Nurtured by many Russian novels while growing up, I developed a special feeling towards the omnipresent birches, which not only aptly set the scenes and evoke the particular melancholy especially associated with Russia and Russian people, and finally, I made effort in 2006 to try to capture such feelings with a painting titled Birches, which is currently showing at the McGuire Real Estate gallery in Berkeley as part of the “Crowded by Beauty” exhibit.
I love the slender shapes of the trees, the softness of the finely-layered birch barks and their eerie silver color, and above all, the eye-shaped knobs imprinted on the trunks from bottom to top, as if birches were meant to be the chosen observers from silent world, so as to judge humankind.
Birches Oil on Canvas 22" x 28" Completed in 2006
That painting is also a play of optical illusion - amongst the eyes on the trunks, there was a singular eye floating in the space, unattached, between two indifferent birches. Inundated by so many eyes, this oddity was not immediately obvious; once detected, one might ask, if this is a most determined birch eye, the eye of an invisible human, or just a wandering independent eye belong to nothing and no one.
Pinacoteca Nazionale (National Gallery) di Ferrara, also known as Palazzo dei Diamanti, named for its rusticated façade of diamond spikes, impressed with effortless elegance of the building and its collections.
The first striking piece greeted visitors was an "Assunzione di Santa Maria Maddalena" by Maestro della Maddalena Assunta.
The highly stylized landscape was an idealized world, where animals, plants, and humans mingled together in harmony. The low vantage point and the receding flat landscape helped to generate a visceral sense of witnessing Saint Mary flying up. Hovering just above the ground, the pious and still youthful Mary, borne by several cherubim and greeted by a pair of angels with enormous wings, though delicate and even fragile, commended attention through her centered position, contorted pose, and brilliant bloody red drapery. The small V-shaped hills framing the base of the painting, also added the sense of uplifting.
Assunzione di Santa Maria Maddalena, Maestro della Maddalena Assunta
I was also very moved by another Mary painting - Madonna col Bambino, which featured the tender Mary and a very trusting and adorable baby Jesus, engaging in silent and intimate communion, demonstrating the palpable love and trust between the mother and the baby. A touching sweetness permeated the painting, yet the painting never fell to the level of saccharine; the sweetness was manifested in the simplicity of these figures, their most natural exhibition of pure emotions, and the delicate and harmonious hues of pink, rose, and blue, all artfully woven together.
Madonna col Bambino, Sebastiano Filippi detto Bastianino
The formidable and somewhat gloomy fortress, Castello Estense in Ferrara, Italy was surprisingly airy and even cheesy inside.
Such as this whimsical ceiling painting, one of many, depicting carousing nude men and cherubim, who, despite in the drunken stage, allowed their stances and gestures to be regulated by some tidy order. Their pale flash tone worked really well against the elegant background of blue and pink walls and windows of a building façade, thus introduced another dimension of order and regulation. Finally, the fantastic drawn floral borders on milky colored background firmly planted this hedonistic scene in a florid paradise.
Opposite to that ceiling painting's festive atmosphere, a triptych of grisaille frescoes in a courtyard depicted some serious and highly-placed personalities, was all somberness and world-weary. Despite the lacking colors, or because of that, these "veiled" paintings were memorably atmospheric and evocative.
During my brief day trip to Italian city Ferrara, I admired two bronze sculptures on top of the arch entrance to its Palazzo Municipale (City Hall) — Arco del Volto del cavallo (Arch of Horse Front).
On the left, there was the seated statesman Duca Borso d'Este & Marchese Niccolo III d'Este and on the right, equestrian sculpture of Marchese Niccolo III d'Este.
Of these two equally impressive sculptures, the more flamboyant equestrian made more immediate impressions.
The overt masculinity and grandeur was reflected with his insolent expression, his immobile pose, and his easy on the schlepping charger. The silhouette of the powerful horse and the rider was as solid as a mountain, as if nothing could challenge and stop his marching supremacy.
Marchese Niccolo III d'Este
The seated Duca Borso d'Este, on the contrary, was all self-confident serenity, radiating innate strength, as if so confident of his divine invested power that he needed no military poses and trappings to uphold his control over his domain.
My brief excursion from Bologna to Ferrara led me to the wonderful Duomo, whose distinct façade of triple gables immediately brought me to a purified world of classicism.
True to the expectation, my favorite sculpture inside was a sculpture of a bishop (and a saint?) standing in a niche with minimal decoration. The most striking feature was the resolute and clean lines of the soaring figure, reminiscent the works of the great Bernini, such as his masterpiece of "Ecstasy of Saint Teresa", though much less florid and baroque.
I also really liked a fresco of Saint Michael of similar narrow shape. The interplay of ethereally pale blue and pink hues was wonderfully subtle and satisfying, forming and contrasting the saint, who, even engaged in battle, never lost his balance and grace. Utterly enchanting.
One was "Ritratto di vecchino (Portrait of an Old Man)" by Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto. This portrait presented a robust old man with a striking set of abundant white beard, contrasting and echoing the black cap atop his broad forehead. The unwavering, penetrating, yet not-unkind gaze of this old man told all we needed to know about this steadfast character - a general? a statesman? or a successful seafaring merchant? Whoever he might have been, he commanded our respect. A sliver of outside world at the edge of the painting indicated his adventures beyond the serenity of old age.
Ritratto di vecchino, Jacopo Robusti, detto il Tintoretto (1518-1594)
My second favorite was "Suntto per la testa di Gian Galeazzo (Sketch of the Head of Gian Galeazzo)" by Bologna's native son, Pelagio Palagi, whose fluid rendition of the melancholic young man captured his intelligence and sensitivity tenderly and economically. Even in this perhaps unfinished state, this portrait was just as full-bodies as any extra layers of paints and varnish could provide.
Suntto per la testa di Gian Galeazzo, Pelagio Palagi (1775-1860)
Basilica Santuario Santo Stefano, the oldest church in Bologna, was very atmospherically evocative and romantic, and the many unique artefacts in its often darkish chambers added much allure.
The artwork left the strongest impression on me was a small plate of relief on the exterior of its nave, featuring three primitive looking figures with haloed heads resembling astronauts' in headgear, and stiffly raised hands sending signals of warning or blessing. The central figure, the only seated one, held a commanding upright staff with a cross top, which dissected the plate into two uneven parts, lending some dynamism to this restrained tableau. These rigid figures, perhaps Jesus and his disciples, in their strange garbs, along with their enormous and somewhat stunned eyes, formed a society beyond our worldly reach.
My second favorite was a fresco painting of some wild or domestic animals accented with some scrolls, like an early day almanac, whose pale inviting atmosphere, coloration, and the wonderful sense of continuity and unity were particularly appealing.
My 2005 oil painting Forest Within, currently showing at the McGuire Real Estate gallery in Berkeley as part of the “Crowded by Beauty” exhibit, is a play of optical illusion - the painting is a seemingly outdoor scene, yet the landscape is framed within a boxy confinement, and beams of light cast from behind and the shadows fall on the real or imaginary wall further enhances the blur of the boundary, where interior met exterior, reality met illusion.
Forest Within Oil on Canvas 24" x 30" Completed in 2005
Il palazzo dell'Archiginnasio (The Palace of Archeology) in Bologna is a fantastical enclosed palatial building, whose corridors are adorned with numerous decorative emblems, all of them can be viewed as relief sculptures.
My favorite was a monument of a tower wrapped by a snake and topped by a huge cross. I didn't like stare at that animal and couldn't decipher the exact meaning of the symbol, other than it resembled a reverse caduceus; but it stood out in the pack.
My second favorite was a dark stele flanked by two semi-nude females at the base, and furthered augmented by some colorful small coats of arms in formation, and as a whole, they resembled fancy peahens.
The Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna (National Gallery of Bologna) boasts a vast array of paintings dating from 13th through 18th century, such as this glorious "Jesus Christ and the Good Thief" by Titian and his assistants.
Gesù Cristo e il buon ladrone (Jesus Christ and the Good Thief), Tiziano Vecellio e aiuti (Titian and aid), c 1563
Yet, my favorite paintings in Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna are two panels from mid-15th century. The circa 1435 piece "Paradiso e Inferno", a portal-shaped pentagon, presented a clearly contrasted two realms: colorful and buoyant paradise and somber and grim inferno. In the middle of the pediment, haloed by red aureole, Virgin Mary, Jesus and the God formed an "eye", surrounded and supported further by numerous similarly radiant saints, in very decorative formations, which also attempted to observe rules of perspectives. The bottom third of the painting was more sparsely populated, dominated by an oversized demon, who was devouring condemned, directly below a serenading angel underneath the "eye", while other lost souls, scattered in earth trenches, being tortured and tormented by black-winged demons, systematically, methodically, and devoid of melodrama.
Paradiso e Inferno, Maestro dell'Avicenna, c 1435
My second favorite was also an allegorical piece, titled "Triumph of Fame, Triumph of Time", another 15th century piece with symmetrical composition. The most striking aspect of the painting was its vivid colors - brilliant red, sensuous pink, and heavenly azzurro, accented by bone white figures of the Triumph and the stallions drawing her Apollonian chariot.
On the left half of the painting, many crowned personalities converged towards her - personifications of the tributes from Fame; the mirroring right side was populated by similar grandees representing different sectors of society, all in their venerable ages - the tributes from Time.
This painting was very visually enchanting and its enigmatic nature added more to its allure.
Trionlo della Fama, Trionlo della Tempo (Triumph of Fame, Triumph of Time), Zanobi di Benedetto di Caroccio degli Strozzi, c 1440-45
Italian City Bologna itself is like an open museum, full of sculptures and monuments of distinction. I was quite impressed by several groups of sculptures around Legambiente Bologna & Emilia Romagna, an old city portal and the surrounding park.
The two mirroring bronze relief sculptures at the base of the gate impressed with their incredible beautiful lines and their economic way of presenting something deeply disturbing and touching.
Inside the park, there were some marble high reliefs and one of them was particularly striking due to its unbridled dynamism of the figures, in contrast to the classical composition and austere patterns of the sea shell backdrop.
The richness and depth of artworks in numerous Italian churches, large or small, are astounding. Basilica di San Giacomo Maggiore in Bologna was just one of those enchanted me in my 2012 trip to Italy.
Basilica di San Giacomo Maggiore, Bologna
I was very taken by one of its murals, depicting enthroned Virgin Mary, flanked by several martyr saints, underneath a pediment of resurrected Jesus. The Virgin and most of the saints were in vivid blue and red colors, contrasting strongly to the paleness of Saint Sebastien and Jesus.
Basilica di San Giacomo Maggiore
I also like very much a relief depicting a beheading scene - dramatic yet restrained, and much more moving because of that.
The gracefully proportioned Palazzo della Ragione in Padova (Padua), Italy, was a unique building, which was not only enormous in dimensions, but functions uniquely as a market place in its lower level, and a civic center on the top tier.
The most outlandish thing, and my favorite, was a huge wooden horse, basked in blue light (or was it painted blue?). According to Padovaincoming.it,
"the big wooden horse kept in Palazzo della Ragione was ordered by Annibale Capodilista in 1466: it was one of the big machines - and the only one that has survived - made for an extraordinary celebration that was organized in Padua, in the squares Piazza dei Signori and Piazza del Capitanio. The parade saw the participation of all the people in town, and of more people who had been attracted to town for this exceptional event." [Source: Padovaincoming.it]
Apparently, Padova artists and civic leaders were the vanguard of flashy blockbuster installations almost mandated in today's art markets. Cynicism aside, the horse was indeed eye-catching and exhilarating.
On the four walls of this gigantic hall, surrounding and contrasting the blue horse, were a series of marvelous allegorical frescoes, all in wonderfully aged colors, subtle and harmonious. Collectively, they were my second favorite there.
Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova (Padua), Italy, boasts a thrilling fresco cycle by Giotto, whose works were so delicate, that the viewers were limited to 10- to 20-minutes guided tours, and could only enter the chapel after a 15-minutes temperature and moisture modulation sessions.
That cycle was simply breathtaking - enormous scope, brilliant colors, remarkable compositions, "modern" technique of rendering volumes and understanding of human anatomy and perspectives, and above all, exotic and even bizarre visual symbols, not all of them could be understood readily by modern casual viewers, though that fault could hardly dampen visitors' collective awe.
One of my favorite was the Final Judgement Scene - restrained and classical, without baroque sentimental exaggeration of the later period. Giotto captured the essence of human conditions which were almost primordial and touching in its piety and simplicity.
My second favorite depicted the scene of the Kiss of Judas — menacing yet becalming, with its ritualistic violence cloaked/contained in stylized manners, simultaneously timelessly still and dynamic. Unique and unforgettable.
The motive behind my oil painting Trot was my wish to explore tonal contrasts and arrive at a certain balance of playfulness and menace. The subject of this study is a cat, or two. Before I started my oil, I made several preliminary sketches and once I committed my ideas to the canvas, I proceeded with a cat with upright head. Somehow, after the composition had more or less taken shape, I noticed a more dynamic and emotional sketch with a cat whose head was bending down, thus I incorporated that cat into the canvas. Trot / 小跑 / Trab Oil on Canvas 22" x 22" Completed in 2016 The finished painting more or less achieved my goals, though the subject can be seen as two cats running side by side, or just a cat captured at different time.
My favorite of such was the great altar, which dazzled with brilliant blue, yellow, white, red, and gold hues. A bit kitschy from distance, perhaps; but on the spot, I was quite easily transported by the mysterious shimmering light.
My second favorite was a fragmented mural, with cleanly delineated figures, animals and walled city, evoking the ideal of early Renaissance epoch - urbane, sophisticated, refined and pure.