Living In Dropcloth Territory

We’re having some painting work done, and living briefly in the active painting zone is an adjustment. There are drop cloths everywhere, paint cans and brushes, buckets, turpentine jars, taped off windows, tarp-covered furniture, shop vacs, and general painting tool bric-a-brac scattered pretty much everywhere. And on the counter and in the refrigerator are foods and bottles of unknown provenance brought over by the painter to provide fuel during his painting day.

Fortunately, he let the place dry out and air out a bit before we arrived to see how the work was going, so rather than heavy paint fumes we’ve got the delicate scent of freshly painted rooms. It’s a smell I like.

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A Visit To The National Portrait Gallery

051I freely admit that I am a sucker for portraits. I’m fascinated by them, and I applaud the artists who create them. In my view, it takes a special talent to render a good likeness of a fellow human being.

If you also are a fan of portraits, then London’s National Portrait Gallery is a mandatory stop on your bucket list. It is an extraordinary powerhouse of an art collection that left an indelible impression on me after I spent four very enjoyable hours there on Thursday.

054The organization and, frankly, attendance at the museum contributed greatly to the enjoyment. Unlike the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery is not overrun with people jostling likes chimps in a zoo cage in front of every piece of artwork on display. There’s room, and time, to really observe each portrait.

If it’s a good portrait — and most of those on display in the National Portrait Gallery certainly fall into that category — then a little contemplation will inevitably cause you to feel as if you have really learned something about the individual being depicted. A good portrait tells you something about the subject that affords you a window of sorts into their soul.

059The Gallery is organized so that you can go start at the beginning and go forward in time, or start at the end and go backward. I chose the former approach, which puts you firmly in the realm of kings and high-ranking nobility at the outset, but then expands to include painters, poets, singers, scientists, politicians, and intellectual members of a drinking and social group called the Kit-Cat Club, among many others. As the subjects are broadened to encompass more of society, so to does the manner of depicting the subject — from icon-like early royal paintings, to portrayals heavy with symbolism, to full-length treatments, to more contemporary approaches.

I also respected the fact that the National Portrait Gallery barred photography of some of the pieces, in order to try to avoid damaging them. In an age when people seem to take pictures without caring much about why they are doing so, I would rather take the steps necessary to preserve the artwork itself for future generations. So, I obeyed the injunctions and refrained from taking a picture, for example, of the stunning and moving portrayal of a deflated Winston Churchill during the time when his handling of the disastrous Dardanelles campaign during World War I was under inquiry.

The other pictures included with this post, however, should give any fan of portraits an idea of what they can expect with a visit to this excellent museum. They include, moving from the top down, Henry Lamb’s 1939 Impressionistic portrait of a brittle and seemingly bewildered Neville Chamberlain, Joshua Reynolds’ far-sighted self-portrait from the middle of the 18th century, Lawrence’s 1773 depiction of Sir Joseph Banks, a scientist who sailed to the Pacific with Captain Cook and who looks like he is ready to break into a broad grin as he sits by his globe, and, below, Sir Thomas Lawrence’s riveting likeness of the laser-eyed Tory Prime Minister Robert Jenkinson, who radiates intensity of purpose from the canvas.

You Get What You Pay For

Kish wisely says there are some things you don’t scrimp on.  Shoes, for one.  Toilet paper, for another.  And, presumably, restoring damaged church frescoes painted by long dead artists.

The latter rule was confirmed by a horrifying yet hilarious BBC story.  A Spanish church was trying to figure out what to do with a more than 100-year-old fresco of Christ created by Elias Garcia Martinez that had been visibly harmed by moisture.  A well-intentioned, 80-year-old parishioner decided to take matters, and a paintbrush, into her own hands.  Her inept restoration attempt resulted in a restoration gone terribly wrong — a painting that, in the words of a BBC correspondence, looks like “a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic.”  And, based on a comparison of the original painting and the “restoration,” that description is apt.

Now the church will have to decide whether the damage can be repaired, and if so, how.  In the meantime, the rest of us should remember:  if you want something done right, hire an expert!

Our Extraordinarily Ancient Artistic Impulse

Using dating techniques that examine the build-up of calcium carbonate, scientists have concluded that artwork found in caves in Spain is more than 40,000 years old.  That makes the particular artistic statement — a red dot, found on a wall that features a series of depictions of hands rimmed by red paint — is more than 4,000 years older than the previous oldest known piece of human art.

The age of the art is extraordinary, because it stretches back to the dawn of human immigration into Europe, which is believed to have occurred about 41,000 years ago.  To give some context to the amazing age of the paintings, consider that the first known civilizations didn’t begin until about 6000 years ago, and that if you went back in time 4000 years from today you’d be at a point centuries before the birth of King Tut.

Discoveries like this make you wonder how old human expression truly is, and when it first was displayed.  Is cave painting the earliest form of human artistic expression, or is another form even older?  When did humans first sing, or dance around the fire pit, or create some form of music?  How soon after language was developed did the first poet or storyteller come into being?

The days of these early humans were consumed by hunting dangerous animals, foraging for food, building fires, creating tools and clothing, and avoiding predators — and yet they spent time creating art on the walls of their cave shelters.  The fact that the artistic impulse is found in such early humans says something very powerful about creativity and the artistic urge as a fundamental part of human nature.

If The Mona Lisa Could Speak . . .

she might be able to explain how Leonardo da Vinci was able to produce such a richly shaded depiction of her human face, without apparent brushstrokes, thumbprints, or other evidence of human creation.  Until she speaks, however, we will leave it to science to gather evidence — which is what happened when a form of x-ray technology was applied to the world’s most famous painting and other creations of Leonardo.  The study suggests that the great master painstakingly and repeatedly applied amazingly thin coats of glaze to his paintings to achieve the effect.

Leonardo’s technique, called sfumato, apparently has been lost to the mists of time.  It is hard to believe that a method capable of producing such effects would not have been carefully handed down, from master to student, through the centuries.  It makes you wonder that what other techniques that produced artistic masterpieces, astonishing architectural triumphs, or other ancient wonders have unfortunately been lost to the ready universe of human knowledge.

A Pretty Good Investment

The newly discovered Da Vinci painting

The normally separate worlds of modern technology and Renaissance art intersected recently, and the result was confirmation that a heretofore obscure painting was the work of Leonardo da Vinci.  Multispectral images of a painting thought to be that of a 19th century German painter has allowed art historians to determine that a fingerprint on the painting matched that of the great Leonardo, who apparently frequently used his hands in creating his masterpieces.

What does it mean for the owner of the piece?  Well, he bought the painting two years ago for $19,000, and now it is estimated to be worth more than $100 million.  For the mathematically challenged, that means the value of the investment increased 5,000 times in just two years.

Russell, be sure to leave a few telltale fingerprints on your artwork!