Tag Archives: history

At Death’s Door in Assisi

DSCN7333The phrase “at death’s door” is synonymous with being seriously ill. When someone is looking really under the weather you’ll often hear, “Oh! he’s at death’s door”. While the meaning is quite obvious, where exactly is this deadly door.

Bad luck

DSCN7329So! during the middle ages and beyond it was considered bad luck to take the corpse from a house using the main entrance. Seriously ill people or the recently departed were laid out in the front parlour. From here, there was a smaller door next to the front door that led into the street. It was through this which the dead person in their coffin could be passed.

Death’s door

These doors of the dead are easy to recognise as they are only half doors and were built with a stone ledge to support the coffin as it was DSCN7343removed from the house. The body could be balanced here while everything was made ready for their last journey.

Ghostly image

I’ve been walking around the many medieval cities of Italy, and most recently, during my research for Assisi. As you explore the town you can make out the ghostly remains of these bricked up doors in the walls of the houses.

Others have been put to use and turned into shop display windows or now form entrances to another part of the building. Looking around I do wonder how many of the people using these entrances or pricing up trinkets realise that daily they pass through death’s door.

Not so Naif Art

One of the ongoing problems I have with exhibiting in public is the number of people who comment by saying “Oh! it’s naive work”. This is frustrating as they often have no idea what they are talking about and are missing the deliberate, subtle games the works play.

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Rousseau – Classic Naive Art

Naive art

So for those of you who profess to be Naive Art experts, here is a lesson on the established rules of Naif Art  and why my work defies or subverts these conventions.

Naïve art is simple, unaffected and unsophisticated – usually specifically refers to art made by artists who have had no formal training in an art school or academy“(taken from the Tate Gallery website).

The last part of the statement is the easiest to dismiss as I spent four years at art college and have a honours degree in the subject. Hardly a case of no formal training. I have studied, researched and practised the art of perspective, colour theory and composition since the age of five and have a complex understanding of the subject.

Naïve art is characterised by childlike simplicity of execution and vision.

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Simone Martini town

As I live on the Umbrian/ Tuscan border in Italy I am surrounded by examples of High Byzantine, Gothic International and Early Renaissance works. These periods are characterised by a rediscovery of realism, perspective and naturalistic painting.

When depicting buildings, vegetation and landscapes the likes of Giotto, Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers played around in a simplistic way. Using these artists as inspiration my work demonstrates the same principles of draftsmanship in my renderings of the Italian countryside.

 

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Winfield – Gubbio

Breaking art rules

This requires a good knowledge of oblique projection, aerial perspective and an ability to interpret the Medieval mindset and style. You need to practice in order to look at a modern scene and visualise it as it would have been seen 700 years ago.

As a one-eyed and colour blind artist I naturally see things from a particular viewpoint. My world is flattened out, like a postcard and has colours that are incredibly muted. Therefore, I explore different ways of deliberately painting three dimensions in flat images. I choose to ignore linear perspective but give depth through overlap, size difference, aerial perspective and tonality.

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Cannan – San Gimignano

Colour blind art

The tenants of Naive art state that colours are unrefined. Whilst my paintings are incredibly bright there is a logic to be had here. Now people with colour vision deficiency (CVD) have certain colours “washed out” from their vision. Knowing this and trying to give CVD viewers a better experience I deliberately use luminous hues and occasionally confuse colours.

For us, red/green, orange/green, pink/grey and the mystical purple are all colours we commonly mix up and we have to take great care when painting with them. Luckily they write the names of the colours on the tubes. Although, if I see a pink sky, why should I paint it grey just because that is the supposed colour.

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Winfield – Assisi

Colourful art

Despite what you might think of colour deficiency we do have some benefits and the sky, especially dawn, dusk and storm clouds give us wonderful experiences. The paintings often reproduce the types of dramatic skies I see with their pinks, purples and pale oranges. Don’t ask us about the two colour rainbow though, very lame, we’re not impressed with them.

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Winfield – IKEA Library

Behind the painting

The  composition uses the principles of golden mean proportions, where ratios and position are carefully calculated to give pleasing relationships. Hey! If it’s good enough for Mother Nature and Vermeer, it’s okay with me.

There are strong diagonals and the vanishing points are all placed so as to draw the eye to particular points. If you divide the pictures up into thirds or fifths you’ll see that certain landmarks and features are placed at these junctures.

If these works should be called anything then Gothic Nouveau, Bosso Nova Byzantine or Faux Early Renaissance would be more appropriate. However, it would be naive to think of them purely as Naif Art.

Gubbio – Sister Painting

The next project is the Umbrian town of Gubbio. This is to be a sister painting to the last one of Assisi.

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Gubbio’s Roman Amphitheater

Sister paintings

Sister paintings came from the reality that if I painted something for my wife my sister-in-law would want one too and visa versa. Therefore many of my watercolours have a twin, painted around the same time and are similar in style, colour or content. These tend to be two pictures that can comfortably sit side by side.

Gubbio’s history

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Cable car ride

Gubbio is a fascinating place and sits in the foothills of the Apennine mountains. It is claimed to be one of the original twelve cities created by Noah after the great flood and is the place where Saint Francis had a word with a wolf that had been stalking the townsfolk.

 

Clustered around the base of Mount Ingino are Gubbio’s narrow, medieval streets, leading to its piazzas and some of its iconic buildings, such as the Palazzo dei Consoli. As you approach the town you also pass the large

Gubbio Tree

The World’s Tallest Christmas Tree

park, which houses the ancient ruins of the amphitheater that is still in use today.

Drawing the town

Crowning the mountain is the Basilica di Sant’Ubaldo, that can be reached by a cable car, gliding over the wooded slopes and gives you a great view down on Gubbio’s streets and buildings.

 

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Gubbio sketches

An element I’d love to include in the painting is the world’s largest Christmas tree. Each year the hillside is lit up in the shape of a fir tree. I think I might be able to hide brightly coloured dots amongst the trees that mark out the famous landmark. We’ll just have to see how it goes.

The one event I’ll pass on this time is depicting the crazy Ceri race that takes place each year. This is when three 25 foot totem poles are carried through the town and up to the Basilica di Sant’Ubaldo. A mad dash skywards that in 700 years has always finished in the same order.

Okay, lets get Gubbio painted.

 

Drawing Gothic

The early styles of the International or High Gothic period are dominated by a lack of perspective. Artists at this time were rediscovering the ways of showing three dimensions and their attempts are an interesting exercise in drawing.

3bec70db40e6dfde02ae3a4769e550faGothic art

They were aware that things changed over distance but were not sure how to depict distances or foreshortening. Although devices are commonly found in Greek and Roman art, down the years the techniques had been discouraged and lost. Now artists found themselves experimenting to reinvent the illusion of depth.

With a relaxing of regulations by the church controlling art and a growing merchant class with money to spend, more naturalistic lifelike studies  began to emerge. People, landscapes, buildings and vegetation all appeared in paintings.

Drawing perspective

DUCCIO FIRST DENIAL OF PETERThe first uses of perspective were simple oblique projections, whereby angled ,parallel lines were used to indicate that a building was going into the distance. Ariel perspective, the bluing of the horizon, was another early device for showing objects further away.

Gradually the idea of vanishing points took hold and artists had all lines converging at a single point. Quite often this was the centre of the room and painting panelled ceilings and tiled floors were popular to show their mastery of the technique.

There was however a tendency to give each object their own vanishing point in the picture, which gives the scenes a chaotic but interesting look. There are chairs at strange angles, beds that Annunciation of Death of the Virgin_Siena,Museo dell opera del Duomoseem to float and objects that sit in a completely different plain to the things they rest on.


Painting nature

By the end of the High Gothic artists could comfortably draw ellipses, understood how objects sat next to each other and where shadows naturally fell. All important developments in illustrating three dimensions.  As each mystery unfolded their worlds took on a more realistic appearance.

KitchenDrawingOver the next two hundred years the skill of using one, two, three and four point perspectives would be unlocked and by the start of the Renaissance  artists were comfortably creating realistic rooms, elegant street scenes and marvelous landscapes.

It was through these early experiments during the Gothic period that led to the later, accomplished designs. They do provide an interesting instruction on how to draw perspective and show how the different ways effect the look of a painting.

 

The International Gothic – A Break from Tradition

The International Gothic or Late Gothic art period covers the 13th – 14th centuries and came during a time of religious upheaval and political change. The Christian church was witnessing the growth of Protestantism with its new fangled ideas and the establishment of City States. These too had their own, personal, political agendas and particular allegiances. Very much like the world of today.

lorenzetti_street2The growth of the merchant class provided a challenge to the financial muscle of the church and Europe’s royalty.

These nouveau riche still wanted art on a more personal level but art that reflected their view of the world. It wasn’t  burdened by outdated dictate and accurately reflected the people of the times. The church’s ideals on how and what art should depict was being intellectually challenged. People wanted frescoes and paintings that illustrated real life. Therefore there was an increase in naturalistic imagery and the showing of everyday life.

Gothic art

Annunciation of Death of the Virgin_Siena,Museo dell opera del DuomoThe artists during this period spent their time rediscovering the ancient ways of showing nature. Perspective, foliage and realistic depiction were once again on the menu. Here current artists played their part in trying to understand how the Greeks and Romans set about doing this.

Suddenly it was possible to paint trees, water, buildings and furniture. Painters could populate their worlds with people and animals, fields and hills. But how?  It is interesting to see the artists development of perspective. Each creating strange views with multiple vanishing points, rooms with weird angles and impossible furniture scattered throughout the pictures.

Social painting

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽdaThese strange, other worlds, with their experiments at three dimensions provide a unique viewpoint into life during the Late Medieval period. They show the lives of the ordinary people in the fields alongside royalty.

You can see palaces, castles and cathedrals but also simple houses, barns and sheds. As much as you can see wars and battles there are farmers sowing crops and peasants tending sheep.

Artistic licence 

Giotto di Bondone, Simone Martini, the Lorenzetti brothers in Italy and  Conrad von Soest in Germany and the Limbourg brothers from France all played their part in developing the distinctive style of the International Gothic.

This break with the traditions of the Byzantine paved the way for what would become the greatest advances in art with the arrival of the Renaissance. The steps started by the International Gothic would flourish during the next period and set new standards in artistic representation.  However, I still find the exploration of the 13th and 14th centuries some of the most compelling works on view.

 

A Hundred Years of Dada

“Art needs an operation” – Tristan Tzara

Dada Movement

Cabaret Voltaire

Exactly 100 years ago, at the height of the First World War, in 1916 the Dadaist art movement began.  To escape the conflict, refugees, artists, intellectuals, anarchists, political dissidents and pacifists fleeing war torn Europe and gathered  in neutral Switzerland. It was in Zurich, at the Cabaret Voltaire nightclub, that a chaotic gathering gave birth to one of the 20th centuries most influential art styles.

Always destroy

Dada Cabaret Voltaire

Dada Performance

Romanian artist, Marcel Janco captured the evening in a painting that clearly shows the anarchic, chaos and mayhem that stylised the Dadaist approach to art. The scene depicted is a noisy, uncontrolled riot, which reflects perfectly the anti-art standpoint the Dadaists wanted to promote.

Then, as now, six nights a week the Cabaret Voltaire resounded to nonsensical music, wordless poems, tribal masks and primitive art.  It embraced African influences, European folk traditions and constantly explored new ways of creating and celebrating art and culture. The live events brought together visual arts, costume, poetry, music and dance in a way that defied the bourgeois conventions of the day.

Dada Manifesto

Dada Performance

Hugo Ball

The group included such famous names as Hugo Ball, Emmy Hemmings, Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp Kurt Schwitters and Hans Richter who were at the forefront of the revolutionary art movement. They were joined by the likes of Andre Breton, Phillippe Soupault, Hannah Hoch, Sophie Taeber, Otto Dix and Max Ernst.

Their unbound energy and artistic creativity continued into the mid-nineteen twenties when the group went on to pastures new. Taking on solo projects or became involved in other art groups.

Thought is made in the mouth

Marcel Duchamp

Fountain

However, Dada’s legacy was far reaching and is still felt in the works of art movements, musicians and performers of today. In 2004, Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 sculpture “Fountain” was voted the most influential art piece of the 20th century. This was ahead of Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica”, Matisse’s “Red Studio” and Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn Diptych”.

Surrealism, Photo collage, Pop Art, Assemblage, Happenings, Punk and Rap music all have their origins in the anti-establishment sentiments of the Dadaist movement. Their strongly held desire to break with tradition and create a new form of expression were picked up by later artists and performers. The rebellious displays and offending images of today all have, at their core, a little of the Dadaists intentions.

Not bad for a drunken, Wednesday evening down the club in 1916.

 

 

Dressing the Part

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Martini’s Altarpiece with predella designs below

Sometimes art requires that you do strange things.

On a recent project with Dr Gaie Burnet, about a lost predella of Simone Martini,

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Peasant with mop staff

I was given the opportunity to try on women’s skirts in the name of art. This was not out of some sexually repressed need to dress as a woman, after all, I’m British and this comes as second nature to us. However it was necessary for me to capture the likeness of medieval peasants for the panel.

And why?

It did come as a surprise to my wife, when I walked into the sitting room to ask her a question, wearing one of her skirts, I did explain it was for artistic integrity. Bags, walking sticks, a dressing gown for a flying monk’s habit, hats and belts all helped in creating the right look for the drawings.

My dogs were somewhat concerned by my behaviour as I darted around, changing clothes and then setting the camera to timed, running across the kitchen to strike a pose. Only to repeat the chaotic process two seconds later. For them balancing, prone on a stool, to imitate the flying saint was the final act of a madman.

Martini in Siena

FlyingSaint

Flying monk

 

 

 

In this way and with the absence of my own willing peasant I managed to create a series of pictures that were used in drawing the missing panels from Beato Augustino’s altarpiece, which is now on display in the Palazzo Siena (check). The exercise was an illustration for Dr Burnet’s own work on the painting and how it may have been used for religious instruction and as a way of establishing the Augustinian Order during a time of great change.

CloakedPeasant

Peasant with cloak

Both Dr Burnet and myself found the process of working together an interesting one and exploring Martini’s works at Assisi and Siena was a wonderful experience. It was fun to see how these great works were not just pretty frescoes illustrating the lives of the saints, bishops and Christ but were being used for political propaganda, very much like today’s elaborate electioneering boards proclaiming one belief over another.

Dissecting the message

While I was able to bring my knowledge of painting, colour and design to the project, for me, it was fascinating to hear the political and religious history around the time the artist was working and discover the messages his patrons were most likely trying to convey. What, on the surface of things, appear to be simple depictions of people are quite often more complex, with much of the true meaning being forgotten over time.

I would thoroughly recommend artists and academics working together on projects like this, as both stand to gain a lot more than they realise about the process of making art. Both from a practical perspective of painting and design but also in terms of understanding what clients were trying to get across when commissioning these great works.

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Beato Augustino flying in

 

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Saint saves baby