Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Ascetic Aesthetic

Saw the Zurbaran exhibition at the Bozar in Brussels with friends and colleagues on Sunday. The Caravaggesque dramatic play of light and shadows across fabric and flesh, contrasting deep almost black shadows with pale translucent skin and crisp white linen folds with dark warm browns and cool greys resonated in the best works. Occasionally there are intense reds, pale pinks, dusty blues and golden ochre in the expressively creased and animated surfaces of different fabrics from rough woollen cowls to rich brocades and embroidered vestments. This sensual and aesthetic delight in the tactile, visual characteristics of various material forms transmuted into painterly qualities contrasts with the ascetic other-worldly gazes of the Dominican and Franciscan contemplatives who have renounced the world and seem to be almost exclusively focused on transcendent spiritual realities that appear dramatically immanent to them in the objective world they inhabit, which is presented to us within the conventions of the picture frame.  

 Fracisco de Zurbaran.  St Francis. 1660

Despite some rather sickly, saccharine and unconvincing representations of the Baby Jesus and some frankly bizzare representations of cherubim and seraphim as disembodied babies heads in clusters like balloons at a children's party, usually designed to support a floating Virgin Mary, there were a significant number of paintings that held ones attention, the most powerful of which dealt with the existential realities of suffering and death and these pinned one to the space in front of the painting to engage in a parallel fixed contemplative gaze. 

Elsewhere the small, familiar, unassuming and ordinary objects of everyday life, a flower, a silver platter, a basket of fruit, and a cup of water and saucer, were charged with an intense silence and stillness that transformed the simple act of observation into a meditation on the ultimate nature of time and space. 

A Cup of Water and a Rose, 1630
Francisco de Zubaran

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