Come Away ~ St. Petersburg

I know, I know ~ it’s just been a week since our last imaginary escape, but really, what’s the harm?  Real travel, imaginary travel; both expand our worlds. Tell you what, I won’t tell your psychiatrist if you won’t tell mine.  How about a little trip to St. Petersburg?  To winter palaces, gilded domes, opera length fur coats and tree lined, snow dusted boulevards?  This isn’t twenty first century Russia, this is the Imperial Russia of Tsar Peter the Great, in all it’s golden and winter white baroque splendor. Continue reading “Come Away ~ St. Petersburg”

Come away ~ Suffolk

I’m thinking it’s about time for an escape.  An imaginary one, albeit ~ but we can dream, right?  How about we leave misty, provincial British Columbia and head over to a manor house and luxury cottages in Suffolk, England?  True, it’s likely equally misty there this time of year, but it’s English mist and that’s different.  Allow me to introduce you to the Sibton Park Wilderness Reserve, a private country estate where we can immerse ourselves in 4,500 acres of sprawling, quintessential English landscape, only two hours from Central London. Continue reading “Come away ~ Suffolk”

Farewell Thin White Duke…

My heart seized a little this morning at the news of David Bowie’s passing.  It’s kind of silly how you can miss someone you’ve never known and haven’t even really thought of in a while. Suddenly every Bowie song of my adolescence was replaying in my head. I was there, floating in my tin can with Major Tom at the launch of Apollo 11.  I saw Mary Lou Parkinson and myself in her bedroom belting out “Rebel, Rebel you tore your dress!” before we even knew what a quaalude was.  My melancholic teenage heart resonated with “Turn and face the strange, ch-ch-changes!”  Strange fascination, fascinating me was right up my alley.  Old songs are bittersweet things, aren’t they?

I think there must be something deeper, more personally existential that we feel when a pop icon dies.  Some part of us dies also.  It’s a swift, unwelcome reminder of the transience of all human life. When I was about eighteen, I recall my dad in his green brocade recliner in our living room, quietly mourning the passing of a movie personality.  I didn’t get why he even cared.  I get it now.

I’m back studying art history this fall, taking a class on Gender, Art and Society.  It always amazes me how much I don’t know that I don’t know.  I hadn’t really even considered questions of gender upon art, besides the obvious historical lack of attention to female artists.  But gender in art is a big topic, one that Bowie was among the first to challenge. His flamboyant, androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust paved the way not only for performance art, but also for more wide-spread acceptance of sexual fluidity.

My kids don’t know who Bowie is or the impact he’s had on music, performance art and culture. He’s been called a genius and a visionary and perhaps rightly so.  We can thank him for glam rock, New Romanticismfor pioneering rock video, for marrying theater and popular music, for ushering in punk, for making androgyny acceptable.  I can’t help but think that music might look very different without his influence.

UK artist Helen Green paid creative homage to five decades of Bowie’s chameleon like transformations in her beautiful animated gif.  I always appreciate when art inspires art. It helps us all live on.


Mini Art Conservators…

The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in the UK held a Festival of Archaeology this week.  They invited some young visitors in to learn conservation skills and help clean up some “treasure.”  How cute are these mini art conservators with their white lab coats and microscopes?

blog 1Art conservation focuses on the restoration, preservation and analysis of art and artifacts. It requires a unique combination of knowledge in art history, science and artistic practices. And of course, good eyesight, concentration and manual dexterity.

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I think it’s awesome that the Birmingham Museum is introducing kids to the variety of career possibilities in the art field.  I have a secret ambition to become an art conservator too.  I don’t know if it’s a practical dream, but it keeps me going.  In the meantime, I’m living vicariously through these little guys and girls.

Oh, for a treasure, a white lab coat and a microscope…

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Of Fairy Tales and French Chateaus…

light drizzle fell over the valley yesterday morning.  I knew it before even looking outside; the welcome scent of wet concrete and earth drifted in through my open window. I have a friend who thinks I’m imagining this scent and mocks me good-naturedly about it. But turns out it’s real, and even has a technical name, ‘Petrichor’.  Who’d have thought? There’s an oil that plants give off during arid periods to delay germination and dry earth and concrete absorb it.  When the rain finally hits, the oils are released into the atmosphere and viola – that scent! Now we know.

The cool day inspired me to pick up a project I’ve had on hold on quite a while.  I’m taking a paper mache class with the lovely (and oh, so patient) paper artist, Laetitia Mieral of Merveilles En Papier from Lyon, France.  Laetitia makes fantastical paper mache chateaus and palaces based on French architecture, storybook inspired characters in royal robes, beautiful paper dresses and other fancies of imagination.

I chanced upon her work on Pinterest and was instantly captivated by the artful fusion of fairy tale and French history. I went on to make my own paper mache castle and frog character which I used as part of my portfolio to get in to art school. Earlier this year, Laetitia launched an online experimental version of the character workshop she hosts in her atelier in Lyon and held a little contest to join in.  I was over the moon to be invited to take part. We’re making a cat, in court costume, which I’m sadly quite behind on.

But better late than never.  Here are a few shots of a lovely afternoon in the garden, painting the watercolour ‘fabric’ that le chat’s gown will be made of. And my first attempt at a paper mache fairy tale castle, with a bandanna’ed, cigar smoking frog perched on the eave.

I’ve been so happily lost in art history world, I’d forgotten just how much fun it is to do creative things.  If you have a chance, hop over and check out Laetitia’s work, it’s so whimsical and enchanting. And if you’re bored today, pop over to my house, I’ll be in garden, lost in dreamland.

In Case You’ve Ever Wondered How the Floating City Stays Afloat…

(As I certainly have,) Ancient Origins has a great, short article on the history and construction development of  Venice. How did they ever manage to build such magnificent architecture seemingly floating upon the waterways? The secret is petrified toothpicks. Well, not really toothpicks, but not far from it. Many of the buildings sit upon wooden platforms supported by wooden stakes driven into the ground below the water line .  The surrounding salt water and lack of oxygen beneath the surface of the water works to petrify the wood, effectively turning it to into stone.  Ingenious!  I wonder if early builders were aware of this magical chemical transformation or whether they simply lucked in?

One of the things I’ve loved about studying art history is understanding where the architectural influence of cities comes from. Florence for instance, has a very different feel architecturally than Venice. Venice’s architecture is more Gothic; lighter, more graceful and more intricately designed. Venice’s location also brought to it Byzantine and Islamic influence from the Near East.  The arabesque-like cut outs on the portals leading to the Bridge of Sighs and in the window frames are forms originating in Islamic calligraphy. (Interesting side note:  the word ‘arabesque, typically known as a ballet position, has ‘arab’ as its root, denoting Arabic or Moorish design.) As if I needed another reason to be enchanted…

An Armoured Dress…

Because who knows what the day may bring?

amoured dressThis plastic dress sculpture, which looks every bit 17th century original, was part of a 2003 special exhibition of the Styrian Armoury in Graz, Austria.  The Armoury holds approximately 32,000 pieces of historical weaponry, tools and suits of armour for battle and parades. The dress itself isn’t historical or wearable, but rather a modern statement piece amidst the armoury’s fascinating collection.

The designers behind the exhibition, Esther Geremus and Birgit Hutter, presented gowns from four historical periods: Renaissance, Rococo, Baroque and present day, and four periods of women’s lives; girlhood, marriage, pregnancy and old age.  The gowns were  scattered amongst the armoury’s four floors; the colourful delicate fabric of some the gowns softening and contrasting the tales of war and death emanating from the armour.  The overarching point of the exhibition however, was that whether we clothe our outer selves in metal or silk, we are all still vulnerable people.

I especially appreciate the combination of historical artefact and modern art creating new meaning.  More pics and info about the iron maiden gown and the fascinating “Rock und Rüstung” (translated: “Skirt and Armor”) exhibition here.  It’s well worth popping over for a look.

Brunch in Berlin…

“One can not think well, love well, sleep well if one has not dined well.”                              Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

I’ve been away recently to Berlin on an Art and Culture Tour.  Dining well was certainly part of it.  This was my favourite brunch in the gorgeously baroque styled Bode Museum Cafe on Museum Island. Just off to the left of my table was the book store.  Does it get any better?

Happy Belated Raphael!

raphael57aI’m wishing Raphael Happy Birthday a few days late. My news feed was buzzing this weekend with everyone’s favourite Raphael paintings, which is what alerted me this oversight. The good news is that it’s unlikely Raphael will mind my tardiness.  Interesting note, one that I’ll be reminded of every Easter weekend from now on, Raphael was born and died on Good Friday, 37 years apart. Rumour has it his death was preceded by an uncontrollable fever that broke out during an evening of amorous pleasure with his model and mistress, Margarita Luti. raphaels mistress Afterwards, not wanting to disclose the nature of his illness, he was given the wrong medication and died just a week later.  Even 16th century historian Georgio Vasari recounted that Raphael was brought down by his excessive passion. There are worse ways to live and die, I suppose. Although how dreadful for poor Margarita.

Anyways, in honour of the 532nd birthday of the illustrious Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance, I’ll add my favourite Raphael painting to the internet buzz as well.  Mine is The School of Athens.  I studied The School of Athens from my textbook last semester but had never seen the painting in print, en situ.  Context makes all the difference.  As magnificent as School of Athens is viewed separately, seeing it as a fresco within the Vatican makes it even more so. It’s impossible to understand the scale otherwise. (School of Athens is on the right hand wall within the semi dome)

school of athens, vatican

Pope Julius II commissioned for The School of Athens for the papal library in 1509.  It’s part of a series of themed frescos depicting distinct branches of knowledge; Philosophy, Poetry (including music) Theology and Justice.  School of Athens is an imaginary academy featuring some of the world’s greatest  philosophers and thinkers from ancient Rome/Greece to the 15th century.  It’s long been seen as Raphael’s masterpiece, embodying the classical spirit of the Renaissance. I think it’s best understood in context of the surrounding frescoes, rather than on its own. With the 15th century thrust toward humanism, it was important for the Pope to be regarded as balanced and progressive, embracing all the arts.

This close up details some of the philosophers and thinkers that Raphael portrayed, with Plato and Aristotle as central figures. I appreciated the inclusion of Hypatia, second century mathematician, philosopher and astronomer, and the only woman included in the academy. (Hypatia came to a rather fateful end; dragged naked through the streets by the christians, then while still alive, had her flesh scraped off with oyster shells.  Nasty tale.) It’s been suggested that Raphael used Michelangelo as physical inspiration for Heracutus and Leonardo DaVinci as inspiration for Plato.

school_of_athens_annotatedVasari noted that Raphael also included himself in the painting, to the far right, next to Zoroaster.  You can only see a portion of his face in the pic above, but note the close up below.  Raphael is in the in the centre, staring out at us, full eye contact.) Nothing like a little self promotion.raphael  On a side note, it wasn’t unusual for Renaissance painters to include figures based on real people in their work. Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel at the same time as Raphael was painting the Vatican Library. Rather famously, Michelangelo portrayed the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies,  Biagio da Cesena  (who had criticized Michelangelo’s work) as the god of the underworld in the Last Judgement, minos-judge-underworld-michelangelo-last-judgment with donkey ears and a snake biting his groin.  Such is the power of the artist.  But I’m afraid I’m off on another goose chase. And the Sistine Chapel is a story of its own.

What strikes me about The School of Athens, aside from my appreciation of  Raphael’s artistic skill and the fresco’s theme,  is the enormous amount of planning that must have gone into the prep work.  Imagine having to decide who to include in the imaginary academy, where to place them, how to dress them, how their expressions will appear, who they’re interacting with – you get the picture.  The composition of the fresco is a study in itself.  The architecture would have been no easy task to execute either, especially on such a large-scale.  It’s hardly a wonder that it took the then twenty-five year old Raphael two years to complete the masterpiece, which ranks alongside the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.

And so, Happy Belated Raphael.  Five hundred years later, your contribution to the art world still amazes and awes.

Restored Michelangelo!

The Guardian has a great article on the twenty year restoration of a nearly destroyed Michelangelo sculpture of a young John the Baptist.  The piece is likely to have been created around 1495 and is one of the few surviving Michelangelo’s outside of Italy.  Sadly, the statue was smashed and burned during the Spanish Civil War.  Fragments of the sculpture; a handful of curls, a forearm, have been held in a Ubeda museum since 1936, awaiting developments in restoration technology.

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Italy’s Opificio delle Pietre Dure, one of the world’s leading art restorers, used various photographs and written accounts of the sculpture to create a digital 3D image of the original sculpture.  The missing pieces were recreated out of fibreglass and stucco, then recombined with the originals. The restoration process lasted 19 years, with more than 40% of the original piece needing to be rebuilt.

Prado museum director, Miguel Zugaza, called it a historic restoration and pointed to its political undertones. As well as being a tale of pioneering artistic accomplishment, he says the restoration is also a scathing commentary on iconoclasm and those who destroy priceless artefacts for political gains, such as the recent actions of Islamic State militants in Mosul’s central museum.  “We want this to be a social criticism against all the barbaric actions by iconoclasts that sadly continue to occur around the world,” he said.”

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As an art history geek, I’m a little awed.  If you happen to be in Spain, the Young Saint John the Baptist will be on display at Museo del Prado in Madrid until June 28.