Saturday, November 27, 2010

Paintings As Pivotal Elements

I just finished reading novel Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner as my book group's assignment.  This book had one passage centered on four main charactors' reactions to Piero della Francesca's Resurrection in Arrezzo.  Stegner wrote "that gloomy, stricken face permitted no forgetful high spirits.  It was not the face of a god reclaiming his suspended immortality, but the face of a man who until a moment ago had been thoroughly and horribly dead, and still had the smell of the death in his clothes and the terror of death in his mind.  If resurrection had taken place, it had not yet been comprehended."  It was not only a precise description of the masterpiece, but it also illuminated the characters of the novel through their reactions to this lingering horror.  It was a pivotal moment in the novel for readers to understand the characters fully.

Another book using a well-known painting or drawing as pivotal element is Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, which I have not read.  According to Wikipedia, "it follows symbologist Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu as they investigate a murder in Paris's Louvre Museum.  The title of the novel refers to the fact that the murder victim is found in the Grand Gallery of the Louvre, naked and posed like Leonardo da Vinci's famous drawing, the Vitruvian Man, with a cryptic message written beside his body and a pentacle drawn on his stomach in his own blood."  Perhaps less profound but it sure is intriguing.

Two more examples I can give are operas, Die Zauberflöte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Simon Boccanegra by Giuseppe Verdi.  The former was a traditional fairy tale, or a modernistic battle of sexes, depending on one's point of view.  It started with the mother of an imprisoned princess giving the princess's portrait to a prince, who fell in love with the princess immediately as required and set out to rescue the princess.

Simone Boccanegra was a humanistic tale, with focus on father-daughter relationship.  It would be very helpful to know that Verdi lost his daughter when she was very young.  In the opera, Simon, a corsair, later Doge of Genoa, lost his daughter Maria and only recognized her many years later when she showed him a lockets with the picture of her deceased mother, whose image was in the locket Simon carried as well.  It was a little too convenient but aided by all too understanding and sublime music, the moment however was extremely touching and emotionally true.

As a painter, it is always gratifying for me to see a painting or a drawing as pivotal element in literature or stage work.  It is even more fascinating when the focal point of the work is the creating of a piece of visual art.

The Young Girl with Turban
A good example is the novel by Tracy Chevalier and ensuring movie The Girl with a Pearl Earring, which gave a very detailed and fascinating account of a period of great painter Johannes Vermeer's life of and his creation of the painting The Young Girl with Turban.  The novel and the movie were so overwhelmingly popular that even the collector of this painting, Mauritshuis Museum in The Haag, was presumably forced to change its title to The Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Another book about a painter, The Birth of Venus by Sarah Duant, published before The Girl with a Pearl Earring, read like an unsuccessful rip-off which it was not.  I dived into the book eagerly, hoping to read interesting, however fictional, account of Sandro Botticelli's creation of The Birth of Venus (in Italian: Nascita di Venere) but I was disappointed to learn that it was about an unknown woman painter who would be Venus herself.  Though the book is interesting enough with its depictions of Renaissance Florence, the missing element of the creation of a well-known work was hard to ignore and the book ultimately was less interesting.

Perseus Cellini Loggia dei Lanzi 2005 09 13
Perseus with the Head of Medusa
Another good example, though perhaps less known than The Girl with a Pearl Earring, is an opera by Hector Berlioz, Benvenuto Cellini, which  was loosely based on the memoirs of the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, and culminated in the forging of his immortal Perseus with the Head of Medusa in the Loggia dei Lanzi gallery on the edge of the Piazza della Signoria in Florence.

It must be a wonder to behold when the statue took its shape in front of audience's eyes, accompanied by Berlioz's stirring music.

Other artworks involving creatingpaintings include Turkish author Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red, which took place in 16th-century Istanbul. A number of narrators give testimony to what they know about the circumstances surrounding the murder of master miniaturist and illuminator of books. The stories accumulated and became more detailed as the novel progresses, giving the reader not only a nontraditional murder mystery but insight into the mores and customs of the time (from Library Journal).  The particular piece was less clear here but its very vagueness contributed to the mystery of the novel therefore it was not a disappointment that I didn't have a clear view of the central painting in the novel.

The Temptation of Anthony
Then there is another opera Mathis der Maler by Paul Hindemith on the life of medieval German painter Matthias Grünewald with characters of the opera forming tableau from his masterpiece The Temptation of Anthony.  It was a work more about the painter and his experience than his work.  It would be very illuminating as well.

Finally, there is a work which was not about the creation of visual art but almost exclusively regarded a piece of visual art, Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray which told the tale of a young man named Dorian Gray who sold his soul to ensure his portrait would age rather than himself. Dorian's wish was fulfilled, plunging him into debauched actions. The portrait served as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin displayed as a disfigurement of his form, or through a sign of aging (from  Painting here served as both a hedonistic celebration and a moralistic rebuke.

Art forms are very much intertwined and artists who are curious and interested in other artists' works often take up the challenge to describe other kind creations in the forms they are most comfortable with, therefore bless us with many fascinating works.  I would love to find more such books to read and more such stage works to watch.

Related posts on Art · 文化 · Kunst:
- Last Call - "The Girl With A Pearl Earring" in De Young Museum, San Francisco
- My Favorite Paintings in Mauritshuis, Den Haag, Netherlands
- "Compliments to Vermeer" - Controversial Solo Exhibition of the Renowned Chinese Painter JIN Shangyi
- Last Chance to See Terracotta Warriors in San Francisco Asian Art Museum
- Birth of Impressionism at De Young Museum, San Francisco
- Venetian Masterpieces from Vienna at De Young Museum
- My Favorite Works at De Young Museum, San Francisco
- My Favorite De Young Museum Collections

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