Friday, June 8, 2007

Grail geometry and Baroque painting: Is there any "there" there?

An image from Robert A diCurcio's discussion of The Allegory of Painting at Vermeer's Riddle Revealed

This morning while checking the site stats for this blog, I saw that someone from Argentina found us via a Google search for "Baroque Painting Blog." That would be (partly) us, of course, so I went there as well to, yes, see how highly we rank (nicely, by the way, thanks for asking), but also to see if there are other like-minded blogs out there and link to them.

Anyway, that search also turned up an article from January of this year, "Stop the code conspiracies" by Martin Kemp. The title is a plea; as the article makes clear, no evidence has yet emerged that Renaissance and Baroque painters encoded secret messages into their works. We have, of course, The Da Vinci Code to thank for the recent uptick in this sort of thing; it also reminds me of Michael Drosnin's 1998 Holy-Writ-as-Seek-n-Find book, The Bible Code. This blog has also linked a couple of times to Robert A diCurcio's Vermeer's Riddle Revealed, which argues that Vermeer was a member of a Masonic guild and thus encoded grail geometry into many of his paintings.

My opinion on all this is that, even if these geometries are compositional elements in the paintings, what of it? What do they signify?

Not much, apparently.

Before going on, I will confess that Mr. diCurcio has obviously spent much more time on this than I will spend in offering friendly criticism of it, and I don't wish to be understood as saying that his efforts are entirely for naught. My real question is this: apart from speculation that is at the very least unprovable and certainly in part unfounded, what does all this reveal to us about the paintings and the man who painted them, apart from his, likely, fanatical attention to their composition?

At his website, diCurcio offers no explanation as to how he became interested in applying grail geometry to Vermeer, but it's fair to say that he doesn't appear to have stumbled onto his subject by chance. Consider, for example, this parenthetical aside in his discussion of The Allegory of Painting as he describes his search for a line that will lead to his finding what he calls the Tilted Triangle:

(If you're wondering how I know to do this right away -- let me say right away -- that I spent weeks doing trial-and-error lines before arriving at STEP 2 as I shall present it -- sparing you from going through all that!)
Well, thank you. But this--and, indeed, the tone of most of his site, is that of someone who, given a theory and the tools for applying it, goes off in search of a likely candidate to try them out on, and who better than someone mysterious like Vermeer? I will grant diCurcio this: his discussion of Lady Standing at a Virginal does indeed appear to have its origin in a peculiar feature of the painting--Cupid's bow appearing to grow out of the Lady's head. But once past a point like that, the theory and the geometry take over; the painting becomes something other than (as opposed to something besides) what it depicts.

Or, it just leads us, pretty much, to what is the pretty standard reading of the painting, as with this passage from diCurcio's discussion of The Allegory of Painting:
The intersection point of the diagonals A--N and M--O is the objective of the whole exercise. It is hard to say exactly what symbolism Vermeer had in mind for the 'X Marks the Spot' , which falls on the open book on the table. Since experts contend that the female model represents Clio, the Muse of History, and since Vermeer painted Clio looking down at that open book, we may speculate that his message is that the artist was making history by painting masterpieces that would bring credit to his native land -- and fame for himself. Note that he is shown at work on the crown of laurel leaves, symbolic of victory and fame. Holland at the time had emerged victorious in a struggle with Spain. This could well have been in Vermeer's mind -- and satisfactory it must have been to him, even though this and many other of his riddles would have to wait for centuries to be revealed. (emphases in the original)
Well, okay. But it seems that, apart from the reference to the Netherlands' defeat of Spain, all that is already available in the painting, without the projection of the lines and triangles and squares and such.

Like most of us, I'd also like to know more about Vermeer's life, and it would be interesting to know if he was a Mason. Interesting, but not vital. DiCurcio's study of the paintings leads him to make the claim that Vermeer was "most likely" a member of the Priory of Sion; as to how likely that is, read for yourself.

None of this is to say that diCurcio is mistaken about Vermeer's reliance on grail geometry. In fact, I'd be surprised to learn that Vermeer hadn't employed something like it as a compositional aid. Nor do I claim that secrets don't remain about Vermeer or other painters that are somehow revealed through their art. Personally, I've wondered about the level of Vermeer's commitment to Catholicism and whether that can be discerned through thinking about his paintings. Questions like that, though, will get answered, if they can be answered, through a combination of reading the historical record and looking at the paintings.


Thursday, June 7, 2007

Caravaggio and the dangers of the life/art nexus

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, 1606

Today I just began reading Peter Robb's 1998 book, M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio. I read enough of the reviews to know that Robb's work's authority isn't exactly unquestioned; and, because of my near-ignorance of Caravaggio, I know to be a bit cautious in assessing it. But that's what bibliographies are for, and this book's is 15 pages long. In the meantime, I'm so far enjoying Robb's almost Raymond Chandler-like prose style; it seems appropriate, given its subject, and it has me wanting to read more than I have time for today.

In any event, as I go along in it I thought I would share from time to time passages from it that to my mind are especially provocative, for good or ill, and solicit commentary from those so inclined. I'll start today with his brief discussion of the mis-dating of the David and Goliath you see here. It had been customary to think of this painting as being from 1610, one of his very last, its poignancy full of the painter's self-knowledge that his life was approaching the end. But, Robb writes,

[t]hat David was painted four years earlier.

The wrong dating of this bleak and powerful painting matters a lot to anyone trying to make sense of M's life. The error's doubly false. It shifts the emotional gravity from M's tragic year of 1606, when he painted this David--in the time of lucid desperation that followed the killing in Rome. And the painting's own iconic power lends a falsely self-aware and tragic finality to his last months, or even years--as if M by 1610 were resigned and knowingly going to meet his death. It's a misreading that spills over into his other last paintings and throws everything awry. The four year switch is false about his art and false about his life at once. It feeds back into the old story. The old myth. (11)
The dating of this painting seems emblematic of how the writing of Caravaggio's story has gone over the years. We don't have much in the way of written records, and much of that--"hardly a word untainted by fear, ignorance, malice or self-interest," Robb says in his "Note to Readers"--is, well, less than completely objective. So there are the paintings. And just as it was once common to read Shakespeare's plays for clues about his life, so also have people done with Caravaggio's work. Robb will be no different in that regard. But he argues that his book is a hypothesis, to be proven or disproven as we learn more.

Let's find out what he has to say, shall we?


Monday, June 4, 2007

Venuses: Three paintings

To compensate for not having posted the usual Two Paintings back on Friday, today I want to post Three--one of which, admittedly, is not of the Baroque era but which seems to belong here.

As always, I invite comments on correspondences and differences between/among the paintings; I also want to encourage the especially-inspired to write me about posting something here and, in so doing, begin to move this blog in the direction of what I've always conceived it of becoming: a multi-voiced site.

Titian, The Venus of Urbino, 1538

Rubens, Venus in Front of Her Mirror, c. 1613/1614

Velázquez, Venus at her Mirror (aka The Rokeby Venus), 1644-1648)

For what it's worth, the curious can find a discussion (continued in the comments) of the Velázquez here.