Sunday, March 13, 2011

Philadelphia Museum of Art Visit March 2011

Artists Name: Unknown

Artist’s Nationality: French

Dates of Artists Birth & Death: Unknown

Museum’s Method of Acquisition: Purchased with funds contributed by Elizabeth Malcolm Bowman in memory of Wendell Phillips Bowman, 1928

Work’s Title: Portal from the Abbey Church of Saint-Laurent

Date Work Completed: c 1120 - 1150

Medium and technique: Architecture. Stone masonry.

This entrance to an old French abbey was brought across for display in the Philadelphia museum and no doubt will be well preserved. Had it stayed in France, it would have continued to be exposed to the elements and over time perished, just like many other churches in France. Having said that, I was very surprised how dirty it was, especially in comparison to the photos showing it quite clean and white. No doubt this is due to people touching it and feeling its texture.

Personally, I find it very interesting to note the materials used and style of architecture. My home in France is about half a kilometer away from a church similar in age to this. Yet, despite my home being approximately 150kms away from the original position of this portal, the style of architecture and materials used between the two are very different. This is no doubt down to materials available within both regions.

In terms of design, the Philadelphia Art Museum website describes it perfectly. “It displays bold abstract patterns on round arches and capitals with complicated intertwined branches, leaves, and birds characteristic of Romanesque architecture. The style seen here was inspired by that of the most influential Benedictine monastery in Europe, Cluny…” This also supports the reason for different architecture compared to the church near me, as Cluny is nearer the heavily influenced Roman architecture of the south of France. It is less apparent the further north in France you go.

Construction would have been a team effort, with many skilled artisans employed over the long period of building it took.

It is nice to get up close to this work, to be able to feel its texture and wonder how many other people would have touched it too throughout its long history.

Artists Name: Pietro Berettini (Pietro da Cortona)

Artist’s Nationality: Italian

Dates of Artists Birth & Death: 1596 - 1669

Museum’s Method of Acquisition: Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, 1959

Work’s Title: Tapestry showing the Sea Battle between the Fleets of Constantine and Licinius

Date Work Completed: 1635

Dimensions: 16’8” x 23’4”

Medium and technique: Tapestry, woven

This very large tapestry was created in order to complete a set of tapestries given to Cardinal Francesco Barberini by Louis XIII of France. It depicts yet another Roman civil war, this time between Emperor Constantine I (ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire) and Emporer Licinius (ruler of the Western Roman Empire). It shows Constantine’s forces overcoming those of Licinius.

We see a very packed image on this tapestry, framed by an almost symmetrical pattern. The designer has used mainly primary colors in the piece, the sky, sea and the uniforms of Licinius’ men all in blue. Constantine’s men are in red, and then gold (close to yellow) for the remainder of the image, for the boats and the standards.

The piece is representational, although the characters are depicted in slightly simpler form than real human beings. We can see straight and curved lines throughout the piece, predominantly on the ships, but also on the standards too.

There are two focal points to the image. The first is on the left, the ship of Constantine (we know this is his ship, because the standard bears the Christian cross and Constantine was the first Roman emperor to become a Christian). The second is the ship of Licinius, with the standard SPQR of Rome. The eye is drawn to both in succession. The two focal points bring the piece into a fine balance.

The other interesting thing to note is the proportions. The men on the ships appear to be too big for the ships. This is to let us know that the battle is the important thing to focus on, the ships are merely there as vehicles to bring the men to the fight. The artist successfully conveys what he is trying to get across, the forces of Constantine are clearly winning the battle, his ship is afloat, while that of Licinius is ablaze, plumes of smoke showing in the background of it.

Artists Name: Pierre Auguste Renoir

Artist’s Nationality: French

Dates of Artists Birth & Death: 1841 - 1919

Museum’s Method of Acquisition: The Henry P. McIlhenny Collection in memory of Frances P. McIlhenny, 1986

Work’s Title: Les Grands Boulevards

Date Work Completed: 1875

Dimensions: 20 ½” x 25”

Medium and technique: Oil on canvas

This impressionist painting of a Parisian scene encapsulates the essence of Paris.

Because it is an impressionist painting, the forms in it are very much simplified and thus idealized. For color, Renoir has focused on colder colors, blue skies, green trees and there can be seen flashes of reds or oranges here and there. There is a great deal of white (the buildings and horse) which gives a very fresh and clean feel to the scene.

The artist has used one point perspective and the focal point is the horse drawn carriage on the right side of the picture. We are at road level in terms of viewpoint and everything is in scale and at the right proportions. Most of the shapes are organic, with the building the most geometric of all the shapes.

When it was painted, it was a view of modern day Paris. This section of the city was brand new and had been designed with wide avenues, and a precise road network. Indeed, if you look at an aerial view of the streets coming off of the Arc de Triomphe, you will see that the roads come from it like segments of an orange. It is in this area that Les Grands Boulevard is situated. The artist has captured the essence of Paris so well, that it is still recognizable even in today’s Paris.

Viewing art in real life is a very different experience than looking at an image of it in a photo, book or poster. This is especially so if one is very familiar with the work, but never seen it in real life. I think the first thing that comes to mind is how different it actually is.

I recall seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time. While it is far from being my favorite work of art, I was staggered by how much I enjoyed seeing it in real life. The sense of history, of age, and of dimension, all this comes through even though it is not possible to view close up and being under a thick layer of protected glass. Since seeing it in real life, whenever I see it in print, it appears even more of a flat image than before.

For the three pieces at the Philadelphia Museum of Art I saw, the first thing I felt was they were not the size I imagined. For the church entrance, I was expecting something smaller, as the description mentioned it was from a small abbey. For the Renoir painting, I was expecting something larger, and for the tapestry, while I was expecting it to be large, I was not expecting the colors to be so vibrant, nor the piece to be so clear.

Compared to just viewing the works in a book where you have no real idea of size, the true colors, texture and so on, viewing in real life is naturally superior.

Grade A

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