Worth a thousand words

I blogged earlier this week about the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday, and the love of language that was instilled in me thanks to some truly inspirational high school teachers. Even now, I really enjoy all forms of literature, and can appreciate the way that different linguistic devices are used to convey mood, atmosphere and feeling. There are books that I return to over and over again, and it’s really unusual not to find something new with each re-reading. Often, what strikes me on a fresh reading was there, hiding in plain sight all the time, but it’s my own perspective or viewpoint that has shifted, allowing me to see things from a different angle – to appreciate the writing in a different way.

It’s a matter of regret (and not a little shame) to me that I have never been able to appreciate art in quite the same way. Paradoxically, and perhaps unsurprisingly given the opening paragraph to this piece, those few attempts that I have made to read up on art history and develop my understanding, have resulted in me enjoying the narrative text used by the art historians to describe the great masters, more than the paintings themselves. This was certainly the case with Simon Schama’s The Power of Art, a book that accompanied the BBC series of the same name. This quote from Schama’s introduction to the book is typical of the combative style that he adopts to the critical analysis of the works of eight great artists who individually changed the way that art was done and appreciated. “The hushed reverence of the gallery can fool you into believing masterpieces are polite things, visions that soothe, charm and beguile, but actually they are thugs. Merciless and wily, the greatest paintings grab you in a headlock, rough up your composure and then proceed in short order to re-arrange your sense of reality.”

The regrettable truth is, that for me, I ended up feeling much like it was prose of Schama that was ‘roughing up my sense of reality’ than the paintings that he was writing about! It probably makes me a Philistine, but I have tended to fall into the ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like’ category. However, I am determined to use this enforced lockdown period to try once again to change all that. And I think I’ve found just the way to do it. Quite by chance in casting around for some inspiration for today’s blogpost, I stumbled across the National Gallery’s YouTube channel. It’s an absolute treasure trove of video introductions to some of the painters and paintings that can be found in the Gallery’s massive collection. I watched a thirty minute lecture on the three Caravaggio paintings on display at the Gallery. They cover the whole period of Caravaggio’s career, from his initial breakthrough completing private commissions in Rome, to the height of his fame completing public works for some of that city’s most important churches, to his final years on the run from a murder charge in Malta, Sicily and finally Naples.

I now have the beginnings of an understanding of the way that Caravaggio uses light in the same way that a theatre lighting designer would use a spotlight to highlight specific people, expressions or actions in a painting. But also how he uses darkness to emphasise things that are not meant to be seen. Thus, in the early work of the boy being bitten by the lizard, it’s not the lizard that is the main focus, but rather the shocked expression on the boy’s face. And in the Emmaus Supper painting, the faces of the disciples are lit up as the identity of Christ is revealed to them, while the innkeeper’s shadowed face mirrors his lack of knowledge about what is happening right under his nose. Caravaggio uses the framing of the pictures too, to drawn the viewer into the canvas. We are not passive observers but rather we become active participants in the scene. The executioner is not merely presenting the head of John the Baptist to Salome, he is literally presenting it to the viewer beyond the plane of the painting.

It’s early days, but I intend to stick with these National Gallery introductory videos (and I’ll also be casting around to see if there are equivalents for Tate Modern and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. I’ll know if I’m making progress if I can begin to understand what it is that I’m looking at in a Mark Rothco canvas!

Mark Rothko : No.5

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