By on September 20th, 2013


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Chicago hotel interior, upper floor

Above is a detail of the historic building that houses my Chicago hotel.   I’ve spent an afternoon admiring historic artifacts, mostly painted, by the likes of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, David Hockney and William Turner.  These artifacts remain in use — the Chicago Art Institute displays them for your nurture.

Today’s blog focuses on a benevolent light that illuminates certain paintings by Tiepolo and the early light-hearted Goyas.  It may surprise you that this Tiepolo stopped me in my contemporary tracks.

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Armida Encounters the Sleeping Rinaldo, by Tiepolo         via Chicago Art Institute

The Art Institute’s sequence of four large paintings illustrating the ill-fated love of Armida and Rinaldo from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata once decorated a “cabinet of mirrors” in the Venetian palace of the distinguished Cornaro family. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo also provided smaller decorative panels and a ceiling painting for what must have been a sparkling, light-filled room. In this, the first narrative scene, the beautiful sorceress Armida sees the young knight Rinaldo asleep and, falling in love with him, decides to carry him away on her cloud-borne chariot. Her actions will distract Rinaldo from his quest of liberating Jerusalem, the chief subject of Tasso’s epic.

This is an impressive canvas, ca. 74 x 85 inches, and in it no light shines harsh.  Dreamy pastels, the unexpected floaty orange of the wafting drapery.  It’s lofted by what we’re sure is a warm caressing breeze.

A lady must note note that the warrior Rinaldo’s shirt seems to be painted directly on his admirable torso — so maybe he was asking for it when Armida abducted him.  As you follow Rinaldo’s adventures in the following pictures and captions you’ll see that he stays more modestly attired even while wooing the seductive Armida.

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Rinaldo and Armida in Her Garden, by Tiepolo   via artic

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Armida Abandoned by Rinaldo, by Tiepolo    via artic

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Rinaldo and the Magus of Ascalon, by Tiepolo    via artic


These Tiepolos hang in a room wonderfully lit and open to the museum interior. Radiance abounds. Which suits the ambiance Tiepolo painted. And is one of the magics that paint can confer across centuries, a sense of place that you can feel on your skin, the warmth, the softness.  Nature at her most generous.

Conferred to you with historical artifacts.

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Chicago Art Institute, Gallery 215


Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, Goya to most of us, became a master of the dark pits of humanity.  A firing squad, a witches sabbath.  Yet earlier in his life he painted this same radiant light that shone for Rinaldo.  You’ll find it in Goya paintings such as the following — where the light tells you All is well.

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The Parasol, by Francisco Goya     via backtoclassics

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The Grape Harvest (Autumn), by Francisco Goya     via thedishbypspr

And this last which is a brief walk away from the Tiepolos.  It was a glad surprise because I was feeling the strong Tiepolo/early-Goya resonance already.  The light on the boy’s face bounced from the sunlight on his ruff, the luscious browns rippling in his trouser leg.  Of course it sent me back again down the hall to the sunlit Rinaldos.

Goya, Boy on a Ram

Boy on a Ram, by Francisco Goya      via artic

May some of this beneficent light shine on you, my friends.


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Bottom of the mail chute, Chicago hotel interior, building lobby

Friendly hotel staff tell me that this mail chute was built in 1906.  Six years ago a time capsule of, well, six years ago was assembled and inserted here.  May delighted persons discover it long after word of it has been lost.  Historic artifact of of real people living in their real time.


By on January 29th, 2013


A critic once described the painter James Ensor’s inner world as

too redolent of pitiable psychological distortions for me to visit longer than half an hour… I always skipped the fun house when I went to the county fair.        Huntley Dent in The Berkshire Review

Me, I crave the funhouse.  It distorts the familiar into questions you haven’t asked.  Facts that you can’t pin down loom large — or shrink to magic beans.

Lawrence Norfolk’s novel John Saturnall’s Feast has a particular flavor of darkness that I needed to separate from the novel’s succulence.  Norfolk has no problem handling them together — I did.

James Ensor painted the darkness in the menacing faces of The Intrigue.



The Intrigue by James Ensor        via The Berkshire Review


Social masks sitting lopsided on humans who hide incendiary tar pits of malice and fury below.  Human beings eager to bond ids and do harm as a pack.  The House Unamerican Activities Committee.  The Inquisition.  Lynch mobs.  Germany’s Kristallnacht.  Amazing how hard it is to find paintings that conjure this part of human nature.  Not wars (plenty of battle scenes) but the raw face of human hatred unleashed.

The artist Oliver Lutz has made art from a famous lynching photograph.

The original photo was taken on August 9th 1930, on the evening of the lynching of Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp in Marion, Indiana. The photo, which was taken by studio photographer Lawrence Beitler, was printed (and distributed) as a postcard – a common practice in lynching culture of the United States during that period. In the photograph, lynchers and spectators are shown congragated below the two bodies that hung from a tree. Some people looked towards the bodies while smoking (or lighting) cigars, while others posed for the photographer. The rags clenched in the hands of a few, are commonly thought to be the torn remains of the pants of Abram Smith, also a common souvenir practice of that time.


Lynching 1 painting by Oliver Lutz (detail)           This image and the following via Lutz’s website

The entire Lynching 1 painting

Monitor view of the installation Lynching 1

Image of CCTV monitor displaying live surveillance video of the painting (and viewer watching monitor). The bodies of the deceased are only visible to the viewer once s/he looks in the monitor (and inadvertently becomes part of the spectator mob).

The harsh revealing artistry of his brushy paint.  Murderous mobs have ignited like gunpowder and dispersed in wisps throughout humans’ life on Earth.


Gristly images aren’t as disturbing as, say, Goya’s dark paintings.  His Saturn Devouring His Son doesn’t scare me but his Witches’ Sabbath does.

Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat) by Francisco Goya        via WikiMedia

Jim Jones and his Kool-Aid.  Herr Goebbels of Hitler’s Propaganda Ministry.  You will meet the He-Goat in Norfolk’s book.  He-Goat, She-Goat, Pied Piper of our inward urges to join the dog pack and be off ravening.

It’s striking how difficult it is to find paintings that depict the face of raw violence.    It’s possible that while people are in the frenzy they can’t see what the funhouse mirror does to faces around them.  Or maybe it’s a database blindness, an unwillingness to tag the despicable.  Search for lynching, violent mobs, hatred — you get boxcars of news photographs.  If Rembrandt had ever seen the face of true evil what complicated face would he have left whose eyes would gimlet ours?


In 2011 while the state of Wisconsin was trying to bust the teachers’ unions I happened to read this description of a British pub in a book by the poet Robert Hass:

“…built just before the regency in the year when the first man who tried to organize a craft union among weavers was whipped, drawn, quartered and disemboweled in a public ceremony in London”        via the essay Lowell’s Graveyard, in Twentieth Century Pleasures by Robert Hass

The uproar in the state of Wisconsin made this quote resonate like a gong.  Yet today there is a London Guild of Weavers Spinners and Dyers.  Gauge the above against this from the guild’s current website:

Publicity has always been important for the guild – in the 1980s the British Wool Marketing Board invited the London Guild to try to break the world ‘sheep to shoulder’ record (creating a knitted jersey from a fleece shorn on the spot). This we did successfully, taking 8 minutes off the record.                                    via London Guild of Weavers Spinners and Dyers

 Whipped, drawn, quartered and disemboweled.  A political murder.  The Gestapo, in 17th C. Salem, Massachusetts, hosting a lunch for  top 13th C. Inquisitors.


Look further:

The darkness in literature

  • •  Waiting for the Barbarians, a novel by J. M. Coetzee.  There’s a reason he won a Nobel prize.
  • •  The Lottery, short story by Shirley Jackson.  Different dark, but the very same.

The darkness in news, two commentaries

Twentieth Century Pleasures by Robert Hass

  •  •  In 2011 I wrote Robert Hass asking for the source of his disturbing facts.  If you want to look further: The Making of the English Working Class by E. P. Thompson.   Hass said I think it is in the first chapter — and so it is.  Read it and then thank Hass for his linguistic gifts.
  • •  Hass’s fine book of essays is Twentieth Century Pleasures.