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Art Against the Wall

 I recently gave a paper at the Courtauld Institute Early Modern Symposium, ‘Art Against the Wall’ entitled ‘Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Pilgrims Or Just Another Brick in the Wall?’. Despite the title, I didn’t attempt a synthesis of the seventeenth century artist provocateur with Pink Floyd, but argued for a new reading of the altarpiece that remains in situ in Sant’Agsotino, Rome as an image that challenges the separation of inside and outside spaces and sacred and profane spaces and bodies.

The painted fissure of brick wall in the background of the image, not only lends an element of ‘realism’ to the depiction of the holy characters standing in the door jamb of a contemporary and humble Roman home, but also opens up interesting questions about painting’s role in mimesis.

The painted altarpiece of course covers the bare wall behind it on which it is hung, but Caravaggio shows us a glimpse of this wall already in the painting, revealing the artistry of illusion that painting begs us to believe. As an extension, we are also witness to the bare wall of the street beyond the chapel, the other side of the wall, as it were.

In this way, the profane world of the street enters into the sacred visual image, in the same manner that the dirty, dust-covered pilgrims in the foreground of the painting enter into near physical contact with the Virgin and Child who are poised in close proximity to them on the doorstep.

Furthermore, Caravaggio, painting in oil paint, presents an alternative to the aristocratically coded technique of fresco, whereas fresco painted directly on to the wall depends on the wall to exist, oil painting trumps fresco by virtue of its portability- and can infinitely create dialogues against the wall rather than staying permanently on it.

Theoretically this paper used the concept of ‘ergon’ and ‘parergon’ taken from Derrida’s work Truth in Painting, in which he argues for the constant instability of what exists inside and outside ‘the frame’. In other words, in looking at a framed image, the frame becomes part of the wall on which it is hung, but simultaneously when looking at the wall, the frame is part of the image. This proved an interesting theoretical mode of enquiry when considering the painted wall inside the image and the wall it represented outside of the image.

S. Sebastiano, Rome

S. Sebastiano, Rome

Real Venice at Somerset House

From its glittering zenith as mercantile republic to hedonistic decline, Venice has for centuries been a source of fascination, spectacle and intrigue to outsiders, day trippers, and grand tourists looking in at the city that rises out of the sea. All have brought with them their own fantasy projections but what constitutes the real Venice?

 A new exhibition of photography at London’s Somerset House explores this theme as taken up by fourteen contemporary artists including Nan Goldin and Philip Lorca di Corcia and is curated by Ivorypress and the Venice in Peril fund, an organisation dedicated to the future sustainability of the city and a pressing question for the heritage sector as Italy’s economy strains.

Most of the works on show have resisted the expected carnival cliches, some instead looking at forgotten spaces of the banal; safety instructions in a budget hotel room out of season, an empty conference centre, resonant with potential and past narrative, or the strange stillness of La Fenice between performances. Others celebrate rather than deny the saturation of tourism and its sale of cheap and crude souvenirs that is as much part of Venice’s contemporary identity as high culture and history.

On the whole, the show strikes a note of darkness and seductive melancholy, reminiscent of du Maurier and Thomas Mann, with misty vistas and mirrors made opaque by years of damp and desertion, harnessing both nightmares and desires. Despite peeling back the edges, the ‘real’ Venice however remains ever, exquisitely, elusive.

 

Romulus and Remus

Romulus and Remus

Baboon in capitoline museums

Baboon in capitoline museums

Rene Gruau’s illustrations for Christian Dior in the 70s subvert gender and advertising stereotypes in a topsy turvy sexually revolutionising world. Here is the anti David Gandy, the Jimi Hendrixed mopped hunk that is unmistakably part of the hippy/counter culture movement. Someone you might expect to smother themselves in patchouli oil and reek of incense rather than a spritz of refined Eau Sauvage. The figure also has the off key sex appeal reminiscent of Slash from Guns&Roses, (something to do with not being able to see his eyes). Haute couture European perfume house goes grunge!

Rene Gruau’s illustrations for Christian Dior in the 70s subvert gender and advertising stereotypes in a topsy turvy sexually revolutionising world. Here is the anti David Gandy, the Jimi Hendrixed mopped hunk that is unmistakably part of the hippy/counter culture movement. Someone you might expect to smother themselves in patchouli oil and reek of incense rather than a spritz of refined Eau Sauvage. The figure also has the off key sex appeal reminiscent of Slash from Guns&Roses, (something to do with not being able to see his eyes). Haute couture European perfume house goes grunge!

Taken with instagram

Taken with instagram

Art Against the Wall

 I recently gave a paper at the Courtauld Institute Early Modern Symposium, ‘Art Against the Wall’ entitled ‘Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Pilgrims Or Just Another Brick in the Wall?’. Despite the title, I didn’t attempt a synthesis of the seventeenth century artist provocateur with Pink Floyd, but argued for a new reading of the altarpiece that remains in situ in Sant’Agsotino, Rome as an image that challenges the separation of inside and outside spaces and sacred and profane spaces and bodies.

The painted fissure of brick wall in the background of the image, not only lends an element of ‘realism’ to the depiction of the holy characters standing in the door jamb of a contemporary and humble Roman home, but also opens up interesting questions about painting’s role in mimesis.

The painted altarpiece of course covers the bare wall behind it on which it is hung, but Caravaggio shows us a glimpse of this wall already in the painting, revealing the artistry of illusion that painting begs us to believe. As an extension, we are also witness to the bare wall of the street beyond the chapel, the other side of the wall, as it were.

In this way, the profane world of the street enters into the sacred visual image, in the same manner that the dirty, dust-covered pilgrims in the foreground of the painting enter into near physical contact with the Virgin and Child who are poised in close proximity to them on the doorstep.

Furthermore, Caravaggio, painting in oil paint, presents an alternative to the aristocratically coded technique of fresco, whereas fresco painted directly on to the wall depends on the wall to exist, oil painting trumps fresco by virtue of its portability- and can infinitely create dialogues against the wall rather than staying permanently on it.

Theoretically this paper used the concept of ‘ergon’ and ‘parergon’ taken from Derrida’s work Truth in Painting, in which he argues for the constant instability of what exists inside and outside ‘the frame’. In other words, in looking at a framed image, the frame becomes part of the wall on which it is hung, but simultaneously when looking at the wall, the frame is part of the image. This proved an interesting theoretical mode of enquiry when considering the painted wall inside the image and the wall it represented outside of the image.

Taken with instagram

Taken with instagram

S. Sebastiano, Rome

S. Sebastiano, Rome

Real Venice at Somerset House

From its glittering zenith as mercantile republic to hedonistic decline, Venice has for centuries been a source of fascination, spectacle and intrigue to outsiders, day trippers, and grand tourists looking in at the city that rises out of the sea. All have brought with them their own fantasy projections but what constitutes the real Venice?

 A new exhibition of photography at London’s Somerset House explores this theme as taken up by fourteen contemporary artists including Nan Goldin and Philip Lorca di Corcia and is curated by Ivorypress and the Venice in Peril fund, an organisation dedicated to the future sustainability of the city and a pressing question for the heritage sector as Italy’s economy strains.

Most of the works on show have resisted the expected carnival cliches, some instead looking at forgotten spaces of the banal; safety instructions in a budget hotel room out of season, an empty conference centre, resonant with potential and past narrative, or the strange stillness of La Fenice between performances. Others celebrate rather than deny the saturation of tourism and its sale of cheap and crude souvenirs that is as much part of Venice’s contemporary identity as high culture and history.

On the whole, the show strikes a note of darkness and seductive melancholy, reminiscent of du Maurier and Thomas Mann, with misty vistas and mirrors made opaque by years of damp and desertion, harnessing both nightmares and desires. Despite peeling back the edges, the ‘real’ Venice however remains ever, exquisitely, elusive.

 

Romulus and Remus

Romulus and Remus

Baboon in capitoline museums

Baboon in capitoline museums

Rene Gruau’s illustrations for Christian Dior in the 70s subvert gender and advertising stereotypes in a topsy turvy sexually revolutionising world. Here is the anti David Gandy, the Jimi Hendrixed mopped hunk that is unmistakably part of the hippy/counter culture movement. Someone you might expect to smother themselves in patchouli oil and reek of incense rather than a spritz of refined Eau Sauvage. The figure also has the off key sex appeal reminiscent of Slash from Guns&Roses, (something to do with not being able to see his eyes). Haute couture European perfume house goes grunge!

Rene Gruau’s illustrations for Christian Dior in the 70s subvert gender and advertising stereotypes in a topsy turvy sexually revolutionising world. Here is the anti David Gandy, the Jimi Hendrixed mopped hunk that is unmistakably part of the hippy/counter culture movement. Someone you might expect to smother themselves in patchouli oil and reek of incense rather than a spritz of refined Eau Sauvage. The figure also has the off key sex appeal reminiscent of Slash from Guns&Roses, (something to do with not being able to see his eyes). Haute couture European perfume house goes grunge!

Art Against the Wall
Real Venice at Somerset House

About:

Catherine is a writer and art historian and sometime cultural insight consultant based in London.

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