The Adoration of the Magi, by Jacopo Bassano, 1542, now on exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
One of the true joys and privileges of my job is that I often get to see artwork in either the presence of the artist who created it or accompanied by an expert curator. They're able to share with me information that gives me a whole new understanding of a work. In turn, I get to share what I learn with you.
And in the case of "The Adoration of the Magi" by Jacopo Bassano, I've got lots to tell you.
I recently sat down with MIA curator Patrick Noon on a bench in front of this rich and glorious Venetian painting (which is visiting Minneapolis from Scotland's National Gallery as part of the Titian exhibition) and talked for a full hour about the images within it and the stories behind it. Here's what I found out:
Painted in 1542 by Jacopo Bassano, "The Adoration of the Magi" is also known as "The Adoration of the Kings" and is a depiction of the three kings paying their respects to the newborn babe Jesus Christ. It's a scene that's been caught countless times on canvas, and each telling serves to reveal as much about a particular period in art history as it does about the biblical event.
Gesturing to the left-hand side of the painting, Noon points out how Bassano uses religious symbology found in many works in the mid-16th century.
"The architecture is an allusion to the decline of the pagan world as a result of Christ being born, and the light comes through the architecture, hitting Christ's head - that's God the father making his appearance," explains Noon. "I believe the flowers [in front of the donkey] are columbine, thought to resemble winged birds, representing the Holy Spirit. The ox represents Christianity while the donkey represents Judaism, So the ox is recognizing Christ, while the donkey is not. The tree stump refers to the wood used for the true cross - that's why it's sticking in front."
Noon says while the painting depicts the celebration of the arrival of Christ, the tree stump serves as a foreshadowing of Christ's fate - death on the cross in sacrifice for humanity's sins.
Noon adds that by bringing together the Christ child, the beam of light (representing God) and the columbine (representing the Holy Spirit), Bassano in essence presents us with the Holy Trinity, while Joseph and Mary's status as saints is indicated by the halos surrounding their heads.
Compared to the space and order of the left third of "The Adoration of the Kings," the right hand side feels crowded and jumbled. People press in, trying to get a look at baby Jesus, but are blocked by servants and horses.
Noon explains that this scene is a variation on the theme of the sacra conversazione or "sacred conversation."
"The composition [on the right] is kind of a foil for the space he's giving the other people," says Noon. "Those with more space are the people with privilege. People on the other side of the horse are not privileged, they're being crowded out. Those facing in are those who have access, who are in conversation with the Virgin and Child. 'Sacred conversations' usually take place between the Virgin, Child and saints, and usually in a cloistered setting. It was the Italian painter Giovanni Bellini who first introduced the conversation into a landscape setting, and Bassano's doing the same here."
On the far lower right-hand side of the painting Noon points out damage the piece has suffered, muddling the images of both a dog and a man's face. Noon estimates there was originally two to four more inches of canvas to this work, but that it had to be removed after it was damaged. The reframing of the image serves to crowd in the people on the right even more. Still, considering the work is 468 years old, it's held up incredibly well.
It's the very center of the painting however which surprised and intrigued me most. For if the Holy Family are relegated to the side of the painting, who is this royal figure who gets to stand front and center, wearing the gold and green striped doublet?
I should have known; it's the guy who commissioned the painting.
Jacopo Gisi, Bassano's patron, wanted a painting for his estate - it probably would have hung in some large front entryway. The two youth behind him in red and blue are believed to be portraits of his sons. And notice that it's his gift that has the attention of both the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus.
But get this: Gisi never claimed the painting, and according to Patrick Noon it's even believed that he was refunded his money for the work. Why? No idea (I asked Noon if he thought it might have anything to do with the prominent horse's rear end, or the other derrières front and center in this work - he didn't think so).
Bassano also uses a few tricks and devices in putting together this scene. Many of the details are drawn from previous compositions and studies. The architecture is almost an exact copy - brick for brick - of a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer. According to the painting's didactic, Bassano lived in a provincial town 40 miles outside of Venice, so he kept up with artistic trends by studying prints like Dürer's.
Albrecht Dürer, Sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt, c. 1501-2, woodcut, from Life of the Virgin, 1511, now on view in the "Venice on Paper" exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Also, in the center of the painting, just to the right of the column - do you see the villager gathering sticks off in the distance? Patrick Noon says that figure plays two roles; first, he helps set this "sacred conversation" solidly in a rural landscape - something Venetian artists didn't do until they felt the influence of painters further to the North.
"Domesticizing was the movement of the moment," explains Noon, "to make the saints more approachable and real. It's the movement that eventually leads to the inquisition, the counter reformation and the idea that mannerism is not acceptable in religious painting. Simple people need to be able to understand it; exotica and exaggerated mannerisms are not allowed."
Secondly, Noon adds, the figure draws our eye out and up, providing visual relief from the dense scene below.
"He doesn't want this to be just confined to the front planes - it would be too shallow. The background provides a release, getting you out of the foreground, and provides a sense of scale."
So does every image have some hidden meaning behind it? According to Noon, no. When I asked him about the pink banner that dominates the upper right-hand corner, Noon replied "oh, he's just filling in space and balancing out the crowd below." Sometimes a flag is just a flag, evidently.
Above all, Bassano's "Adoration of the Magi" serves as a testament to the painter's skill. Throughout the scene Bassano revels in what he does best; his clothing, from leather to fine silk, invites you to reach out and caress it (but, for the sake of the museum, please don't). Each animal's coat is clearly identifiable as horse, oxe, donkey and dog. While the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus both have alabaster skin, their companions vary by degree, based on their class and profession.
"It's one of his best works, one of his most spectacular paintings really" says Noon. "You would think it was made for a church, but it wasn't."
You can see "The Adoration of the Magi" by Jacopo Bassano for yourself at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It's on view through May 1 as part of the "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting" exhibition.
Terri Ford is the author of "Why the Ships are She" and "Hams Beneath the Firmament." She was profiled in June of 2004 in the Minneapolis newspaper City Pages as one of five Minnesota poets who might be the state Poet Laureate if Minnesota had one. She currently lives in triumph in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she hopes to change at least the lipstick on the face of Minnesota poetry.
Hovering insectile love. Fretful love, every
two mile check-up love, nerve pill rope-end indecisive highly
diagnostic love. Bracing love. Speedy
love. Medieval leeching what ho troubadour head-
lopping dulcimer lost
ark love. Manifesto
love. Give up the throne
love. Love as truce. Tectonic plate
rearrangement love. Ultimatum bad
dog love. Ziplock
suffocation love. Bottom
feeder plankton love. Trophy preener
improvement love. Pink pluming
hope burning diary teen
reversion love. Blurt
out love. Perpendicular
gridlock love, hall
monitor love, detention love. Bad
press love. Half-Nelson Gladiator
headlock uncle you say it blood-
spitting hard-breathing down
for count head
injury love. Log-rolling jolly
motion river gusto wet and
galvanized love. Sympathetic
Red Cross love. Sinatra, Iglesias, Don Ho, Yo-
Yo, Dvorák, Monk Chant, Yanni love. Not entirely
believable love. Wild
love, burned at the stake love, iron
lung love, bone marrow pacemaker
toupee love. Love in remission,
amputee love, Federal Witness
Protection love, in hiding subtext
Morse Code spy love. Revisionist
love. Open book test
love. Boundless applause in the front
row love. AFrican trumpeting large
flap love. Stealth Bomber
love. Slow me down
love. Keyhole light
bird's egg love. Name it to
your face love, woke
up love, count on it
stouthearted no-leak no-fault
high octane 911 in the daylight unashamed
lon haul fearful but right here intergalactic
- "Valentine" from Where the Ships Are She by Terri Ford. Reprinted with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
Posted at 8:31 AM on February 14, 2011
by Marianne Combs
Filed under: News and reviews
Gang of Four still boasts plenty of roar
The 90-minute concert - in support of the band's first new album in 16 years - busted through any age barriers with both a youthful energy and an intense musicality that still cuts a sharp edge.
- Chris Riemenschneider, Star Tribune
Gang of Four at First Avenue, 2/12/11
Saturday at First Avenue they took the stage dressed like Carnaby Street dandies, and if you didn't know better you'd have thought you were in for a set filled with polite, harmless pop songs. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
- Pat O'Brien, City Pages
What a show! Performers from Lady Gaga to Muse, Mick to Dylan brought their A games. Oh, they gave out some awards, too.
The most memorable Grammy moments are pretty much always the performances, and Sunday night's telecast of the annual awards was stuffed with them.
- Ross Raihala, Pioneer Press
The Grammys: The good, the bad, and the really, really awkward
Perhaps the biggest surprise from this year's Grammy Awards broadcast is that there are actually some honest-to-god surprises to report.
- Andrea Swensson, City Pages
Review: Drakul draws fresh blood from a familiar veinThe audaciousness of Heimbuch's script resides in the playwright's daring attempt to seamlessly blend original material with Stoker's source novel, filling narrative gaps and imbuing further depth to each of the characters. Heimbuch pulls off the task with admirable precision, creating a text that works both as a reimagining and a sequel to Stoker's tale.
- Brad Richason, Examiner.com
Braxton Baker, Luverne Seifert and Sarah Agnew in "Little Eyes."
Photo by Kevin McLaughlin
"Little Eyes" by local playwright Cory Hinkle runs at the Guthrie Theater through February 20. Set in post-9/11 suburbia, the show has drawn mixed reviews for its use of surrealism. Read the following excerpts to get a sense of the range of the reviews; click on the links to read each one in its entirety.
In the monologue that opens playwright Cory Hinkle's Little Eyes, the latest production from Workhaus Collective now playing at the Guthrie's Dowling Studio, an adolescent character named Martin expounds upon an ill-defined but pervasive sense of malaise that settled over suburbia in the wake of 9/11. Economic insecurities and family instabilities at home were now countered by menacing enemies abroad. Though not entirely new ground, the suburban anxiety depicted throughout Little Eyes possesses an urgency that dashes all false reassurances and propels the work toward a gripping conclusion.
Centered on neighboring cul-de-sacs in a suburban community, Little Eyes involves two very different pairs of characters, each privately cringing from closely guarded secrets and deeply repressed suspicions. In one home, married couple Steph and Mark live in a coiled state of emotional frigidness, their fragile coexistence poised to shatter at the nearest round of recriminations. In the other home, Judy spends her evenings fending off questions from her young son Martin about the whereabouts of his recently disappeared father. Though Judy insists that her husband, Martin's father, has been spending his nights at the office, it's obvious from the collection of empty beer bottles and hours of late night television that Judy's explanation has little credibility.
The determined banality of both homes begins to come undone with the arrival of Gary, an eccentric stranger whose amicable demeanor does little to soften the intrusiveness of his inquiries. Claiming to be sent from the mayor's office to document the town "as it is," Gary has no compunction about prying into the most personal details of his subjects' private lives. Before long, Gary's cheerfully callous presumptions come to feel more indicative of his own self-righteous judgments than a supposed public relations campaign.
Cory Hinkle's script probes suburban fears with fine-tuned precision, slowly evolving the tone from a darkly comic first half into an increasingly tense second. Rather than dwelling on surface eccentricities, Hinkle goes deep into the neurotic psychology of unfulfilling monotony, spousal betrayal, and parental worries. While such a theme could be unremittingly bleak, director Jeremy Wilhelm shows adept skill at keeping the prevailing atmosphere buoyed with gallows humor.
....Some might view the increasingly surreal second half as straying too far from reality, but the encountered dangers never feel less than genuine. Whatever our fears of the outside world, Hinkle's work advises us to look inward. As perceived by Little Eyes, the worst of hazards may well reside within our very own homes.
Set in the months following 9/11 in a small American town that's ahead of the curve, in that it's already failing, Hinkle's script has three sets of characters who form a continuum from realistic to absurd. There is a young mother whose husband just up and left, played by Sarah Agnew, who limns her character as believable stunned. Then there are the next-door neighbors, Steph and Mark, played by Maggie Chestovitch and Adam Whisner, who sleep under a painting of Jesus and have looping, nonsensical arguments with each other while Steph pretends to be pregnant by stuffing a pillow under her shirt. Finally, there is a large, loud-talking stranger in a cheap suit and an old camera, played by Luverne Seifert, who claims to represent the mayor and whose photography is bullying and occasionally sinister.
Each of these three groups could exist very comfortable in their own play, but Hinkle thrusts them into each other's, where they bewilder the other characters, and risk bewildering the audience. The play is filled with signs and portents that seem meaningful but go unexplained, and the entire production is spotted with moments of bleak satire. It's a play that refuses to explain itself, and the audience must not merely suss out the subtext, but some of the text. It's very hard to tell whether this is a careful piece that made some commendable, albeit risky, decisions to challenge its audience, or if it's an impulsive piece that relies on freighted hinting and glib suburban surrealism in the place of telling a story. Most of the local critics have so far assumed it is the latter. I'm not so sure.
Hinkle's work, directed by Jeremy Wilhelm, would like to land in a sort of David Lynch surrealism; is it allegory, absurdist, realistic symbolism or just a dream? It's refreshing to find drama that doesn't always strike us on the nose, but Hinkle's play wobbles among these prevailing realities and lacks internal consistency. Who's playing for real? Who's faking it? What's happening?
...In fact, Hinkle's play never achieves cohesion with its metaphors of surveillance, protection, invasion of privacy and anxiety. Its cynicism has no moral purpose; its comedy rarely invites us to invest an emotion in these people. They are objects of ridicule, not sympathy. Hinkle might be close to something with "Little Eyes." Choosing a specific universe -- and he seems to favor the possibilities of a less-literal world -- might help shake out the chaff and find the nugget of his message.
In the program for Little Eyes, playwright Cory Hinkle mentions that one of the inspirations for his latest play was Gregory Crewdson's surrealist portrait of modern American life, Twilight. Perusing the photographs in that collection does show a kindred spirit. In image after image, we find everyday scenes twisted and merged, to the point where yard work is done in the living room or a flooded bottom floor is as much a swimming pool as a reason to call the plumber.
...Though Hinkle's work doesn't entirely hold together, there are terrific moments sprinkled throughout, like the tableaus Crewdson creates. He's aided by a terrific cast that works wonders with a string of difficult characters and an overall vision that pushes everyday absurdity and fears to the limit.
...We all can use a guide through the madness, which Hinkle steadfastly refuses to give any of the characters. By the end, even though much has happened and situations have changed, they are all as lost as in the beginning, just frozen in a fresh pose.
So, have you seen "Little Eyes?" If so, what did you think? Share your review in the comments section.
Jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding took home the "Best New Artist" award at last night's Grammy ceremonies, to many people's dismay. Photo by Johann Sauty
Editor's note: there's been a buzz in the air this morning as music fans deal with the honest-to-goodness surprise of last night's Grammy Awards. MPR's in-house jazz aficionado David Cazares thinks the outrage over Justin Bieber's loss in the "Best New Artist" category is unjustified, and he can tell you why. Here's his commentary:
You could almost hear the collective national gasp Sunday night when a singer most people have never heard of won the award for Best New Artist at the 2011 Grammy Awards.
Esperanza Spalding, a jazz singer and bassist who has performed at the White House, won the nod over 16-year old Canadian phenomenon Justin Bieber, the music industry's superstar hope.
I was thrilled. Spalding, a Portland, Ore. native and Berklee College of Music alum, is among a number of young artists winning critical acclaim for their contemporary interpretations of jazz, America's art form.
But millions of teenage girls - and a lot of adults -- were stunned. Almost immediately, Twitter lit up with posts of "Esperanza Who?" The masses wanted to know how a hero with the perfect voice could lose to someone who performs a "dying" genre. Some defaced her Wikipedia page.
Even some who should know better posed that question. The writer Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, who has a degree in jazz performance from Berklee, told her Twitter followers that Bieber is more fun to listen to than the "mediocre" Spalding, and a better singer.
Valdes-Rodriguez faulted Grammy voters for rewarding a singer who sings like "people who were popular 70 years ago" and decried what she called musical elitism.
"Jazz is the most garrulous, narcissistic form of music on earth," Valdes-Rodriguez wrote. "For the artist, not the listener."
Well, I'm glad she at least clarified that.
Valdes -Rodriguez is wrong. Jazz is not dead. It's alive and kicking, thanks to young performers like Spalding and many others. Despite cuts to the arts nationwide, high school students are still learning and playing this great music.
Jazz also remains popular with international audiences hungry for its authentic, imaginative and improvisational sound. Wed to the majestic blues, it is not a pretentious art.
It is true that jazz is no longer the popular dance music it once was. In perhaps a period of intellectual and artistic hubris, jazz musicians turned inward half a century ago focusing their imagination on complex musical ideas that proved inaccessible to a mass audience. Though such efforts created high art, they were reason for some to worry.
The trumpeter Miles Davis once told pianist Herbie Hancock, that if there were no women in the audience, the music wasn't happening - a reminder to never lose touch with real people.
There were crucial periods when jazz did fall out of favor, when rhythm and blues and rock 'n roll lured young fans. That wasn't lost on the music industry, which is all about the latest thing.
So when I tuned in to the award show, I wasn't at all surprised to see the heavily produced numbers with legions of dancers trying to channel Michael and Janet Jackson, the mind-numbing auto tuning or the over sexualized spectacles. Or Justin Bieber trying to prove he belonged on the same stage as Usher.
That is what the music business has come to as it seeks to capture all those young fans hooked on simple beats, celebrity and hair.
But Grammy voters got it right. It's so cool that the awards can still honor an earthy, inventive and honest sound that remains relevant and timeless. In honoring the afro-wearing Spalding, they directed the nation's attention to a singer and musician with three lively and inventive albums. They honored music over formula.
Yes, plenty of people are upset that the Best New Artist award went to someone they never heard of. She deserved it. And I love her 'fro.
- David Cazares is an editor for MPR News.
So, do you think Spalding's win was justified? Is jazz "the most garrulous, narcissistic form of music on earth?" Share your thoughts in the comments section.(1 Comments)