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Thoughts on Sts Peter and Paul’s Day

Today we celebrated the Day of two Christian saints, Peter and Paul. Peter was one of Jesus’s disciples who tried to emulate his master and follow him in his footsteps but couldn’t quite do so. He was afraid to walk on water, and, despite his own expectations, refuted Jesus three times. Following the Resurrection, he became the leader of disciples and an ardent professor of faith.

Saul, on the other hand, was a staunch persecutor of Christians until the angel knocked him down and revealed God’s will. And so Saul became Paul and wrote many epistles to pagans and Christians alike. Caravaggio’ The Conversion of Saul depicts the moment of epiphany.

Both eventually martyred: Peter was crucified head down (at his own request), and Paul was beheaded for he was a Ronan citizen. As a result, Paul is often depicted with a sword, as in this painting by El Greco.

Paul may also be depicted with a book which is a nod to his literary activity, and Peter is portrayed with the keys to Kingdom of Heaven in his hand. In this Russian icon another aspect is noticeable: Peter is older and is always on the left side of the picture.

The saints were celebrated in Russia practically since the Christening, and the Cathedral of St Sophia in Kiev has the earliest surviving image of Peter in what was Ancient Rus.

The popular expression says “Peter and Paul reduce the day by an hour”. By August 2nd, St Elijah’s Day, the day will have lost two hours, which is commemorated in another expression.

The story of Peter and Paul is that of a person’s following his or her vocation with faith. At the beginning of this short fasting period I went to St Clement of Rome’s church where I wrote down something of my own epiphany, that Christianity is not about suffering but about faith and service. When one has found their vocation, they should follow it, not in the hope to martyr or to die a peaceful death, but in the determination to fulfill their vocation. Martyrdom or a good death is not the end in itself; the vocation is. The story of Peter and Paul is a good illustration of this thesis. After all, there were St Nicholas and St Spyridon of Trimythous who died a peaceful death but whose contribution to Christianity was no less than that of the apostles’.

There are two lessons Peter and Paul teach us. One, follow your vocation. And two, none of us is ever good enough for a task. Peter betrayed Christ but came to be the guardian of the heavenly Kingdom. Saul used to destroy Christians but eventually became the most ardent propagator of a new religion. Whatever we used to do in the past, we can always change our ways and start anew.

Moscow Celebrates 874th Anniversary

For the 874th anniversary of my native city I went to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. There are currently two “Italian” exhibitions. One, in collaboration with Pinacoteca di Siena, focuses on the rise of the Sienese school of art. It features at least one work attributed to workshop of Duccio di Buoninsegna and works by Simone Martini, Giovanni di Paolo, and others. It also demonstrates some rare Sienese biccherni and 13-14th Italian paintings and altarpieces from the Pushkin Museum collection.

Another exhibition features works by Giambattista Tiepolo (18th c.) and other Italian painters of 17-18th cc.

In the city, in one of the boulevards, there is an exhibition of Soviet photography. Photos span 1930s-1980s and focus on celebrations in Red Square and Moscow architecture.

Below is one of exhibits, a painting by a 17th c. Neapolitan master, “The healing of the man sick with palsy”.

The Mystery of William Turner’s Dinefwr Castle

As I’m reading through Art History books of my English-language library, I’ve immersed myself into a book on Turner’s trails in North and South Wales. I bought it on my visit to Valle Crucis Abbey in Denbighshire in 2009.

My visit to Dinefwr

I visited Dinefwr Castle two years earlier, in the summer of 2007. I was accompanying my husband to Carmarthen, and on a free day we decided to travel to see one of the castles. Dinefwr in Llandeilo turned out to be the closest, we didn’t have to change buses, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. I wrote about the trip in my Carmarthen Cameos and even received a long comment from a once citizen of Llandeilo, in whom my post awakened lovely childhood memories.

William Turner, Llandeilo Bridge and Dinevor Castle (1796, National Museum of Wales)

Turner’s Dinefwr Castle

Dinefwr Castle, in its turn, inspired Turner: he visited it in 1795, and in 1796 he exhibited the watercolour painting, Llandeilo Bridge and Dinevor Castle. It can now be seen at the National Museum of Wales. Just like in his other paintings, he juxtaposes different viewpoints, making both castle and hill more magnificent and closer to the viewer than they really are. The bridge, as we can see, used to be insecure: in the watercolour Turner depicts it being supported by an uprooted tree. Following his intention to combine the past with the present, Turner concentrates entirely on the foreground, which is ridden in misery, whilst the silhouette of the glorious past glows in the light of the setting sun. The eye of the viewer may travel from top to bottom or the other way round, but in any case, one is moved to consider the fate of Wales and its people.

And this is the extract from the aforementioned Cadw book that sheds light on the variety of techniques an artist could use to enhance the desired effect:

Whilst this picture was undergoing conservation in 1993 an unexpected discovery was made that shed new light on Turner’s experimentation with watercolour technique at this time. Bonded onto the back of the paper was another sheet painted with the same scene, though in a different technique and seemingly unfinished. At first this was thought to be a preparatory sketch that Turner had abandoned, but further investigation revealed that it was almost certainly a deliberate attempt to imitate in watercolour an effect that he had found possible with oil by superimposing layers of pigment. Here he seems to have tried to exploit the translucency of the watercolour paper and enrich the level of reflected light from the surface of the finished picture by placing additional painted work underneath the paper (from: On the Trail of Turner in North and South Wales, p. 30. Cardiff, 2008 (3rd ed.)

More secrets?

To summarise, Turner made another painting of the similar scene on the back on the final picture in order to enhance the light and expressivity of the watercolour. Given his secrecy about his working methods, I’m very intrigued to find out what other methods and techniques he deployed to obtain a previously unknown artistic effect.

Van Gogh Goes Hipster: What Messages Photoshopped Art Sends Us

Mona Lisa used to be a makeover darling for many an artist. I was caught off guard by postcards of La Gioconda in sunglasses, with punk make-up on a stand opposite the Louvres in Paris. They looked weird because a stone-throw away was the real Gioconda. However, the image and all surrounding mysteries were so well-known that have become a commonplace, a household name, so some kind of rebellion against such omnipresence was almost welcome, also giving a fresh perspective.

Recently I’ve rediscovered Pinterest, and there I came across a few images that suggest that Vincent Van Gogh, the troubled Impressionist painter known for his haunting Sunflowers and self-mutilation, is the new Mona Lisa. In one photo he’s partying with Frida Kahlo and the famous Girl with the Pearl Earring. In another, La Gioconda consoles him. And in others he’s paired with the mentioned Vermeer’s model. Admittedly, they make a good couple: one cannot help remembering paparazzi images of Johnny Depp and Kate Moss.

Mona Lisa and Vincent
Vincent Van Gogh partying with Vermeer’s Girl and Frida Cahlo

What I always wonder about, thinking of these images, is their purpose. With Mona Lisa it was quite obvious: she was SO famous one couldn’t help trying to bring her down. Different, especially satirical takes on La Gioconda were the acts of rebellion against classical art, the Old Masters, as well as against the popular fascination thereof. It was so easy to love and copy the classics without ever asking what makes them good, important, etc. So, the funny images of Mona Lisa served the purpose of shaking the pedestal beneath the Old Masters. In this, they continued the tradition of revolts against classical art that started in the 19th century.

Mona Lisa takes to the streets with Vincent

Hence, the hipster images of Van Gogh seemingly run in the same vein. Except for one thing: it’s not the modernity that alters the portrait of the artist. We see something different: an artist’s head leaves the body and takes to the modern-day streets. Whereas we instantly recognise Mona Lisa, whatever the makeover, the gingerhaired dude is likely to be familiar only to those who know his art. To others, he’s a guy-next-door, evidently a regular at all the city bars, sporting the fashionable five-o-clock beard and wearing an ethereal girlfriend on his arm.

I’m prompted to see these images as an attempt of contemporary artists to show how difficult it’s become to embed oneself in history. Perhaps, they don’t regard their work as such, but their opinion doesn’t change the fact: if you do something publicly, you want it to be noticed. And there’s a lot to be noticed and contemplated. For instance, why precisely it is Van Gogh who’s become the new Raphael and his art is both famous and yet common. Monet’s Waterlilies are too simple yet pretentious for today’s interiors, Degas is too complex, Picasso and Dali are too famous, and Vincent’s contemporary, the ravishing Gauguin, is probably too daring for the otherwise tolerant society.

Or, why it is Van Gogh who’s been chosen by the new generation of “creative people” who’ve got the misfortune of living in the shadow of both the classics and the better known contemporaries, when self-mutilation suddenly becomes a publicity act to illustrate the artist’s impotence. Not to mention his mental state, the work of Van Gogh lacked the languid tenderness of Monet or Gauguin’s exotic vitality. Van Gogh is halfway between these two emotions, and again this may be what makes him so popular today. Artists and the public want to enjoy the steady bourgeois life but the thirst for change and the ennui (as a by-product of that very steadiness) push them far and wide. They settle on Van Gogh as a troubled soul with peculiar landscape paintings, starry skies, potato-eaters, sunflowers and irises, who’s quite exotic and simple and thus doesn’t challenge the status quo. So contemporary art doesn’t challenge the capitalist status quo. There seems to be a truce between capitalism and art today: art can criticise capitalism as long as it doesn’t attempt to erode its basis. Van Gogh serves better purpose here, as he’s never left the capitalist, bourgeois setting, unlike Gauguin.

Finally, as a society we’re still fascinated with the troubled genii who didn’t live to see the fame that befell their work. And this is again where Van Gogh fits so well. This fame and success thing belongs to the same class of unattainable values, as, say, money. It is argued that money is everywhere, yet why so few people get comfortably well-off? There are many reasons, from poor thinking to some objective factors, like the time and place of living, yet ultimately they all serve the purpose to explain why you’ve not got money now AND give you hope that one day you may be a rich man, too. Today artists are subjected to such fierce competition that you’ve got to be inspired by someone who remained faithful to his path and eventually received his delayed gratification. Van Gogh is an excellent example: not too notorious, not too political, a typical shy genius.

So when Vincent takes to the streets in those images there are several messages we receive. This may be a homage the contemporary art and indeed life itself pay the bygone times by bringing them into the 21st century. I mean, do you see similar takes on the work of David, Ingres, Degas, Gauguin? Nothing instantly springs to mind, which means that incorporating Van Gogh into modern-day discourse is a sign that he belongs here and now.

This may be an attempt of contemporary art to trace itself back to some period in Art History with which it’d like to be associated. Regardless of artistic value of Van Gogh’s work (which I don’t dispute), the reason contemporary artists may wish to be close to Van Gogh is a peculiar combination of avant-garde and mainstream in his work, which is neither too challenging, nor boring.

Finally, contemporary life itself wants to find a historical setting to which it belongs — or, alternatively, to destroy the value of any historical tradition. Lost in between capitalism and socialism, today’s “young adults” are very much like the troubled Vincent. They need to know that there’s hope, that the past has preserved the images of people both similar and familiar to them. Van Gogh lived at the time when the notion of art was only beginning to undergo revision. I guess he’d be completely lost today when your local graffiti, a dead shark and Leonardo are all considered “art”. So his hipster images are a link between the fin-de-siecle and the first half of the 21st century. And it’s kind of good, except for the sinister side. Van Gogh serves to justify the artistic impotence, the second-hand artistic practice and spending life in a fleeting hope for fame and success. Nobody cares for his mental state nor views on art. His distorted face is placed in all sorts of settings, from bars to film posters, to make him as common as Mona Lisa has become. This devaluation works very cleverly, equalling a great artist to his unfortunate paragons and further distorting the notion of art, which in the end isn’t about Beauty but about Labour of Love for Beauty.

Sketches to Portraits by Terentiy Travnik

A collection of aphorisms Sketches to Portraits by Terentiy Travnik, illustrated by Darya Khanedany’an. Translated into English, Spanish and French by Julia Shuvalova and Patrick Jackson.

sketches-to-portraits-terentiy-travnik
Terentiy Travnik and Darya Khanedany’an, Sketches to Portraits. Translated into English, Spanish and French by Julia Shuvalova and Patrick Jackson.

One of the milestone events of this year for me is a publication of a book Sketches to Portraits with the aphorisms by Terentiy Travnik and illustrations by Darya Khanedany’an.

Terentiy Travnik is a poet, artist and musician, a native Muscovite. Darya Khanedanyan was also born in Moscow into a family of artists, however her own creative career started in Spain. I took part in making the book as a literary editor, an editor of the English translation of aphorisms, and a translator into French. I also translated the opening article into English.

The pronounced Iberian facial traits is obviously a hommage to Spain; Travnik’s aphorisms retain their Russian heritage in form as in the intellectual depth. A harmonious combination of words and images is therefore all the more striking, strengthened by artistic editing by Travnik himself. The vibrant colours, ethnic rhythms and avant-garde stylisation all bring out a truly cosmic dimension in Sketches to Portraits.

The aphorisms by Terentiy Travnik deserve a special mention. One of his best-known books, A Splinter, that has seen 4 editions since it was first published in 1990s, is a collection of aphorisms that embrace practically all spheres of human life. One can note here a loyalty to the tradition of La Bruyère, Schopenhauer and other philosophers who found endless creative possibilities in the concise and succinct form of an aphorism. Ever after A Splinter Travnik’s work has been marked by the mentioned qualities (e.g. Tabulas, 49 Tabulas etc.).

Sketches to Portraits by Terentiy Travnik includes 41 aphorisms translated into English, Spanish and French languages. Great happiness matures slowly; There is a lot of grass in the field, but we can only remember the flower; Time does everything on the go; Touch the roots, and the crown will blossom; To do a foolish thing and to make a mistake are two different things; Wisdom does not take money; Education is the path from authority to truth; Treat the fatigue of the body with rest and the fatigue of the soul with work. This is but a little part of what the author invites the reader to think about. Perhaps, this openness to the dialogue is the most remarkable trait of these aphorisms. Nowadays the Internet is saturated with many an interesting and deep quote, but the most popular are those presented in a mentoring or affirmative voice. Do this; don’t do that; the meaning of that is this. Terentiy Travnik’s aphorisms, while speaking directly to the reader, don’t insist on their ultimate truth. Their deceptive simplicity disguises some really deep reflections.

Terentiy Travnik’s website

Other posts in Julia Shuvalova: Poetry and Prose archives

Magi in Arts – 1

My December has started in a very busy atmosphere of visiting Manchester. I didn’t make it to any of Christmas markets but I once again tested my ability to organise travel. I believe I am very good at it, although in future I would greatly prefer for it to be organised for me. I was lucky, nonetheless, to have come back on December 1, as very soon the storm Xavier came down on Europe, and many flights had been cancelled, trains delayed, and roofs torn off in Manchester. I didn’t experience any of it, so I have been quite fortunate.

I shall hope to make up for my absence (cats being ill, me teaching-editing-translating almost at the same time) with a regular Christmas time feature, this year focusing on the visitation from the Magi to bring the newly born Jesus the gifts. There were some posts from previous years dedicated to the same subject:

James Tissot and T.S.Eliot

Diego Velazquez

The Magi of the Vatican

Edward Burne-Jones

And this year’s first painting is The Wise Men Enter Jerusalem by William Hole.  Like many Europeans and particularly Englishmen of his time (e.g. William Holman Hunt), William Hole visited Palestine (around 1900) to study the background for a cycle of his religious paintings illustrating the life of Christ. He subsequently also painted several works on the subjects from the Old Testament.

In this painting we see the wise men enter Jerusalem on camels – a nod to a tradition, earlier depicted by James Tissot.

The picture was found here.

 

In Defense of Noah’s Arch

I recently had to comment in a discussion on one of socnets about the plausibility of the story of Noah’s Arch. The argument was that the story was never questioned, then the person took interest in science, and before long the story of the most ancient sea journey amidst the deluge became a myth.

Regular readers know that I’m not a religious person, however I do have faith. It’s neither Christian, nor some other, but a set of what I hold to be true of the world where I live. However, being a historian I realise that these “myths” are not the mere old woman’s tales but the examples of how our ancestors made sense of this world. They may appear exaggerated to us today but at the very core they are not at all contradictory to the event as it was. 
 
In case with Noah’s Arch the problem is that, rather than acknowledging the limited worldview of our predecessors we let our own erudition run wild. We come to imagine an arch the size of the Titanic, and a pair of every species grows to the size of an average zoo. The purpose of saving Noah was to rebuild the mankind; naturally, Noah would have to eat and to grow crops, and he needed animals to do so – domestic animals, that is. In his time these would most likely be sheep, and it was absolutely possible to take a couple of “baahs” on board. 
I mentioned the story of St. Ursula that I wrote about previously. It’s one of the best-known Christian myths that sprang from the misreading of an abbreviation and inspired a popular theme in medieval painting. Yes, today we know there had not been 11,000 virgin martyrs, and the iconography appears a good subject for mockery. Instead, why cannot we appreciate the art of composition, the colours, the studies of a dress?
 
On to my socnet argument. 
 
“The Noah story as I knew it had it that he was allowed to take a pair of every species. Given the time we are talking about, it would not be a zoo, so generally he would be able to take some creatures in a boat with him. Scientists, historians, archaeologists have long established that the story of Noah’s Arc is one of many reverberations of the story of the Great Flood, references to which we can find not only in the Bible but also in American Indian myths, and in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the first ever epic song. As much as I am not religious myself, I’m an historian, and the biggest problem we have with these “fables” is that they are taken at face value and taught in the same vein, then later we discover our critical faculties and begin to refute the story altogether. We need to realise that it is through fables, parables and extensive iconography that our ancestors made sense of this world. It would be a shame if, by discarding these stories as old woman’s tales, we also threw away the ability for rich, imaginative thinking. We should believe the story of Noah’s Arc, as it is depicted in the Bible, no more than we believe today the story of St. Ursula and 11000 virgin martyrs, but it doesn’t mean nothing similar had ever happened. I felt I had to say this because in Russia in the late 1990s an academic “school” appeared that claimed that all history, as we know it, especially starting from our era, was a creation of a limited number of European scholars from 17th c. onwards. If we say that those myths are just myths, we merely give strength to this theory that would happily refute Darwin with all his apes, if it could”.

The Persistence of Pancakes: Artemy Lebedev Studio Revisits Salvador Dali’s Painting

A renowned Russian design studio run by Artemy Lebedev revisited the famous 1931 painting by Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory.

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory (1931)

Dali’s work was painted during his Freudian phase, but also allegedly contained reference to Albert Einstein’s relativity theory. Even if the second argument was not quite true, the Time is clearly seen in this work as a moving substance, something not solid, and therefore, relative.

Artemy Lebedev design studio revisited the image in the context of the Pancake Week craze. So we see pancakes instead of pocket watches. Since a pancake’s substance is soft by nature, Dali’s idea becomes inverted and follows a different track, not from exactness to relativity, but from movement to immobility. Here pancakes represent a fixture that, despite its unenduring state, persists in time and in mind.

I am not sure what name the Russian designers gave to their work (the inscription on the image merely says “Happy Pancake Week”), so I thought that the paraphrase of Dali’s original image was rather fit.

Artemy Lebedev Studio’s image

 

Exhibitions Expected At the State Hermitage Museum In 2013

Perhaps there is no better way to eventually visit a city than to start learning about upcoming events. So, in a hope to finally visit St. Petersburg I’d like to post here provisional list of exhibitions I found interesting that are currently listed on the State Hermitage Museum’s website. As the museum authorities note, the titles and dates of the exhibitions may change, but we shall hope my choice will remain more or less the same.

Paul Cezanne, Card Players. From the Courtauld Institute collection, as part of the series “Masterpieces of world museums at the Hermitage
When: Feb 27 – May 26, 2013.

The Legacy of German Expressionism. From the George Economou collection
When: May 13, 2013 – Jan 20, 2014.

The Corporate Unity. The Dutch group portrait of the Golden Age from the collection of the Museum of History of Amsterdam
When: June 8 – Sept 1, 2013.

The White City. The Bauhaus architecture in Tel-Aviv
When: June 12 – Sept 15, 2013.

El Lisitsky and Ilya Kabakov
When: July 17 – Sept 15, 2013.

Wilhelm II and Anna Pavlovna. The royal luxury of the Dutch court
When: Sept 25, 2013 – Jan 12, 2014.

Fluxus. Jurgis Maciunas. Russia Atlases
When: Oct 5 – Nov 3, 2013.

Britannia silver from Queen Victoria’s time
Oct 23, 2013 – Jan 19, 2014.

Contemporary Japanese Art
Nov 9, 2013 – Feb 9, 2014

Salvador Dali and his Spanish contemporaries
Nov 23, 2013 – Feb 16, 2014

More events.

And if you are based in Australia or plan to travel there before May 2013, bear in mind that you can visit a unique exhibition of ancient artifacts from the Hermitage collection that date back to the time of Alexander the Great. “Alexander the Great: 2000 Years of Treasures” is exhibited at the Museum of Australia in Sydney until May 10, 2013. The exhibition is sponsored by The Daily Telegraph, JCDecaux, Etihad Airways, and National Geographic Channel among others.

Alexander the Great’s exhibition displays (courtesy of The Hermitage)
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