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tv   France 24  LINKTV  October 16, 2013 2:30pm-3:01pm PDT

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a series of more than 30 enormous canvases. they commemorated her four-year rule as regent after the assassination of her husband henry iv until louis came of age in 1614. even though maria wasn't really the queen at all, rubens employs the full apparatus of glamour, power, and glory to proclaim the greatness of her rule. king henry is shown being carried off to heaven, yet the action rushes towards maria whose position in the painting is higher than the king's. odd, since he's the one going to heaven. but it's in the religious paintings that rubens pulls out all the stops. his church paintings such as the descent from the cross served the requirements of roman catholic counter reformation ideology inspiring faith, inducing piety. the immediacy and individuality of
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the figures the use of great circling arcs in the sweeping compositions his dazzling use of color, all contribute to the heightened emotionalism that was intended to lift the spectator out of the everyday world into a state of exultation. his works are the most powerful expression of triumph and christianity. rubens achieved his success early as we see in this youthful self-portrait, together with his first wife. he was the superstar of the art world of the day, the most esteemed court painter in europe, when in 1628 he was summoned to spain to paint the king. from his capital at madrid philip iv ruled the greatest empire in the world, with dominions stretching from the philippines to peru but bogged down by a long war in the netherlands
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the most powerful state in europe was about to slip into decline. at a time beset with uncertainty the arts flourished. of the painters he met at philip's court rubens was particularly impressed by one-- the young diego velazquez. velazquez was an original who would paint a classical subject like bacchus getting drunk with a group of real peasants. velazquez first drew the court's attention with his early paintings of daily life, what we call genre paintings. they were startling pictures depicting things never before painted such as the precise moment at which cooking eggs solidified. like many young painters of his time, velazquez was profoundly influenced by the naturalism of the italian, caravaggio. caravaggio placed miraculous events in a familiar, naturalistic setting. velazquez fused the real and the mythological
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to create a new psychologically penetrating reality. in the forge of vulcan, he chooses the moment when the god apollo tells vulcan that his wife venus is making love to mars the god of war. velazquez combines theatrical gesture with the astonished faces of real workmen, set in an authentic forge. he quickly became a favorite portrait painter of king philip. as court painter velazquez would make a portrait of one of the royal family. assistants then made copies, which were sent to foreign courts. this was an important part of the diplomatic process and the business of finding marriage partners for royal offspring. secure in his position as court painter
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velazquez turned his attention to formal and painterly innovation. in his portraits of jesters and dwarfs, velazquez was free to experiment. he understood that paintings made according to the classical rules produced something other than what the eye sees. the eye cannot focus simultaneously on different planes. here, velazquez treats the background to a portrait as a blur. it works the way the eye sees. the boldest and most daring of velazquez' paintings is explored for us by professor simon schama of harvard university. las meninas is in the most literal sense, a challenging painting. coming on it we are challenged by no less than six pairs of eyes trained intently on us.
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the effect is distinctly unsettling as though we'd blundered into the royal domain where we had no business being. but one pair of eyes one pair of hands, those of the artist, ensure that once we've strayed into velazquez' magic box, we can't casually take our leave and move to whatever else is in the next gallery. pinned to the spot by the most extraordinary visual conundrum ever painted, our first reaction is probably to find out what exactly is going on here. the most incurious explanation, but one we can surely start with is velazquez has offered us an informal glimpse into his working day producing one of the many portraits he executed of the royal princesses designed to advertise their desirability in one of the marriages
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on which dynastic politics so crucially turned. royal inbreeding had its problems especially for the spanish hapsburgs, exaggerating their family trademarks-- pop eyes and lantern chin. and as if to compensate for this unpromising raw material velazquez provided brilliant production numbers gorgeously costumed, using a daring blob and blotch technique to give the illusion of a dancing light playing on the kind of fabric-- satins, taffetas-- that would best show them off. what else do we know for sure about this painting? from an account published 50 years after velazquez' death, we know the scene is set in the royal palace at the alcazar in the royal painter's studio. velazquez had been given responsibility for decorating the palace and installing its paintings, including two by rubens we can see dimly
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hanging at the back of the painting. the same account identifies nearly everybody in the composition-- the 5-year-old princess, the infanta margarita, the maids of honor the meninas themselves courtiers and guards. by setting himself down amidst all this royal company velazquez, decorated with the knightly cross of santiago is staking out a claim to the nobility of his calling in a culture where a painter was no gentleman. the real subject of las meninas is not the royal princess, still less is it velazquez' social pretensions. the true subject is the art of painting itself. in the painting, velazquez shows us his whole box of tricks-- illusions of space depth, and perspective. yet he always withholds from us the exact means by which he executes those extraordinary effects and illusions.
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las meninas really is a conjuring trick of the greatest genius. like all conjuring tricks, it teases and provokes by multiplying uncertainties. we can't even be sure of the exact subject matter of the painting on which velazquez is working and whose surface is actually hidden from us. perhaps it is not the princess at the front, but a portrait of the king and queen, whose image, we belatedly realize is reflected on the mirror at the back wall. yet in this cunning game between artist and beholder there is a third possibility, namely that that mirror reflection is not actually of the painting, but of the real king and queen who've dropped by to observe their artist at work. this would put me in front of the picture plane in the disconcerting position of the shoes of philip iv. in all likelihood, the painting was
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meant for the private pleasure of the king alone. the privileged eavesdropping implied by the reflection would certainly explain all the attentiveness of those gazes directed in different ways at the royal intruder. yet there really is nothing deferential about this painting at all. here, it is the artist rather than the king who is sovereign. after these amazing visual fireworks it comes as something of an anticlimax to learn that velazquez spent the later part of his life in an almost obsessive quest for gentlemanly status. the snobbery that made him hunger to be a knight of the order of santiago may seem degrading to us. after all, his nobility lay in his art which he had taken to undreamt-of levels of sophistication and technical virtuosity. perhaps our disappointment is a measure of the huge distance from his culture to ours. his sublimely confident play with
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illusion and reality, with certainty and uncertainty, makes us want to recruit him as a fellow traveler of the modern world, but the knight of the order of santiago surrounded by other servants of the cult of royalty-- dwarfs, maids of honor princesses, and courtiers-- stares back at us, the hidden contents of his enigmatic painting forever denying us that familiarity. even more successfully than velazquez rubens played the court game to perfection. as the years passed, honors piled up. he was knighted. he undertook difficult diplomatic missions, but religious and territorial wars in northern europe raged on. rubens grew discouraged. he withdrew from court and public life and went home
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to his baronial house in antwerp. his first wife had long since died. he married the 16-year-old helena fourment. it has been suggested that he was satirically alluding to himself and helena when he painted this aging but lusty satyr carrying off a young nymph. his paintings joyfully and sensually celebrated his love for helena.
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he purchased the castle of steen and with his family and his titles retired to a twilight fantasy of country life as the lord of steen. rubens' landscapes are suffused with a kind of nostalgia. they evoke a dream of aristocratic life a life based on the ownership of land. today it's only half an hour by car or train from the landlocked aristocratic landscape that rubens painted to the canals of the dutch netherlands. though not far apart physically these two societies were as different at heart as their landscapes. the dutch escaped from feudalism by making new land. they built dikes against the sea in a communal effort that continues today. they made their own precarious land, and their peculiar geography made them. vermeer's view of delft shows us a secure town
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that has confidently mastered its difficult environment. the sea shaped dutch society. but 80 bitter years of a cruel and bloody war for independence from their snish rulers created a dutch nation. in the middle of the 17th century, seven provinces of the netherlands won their struggle for independence and established the predominantly protestant dutch republic. [bells ringing] in a europe dominated by absolutist and catholic monarchies--
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spain, france, austria-- the republic was an island of relative freedom. the town hall of the dutch city of amsterdam built in the 17th century, tells us something about the ideals of the dutch republic. it has none of the qualities of absolutist architecture. here no grand colonnade leads the world into a central focus as at saint peter's, rome. no succession of rooms and corridors and staircases takes us to the monarch's bedroom as at louis xiv's palace at versailles. here you have seven simple unpretentious doorways. the architecture of the new town hall, then is an embodiment of the netherlands' independent political aspirations, an expression of amsterdam as a free city at the center of the world. in the 17th century, the dutch city of amsterdam was the greatest economic power in the world, a vast marketplace where every kind of goods could be
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had-- pepper, whale oil, japanese lacquer, cloth, wine. the dutch became rich. they were the most urban society in europe-- literate, stable well-fed, and decently housed. they knew themselves to be fortunate. they strongly identified with the chosen people of the old testament with all that implied about obedience to god's will. in this peculiar new society artists couldn't look to the traditional sources of patronage. there was no royal court. the churches had no pictures, as we can see in this painting of the mariakerk in utrecht by pietersz saenredam. nevertheless, the netherlands experienced an explosion in the production and consumption of art. the first mass art market in history arose because for the first time ordinary people bought paintings, etchings, drawings.
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artists produced in large quantity for that market. the society was defining itself in the images it produced. the simplicity of these domestic scenes is often deceptive. this still life with trout by willem claesz heda, while reassuring the dutch of the plenty in their lives also warns them of the remorseless passage of time. jan steen's painting the world upside-down was intended to amuse, but it also cautions against the dangers of excess. here drink and sexual license cause a household to slide into complete domestic disorder. jan vermeer's woman weighing pearls stands before a painting of the last judgment warning that wealth must not distract us
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from our ultimate fate. the dutch genre paintings are not just innocent images of everyday life but of the moral crises of everyday life. like other works of the baroque period, they convey a message. [speaking dutch] group portraits are still important today. in the 17th-century netherlands, they were essential, for power in the dutch republic was held not by a prince but by corporate bodies, boards of governors, councils. so the group portrait was the equivalent of the equestrian portrait in aristocratic states. [speaking dutch] in the hands of the most remarkable of the dutch painters, the group portrait becomes an intense expression of the group ethos. the nightwatch.
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more has been written about rembrandt than any other painter in the history of western art. if we chose one word that would sum up the essence of that art, it would probably be drama. the elements of rembrandt's art were put to the service of drama none more so than light. his use of light was the opposite of vermeer's. the delft painter flooded his figures with an even serene radiance so they sparkled with the intensity of an n image caught by a lens. rembrandt, on the other hand, turned the lights down low plunging his histories into a theatrical darkness the better to use his spotlight for dramatic emphasis and expressive brilliance. the painting was one of rembrandt's most important assignments but it was also one of the most difficult.
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militia pieces were hard work. in this picture by nicolaes eliasz pickenoy, we can see they were much like team photographs expressions of the collective spirit. on the other hand, each of the sitters was paying a tidy sum to have his own individual likeness rendered faithfully and flatteringly. so, conventionally they're lined up in front of us in a shallow elongated space, marked out from each other just by variations in uniform or by gestures of painful artificiality. rembrandt brushed aside all these compromises. instead of lining up his figures in a freezelike format he scooped out great hollows of recessed space at the back and front of the painting. and this sculpted space really gave rembrandt the freedom that he needed to deploy his troops with animation.
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the drastically foreshortened hand of captain banning cocq and the drastically foreshortened halberd-- that weapon there-- of lieutenant ruytenburch give the painting the quality of propulsion, so much movement forward that it almost threatens to trample the beholder with an irresistible onrush of energy. the painter seems to make virtue out of energetic disorder. it is how the dutch often like to see themselves full of dynamism and high spirits. at the same time rembrandt did his best to give the group a more soldierly appearance. the figures we see here loading the musket... shooting it off dangerously close to the lieutenant's hat, blowing the powder away from the top of the gun,
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all correspond to the warlike values which this group of soldiers liked to believe they embodied. it's a group portrait and a history painting something that testifies to the reassuring disorderliness of plain citizens. it's really chaos on an epic scale something which immediately expresses not dumb discipline, but high animal spirits, the boisterous riot of energy, movement, and visual noise that explodes out from its center towards us. in every sense to give it its correct title the march out of the company of frans banning cocq. the flair for drama that invests the nightwatch with so much energy carries over into rembrandt's more intimate work. his portraits go far beyond the rendering of facial features. in the eyes of rembrandt's subjects,
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we read personal and private history and psychological nuance. rembrandt made this self-portrait at the age of 23. it is rembrandt's steady deep, probing gaze that penetrating look to something beyond the surface, that distinguishes what many consider his greatest work, that monument of self-scrutiny his self-portraits. in about 40 paintings, 20 engravings, and 10 drawings, rembrandt offers us himself, an individual. this extended act of self-portraiture was unprecedented in western art.
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it may be instructive to look once more on velazquez' great meditation on art. the painter confronts us with a challenging stare daring us to contemplate the nature of perceived reality. the highly structured social and political framework is part and parcel of the meaning of the painting. rembrandt also portrays himself confronting the viewer and in relation to his cra but rembrandt is entirely alone with his palette ready to define himself in his characteristic thick impasto, the paint troweled on and worked with his fingers rather than with the brush. rembrandt, in his solitude, with his direct look and with his coarse, visibly applied paint, asserts his presence his selfness his individuality, as the matter for contemplation.
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in the story of western art, the 17th century the age of baroque began through much of europe in subjection to the ideals of the italian renaissance. by the century's end new artistic tastes had developed-- boldly naturalistic... richly sensual... ambitiously intellectual... passionate and profound... baroque artists had served a variety of masters. they had, as always, provided the images of power for absolute monarchs, whose subjects increasingly saw them as all too mortal. they provided religious images to bolster a faith shaken by the rise of modern science and religious conflict. but something else had happened.
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by the end of the century, western artists had achieved as never before the depiction of inwardness. look how rembrandt fixes our gaze draws us in, plays with our emotions... compelling our attention to the mystery of a single human heart. captioning performed by the national captioning institute, inc. captions copyright 1989 educational broadcasting corporation
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