Titian at the Winter Sales

Went down to London to check out the sales today. Lots of good stuff at Christie’s — kind of sad to see the Rutland Poussin Ordination up for sale (I hope an accessible collection secures it for the public), but it was in fine company: a terrific El Greco St. Francis estimated at what seemed to me a steal (£600,000 – £800,000; I’d rather own it than the Poussin). A very fine, and acutely touching, 16th-century Pentecost from Bruges, with beautifully individualised apostles reacting to the divine irruption calling them. And lots more, plus a killer prints section with high quality editions of Goya’s Disasters of War and Proverbs, as well as a great selection of first-rate Dürers and Rembrandts.

Anyway, the main reason I went down, was the exhibition over at Sotheby’s of the Kisters Sacra Conversazione by Titian, which goes on sale in New York later this month and will be on display in London through Wednesday. Painted 1560s, it is largely a studio production, probably laid out by the master’s faithful but pedantic assistant Girolamo Dente — the weak drawing of St. Luke at the left and the rote characterisation of St. Catherine’s head betray his hand, methinks. But it also shows plenty of the master’s work and seems to me really instructive in terms of understanding how he supervised such studio pictures.

Inspecting it closely, it appeared to me that he retouched fairly extensively the figure of the Madonna, as well as the faces of the Child and Catherine, at an advanced stage of the production. The rendering of the flesh in these parts is richer, warmer and subtler, with hints of pink enlivening the cheek of the female saint and the mother of God taking on a glowing aspect, smoldering along the contours. There is, furthermore, a real difference in quality between the rendering of the saints’ garments and those of the Madonna. They are all painted according to the same principles — Titian’s — but in the former the effect is comparatively superficial, highlights and shadows never quite coalescing, while the latter in the reds has the depth of tone so characteristic of Titian’s hand, where colouring attains its own logic, beyond form.

And the sky is glorious. Not just because of the thick strokes of yellowish white lining the dawn clouds, or the pink tinge lent to them in certain places, but also the deeper seep of purple glazing that gives it is depth, suggesting receding night and leaving a certain dampness in the air that suffuses the wet landscape below, suggested in mauve drybrushed in spiky, almost-turqoise. This is characteristic of Titian’s modus operandi in this kind of production, as I understand it: he leaves most of the figurework to his assistants, retouches the painting towards the end, adding the landscape in an inspired flurry. It is inspiring to follow.

Picks of the Week

“In fact, we believe it is the most closed societies that have the most reform potential. The Chinese case is quite interesting. Aspects of the Chinese government, Chinese Public Security Service, appear to be terrified of free speech, and while one might say that means something awful is happening in the country, I actually think that is a very optimistic sign, because it means that speech can still cause reform and that the power structure is still inherently political, as opposed to fiscal. So journalism and writing are capable of achieving change, and that is why Chinese authorities are so scared of it. Whereas in the United States to a large degree, and in other Western countries, the basic elements of society have been so heavily fiscalized through contractual obligations that political change doesn’t seem to result in economic change, which in other words means that political change doesn’t result in change.”

— Julian Assange

The picks of the week from around the web.

  • Wikileaks. Obviously the big story of the week, I don’t think the leaking of US diplomatic cables and the overarching issues it raises have been served all that well in the analysis I’ve read so far. And I’m really unimpressed with the critical reactions I’ve read (this, by the otherwise solid Anne Knudsen at the Danish weekly, Weekendavisen, is disingenous and reductive). Wikileaks’ smart frontman Julian Assange’s own statements have also been somewhat dubious, especially in this self-important and -serving Q&A session with largely fawning Guardian readers, though his interview with Time Magazine is much better. This New Yorker piece from the time of the Iraq leaks is somewhat helpful, but like most of the media focuses too much on the man and too little on his work. The best general political analysis I’ve seen so far is Ascherson’s for The Guardian.
  • In other news, I found this impassioned critique of the Obama administration by Frank Rich both compelling and, naturally, depressing.
  • Doonesbury at 40

    I just wanted to take the time slight belatedly to acknowledge the 40th anniversary of Garry Trudeau’s now classic newspaper strip. I don’t see any need to list Trudeau’s accomplishments (Gary Willis provides a fine overview at the NYRB), nor to add much to the accolades that it has received, but merely wanted to emphasise how unique a realisation of the potential of comics Doonesbury really is.

    Trudeau’s fairly early choice to have his characters age in real time, à la Frank King’s surprisingly congenial Gasoline Alley, has turned it into a generational narrative of mounting historic proportions — read as a whole, it offers a portrait of an American generation, as well as, increasingly, their children (Trudeau seems to understand his generation’s children better than most baby boomers who have tried something similar). It offers a greater realism of character than just about anything that has ever appeared on the comics page, while remaining acutely, and hilariously, satirical and never letting go of comics’ historically honed faculty for archetypical iconography and flights of fancy. Plus — as Trudeau notes in this smart interview — it has used the daily accrual to build the presence of its characters and satirical intentionality in ways that are nigh-impossible in just about any other form.

    Yes, the drawing has remained staid, the visual characterisation repetitive, but the intelligence of the writing brings it alive to an extent where the cartooning appears sufficiently neutral in character to work as a kind of journalistic vernacular that lends it a natural authority and blends it with its immediate environment.

    And it is still going strong. This past decade has seen some of the most powerful sequences and compellingly nuanced character moments yet. Maybe not as funny as it used to be — and where the hell is our Obama icon? — but thoughtful and resonant. More than anyone could ask for such a venerable strip. A great American comic.

    Above: the Doonesbury strip for 21 April 2004. Read Doonesbury here.

    Comics of the Decade: Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis

    This is part of a Metabunker series celebrating a great decade in comics with Rackham by reprinting select reviews of the decades’ best comics from the Rackham archive, along with a number of new pieces.

    By Julie Paludan-Müller

    Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is one of the most touching pieces of exile literature in recent memory, and a comic — as the French newspaper Libération has put it — so convincing that even the harshest sceptics of the genre cannot help but be seduced. It is a four-volume autobiography, telling the story of Satrapi’s childhood in Iran and, later, her life as a teenager and immigrant in Europe. In the fourth and final volume, she describes her tentative attempt to return to Islamic Iran in the beginning of the 90s.

    Picks of the Week

    “You’ve heard of Too Big to Fail — the foreclosure crisis is Too Big for Fraud. Think of the Bernie Madoff scam, only replicated tens of thousands of times over, infecting every corner of the financial universe. The underlying crime is so pervasive, we simply can’t admit to it — and so we are working feverishly to rubber-stamp the problem away, in sordid little backrooms in cities like Jacksonville, behind doors that shouldn’t be, but often are, closed.”

    — Matt Taibbi

  • Matt Taibbi on the foreclosure crisis. Reporting for Rolling Stone from Florida, Taibbi investigates the system’s way of dealing with a problem that has grown too large to acknowledge.
  • John Cassidy asks “What Good Is Wall Street?” Fairly lucid and readable New Yorker-survey of the services banks provide the international community and why large parts of their actitivites today are entirely superfluous and put the same community at risk.
  • Slavoj Žižek reviews Richard McGregor’s The Party, about China’s Communist Party, and relays not only some of McGregor’s fascinating insights into how China’s political system works, but also his own always idiosyncratic but provocative perspective: “China is barely under control. It threatens to explode.”
  • Good comics pieces. Dan Nadel writes on Jack Kirby in the 70s for Vice Magazine and provides as good a short introduction to the King’s work as I’ve seen in a while, while Matt Seneca continues his ongoing reevaluation of the work of Jim Steranko in conversation with Sean Witzke.
  • Comics of the Decade: Sammy Harkham et. al., Kramers Ergot 4

    This is part of a Metabunker series celebrating a great decade in comics with Rackham by reprinting select reviews of the decades’ best comics from the Rackham archive, along with a number of new pieces.

    Kramers Ergot #4, edited by the cartoonist Sammy Harkham, is an artistic and stylistic statement of a kind rarely seen in comics. Expansive of format, impressive in its editorial consistency and lavish in production, it presents a selection which forces one to consider — and perhaps revise — one’s formal and aesthetic conception of comics.

    In recent years, North America has seen the emergence of a benevolent laissez-faire attitude to creating comics, originating primarily in the continent’s extraordinarily lively minicomics scene. Decades after other visual arts, comics are finally mounting a concerted challenge to the reigning, self-imposed dogma of craft as an end in itself, with many young cartoonists prioritising instead a kind of ‘pure’, personal expression.

    Picks of the Week


    The picks of the week from around the web.

  • Rowan Williams and Terry Eagleton on “The New Atheism”. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the distinguished cultural critic met on Friday night here in Cambridge to discuss the resurgent, anti-religious strand of atheism (Dawkins, Hitchins, Harris, Dennet, etc.) so prevalent these days. Unsurprisingly it was an erudite, but also a lucid discussion, which can be listened to in its entirety here.
  • ‘Mindless Ones’ on Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz’ Big Numbers and Eddie Campbell’s How to Be an Artist. Excellent essay on how Moore’s great fractal torso of a work became the underpinning of Campbell’s disillusioned, fractured dissertation on the emergence and fall of the graphic novel.
  • Blaise Larmée on abstraction in comics. Interesting essay on how we look at and read comics. Good discussion in comments too.
  • Charlest Hatfield on Alternative Comics. The week before last, I mentioned that we had a roundtable on Hooded Utilitarian devoted to said book. Hatfield provided a number of thoughtful responses, both at HU and at his own site.