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Ballan Week 4: Fantasy

Paolo Uccello
1397-1474, Italy
The Battle of San Romano, 1450s?
Tempera on Panel
182 x 320 cm
National gallery London
Uccello bridged late Gothic (Byzantine) and early Renaissance painting and was an eager devotee of the newly emerging study of perspective. He was the son of a barber-surgeon and showed sufficient early talent to be apprenticed to Lorenzo Ghiberti, designer of the Baptistery doors of The Duomo (cathedral) in Florence. In Renaissance Italy artists were seen as tradesmen and thus took apprentices. Uccello spent most of his working life in Florence extending and enhancing the use of perspective in painting following its invention (re-invention) by Brunelleschi. His early work is considered merely decorative but by the time he commenced work on the three panels of the Battle of San Romano he was well regarded as a pioneer of pictorial construction using perspective. 
This panel in the National Gallery London is one of three which originally hung in the Medici apartments in Florence. The other two are in Florence and Paris. The panels celebrate a Florentine victory over the Sienese in 1432 but rather than creating military propaganda, Uccello has painted a fantasy scene with a hedge of roses and real gold and silver adorning the combatants’ battle outfits. The criss-cross of lances, swirling pennants and the ballet of fighting figures make this a very sugar-coated battle. There are few casualties visible. Broken spears and the body of a dead soldier carefully foreshortened lying on the pavement take us into the picture pioneering perspective techniques still used today. The tiny out of proportion figures at the back of the picture further help us visualise the scene as having depth. The landscape stretching away and up to the right provides an obvious vanishing point and takes us right to the back of the picture. Uccello has made a painting which is timeless decoration as well as great art: a war picture without the uncomfortableness of gore and slaughter.


Sandro Botticelli
1445? - 1510, Italy
The Birth of Venus, 1480-90?
Tempera on Canvas
176 x 279 cm
Uffizi Gallery Florence
Botticelli created pictures whose meanings remain a mystery even today. His work is strongly allegorical with meaning cleverly confused and hidden away by overt symbolism. Initially apprenticed to a Goldsmith, Botticelli entered the studio of the Florentine master Fra Filippo Lippi to become a painter and by 1470 worked from his own studio in Florence. A master of the middle Renaissance Botticelli made highly decorative pictures of secular and religious scenes heavily imbued with hidden meaning and messages. This attracted the attention of the ruling Medici family in Florence who gave him many commissions including “The Birth of Venus”. Later Pope Sixtus (IV) called him to Rome to help complete the Sistine Chapel wall frescos. 
The Roman Goddess Venus (Gk. equivalent Aphrodite) is blown ashore by Zephyr and Aura, gentle winds representing the spirit world. On landing she will be covered with a star-decorated floral cloak by a fair nymph representing the “Hours” or the material world of seasons and time. Venus’ landing manifests the first appearance of beauty on earth with the union of the spirit and the material. Roses drift through the air, waves gently ripple and beautiful Venus will come ashore to a carpet of flowers.  Roses are said to have bloomed for the first time when Venus appeared. There are many variations in the interpretation of this picture.

Jacopo Tintoretto
1518-1594, Italy
Christ at the Sea of Galilee, 1575-80,
Oil on canvas
117 x 169 cm
National Gallery of Art Washington
Tintoretto departed from the orderly painterly methods of most of his late Renaissance compatriots. His finish is looser, his shadows darker his movements grander. Terrific energy moves through his bold canvasses. He chose the grandest of themes: making the Milky Way, walking on water, the creation. He spent much of his working life in Venice where many of his pictures are to be found.
Here Tintoretto surrounds his figures with the violence and drama of nature. Christ calls to the reluctant Peter to have trust and to walk across the water towards him. Peter is understandably nervous; the wind has bent the mast of the ship and wild, windswept seas rise up around the boat. Dark clouds threaten more of the same. Tintoretto heightens the story of Peter’s ultimate walk toward Jesus by putting the elements violently in opposition and thus the final overcoming of fear is a triumph for the faith of all. The landscape is pure fantasy.

Martin Heade
1819-1904, America
Cattleya Orchid and Three Brazilian Hummingbirds, 1871
Oil on Wood
35 x 46 cm
National Gallery of Art Washington
Martin Heade was born in Rural Pennsylvania and took his only art lessons from local painters as a youth. He travelled extensively, living in England, the Continent mainly Rome, Brazil, Chicago, St Louis and Boston before finally settling in New York where he joined the Hudson River School. Heade painted landscapes dwelling on the broad sweep and atmospheric effects. It was in South America that he painted the mysterious picture illustrated here. The Brazil pictures failed to elicit much interest and he ended his career painting the landscapes for which he is mostly known today. Little is known of this wandering artist as he left little documentation of his painting, or personal life. He received little recognition during his lifetime though his work is much appreciated today as a valued member of The Hudson River painters.
Here in a misty vale Heade shows a fantasy which nature can weave with colour and water. Centrepiece is the orchid- ostensibly the painting’s subject- hummingbirds hover and perch leading our eye down and to the right. We get back into the picture by the light spot which is the sun vainly trying to dispel the mist. The orchid is unnaturally large and its subdued, damp, lichen-covered surroundings serve to heighten its surreal appearance. It floats in the landscape, dominating it. The birds have a nest so this scene is not fleeting but will regenerate and reappear. Nature, left undisturbed, is mysterious and cyclic.

Robert Delaunay
1885-1941, France
Eiffel Tower, 1911
Oil on canvas
202 x 138 cm
Guggenheim Museum, New York
Delaunay was the first French painter to paint purely abstract works. He trained as an artist and began his artistic life as a set designer for theatre. Early influences included the Impressionists, Post-impressionists and Cezanne. His city pictures show the energy and rhythm of city life in colour and shape contrasts. Viewpoints, depth, colour and tone all change within canvasses leading to pictures which move and shimmer as planes shift.
Delaunay shows us a fragmented Eiffel Tower viewed from different viewpoints simultaneously. The tower climbs through city tenements dominating the landscape but contiguous with it. Space and atmosphere simultaneously fill the large space and surrounding buildings cloak the tower. Here is a salute to modern life climbing out of what has gone before but heavily influenced by the Gothic style of building. This is a fantasy Cubist picture but subject matter remains easily accessible. 

Joan Miro
1893-1983, Spain
Landscape (The Hare), 1927
Oil on canvas
130 x 195
Guggenheim Museum New York
Miro’s complex paintings may appear simple and childish at first glance. They combine shape, colour and story whimsically linked by dreamlike, wandering imagination. He was a surrealist painter but rarely used everyday subjects realistically painted as did the other Surrealists. He maintained that his pictures were always grounded in recognisable form however. Be it a bird an animal a man or, to quote Miro “something else” the pictures have a point to make either about the subject or its immersion in events surrounding it. His pictures are abstract not because of painting style but subject matter.
Landscape (The Hare) is a typical example of Miro’s arabesque, surrealist pictures. A stylised, curving hare lollops across a landscape above which a comet is spiralling. Why is the Hare there or indeed the comet? Since the image is a product of the imagination this question is unanswerable but the two are shown in juxtaposition to encourage us to let go of whatever thoughts may be with us at the time of looking and allow ourselves to invent reasons why the bulging-eyed animal and heavenly intruder might have crossed paths. This is fantasy; there are no obvious solutions to the problem except a possible clue in that the comet does appear to come into the space occupied by the hare. The severe two-colour landscape and sky regime offers no answer either, except that the coincidence of hare and comet are of interest to Miro and he has communicated that interest to us with this precise picture.

Marc Chagall
1887-1985, Born Russia, then France, America, France. Became a French citizen
I am the village, 1911
Oil on canvas
193 x 151 cm
Museum of Modern Art New York
Chagall came to France from Russia in 1910 and began to paint in the cubist manner where fragments of an object or landscape are superimposed upon one another in the same flat space. Unlike the other cubists though Chagall used brilliant colours and kept the original shapes of his subjects. The result is a story where each part of the picture is easily recognisable as an animal, a human, an agricultural tool, a house etc and it is the juxtaposition of these objects, both living and non-living which reveal the artists intention to us; or at least suggests what the artist is about. His use of colour was influenced by Robert Delaunay. Chagall’s pictures are more accessible than those of his contemporary Miro.
“I am the Village” shows the Hasidic village where Chagall was born in Russia. We see a round-eyed cow with an enclosed, domestic image of a cow being milked looking across the canvas to the face of a peasant. The peasant wears a crucifix and the cow a set of magic beads suggesting a spiritual link between them. They look at one another on the same line but the presence of the moon and sun between them suggests that the connection between the two goes further and for longer than the immediate glance. Strong diagonals mark the space occupied by the two protagonists. The Tree of Life springs from the bottom of the picture linking both man and beast to the round of the seasons. Above, a man with a scythe possibly representing death walks through a space where there are upside-down houses and an inverted woman possibly depicting tragedy or even war. The canvas ends in uneasy cloud masses at the top. The picture links the everyday with the out-of-the ordinary-the fantastic- and the humanly spiritual with the instinct of the animal all combining to describe village life.

Henri Rousseau
1884-1910, France
The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897
Oil on canvas
130 x 201 cm
Museum of Modern Art New York
Rousseau enjoyed increasing popularity as the 20th century progressed. Originally a customs officer he began to paint late in life inventing a style of his own which is a mixture of fantasy and imagination painted with startling realism. Animals, birds and humans in exotic relation populate his canvasses. Jungle is a recurring theme in Rousseau’s pictures and it is ironic that he never left Paris, preferring to study his plants at the local herbarium and botanical gardens and animals at the zoo. His formidable painting technique attracted the attention of Robert Delaunay and early admirers included Picasso. Ever provocative, Rousseau once described himself as one of France’s best realist painters and it is true that critics appreciated Rousseau long before the general public did.
The Sleeping Gypsy is a musician. She lies peacefully asleep unaware of the lion which has appeared beside her. The lion with its brightly-coloured eye and delicate play of light on its back is not at all threatening and seems intent on business of its own even though picking up the woman’s scent. Its tail extends jauntily into the moon-lighted sky. Typically Rousseau, the picture has little perspective and we are led into it by the juxtaposition of the gypsy and the lion behind her. A glowing moon provides the only light and the woman’s dress provides most of the colour variation. Curves in the human and animal link with curves in the landscape behind them providing spatial harmony to add to the serene tone of the picture. The woman’s glowing teeth and white tuning pegs on the mandolin encourage our eye to travel to the bottom right of the picture. The meaning of the canvas is obscure; perhaps it needs no meaning and we should be happy with this glimpse into Rousseau’s imagination.

Rene Magritte
1898-1967, Belgium
Time Transfixed, 1938
Oil on canvas
147 x 99 cm
The Art Institute of Chicago
Magritte’s childhood was traumatised by the suicide of his mother when he was 14. He was present when the body was recovered from the river in which she had drowned herself. He began work as a poster and advertisement designer until awarded a contract to paint for a gallery in Brussels in 1926 and he produced his first surrealist painting in that year. His first exhibition in Brussels was a failure and he moved to Paris where he made contact with other surrealist painters. He returned to Brussels for the second-world war and remained mostly in Belgium for the rest of his life. Magritte specialised in showing everyday objects related obscurely to each other. He painted in the super-realist style adopted by most of the other surrealists but his painterly props were always immediately identifiable. His pictures are often small, quiet, initially confusing and apparently unapproachable. With time and patience however progress can be made with understanding them.
Time transfixed shows a reduced-scale locomotive coming out of a fireplace in a sparsely-furnished room. Smoke which the engine produces goes up the chimney which would otherwise accommodate the smoke from the fire were there one lighted in the fireplace. The rushing engine and the still room have the smoke in common as part of their “existence” and it is this which provides not only a visual link between them but an intellectual link as well. A clock and candle sticks standing on the mantelpiece are reflected in the mirror behind helping define the space from which the train has emerged. Magritte is encouraging us to step outside our normal perceptions. He once said: “It is always well to remember that everything seems proper. And then abruptly the rape of common sense occurs, usually in broad daylight.” Train and room share the same space- time is transfixed.
Salvador Dali
1904-1989, Spain mainly
Lobster Telephone, 1938
Painted plaster and telephone
18 x 31 x 13 cm
National Gallery of Australia
Dali is one of the 20th century’s best known artists. Everything Dali did was designed to draw attention to Salvador Dali. From Lobster telephones to wildly-painted fantasy paintings to films to the way he dressed and behaved Dali was determined to be different to the point of being a surreal object himself. He succeeded brilliantly. A superb technician and brilliant man he communicated his dreams and inner feelings in his art, joining the Surrealists in dispensing with rational thought in favour of investigating the sub-conscious. He populated his art in all its forms with both recognisable and fantastic shapes. Because he refused to follow the Marxist philosophy of the French Surrealists he was expelled from the group a happening which is surreal in itself. A recent exhibition of his works in Melbourne (2009) attracted over 350,000 people.
“I do not understand (said Dali) why when I ask for grilled Lobster in a restaurant I am never served a cooked telephone…”Lobsters featured in Dali’s art from about 1933 he loved the shellfishes hard exterior protecting the softer inner living centre-perhaps seeing this as an allegory for the human condition where feelings are suppressed in favour of a bluff exterior. The connection with telephones comes with the ‘phone’s hard exterior transmitting soft human sounds. So why not combine the two which is what Dali did with the ten lobster ‘phones he created for an English patron in 1938, four with red lobsters on black telephones and six with white lobsters on white telephones.

Alexander Calder
1898-1976 American
Romulus and Remus, 1928
Wire and wood
79 x 3880 x 66 cm
Guggenheim Museum New York
Calder trained as a mechanical engineer a discipline which helped in the subsequent design of his famous mobile sculptures which moved either under electric power or were hand or breeze-driven. He kept in touch with the latest European art movements and identities, especially the surrealist painter Miro. He joined with other abstract artists in America in the 1930s to produce abstract sculptures notably the first “mobiles” which occupied space in a harmonious, almost painterly way with their balance of colour, form and function. He also produced “Stabiles” like the work shown here where the work was fixed in space- usually fastened to the floor.
“Romulus and Remus” shows the two founders of Rome being suckled by the she-wolf who is credited with bringing them up in Roman mythology. The upward-sloping, open-form of the work allows it to transmit both the idea of the power and majesty of the eventual outcome and, simultaneously, the creation of a motherly space where the couple may find shelter, life and safety. The work appears as a whimsical solid “drawing” made from pieces of wire bent to the required shape. The wolf’s body is made from a single length and the tail balances the work.

James Gleeson
The Arrival of Implacable gifts, 1985
Oil on canvas
198 x 245 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Gleeson was Australia’s foremost surrealist artist. He was also a poet, critic, writer and curator and was a significant player in the Australian art scene for many years. His painting dwelt in the subconscious revealing a debt to the work of Freud and Jung and important early pictures featured male nudes in surreal landscapes. Later work showed vast pictures such as the work here with its suggestions of rocky seascapes illustrating the boundary between subconscious and the conscious. 
“The Arrival of Implacable gifts” takes us into a world of arrivals which can not be reconciled with each other. Moreover the lack of reconciliation is inevitable so there is a futuristic, predictive element to this picture. Huge ragged shapes tumble with each other in an inverted Turneresque landscape. Anguish, violence, birth and death implacably mix in a turbulent whorl straight from worst of dreams. The artist himself observes the drama from a safe spot at the bottom left of the picture.