Dogged determination

I once heard Phil Leider say of Francisco Goya that he had only ever truly longed for two things: the career of Diego Velázquez and the love of the Duchess of Alba.

The Duchess of Alba in Mourning, 1797, collection of the The New York Hispanic Society (The Hispanic Society of America)

Maybe that’s so.

His last duchess Goya depicted several times, most memorably in an enigmatic painting in which her defiant stance seems to contradict the connotations of her mourning apparel. She points down toward the dust at her feet, where some finger — his? hers? — has inscribed “solo Goya”.

Seems like something‘s going on there. He kept this painting among his possessions from the time of its creation until his death in 1828.

However that may have gone, Leider was surely right about Velázquez, the greatest Spanish painter of the 17th-century, and maybe the greatest of them all — the painter of whom Ruskin supposedly said that everything he does “may be regarded as absolutely right” and to whom Ruskin ascribed “the highest reach of technical perfection yet attained in art.”

Why wouldn’t Goya want to be Velázquez redux? The earlier artist had lived a charmed life as court painter to Philip IV, under whose auspices he cranked out not only a seemingly endless supply of stock portraiture, but also some of the most psychologically and intellectually compelling images in western art.

It didn’t matter what Goya wanted, though. It was not to be. Living through the French Revolution and the Peninsular War, Goya was surrounded by destruction, corruption, incompetence, and folly. Sure, he became court painter — nominally the same position Velázquez had held. But Goya’s monarch was an imbecile surrounded by monsters. Recognizing the sad irony of his plight, Goya pulled no punches when it came time to speak truth to power.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656, Museo del Prado, Madrid

In the 1650s, Velázquez had created an unprecedented and beloved portrait of his king’s young daughter surrounded by her ladies in waiting and some courtiers on the entertainment staff: Las Meninas, as it has come to be called. There she stands, head turned charmingly to one side, while the universe plays out in orbit around her. Off to the side, the painter himself stands facing us, brush and palette in hand, and applies his wizardry to an enormous canvas– one identical in size to Las Meninas itself, the only painting of such a size in his oeuvre.

In the background, a silvery mirror reflects the King and Queen, implying that they’re standing just about where we stand when we behold this picture. Is Velázquez painting a double-portrait of them? Is he painting Las Meninas? The puzzle, typically Baroque, dissolves into play as the small fellow in the corner kicks the resting dog. His foot has made contact, but the dog has not yet responded; we’re trapped in hang time between the moment of order and the predictable chaos about to ensue. The painter waves his laden brush and weighs his options.

How could Goya, a deeply gifted critic of his world and times, not want the liberty to play such games, and in such style? Called upon in 1800 to portray the extended family of Charles IV, he creates this:

 

Carlos IV of Spain and His Family, 1800, Museo del Prado

In a knowing and telling play on the earlier artist’s work, Goya presents a travesty of Las Meninas. In place of that gloriously wonderful child, the Infanta Margarita, Goya installs the doltish King’s draconian wife, Maria Luisa; the turn of her head is the same, but hardly charming. The ignoble royals mill about unharmoniously, a senseless cluster. The woman who failed to show up for her sitting? Goya includes her anyhow, but turns her head away toward the darkness! The King, all decked out in regalia, medals, lace, and velvet? Nothing but periwig and prattle. That child nestled between the king and his bride? People say he looks a lot like the Prime Minister, Godoy.

In the shadows off to the side, behind an enormous canvas, stands Goya himself, just like Velázquez. He seems to sigh.

Like Beethoven, Goya went stone deaf; he lived another 40 years or so in silence as he watched the world tear itself apart. In his 70s, he holed up in a little two story house near Madrid, pondered his failures of nerve and will and fate, and nursed his unsurprising depression. For his eyes only, he filled the plaster walls of this house with oil paintings– dark, brooding, sinister paintings. Saturn (Time) Devouring His Children. The Fight With Cudgels. The Fates.

Quinta del Sordo, diagram, Wikimedia

Perhaps they speak of a heart unfulfilled, these paintings. Perhaps of a Goya who only ever wanted two things. Goya was able to project virtual worlds of his own design, to paint anything his imagination might offer. Looking back on a life that didn’t go as he had planned and considering a broken world teeming with corruption, why did Goya surround himself with vivid, symbolic depictions of that same chaos, that old night?

It’s something to ponder. It’s something to pity.

Francisco Goya, The Dog, one of The Black Paintings. Wikimedia.

Posted in A Periodic Decoction | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Between a Rock and a Void Place

Ryoanji garden. Photo by japan-guide.com.

In the northwest of Kyoto, in the Temple of the Dragon at Peace (Ryōan-ji), stands a garden where only the viewer grows. It is a rock garden— the greatest rock garden in the world. Since the late 1400s it has been tended daily by Zen monks in the service of those who go there to see what is or is not to be seen.

Ryoan-ji, Concentric circles

Ryoan-ji, concentric circles and lines, Blogodisea.com

The monks rake the rocks into straight lines where the large stones are absent, and they rake them into concentric circles where the large stones are present. The net effect is of an ocean’s regular waves lapping gently against every shore in a tiny archipelago, except that nothing is moving.

A rock garden such as this is an example of the art of karesansui, which is often translated “dry landscape” but which etymoliterally means “dry mountain water”; the evocation of land and sea is explicit.

There are many ways to interpret this garden and its elements.

Continue reading

Posted in Formal Analysis | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Unable to flip the bird

Robert Rauschenberg, _Canyon_, 1959

Robert Rauschenberg, Canyon, 1959. Oil, acrylic, pencil, paper, fabric, metal, buttons, nails, cardboard, printed paper, photographs, wood, paint tubes, mirror string, pillow, & bald eagle on canvas. National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.). (C) Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, via Wikipedia

2007 saw the demise of Ileana Sonnabend, a legendary purveyor of art created after 1945. Among the famous works in her considerable estate was Robert Rauschenberg’s Canyon, a canonical, influential mid-century work well known from survey texts and studies of formal and thematic innovation in contemporary art. The work is neither a painting nor a sculpture, though it includes attributes of both. The artist called it a “combine”, and it brings together a variety of media, art supplies, scraps, miscellaneous material, and things.

One of these things is a stuffed bald eagle.

Sonnabend’s heirs tasked three appraisers, including one from Christie’s, to put a value on the work. Since the bald eagle, dead or alive, is under federal protection, it would be a felony to sell the work and a felony to buy it. For this reason, the appraisers reasoned that its fair market value is $0. Price, after all, is not inherent; it is a function of market behavior. In this case, that behavior is prohibited by law.

It is perhaps no surprise that the IRS, tasked with celebrating the deceased by scrupulously taxing her legacy, disagrees with that appraisal. Stephanie Barron of LACMA, an expert adviser to the I.R.S.’s Art Appraisal Services, parses the economic data differently:

The ruling about the eagle is not something the Art Advisory Panel considered…. It’s a stunning work of art and we all just cringed at the idea of saying that this had zero value. It just didn’t make any sense. (NYTimes)

Au contraire, Ms. Barron, it cannot make any cents! Nonetheless, the IRS appraised it at $65M. (This is after having assessed a tax of $471M on the estate, for which Sonnabend’s heirs had to sell off much of the collection in the largest private art sale ever.)

The federal government forbids the owner of Canyon to sell it, and forbids anyone to buy it. But the tax for inheriting it? Plus a penalty for daring to declare its worthless? $29,200,000.

Posted in Ephemera | Tagged , | 1 Comment