On the stories of paintings

"Danaë," by Titian

“Danaë,” by Titian

During the month I spent traveling across Europe in March and April 2007, I visited some of the greatest art galleries in the world, including the Louvre, the Orsay, the Vatican Museum, the Uffizi and the Prado. My love for art, particularly Italian Renaissance pieces and French Impressionism, has been steadfast ever since.

Today I visited the National Gallery, which currently has on loan a painting by the Venetian Renaissance master Titian. The piece is “Danaë,” one of a series of five Titian paintings of the mythological princess and mother of Perseus. This particular piece is housed in Naples, and was originally commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese.

As I read the information about the painting (I must confess that I’m not a particular fan of Titian; I veer more toward the Florentines), I noticed that the backstory included details of the painting’s commission and information about what happened to it later. During World War II, Hermann Göring had it looted from Italy to add to his personal collection. It was recovered in a salt mine in Altaussee, Austria, by the “Monuments Men.”

It struck me that paintings such as this are often at the mercy of what happens to them later, through no fault or intention of their creator. The origin story of the series is fascinating enough (the classical inspiration was a way to skirt obscenity charges because of the nudity, and the Danaë figure reputedly has the face of Farnese’s mistress), all the more so because it gives Titian some level of agency.

But what to make of the World War II connection? You can also sub in any other incident: theft, attempted theft, damage, popular literature. There are numerous ways for the mystique of a painting to transcend the painting itself. How many exemplary pieces of art are sidelined, overlooked or even forgotten simply because they lack a glamorous story to accompany them?

As I seek out works of art that I haven’t yet seen, and revisit old favorites, that’s what I’ll attempt to remind myself. Evaluate the work based on the work, and treat any interesting incidents as just that: external forces that don’t — shouldn’t — elevate or reduce the art. A painting or sculpture is not any more or less valuable because a Nazi wanted it, or because it disappeared in a museum heist, or because someone wrote a fictional book about it.

(In an unrelated now, I find myself wanting to return to Italy.)

Art in London

Sunday, after a relatively low-key weekend, I decided, kind of off the cuff, to go into London for the day. There was nothing I really went in for — other than some Christmas shopping — but I figured I’d wing it.

I had planned to shop a bit at the big Waterstones bookstore right off Trafalgar Square, but unfortunately, they didn’t open until noon. Having some time to kill, I wandered down the Strand. The skating rink at Somerset House was packed, so I ducked into the courtyard for a couple of photos. I noticed on the way out that the Courtauld Gallery inside the Somerset House complex was open. Intrigued, having never visited before, I went in to take a look. As a student, I got in free, which is always a bonus.

Paul Cézanne's "The Cardplayers"

Paul Cézanne's "The Cardplayers"

If you haven’t been able to tell before now, I’m something of an art enthusiast. I’ve never taken a formal art class — either history or practice — but I’ve been to several of the major galleries of Europe and developed a taste for viewing pieces. Italian Renaissance art and French Impressionism are my two favorite categories.

The Courtauld Gallery is comparatively small, but I was impressed with its pieces. The Gothic religious art, namely several triptychs and polyptychs, and its collection of Peter Paul Rubens paintings are excellent. The Impressionist collection, particularly a few Renoir works, was also awesome to see. A Botticelli painting depicting Christ being lowered from the crucifix featured a portrayal of Mary Magdalene I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a painting, with her hair loose around her in typical Botticelli waves.

The real experience at the gallery, though, was the fabulous short-term exhibit on Paul Cézanne’s “The Cardplayers.” Cézanne is one of those painters whose style is so defined, you can immediately identify his work. I’m a fan of his still-lifes in particular. “The Cardplayers” is a series of paintings depicting French rural peasants playing cards (obviously). The exhibit showed Cézanne’s process, including pencil “cartoons” (early sketches) of the figures and other portraits he had done of the subjects. At the time, his treatment of the peasant class was somewhat cutting-edge, especially given that he often depicted them in more genteel settings, such as his studio or a country house.

After I finished there, I walked (it was nice!) to the Tate Modern. I’m not normally enthusiastic about post-Impressionist work, but I had yet to see Salvadore Dali’s “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” and the Andy Warhol exhibit. After a quick espresso in the cafe, I headed upstairs to view the Dali painting.

The painting has one of the most clever visual tricks I’ve seen. On the one hand, you can see the kneeled figure of Narcissus, who in Greek mythology fell in love with his own reflection in a pool and drowned. The gods turned him into the narcissus flower. On the other side, you see a hand gripping a cracked egg, from which emerges a narcissus flower. Though the two figures are different, they are, in terms of shape, mirrors of each other.

Salvadore Dali's "Metamorphosis of Narcissus"

Salvadore Dali's "Metamorphosis of Narcissus"

I next visited the Warhol exhibit, a room plastered with gauche cow-print wallpaper that Warhol concocted after a friend told him that “no one does pastoral work anymore.” A self-portrait is there, as well as a camouflage installation, a stark black and yellow painting of a dollar sign, and a visceral (tinted with red, like blood) painting of two guns, done after the artist was shot by an admirer.

I spent the rest of the day roaming the city, going across the Millennium Bridge, having lunch at Chipotle (where else), getting a gingerbread cupcake at the Hummingbird (of which I’m now the mayor on Foursquare), walking through St. James’s Park and through Westminster and Whitehall (luckily the student protests have died down), browsing books at Waterstones and going down to the Imperial War Museum to view its Holocaust and crimes against humanity exhibits, in preparation for my human rights class next term.

Another great day in the city.

Paris: Day Three

Read about the first day in Paris and the second day in Paris.

Sorry for taking so long to finish writing about our trip! I’ve been busy with homework and group projects.

The third day in Paris, Sunday, was very overcast and rainy. We took it easy and didn’t try to do too much.

Lauren had found a quirky expat American diner over in the Marais neighborhood, called Breakfast in America. We were going to have lunch there (we slept in on Sunday, go us), but it was pretty busy, so we decided to try again at dinner.

We ended up having a full English breakfast for lunch at a British pub, also in Marais. I had orange juice, coffee, hash browns, toast, an egg and rashers. Lauren had orange juice, an egg, toast, a tomato and beans.

After that we went to the l’Orangerie art gallery, a smaller gallery right off the Tuileries. Again, because of our EU residency and age, we got in free. The l’Orangerie has a few large, long rooms with Monet paintings set in panorama. The effect is pretty awesome. It also has a smaller permanent collection of Impressionist art and a temporary exhibit. The temporary exhibit when we visited was the photography of German artist Heinrich Kühn. The photos, which came from the early age of photography, looked almost like paintings. The exhibit followed Kühn’s work as it adapted to changes in technique. We both agreed that it was cool to see a German artist featured with so many French, Italian and Dutch ones.

We spent the afternoon at the Orsay, a largely Impressionist gallery built in an old train station. We had sodas and snacks at the cafe and looked at the Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Renoir, Gaughin, Cezanne and Matisse works. The Orsay also features a lot of “practical art,” such as furniture and household decorations and items.

The galleries don’t allow photos of the art, so today’s a little light on photos. Sorry!

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We went back to the flat to rest before going back to Breakfast in America. This time we were seated almost immediately. The diner’s story is interesting. An American film-maker founded it, because he missed American comfort food when he was studying in Paris. It’s largely financed by people in the tech side of the entertainment industry.

Lauren and had a California wrap, fries and a Dr. Pepper. I had a cheeseburger, fries and a Coke. Heavenly. For dessert, she had a brownie and I had a slice of cheesecake. It was a fun little place.

We ended Sunday night with a visit to the Eiffel Tower, which I’d never seen at night, for photographs.

Paris: Day Two

Read about the first day in Paris here.

Saturday was our second day in Paris, and was our busiest day. Luckily it was extremely warm and sunny, so it was a great day to be outside.

We had breakfast at a little cafe down the street from the flat. Lauren had a macchiato and a Nutella crepe, and I had a hot chocolate and a chocolate-and-chantilly crepe. I love crepes and it’s hard to find good ones outside of France, so I knew we had to take advantage.

Our first major stop of the day was the Catacombs. They are not for the faint of heart. Basically, a couple hundred years ago, the cemeteries started overflowing and neighborhoods were getting diseased. Officials cleared out a lot of the cemeteries and deposited the bones in the remains of the city’s underground quarries. You can walk through the Catacombs and see piles and piles of bones and skulls “artfully” arranged, each area marked based on from which cemetery the bones originated. It’s dreadfully dark, dank and creepy, but really cool.

After that we headed over to the Louvre, where we were pleasantly surprised to get in free based on our EU residency visas and ages (under 25). We landed in the middle of the Carousel, a large shopping center complete with an Apple store and McDonald’s, that adjoins the museum. We saw the major pieces — the “Mona Lisa”, the Venus de Milo and the statue of Nike. The Louvre traditionally “frowns on” modern and Impressionist art and trends toward classical art. No Monet, Van Gogh or Cezanne to be seen.

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Next was the Tuileries, a lovely long stretch of garden with fountains, cafes, hedges and flowers. We got drinks and sat watching the birds, then headed down to the Champs-Elysees. The Parisian Christmas market was on, and there were dozens and dozens of stalls selling chocolate, hot mulled wine, pastries, meat, cheese, arts and crafts and all sorts of other items for the holidays.

We crossed the river to see the National Assembly building, crossed back over between the Grand Palace and the Petit Palace, and continued down the Champs-Elysees. We stopped at the Ladurée bakery, reputed to have the best macaroons in the world. It was packed, and while we waited in line we looked at the wares. Tarts, croissants, pastries, pies, cookies, macaroons, puffs and sweets of all kinds. The shop itself is very ornate and prettily decorated. We each got some macaroons and headed out.

At the end of the Champs-Elysees is the Arc De Triomphe. We climbed it — too many steps, a few hundred at least — and got nice photos of the view. I daresay the view is better than the Eiffel Tower’s; you’re able to see more clearly and recognize what you’re seeing. We ate our cookies atop the arch. I had: two chocolate, one raspberry, one red berry, one coffee, one lemon, one pistachio and one vanilla. They were absolutely delicious.

We had a late lunch/early dinner at an Italian restaurant near the arch. Lauren had a cheese pizza with ham, olives and mushrooms. I had a cheese pizza with prosciutto and we shared water and spent a couple of hours chatting, before we retired to the flat.

Whew! By this time my legs were getting quite sore. Stay tuned for days three and four.

A damp day in London

I get a bit of a rush whenever I step off the train at a London station. I got it when I went from Reading to Paddington, and I get it when I go from Canterbury to St. Pancras. I love going into London, because it exhausts me — I’ll sleep like a baby tonight — and it challenges me, as I try to find my way around, discover new places and keep up with the fast pace. Best exercise I’ll get all week.

I don’t get to go into London very often, about once or twice a month, so when I go, I leave early and come back late, so I get a full bang for my buck (quid?). Take today, for instance. Instead of leisurely seeing two or three things, I covered a lot of ground, most of it in the West End or in Chelsea/Knightsbridge.

First I hit Hummingbird Bakery near Soho, where I picked up a red velvet cupcake (the house specialty) and a cola cupcake (Friday special). I ate my red velvet cupcake with a peppermint mocha at Starbucks on Regent Street, and visited the Regent Street Apple store, the world’s largest by area.

After that I walked from Piccadilly Circus to Trafalgar Square, where I ducked inside the National Gallery to see a few of my favorite paintings: Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II and Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. I went to the National Portrait Gallery to say hello to the Tudors and all of their associates — Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, Henry VII, Catherine of Aragon, Mary Stuart, Mary I, Catherine Parr, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Edward VI. They’re all there, although poor Anne Boleyn was getting her portrait cleaned.

It was lunchtime after that, but I was dismayed to find that Tsunami wasn’t accepting lunch walk-ins. Making a note to make a reservation next time, I braved the Charlie Foxtrot that is Tottenham Court Road(work) for the foreseeable future, and had tacos at the UK’s only Chipotle on Charing Cross Road. Verdict: Just as yummy as at home, but they get brown rice as an option!

I was in a museum mood today, so next I stopped by the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Natural History Museum has all kinds of animal skeletons, ecosystem exhibits and fossils, so it’s a popular place with school kids. The V&A Museum has a lot of sculpture, textiles and “industrial”/useful art. Harrods was just down the road so I went to look at expensive handbags, Seven for All Mankind jeans and the selection of dog collars. Harrods is already dolled up for Christmas, and the display theme this year is Peter Pan (when I was at Reading the theme was Casino Royale).

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Harrods was also unbearably hot, so after I finished there I went to Kensington Gardens and found the Peter Pan statue (I saw it once before but it was dark) and walked over to Hyde Park. By then it was getting a little dark and rainy, so I took the Tube to Covent Garden, where I promptly walked out onto the street, slipped on the wet stones and fell flat on my rear. How embarrassing.

There was another bakery near Covent Garden that I was going to try and find, but with the early darkness and rain I didn’t get to it. I grabbed coffee to give myself a boost and get out of the rain, before I went to a hopping Leicester Square to see “Let Me In” at the Odeon. The movie was pretty good and a nice twist on the vampire genre.

After the movie I took the Tube back to St. Pancras, where I observed the people just getting in from Paris and Brussels, grabbed some McDonald’s for dinner — first time I’ve had it since moving here — and caught my train home. Whew!

I’m going in again on Wednesday, and that day I’m shooting to see the Tate Modern, the British Museum and a few of the other parks, or at least St. James Park. Oh, and that second bakery …

(Today was also Guy Fawkes Night, but more on that tomorrow.)