Light, Life, Segantini and other things

So after two years of being very careful and taking all precautions we got contaminated by The Virus. We were unwell for a week, a bit of fever, a cough, headache, discomfort. We were vaccinated, and if we wouldn’t have been we would probably be dead. This is difficult to verify. A scientific statement should be open to verification. For that we would have to de-vaccinate ourselves first, then contract the virus again and see if we would actually die. In that case I wouldn’t be writing this page. However, with Popper we invert verification, instead we go for falsification. And as long as my statement isn’t falsified it holds true. Still, the hurdle of de-vaccination remains. If we do perform falsification we would be alive in the end. But in the end we shall die.

Like many I spent some of my free time scouring the internet for information on pandemics. The bubonic plague that decimated the population in the middle and earlier ages. The scorpion flu. Scorpion flu? Well actually it was called the Spanish flu, but had nothing to do with Spain. Corona was called the Chinese virus by Trump. New variants were referred to as the British variant, the Indian variant, the Brazilian variant. When we realized that this regional naming led to discrimination (in particular of Chinese people) we started naming variants by the Greek alfabet. In retrospect therefore the Spanish flue will henceforth be known as the scorpion flue (as in zodiac). Sorry, all you scorpions.

The representation of pandemics in art is impressive. I would suggest this one to start with and then perhaps this one. In the Middle Ages theories about pandemics were quite unscientific. Science was not very advanced yet and therefore plagues were considered some form of divine intervention, punishment that is. Even today there is a percentage of the population who reject science and believe in all sorts of alternative nonsense. I really have no time for that. Some people are just scared of the vaccine, they think something terrible may happen if they get the jab. It may indeed, and a meteor can fall on your head as well.

Enough of all this. As I am writing this text the Tropic of Capricorn is on its closest to the sun and from here onward the earth will go north till it reaches Cancer. At my location it means today is the shortest day of the year, when darkness predominates, and slowly the days will get longer. That moment has been of great importance to humanity, giving rise to festivities like festivus[1]The holiday, as portrayed in the Seinfeld episode, includes practices such as the “Airing of Grievances”, which occurs during the Festivus meal and in which each person … Continue reading and yule. Followers of Jezus have placed his birth around this time (though a couple of days late), which has led to great rejoicing.

Sigmund, Volskrant 20-12-21, my translation

Around this time many people say “merry christmas and a happy new year” and they indulge in extravaganza like eating things and drinking liquids that we don’t eat and drink normally. Some people try to sing songs, others go to temple, or both.

On this occasion I want to speak about the big bangs in painting and my affection for certain works of art. This to compensate for the flawed lesson in forensic pathology in painting I taught last time. In the early years of the millennium I saw a program on TV by Howard Goodall on “the big bangs of music”[2]Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs was originally transmitted on Channel 4 in the UK in the Autumn of 2000. Five 50-minute programmes cover what Howard feels are the five most important, transforming, … Continue reading. Goodall is better known as the Black Adder composer but his history of revolutions in “western” music is very suitable for classical music buffs. One of his great revolutions is the writing of music. My colleague of “Early Music” remarked “hm, that revolution took from the 9th to the 15th century”. According to my teacher the late Willem Wertheim a revolution is an evolution that takes place in a very short time…

Still, since I also take great interest in the visual arts I was wondering if there existed some comparable study on painting. En passant I started thinking about the different nature of Musicology and Art history. Why is European Music History called Musicology, and why is there no Ethnic Art History? Give me my gun, it’s teeming with wolves around here…

So here goes my own[3]I haven’t dreamt up this theory by myself. As a youngster my art teacher in secondary school invited a retired professor of art history to give a talk with slideshow. I don’t remember his … Continue reading theory of “revolutions” in European painting: (1) oil painting, Van Eyck (2) perspective, Brunelleschi (3) chiaroscuro, Caravaggio (4) daylight, Monet (5) mind, Kandinsky (6) abstract, Mondrian.

Angeles cantores detalle
Translucency, how light makes texture, the optical revolution of Van Eyck

The technology of oil painting became predominant in the fourteenth century. The Van Eyck brothers, their teacher Robert Campin, their followers Van der Weijden and many others perfected and popularized it. The translucency of oil enabled them to create a verisimilitude not possible with earlier technologies, like tempera and fresco. Texture of cloth became almost tangible, dynamic range increased to a level where depth seems to protrude from the flat surface, skin tones and shadows brought humans to life. But there’s more, and for that we have to study the backgrounds, where landscapes and towns recede into a blurred blueish distance.

Filippo Brunelleschi’s Perspective Technique. © 2006, SCALA, Florence / ART RESOURCE, N.Y.

Around the same time visual artists in Italy tackled another problem of verisimilitude, that of linear perspective. It is often credited to the architect Brunelleschi, and painters like Masaccio, Ucello and Piero della Francesca applied it in painting. When Petrus Christus, student of Van Eyck, brought oil painting to Italy, where Antonello da Messina took it to Giovanni Bellini in Venice, verisimilitude reached a new level. Bellini had started out with tempera but he immediately recognized the new possibilities of oil. This started the generations of perfect Italian painters: Titian, Giorgione, Da Vinci, Raphael, Tintoretto, Veronese to name some of the best known guys in the band. The most common form of perspective is one point linear perspective in which lines converge in a single point at the horizon but soon many other aspects of perspective came into use, like the foreshortening of body parts. This natural appearance of depth in living beings is quite distinct from the flatness found in earlier painting.

Judith peering into the dark after slaying Holofernes

The high renaissance painters were so perfect that nothing more perfect seemed possible. Enters Caravaggio, the madman who is said to have destroyed painting and then reinvented it. He would paint in black, with a single source of light that would often even be invisible, bringing out the main subject. I have chosen here an example by Artemisia Gentileschi who was greatly influenced by Caravaggio. This way of painting, known as chiaroscuro (light-dark) was used by several generations of Baroque painters including De la Tour and Rembrandt. So dramatic! By the way, what we cannot always see in reproductions is that the black in this genre is not dead, there’s a lot happening there. I did photography of music, dance and theater and this brings out the nature of the problem. Often the spots (or flash) will highlight the performers and the limited dynamic range of photography will turn the decor entirely black. That’s really not quite what we want.

Anyway, this spotlight in the dark style of painting gave rise to an extraordinary power of expression. My preferred example is Rembrandts Jeremiah lamenting the destruction… It is the ultimate karuna rasa in art. And I go with Bhavabhuti that karuna is the ultimate rasa. And so, after painting was perfected by the Venetians Bellini and Titian 😃 it’s next phase was the perfection of expression by Caravaggio and Rembrandt. After that painting was pretty dull till the second half of the 19th century. Photography and science in general threw a completely new light on verisimilitude. Suddenly painters understood that they shouldn’t be painting things but the light that was being reflected by them. They went out to paint on the spot which was helped by the invention of the paint tube. Theories on the composition of light gave a new dimension to shadow, particularly with the pointillists’ branch of impressionism.

Seurat, the art of coloured shadows

The colored shadows were a hallmark of this renewed effort to bring life to light. It vibrates, it is jolly, it delights. It is very nice, I should say. Monet, Sisley, Morisot, Cézanne, Seurat, Van Gogh. With the latter something else was happening, he was a bit more than nice. Nice really isn’t very nice. Like his fellow countryman Rembrandt Van Gogh wanted expression. And briefly after him the whole idea of nice paintings full of light was completely abandoned and painters started painting how their mind felt about things. Blue horses, as we say. Expressionists, Klimt, Kandinsky, Klee, Kirchner, Munch. And not long after that came a new twist, away with images from visual reality and just paint something completely imagined from the mind, abstract we call it. Often associated with Mondrian and the Stijl it is most problematic as it has existed from earliest times. Besides early cave paintings of galloping bulls and little men chasing them all sorts of symbols, decorations and meaningless graphics have appeared and reappeared at all times in history.

Of course this whole story of big bangs in painting is as lame as Goodall’s version of western art music. Take Turner for instance. He did impressionism, expressionism and abstract art more than a century before those things were invented. And Vermeer’s view of Delft handles the dynamic rendering of light no less than any impressionist.

It has always amazed me how ridiculous is the valuation of paintings. A single piece of cloth of approximately a square meters with some colours on it for one to four hundred million euros. The case of Van Gogh is particularly sour, in his lifetime some of his paintings were used as a roof for the chicken run. The Van Gogh industry is immense. For me his contemporary Giovanni Segantini is no less, though his fame and value would be a fraction. Superficially Segantini could be an impressionist, but his paintings are very rich in symbolism and reflection. His superb trilogy “life, nature and death” in the Segantini museum in Saint Moritz is stunning. For one thing because the paintings are huge, but also the mood they evoke is silencing. And yet they are also lovely. Lovely is better than nice, much better. In several paintings Segantini refers to the tradition of madonna col bambino, in particular with his two versions of Le Due Madri (the two mothers, Chur/Milan). Segantini’s work is deeply connected to the region where he lived, the land, the people, the customs, the mood. He captured the light and life of Engiadina. His assistent was Giovanni Giacometti, who continued Segantini’s work. Giovanni Giacometti’s sons Bruno, Alberto and Diego as well as his cousin Augusto were all wonderful artists. Alberto in particular, he became one of the leading sculptors of the 19th century.

My lightning history of European painting was just a shortcut to Segantini, whose work is very suitable for these times of pandemic, darkness, death and the return of light and life. I personally took pictures of the paintings displayed in my slideshow and larded the whole thing with some other pictures I took.


1 The holiday, as portrayed in the Seinfeld episode, includes practices such as the “Airing of Grievances”, which occurs during the Festivus meal and in which each person tells everyone else all the ways they have disappointed them over the past year. After the meal (typically not an extravagant one), the “Feats of Strength” are performed, involving wrestling the head of the household to the floor, with the holiday ending only if the head of the household is pinned.
2 Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs was originally transmitted on Channel 4 in the UK in the Autumn of 2000. Five 50-minute programmes cover what Howard feels are the five most important, transforming, moments in Western music history. It was also published as a book
3 I haven’t dreamt up this theory by myself. As a youngster my art teacher in secondary school invited a retired professor of art history to give a talk with slideshow. I don’t remember his name, but his lecture had a great impact on me and I believe I have reproduced it here reasonably well. Surely in the postmodern era scholars in the field would abhor of anything so sweeping, but it’s great fun