Monday, November 19, 2007

Return to Desert Island

Our last visit to the desert island concerned what books we would like with us if stranded there forever (which makes this whole “return” premise a little inconsistent, but its not really the point). This time, we are going to decorate our hut with our favorite works of art.

Like last time, the rules are flexible, but there are some. We are only dealing with paintings. It also has to be something that would fit on a wall, so the Sistine Chapel ceiling is out of the question. However, I would not quibble if you want to take some individual panels from there. The list is is limited, as usual, to ten works, and no more than one work per artist.

In reverse order, here are my choices.

No. 10: The Kiss. I attended a Gustav Klimt show at the Neue Gallerie in New York recently. Although there was a fair representation of his work, I was surprised that there was not a single representation or mention of his quintessential painting – The Kiss. Artistic interpretation without some readily identifiable symbolism usually leaves me cold. It is more a creative exercise for the critics than reality based. I prefer art appreciation and history to art criticism anyway, although it is often hard to separate them. But people do debate what this striking idealized painting of this amorous couple means and I have my perspective.

Intuitively, I stand with those who see it as representing a couple completely comfortable with each other and either in love or lust, take your pick. Some apparently think the woman is indifferent or uncomfortable, which would make it a very atypical Klimt painting, who focused on women, not couples. I can’t recall many other men in Klimt’s portfolio, and this one does not have a face, or much form or flesh except for his hands. With her you see nothing but her hands and face. The rest is an all enveloping, almost shapeless, highly stylized golden robe. Its part of what makes the painting a little bit mysterious and fun. Above all, Klimt is about decoration, and The Kiss, a swirling design swimming in gold and tiny symbols, is as decorous as it gets.

To see this particular Klimt before I get it, you need to go to Vienna. I already loved it when I was there, but frankly, I can’t remember if I saw the original or not. Probably did, I just can't remember.

No. 9: I can’t quite go with Sister Wendy in suggesting that Diego Velazquez’ Juan Parera was possibly the greatest painting in the greatest museum in the world – New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art - but there is something special about it.

The subject is supposedly of North African descent, which might seem natural to a 17th century Spanish court painter amdist all those Moorish palaces and descendants.

There is nothing extraordinary about the subject himself in looks or clothing, certainly nothing that dazzles. Which makes it hard to explain why Sister Wendy and I are so taken by it. My adjective for it: arresting. I have spent more time staring at it than I have much more famous works. Those among you who have seen the Seinfeld episode where an elderly couple falls in love with a raffish portrait of Kramer, can readily identify my feelings when looking at it.
Sister Wendy might say it is “sacred,” her highest compliment. I don’t know what it is – but I have to have it for the island. You often can’t explain art. Sometimes you just have to appreciate it.

No. 8: Andrea Mantegna is not well known today outside of renaissance art buffs. His technical abilities were outstanding. He often painted in a style that appeared to be a bas relief, and looking at them, you feel that there might actually be depth to it.

Dead Christ is not unique for him in either topic or mood, but there is something in it that I relish, perhaps the subdued choice of colors and the celestial feeling the dim lighting brings it. Jesus’ lower ribcage and abdomen are typically Mantegnesqe (don’t look that word up – I just coined it). The solemnity of the picture is obvious, but I would call it sublime. Sister Wendy, whose PBS showcases I enjoyed immensely and recommend highly to anyone who wants an introduction to this world, might ask if it crossed into the sacred. It certainly transcends the feeling I get when looking at many other paintings of Christ, dead or not.

Also called Lamentation over the Dead Christ, it is found in the Pinocoteca di Brera, Milan, where, unfortunately, I had to see it while cramming all of Milan’s art (except The Last Supper) into a two hour window at a trot. I lingered the best I could but knew it had made "the list".

A 15th century Italian master, Mantegna has the distinction here of being related to another artist on my list, even if only by marriage. He was the brother-in-law of Giovanni Bellini.

No. 7: Giovanni’s Bellini, was the greatest of his famous family, in my humble and not very scholarly opinion. I have seen St. Francis in Ecstasy several times at the great Frick House, my favorite small museum, right down the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Among the spectacular collection found there, Bellini’s St. Francis is a true highlight. The pale green color and geometric shape of the rocks, the skull and book (Bible?) occupying the standing desk, the mule and peacock, the sparse and scraggly plant life breaking through the ground, the castle on the terraced hill in the background, and the pious St. Francis standing there in ecstasy just speak to me, man.

Even the great Caravaggio’s (see below) treatment of the same subject pales in comparison to Bellini’s effort. If there is ever a second home on this tiny desert island, Giovanni’s brother, Gentile’s, Procession in St. Mark’s Square might also make it into paradise.

No. 6: El Greco. His name itself conjures up imagery. He was a Cretan (from the Greek island; not an idiot) by the name of Domenikos Theotokopolous, who first spent time working in Italy and the settled in Spain. No one has ever painted like him unless they were copying him. Few try. He painted at a time that many of my favorite painters did – the middle of the 16th century to the early 17th. His typical subjects are religious, either Christ or saints, although he painted the usual portraits too. Although he could paint like a camera when he chose, he preferred weirdly elongated figures surrounded by what I can only think of as spiritual ectoplasm. Happily would I populate an entire building with his works. I need not bother, of course. I could just go back to Toledo, Spain, where there's a whole city filled with them. New York has more than a few between the Metropolitan Museum of Art (including perhaps his most famous painting View of Toledo), the Frick House and the often overlooked Hispanic Society of America.

Which to choose though? St. Jerome as Cardinal, and Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple are favorites. If I didn’t become religious after seeing his St. Francis paintings I’m not going to. But most treasured, and the largest painting I will own, is the Burial of Count Orgaz, now resting on the wall of Santo Tome, Toledo, from whence I must somehow free it from its shackles and bring it safely to the island. It’s one of his busier pictures between the many mourners and the heavenly figures above. You can even see El Greco staring blankly out at you amongst the mourners.

No. 5: Caravaggio (his real name was probably Michaelangelo Merisi; it’s not completely clear) is just enjoying a renewed appreciation these days, but there can be little doubt that he revolutionized painting by painting from live models with an astonishing eye for detail. His subjects were filled with wrinkles and dirt and expression in a way which earlier, and most later painters, could and can not conceive. Living in Italy roughly around the same time as El Greco painted in Spain (and Shakespeare was writing in England), he was violent, a killer (and possibly killed himself), moody, creative and a technical phenomena.

When you put his work next to the Michaelangelo (perhaps The Greatest artist), his predecessor’s humans look like cartoon characters. Decades before Rembrandt, Caravaggio perfected the use of light as a tool in capturing a moment (as did others)to such a degree that I have never understood why Rembrandt should get any credit. Such is evident in the chosen piece, The Denial of Peter. Peter's lit face is worth a hundred of other great paintings.

I could have as easily chosen his Calling of St. Matthew, my other favorite Caravaggio. That said, The Taking of Christ and The Crucifixion of St. Peter would look great in my desert island bedroom too. In fact, Caravaggio is one of three artists that I would happily display all throughout my home, desert island or not.

Art historians say that he was not truly appreciated until the last century, but that leaves no explanation for his many imitators throughout Europe in the coming centuries. Even now, until he becomes a household name, he's not famous enough.

No. 4: This is a personal favorite. Although much admired, Giovanni Pannini’s View of Ancient Rome is not considered one of the world’s greatest masterpieces. A framed print hangs in my living room (well, the print does – the original is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and more than one person has asked me for it. Pannini is an 18th century man, much more modern than his subjects. The gallery in the painting contains his exacting reproductions of great works including the exquisite Laocoon and The Farnese Hercules, on opposite front ends. He matched the work with his Gallery of Views of Modern Rome.

No. 3: I admit to not appreciating Van Gogh until a few years ago, and then bammo – I got it. Few nineteenth century painters interest me much – a smattering of impressionists, and Van Gogh’s friend, some pre-Raphaelites and Gauguin. Fewer twentieth century painters do. But Van Gogh, pretty much unrecognized and unloved in his lifetime, churned out (though he would choose a different verb) an impressive number of canvases which are original in style, I would say unique, and contain a very earthly yet strange beauty. Even a painting of a chair set in a bare room from his brush comes out familiar but sensational at the same time. If you get it, of course.

Choosing one was hard. Sunflowers does not do it for me, though it may still be the highest priced painting in the world. With much effort and joy (I own two volumes containing everyone of the paintings he made) I have narrowed it down to the quite famous Starry Night and to the much less well known but brilliant Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun (he was better at painting than naming). Since I can only have one on the island, I will go with Starry Night, because it is not only unique and mesmorizing, but is immediately recognizable. I may also change my mind when I actually have to bring it on the island.

No. 2: This one is a strange choice by me. It is painted by an abstract artist who I admit I don’t get at all (and that goes for pretty much all abstract artists). Although the figure in this painting is idealized, I don't consider it abstract. It is the only work by him I like, yet, it is also the first print I ever bought. It is nothing like the renaissance, mannerist or baroque paintings that mean the most to me. I find it opens a door on my medieval and mythological fantasies. I speak of Pablo Picasso’s Don Quixote.

I present it here with a twist - this picture shows it behind a very similarly shaped object. The figure in front of it is a little metal nuts and bolts figurine that appeared as a popular novelty in Europe before Picasso painted his masterpiece (see Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America [12.1 1992] for more information and a more charitable viewpoint). You can’t look at the two works and not believe that Picasso was “heavily influenced” by the earlier work.

Art critics do not like to accuse Picasso of plagiarism. He’s just too famous and creative. He is reknowned for taking
his inspiration from all kinds of things. Still, I can’t look at the figurine and the painting without saying "Oh, come on. It’s almost the same thing". At some point inspiration goes beyond adopting a style or working with the same materials or in the same genre – and some credit needs to be given. Even were credit given, there should be some significant time lapse between works of art before the term “inspired by” doesn’t just mean, at best, a “tribute to” and at worst, plagiarism. Of course, Picasso himself purportedly said, “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal”.

Then again, I have no interest in having the metal figurine in my desert island home, and Picasso’s work made no. 2. So, he did improve it. I can only think of one painting I want more for my little hut.

No. 1: That one painting would be Pieter Breugel’s Hunters in the Snow, one of a quartet of great paintings showcasing the seasons that rings every bell in the art appreciation center of my brain. I look at it and I see a 15th century village, with friendly, hardworking hunters on their way home, where they will soon be ripping off pieces of a just killed and cooked fowl while they sit before the smoky fire place; one hand holding a leg or breast and the other preparing to down a tankard of ale; a glow on everyone’s face, and the hound dogs sleeping on some scraps of fur by the fire. Comfortable. I have already framed a print I bought, but will exchange it for the original.

Breugel (also Breughel) prefigured the Dutch masters Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and so forth in the next century, not to mention his own son, a great landscape artist in his own right. I see more of him in Hals than the others (not surprisingly, I like Hals the best of the group, and he almost made the island). Breugel may have inspired the artist who draws Where’s Waldo, which you will understand if you take a look at some of Breugel's busier works.

Hunters may not mean as much to you. You can see it in the Kunsthistoriche Museum in Vienna with a bunch of Bruegel’s best and judge for yourself -- until I take it.

The availability of prints of these and other grreat works are wonderful, but seeing art in person makes a difference. I’ve been fortunate enough to see 7 of the 10 selections myself and maybe hope to see the others. The value of seeing the original first came to me in the 80s when I stood before Michaelangelo’s David in Florence. I realized my jaw dropped. Looking around, I wasn't the only one.

There is nothing more subjective than art and any list is just begging to be attacked for what it included and left out. It hurts to leave off Hieronymus Bosch’s Judgment Day, Franz Hals’ Laughing Cavalier, Michaelangelo's Sacred Family, and all those Caravaggio's, El Greco’s and Breugel's that didn't make the cut.

Having made the list myself, I am somehow surprised to find Van Gogh, Klimt and Picasso taking up nearly a third of it, as I would estimate that a list of 100 paintings would include few other post 18th century artists, if any, and very few post 17th century artists for that matter.

I have no problem leaving off the three most famous paintings in the world --Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and any part of the Sistine Chapel ceiling -- although I believe Da Vinci and Michaelangelo may be the greatest Western artists ever to wield a brush. Naturally, you should feel free to bring these pieces to your island.


  1. Anonymous12:41 PM

    Good choices but actually 10 is more than I really considered. My top 2.
    1. Starry Night
    2. Hunters returning.
    Good call on both of those.

  2. Anonymous11:39 AM

    Also gonna add "The Herring Net"

  3. I'm not really a big Winslow fan, but "The Herring Net" is a dark dramatic painting that I like a lot. Put it on your desert island.

  4. Anonymous3:51 PM

    You sure you're not Christian? There are a lot of pix of Christ and Company.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .