Sunday, October 13, 2013

Looking at Art

'Sibilla' by Guido Reni (1635)
There was an opinion piece in the NYT the other day - by Deborah Solomon, an art critic and author - which argued that people taking photographs of art works in museums and galleries was, ultimately, a good thing. It elicited the expected outcry in response, but she made what I thought was a good point: that peering at an art work through a lens - even that of a smart phone - can increase visual literacy. As she said:
"First, there is the eye factor. A visitor who photographs van Gogh's "Starry Night" echoes the basic mission of visual art: to celebrate the act of looking. When you gaze through a lens, you are likely to consider the world more deeply. You frame space and take note of composition, the curve of a line, the play of light and shadow. As the photographer Dorothea Lange noted, "The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." As an aid to art education, smartphone cameras are preferable to older devices. For art-history students, iPhone photographs are an earnest reference aid. For everyone else, digital photographs work in much the same way as art postcards did in their heyday a half-century ago..."
When I visited the Bologna Pinoteca (Picture Gallery) - which does freely allow photographs - I spent my time not only seeking out the masterworks, trying to decipher the allegorical and religious references, reading the informative name cards, and taking lots of photos. I also - believe it or not - looked intently at the paintings. Of course, all the aforementioned activities are part and parcel of visiting a gallery and really enjoying the scenery - except perhaps photographing, which is not always permitted.

Mauro Gandolfi, Self-Portrait 1785
As I was snapping away, recording my favourites and the ones I wanted to report about on this blog, I saw a fellow gallery-goer also photographing, with his smartphone. But rather than recording the whole work, he was photographing only details - a face, a hand, a bit of the landscape, some drapery - thereby perhaps proving the NYT column writer's point. I do the same thing too sometimes. The angel is often in the detail.

Lavinia Fontana, 'La Famiglia Gozzadini' (detail) 1583
The Bologna Pinoteca doesn't go in for modern stuff. They have enough to contend with, with all their treasures from the 13th to the 18th centuries. They have an important selection of works by Guido Reni - he who painted the tragic Beatrice Cenci, whom we met in this blog post. This is understandable, since Bologna is Reni's home town. They also have Raphael's 'Estasi di Santa Cecilia' (mentioned in the last post) and some enormous Mannerist canvasses; plus many early religious paintings from the 13th century through to the Renaissance.

Giorgio Vasari 'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary' (detail) 1540
Have you noticed that the Madonna is far and away the most painted figure in Roman Catholic art? Christ less so, and God the Father very rarely. Of course, she's the ultimate intercessionary, followed by that enormous pantheon of saints. Unlike Protestants, who are bold enough to talk to God directly, Catholics approach with more deference, selecting their agent, requesting that they have a word on their behalf.

Prospero Fontana 'Adoration of the Magi' (detail) (c1569)
It's interesting to look at the face of the Virgin in these paintings. Most usually she reflects the faces of the day of the painter - she rarely looks like a 1st century BC Palestinian Jewess. Some painters render her differently in their various canvasses; others have a stock "Madonna" face that they (or their workshop) recycle.

I was noticing the face of the Madonna in the Bologna Pinoteca, taking photos here and there to remember. Then I found the Giotto. Whoa. Those eyes from 1330 looking right back at me.

Pietro di Giovanni Lianori (1453)
Francesco Raibolini detto il Francia (1500)
Francesco Raibolini detto il Francia (1498/9)

Giotto (1330)

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