A non-passive madonna

I love art galleries – wandering in the muted light and stillness, amazed by the liveliness or colour or beauty of an artist’s imagination.

My favourite places are the small gems – the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, the Frick in NY, or the glory of the Frank Lloyd Wright room at the Met. Or places like the Boston gallery, where the building sings of creativity as much as the artworks.

In the less popular rooms of many galleries are the medieval religious works, with static haloed figures or obscenely ornate crucifixes.

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But sometimes I stand in wonder in front of the Christmas nativity scenes – Mary holding her baby,  dressed in 14th century robes surrounded by saints or gazing with love at her child who will be the Saviour of the world.

The painting by Venetian artist Vivarini shows us such a Mary, gazing down with a background of sumptuous gold (real gold!)

 

 

And Lorenzetti shows us an enigmatic Mary locking us with her eyes. She is remotely beautiful, and yet seems protective of her baby boy.IMG_0858

Mary often looks passive and serious, but the Bible tells us she ‘pondered all these things in her heart’ (Luke 2:19) – the angel’s visit, the birth, the shepherds, the star.

Of course she did! A teenage girl whose life has been turned upside down by the visitation of an angel. And she is thoughtful because somehow she understands both the love and sorrow that Jesus will bring her.

 

Foreshadowed in the gifts of the wise men is Jesus’ kingship (gold) but also his suffering and death (the offering spice of frankincense and the burial perfume of myrhh)

I love the painting by Philippe de Champaigne (though it’s not medieval).

IMG_0853It shows the visit of Elizabeth to her younger cousin, Mary. They are both wrapped in the happiness of pregnancy as they are also wrapped in their capes. They embrace in a moment of feminine mutual support. The men (presumably their husbands) are in the background, out of the main action.

And I love that Mary is tall and proud, and her clothes are bold red and blue.

Mary is not a passive pushover. Her song in Luke Chapter 1 (still sung in many traditional churches as the Magnificat) is a bold declaration that God’s rule will bring justice for the poor and hungry, and salvation for his people.

So this Christmas, I ponder again like Mary, the mystery of a virgin birth, a humble teenage girl and a song of justice and freedom that rings true today just as it did in Palestine over 2,000 years ago.

Have a happy and holy and just Christmas.

And here is Mary’s song:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favour on his humble servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed,
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear Him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

 

 

Archibald musings

Last time I was in Sydney, the Archibald Portrait Prize exhibition was on. It’s a hugely popular show because of the celebrity subjects as much as the art itself. The critics choose a prize but so do the workers in the packing room and the general public also choose their favourite.

Two paintings of women won prizes this year: the packers chose a portrait of a well known female TV journalist as their favourite, and the critics also chose a painting of a woman.

What is about a portrait that continues to draw us even when selfies and Instagram snaps seem to replace the need for paint. The answer of course is that art is exploring more than outward show – it is looking inside and captures a person’s heart, maybe in a way that does not flatter! And probably in a way that surprises the sitter. One young painter described it in her notes as,  ‘Painting enables me to [explore] the external, diffused intimately through my internal self, into paint.’

I was struck this year by the number of women artists (just shy of 50%) as well as subjects. Some of their works were small, easy to miss, intimate self portraits trying to capture the internal self in the outward appearance.

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There was a painting of a woman 102 years old that struck me. Andrew Lloyd Greensmith’s portrait of Eileen Kramer was beautiful. The artist says of his subject, ‘Eileen embodies beauty as that intangible thing which cannot be fixed on the surface nor defeated by the wear and tear of age.’

I was glad to be reminded in all these portraits that beauty is not confined to youthful stereotypes and the unobtrusive work sings just as much as the bold.

 

 

Away from the buzz of the Archibald in the peace of the main galleries was a Grace Cossington-Smith self-portrait. She looks unassuming – spinsterish is probably how she might have been described in the 30s when she was painting. She was indeed single and stayed living at the family home all her life, free to paint because her father believed in her talent.

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Cossington-Smith was in fact fiercely ambitious as well as talented and had the good fortune to be painting between the wars when women were given space to shine. She captured suburban scenes outside her bedroom window and grand spaces like the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. She is recognised now as a leading Australian artist who pioneered modernism but during her lifetime was largely unrecognised.

 

 

 

Other women saw their talent subsumed by their lovers or were allowed to be muses – inspiring talent in men – rather than showing off their own gifts. Alongside the Cossington-Smith self-portrait is one by Stella Bowen, partner of Ford Maddox Ford. Her work bought inconsistent success, overshadowed perhaps by the crowd of famous people in her circle.

Only eight women have won the Archibald Prize in its 96-year history.

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A collective of women artists in the US, called Guerilla Girls, caustically comment on this inequality in their work, The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist. The ‘advantages’ include working without the pressure of success and having an escape from the art world in your 4 free-lance jobs. Ouch!

Are things changing? I am hopeful that as in all fields of endeavour, women are no longer just the muse, or the assistant to genius, but the creators, the recognised experts and the prize winners.

 

 

And of course, that is as it should be – God’s creativity knows no bounds of gender.