Blog mysteries of Art
Created by James Bennett (Bennecelli) The Bennecelli Blog is a bi-monthly exploration of art mysteries, curiosities, oddities, and anomalies.

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January 20, 2022 Where Has All the Beauty Gone?

If we look back over the span of five centuries from the Renaissance until the early twentieth century, it was assumed during that time that one of the primary roles of art was to depict beauty. But that appears not to be the case today. In fact, beauty is something that many artists and art critics of our own time seem to intentionally avoid.

It is my observation that art today can be exciting and engaging and inspiring and even challenging but only very rarely is it anything you would call beautiful. The only exception seems to be realist landscape paintings.

Where has all the beauty gone?

In today’s hi-tech, highly material world, one would think that art would be the very thing we could turn to, to find beauty – real beauty which is often missing in our lives today. It’s ironic that it is difficult during our challenging time to find art that is truly beautiful. And so, I ask again, “Where has all the beauty gone?”

Some will quote the old adage that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder – meaning that what one person thinks is beautiful may or may not be what another recognizes as being beautiful. And that certainly is true to a degree.

However, I don’t believe that beauty is entirely just a matter of personal taste. I do believe there are some things that the large majority of us would agree are beautiful. For example, most of us would agree that we’re looking at something truly beautiful when we see a dramatically colorful sunset, an exquisitely designed landscape, or even an expertly decorated wedding cake.

Let’s take a look at a few of the results of a couple of non-scientific surveys in which people were asked to give examples of art they thought was truly beautiful. See if you agree with some of the most popular answers.

Works by the following artists were cited as being beautiful: the Italian Renaissance painters such as Leonardo and Botticelli, the 19th century French realists like Bouguereau and Fantin-Latour, the French impressionists, mainly Renoir and Monet, and the post-impressionist, Vincent Van Gogh who is the number one choice of a lot of the people surveyed.

But an interesting thing occurred when the survey shifted focus from paintings to works in glass and ceramics and jewelry. Then the responses included a lot more contemporary and even abstract pieces such as the absolutely mind-blowing work of the glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.

I suspect that most of you would agree with many of these examples.

And so, it seems to me that the perception of beauty is not entirely just a matter of personal taste. There is a large area of agreement.

And so, I don’t believe that many artists and critics have shunned beauty simply for the reason that beauty is just a matter of taste, that people can’t agree on what is beautiful. I think there’s another reason, and I’d like to explain exactly what that reason is.

First, we need to look back to the mid-1800s at two art movements: the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement. Basically, both of these groups emphasized making art that was beautiful. Especially the Aesthetes believed that beauty was an end in itself, and art should provide pleasure to the senses, without having to convey a moral or sentimental message. Both Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movements were forms of Aestheticism.

There were some flamboyant, non-conformist characters connected with these movements!

Some of the more well-known writers and poets associated with these groups were: Charles Swinburne, John Ruskin, and Oscar Wilde.

A few of the visual artists involved in these movements were: William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Gustav Klimt, and Audrey Beardsley

The work of these artists was criticized for being overly idealized and completely unrealistic. And the artists themselves did not help matters. Their manner was arrogant and self-righteous, and their appearance was marked by artificiality and pretentiousness.

Consequently, they were ridiculed and lampooned. In short, they became the laughing stock. And along with them, beauty as an artistic pursuit was severely tarnished.

During the first half of the twentieth century the words, “art and beauty,” took on a tawdry sexual association, meaning basically the nude female form. A slew of cheap magazines appearing during this tie featuring cheesecake photography. More recently, the comic book artist, R. Crumb, satirized these magazines.

I believe you can see that the expression of beauty within the arts has traveled a pretty rough road and has wound up severely damaged as a result.

Nevertheless, I believe there is need today during our troubled, dysfunctional times for art that is beautiful – not shallow, maudlin sentimentality masquerading as beauty but the sort of profound beauty which lifts the human spirit.

Let’s rediscover real beauty through art.

This is the one thing that inspires me as an artist. And so, I will close by showing you one of my own paintings, a triptych titled Concerto with Dancers. I hope you will see beauty in this work.

New Painting

January 14, 2022   Art Mysteries

To introduce this new blog, I'd like to begin by considering three works by Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian Renaissance artist around whom there is probably enough mystery for this one artist to be the only subject of the entire blog!

I'll begin with Leonardo's famous painting The Mona Lisa which has been an object of great mystery for nearly two centuries. Much has been said about the subject's enigmatic smile (a popular song was even written about it) and the fact that her eyes appear to follow the viewer around the room. In addition to her bewitching and seductive smile and her ever watchful eyes, there are several facts about this painting which contribute to the mystery of this work of art.

Around 1503 Leonardo began this portrait which he worked on for several years. It is believed to be a portrait of the wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant, Francesco del Giocondo. But even that is uncertain. The strange thing is this: if indeed the painting was a commissioned portrait, Leonardo never delivered it to the person who commissioned it. He kept it himself up until the end of his life when he gave it to his patron at the time, the king of France.

Answers to the question of who is the woman in the painting have ranged from the mundane to the far-fetched. As an example, a few years ago a researcher, Dr. Lillian Schwartz of the Bell Laboratories, hypothesized that the painting is actually a self-portrait Leonardo did of himself idealized as a young woman. Schwartz achieved some notoriety when she demonstrated that computerized images of the features of Leonardo's face from his famous self-portrait drawing coincide perfectly with the face of Mona Lisa when superimposed over them.

Be that as it may, apparently the painting was quite well-known during Leonardo's own lifetime and amazed people with its strikingly lifelike appearance. Indeed, people were "wowed" by Leonardo's incredible oil painting technique.

One curious thing is the landscape in the background behind the woman. The view on one side seems to be a different perspective from the view on the other side.

Another curious thing is the fact that the painting has been trimmed down from its original size. The original painting had columns on both sides, and these have been cut off. Their bases are still quite visible. We have no idea who cropped the painting or why it was done.

In 1911 this famous painting was actually stolen from the Louvre and the identity of the thief and the whereabouts of the painting remained a mystery which wasn't solved for over 2 years. It was finally recovered hidden in a trunk of an Italian handyman named Vincenzo Peraggia. The crime may never have been solved if the thief had not tried to sell the painting to an art dealer who reported it to the authorities!

The second work I'd like to mention briefly is Leonardo's Last Supper which is a fresco mural in Milan. This work was featured in Dan Brown's blockbuster novel, The Da Vinci Code. The mystery in Brown's story has to do with the effeminate figure seated on Jesus's right. Art historians say that it is the apostle John; the novel asserts that it is Mary Magdaline who was actually Jesus's wife. Brown's argument in support of this idea is Leonardo's fondness for including secret messages in his paintings and the central figures in the painting together form the letter, M, which stands for Magdalene.

Incidentally, and you probably already know, the fresco in Milan is in a horrible state of deterioration -- even after attempts at restoration the painting almost impossible to see. Fortunately, Leonardo and his apprentices created a nearly exact copy on canvas. This copy is now in an abbey in Belgium.

The third work I'd like to refer to has been called the "Lost Leonardo."

In 1505 Leonardo was commissioned to paint a mural in one of the large rooms in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. His subject was a famous battle from the history of the city, the battle of Anghiari. Unfortunately, Leonardo's attempt to use oil paint in a fresco was unsuccessful and, despite his efforts to speed the drying of the paint, parts of the work began to run together.

We know quite a bit about this mural because of Leonardo's preliminary drawings and copies of the unfinished mural that other artists did. The most notable of these is an amazing drawing by the renowned Dutch artist Peter Paul Rubens. After some years, Vasari was commissioned to paint a series of new murals which included the wall where Leonardo's failed attempt was located.

However, Vasari had the highest regard for Leonardo and did not want to paint over the master's work.. It is believed that he had a "curtain wall" constructed in front of Leonardo's mural so it was preserved.

One of the problems today is no one is sure which wall the Leonardo mural was on.

Within the past few years, the American pioneer in the use of technology to study art, Maurizio Seracini, has studied the Vasari murals and claims he has located where he believes the Leonardo to be located. His initial analysis has shown that there is indeed a painting behind the Vasari and some of the paint pigment is the same as the paint used in the Mona Lisa. However, his continued efforts to use technology to explore behind the Vasari mural have been halted by local officials who fear that he might damage Vasari's art.

To view a presentation on Leonardo by Seracini, CLICK HERE.

I hope you liked this first offering of the Bennecelli Blog. My plan is to have the second installment in a couple weeks. Please share and like on social media.

Next Issue: Where Has All the Beauty Gone?

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