Time Traveling Through the Arts
Agnes Scott College
Chapter 1—Chelle’s Odyssey
As I enter the vessel before me I can not believe my good fortune. It was only yesterday during a game of poker that my winning hand yielded such an unusual and unexpected bounty—a time machine named The Magellan. I was given strict details and operating instructions and only four trips remained on its meter. I decided to use them wisely in an effort to complete my art history assignment. I will visit three different periods in art and select one piece from each period to analyze. This would leave the fourth and final trip which I would save for my return to the present day. For my assignment I chose the Hellenistic period for its heavy reliance on literature for content. Secondly, I wanted to experience the Italian Renaissance to witness some of the frescos and, hopefully, the Master Painter at work. Thirdly, I selected the Late Twentieth Century to see how the dynamics of war, economics and culture in recent times have impacted U.S. artists and their artwork.
With a slight trepidation I manage to take all of the necessary safety measures and I am now buckled in and contemplate the tasks before me. I create a mental note to myself as a vow to make the most of each voyage and to savor the sights, sounds, and smells about me. I lean forward and turn the destination dial, which is formed like a paintbrush, to 20 BC to the palace of the emperor Titus. This should land me in Hellenistic Greece where I hope to find my favorite marble sculpture of this time, Laocoön (Fig. 1 Appendix A). I realize that many dates (spanning 140 years) have been attributed for the creation of this piece so I opt for a latter date to have a better chance of locating the sculpture in a completed state.
As I wait for The Magellan to reach its destination I decide to brush up on some facts about Laocoön such as who commissioned the statue. I recall from reading the book, “My Laocoön” , author Richard Brilliant mentions, “The statue, which was probably originally commissioned for the home of a wealthy Roman, was unearthed in 1506 near the site of the Golden House of the Emperor Nero (who reigned from 54 to 68 AD), and it is possible that the statue belonged to Nero himself”. (Brilliant, p. 29)
As the counter counts towards 20 BC it is time to unleash the ship’s invisibility shield. The landing is quite harsh as I am a novice at being a navigator. As the hatch opens I gaze unbelievingly at the palace of Titus. I walk slowly through the entrance afraid that my invisibility garment might fail and I’d be discovered. The goal of my first trip is finally in sight and it is well worth the journey.
A prominent characteristic of Hellenistic art that has always intrigued me is that it tends to focus on the dramatic and one such example is the sculpture Laocoön and His Sons, (marble, between 2nd Century-1st Century BCE). As artists turn more to literary themes of the times for subject matter, Homer’s Iliad serves as the storyline of this piece as Laocoön and his sons wrestle with a snake as punishment for warning the people of Troy. (Benton & DiYanni 2008, p. 91). In this high relief and emotionally charged piece the bodies of Laocoön and his sons seem to almost escape from their stone base. Figures are juxtaposed and asymmetrical in stance and composition and appear to be in motion. Laocoön is the model of courage although he and his sons are facing certain death. (Benton & DiYanni, 2008, p 90). The subtractive process is so skillfully undertaken that it is almost impossible to imagine that these figures are carved from a single solid piece of marble. Figures and fabrics are exaggerated and facial expressions evoke a sense of pathos. I am taken aback by the overwhelming emotions I am experiencing. Feeling physically drained, yet emotionally charged, I head back to The Magellan to prepare for my second destination.
Chapter 2—The Master
Being a highly celebrated art historian and proponent of the Italian Renaissance, contemplating my next stop was easy enough. I wanted to visit the master painter, architect, and sculptor of the Italian Renaissance—Leonardo da Vinci. I strapped on my seatbelt and protective gear and turned the paintbrush dial to deliver me safely to Rome 1447 which should land me right at the height of his creativity in a civilization brimming with mathematical application.
After a bumpy ride and a not so smooth landing, I released my belt and powered on the time machine’s invisibility shield and suited up in my own cloak of invisibility so that I could travel undetected so as not to disturb the citizens. As I walk through plazas and around villas I take into account all of the information I have had at my disposal on this era and about the particular piece I am longing to find. I recalled from an online article that this piece was commissioned by Leonardo’s patron, the Duke Lodovico Sforza. (Investor’s Business Daily 2001) It would be on display at the refectory (dining hall) of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Milan, Italy.
I walk on and overhear a conversation of two strangers who are exiting a building ahead of me. These two citizens are discussing the wonderful use of mathematics by an artist. It does not take long for me realize that they are speaking about the very person I came to see and I discerned enough from their excited voices that Leonardo da Vinci is within that building and is working on something major. I brace myself and enter. As I carefully stroll about his studio, I marvel at the complexity of his sketches for the current project he has before him which is the painting, “The Last Supper” (Fig. 2 Appendix A). On one sketch linear perspective is worked out as diagonal lines extend from each of the four corners of the page and converge in the center behind the head of Christ. I immediately stand behind Leonardo and watch him work. I notice how the head of Jesus is perfectly framed by the large window behind his head. The sunlight he has painted so brightly almost suggests an aura about the head of the Christ. Above the window is an arch which closely resembles a halo.
Although I am familiar with the fresco technique I notice that this painting is not a true fresco in which the paint is applied to wet plaster. Instead, Leonardo is applying the paint to a wall that is dry. I am sure this is to lend him more time to paint before the pigment dries and is no longer workable. He has chosen to seal the wall with resin and gesso and is painting with tempera. Though this makes for a more detailed and dramatic piece of work, it will not prove to be as durable as would a traditional fresco that is painted directly onto wet plaster.
From this vantage point I can closely examine each subject in the painting and I am quite taken with the effort to portray a different expression or mood on each of the disciples. Judas, the betrayer, is almost unseen as he hides in the darkness created by the brush of da Vinci. The figures are clustered in groups of three with Christ in the center with an air of calm in his demeanor and features. I know from my research that these two figures were the last to be completed because he wanted to capture the perfect emotion on each of their faces. As da Vinci sleeps, I read one of his notebooks and I am most taken with his mention of artistic purpose of which he states:
“A good painter has two chief objects to paint, man and the intention of his soul; the former is easy, the latter hard, because he has to represent it by the attitudes and movements of the limbs…. The most important consideration in painting is that the movements of each figure expresses its mental state, such as desire, scorn, anger, pity, and the like.” (Rackow, 2003).
Up until this point I had never noticed how much is going on with this single work of art. Though still, it tells a story so powerful and creates tension, sadness, and peacefulness better than any motion picture I have ever witnessed (including The da Vinci Code). As I take a final gaze at this painting I wonder why he chose to depict this particular moment. Instead of showing us the meal and ceremony in progress or the fleeing of Judas as he is well on his way to betray Jesus, da Vinci captures the moment after Christ reveals that one of the disciples will betray him on this night. The resulting reactions range from shock and disbelief to fear and anger. I try to take a mental capture of this freshly painted imagery with me as I head back to The Magellan for some well needed rest before I head to my next destination.
As I walk I try to ponder the transhistorical links to this piece. For one, Christ and his importance are just as relevant today. Equally relevant are the symbols of bread and wine that are depicted in this painting. As an event, The Lord’s Evening Meal is re enacted annually in some religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Communion is given in the Catholic Church and other sects of Christianity. In all, the bread represents the body of Christ and the wine stands for his untainted blood which redeems mankind from its fall from grace. I try to absorb as much of this experience as I can during my trek back to the safety of my time machine. At last, I have reached my vessel and I strap up and set the dial for Late Twentieth Century to see what awaits me there.
Chapter 3—Organized Chaos
I finally seem to be getting the hang of The Magellan. A few Dramamine from the first aid kit has eased my motion sickness so all is well with me as I gradually approach my destination—October, 1950 to watch the abstract expressionist, Jackson Pollock in action. I was reluctant to select this as my final art era because it seems as if the interest in aesthetics have somewhat diminished and almost anything can be considered art and almost anyone can be an artist. I do, however find Pollock’s work to be interesting mainly due to his approach to creating. He does not work from sketches or plans and I find that liberating and the complete opposite of da Vinci who relied heavily on mathematical proportions for scale, symmetry and perspective.
Entering into a postwar climate and finding an artist on the brink of taking art from postwar chaos to one of hope is intriguing. I find him hard at work on the nonrepresentational painting we will come to know as, Autumn Rhythm Number 30 (Fig. 3 Appendix A), which is oil on canvas. Rather than using an easel, his canvas is flat on the floor as he hovers above. As jazz music fills the air he flings, splatters and throws thinned paint onto his unprimed canvas using sticks and knives or any unconventional tool. (Heilbrunn, 2000) He walks around and works from all sides of the canvas to create a “living” painting and is not afraid to make a mistake or destroy the painting. His paintings seem random and are unplanned yet there is a sense of control. Of this Pollock states, “I can control the flow of paint: there is no accident.” (Namuth, H., Falkenberg, P., 2006) It is great to witness an artist who is not afraid to take risks.
His work is heavily influenced by Native American Navajo sand painters who also created their works on the ground. (Ibid.) Pollack’s work has a dynamic energy about it and it has been exhausting watching him work. I now truly understand and appreciate the abstract expressionists who are known as action painters. I can now say that I had underestimated the purpose of this writing assignment. By putting myself in the same time and space as the artists, their works became more personal and I felt a need to understand their creative processes. It is easy to look at a final piece of work and make judgments but it is better to have an informed perspective on the subject matter. I can think of no better way of doing this than by becoming more familiar with the artists.
At the night’s end I am headed home to the year 2010 to complete my assignment for my art history course. I have traveled so far and I have experienced many things. I hope that I am able to focus my thoughts to complete this task without straying. I must also remember that in order to earn an additional twenty points I need to include the statement, “I have used this rubric to organize and complete my essay.” I should add that to the top of my “To Do” list as I am clinging to every point I can get!
Benton, J. R. & DiYanni, R. (2008). Arts and culture: An introduction to the humanities (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Brilliant, R (2000). My Laocoön – alternative claims in the interpretation of artworks, University of California Press.
Heilbrunn timeline of art history. (2000) New York: The metropolitan museum of art. Retrieved from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/57.92
Namuth, H., Falkenberg, P. (2006, December 1)Jackson Pollock 51 [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrVE-WQBcYQ
Investor’s business daily. (2001) Duke Lodovico Sforza his vision inspired architects and artists all over the world. Retrieved from http://www.accessmylibrary.com/article-1G1-106875689/duke-lodovico-sforza-his.html
Rackow, M. (2003). The journal of the print world. Is art really & urgently about life? The drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. Retrieved from http://www.mrackow.net/leonardo-davinci-mr2.html