Arnold Böcklin: 3 Symbolic Paintings

Arnold Böcklin (1827 – 1901) was a Swiss painter working in the genre of symbolism. He was known for painting motifs from mythology, and his works often depicted otherworldly beings, mysterious places and dark allegories. In this post, I will talk about three of Böcklin’s works of art.

I. Isle of the Dead (Third Version) [1883]

This is Böcklin’s best-known painting in which he depicted “the Isle of the Dead”, a mysterious island with dense vegetation inside (cypress trees) surrounded by the white “fortress” of white rock. A lone boat approaches the island head on with the mysterious veiled white figure standing in it. In the boat, one can also see another white object, probably a coffin. The dark waters and gloomy skies build a sombre atmosphere, and the funeral motifs are also emphasised by the cypress trees since these too have been traditionally associated with cemeteries and mourning.

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Magpie on the Gallows

This is a painting that Dutch-Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted in 1568 and left to his wife before his death. This is not merely a countryside scenery. There is something unsettling in this painting and some have suggested that it hides a secret meaning. In this painting, two men are seemingly enjoying the view to the river valley, but there is something disturbing that comes into their view – a group of dancers on the left happily passing their time in front of the gallows, which stand as an ominous reminder that one day human life comes to an end. Our attention is immediately drawn to the gallows because Bruegel depicted what seems to be an “impossible object” in art. The gallows’ posts are positioned in such a way that cannot occur in real life, with the right side receding into the distance. This alone gives the gallows in the painting a special significance. At the same time, the merry people to the side of the gallows, as well as the person who is squatting on the foreground, seem to be mocking the very symbol of death and “justice”. The contrast between their merriness, and the solitary and sombre gallows could not have been more pronounced, giving a peculiar unnaturalness to the scene. Over the years, there have been a number of interpretations put out forward regarding the magpie that sits on the gallows (as well as the one near the base of the gallows), and one of the most popular ones is that the magpie represents baseless and spiteful gossip that often leads to the gallows. This painting is currently held by the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany.

Hieronymus Bosch: 3 Lesser-Known Artworks

Hieronymus Bosch [c. 1450 –  1516] was a Dutch painter known for his unique artistic style and enigmatic, intellectually complex paintings on religious subjects. He is also known as the innovative painter of the fantastic who, paradoxically, never went beyond the religious canon. Below, I would like to present three of his lesser-known works, one of which – Extracting the Stone of Folly – is considered to be the only one the painter produced which centred on a purely secular matter. 

Extracting the Stone of Folly

I. Extracting the Stone of Folly [c. 1505] 

In this curious painting, a man tied to a chair in open countryside is ready to undergo a risky procedure – the removal of a stone of folly or madness from his brain. In medieval times, people believed that a stone lodged in someone’s brain was responsible for either their lack of intellectual prowess, their “madness” or their erratic behaviour. Professor Jos Koldeweij interprets this painting as a quack doctor (on the left) making an incision in the man’s scalp to extract the stone, while the man’s wife (on the far right) and her lover, the priest (in the middle) supervise the procedure. The interesting aspect of the painting is not only the macabre procedure, but also the division of power between the four people in the painting. Despite appearances, it is the wife of the man to be “dissected” who is in control. The book on her head may signal her possessing knowledge or power beyond that of those around her. The doctor is a quack or a fraudster because he has a funnel on his head and a jug hanging from his belt – he is after the money and is not interested in curing his patient. The priest in black, in turn, is supposed to calm the patient and provide a divine assent to the procedure. However, he also seems to possess ulterior motives for being there (having the jug in the hand may also signal deception). Moreover, being a lover of the man’s wife, he is unlikely to interfere to save the man from his fate. Meanwhile, the husband seated represents the party tricked into complete submission, as also evidenced by his overall helplessness to control the situation. The fact that the “surgeon”  manages to extract not a stone, but a waterlily from the patient’s head only emphasises the ludicrousness of the procedure. The painting is currently in the Prado Museum in Madrid. Continue reading “Hieronymus Bosch: 3 Lesser-Known Artworks”

Thomas Cole: The Architect’s Dream, The Titan’s Goblet & The Course of Empire

Thomas Cole [1801-1848] was an English-born American painter who painted Romantic landscapes and history art. Largely self-taught, he is also known as the founder of the Hudson River School. Below are five of his paintings that have historic significance and symbolic meaning.

I. The Architect’s Dream [1840]

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Edward Hopper: Social Isolation

Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967) was an American realist painter, depicting both landscapes and social situations. Some of his most well-known paintings are Nighthawks [1943] and Automat [1927]. His paintings are often said to portray people’s social isolation and loneliness, and even his landscape paintings feel desolate. Hopper’s paintings also inspired numerous filmmakers, for example, Alfred Hitchcock drew inspiration from Hopper’s House by the Railroad [1925] to make his film Psycho [1960] and Ridley Scott purposively wanted his film Blade Runner [1982] to have the atmosphere of Hopper’s Nighthawks. Below I discuss four other works by this interesting painter.

I. New York Movie [1939]

new york movie hopper

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Annunciation to the Shepherds: 3 Artworks

And the angel said to them “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” [Luke 2: 8 – 14].

I thought I would return to religious art (see also my previous post 5 “The Last Supper” Paintings). I am choosing to focus on three artworks that depict the annunciation to the shepherds because this is a somewhat overlooked episode from the Bible and most prefer to focus on the nativity scene itself or on the adoration of the Magi when depicting Biblical episodes. The episode concerns the appearance of the angel who tells the shepherds the location of the Christ Child.

annunciation to the shepherds 1I. Annunciation to the Shepherds by Taddeo Gaddi 

Maybe this artwork is my favourite because I remember I visited many times the Basilica of Santa Croce when I lived in Florence and this fresco is from there – located in the Baroncelli Chapel. It dates to around 1328 and is said to be one of the first night-time depictions of this kind. Taddeo Gaddi approached differently the presentation of the angel here, especially by the standards of that time, and the spiritual light surrounding the angel and the casting of this light on the rocky surface and on the shepherds are striking. In this fresco, the shepherds are slowly arousing themselves from their deep sleep, their cattle is still asleep and one of their dogs is already awake, looking distrustfully, but also obediently at the source of the light. There are both quietness to this depiction (especially in comparison to the paintings below) and a sense of conviction: the messanger has come and what he has to say is true. Continue reading “Annunciation to the Shepherds: 3 Artworks”

Frida Kahlo: “Heartbreak” Art

Frida Kahlo [1907 – 1954] was a Mexican surrealist painter whose artworks, mainly self-portraits, often emphasised the Mexican national heritage and dealt with the issues of gender, race and class. She was also known for producing intense self-portraits which showed her inner state of being and responses to various events in her life. The following three self-portraits of Frida are meant to demonstrate the heartbreak she experienced.

7-1576

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Alchemy in Art

Alchemy is not merely an art or science to teach metallic transmutation, so much as a true and solid science that teaches how to know the centre of all things, which in the divine language is called the Spirit of Life” (Stanislas Klossowski de Rola). However, before alchemy became the modern practice of “consciousness” transmutation, it was an occult art through which people tried to know the secrets of nature and, in the process, discover the “philosopher’s stone” that would grant them immortality or turn ordinary metals into gold. It was a very complicated and obscure process that involved many uneasy steps and sometimes years of work. The six paintings below completed by six different artists can be divided into two camps – (i) those that portray alchemy as a practice of charlatans or the ignorant that leads to poverty, and (ii) those that portray alchemy as a serious and noble intellectual pursuit that laid the foundations of modern chemistry.  

steen

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Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798 – 1861) was a Japanese painter in the late Edo period specialising in Ukiyo-e woodblock painting (he was a contemporary of Hokusai). Kuniyoshi was known for his very detailed, “full-of-action” woodblock paintings (triptychs), showing the scenes from the Japanese life, mythology (the supernatural, including monsters), as well as the actions of the samurai. Some of his paintings are very graphic and rather violent. Below are three paintings of Kuniyoshi that depict ghosts.

Kuniyoshi Painting

I. Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre

The background story to this macabre print has is that there was once the war-lord Taira no Masakado (living in the 10th century) who was killed after he started a rebellion against the court at Kyoto. The daughter of Taira, Princess Takiyasha (who was also a witch), was devastated that her father was killed and the rebellion proved unsuccessful. Thus, she (positioned to the left in this print) magically summoned the ghosts of the dead rebellious soldiers of her father by reading through the magical scroll. The ghosts she summoned then took the form of one giant skeleton (Gashadokuro). On the foreground of the print, one can see the remaining plotter, as well as the leading warrior Oya no Taro Mitsukuni, trying to subdue the ghostly rebellion once again.  Continue reading “Utagawa Kuniyoshi: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts”

Katsushika Hokusai: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was a Japanese painter during the Edo period best known for the work he created after the age of sixty. His most famous woodblock prints completed in the prevalent style of Ukiyo-e (“Picture[s] of the Floating World”) are a series of paintings Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (among which is The Great Wave). In 1831, Hokusai began a series of prints titled A Hundred Horror Stories (Hyaku-monogatari). Traditionally, Hyaku-monogatari denotes a game whereby people gather to listen to and tell ghost stories. Below, are three of the five surviving paintings in that series, presenting some of the well-known ghosts from the Japanese folklore. 

Okiku Ghost HokusaiI. A Woman Ghost Appeared From a Well (The Mansion of the Plates)

This is the depiction of the aftermath of the death of Okiku, a story that first appeared as a play Bancho Sarayashiki [1741]. There are a number of versions to this story, and in one of them, there was a beautiful servant girl Okiku who worked for Aoyama Tessan, a samurai. The samurai wanted Okiku as his lover and tricked her into believing that one of the ten invaluable Delft plates have been lost in the household. Normally, this would result in the servant’s death, but Aoyama stated that he would not hurt Okiku if she agrees to become his lover. When Okiku refused, he killed her by throwing her down the well. The Okiku ghost depicted by Hokusai comes from the well with the purpose of tormenting her murderer, sometimes screaming after counting to nine, or trying to find the final tenth plate. Hokusai painted Okiku as was customary at that time in painting ghosts: pale faces without lower limbs.  Continue reading “Katsushika Hokusai: Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints of Ghosts”

5 “The Last Supper” Paintings

In past centuries, many artists have depicted the Last Supper scene found in the Gospels. This is a scene where Jesus shares a meal with his Apostles before his crucifixion, making his prophetic announcement. It is very easy to see why it is one of many favourite Biblical scenes to depict. There is a special dynamism to this scene since the Apostles can be presented having their own personalities, and their interaction with each other, their reaction to Jesus’s words, as well as a sense of foreboding, can give a painting a special aura/interest. The interesting thing for many when looking at these paintings is how Judas “The Traitor” is depicted in this scene, and most artists paid special attention to ensure that he stands out from the scene. Below are five “The Last Supper” paintings which I personally find particularly interesting (they are not necessarily the most famous ones).


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Favourite The New Yorker Magazine Covers

The New Yorker is an American magazine that features reporting, essays, criticism, cartoons and poetry. It was launched in 1925 and is also known for its satire and humorous commentary on popular culture and social issues. Its striking magazine covers (often satirical in nature and depicting funny versions of one’s everyday life in the city) have been in the spotlight for many a time, for example, due to controversy. Below are some of my favourite covers from the past years, which I have allocated into three categories depending on what they present: (i) The “Reach” of New York City; (ii) Technology; and (iii) Everyday Life.

The Reach of New York     The Reach of NYC

I. The “Reach” of New York City 

New York’s subway has often been the topic of covers, and the artworks above by Eric Drooker satirise the reach of New York City’s underground system. It seems that the city has grown so big and become so expansive (modern developments, further urbanisation) that one can now reach far-off corners of the world, with the left picture depicting one man who finds himself in the middle of a jungle after his subway ride, while the picture on the right shows men who reached 125, 000th St. Continue reading “Favourite The New Yorker Magazine Covers”

Francisco de Goya

Francisco de Goya (1746 – 1828) was a Spanish painter working in the style of Romanticism. He is probably best known for his paintings Saturn Devouring His Son and The Third of May 1808. Some of his other paintings have an eerie and even disturbing element to them. The somewhat satirical paintings below portray one central figure that catches the eye and unsettles. Witches’ Sabbath is held in the Museo Lazaro Galdiano in Madrid; The Straw Manikin is held in the Prado Museum in Madrid; and Time and the Old Women resides in the Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, France.

Witches Sabbath GoyaI. Witches’ Sabbath [1798]

This painting, which is part of Goya’s “Black Paintings”, shows a coven of witches. In the centre sits the Devil represented by a he-goat, with women around him being either in awe or scared of him, some offering him their children. The he-goat is motionless, his expression is neutral, eyes wide open, betraying nothing, while women around him fuss, causing a commotion. The goat’s human-like sitting posture hint at him being endowed with human qualities. It is possible that de Goya tried to satirise through this painting the prevalence of superstition and the belief in witches in rural parts of Spain (Francisco de Goya wanted to denounce any mass worshiping based on ignorance). This is so especially since the witches in his painting appear to be deformed and seem to be completely blinded by their belief in the entity before them (even though the he-goat appears almost like a dummy), offering their most precious “possessions” to the Devil – their children. Also, if a witches’ sabbath is usually held on a full moon at night, the painting purposefully depicts neither the full moon nor the darkness of a night (but a new moon, with the meeting taking place at dusk).  Continue reading “Francisco de Goya”

Paintings of Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo (1908 – 1963) was a Spanish/Mexican surrealist artist best known for her enigmatic, mystical and “alchemical” paintings, that “[blended] surrealist techniques and images, Freudian and Jungian psychology, science, magic, and the occult” [Vosburg N. (2005) Strange Yet “Familiar”: Cats and Birds in Remedios Varo’s Artistic Universe. In: Figuring Animals, 2016]. Below, I present and briefly discuss her three paintings.Remedios Varo Paintings

I. Hacia la Torre (Towards the Tower) (1960)

Towards the Tower depicts a number of identical girls dressed in identical clothing that are whisked away by a man and a woman on bicycles. They are moving away from houses that resemble a beehive. Given Varo’s catholic upbringing, the wide interpretation of the painting is that the woman leading the girls on the bicycle is a nun and the girls are pupils in a convent. The girls share similar features as the artist wanted to underline the rigid conformity of the place. The beehive-shaped houses also underline the idea that the girls work towards one common goal (like bees) and their individuality is supressed or ignored. The “magic” numbers are also present here – we see twelve houses (for example, there are also twelve months), and seven girls (there are also seven days in a week). This is the first painting in the series of three paintings that depict the same women who first flee the houses (the convent) to get to the Tower, and then escape. The third painting (The Escape) shows a girl on a journey with her love.  Continue reading “Paintings of Remedios Varo”

Florence, Tuscany

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I was lucky enough to live for three months in Florence (or Firenze), Italy a couple of years previously and every time it is middle of April I keep thinking about this beautiful, wonderful city, my favourite in the whole world. The city is really the cradle of the Renaissance, and it has practically remained unchanged from the Middle Ages, ensuring that each visit is one of a kind cultural and historical experience. Dante Alighieri (poet), Leonardo da Vinci (painter), Niccolò Machiavelli (philosopher), Galileo Galilei (physicist), Giovanni Boccaccio (writer), Filippo Brunelleschi (architect) and Donatello (sculptor) were all born in Florence or in its environs, among many other famous people. It is also a city of beautiful Catholic churches: Santa Maria Novella, Santa Croce and San Lorenzo, to name just a few, and the sites of natural beauty around the city (such as Fiesole hills) are also worth visiting and appreciating. Everybody knows about the landmark sites of the city – The Duomo, Piazza della Signoria, Palazzo Vecchio, The Uffizi, Ponte Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti, and, in this post, I would like to share some of my favourite, slightly off-the-beaten-path locations in Florence. All photos on this post are mine (though, at that time, I had a very terrible camera).  Continue reading “Florence, Tuscany”

Allegorical Art: The Five Senses

My readers probably already know that I love allegorical and symbolic paintings, and, thus, I could not resist to share and discuss a series of other ones – The Five Senses [1617-18] by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. The inspiration behind them was probably a series of tapestries known as The Lady and the Unicorn [circa 1500], each depicting one of the five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch (as well as the mysterious “sixth sense”). Brueghel and Rubens’s The Five Senses now have their home in the Prado Museum in Madrid.

I. Sight

Sight Allegorical Painting

Since this painting is supposed to represent sight, it is all about art, and, in particular, paintings, which are appreciated through sight. In this painting, Venus, a Roman goddess, and Cupid, a little boy, are in a cabinet (room) of curiosities. Cupid is showing Venus one of the Christian paintings  – The Healing of the Blind Man, which is about the miraculous sight recovery of a man. Among other objects in this room are antique busts and scientific instruments, such as a telescope, which can also only be used through having vision.  Continue reading “Allegorical Art: The Five Senses”

René Magritte

René Magritte [1898 – 1967] was a Belgian surrealist artist known for his thought-provoking and enigmatic paintings. Many of his paintings play with the concepts of reality, identity and truth, and some of the most recognised painting are The Lovers [1928], Not to Be Reproduced [1937], Golconda [1953], The Son of Man [1964] and The Man with the Bowler Hat [1964]. In this post, I would like to draw attention to and discuss the three others: Memory, The Survivor and The Masterpiece or The Mysteries of the Horizon.

Memory MagritteI. Memory [1948]

Unlike other paintings on this list, Memory is an allegorical painting, a painting with a hidden meaning. It is a striking painting for many reasons and one of those is the contrast of the white and the red – a beautiful white bust here is tainted with blood. That “injury” on the bust may represent this woman’s traumatic and painful memory which she now has to bear. The irony here is that this blood is what makes this bust “come alive” – it gives this woman’s head the qualities of a real person, probably, a person in pain. Memory forms such an integral part of who we are, and what is our reality and daily life that, without it, we are lost. The possible “bleeding” out of “memory” in this image may hint at this person slowly being converted into a statue, which she has become – since we are looking at a bust. One trivia for film lovers here is that this painting probably served as an inspiration for one of the murder scenes in Anthony Minghella’s film The Talented Mr Ripley (1999).      
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Ferdinand Hodler: Symbolism

Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918) was a Swiss painter known for his realistic and later symbolic paintings. He is also said to have “shaped the image and identity of Switzerland” through his artistic creations. Hodler invented the style of painting – “parallelism” to describe his own way of arranging and presenting his figures in painting. That style focuses on symmetry, harmony and rhythm.

ferdinand_hodler_die_lebensmüden

I. The Tired of Life [1892] by Ferdinand Hodler. This painting shows five old men sitting on the bench facing the viewer, without looking or communicating with each other. The striking feature is their symmetrical positions and their expressionless, tired faces. They are different men, but dressed in similar clothing and adopting similar sitting positions, which may hint at them being united in their destiny and outlook on life past. All this produces an arresting impression, and the near-naked man in the middle emphasised this symmetry and collective hopelessness even more. There is something too honest and isolated in these men’s gazes, probably letting the viewer know that each person’s end is pretty much solitary, definite and final.   Continue reading “Ferdinand Hodler: Symbolism”

Botticelli: The Calumny of Apelles

Apelles CalumnyIt seems that every allegorical painting opens some door to deeper truth. The Calumny of Appelles  was painted by Sandro Botticelli in 1494 from the description of a lost painting by Apelles, a Greek painter, who lived in the 4th century BC. Now, the painting resides in the Uffizi in Florence, and does not stop to amaze gallery visitors with its beauty and metaphorical insight. In the centre of this painting is an innocent man on the floor who is being dragged to King Midas on the throne who has to decide on his fate. Calumny (Slander), in blue and white, is dragging the man by his hair, while Perfidy (Deceit) and Fraud are behind her, arranging her hair. A man dressed in black, holding Calumny’s hand, is Rancour (Envy) who is stretching his hand to the King. The old woman in black is Remorse, who glances at the naked Truth, a young woman who points to the sky. The lady is naked because, like the man on the floor, she has nothing to hide, and she urges the others to consider higher values in life. By pointing at heaven, she also gives a sign to others that a fair judgement is reserved for all after their deaths. However, King Midas, who has to pass a judgement on the innocent man, has his eyes downcast, not seeing the picture fully and clearly in front of him. He is guided by Ignorance and Suspicion, the two ladies on each side of him, who whisper in his donkey ears their suggestions on the course of action to take.

The Art of Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Water     Fire

 

 

 

 

 

 

These are the portraits painted by Guiseppe Arcimboldo, who was born in Milan in 1527. During his lifetime, he became famous for creating a number of bizarre, thought-provoking paintings showing people composed of fruit, vegetables (plus other inanimate objects), as well plants and animals. The left painting is titled “Water”, showing a person composed of marine animals, while the right painting is called “Fire”, being another life force, showing a person composed of fire paraphernalia. They form part of the collection of four paintings titled “The Four Elements”, commissioned by Maximilian II, and were supposed to represent “chaos brought into harmony”.    Continue reading “The Art of Giuseppe Arcimboldo”