at last, the yearly autumn post

 Late November .... and I haven’t done an Autumn post yet!   How dare I so neglect Autumn ....this most mercifully murky of seasons ...

Ah, the tonal shifts of autumn....  the soft blending of light and dark.  Like that late October evening, when I was walking home from work via some quiet back-streets, far from the roaring traffic. The weather was mild, people still kept their windows open.   Some piano music came drifting out of a window – the Goldberg variations. 

And then comes November,  with its chilly foggy greyness. Its wet darkness, even in the middle of the day.  But when I step out of the office building, at lunch time, the head buzzing with worries, the stomach anxiously clenched - hey, look - I feel like cheering - what with this whimsical wind subversively blowing stray leaves  into the revolving door.   And how intensely, satisfyingly ,autumnal the street looks – the cars having their lights up, people hurrying with hunched shoulders, their heads bowed, struggling with fiery gusts of rain.  

Now don't think I'm an urban, gloomy autumn snob and that I  would shun nature's spectacular autumn colours. It's just that my humble compact camera is better suited to capture murky shades than exploding colours.  

No escape?

Oh, so Giotto too...  It was with some disappointment that I read about Giotto’s “extensive business activities”. (1)
I have of course always been aware of the artist as an entrepreneurial workshop-owner,  or as a business man  competing for commissions   but somehow pre-renaissance art  had retained for me a blissful aura of purity and transcendence. (2)

The role of the wealthy establishment as patrons of art has never much annoyed me – the idea of the very rich redeeming their money-making by investing in art may even have enhanced, for an innocent mind such as mine, the status of art as ‘something better’ (3) (4) .
But ah, how to reconcile the artist-as-a-shrewd-businessman (5) with  the need for art as an escape from utilitarianism?   The Kantian disinterestedness of art,  you know, the “free play of understanding and imagination”. 

Not to speak of the humble art lover’s need for at least some sort of poetic justice:  let the self-interested philistines and parvenus have their worldly success,  “we” (6) at least have taste, meaning &  beauty on our side.   And then, being confronted with evidence that  the go-getters and the commercially gifted of this world are capable too of producing great art? Please allow us a soupcon of regret. 
But not all is lost, since, unlike the other worldly spoils of society,  art at least is not reserved  for the wealthy & well-connected of this world.  So art has been able to retain some of its status as a refuge, where taste, insight, intrinsic worth and study  count  more than social standing.  Therefore, also those who ( for either social or political or even psychological reasons) do not feel at home in society, can and will confidently roam about in the realm of high art.   This may be an essentially  19thC-early 20th C humanist myth – untrue perhaps, as  all myths go, but founded nonetheless in genuine longings.

the pariah of the nineteenth century had found escape [...][in] an overwhelming preoccupation with the world of beauty, [...] the realm of art where everyone was welcome who could appreciate eternal genius. [...] a department of life which was proof against social [...] assault; and the pariah therefore retreated to them as to a world  where he might dwell unmolested. 
Old cities, reared in beauty and hallowed by tradition, began to attract him with their imposing buildings and spacious plazas. 

Projected, as it were, from the past into the present, aloof from contemporary rages and passions, they seemed in their timelessness to extend a universal welcome. The gates of the old palaces, built by kings for their own courts, seemed now to be flung open to all, and even unbelievers might pace the great cathedrals of Christ. In such a setting the despised pariah Jew, dismissed by contemporary society as a nobody, could at least share in the glories of the past, for which he often showed a more appreciative eye than the esteemed  and full-fledged members of society”.    (7)         


  1. John White;  "Art and Architecture in Italy 1250-1400" :  “In 1314 six notaries were pursuing  debtors in the courts on his [Giotto's]  behalf. Various dealings in land are recorded of him, and he also hired out looms. The latter was a standard way of putting money to work without infringing the ecclesiastical prohibition of usury, and work it certainly did, at a rate of about 120 per cent a year!”
  2. This perception is apparently not just unworldly wishful thinking of mine - few pre-renaissance artists seem to be have left records as business men  :  Giotto is one of the earliest artists to have left his documentary mark, not as a craftsman, but as a man of affairs manipulating capital in the then nascent world of industry and commerce. " 
  3. Fittingly enough [Giotto’s] his major surviving commission came from Enrico Scrovegni, heir to the greatest fortune in Padua, and the Arena chapel may well have been built to atone for the usury , still officially condemned yet unofficially condoned , by which Scrovegni’s father made his money.” 
  4. or the status of art as the ultimate way to subvert the power and value of money – think of the unreality of the millions of Euros/Dollars which Sheikha’s or Russian tycoons or other super rich splash out at art auctions ...     
  5. or “artist-as-a-shrewd-businesswoman”, of course --- one can only speculate how many (male or female) artists never “made” it, not for lack of artistic talent, but for lack of business and marketing acumen ...   
  6. “we” =  well, um:  the contemplative?  the sensitive? the highly-strung?    
  7. Hannah Arendt, "The Jew as pariah: A Hidden Tradition".   Nobody has written with such poignancy about the status of the society-less Jew as either parvenu or pariah. Nobody has written so insightful  about the” hidden pariah tradition” of Heine, Rahel Varnhagen , Kafka .  Nobody has written so beautifully about the pariah qualities of “humanity, humor, disinterested intelligence” or  about the “life of the mind”. And yet nobody has been so acutely aware also of the (political) dangers of total worldlessness, about how  lacking a realistic political understanding of the world” can bring on catastrophe. Arendt’s ‘Amor Mundi’  sprung from 20th C political necessity? 


Reading in a Room with a View – an iconological approach (1)


Reading in a room with a view?  Rather, disturbed while reading in a room with a view!  (2)

One moment you’re ensconced in your book, enveloped in the soft light and the peaceful sounds pouring in from the open window... 
And the next moment  a winged creature in fluttering robe bursts in, looking intently at you and pointing at the ceiling (3).  Perhaps announcing something?

Suppose someone would not be acquainted with the Gospel-stories  and would be unfamiliar with Western art history, could he or she then still come under the spell of this panel? 

What prior knowledge does one need to be moved by that half open shutter, the tangible feel of atmosphere in the shaded corner behind it?   

Does one need to be an art historian or devout catholic to peer curiously into the landscape outside, lovingly noting the winding brook (or is it a road- peering even closer now), the trees, the farmhouse, the castle on the bluish-shimmering horizon.

One might be puzzled of course by the prominence of the blazing red canopy bed. And what’s this circle with a dove in it?  Strange place,  too, to hang a mirror ( but who cares about that when you’re in thrall of the mirror’s reflections).  And that lovely white flower in a vase, why is it standing there in front of the scene?  

Now, what about the two characters in this scene?  The winged creature looks benevolent enough, so those must be good tidings it (is this creature a he or a she or someone in between? ) is bringing (4). 
The woman,  on the other hand,  does look slightly bemused, but composed all the same :  full of grace indeed ... Speaking of gracefulness: do follow the sinuous golden edging (5) of her richly folded blue robe.  In any case, whatever  the nature of the tidings, she has her book to hold on to. Lovely book too, what would she be reading? 

To go by all  the 15th/16thetc  Century Flemish panels with women-reading-in-a-room  (often even blissfully undisturbed  by winged or other creatures)  this must have been a culture placing a very high value on both books and learned women!   

This (wishful or true?) appraisal (6) may well be one of the prime reasons (7) of my deep fondness for these panels ...   
And I’m definitely not alone  in that affection – how many times,  when wandering about in a museum room, did I  not see some other visitor all of a sudden perk up with full attention, a smile spreading over her face, sighing and then happily exclaiming (for instance (8)): 

 "oh look! a Saint Barbara reading!"


Notes on Meaning in the Visual Arts

  (1) Ok, I am going to be ironical here  – but not really, or at least not completely, since meaning in the visual arts is always bound up with so much genuine affection. In any case, in Panofky's analytical framework, there are  three layers of ‘signifying’

a.       Natural subject matter, subdivided into factual and expressional: ie the purely descriptive, primary qualities of a painting

b.      Conventional subject matter:  eg that winged creature is the angel Gabriel announcing (The Annunciation)  to Mary her immaculate conception (cornerstone of Christian theology!) = object of iconography

c.       Intrinsic meaning or content:  revelatory of deeply rooted attitudes, of ‘zeitgeist’, of the essence of a culture – better known as “ something else” – the elusive synthetical intuition remaining after all details have been scrupulously analysed and explained  = object of iconology 

(2)    A specimen of one of the many  lovely 15th&16th(&etc)  century Flemish paintings depicting the Annunciation: the middle panel of a triptych by the  Master of the Legend of Saint Magdalen – an anonymous early 16th C ‘minor master’ emulating  Rogier van der Weyden

(3)    Il désigne le ciel d’un geste extatique dont de nombreuses générations se souviendront ».  In his  "Les Primitifs Flamands"  Erwin Panofsky enthusiastically follows the evolution of this angelic pointing gesture in miniatures  by (amongst others )  Pucelle   and Jacquemart de Hesdin, dated around 1325-1375

(4)    A pity there’s not a scroll twisting from his/her mouth,  giving away the words of the message. A very handy early tradition, these wordy scrolls, one that has alas been lost over time, to be revived however in the text-balloons of comic books

(5)    A vertiginous experience, once you start really concentrating on following that meandering golden edging - as fascinating as Duccio's best designs. 

(6)    Cynics could argue that these panels only promote the image of devout women whose reading range is limited to the bible.  However, one should not underestimate the favourable impact of  a pictorial tradition paying visible respect to women reading.  What a relief, indeed, these images,  for any thinking girl or woman.  Especially when contrasted with other presently thriving cultural traditions,  which either  show women as mere lust objects or deny them visibility altogether.  

(7)    Alongside the sensual atmospheric qualities of these paintings – the way light filters in these rooms ...

(8)    Scene witnessed in the Prado on Sept 19thth 1996  -confirmed by the entry-ticket stuck in the catalogue at exactly the page with the Master of Flémalle’ s (or a follower’s)  “Saint Barbara reading”  ( so I discovered with pleasure when checking out this catalogue, just for this post)

9) Credits: post inspired by a comment on a blogpost by LH...