Art Scatter lives! We admit, we’ve been remiss. We haven’t filed a post since July 28 of 2012, for heaven’s sake. That’s 10 months. Our last post was about the demise of the fabled Classical Millennium music shop (which, we’re happy to report, lives on, if in extremely truncated form, inside its big-daddy Music Millennium) and that sort of depressed us. Plus, we got busy with other things, not least of which was posting quite a bit on Oregon ArtsWatch, and also conducting a little daily art-historical experiment called “Today I Am” on Facebook. It was partly through that endeavor that Carol Shults of the European and American Art Council of the Portland Art Museum asked me if I might give a gallery talk to the group: just pick any topic as long as it relates to those galleries, she said.
So I did. My talk, called “The Way of All Flesh” (thanks, Sam Butler), took place last Thursday in the museum’s Renaissance gallery, with just a peek around the corner into the Baroque. It covered eight paintings, with quick swipes at a few others, ranging from 1500 to roughly 1640. And it was fun, even if I rambled a bit too freely and didn’t quite cover everything I’d expected to. When you’re in the galleries, looking at the actual works instead of looking at slides of them in a lecture hall, you tend to toss away your notes and just talk. What follows is the more or less formal speech I didn’t give, but which formed the basis of my more conversational remarks in the galleries.
All of the pictures, by the way, are gathered from the museum’s relatively new and growing online photo gallery of works from the permanent collections. It’s a great project; check it out when you can. – BH
By BOB HICKS
The title of my talk is “The Way of All Flesh.” I’m sorry if you came thinking I was going to do a slide show about nude bicyclists pumping through Puddletown. Not gonna happen. Instead I’m going to talk about the ways we’ve looked in Western civilization at life and decay and death. That’s not really the bummer it might sound like, because in the process we get to look at a handful of pretty fascinating paintings covering a little over a century, between about 1500 and roughly 1635 or 1640.
The subtitle is “Purity, Pain, and Pragmatism from Caroto to Van Dyck.” If I hadn’t submitted it before I’d finished my research, I’d have changed it to “…from Botticelli to Van Dyck,” because Botticelli’s small painted devotional “Christ on the Cross,” which really starts things off, is from 1500, ten years before Caroto’s intimate painting “The Entombment of Christ.” I figure that’s a good mistake, because anytime you can kick off an evening by looking at a Botticelli, you’ve got a fighting chance.
We’ll dive into the paintings pretty soon. But first I think a little background is a good idea. The earliest of these paintings come from a time when the Renaissance was still keeping a foot, or at least a few toes, in the reassuring soil of the Middle Ages. The most recent was painted when Europe had planted its feet solidly at the beginnings of the modern age. Historians actually call this entire span part of the Early Modern Period, which they generally date from about 1500 to about 1800.
But history almost never moves forward in neat unison steps. The first three paintings we’ll be looking at seem very much steeped in leftover beliefs and customs from late medieval times. The later paintings strike me as being within easy shouting distance of the Enlightenment and what we lay people tend to mean when we talk about the dawning of modernism.
When Botticelli created his Christ figure in 1500 it was only eight years after Columbus’s first voyage westward. It was eight years after the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Iberia. It was nine years after the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition. Rumblings against the power of the Roman Church had been stirring for some time. But Martin Luther wouldn’t post his 95 Theses for another 17 years.