Posts Tagged ‘icon’


This garage is directly across the street from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  Not knowing that Icon is the name of a NY garage chain, I thought it was a clever name for a MoMA garage. MoMA houses major “Icons of Modernism” and isn’t that an oxymoron.   I pictured the parking guys in blue Icon uniforms with their first names embroidered over the breast pockets discussing how Picasso, Braque and Matisse et al had been exerting themselves to produce images that negated all that iconic stuff they’d been brought up with and now, here in this MoMA building were their once outrageous paintings, all gaped at with touristy awe because, well, because now they’re Icons. One of the guys in this garage conversation about semiotics and art history likes to say, that deserves to be deconstructed.  Or so I imagined.

The word icon comes from the Greek, meaning image.  The term was first used for depictions of the central characters of Christian mythology that confronted the faithful with severe, staring authority.


In the early Christian church there were opposing views on whether these images should even be allowed, since they posed the czestochowskatemptation for the faithful to fall into idolatry.  That idolatry won out is suggested by the fact that some of these old icons draw pilgrims to their site, as for example, the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, one of the national symbols of Poland. Such an image is commonly called “sacred icon.”

If you don’t get it, you’re not one of us.


That’s nice to know, you say, a little history never hurts, but we’re in the 21st and icons are about the internet. So you type in “icon” and you get a site, https://icons8.com/web-app/,  that gives you mouse-5033,600 icons including this, which you recognize instantly.

The communication is one-dimensional and unambiguous. Recognizing the icon puts you in the In-group. If you don’t get it, you’re not one of us.

Now back to the MoMA. This is Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907.  It’s called an “icon of modernism.”  The people standing around it have seen it in reproductions, but they’ve come here to be with it in person.


Are they pilgrims. Is this a sacred site?

To be instantly recognizable is the same as to be famous. Did the tourists travel here to see something famous? By being with this famous object are they participating in its fame?  Is fame something intrinsic in that canvas and does fame radiate out so that those close by can absorb some of it?

If you don’t get it, you’re not one of us.

Maybe the designation “icon” does apply equally to the Byzantine deity, the mouse and the 1907 Picasso, the common denominator being fame, which separates the in-group from the out.

Funny how that boundary can shift.



All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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GossaertMadonnaThe Flemish painter Jan Gossaert (c. 1478–1532) was much sought after, as a portraitist of Hapsburg royals and as a creator of altar pieces for Catholic churches. When I saw this Madonna and Child at the Met last December I just about burst out laughing. No, I didn’t actually laugh out loud, though that’s permissible in museums, but I did stand there for a long time, gaping at this extravagant and, yes, funny image of what was at the time a sacred subject.
He was a very busy man and it’s hard to imagine that he had time to paint for his own entertainment. But it’s also hard to imagine this undogmatic Madonna and Child hanging in a Catholic church in the early 16th century, during the Counter Reformation.
Let’s consider one bit of the historical context. In the Late Gothic, the S-curve of the Madonna becomes very pronounced and the baby Jesus becomes playful and fidgety, pure baby.
But Gossaert’s Madonna is over the top. He shows her playing with the baby, but it doesn’t look like a lot of fun, does it. The baby looks terrified and frantic and mom–sitting on the floor with her knees pulled up–is more interested in posing than in bonding with her child.
The heap of blue cloth that we are supposed to accept as her gown is so overdone—even for the convention of the time—that I find it comically bizarre. It seems to be the work of an obsessive-compulsive. Or somebody who had an ax to grind.
Maybe Gossaert painted this not so much for his own amusement but as a satire. Satire wafted in the northern air. It was a time of political/theological upheaval and Gossaert may have had clients who were eager to see satirical views of the establishment’s icons. Who else would have bought a painting like this around 1500?!
Two contemporary northern satirists were Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), who had the nerve to poke at the papacy, and Hieronymus Bosch (1450’s-1516), who made no bones about his disgust with the corruption of the Catholic Church and the general insanity of the time. Sebastian Brant (1457-1521) published his satire Ship of Fools in 1494. Here’s part of Bosch’s illustration of that theme:

We don’t have personal details about Gossaert’s life that would provide insights into his playful, very human and possibly satirical Madonnas.
For more Madonnas by Jan Gossaert,
Jan_Gossaert_-_the_virgin_and_child_with_white_lily_and_cherriesAll contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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The lifelong and fruitful rivalry between Picasso and Matisse is already evident in 1907, when Picasso is working on Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. Matisse had exhibited Le Bonheur de vivre in 1906. It is widely bonheurdeVivreridiculed by Parisians, but Picasso sees in it a daring move forward in the game of overriding the past. The “game” is to invent a new art, an art that’s against what has gone before. And here is Matisse quoting from the Renaissance and thumbing his nose at it at the same time. For Picasso this presents a challenge: could he come up with something more shocking. He starts working on Les Demoiselles at the end of 1906 BlueNudealready. Then in the spring of 1907 Matisse comes out with another shocker: Blue Nude, Memory of Biskra. The fact that a leading art critic at the time, Bernard Berenson, calls the painting “a toad,” is encouraging, it means that bourgeois taste is being offended. That’s the program: “épater le bourgeois” (to shock the conventionally-minded middle class).
LesDemoiselleDAvignonIn the fall of 1907 Picasso finishes Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and has some friends and collectors over. “Those invited to a viewing found it as baffling as the stuff Matisse was currently producing. Picasso’s three closest friends—the writers Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob and André Salmon—were noncommittal. Kahnweiler considered the painting a failure, and Leo Stein burst out laughing when he saw it.” (Hilary Spurling, The Unknown Matisse, p379)
Picasso kept it in his studio until it was exhibited for the first time in 1916 at the Salon d’Antin, Paris, when André Salmon gave it the title by which it is known. The title comes from Picasso’s private joking with friends about a notorious brothel on Avignon Street in Barcelona. Picasso later said he disliked the title.
Jacques Doucet (1853–1929), a wealthy Parisian fashion designer purchased the painting in transactions lasting from 1924-1929.
Jacques Seligmann & Co., New York, purchased it from Madame Doucet in September 1937.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York purchased it from Seligmann, 1937- 1939, where it has been drawing crowds ever since.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is considered to be an icon of modernism. “Icon” is a strange word to be used in talking about modernism. More on that later.
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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