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.