Posts Tagged ‘Rafael’

It’s also called “The Man with the Blue Sleeve.” Titian (1488-1576) painted this portrait around 1510. It’s a good example of the High Renaissance’s self-confidence, the assertion of the dignity of humanness.  The power of his ego is not coming at us in a front view, which would look aggressive or defensive. No need for that.  This man is so self-assured and self-contained that he can engage your full attention with only a sideways glance. The bone of his elbow is pointing at us, but we don’t see any bones or muscles that might intimidate us.  No need for a display of brute force.   This man’s power is deeper, beyond  your peasant understanding.  The sleeve is quilted, it’s soft: poetically anchored power.

If this were a portrait of a member of the high aristocracy or the ruling class we would surely know his real name. The fact that we don’t, suggests he was of the rising middle class, a merchant perhaps. This is the confident face of the future.

That confidence is conveyed in the composition itself:  the triangle, the most stable geometrical shape. We’ve encountered the triangle composition before.









Rafael squeezes his Madonnas into triangles to satisfy his client, who needs to assure his congregation that this theology is stable, eternal and unbudgeable.

In Titian’s Ariosto notice how pronounced the triangle is.  A black cape is draped over the far shoulder to clarify the two equal sides of the isosceles triangle.  We can’t know what the extra black fabric or fur over the left forearm is.  I marked it in pink.  Whatever that brushstroke represents, it’s important compositionally.  It gets the eye moving upward along that side of the triangle.  In laying out the composition with both clarity and ambiguity, Titian is thinking as a modernist, as one of us.

(This painting by Titian, 32” x 26,” is in the National Gallery, London.)

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





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In 1910 in an ornate little church in Borja, a village in northeastern Spain,  a local painter named  Elias García Martínez filled a narrow white wall space with a little fresco called “Ecce Homo.”  It shows a scroll on which the suffering thorn-crowned Jesus-head is turning its eyes skyward.  Over the years the fresco deteriorated and Mrs. Cecilia Giménez (below), with the permission of the priest, set out to restore it to its original, of which she had a photo to work from.

The news broke last Friday and over the weekend little Borja was overrun with hundreds of tourists who were eager to see what was universally called a “botched restoration.”   One tourist, interviewed on Spanish TV, said that the original was nice, but this she really likes.

Now what?  What can the church and the town do?

1) Paint over the fresco with white paint and forget about it.

2) Hire a competent painter to duplicate the original and forget about the temporary embarrassment.

3) Leave it as it is now, the “botched restoration,” the “monkey face.”

The first two options seem to be out.  The organizer of the town’s patron festival is already happy about the new fame of Borja.  On the web, 18,000 people have signed a petition stating that the fresco should stay as it is now. A Facebook page, called “Señoras que restauran Cristos de Borja” has 38,874 fans and 58,048 followers (as of this writing), many of whom have created their own versions of the fresco. Here’s one, inspired by Rafael.  For more,  see https://www.facebook.com/SenorasQueRestauranCristosDeBorja

Let’s consider option #3.  The face as it is now is a confrontation with modernism.  The modern mind is rooted in the 17th century, when Leeuwenhoek first saw microbes through his microscope’s lens, Montaigne (a little earlier)  introspected and doubted, Descartes doubted himself to exhaustion and John Mill studied various translations of the Bible and said, whoa, we have 30,000 problems here. To name just a few of the people who showed us that things are not what they appear to be and that the mind makes stuff up.

Mrs. Giménez, in her mid-80’s, is now world famous.  She is notorious.  How could she do such a thing?  She’s apparently surprised at the results of her effort.  Is she crazy? Couldn’t she see what she was doing?  She may be asked to have her head examined and her introspection and free-associations would be interesting, but not as interesting as the FACT that we now have this image she made up.

That’s what’s important:  she made it up.  And another thing: the original fresco from 1910 by whatshisname was also made up.   Let’s see, what else can we name that’s been made up:  Michelangelo’s David, Michelangelo’s Adam, Rafael’s madonnas, Leonaro’s Last Supper;  Klimt’s Kiss, Munch’s Scream;   Egyptians invented Isis and Osiris, the Greeks invented Zeus and Athena, and so on and so forth.

The human imagination makes stuff up. You won’t find that statement anywhere in the 12th century.  The clerics who are ringing their hands over this fresco problem haven’t traveled through the 17th century to the beginning of the 20th, when Picasso and others blew the roof off our skulls.

When Picasso painted Gertrude Stein 1905 and 1906, she sat for him an estimated eighty-plus times.  Towards the end of 1906 he got stuck, dissatisfied with how he had painted the face.  We can only wish we had a documentation of that stage of the work. (We know Picasso owned a camera.)  In the fall of 1906 he went to Spain and when he came back he painted over the face. Giving into his fascination with African, Oceanic and early Iberian art, he now turned Gertrude’s face into a mask.  In other words, he invented.  He made it up.  We look at this painting at the Met and think it looks like Gertrude Stein—after all, that’s the title on the wall label—but at the same time we know IT’S ALL MADE UP.  It’s this awareness that makes us modern.

Picasso would have loved this “botched restoration.”




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




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