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Showing up for the Muse - Watching time go by with a painting a day and showing others where to look

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NOT ALL HOSPITALS ARE EQUAL

March 19, 2020

 

In the light of today, when countries around the world are scrambling to build hospitals, virus testing sites, and labs, I can’t help but reflect on the glorious façade of the Ospidale degli Innocenti.

Back in the late 1400’s, the Silk Merchant Guild of Florence hired Filippo Brunelleschi, who would go on to become one of the renaissance’s greatest architects, to build a building to receive and house orphan babies as community service.

Brunelleschi pulled together ideas of scale and optics that glorified human proportion and signaled the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe. The hospital façade is longer than tall. A colonnade of composite columns rhythmically punctuates the full front. Each column is placed apart at a distance that equals their height and the arcade behind them maintains the same measurement, creating a series of cubes. Sweeping arches fly up from each capital and leap down the length of the building, like a beating pulse. In the triangular spaces where the arches meet there are oval framed ceramic babies in sculptural relief. Above, on the top floor of the 2-story building, the rectangular windows have triangular caps that visually lift the weight of the horizontal building upwards. The design incorporates grey stone and white stucco to break up the space into geometric patterns. The whole building feels light and measured.

 

Brunelleschi was a trained goldsmith, and sculptor, but when in 1403 he only won second place in the competition to create panels for the Florence Baptistery doors, he seemed to quit all that and turn to architecture. He is known for designing innovative machines to help construction, and for his greatest masterpiece, a wonder of the world, the largest Dome of the time, the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. It is more then 150 feet across and involved construction 180 feet in the air. It took 18 years to build and there were only three accidental deaths recorded! Brunelleschi, a problem-solver, patented many innovations to get the job done. Born in 1377, he died ten years after the completion in 1446 and is buried under the dome.

 

My son, another problem solver, is working in construction with a company proposing fast pop-up buildings for FEMA. It looks as though they will be made of extruded recycled plastic, and dome like in shape. I wonder if asking for columns and arches would be too much?

 

 

 

POIGNANT ART IN TIMES OF PANIC

March 9, 2020

Today with all the news headlines are of crashing stock markets and shutting markets, uncertainty (and insensitivity) in political leadership and a contagious, possibly terminal, epidemic on the loose, we can look to the arts for humor, brevity, distraction or focus. Artists ideate and imagine. Ideation is the process of pulling forth solutions to a question. The role of the artist is to imagine- and that means to give form to an image, movement, or sound as a solution.

 

I am reminded of an artist who was able to alter a simple iconic image and make it resonate as the voice of the disenfranchised. In his best images he combined rage and tenderness. David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) was an American artist at the peak of his career in the 1980’s. Working under the slashing (and insensitive) government of President Reagan and amidst the scorched earth Aids body count. He turned his personal confessional expressions into powerful political activism. Wojnarowicz suffered a life of childhood abuse, homelessness, teenage prostitution, and by the time he a young adult he was losing his friends to the aids crisis. His art famously clashed with forces of censorship and repression. He called out, with his art serving as a social critique, the political mythmakers such as Jesse Helms, the NEA and the conservative Christian’s who would rather insist in the invisibility of the poor and vulnerable. His most famous work, Untitled, 1988-89 is a platinum print photograph taken as a cropped section of a natural history diorama. It is of the American buffalo jumping, one after the other, over a cliff. The image is beautifully developed and haunting. It symbolized the hopelessness people felt within the medical crisis looking at government policies. His image brilliantly spoke to the marginalized, from the Native Americans (the diorama story) to the Aids victims.

When a friend apologized for making art that was less than political, that focused on beauty, Wojnarowicz replied, “…these are so beautiful, and that’s what we’re fighting for. We’re being angry and complaining because we have to, but where we want to go is back to beauty. If you let go of that, we don’t have anywhere to go.”

 

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Coronavirus Shadow is as Terrifying as Breugel's Triumph

When I think of the Coronovirus leaping around the globe and adding to the daily death count, I think of one of the most terrifying paintings in history, the Triumph of Death, an oil-on-wood-panel painting, created in 1562. It has something, like this virus, of everyone’s worst nightmare. Set along a coast in a village with commerce, the scene looks like a premonition of hell. Flames and smoke dot the horizon. It’s an eco-horror. There isn’t a sign of any green life in the landscape. Trees are being chopped down. The land is scorched and rust colored. A bloated fish gasps on the shore. The painting is of a jumbled panicked populace surrounded by almost quaint little scenes of victims stuck in torture contraptions, and coffins sinking into the mud in the surrounding fields. It looks like the cursed forecast of what we can expect if the stores run out of medical masks, or you are stuck in an airplane full of coughing aliens.

 

Not enough is known about Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the artist from the Netherlands who worked in the 1500’s. No one knows his birth date, but the time he was registered in an art guild (1551) to his death (1669) he executed 40 paintings and 60 prints. This particular painting is hung at the Prado Museum in Madrid.

 

In The Triumph of Death, the hysteria is loud and panoramic. Men, women, babies, the rich, the poor, the laborer, the gamblers, soldiers, monks, and kings, are all tormented and terrified. Skeletons arrive in massive numbers and outnumber the living. They interrupt meals, disrupt commerce and dismantle forts. They amass an army, creating a wall of coffin-shaped shields. They arrive on boats and by horseback. They pull wagons piled high with skulls, trampling over the Fates with their spools of threads, and herding crowds into a large dark door: a death trap in the side of a hill. They wield long silver scythes and blow on trumpets, even making musical instruments out of bones. A woman, face down, cradles her baby while dogs eat it’s face. A man is hung with his pants down. A bewildered king is taunted by a skeleton holding up an empty hour-glass.

 

Everyone in the painting is in the throes of death except for two young lovers in the lower right corner. They are seemingly oblivious as they play music and read. But, behind them, a skeleton has picked up an instrument and is playing along.

On a barren hill to the left, two skeletons ring a large black bell.

 

Painted during a time when northern Europe was rocked by pandemics, reeling under the ruling religious wars, and leery of the inventive fury of the Inquisition, pictures such as this were called “moral paintings” because they were warnings to live right. No one was/is immune to death. Washing hands hadn’t caught on and religion, literally, could kill.
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Art can show us where we are and where we could be.

 


 

blogging since 2006