Burne-Jones in London

Until 24th February 2019, there is an excellent exhibition of the works of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) at London’s Tate Britain.

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For Victorian art  

looking back to the past

Burne-Jones does excel

 

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The lady in blue

What makes for a great work of art? Well, people differ on the answer to this question. Seeing one special painting in the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in Palermo (Sicily) helped me formulate my answer.

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The painting that literally caught my eye and grabbed my full attention is “The Virgin Annunciate”. It was painted sometime between 1474 and ’77 by the Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina (c. 1430-79). It depicts a woman in a blue veil seated at a small wooden desk on which there is an open book. The fingers of her right hand spread forwards towards the viewer. Her left hand holds her veil closed. She appears to be gazing towards her right.  Simple, really, if described like this, but it is not.

The painting grabbed my attention long before my brain had time to analyse what was reaching my eyes’ retinas. It was an intense visceral attraction to the image that made me stop and look at it carefully, an attraction that few other works of art have had for me.

When I had recovered from the initial pleasurable shock of seeing such beauty, I began to notice its subject matter, and with the help of an explanatory note next to the painting, I learnt some of the artist’s deeper intentions.

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For example, there is a sharp crease in the cloth of the veil  just above the mid-point of the lady’s forehead. This tells the informed viewer that the Virgin is wearing a special treasured, rarely worn, veil that is usually kept neatly folded in a closet or wardrobe. No doubt, art historians would be able to point out many other meaningful details that the artist has depicted. Despite these aspects of symbolic meaning, despite its subject matter and context, this picture is primarily an object of enormous beauty and graciousness that appeals greatly to something in the deep recesses of my subconscious.

For me, a work of art must first seize the seat, the very source of my emotions in a positive way. If it can do that, then whether or not the artist has imbued it with layers of meaning, the work is in my view a great one. Lest you think that it is only the works of long dead masters that fall into my definition of ‘great art’, let me refer to someone who created more recently, Constantin Brâncuși (1856-1957). Some of his sculptures depict birds or humans as simple, almost abstract, forms, almost devoid of detail. These works evoke the same deep sensations of visceral attraction as the painting by Da Messina, yet they could hardly be more different in all respects from that.

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A work by Brancusi [Source: bookdepository.com]

I am unable to formulate why the Da Messina and Brancusi works chime (and even some extremely abstract works such as those by Modriaan or Sean Scully) with my deepest emotional chords, when others, undoubtedly masterful in many ways like the works of Caravaggio and Barbara Hepworth, do not. I suppose this is what folk call ‘taste’. And, tastes differ greatly.

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Sean Scully

For me, a great work of art must first appeal to me emotionally, viscerally if you like, rather than intellectually. If I can only begin to appreciate a work of art after it has been explained, as is the case with much so-called ‘conceptual art’, then, for me, it is not ‘great art’.

The tests of time and taste

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Is it fair to juxtapose works of modern or contemporary art with great masterpieces, which have stood the test of time?

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We were fortunate to have been given (by our daughter) complimentary tickets to the 2018 Frieze Masters exhibition held in Regents Park. It is part of a larger art fair, Frieze, held in London annually.

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The Frieze Masters show contains stalls set up by art dealers, displaying only works made no later than the year 2000 AD. I must admit that I was expecting to see works of art only made during the 19th and 20th centuries. To my great delight, the artworks on display were made anytime between ancient times (several centuries BC) and 2000 AD.

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Although the more recently made (i.e. 20th century) artworks are of the highest quality, they are often on display close to artworks made many centuries earlier. Some of the gallery stalls contain a mix of modern art and much older works. Placing some 20th century works (e.g. Calder) near to older classical works (e.g. Brueghel and Cranach) is not fair to the newer works.

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The older artworks, which have stood the test of time and satisfied the tastes of many generations of viewers, make the nearby contemporary works seem weak in comparison. This is not always the case. Some small sculptures by Barbara Hepworth seemed very comfortable next to their far more venerable neighbours. Also, to my surprise some ancient classical carvings stood harmoniously close to some abstract art works made in the second half of the 20th century.

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The older works of art on display have been treasured for many centuries. Probably, what we see today is the best of what was produced long ago. Even at the time when they were made, their excellence must have been obvious when seen beside other works, now lost and long-forgotten, which were created at the same time.

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I question how many of the more recent (19th and, especially, 20th century) works of art, which I saw at Frieze Masters, will still attract both interest and high prices in, say, fifty or a hundred years’ time. And, I also ask myself how many of the newer works will be able to evoke the feelings of aesthetic wonder that, say, a Brueghel or a Cycladic sculpture have been able to do for so many centuries.  

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