Category Archives: Art

Vadim Derbenyov and Yuri Grigorovich – Spartacus

I continue showing you Russian films, songs, and the work of outstanding Russian actors and directors that are available online. Previously I already told the story of El Poema de las Danzas that was filmed by my uncle, starring Maya Plisetskaya. The other week I discovered that another ballet filmed by Vadim Derbenyov appeared on the web, on Mosfilm’s own YouTube channel. This is Spartacus to the music by Aram Khachaturian, choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich (read more about ballet). Without further ado, here is the full video of the ballet, starring Vladimir Vasiliev as Spartacus, Maris Liepa as Crassus, Natalia Bessmertnova as Phrygia, and Nina Timofeyeva as Eghina.

Italy Through the Russian Eyes: Alexey Tyranov – A Portrait of an Italian Lady

Alexey Tyranov was born in 1801. Prior to going to the Academy of Arts in St Petersburg he worked alongside his brother as an icon painter. At the Academy he studied under Alexey Venetsianov, and from 1836 he studied under Karl Brullov.

A Portrait of an Italian Lady gently combines the Russian modesty and the sensuality of the Italian Renaissance, e.g. Titian’s Flora. The woman is pictured either before or after having a bath.


Italy Through the Russian Eyes: Alexander Brullov – The Italian Ruins

Alexander Brullov was born on November 29, 1798 in St Petersburg in the family of Pavel Brullo, a sculptor and ornamental artist of French origin. With his brother, Karl, Alexander received a special pension from the Academy of Arts to travel to Italy to study the plastic arts. He spent 8 years travelling in Italy and France, and between 1824 and 1826 took part in restoring the Pompeii thermal baths. This latter work catapulted the young artist to fame: he was appointed the Chief Architect to the Emperor of Russia, and became a corresponding member and a member of the French Institute of Architects and the Royal Society of Architects of Britain, respectively. He also became a member of the Academies of Arts in St Petersburg (Russia) and Milan (Italy).

The watercolour The Italian Ruins was painted between 1822 and 1826. Bryullov manages to bring to the canvas all that could interest him as a painter and architect, starting with a bucolic scene featuring Italian peasants, through the attention to detail in the decor of the archs, and to the perspective that stretches up to the hill in the distance. The “ruins” seem to be scattered all over the place, as indeed befits Italy. As in Greece, these are as natural part of landscape as the mountains and sun, and the picture is literally sun-filled.

Christmas in Sculpture: Fatherhood of St Joseph

I am finishing 2009 on a high note with a trip to Sheffield on 29th December. It was a good trip and an interesting experience, which I will be talking about… in 2010!

Arthur de Mowbray, Nativity
Christian Fell, Nativity

In the meantime, a visit to Sheffield Cathedral has brought us two examples of Christmas-themed sculpture. I could not establish the author of the wooden carved group, although what I did manage to find suggests Arthur de Mowbray as the sculptor. It is a boldly carved Nativity scene, with careful work carried out on the minute details.

The second example is a now complete Nativity group by Brian Fell. It was produced in parts for Sheffield Galvanize Festival, and this year Mary that was created in 2008 was joined by Joseph and Jesus, and all three can now be found at the west end of the church (this part of the cathedral was built in 1966). Fell follows the same approach to depicting the baby Jesus as we have seen in the marble group at Manchester Cathedral: the newly born is wrapped up in sheets. In this sense, the wooden Nativity group that stands close to St Katharine Chapel is traditional in that it appears to follow the canonic depiction of Jesus in the nude. Fell’s group, with Joseph holding the baby, produces a similar effect of intimacy and parental amazement, as does the work by Josefin de Vasconcellos in Manchester.

St Joseph with Jesus,
R.C. Church of St Marie, Sheffield

A slightly different example, still in Sheffield, is this painted sculpture of Joseph and baby Jesus in the wall of the Roman Catholic Cathedral Church of St Marie. It is simply beautiful and deserves to be included in the post. Together with Fell’s Nativity and de Vasconcellos’s Holy Night, this is a fairly rare example of Joseph with baby Jesus depicted in art, especially in sculpture. Joseph is seen here with his flowering staff. In short, Sheffield has brought us several Nativity scenes that focus on fatherhood of Joseph rather than motherhood of Mary.

Nativity, Sheffield Town Hall

Inside Sheffield Town Hall there was an elaborate Nativity display, one of the loveliest ones I have seen in the last few years. And below is a Nativity scene from Llandudno photographed outside Marks&Spencer in December 2007.

Nativity, Llandudno


Sheffield Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul
Cathedral Church of St Marie

Full-size photos on Flickr: 

Nativity by Brian Fell
Holy Family
St Joseph and Jesus
The Holy Night

Christmas in Painting: Alessando Botticelli

Alessandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, 1475/76
(Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy)

This painting was commissioned to Botticelli by a Florentine Gaspar di Zanobi del Lama for the church of Santa Maria Novella. Quite in line with the tradition of the time, the real-life characters were incorporated in this pictorial adaptation of the Biblical story: the three Magi are the Medicis, Cosimo (as Melchior, presenting the gift to the Virgin), Piero (in red mantle, as Balthasar), and Giovanni (next to Piero, as Gaspar). Curiously enough, all three were dead by the time the painting was made; but this also explains why Balthasar who by 1475 had already been sometimes painted as the black king appears distinctly European (or even Florentine, perhaps).

The commissioner of the painting is pictured on the right, he is an old man in light blue mantle behind the man in black and red costume, pointing at the observer. And the solitary figure on the right wearing golden mantle is Botticelli himself.

Giorgio Vasari thus described the painting in his Lives of the Artists:

The beauty of the heads in this scene is indescribable, their attitudes all different, some full-face, some in profile, some three-quarters, some bent down, and in various other ways, while the expressions of the attendants, both young and old, are greatly varied, displaying the artist’s perfect mastery of his profession. Sandro further clearly shows the distinction between the suites of each of the kings. It is a marvellous work in colour, design and composition.

Before and after this painting, Botticelli would return to the topic in other works, and it is interesting to observe the similarities and differences in composition between all three paintings. In the 1475 work we only see a part of the stables. Undoubtedly, this allowed the artist to bring the “human” component of the painting into the focus, whereby we are looking at people, rather than contemplating the symbolic or religious meaning of the scene. There are also no strict horizontal divisions, although the figures are still “assembled” in a triangular mode.

Before that date, in a tondo painted between 1470 and 1474, Botticelli applies the perspective to his composition, as well as horizontal divisions. The stables vividly evoke the structure of the church, and the artist deftly manipulates the effect to create an impression of the depth of space. The divisions allegorically takes us from the world of people (the foreground populated with both people and horses) to the world of spirit (the elongated walls of the stables).

Finally, the 1481-82 painting does not boast too many figures, but the structure of the stables comes to the fore with its elaborate design. Perspective, but also landscape, play an equally important role. Mary now appears to be accepting the gifts of the Magi in the ruins of a classical temple or a Renaissance mansion, and the landscape that is visible through the aisle conveys the sense of idyll and peace. The sudden introduction of classical elements into the painting will become less unusual if we bear in mind that in the same years – 1481-1482 – Botticelli travelled to Rome and worked at the Vatican.

Alessandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, 1470-74
(National Gallery, London, UK)


Alessandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, 1481-82
(National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA)

Christmas in Painting: Pavel Filonov

 Although the themes of Adoration and the journey of the Magi seem to be more common in the Western tradition in art, they are by no means alien to the Orthodox tradition, and these two works by the Russian painter Pavel Filonov (1883-1941) are good examples. Since painting on this occasion serves to interpret (i.e. to translate) the Bible, it is interesting to observe how Filonov “domesticates” his translation. On the one hand, he obviously does exactly what European painters did before him, i.e. giving the people on his canvas a distinctly Russian look. Yet on the other hand, he introduces to the Russian painting the new methods and techniques. The same is true about The Magi, which is a watercolour painting featuring the black Balthasar in the foreground. If both paintings, but particularly The Magi, offer a good example of application of the recent methods in Western painting (Futurism, Cubism) to the Russian tradition.

Derek Maus in his article explores how Andrei Bely and Pavel Filonov, the writer and the painter respectively, studied the dimensions of space, time and “strangeness” of things in their works. It seems that the “strangest” thing about Peasant Family is that Filonov had chosen to depict the villagers, not proletarians. This is partly explained by the painter’s personal dislike of the city as the epitome of hustle and bustle. In a way, too, Filonov could merely follow the tradition that depicted the holy family in the “bucolic”, and not urban, environment. But one can also agree with Maus that “widespread socio-political sympathy for the plight of the Russian peasantry as, minimally, an image of the rural proletariat, made it possible for Filonov to use this visual allegory to glorify, perhaps even deify, a peasant family“.

Pavel Filonov, The Magi, 1914
(The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia)
Pavel Filonov, Peasant Family (Holy Family), 1914
(The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia).

How to Scrape Skies (Nicolas Bentley Illustrations)

How to Scrape Skies
To scrape the skies in Manchester, you may want to go to Cloud 23 – a chic bar at the Hilton Hotel in the Beetham Tower in Deansgate. The image I took last weekend during the walk around town isn’t original in its idea: arguably, this is the way (or one of the definitive ways) to photograph a skyscraper in all its glory. It was one of those snaps you make to document a fleeting sensation.

The title of the photo isn’t original either: it is the title of the 1948 book by George Mikes. How To Scrape Skies: The United States Explored, Rediscovered, and Explained was published on the back of the astounding success of Mikes’s best-seller, How To Be An Alien (1946). Like How To Be An Alien, and similar to a few other “how-to” books published subsequently, How To Scrape Skies documented the American peculiarities, comparing them to what could be seen in Europe or Britain. But perhaps the reason why How To Be An Alien was so successful was that it dwelt on Mikes’s own life in England as a Hungarian emigrant, whereas in subsequent books Mikes couldn’t rely on such a vast personal experience, and also was evidently trapped by his own success.

But over at GoofButton there is a page with the illustrations to How To Scrape Skies: these were made by Nicolas Bentley, a British author and cartoonist. The site is created by Jeffrey Meyer. As Jeffrey correctly notes, the reason why this Mikes’s book was “not for sale in the U.S.” is that the illustrations were arguably even more inflammatory than the text. Below are a few examples. To see them all, visit GoofButton.

Vasari and Ingres: The Death of Leonardo

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, The Death of Leonardo, 1818

Recently I’ve been doing some research for my other projects and I came across this painting by the French master Ingres, The Death of Leonardo. I knew that the Renaissance Italian connoisseur Giorgio Vasari would surely have something on the subject, see below:

At last, having become old, he lay ill for many months, and seeing himself near death, he set himself to study the holy Christian religion, and though he could not stand, desired to leave his bed with the help of his friends and servants to receive the Holy Sacrament. Then the king, who used often and lovingly to visit him, came in, and he, raising himself respectfully to sit up in bed, spoke of his sickness, and how he had offended God and man by not working at his art as he ought. Then there came a paroxysm, a forerunner of death, and the king raised him and lifted his head to help him and lessen the pain, whereupon his spirit, knowing it could have no greater honour, passed away in the king’s arms in the seventyfifth year of his age.

The loss of Leonardo was mourned out of measure by all who had known him, for there was none who had done such honour to painting. The splendour of his great beauty could calm the saddest soul, and his words could move the most obdurate mind. His great strength could restrain the most violent fury, and he could bend an iron knocker or a horseshoe as if it were lead. He was liberal to his friends, rich and poor, if they had talent and worth; and indeed as Florence had the greatest of gifts in his birth, so she suffered an infinite loss in his death.

This passage from Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists inspired Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (J.-A.-D. Ingres (French painter)) to paint his 1818 work, titled The Death of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo is depicted wearing a long beard, as in the Uffizi portrait.

Following Leonardo’s death, Francesco Melzi wrote to the painter’s brothers:

I understand that you have been informed of the death of Master Leonardo, your brother, who was like an excellent father to me. It is impossible to express the grief that I feel at his death, and as long as my bodily parts sustain me I will feel perpetual unhappiness, which is justified by the consuming and passionate love he bore daily towards me. Everyone is grieved by the loss of such a man whose like nature no longer has it in her power to produce…

View the excellent cover of 1568 edition of Vasari’s work; and read extracts at Fordham University’s website.

How Apollo Was Flaying Marsyas

The origins of this post date back to July 2008. I went to London and visited Victoria and Albert Museum. I spent most of my time there admiring sculptures by Rodin, Canova and Lord Leighton, and it was there that I came across the group by Antonio Corradini, Apollo Flaying Marsyas. The group dated back to 1719-1723 and was originally at the royal gardens in Dresden. It was not unusual to see such group in the place where the high and mighty would walk: in the Summer Garden in St. Petersburg one of the sculptures depicted Uranus devouring his child – hardly a pleasant composition to behold during a lazy afternoon promenade. Yet Corradini’s sculpture was disturbing in a very peculiar way. Apollo, armed with this huge garden knife, skins Marsyas’s leg, while watching a poor satyr with the most curious expression: the god is either surprised by the satyr’s reaction, or he is gently reminding Marsyas that such was supposed to be the punishment, so “no sulking now!” I was particularly impressed by the contrast of the scene’s brutality and by Apollo’s gentle musical fingers holding Marsyas’s leg as if it was a cello’s body.

When I looked around for representations of this story by other artists, my surprise grew even bigger to some extent. As you can see in the presentation below, artists were not unanimous on how to depict Marsyas. According to some variants of the legend, he was a satyr; in other cases he was a peasant. This may explain why in some paintings Marsyas appears as a man, and not as half-goat. Neither were they unanimous in showing Apollo’s involvement. Although the majority of painters or sculptors showed the god heavily involved in punishing the satyr, some, like Titian, gave Apollo a Nero-esque look, putting him almost in the background, giving him the lyre and making him the onlooker.

It may be tempting to reflect on the social undertone of the legend. The god of Sun whose power was challenged by a peasant takes to punish the offender most severely… and if the peasant was in fact a satyr, half-goat that is to say, so the “social” component of the story was even more prominent. As much as this social undertone cannot be denied (which may explain why Antonio Corradini’s sculpture had been gracing the royal gardens), what is probably more interesting is the opportunity the story of Apollo and Marsyas was giving to showcase the awareness of human anatomy, emotions, and the developments in medical science. Apollo in the paintings by Jordaens, de Ribera and Carpioni strikes the pose that would normally be seen in the anatomical theatre – that of an experienced surgeon and anatomist. Marsyas wriggling his body in agonising pain, his face distorted, was once again a great opportunity to put to work the knowledge gained in hospitals, battlefields, and prisons. And not once do we see the artist meticulously showing us the process of skinning the poor satyr. It was about bones, meat, and tissues rather than politics – let alone mythology.


Marsyas “biography” at Wikipedia.
Marsyas: Satyr of Lydia (with quotations from primary sources) at Theoi.
Apollo myths at Yahoo! Geocities.