed, rescued by Austrian double-agents, and stolen a total of thirteen times.

Perhaps the single most influential painting in the history of art, it is certainly the most important object in the history of art theft.  No other artwork has been subject to so many adventures and crimes, both attempted and successful.  Though an inanimate object, the enormous altarpiece in all its intricacies and intrigues develops a personality of its own.  Indeed, this disappearing masterpiece seems loathe to stand still for too long.

There is even a mystery around its creation.  Everyone has heard of Jan van Eyck (1395-1441), but what about Hubert van Eyck?  An inscription was discovered in the 19th century which reads that this artwork was begun by Hubert van Eyck and finished by Jan, the painter’s brother.  But while evidence exists that a painter called Hubert van Eyck lived in Ghent at the time that the Ghent Altarpiece was painted, not a single authenticated painting by Hubert exists today.  Some think that the inscription was a contemporary forgery, while others think that Hubert van Eyck is a lost genius.  Art historians are still divided.

What makes this painting so important to the history of art?  What, beyond its beauty, made it so desired as to have been the victim of so many crimes?

It is the first major work by the young genius, Jan van Eyck.  While Jan did not invent oil painting, as has been popularly misconceived, he was the first to take full advantage of the capabilities of the new medium, which permitted infinitely greater detail than the previous painting method, tempera, which used opaque egg yolk to bind pigment, rather than translucent oil.  After this painting, oil would become the universal preferred medium.  Jan’s advances in oil were for painters what the first use of steel was for architects.

Art historians love to recite “firsts.”  So while Jan was not the first oil painter, he was the first to paint:
·         monumental works with an intricate level of detail usually reserved for portrait miniatures and illuminated manuscripts.
·         observed naturalistic details, such as the effect of water seen through glass, the light reflecting in a horse’s eye, and botanically-identifiable plants.
·         the un-idealized human nude, in the figures of Adam and Eve.
·         individually detailed faces in a massive crowd scene with over one-hundred figures, taking the time to render vivid portrait-like expressions, if not actual portraits.
·         articulated bodies beneath painted clothing, the people wearing the clothes rather than the clothes floating around the people.
·         using disguised symbolism, imbuing realistically-realized and situated objects with a covert Christian symbolism.
The following other statements will clarify what may be said historically about Jan and Hubert:
·         Hubert van Eyck was indeed a painter and brother to Jan.  He was commissioned to paint the Ghent Altarpiece, but he died so soon after having received the commission that his presence is all but inarticulate.  The painting as we see it is therefore wholly the work of Jan.
·         Jan did not invent oil painting, but did bring it to an unprecedented level of excellence, turning the mere binding of pigments with oil into a masterful medium that would be preferred by every painter from his day forth.
·         Along with Giotto in Italy, Jan may be considered the first Renaissance artist.
·         In his unprecedented realism, Jan may be considered a forefather of Realism as an artistic movement.
·         The Ghent Altarpiece being Jan’s premiere major artwork may be seen as the first instance of his many “firsts” as an artist.
·         Because it is the most frequently stolen painting in history, it follows that the Ghent Altarpiece is also the most desired painting in history.
For historians of art and art crime, the Ghent Altarpiece should be number one on the list of what must be seen.

Below is a chronology of events in the history of The Ghent Altarpiece.  For more images and details, visit  For the full story of the most frequently stolen, and arguably the most important painting ever made, please see the new book, Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story of the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece (PublicAffairs).

Chronology of Key Events Related to The Ghent Altarpiece
c. 1385
Hubert van Eyck is born, probably in Maaseyck.
c. 1395
Jan van Eyck is born, probably in Maaseyck.
Philip the Good, the third Duke of Burgundy, rules Flanders.
Jan moves to Bruges and is appointed Court Painter and valet de chamber to Philip the Good.
Hubert van Eyck dies. 
The Ghent Altarpiece, originally commissioned of Hubert van Eyck by Joos Vijd (perhaps as early as 1420) is taken up by Jan.  The state of the altarpiece at this time is unknown.
The Burgundian treasury in Lille pays for the first of many journeys and “secret” missions to “distant lands” undertaken by Jan in the service of Philip the Good.
6 May 1432
The Ghent Altarpiece is presented to the public for the first time, at the occasion of the baptism of Philip the Good’s son, Joos.
Jan paints Portrait in a Red Turban, unanimously considered to be a self-portrait.
Jan paints his second-most famous work, The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait (also known as The Marriage Contract).
9 July 1441
Jan dies and is buried in Bruges.
Giorgio Vasari credits Jan with the “invention of oil painting,” adding to his already considerable renown and mystique.
19-20 August 1566
Calvinist rioters break into Saint Bavo Cathedral, intent on burning The Ghent Altarpiece as a Catholic icon.  They are foiled by the wiles of a small band of knights who dismantled the altarpiece and hid it in one of the church towers, locking themselves into the stairwell, and prepared to defend it with their lives.
Emperor Joseph II of Bohemia and Hungary visits the cathedral to see the famous altarpiece.  While he admires the painting, he finds the images of the nude, warts-and-all Adam and Eve too realistic and ignoble for his Enlightenment tastes.  The Adam and Eve panels are removed to the cathedral archives.
French Republican troops capture the city of Ghent and steal the four central panels of the altarpiece, sending them to The Louvre.
The four central panels are returned to Ghent after the Battle of Waterloo, a thank-you gift from the new French king, Louis XVIII, who had been sheltered in Ghent when Napoleon escaped from Elba.
Vicar Le Surre steals the wing panels of the altarpiece from the cathedral while the bishop is out of town.  They are smuggled and sold to Brussels art dealer L J Nieuwenhuys, who almost certainly commissioned the theft.  They will be bought by British collector Edward Solly, and sold once more to Frederick William III, the King of Prussia, who hoped to build a collection that would out-do The Louvre.
A fire breaks out in Saint Bavo Cathedral, and the remaining panels of the altarpiece suffer minor damage.
The wing panels of the altarpiece are cleaned at the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin, which had inherited the Prussian royal collection.  On the back of one of the panels the famous and mysterious inscription is discovered, suggesting for the first time to art historians that the previously unknown artist “Hubert van Eyck” began The Ghent Altarpiece.
At the start of the First World War The Ghent Altarpiece is divided among three cities.  The Adam and Eve panels are in Brussels, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts.  The stolen wing panels are in Berlin.  And the four central panels remain in Ghent, on display at the cathedral.
When German occupation of Ghent seemed inevitable, Canon Gabriel van den Gheyn arranged to smuggle the central panels out of the cathedral and hide them for the duration of the war, to preserve them from German art hunters. Germans attempt to discover the location of the central panels in order to steal them on five separate occasions during the occupation.
The Treaty of Versailles specifically cites The Ghent Altarpiece and insists that the wing panels be returned from Berlin to Ghent.
Only now is the Treaty of Versailles enforced, and the wing panels returned to Ghent.  The Adam and Eve panels are likewise returned from Brussels, so the altarpiece is whole once more.
10 April 1934
The Righteous Judges and Saint John the Baptist panels are stolen from the cathedral during the night.  A ransom demand follows.  The Saint John panel is returned in a show of good faith on the part of the criminals, but the ransom is never paid.  A total of 13 ransom notes follow.
25 November 1934
Arséne Goedertier collapses of a heart attack and whispers with his dying breath that he is last man on earth to know the location of the stolen Righteous Judges panel.  Four magistrates begin a one-month investigation before informing the police.  The situation suggests a cover-up.
Righteous Judges theft case officially closed.  Amateur detectives will pick up the case and find fascinating clues that evaded, or were intentionally over-looked by, the official investigators.
Belgian Minister of the Interior Octave Dierckx is approached by a lawyer who, on behalf of an anonymous client, offers to return the Judges panel for 500,000 francs. The matter was brought before the Belgian prime minister, Paul-Henri Spaak, who rejected the negotiations out of hand, saying, “One doesn’t do business with gangsters. We’re not in America.”
Conservator Jef van derk Veken begins his replacement copy of the Righteous Judges panel.  He completes it in 1945, and the following year it is installed with the 11 remaining original panels of The Ghent Altarpiece.
May 1940
At the start of the Second World War, The Ghent Altarpiece is sent for safe-keeping to Chateau de Pau in the south of France.
Summer 1942
On order from Hermann Göring, the altarpiece is stolen from Chateau de Pau by Dr Ernst Buchner, director of the Bavarian state museums.  It is brought first to Paris, then to Castle Neuschwanstein, were it is treated by a conservator.
Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives branch of the Allied Army is founded.  The “Monuments Men” would seek out and protect tens of thousands of stolen and damaged artworks and monuments in the wake of fighting across Europe.  Among the most prominent of the Monuments Men rank Robert K. Posey and Lincoln Kirstein.  Attached to the Allied Third Army, they would lead the Allied effort to save the thousands of stolen artworks stored in a hidden warehouse in the Austrian salt mine of Alt Aussee.
8 April 1945
Operation Ebensburg begins, led by Austrian double-agent Albrecht Gaiswinkler.  The efforts of his commando team, Alt Aussee miners, and the local Austrian Resistance would delay the intended destruction of the mine and all its contents until the Allied Army arrived.
8 May 1945
The Allied Third Army arrives at Alt Aussee and secures the salt mine.  Posey and Kirstein help to excavate over twelve-thousand stolen masterpieces stored there.
21 August 1945
Posey accompanies The Ghent Altarpiece on its storm-tossed flight back to Belgium.  He will receive the highest honor awarded by the Belgian government for his service in preservation of their national treasure.
Jef van der Veken’s copy of the Righteous Judges panel is installed along with the recovered original, so that The Ghent Altarpiece appears once more complete.
Conservator Jos Trotteyn, after two decades of cleaning The Ghent Altarpiece, suddenly believes that the Righteous Judges panel, painted by Jef van der Veken during the Second World War, has been replaced by the 600-year-old original.  Tests are run by the diocese, who announce that, unfortunately, the panel on display is the van der Veken copy, not the stolen original.  But the test results are never made public.  Many believe that the stolen original is back in its place, and the altarpiece is whole once more.
The Getty Foundation and the Belgian Government announce a plan to restore The Ghent Altarpiece for the first time in decades.  The restoration could finally resolve the mystery of the Righteous Judges panel.  The debate over its restoration was recently profiled in The New Yorker, in an article by Peter Schjeldahl. 

The Ghent Altarpiece, for all its twists and turns, remains the most frequently stolen, and victimized, artwork in history, the subject of 13 crimes including seven separate thefts.  It is also, one may argue, the single most influential, and most desired, painting in history.

Nov 23, 2010

Valdes Leal: Secret History of Art Podcast

Juan de Valdés Leal 
“In Ictu Oculi” & “Finis Gloriae Mundi”
This week's podcast examines a macabre pair of paintings found in Seville, "In Ictu Oculi" and "Finis Gloriae Mundi" by Juan de Valdes Leal.  Learn why coffin-carrying skeletons and decomposing bishops in open tombs makes for comforting hospital decoration.

Nov 19, 2010

Guernica : Secret History Of Art Podcast

In this episode of The Secret History of Art, Noah Charney takes you on a guided tour of Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece, “Guernica,” which hangs in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.  The painting’s devastating abstraction of the horrors of war has spoken to generations, and is so powerful that it inspired an art lover to an atrocious act of vandalism against it.

Carpaccio : Secret History Of Art Podcast

In this episode of The Secret History of Art, Noah Charney takes you on a guided tour of Vittore Carpaccio’s “Young Knight in a Landscape,” a large painting which hangs in Madrid’s Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.  Learn why this knight’s identity was hidden in symbols and code, which symbols have been deciphered, and how a forger managed to trick centuries of owners of this work into thinking that it was by Albrecht Durer.

Petrus Christus : Secret History Of Art Podcast

In this episode of The Secret History of Art, Noah Charney takes you on a guided tour of a tiny painting in Madrid’s Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza entitled “Our Lady of the Dry Tree” by Petrus Christus.  The painting contains a unique set of symbols found nowhere else in the history of art, and involves a secret Renaissance brotherhood whose existence, before the decoding of this painting, was all but unknown.

Nov 15, 2010

Carpaccio "Young Knight in a Landscape"

Vittore Carpaccio
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza
The Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio (1460-1525) takes his place alongside fellow resident of La Serenissima, Giovanni Bellini, as one of many great artists after whom a culinary delicacy is named.  Thinly-sliced beef or tuna served with lemon was invented at Harry’s Bar, in Venice, as the ideal accompaniment for a Bellini (a peach and champagne cocktail), also created at the legendary café and now available throughout the world. 
Although such a statement may seem like a silly aside, it is in fact worth noting because many non-art historians in the world will have encountered beef carpaccio long before they ever see a painting by the dish’s namesake.  This is an example of how fame and name recognition can precede the appreciation or even understanding of what the named individual actually did.  One wonders what a great painter like Carpaccio would think, to know that his name is known by millions around the world—but as an Italian hors d’oeuvre?
            The painter Carpaccio was a life-long resident of Venice, who likely trained with Giovanni Bellini (insert lunch-related joke here), although as is the case for so many artists of this period, no documentary evidence has been found from the start of Carpaccio’s career.  His paintings are not quintessentially Venetian, the way one can see a continuum from Giovanni Bellini, to his pupils, Giorgione and Titian, whose work influenced Palma Vecchio, his son Palma Giovane, and the other great Venetians, Veronese and Tintoretto.  Within that group we can see distinctive stylistic consistencies.  The way faces and bodies are formed, a sense of roundness to faces, a reliance on color over line, and the paintings laid out in blocks of color rather than drawn with lines that were then colored in, all distinguish this Venetian style, as opposed to contemporary paintings from central Italy. 
In Carpaccio we find hints of Antonello da Messina, the great early proponent of oil painting who worked primarily in Sicily, and the painting style that developed in Ferrara, with the likes of Cosme Tura, Dosso Dossi, and Garofalo.  Stylistic precedents can provide important clues as to the biography of a young artist.  Could Carpaccio have studied in Ferrara?  By the looks of his paintings, certainly.  But likewise could a Ferrarese painter have been working in Venice?  Sure.  It is a favorite game for art historians to play, filling in the gaps in documentary evidence with a geography of style, but one must always exercise caution when documentary evidence is absent, and also consider what benefit the inferred knowledge might bring us.  The rather complex iconography of this, Carpaccio’s monumental allegory, may indeed be clearer for our understanding of his background.
            Carpaccio first appears in records for a series of paintings for the various religious confraternities of Venice, from 1490-94, when he painted eight large works on the life of Saint Ursula for the confraternity named in her honor.  Carpaccio liked to work large, and to include a great many details that would draw the eyes of his viewers and spark debate as to what they represented. 
It is important to keep in mind that most paintings of the Renaissance were meant to be interactive—to be prayed through, spoken to, discussed with friends.  Details would be noticed only after time and careful study, and potentially enigmatic allegories or iconographic choices were part of the fun, permitting scholarly discussion or erudite observations among friends.  Paintings were not static objects to be admired once and then to serve as wall decoration.  For this reason, a wealth of details and interesting diversions from traditional presentation were desirable, giving the viewer a lot to admire, a lot to consider, and many years of interaction.
            And so we come to this work, of enormous size and verdant detail.  Unusually, the canvas is signed and dated, on the little painted paper slip in the grass: VICTOR CARPATHIUS / FINXIT / MDX (Latin for “Vittorio Carpaccio made it 1510”).  On a sheet of paper to the knight’s left, is another phrase: MALO MORI / Quam / FOEDARI, which is a family motto translating as “Better to die than to be disgraced.”  A fitting motto for an idealistic young knight, like the subject of this painting.
            This painting was purchased from a collection in the rather random location of Yorkshire, England, where it was attributed in the 19th century to Albrecht Dürer.  Dürer’s famous monogram signature, a large capital “A” over a small capital “D,” had been added at some point by a forger, who had also covered over the two painted pieces of paper containing the Latin legend mentioned above.  It was as late as 1958 that the canvas was cleaned and the signature, legend, and date were uncovered.
Scholars have had difficulty identifying the knight.  It was originally thought to be Saint Eustace, a knight who saw a stag in the woods with antlers in the form of a crucifix.  There is a stag in the back right of the painting, but its antlers do not seem to form a cross.  The discovery of the motto led scholars to think that this was an identifiable individual, a knight of the Order of the Ermine, an honorary order of knights modeled on the famous Order of the Garter, which was founded by Jean IV of Brittany in 1448.  Count Ludovico Sforza of Milan was a member of this Order of the Ermine, as was Ferdinand II of Aragon.  Leonardo’s wonderful painting, Lady with an Ermine, refers to this Order.  This then begs the question: shouldn’t there be an ermine in this painting?  There is: just to the left of the knight’s right foot.
So, if we can agree that this knight is a member of the Order of the Ermine, then who might it be?  Various studies have suggested a number of knights, all members of the Order, who lived at the correct time to have posed.  Of these, the most widely accepted subject is Francesco Maria della Rovere, the third Duke of Urbino.  Perhaps the landscape or animals depicted provide clues to the identity of this mysterious knight?  It certainly doesn’t look like a Venetian landscape, which is the first surprise, as Carpaccio’s career is documented in Venice.  Could he have traveled to Urbino, with no documentary evidence surviving? 
The flora and fauna that populates this grassland is ripe with symbolism.  To provide a key to each symbol would require several more pages of text, but some basic links will provide a taste: a dog symbolizes loyalty, a white lily stands for purity, while the peacock is a traditional symbol of royalty, but also has a religious association, related to the uncorrupt body of Christ.  There is so much more, and it would be easy to sit before this one painting for hours, as have many art historians.  Why is the castle in the background a ruin?  Why is there the sign of a horse hanging off the battlements?  Who is the other knight, dressed in ceremonial garb, in the middle-ground?  Symbolic readings of the landscape in which the knight stands, and the animals found throughout it, may be interpreted to corroborate the theory that this is the Duke of Urbino—but other scholars have made convincing arguments for other identities of this young knight, so his identity remains an intriguing mystery.

Nov 10, 2010

Pablo Picasso "Guernica"

Pablo Picasso
Museo Rena Sophia
Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso (1881-1973), to quote his full name, was born to a middle class family in Malaga.  His father was an art teacher, curator, and a painter specializing in naturalistic depictions of birds.  Young Pablo began formal training in art at age seven.  By age thirteen his family had moved to La Coruña, where his father took a position as an art teacher.  Pablo was sketching a pigeon, when his father happened to glance at the drawing.  His father was so impressed with the sketch that he acknowledged that his son had surpassed him in draughtsmanship, even at that young age.  Picasso’s father was offered a teaching position in Barcelona, and the family moved back south.  Pablo took the entrance exam for the School of Fine Arts in Barcelona and gained entrance, years younger than the other students.  In 1897, Picasso’s father determined to send Pablo to Madrid’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the nation’s foremost art school.  Picasso excelled, but refused to take the suggestions of his teachers seriously.  He was undisciplined, and eventually stopped attending class.  What drew his admiration was the riches of Madrid’s museums, particularly the work of Velazquez and El Greco, whose Mannerist hyper-extension of limbs and human body distortions would influence his later work.
            On 26 April 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, a swarm of fighter planes attacked the Basque town of Guernica, killing hundreds of civilians.  The town was an important strategic center for the Republican forces, who were fighting against the Nationalist forces, the ultimate victors, led by General Franco.  Guernica was the traditional meeting place for a Basque governmental body, but it was also the last defensible town for the Republicans, standing between Franco’s forces and the Basque capital, Bilbao.
            Franco’s Nationalists were aided by German and Italian Fascists, and it was planes of the Italian Fascist Aviazione Legionaria and the German Luftwaffe Condor Legion that provided the aerial assault ahead of Franco’s infantry, in an attack that was called Operation Rügen.  In terms of military history, this was an important strike because the target was not military.  It was, rather, a terror bombing assault on civilians, with no military presence in the town.  The world looked upon the action with horror, recognizing that innocent civilians would not be exempt from war.  It provided a frightening foretaste of the Second World War, showing that the Fascists, particularly the Luftwaffe, had no scruples about killing civilians.  The attackers even chose Monday, the local market day, for the strike, to maximize potential civilian casualties.
            Picasso created this monumental work, considered by many to be his greatest painting, for the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne at the Paris International Exposition, part of the 1937 World's Fair in Paris.  The painting was then sent on a brief world tour, displayed in Scandinavia, London, and New York.  It helped to raise international awareness of the Spanish Civil War, and in the process spread Picasso’s fame.
            The chaotic nature of the scene depicted can make it difficult to pick out specific figures.  The chaos is intentional, and wonderfully evokes the horror and disarray of the attack by disorienting the viewer into sympathy with the victims.  The scene is a room that is open at the left side.  Animals and people are involved in the commotion, and it is often difficult to distinguish one from the other.  A horse has fallen, after being harpooned with a spear, and a bull stands beside a weeping mother and her dead child.  Some details of interest to note include: tongues replaced by daggers, a bull’s tail transforming into smoking flame, the severed arm of a soldier still holding a sword that sprouts flower petals, a wound in the open palm of the dead soldier (referencing the stigmata), and a light bulb that resembles the Evil Eye, a gypsy curse.  There are two images hidden within the body of the fallen horse: a human skull that may be seen in the horse’s body, and a bull’s head, ready to gore the horse’s belly (the bull’s head is formed by the horse’s front leg, with its knee on the ground—the knee cap forms the nose on this hidden bull’s head, while the bull’s horn is formed within the horse’s breast).
            Art historians love to seek interpretations in art that may or may not have existed in the initial concept of the artists.  For instance, much has been written about the symbolism of horses and bulls in Spanish culture (referencing bull fighting, for instance), and about Picasso’s tendency to use the Minotaur (half man, half bull) as a sexual symbol.  When asked about the symbolism, Picasso said, "...this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse... If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got, I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously.  I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are."  That sums up nicely the general approach to finding symbolism in 20th century art.  It might be there, it might not.  Your personal interpretation is what counts, what you the individual viewer feel the work is about.  In this painting, over-interest in symbolic meaning can miss the point.   The overall feeling of horror and chaos is more important than what the component parts symbolize.
Picasso shifted through a number of stylistic periods, his work growing ever more abstract.  His concept of Cubism, in which naturalistic images (such as still-lifes or portraits) are broken up into constituent basic geometric forms that are then shuffled like a dropped deck of cards, later shifted into putty-like shapes and bodies, without weight, with elastic boundaries that could be altered and twisted at Picasso’s will.  The goal was to create a work more dynamic, absorbing, and inspiring of wonder than any realistic painting could achieve.  For this work, a realistic image of the bombing of the town of Guernica, with corpses and screams in the night, would likely have felt melodramatic, saccharine, difficult to look at.  It might have been Romanticized or it might have been so gritty that our reaction would be to shut down our ability to sympathize, as a defense mechanism.
Throughout its existence, this painting has been at the heart of drama and controversy.  While living in Paris during the Nazi occupation, Picasso was harassed by the Gestapo.  One officer is said to have seen a photograph of Guernica in Picasso’s apartment and asked, with disgust, “Did you do that?”  Picasso responded, “No, you did.”

Like all great art, its power transcends time, and can symbolize something current and topical for individuals of any era.  During the Vietnam War, the painting became the backdrop for anti-war vigils in the museum.  These were quiet, poignant protests against the horrors of war.  But in 1974 an Iranian political activist, who claimed to be protesting Richard Nixon’s pardon of William Calley after his role in Vietnam’s My Lai massacre, vandalized the painting, using red spray paint to write “KILL LIES ALL” across it.  The paint was easily removed and the work undamaged.  The vandal, who ironically later became an art advisor, waxed philosophical when interviewed six years after his attack.  When asked why he did it, he said: "I wanted to bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life.  Maybe that's why the Guernica action remains so difficult to deal with.  I tried to trespass beyond that invisible barrier that no one is allowed to cross; I wanted to dwell within the act of the painting's creation, get involved with the making of the work, put my hand within it and by that act encourage the individual viewer to challenge it, deal with it and thus see it in its dynamic raw state as it was being made, not as a piece of history."  In this quote, he shows the slanted rationale of so many aggressive political protesters.  He does not possess the subtlety to recognize that Guernica has been alive and pertinent to every generation since its creation, and has never been relegated to mere history.  And while his action was damnable and, for all he knew, could have ruined the masterpiece forever, the fact that Guernica inspires such passions is a testament to its power and its enduring resonance in all eras.
There is a reason why painting is not photography.  But it was not always known.  There have been times when painting strove for naturalism.  To reproduce, as accurately as possible, what the eye sees in life.  There have been times when what the eye sees is soiled, obscure, tainted by inhumanity.  At this time, painting strove to show the perfection that must surely exist only in Heaven.  That was the High Renaissance of Raphael.  When that perfection had been captured, painting strove to distort what the eye sees, to distort that perfection for dramatic effect.  That was the Mannerism of late Michelangelo.  This is the true essence, the true power of painting.  When photography arrived, painting no longer needed to reproduce our vision.  And painting once again retreated from naturalism toward where it was most effective.  Welcome Picasso’s Cubist abstraction.  No naturalistic scene could be as true to the real sensations and feelings of destruction, death, and war as the broken shards of life in Picasso’s Guernica.  A portrayal of the gratuitous bombing of the Basque historical town, Picasso’s bent and shattered creatures are made of concentrated pain, which passes on to the viewers, trapped in blocks of line and color, for us always to remember the capability of man to hurt man.

Nov 8, 2010

Petrus Christus "Our Lady of the Dry Tree"

Petrus Christus
Our Lady of the Dry Tree
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza
Petrus Christus (1410-1475) was born in Flanders in the town of Baerle-Duc, and lived most of his life in Bruges.  As with so many artists of the pre-Modern era, little or nothing is known of Petrus’ life before his first commission, which may be documented in contracts that have survived the ages.  Many scholars think that Petrus was likely a pupil of Jan van Eyck, the greatest painter of northern Europe in the 15th century (and many would say of the world, during that time). 
The first mention of Petrus Christus comes from 1444, when he was officially awarded citizenship of Bruges.  From 1446-1454, Petrus worked on a number of commissions for wealthy citizens of Bruges, both religious works and portraits, where Petrus’ ghostly delicacy and detail really shine.  In 1462-63, he was commissioned to construct elaborate decorations to celebrate the triumphal entry into Bruges of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good (who was a great patron of the arts, including of Jan van Eyck).  Most of the greatest artists of the Renaissance were employed, at one time or another, to construct decorations for weddings, parties, masquerades, triumphal entries, religious holidays, and more—works that were essentially meant for use on one occasion and which were then disposed of.  Almost none survive.  It’s a shame, because it would be marvelous to see what artists from Petrus Christus to Michelangelo to Raphael and on would have made of this unusual event-specific art form. 
This painting proved particularly important for historians as well as for Petrus himself, because it commemorates his entry into a religious confraternity called the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree, a club of which he and his wife were members between 1458-1463.  Religious confraternities abounded throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  They were essentially societies of friends who engaged in charitable and social activities together (much like the Knights of Columbus or the Rotary Club or Lions Club today).  Occasionally the societies were rather more secret, and would engage in Masonic-style rituals.  But in the main, members would pool resources to build orphanages or hospitals for the poor, or hold feasts in honor of patron saints.
The imagery in this painting is unique as far as art historians are aware, making it particularly interesting.  It was copied in later works, such as the seal of the Municipal Archive in Bruges and the seal of the Royal Library of Albert I in Brussels.  Because of its unique nature, it is safe to assume that the imagery comes from the rituals or specific belief-sets of the Confraternity of Our Lady of the Dry Tree, rather than any published source in literature, Biblical apocrypha, or mythology.
The confraternity is first mentioned in a 1396 document, and counted among its notable members the Dukes of Burgundy themselves, as well as most of the movers and shakers of Bruges high society.  No one knows the true story of the foundation of the confraternity (which must have been established on or before 1396), and therefore historians are uncertain as to how this painting should be interpreted.  In the 17th century there was a legend that the confraternity had been founded by Duke Philip the Good.  The story goes that the Virgin and Child appeared to Philip in the trunk of an old, dead tree just before a critical battle against the French.  Philip prayed for victory before this miraculous arboreal image.  After he won the battle, he established the confraternity in thanks for the victory.
A nice story, but it if we know that the confraternity was in place in 1396, then something doesn’t jive, as Philip the Good was born in 1396.  However, it’s entirely possible that this 17th century legend took the confraternity’s story of origin and conflated it with Duke Philip, its most famous member.
This tiny painting presents the message of the Redemption in a unique manner that appears nowhere else in known art history.  The iconography is inspired by the Book of Ezekiel, wherein the Prophet Ezekiel says, “I the Lord have dried up the green tree, and have made the dry tree to flourish.”  Theologians interpret this as a reference to Original Sin, with Mary replacing Eve as the “mother of the world.”  Eve, in the Garden of Eden, was once the “green tree,” flowering and flourishing.  But God made her wither and instead granted favor to the dry tree (Mary as a childless woman), allowing her to bring forth fruit from her womb.  The parallel analogy is that the Tree of Knowledge is the dry tree, which died after Original Sin and the expulsion from Eden, but which would flower once more with the virginal conception of Christ.  A book by Guillaume de Deguileville, written in 1330, conveys this concept of the green and dry trees, and some feel that de Deguileville was a member of the confraternity, or that his writings inspired the beliefs of the members.
Christ holds a crowned globe, showing himself to be the redeemer and spiritual leader of the world.  The dry branches of the tree are cleverly bent and interlaced so as to form a crown that recalls the crown of thorns.  Fifteen gilded letter “A”s hang from various branches of the dead tree: the “A” is the first letter of “Ave Maria,” and fifteen is the number of the Mysteries of the Rosary, the prayer in which rosary beads are used as a meditative tool to pray to Mary.  This complex, intricate, wholly unique painting still holds many secrets about this powerful confraternity and the specifics of its belief system. 
There is pleasure in the immersion into a sense of wonder and mystery.  This painting holds hidden secrets, lost to historians.  It is a puzzle which, if decoded, could shed light on a secret society that boasted some of the leading artists and rulers of Europe among its members.  But for now, it remains an unsolved puzzle.

Nov 7, 2010

Welcome to The Secret History of Art

The Secret History of Art is a guide to seeing art in an entirely new way. 

This blog, and its accompanying videos, takes you on a private guided tour of a special selection among the greatest artworks in the world.  International best-selling author and professor of art history Noah Charney presents the history, symbolism, and importance of each work selected.

The Secret History of Art is a series of lessons in miniature on great works of art around the world.  By spending just a few minutes per masterpiece, you can learn the mysteries, stories, and secrets of some of the world’s greatest art treasures.

This blog is an extension of Noah Charney’s acclaimed Museum Time (De Museos) series, guidebooks to the museums of Spain, published in Spanish and English by geoPlaneta. 

The museums of the world can be daunting.  The art presents a strange new language, one that certainly intrigues but is often intimidating and foreign.  Museum-goers often like to know what they should see and why.  This blog and its accompanying videos offer an answer. 

The history of art is full of unsolved mysteries.  Art historians have spent centuries trying to decipher paintings whose exact meanings have been lost to Modern man.   Before the Modern period, educated men understood a visual language of symbol and allegory which is no longer used today.  Learning this visual vocabulary of allegory and symbol allows us to interpret and decode these masterpieces, which are renowned for their beauty, but the interpretation and understanding of which has remained elusive.  Real art history is full of coded messages and hidden meanings, which require a guide to illuminate.  But most of all, great works of art speak in universal truths about the human condition, about love, fear, death, jealousy, and faith.  Though these masterpieces were created centuries ago, human beings have changed remarkably little—only modern man has lost the ability to read the mysterious and beautiful language of symbols that are the key to understanding art history’s mysteries.  Together, we will unlock the puzzles and learn the stories behind the artworks.

Join us for this series of illuminations of the secret history of art.