Midnight Mass, San Marco style

Basilica di San Marco, Venezia, interior

Being in Venice on Christmas Eve, I had to attend Midnight Mass in the Basilica di San Marco. I was attending not as an active parishioner, but out of a deep sense of curiosity: how would one of the largest and most famous cathedrals in the world “do” Midnight Mass? (Catholic roots run deep!)

For those who don’t know: Midnight Mass happens just once a year, on Christmas Eve. It’s a very special occasion to usher in Christmas. Most churches, even the smallest ones, work to heighten that experience by bringing out extra candles, decorating with evergreen, maintaining a beautiful crèche (the tableau of the babe in the manger) and so forth.

We waited for some time in a line that stretched three-quarters of the way through the Piazza di San Marco, but were able to get fairly good seats inside. San Marco is dazzling, known for gold mosaics rather than frescoes like some Italian churches, because the humidity near the water wouldn’t be as kind to fresco.

The mass was delivered in Italian, German, English, and French, each taking a turn while winding through various readings and gospels. While I was listening, I was mostly looking around me at the various artworks commissioned by the Catholic Church: enormous pillars of marble, golden chandeliers encrusted with red jewels, the large baby Jesus resting on poinsettias at the altar (even from this distance, clearly the largest and most beautiful statue of this kind I’d ever seen), the various statues, the pattern in the marble floor…

But the mosaics. Oh, the mosaics. They cover the ceiling as well as the walls, showcasing important figures and moments in the church, glinting down at us in all their beautiful longevity.

I found myself considering, not for the first time, their purpose…the basic idea is this: until just 50 years ago, the Mass was said in Latin, which no one but the most highly educated people, the priests and monks, would understand. No regular churchgoer would be able to follow along; this was as true in the 1960s as it was during the Renaissance. Therefore, the Church has always used visuals to communicate. Picture yourself in 1084, when the Basilica was consecrated in its more-or-less present iteration (although it was a private chapel for Venice’s leader, the Doge, and not for the public at that time). You can’t understand what’s being said, but there is an enormous, glittering Jesus covering the entire ceiling above the altar, reaching out toward you with one hand. You can look around and identify stories from saints’ lives, and you know who is who because of their symbols (San Marco, for example, is often symbolized or accompanied by a lion).

I remember being in Monreale in Palermo, visually devouring their mosaics, the first time I realized that the Church would have had me hook, line, and sinker if I were alive back then. You had me at hello.

Even as a child, I was always looking around the various churches I attended: the niches holding statues; the bas-reliefs on the walls, called stations of the cross, that told the story of Jesus’ crucifixion; the actual crucifix – huge – that hung behind the altar, and each individual church’s emphasized a different aspect of that death (some stoic, some peaceful, some downright gory); and of course, the stained glass windows.

On the few childhood occasions when I attended a Protestant church with another family, I was immediately struck with boredom by their simplicity of decoration. Sure, the kids got to come up and actually gather on the altar (forbidden to Catholics, but sort of cool) but it did not compensate for their plain white walls.

To this day, I wonder if I’d be an artist if I hadn’t grown up Catholic, wanting to fill white walls!

So this is all going through my head during Midnight Mass, in between staring up at the ceiling and walls and following along in Italian and English. A gospel according to John is being read, which equates God with life and light:

Light that shines in the dark: light that darkness could not overcome. A man came, sent by God; his name was John. He came to bear witness, as a witness to introduce the Light so that all might believe through him. He was not the Light but a witness to introduce the Light. For the Light was coming into the world, the true Light that enlightens everyone.

Somewhere in here, someone threw a switch that turned on the interior lights in the Basilica, so that we simultaneously heard the dramatic thump of many banks of lights being awakened, and saw the entire Basilica come to golden life before our eyes. We hadn’t even realized we were in the dark until the lights came on. *Now* we were looking at mosaics! *Now* we were clear-eyed, not peering into dark corners. Everything is illuminated. Everything is full of light.

That was Midnight Mass in the Basilica di San Marco, and that is vintage Catholic Church. Welcome to the greatest performance art ever staged.

Met Faves That Wouldn’t Let Go

Gertrude Stein, by Pablo Picasso, 1905 – 1906

The standouts for me, the ones I just stood in front of, and stood, and stood. Where crowds come, and you wait it out, and then you can be alone, just you and the painting. Then the crowd again, because everyone feels something special in front of these works; they’re famous for a reason.

Is Gertrude Stein my favorite portrait of a woman, done by a man? Maybe. Picasso really understands her. She looks cultured, and wise, and capable of taking on anything (managing artist salons, the War, living as a lesbian). Those hands are simple yet beautiful. The slight Cubism of the eyes also feels just right.

Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, 1660-1662

I stood in front of this painting for a very long time. I felt like this was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. (And of course, the photo doesn’t do it justice). I was in a room with four other Vermeers…in a world where only 34 are known to exist, this felt like heaven. What a privilege.

Met Faves Part 2

The Guitar, Henri Laurens, c. 1919, painted terracotta

I don’t recall seeing a 3D rendering of a Cubist guitar before, but I love this.

Pride Project #4 – Il Sodoma

Il Sodoma, Acrylic on board, 4" x 5"
Il Sodoma, Acrylic on board, 4″ x 5″

Il Sodoma was an Italian Renaissance painter who lived around 1500, and worked with Raphael and Pope Julius. He worked on both the Sistine Chapel and the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican (more commonly known as the Raphael Room). Unfortunately, he was fired from both of those projects, as were many other popular and talented painters of the day, because you know, it was Michelangelo and Raphael. Who can blame Pope Julius for zeroing in on those two?

Il Sodoma worked on many other projects too. At Monte Oliveto, the monks at the abbey where he painted frescoes called him “Il Mattaccio” (the maniac) because he kept a zoo of small animals (my favorite: badgers – who are included in the fresco with their red collars). His clothing leaned toward the flamboyant. He got his name (the Sodomite) from leering speculations about possible relationships with younger men and boys. Sodomy was in fact punishable by death in Rome at that time. Da Vinci and others were charged, but Il Sodoma never was.

Haters, look out, because he took that name away from you and started signing his paintings that way.

365 Days of Art: December 14 – Roger Fry is Born

Roger Fry, by Roger Fry, 1930-1934
Roger Fry, by Roger Fry, 1930-1934

December 14, 1866

Roger Fry, British artist and art critic, is born.

He holds many roles in his lifetime, including writer, painter, member of London’s Bloomsbury group, expert on Italian Old Master paintings, inventor of the term “post-Impressionists”, and Curator of Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

November 28 – Bazille Killed on Battlefield

Frederic Bazille, Portrait of Renoir, 1867
Frederic Bazille, Portrait of Renoir, 1867

November 28, 1870

Impressionist painter Frédéric Bazille dies on the battlefield during the Franco-Prussian War. He is fighting with the Zouaves, a light infantry regiment, and has been frustrated at the lack of action. Today, in a minor battle, his officer is injured and Bazille takes command. He leads an assault on the Prussians, is struck twice while retreating, and dies in the snow. Some of his friends, such as Édouard Manet, don’t learn of his death for three months.

365 Days of Art: November 26 – Whistler v. Ruskin Libel Trial Concludes

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1874
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1874

November 26, 1878

The two-day trial, filed by James Abbott McNeill Whistler against art critic John Ruskin, concludes.

In July 1877, Ruskin writes a heavy-handed and extremely critical review of Whistler’s work in a group show, that causes Whistler to sue him for libel:

For Mr. Whistler’s own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, [the founder of the Grosvenor Gallery] ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of willful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.

Whistler, a sue-happy, litigious, defensive kind of guy, reads the review in the paper and takes Ruskin to court specifically for using the word “imposture”, suggesting that Whistler has willfully deceived the public. He asks for damages of £1,000 plus court costs.

Whistler appears as his own attorney and calls several artists to testify on his behalf, but none do; they are too afraid of damaging their careers. He talks a bit about his inspiration, the idea of creating a mood, the way a symphony or a musical nocturne creates an atmosphere with musical notes. A lover of bon mots, he frequently causes the gallery to break up laughing. When Ruskin’s attorney asks if Whistler’s price of 200 guineas (roughly a year’s salary for a mid-career office worker at the time) is for two days’ work, the amount of time Whistler has testified that it took him to finish the painting. Whistler replies:

No,I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.” This is something very close to what my grad school advisor always says.

The jury returns a verdict in favor of Whistler, but awards him only a farthing (less than a penny) in damages; court costs are to be split.

This is not exactly a victory for either party, and Whistler in fact loses patrons because of the trial.

The painting in question has since taken its place in art history as a precursor to abstraction, action or drip painting, and a revolutionary use of oil paint (by thinning it to behave more like watercolor).

365 Days of Art: November 25 – Namuth Films Pollock; Pollock Spirals Downward

November 25, 1950

Photographer Hans Namuth films Jackson Pollock painting on glass, in order to capture, from below, the particular beauty of paint falling in the “action painting” or Abstract Expressionist style, and the “dance” that Pollock executes around a painting.

This day’s shooting is the culmination of a months-long project by Namuth to portray Pollock and his process; it begins as a still photo shoot, which leads to more, then a short film, then finally shooting from underneath the glass to simultaneously capture the painter and painting.

Pollock has become silently frustrated by the process, especially the many takes for the camera, which is at odd with the spontaneity he thrives on. When Namuth finishes filming, Pollock goes inside the house and pours himself a bourbon, his first drink in two years. That one is followed by several more. His wife, Lee Krasner, has set the table for dinner guests, and Pollock furiously turns the whole thing over onto the floor, with the dogs famously tearing into the meat and gravy while Krasner stoically announces that coffee will be served in the next room.

From this point, Pollock never stops drinking until he kills himself and his girlfriend’s friend in a drunk driving accident six year later.

365 Days of Art: October 10 – Leonardo Shows Three Paintings to Possible Patron, Watts Towers Kill Stress Test

Leonardo, St. John the Baptist, 1513 - 1516
Leonardo, St. John the Baptist, 1513 – 1516

October 10, 1517

Leonardo shows three of his paintings to the Cardinal of Aragon: Portrait of a Florentine Lady commissioned by Giuliano de’ Medici, Young St. John the Baptist, and St. Anne.

Simon Rodia, Watts Towers, 1921-1955
Simon Rodia, Watts Towers, 1921-1955

October 10, 1959

Before the planned demolition of Watts Towers, a DIY art project created over 34 years by one man without the use of machines, bolts or rivets, engineers and architects perform a required structural stress test. Steel cable is attached to each tower and a crane is used to exert force. The towers do not shift at all, let alone fall, and the test eventually ends when the crane breaks down. The towers still stand.

365 Days of Art: September 7 – Apollinaire is Arrested for Theft of Mona Lisa

Guillaume Apollinaire in his friend Picasso's studio, 1910.
Guillaume Apollinaire in his friend Picasso’s studio, 1910.

September 7, 1911

Seventeen days after the Mona Lisa is stolen without anyone noticing, police arrest the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. As a critic and surrealist, he’s suggested in the past that the Louvre should be burned down, and he rooms with someone who’s been stealing antiquities. He’s held for five days, during which time he implicates his friend Picasso, and returns some of his roommate’s stolen artifacts. Based on lack of evidence that he had any knowledge of the crime, he is released.

I wonder to what extent he enjoys this, even sees it as a surealist performance piece. If he were kidding (which I think he is), I bet Picasso laughs his head off.

365 Days of Art: August 29 – The Federal Art Project of the WPA is Created

Works Progress Administration poster from 1936

August 29, 1935

The Federal Art Project (FAP) is established as part of the Works Progress Administration and FDR’s New Deal. Like all WPA programs, its goal is to create jobs. Most of the jobs involved creating public art for government buildings like schools, libraries, airports and the like. One of the great features is that the program doesn’t favor representation over abstraction, but encourages all styles. Before it ends on June 30, 1943 it employs artists such as:

Berenice Abbott
William Baziotes
Romare Bearden
Thomas Hart Benton
Stuart Davis
Willem de Kooning
Arshile Gorky
Adolph Gottlieb
Philip Guston
Marsden Hartley
Vanessa Helder
Lee Krasner
Yasuo Kuniyoshi
Jacob Lawrence
Fernand Léger
John Marin
Louise Nevelson
Jackson Pollock
Ad Reinhardt
Mark Rothko
Augusta Savage
Ben Shahn
John Sloan
Raphael Soyer
Mark Tobey
Grant Wood

This isn’t a complete list, just some of the heavy hitters. That’s a Who’s Who of 20th Century Art, for sure.

365 Days of Art: August 28 – Edward Burne-Jones is Born

Edward Burne-Jones, The Beguiling of Merlin, 1872-1877

August 28, 1833

Edward Burne-Jones, a painter and designer with the Pre-Raphaelite Movement and the Arts and Crafts Movement, is born. He works in many media, including glass and tile, rendering exquisite detail. In his words:

I mean by a picture a beautiful, romantic dream of something that never was, never will be – in a light better than any light that ever shone – in a land no one can define or remember, only desire – and the forms divinely beautiful…

365 Days of Art: August 27 – Michelangelo Takes 1st Commission, Krakatoa Colors Sky for The Scream, and Guernica is Displayed for 1st Time in US

Another big day in the history of art!

Michelangelo, Pieta, 1498

August 27, 1498

At age 25, Michelangelo receives his first big commission: a statue of Mary and Jesus for a cardinal. He selects the Carrera marble himself from the quarry and carves the statue from that single piece of stone. The 450 ducats he’s paid make him one of the best-paid artists of his time. The Pietá, as the statue is known, is on display at the Vatican, and is my favorite Michelangelo work.

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1883

Aug 27, 1883

Krakatoa, an Indonesian volcano, erupts, pouring ash and debris into the atmosphere to such an extent that it wildly colors the sky around the world for months–including the sky painted by Edvard Munch in The Scream. Although this isn’t realized until the 2000s, newspaper accounts of the day are clear about the stunning evening skies in late 1883 and early 1884, even in Norway, where Munch works. Art history has always read the deeply colored and banded sky in that painting as an Expressionistic or Fauvist touch, but history says that Munch is painting what he sees.

Guernica, by Pablo Picasso, 1937
August 27, 1939

The San Francisco Museum of Art (later SFMOMA) displays Picasso’s anti-war painting, Guernica, for the first time publicly in the United States. The exhibition is eerily relevant as tensions have been mounting in Europe, and World War II will officially begin in less than a week. To the museum’s credit, the exhibition is free.

365 Days of Art: August 17 – Larry Rivers is Born

Larry Rivers, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1953

August 17, 1923

Painter Larry Rivers is born.

He’s nothing if not colorful. He hangs out at the famous Cedar bar with the Abstract Expressionists. His love life is unconventional and prolific: he has an affair with Frank O’Hara, and marries several times. He raises his ex-wife’s sons and lives with his former mother-in-law, who is his favorite model. He designs sets and costumes for Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. He appears with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in an independent film. He’s nearly executed on suspicion of being a mercenary in Nigeria, though he’s simply making a travel documentary. He wins $32,000 in a TV quiz show. One of his personal claims to fame is that Jackson Pollock “once tried to run down one of my sculptures that was standing in a friend’s driveway in East Hampton”.

He’s called the Godfather of Pop Art, for bringing a sense of humor to art that’s in direct contradiction to the heaviness of the Abstract Expressionists. As he says about one of his more famous works, Washington Crossing the Delaware, and this reminds me of something Andy Warhol might say regarding soup cans:

I wanted to take something corny and bring it back to life”.