October

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The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, October 16, 1834 (1834 or 1835) by JMW Turner.

The tenth month of the year at the Google Art Project, or the Google Cultural Institute as it now calls itself.

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October (1903) by Károly Ferenczy.

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Near the Village, October (1892) by George Inness.

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October (1878) by Jules Bastien-Lepage.

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Poster for Sergei Eisenstein’s October (1928); Unidentified artist.

Danby’s Deluge

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Since John Martin’s tumultuous canvases are back in the news it’s worth remembering another 19th-century painter of Biblical cataclysm, Francis Danby (1793–1861), whose enormous The Deluge (1840) used to hang in the same room as the Martins at Tate Britain. Danby was a contemporary of Martin although not as enthusiastic about this kind of subject matter. Visions of apocalypse proved to be popular, however, so Danby painted his Flood and similar works with reluctance. (Even Turner wasn’t above painting the occasional disaster.) Danby’s Deluge impressed me as much as Martin’s work when I first saw it not least for its having some believable human figures which give the vast canvas a tragic dimension. Martin’s figures are perfunctory and invariably dwarfed by the scale of events.

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These details are from the Google Art Project which unfortunately don’t show us as much detail as they might. This is one of those paintings which encourages a lengthy contemplation, with a composition that draws the eye away from the swirling waters to a glowering sun and the shape of Noah’s ark on the distant horizon.

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I’ve always been intrigued by the curious detail of the angel caught in the flood, and the even more curious detail of a drowned giant beside it. For the first time, however, I’ve noticed that the angel is peering into the face of a dead woman draped over the giant’s body. Paintings such as these often toured the country accompanied by the artist responsible who would lecture a paying audience about the various details. Besides the storytelling Danby gives the water in the foreground an astonishing transparent quality which Google’s photos can’t replicate. All the more reason to see his paintings for yourself if you’re in London.

Francis Danby at Tate Britain

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Previously on { feuilleton }
John Martin: Heaven & Hell
Darkness visible
Death from above
The apocalyptic art of Francis Danby

John Martin: Heaven & Hell

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The Great Day of His Wrath (1851) by John Martin.

I’ve written on a couple of occasions about having been a precocious youth when it came to art appreciation. My first visit to the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) when I was 13 was of my own volition during one of our annual school visits to London. I wanted to see Modern Art (capital M and capital A), and especially my favourite Surrealist and Pop artists. Those works were present, of course, and it was a thrill to discover artists I hadn’t heard of such as Brâncusi and Moholy-Nagy, but the greatest shock came in the room reserved for the enormous canvases filled with apocalyptic scenes by Francis Danby and John Martin.

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The Last Judgement (1853) by John Martin.

Some of these paintings have become more visible over the years, especially Martin’s startling chef-d’oeuvre, The Great Day of His Wrath, which has found a new lease of life decorating various music releases. Yet for a long time these works were never seen in art histories, being dismissed as a kind of religious kitsch, interesting perhaps for their Romantic connections (he also depicted scenes from Milton and Byron) but with Martin regarded as deeply inferior compared to his contemporary JMW Turner. If you only look at painting as being about the surface of the canvas then Martin is inferior to Turner whose nebulous works contain the seeds of Impressionism and much 20th century art. But there’s more to art than the surface. What I saw was an astonishing audacity—this artist had dared to paint the end of the world!—and three deeply strange paintings, two of which feature deliberately confused perspectives which are almost Surrealist in their effect and quite unlike any other work produced in the 19th century.

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The Plains of Heaven (1851) by John Martin.

Well things change, not least critical opinion, and with the emergence in recent years of (for want of a better term) Pop Surrealism, and also the current vogue for crappy disaster movies and apocalyptic chatter, Martin’s paintings have been deemed interesting enough to warrant an exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, which has been the permanent home of other Martin works for many years. The show will run there until June then travel to Sheffield (where I may pay it a visit) and Tate Britain. Of note for Martin enthusiasts will be the emergence from a private collection of the vast and lurid Belshazzar’s Feast, the painting which inspired some of the set designs in DW Griffith’s Intolerance. I once read that if the insanely huge banqueting hall in that picture had been a real construction it would have extended for at least a mile. Visitors to the new exhibition will be able to judge for themselves in close-up. And speaking of close-ups, Google’s Art Project has the three paintings above in their Tate collection; click the pictures for links.

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Belshazzar’s Feast (1820) by John Martin.

Derided painter John Martin makes a dramatic comeback

Previously on { feuilleton }
Darkness visible
Death from above
The apocalyptic art of Francis Danby

The Ambassadors in detail

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Some revelations courtesy of a new venture, the Google Art Project, in which we’re given the opportunity to wander some of the world’s great art galleries and examine a selection of paintings in detail. Holbein’s 1533 masterpiece, The Ambassadors, is the default work for the collection from the National Gallery, London, and it’s a great place to start, being painted in a quite astonishing hyper-realist style. I’ve seen this work in situ and despite its being a large picture it’s difficult to offer it any kind of careful scrutiny. This is partly because the more famous works in that gallery always draw an impatient crowd eager for you to get out of their way, but also because the staff there don’t like people getting too close to the paintings; I was once reprimanded by a staff member for gesticulating too closely to one of the pictures whilst discussing it with a friend.

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The Ambassadors is celebrated for its anamorphic vanitas skull (gallery visitors usually take turns viewing this from the side of the picture) and its collection of very carefully painted objects and instruments. Thanks to Google we’re now able to examine these to a degree we wouldn’t have been able to do before unless we worked for the gallery. Holbein astonishes even more when you can see how carefully he rendered so many different materials and textures. And this is only one of the works available from one of the galleries…

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Of the paintings I’ve looked at so far not all allow such ultra-magnified views but then not all paintings require this. Artists such as Titian and Turner don’t benefit from scrutiny with a magnifying glass. An initial gripe would be the lack of any thumbnail view of the paintings on offer but it seems unfair to complain, this is a great development for art lovers. I’m hoping now that the project will evolve the way Google Earth has, with the addition of other galleries and paintings. A few more details follow.

Continue reading “The Ambassadors in detail”

Volcano: Turner to Warhol

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An Eruption of Vesuvius, Seen from Portici (c.1774–6) by Joseph Wright of Derby.

Joseph Wright of Derby captured the eruptions of Vesuvius in several pictures of which this is one of the more spectacular examples. The painter enjoyed spectacle as he also the rendering of chiaroscuro effects so it’s no wonder he was attracted to an apocalyptic night view such as this. Wright is one of the artists featured in a new exhibition at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, Volcano: Turner to Warhol, which presents the depiction of volcanoes in art through the ages.

The exhibition ranges from early engravings, showing imagined cross-sections of the fiery centre of the earth, to an explosive series of paintings by Joseph Wright, JMW Turner and Andy Warhol. It is a chance to examine the presence of volcanoes as geological phenomena and their power and influence, through an exciting range of historic and recent works of art. (More.)

The gallery site doesn’t have a complete list of the featured works but there’s some additional detail in a Telegraph preview from a couple of months ago. Volcano: Turner to Warhol opens on July 24th and runs to October 31st, 2010.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Chiaroscuro II: Joseph Wright of Derby, 1734–1797
Chiaroscuro
Shadows at Compton Verney
Death from above
The apocalyptic art of Francis Danby