Monday, April 13, 2020

Flowers and Bones: Contemplation and the art of enclosure.

Detail of  work in progress  'Skeleton and lilies' oil on canvas.   

I had planned to spend the holidays in the UK visiting family and in France with colleagues preparing the painting and drawing studios for the Tasis Summer Art course in the Les Tapies in the Ardeche but as for everyone else the global pandemic and lockdown has meant spending rather more time than usual in isolation in Brussels, where I have a small studio and WiFi at home in my apartment.  Whilst teaching via Microsoft Teams is far from ideal the unusually ‘becalmed’ state of the world coinciding with the Easter Break has ironically opened a small window of opportunity to focus attention on some current projects and give them time and space to evolve further.    

Skeleton and Lilies: work in progress
Before the school closed I was working on a large oil painting in the studio based on direct observation of a still-life composed of flowers and bones, the juxtaposition of which I find particularly poignant. 

I was developing an earlier investigation of the same subject, which explored through a series of careful observational drawings superimposed through time in different layers the changing forms and pattern of growth and decay of both skeletal bones and cut lilies in a vase as their stems, leaves and petals opened from buds and then gradually wilted and dried. Flowers and bones have beautiful organic forms and make wonderful subjects for still-life in the memento mori or vanitas tradition.  This time I have tried to work more with complementary colours to develop the compositional relationships within the painting between space and form, warm and cool, light and dark contrasts and tones 

Skeleton and Lilies: oil on canvas. 

Flowers are complex symbols of love, beauty and life but their fragility and transience is also a metaphor for our own human cycle of life and death, with perhaps the promise of rebirth. This is especially clear in the Greek myth of Persephone, who along with Demeter and Dionysus was a central figure in the Eleusinian mysteries, and whose decent to Hades in winter and return to the earth in the spring mirrored the periodic growth and decay observed in the seasonal and agricultural cycles.

St. Benedictus from Paul Koudounaris' book, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs.  
Flowers and bones have long been the key elements of the art of the reliquary. Here where matter has agency and the sacred seems to be encrypted in material DNA, artificial flowers and precious stones, form the highly complex and beautifully wrought settings for small fragments of bone or whole skeletons, tenuously ascribed to one or another saint or martyr. Death and desire united by devotion to something mystical and metaphysical through the strange alchemy of art and craft. 

A little over a year ago I saw the exhibition  'It almost seemed a lily' by Berlinde De Bruyckere at Museum Hof van Busleyden in Mechelen. I was struck by how her work draws on the practice of  these earlier women, who made these works as private acts of devotion, by combining the carefully wrought flowers set inside 'enclosed gardens' as shrines for relics. This clearly resonated with De Bruyckere own more surreal, fetishistic and psuedo-scientific framing and enclosing of fragmentary wax modeled human remains and found objects.

She had become fascinated by the extraordinary 'enclosed gardens' in the museums collection and had made her work in response to it. The text below in italics comes from the exhibition and explains the inspiration for the exhibition title.

'It almost seemed a lily:' the words used in his Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid – whose 2000th anniversary we commemorate this year – to describe the purple-coloured flower into which Hyacinthus is transformed on his tragic death,struck in the head by a discus thrown by Apollo. The god was in love with the handsome youth, yet snuffed out Hyacinthus’ life. Berlinde De Bruyckere views Metamorphoses as one of her ‘Bibles’. The transformation of people into animals, stones, plants and flowers – an essential element of her work – is Ovid’s handhold too in a tumble of stories that explore the great themes of human life. Here too, old tales are replete with symbolism and continue to resonate.

Publication about the enclosed gardens 
Enclosed Gardens are retables, sometimes with painted side panels, the central section filled not only with narrative sculpture, but also with all sorts of trinkets and hand-worked textiles. Adornments include relics, wax medallions, gemstones set in silver, pilgrimage souvenirs, parchment banderoles, flowers made from textiles with silk thread, semi precious stones, pearls and quilling.  ( this text comes from the Hof van Busleyden) 
Mechelen, Besloten Hofje with Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, Saint Ursula, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria1513–24 (?)
Inspiration, divine or otherwise, and the hard graft of daily practice with its highs and lows is the stock in trade of both the aesthetic and ascetic life and the locus of this practice is the enclosure, the place of solitary retreat and refuge. The monk's cell or the artist's atelier are open to both the inner light of the creative imagination or divine inspiration, an interior vision that is known only within the self, and the outer light that comes from the natural course of the sun entering through a window, delineating the forms and spaces of the familiar interior world with its surfaces and material qualities and giving glimpses of a garden, cloister or a distant view of a landscape.

Contemplating flowers and bones has long been a meditation and artistic practice. Composing the elements of a still-life, building the image slowly by observing changing forms through time in space, finding the balance between light and shadow and the precise emotional register of colours and their relationships is perhaps one way of confronting a mystery that is hidden in full view. 
Annuciation by Fra Angelico, painted onto
 the wall of a monks cell at San Marco in Florence 

Cezanne's studio. Aix-en-Provence 

Joos van Cleve, Saint Jerome in His Study, 1521, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.
Cow's skull with calico roses. 1931. Georgia O'Keeffe. Art Institute of Chicago 

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Death and Desire in 17th century Italy: The cleaning and restoration of a Penitent Magdalen

Carefully wrapped and ready to travel

Finally I have managed to complete the cleaning and restoration of the 17th or 18th century Penitent Magdalen painting on canvas which I brought from Italy last summer, putting into practice the techniques I learnt at the restoration workshop in Florence with Chiara Mignani. 

It has taken so long because I wanted to proceed with great caution so as not to damage the paint surface and to ensure that every stage of the cleaning was done with the correct tools and materials, carefully testing each procedure first and only going ahead after evaluating these experiments and considering the best way forward.

The paint surface whilst being a very dark tobacco orange brown with accumulated surface dirt and yellowed varnish was in fact very stable with only tiny paint losses and in very good condition. In one or two areas of the face there seemed to be some slight superficial retouching of highlights to the cheek and chin.
Detail of face before and after cleaning. 
The canvas had an old relining, perhaps from the 19th or 20th century and this had clearly helped to preserve the integrity of the paint surface and indicated to me that this was older than the 19th century as it is unlikely that it would have been necessary to reline a canvas so soon after it was created if it was mid or late 19th century. It also indicated that whoever had it relined considered it worth the effort and expense so it must have been valued by the owner. My feeling was that it had all the physical and stylistic hallmarks of a late 17th century baroque painting following very much in the tradition of Titian's earlier models.

The first stage in the cleaning was to remove the surface dirt with a cotton wool swab and synthetic saliva. This was an exciting stage as it revealed quiet dramatically the extent of the yellow brown dirt and gave a glimpse of the real colour underneath the varnish layer.

Cleaning surface dirt with synthetic saliva 

Whilst the cleaning of surface dirt with synthetic saliva made an initial dramatic difference to the  colour and tonal balance of the painting the photograph below reveals the full extent to which the removal of the yellowed varnish layer afterwards made towards revealing the real quality of paint surface below. Through the careful use of a specially formulated wax emulsion, with the addition of of small amounts of appropriate solvents to create a safe cleaning agent which could afterwards be cleaned off with white spirit, it was possible to proceed without causing any damage the paint surface.

Cleaning old yellowed varnish with carefully tested wax emulsion mixed with appropriate solvent.  
The difference between the fully cleaned surface and the uncleaned surface can be seen clearly in the detail below of the sleeve and arm. In some areas it was necessary to use a very fine metal tool to carefully scrape away tiny spots of dirt that could not be removed with wax emulsion and solvents. A certain amount of residual varnish or dirt remained but not enough to disturb the eye at a few paces.  I preferred to under-clean rather than over-clean as anything that is cleaned off cannot be put back afterwards and the purpose of the restoration was not to damage the paint surface in any way.

The sleeve during cleaning and after cleaning testing the protective coat of mastic of Chios varnish. 

After cleaning it was necessary to consolidate the loose and frayed edges of both the canvas lining and the original where they were tacked to the wooden stretcher frame. This was done by using a specially formulated welding powder designed for the purpose.

Once the painting was cleaned and the edges consolidated I had to give the whole surface a protective layer of mastic of Chios varnish. The effect of varnish both protects the original paint surface from superficial retouching in varnish paint, which can be easily reversed, and saturates the tones and colour giving both richness and depth, and unifying the whole painting.  This was one of the most  dramatic and satisfying moments of the whole process revealing the rich warm palette of colours. The theatrical lighting effects became more pronounced, both in the dramatic tonal contrasts, and helped to emphasize the solid sculptural forms and spaces, and in other areas the more subtle closer tonal contrasts in the highlights and shadows became more apparent.

The last stage involved using a special gesso filler to plug any tiny holes and then first with tempera paint, and then mastic varnish and restoration paints, to match the colour and tone to the surrounding area with tiny pin pricks of the brush point in those few areas of slight paint loss that needed retouching. (filler in the upper centre and right, and lower left, right and centre of the canvas.) 

canvas with holes plugged with filler 

The left hand image shows the face before retouching with specks and marks of paint loss or tiny damages still visible and the right hand image shows the face after retouching. Below a close up of the finished face and the painting awaiting its final coat of synthetic varnish.

After this final varnish I will search for an Italian frame in the correct style for the period, like the example below, from the Detroit Institute of Arts. This typically Baroque 17th century Tuscan reverse cassetta frame places the highest point of the profile next to the picture rather than at the outer edge of the frame, and has a frieze decorated with gilded arabesques and stars. The framing department at Schleiper in Brussels manufacture similar frames in reproduction.That will have to be after the lock-down is lifted and the framing department reopens, but in the meantime I have used Abobe Photoshop to simulate the final effect.   

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Cyclical Time: decay and destruction, creation and reconstruction.

'Fallen Idol', gilded gesso and oil paint on oak panel (work in progress). 
I used the remaining fragments of the salvaged 18th century oak doors, which were re-purposed for oak paneling and doors in the house renovation, and bits of molding from the ceilings, to make the panels for the reconstruction of the medieval gessoed, gilded painting and for the ‘broken idol’ trompe l’oeil painting.

It was important for the meaning of the work that both the materials and the process reflected the idea of cyclical time, decay and destruction, creation and reconstruction.  Using recycled materials for the panel and fragments of torn paper for the image, along with the traditional associated slower more meditative crafts employing natural materials like animal glue, gesso, gold leaf and tempera and oil paint to build 'value' out of ordinary, discarded or worthless things. Art and alchemy involve processes of material and spiritual alteration and transformation.  

Contemplating this gathering together of disassociated materials and elements and their metamorphoses into a new forms and meanings through their reconstitution reflects wider cycles of historical change in which fragments of the material past survive and are re-configured within new contexts and given new interpretations.

The iconography of the broken statue is very loaded in the Western cultural canon, carrying both the synthesis as well the antithesis of form and content between classical and Christian ideas and traditions. It resonates for each generation in a different way, finding new associations and meanings without fully shedding its older ones. What breaks through the surface of consciousness in the present often carries a long undertow that reaches deeper below, which is barely seen or understood but which is no less real for being invisible.  

Michaelangelo's 'David' being protected 'in situ' from bombing in
Florence during the second world war by the construction of a brick wall. 

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.


French archeologists and workers pose in front of the statue of Antinous, commissioned
by the emperor Hadrian in 130 AD and unearthed in the summer of 1894 near the 
Temple of Apollo in the sanctuary at Delphi 

πατε τ βασιλε̃ι· χαμα πσε δαδαλος αλ.

οκτι Φοβος χει καλβαν, ο μντιδα δφνην,

ο παγν λαλουσαν, πσβετο κα λλον δωρ.
Tell the emperor that the Daidalic hall has fallen.

No longer does Phoebus have his chamber, nor mantic laurel,

nor prophetic spring and the speaking water has been silenced.

Last utterance of the God Apollo delivered by the oracle of Delphi to the messenger of the Emperor Julian in 362 AD. 

Triumph of Christianity, Triumph of Christian Religion, By Tommaso Laureti, 
1585, Room of Constantine, Vatican Museum. 

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Cloud of Unknowing......

These paintings made from mixed-media; acrylic, gel medium transfer, Indian ink, silver-point and oil paint on wood panels, have been built on in successive layers over time. They have lain dormant for several years whilst I worked on other things. Now they are finally resolved (or abandoned?) as I am unable to add or subtract anything from them. Although they look like real collage, the process whereby they were constructed, they are, in fact, all trompe l'oeil painting made from direct observation of paper fragments, and nothing is actually glued to the surface. Pictures inside pictures confuse and compound appearance and reality.    

What does this 'work' consist of ?  

Dog-eared fragments torn from long abandoned art history books, faded photographs and the half obscured after image of words of poetry transferred from the printed page, jostle for space against ink stains, delicate trees sketches, a butterfly, a feather. Clouds drift by in the corner of paintings, torn fragments gleaned from the corner of auction catalogue pages. Lost identities, broken statues and half remembered pasts congeal into dried and brittle pages that were once vehicles for desire, art, memory, imagination, Are these journeys into an imagined elsewhere, windows into the soul, or clues to an unsolved mystery?  The jumbled contents of a long forgotten drawer gather into a dusty corner of the mind like silent witnesses to something hovering intangibly at the edge of recall, stubbornly remaining unremembered, unsaid.....  

Collage continued: patterns of interruption and dislocation:

The provisional nature of this exercise means that it can be undertaken periodically as a way of freeing up a fluid and tactile process of visual thinking that works by accident and association. The rough and unrefined nature of this kind of image making functions as the first stage in the possible development of these images. They could be scanned and manipulated further with Photoshop.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Collage Contrapuntal Rhythms

What do a yellowed paperback copy of D. H. Lawrence's 'Sea and Sardinia', a 1960s book of American photography, and old Sotheby's and Christie's catalogues of Italian Renaissance and Baroque art have in common?  

'Happy accidents' occur when incongruous juxtapositions suggest significant connections or resonate with some inner psychological tension suggesting possible narratives in the mind of the viewer, like clues at the scene of a crime. I have been plundering a few sources for images that reference art, literature and history and imposing an arbitrary pattern through the structure of the sequence, cutting out frames and framing cut out pictures. This allows certain motifs, elements and visual themes to be repeated or reflected in a subtle and unexpected counterpoint rhythm. 

This is the beginning of a series that I have just started to play with ....................


Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Mirror and the Mask

               When I  came upon the diary it was lying at the bottom of a rather battered red cardboard box, in which as a small boy I kept my Eton collars. Someone, probably my mother, had filled it with treasures dating from those days. There were two dry, empty sea-urchins; two rusty magnets, a large one and a small one, which had almost lost their magnetism; some negatives rolled up in a tight coil; some stumps of sealing wax; a small combination lock with three rows of letters; a twist of very fine whipcord, and one or two ambiguous objects, pieces of things, of which the use was not at once apparent:I could not tell what they belonged to. The relics were not exactly dirty nor were they quite clean, they had the patina of age; and as I handled them, for the first time for over fifty years, a recollection of what each had meant to me came back, faint as the magnets power to draw, but as perceptible. Something came and went up between us: the intimate pleasure of recognition, the almost mystical thrill of early ownership- feelings of which, at sixty-odd, I felt ashamed. 

Prologue  The Go-Between. L.P.Hartley.

Nostalgia:noun. /nəˈstældʒə/ , /nɑˈstældʒə/ [uncountable] a feeling of sadness mixed with pleasure and affection when you think of happy times in the past a sense/wave/pang of nostalgia (definition in Oxford English dictionary)
A fragment of ivory silk with trailing threads reflecting the pale light of an autumn afternoon, some dried yellowed leaves showing their skeletal veins, a stray piece of torn paper with an incomplete phrase of dislocated words, the scuffed or broken gilded plaster molding reflecting pale fire or the glimpse of a segment of blue sky and white billowing clouds framed against rooftops or red tiled eves ignites a small epiphany, like Proust’s famous Madeleine. The heart/mind latches on to these fleeting sensory moments when something interior aligns itself to some exterior stimulus and the process of perception, memory and imagination creates a series of associations between art and life that open a space of contemplation in which the transcendent is immanent. We are transported to another dimension without leaving this one through the door of the mind and the senses - an embodied rather than out-of-body experience- an 'incarnation'. Within this enclosed interior space there is paradoxically a window into infinity  Within the ordinary and even banal snatches of everyday reality a door opens to an augmented consciousness.

'Une Petite Madeleine de Proust': With acknowledgments to both Marcel Proust and Fauchon Patisserie, Paris. 
Cette expression fait allusion à ces petits actes, petits évènements, odeurs, sensations qui, brutalement, font ressurgir des tréfonds de notre mémoire de lointains souvenirs, souvent chargés d'émotion.

Themes that seem to be emerging from the process of making collage and painting trompe l'oeil  ..... art, religion and myth,  collective history and personal memory, sacred and profane desire, mystery and metamorphoses, magic and illusion, inner and outer worlds and realities, aligned, hidden and/or revealed. Playful surreal juxtapositions emerge out of association, dissonance, dislocation, alignment, displacement, accident, intention............. 

The examples below are works in progress- everything in the larger images is painted in acrylic underneath with later oil paint 'interventions' on top although it gives the illusion of collage. The smaller images below are still experimental half collage/half paint with the two bottom ones entirely in a fluid state of collage. 

Untitled : Acrylic, ink, gel medium transfer and oil paint. 

'The Cloud of Unknowing' acrylic, ink, gel medium transfer and oil paint. 

'The Mirror and the Mask' would be perhaps a good title for an exhibition of these and around 5-10 more paintings I am working to be completed by the summer. The mirror can be a metaphor for painting/photography as it reflects reality through an illusion and the mask both hides the outer appearance, self or reality and reveals or projects another inner hidden one and involves trance like states, make believe or dreamworlds.......... 

Titian: Penitent Magdalene. 1533 
Elisabetta Sirani: 1638-64. Penitent Magdalene

Over the summer I spent a week in Florence in a hands-on workshop with the restorer Chiara Mignani      //     learning about cleaning and restoring oil paintings on canvas. The aesthetic qualities of multi-layered surfaces which have been damaged and restored over time and the interventions of the present day with its new technologies into the fragile material body of an art work creates a heightened sense of the beauty and transience of material forms. These are also qualities I want to capture both in the process and final outcome of my own original paintings, which are themselves often initiated, worked on and then abandoned for several years before I 'rediscover' them and make further interventions into the existing layers, bringing out new and altered interpretations in response to earlier ideas and marks. These 'traces' reveal perceptual shifts over time like the facade of an old house that has many times had windows and doors opened up, bricked up, and then plastered over before being stripped and remodeled again in the present day.

On the subject of Madeleines....In Florence I found what is possibly an 18th century painting in a 17th century style to work on. Clearly it is derived from more famous earlier examples of the same subject by Titian, Guido Reni, Artemisia Gentileschi or  Elisabetta Sirani  It was a very dirty penitent Magdalene with an old relining but in relatively good condition despite a thick layer of yellow dirt which I suppose comes from both aging varnish and possibly years of tobacco smoke and domestic dust and pollution.  Using experimental mixtures of synthetic saliva, tween and Emulsione di Certosa in various phases I have managed to clean the surface without damaging the paint. The next stage is to consolidate the edges and fill some tiny losses of paint and then to give a protective coat of mastic varnish before carefully retouching with varnish paint designed for restoration in some small areas. Finally I will fit a new 17th century style frame.

The subject was a favorite of Baroque artists. This image combining death and desire, the sacred and profane, philosophical reflections and theatrical forms with Caravaggesque contrasts between light and shadow gave great creative and imaginative scope to artists within the format. The iconography of the cave, the skull, and the ointment jar, alluding to the biblical narrative, and the interior of the cave, with its intimate space bringing us up close to intense emotion of the face, contrasts with the distant mountainous landscape seen through the cave opening, framed by roots, branches and leaves, on either side of the figure. The spiraling vortex of the figure itself, half hiding and revealing the body in white and red robes, describes an asymmetrical cone of movement upwards along with the direction of the gaze, expressing a tension between both stability and dynamism as well as the complex, conflicted emotions of the Magdalene herself. Perhaps this tells us more about the painter and his/her intended audience between the 16th and 18th centuries in Italy than it does about the real or mythical character of Mary Magdalene as she appears in the biblical texts or traditional interpretations.

Plaster casts in the Accademia Gallery, Florence