The Mitchell Gallery

The Elizabeth Myers Mitchell Gallery
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  Charles H. Davis, A Clearing in June, oil on canvas. Huntington Museum of Art, Photo Credit: John Spurlock.     The season has found all of us slipping into, and out of, habits, new and old. Fall at St. John’s is always a transitional time, as students return to the weathered chairs and look […]

Childhood

Felicia Bond If you give a Mouse-10 copy

Felicia Bond, The Portrait, from: “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” series. Colored pens on paper. Courtesy of Art Kandy.

My boss showed me the exhibition before it opened, before all the works had been hung. I took only a polite interest in the pieces, recognizing many from what I had read when young, but recognizing the works [as types of distant styles existing in the back of my memory.] Perhaps as it is a habit shared by more than just me, these were for children, primary lessons and as such only small spoons preceding the pleasures of the feast to come. One piece was on the floor: a large piece of a mouse in overalls holding a cookie. Though I think I had only read If You Give A Mouse a Cookie once, when I saw the image the whole book came back to me clearly. It was a more vivd impression than any other work had on me.

Children’s books really began flourishing at the turning of the nineteenth century into the twentieth. They arose out of an already existing literature of primary readers, small books for children to help them to learn to read (think of something along the lines of Dick & Jane). Out of this literature there came, over a long period of time, books we know such as Where the Wild Things Are, and Winnie-The-Pooh. These set illustrations with text, so that both may educate and delight children.

It seems that we never are able to truly catch the origin and genesis of our taste, it is always slipping back away from us. Why did I ever come to immediately like Matisse? When I saw that painting of the mouse, I remembered as a child being struck by the palette at work in the book. It has no real similarity I can think of to that of Matisse, yet I was still fascinated by the combination of the red and blue in that book. How much of this influenced my own taste I can’t say exactly. Yet that it did I am certain of, if only for that small flash of immediate remembering. It’s this flash which the show provides for us. It is why I think it has been so popular, and so loved by visitors. (I can vouch for both of these as a Gallery Guard). The flashes of images from our own childhood are such a great pleasure and step towards understanding ourselves that we shouldn’t pass by on those spaces which give rise to these pictures.

—Will Harrington, A20

The Skeleton in the Closet

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Not Preparing for Death, Albrecht Dürer, Woodblock Print on Paper, 1492

There is a lot to be said about Albrecht Dürer as an artist and a printmaker, and how he brought those two titles together. However, I’m not going to say any of that right now. I’d like to talk not about the artist, but the art, and more importantly, art in general. This Fall marks the beginning of my fourth year working at the Mitchell Gallery, and I have grown to know and love every inch of it, from it’s beautiful high ceilings to it’s one creaky floorboard. Yet I see one thing again and again that makes me very sad, and I’ve seen it often this exhibit. Visitors often come into the gallery, spend a very long time reading each and every plaque, but only glance at the actual piece of artwork for a few seconds before moving on. I understand this impulse. The world of art seems dense and impenetrable, full of technical terms and categorized by specific movements. We look to plaques and brochures and audio tours and docents as a resource, as fearless guides through the winding forest of art history. These resources are invaluable, but it breaks my heart when I hear people say that they lean on these things because they “don’t get art” without them. But here is a secret- the only thing you need to “get” art is a bit of patience and a soul. Anyone can gain something just from looking at art.

My suggestion for overcoming this fear of art for arts sake? When you look at art, start with just the title and the medium and then look back to the art itself. Find things you think are beautiful or unsightly, think about the subject, and if there’s a clear “message” the work is trying to portray. Just experience the visual, either for a minute or five or ten. Then, if you’re still curious, read the plaque to gain more information – but don’t use it as your starting point.

To prove this method will give anyone something valuable, I’ve done the same thing with a work that is in the Mitchell Gallery right now which I have not read the plaque for, “Not Preparing for Death.” It’s an almost comical image. The man seems a little scared, but mostly annoyed by the skeleton hassling him. The skeleton is surprisingly expressive, both patience and persistence on his face. The background is also detailed, there are even little buildings on the hill in the background. The metaphor in the print is clear but layered – this man is too busy to die. He refuses to prepare and is instead hustling away to go on with his life. Yet there’s the other layer, that of course we will all die one day, that you can’t run away from death. The small size and detail of the lines add to the sense of catching a snippet of someone else’s life.

All of that, and no biographical information, no technical knowledge, no familiarity with art movements necessary. Anyone can look at art and see something valuable, and walk away richer for the experience. Galleries should be places for all people to see the beauty of art, and to feel connected to it. Next time you are in our gallery, or any museum, take a moment to ignore the plaques and experience the art for yourself. You might learn more than you would expect.

 

—Kelsey Cumiskey, SJC Student, A19

 

Albrecht Dürer: Master Prints is organized by the Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania. Exhibition support provided by Rex and Katharine Pingle, Cynthia and Ed Shumaker, and Joan Vinson.
 
Gifts in kind: Art Things, Inc., Graul’s Market, Kathleen McSherry, Up.St.ART, and Merrifield Graphics and Publishing Service.

How many lines are in a good face?

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Albrecht Dürer, (German, 1471 – 1528), Christ Shown to the People from the Large Passion, c. 1497-1500. Woodblock print. Museum Purchase.  Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania.

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Albrecht Dürer, (German, 1471 – 1528), Portrait of Philipp Melanchton, 1526. Engraving. Gift, Mr. and Mrs. Nelson Goodman, Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania.

figuration/representation: Two words tangled in common speech, how to untangle them? How to find the proper scope for each? Perhaps through one question: how many lines make up a face?

Dürer, as master printmaker and master sellout, is the image of the master functional artist. The product of this genus of artist is always “the art for” something. The art which supplements, or is necessary for, some other activity: the icon for worship, the illustration in the didactic book. The first view is to look for what forms are best for what: more figuration when illustration, more representative accuracy in portraiture. Then the anxiety: if we call the artist sellout (and Dürer was certainly working for money), is it right to take pleasure in these functional artworks? Let’s not answer the question directly, but find the pleasure in faces, (perhaps) negating the question.

How many faces are in the work? The tapestry of many faces, a scene, may work for what might be called figuration. Figuration being only (so to speak) the art working within a stock of images (gestures, expressions, etc.). What matters is that relationship, the play, between the one “person” and the other. The man on Christ’s left gestures to the crowd, Jesus looks downsadly, and the people look up to him with angry faces. There’s no need here for a “dense” face containing many lines. What is satisfactory in the form is the few certain lines, outlining emotion.

Now look on a portrait. It has the function of dedication, preserving, and “capturing” (“representing”) likeness. For Dürer this is the face of the heavy series of lines, creating the contours of the face, the physical realism of a moment which is both empty and, classically, the best way to capture the likeness of the body. This is the pleasure of meaning (in the most philosophical sense) in art. The answer in painting to the what/who is… question.

—Will Harrington, SJC Student (A, 20)

Albrecht Dürer: Master Prints is organized by the Reading Public Museum, Reading, Pennsylvania. Exhibition support provided by Rex and Katharine Pingle, Cynthia and Ed Shumaker, and Joan Vinson.
 
Gifts in kind: Art Things, Inc., Graul’s Market, Kathleen McSherry, Up.St.ART, and Merrifield Graphics and Publishing Service.

Realism in Allegory

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Pietro da Cortona, Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power, Fresco, 1639; Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome, Italy

 

Realism in allegory, looking up from the floor of the Palazzo Barberini— No form is more helpful to those who want to place truth in art, than the allegorical artwork. On timelines we place abstracted allegory at the beginning of history of art, as the origins of art—such as finding the foundation of Homer in myths which belonged to all Greeks, or the illustrations in Egyptian works which preserves that culture’s vision of the afterlife. These early works are so closely connected to language that the image of some thing—such as some animal—becomes a kind of stand-in for just one word: the lion is strength. From this origin arises a system of speaking about art on a historical timeline, standing in which, artworks, as they exist historically, are seen as playing with representations of some phrase. This ceiling from the Palazzo Barberini may be summarized as: The Barberini pope has been (or, was) crowned in a perfect moment presided over and ordained by divine providence.

Who are the Barberini to the person standing on the floor of the palazzo they used to own and looking up at this ceiling? I am too far removed from the language of this painting; but the realism in this piece is an interaction beyond that language. This Barberini family (no longer existent among the powers of Italy, Europe, or the World, and almost totally unfamiliar to most people) is, to the one standing, today, under the ceiling, a glorified symbol out of the past. A glorious family in this painting, one honored by the painter and the people. For, in the painting, the family is crowned in a frozen moment. It is the smallest of moments: the lighting is present among all the other characters, but even those characters are in a moment of frozen motion in which we can see the figures of the painting have aligned. For our day and view, this is still only historical for we have lost the language so present to the day this was painted.

 

—Will Harrington, SJC Student in Rome

Donatello’s Baptistry

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The Feast of Herod. Donatello. 1427. From the Baptistry in the Duomo of Siena, Italy. 

The Baptistry of the Cathedral of Siena; inside, the baptismal fountain, and on it the relief bronze of the presentation of St. John the Baptists’s head, by Donatello — Once the christians figured they should depict, visually, a familiar story by placing what happened first farthest to the left and what happened last furthest to the right; later Michelangelo would paint The Last Judgement as a complete scene, but a still where what occurs on the left or bottom is at the same time as what is right or top. In-between these two cultural moments there is this relief by Donatello. Like the earlier Christian artists, Donatello wants to compress time into one static image; within this relief we get not only the presentation of the head, but in the background The Baptist is being beheaded. But I am not interested in this phrase “compressing time into one static image” (what it seems the two paintings share), rather the relationship between earlier and the later.

To a modern viewer, this relationship probably seems like a kind of playfulness. Those older Christian works, being read from left to right, immediately lends itself to be compared to a book, or the written words, which are similarly read left to right. Donatello plays on this by creating a kind of play on words (in the English language) between past, present and background, foreground, where it is required to actively look to remember the past (as you must strain to see the background) but the present is almost totally, easily available to the sight. This image of Donatello’s arrives, historically, in the middle of the revolution of perspective in the Western visual arts. Donatello uses this new science in the depiction, perhaps as a way to fit that same narrative element into the new realism in the arts. The effect of this is the surprise that comes when the viewer sees, first The Baptist’s head in the foreground, and then, in a kind of looking back into time, seeing the same man having his head removed. In non-realistic painting (those which do not attempt to recreate what the world looks like to us in the day-to-day) we may not be surprised this left-to-right narrative within the work, but if we turned a corner and at once saw the same man dead in front of us and picking an apple a little farther off, then time, for us, we be broken.

—William Harrington, SJC Student, Abroad in Roma

Pleasures of the Pantheon

 

 

 

I wrote the following letter for a very different kind of audience. One could call it more academic, though I wouldn’t claim that. But I thought the question of please was deserving of a blog like this.

A work of architecture can be thought of as the creation of an artificial space within a natural space—with very large works of architecture this is more easily seen. The architect chooses a location, a part of the city, and that space, once formed by nature, is then reformed for the architect’s vision. In the Pantheon, this vision forms a representation of the natural space as seen through the intellect of man. The first sign that we are viewing some representation of the heavens is from the immensity of the dome which makes up the pantheon—like the night sky it is impossible to take all of it in at once. One must move their eyes constantly to see the whole thing. The second sign is the oculus, it’s design, that let’s the light in with precision so that every year on a specific day and hour the sun will strike some one of the coffers; and on the spring equinox the light shines through the doors into the portico. Standing inside the pantheon, there is a playfulness which can be felt when we see these two signs mixed into the architecture. The architect would model the heavens in his rotunda, yet show that one may understand the motion and appearance even when one cannot see all at once. This seems, on a personal note, to be the origin of the beauty of the Pantheon: the mixture between the vastness of construction, and signifying of accuracy in the representation of the heavens.

On a side-note, which I have not tried to fit into the paragraph:

I call this mixture “intellectual” mainly in contrast to the Primavera Bedroom we saw at the Palazzo Massimo. There the representation and aesthetic style is rooted in the accuracy of technique to create an illusionistic painting, I assume the goal being to make nature and that painting indistinguishable.

 

—Will Harrington, SJC Student (A20)