The Beautiful Vagabonds: Birds in Art

by Christine Cariati

The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense his life. . . . The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds — how many human aspirations are realised in their free, holiday-lives — and how many suggestions to the poet in their flight and song! — John Burroughs (1837-1921)

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, center panel, detail,
c. 1503-04
Oil on wood
The Prado, Madrid

In his mysterious and enigmatic allegorical triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) painted enormous fruits and giant birds cavorting with tiny people of all races in a sumptuous garden. This painting presents a complex labyrinth of seemingly contradictory ideas and motifs. The triptych has been interpreted as a critique of the Catholic Church, a panorama of the Creation or a reflection on the humanist writings of Thomas More. Whatever his intent, Bosch’s giant birds are wonderful examples of the way that painters throughout history have used birds—as symbols of nature and the soul, as go-betweens, harbingers and messengers—and as intriguing examples of the wonders of nature.

Here are some of my favorites.

Roman garden painting, detail, first century A.D.
Casa del Bracciale d’Oro, Pompeii

Roman garden painting, detail, first century A.D.
Casa del Bracciale d’Oro, Pompeii

Gardens were often depicted in tomb and wall paintings in the ancient world. There is evidence that many types of gardens flourished—domestic gardens for both relaxation and as sources of food, gardens with sacred and religious meaning, cemetery gardens, opulent orchards and parks. Where there are gardens, there are birds.

Hans Holbein, A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling, c. 1526-1528
Oil on oak
National Gallery of Art, London

German painter Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543) was a very versatile artist who did portraits, religious paintings, frescoes and woodcuts, as well as designing jewelry and metalwork. Holbein first traveled to England in 1528 with an introduction to Thomas More from the Renaissance Humanist scholar Erasmus, whose portrait Holbein had painted in  1523. Holbein moved to England permanently in 1532, as court painter to Henry VIII, and there he perfected his art as a portraitist. This wonderfully detailed painting is a study in contrasts, the serious pose of the sitter playing against the lively squirrel and starling (which may have represented the lady’s family coat of arms.) A luminous and rich blue background sets this enigmatic and fascinating portrait off like a jewel.

Georg Flegel, Fruit and Dead Birds, n.d.
Oil on canvas
Private collection, Germany

German still-life painter George Flegel (1566-1638) specialized in paintings of tables set for meals with food, wine and flowers. I find this particular painting of Flegel’s very unusual and idiosyncratic. The elements of the composition are very deliberately laid out on the table and amidst the dead birds, feathers and fruits—all rather scientifically painted in a presentational manner—is perched a little goldfinch, very much alive.

Melchior d’Hondecoeter, The Floating Feather, c. 1680
Oil on canvas
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-1695) was a Dutch Baroque painter who specialized in painting animals, particularly birds. What is interesting to me about d’Hondecoeter is that he didn’t paint birds merely as trophies of the hunt or table, but as creatures with moods as well as relationships, feelings and inner lives.

Jan van Kessel, Concert of Birds, c. 1660-1670
Oil on copper
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Flemish painter Jan Van Kessel (1626-1679), the grandson of the great floral painter Jan Breughel the Elder, did beautifully detailed intimate paintings on copper. He was an avid student of the scientific naturalism of his day and excelled at painting insects. I am particularly interested in his panoramic scenes of birds—with their attention to detail and rich coloration, they have a cabinet of curiosities ambiance. Van Kessel also did some very beautiful still lifes, like this one, which includes a lively little bird that is depicted with wonderful movement and energy.

Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654
Oil on panel
Royal Picture Gallery, Mauritshuis, The Hague

This delightful painting by Dutch painter Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) is very much a portrait—you feel he has captured the essence of a particular bird. Fabritius, a student of Rembrandt, was very interested in exploring spatial effects and trompe l’oeil. This little goldfinch looks like he could fly off his perch at any moment—if he was not held captive by the little chain attached to his leg. Fabritius very much created his own style. Eschewing the dark backgrounds and dramatically lit subjects popular at the time, he applied paint thickly, using a light-colored textured background and subtle lighting on his subjects.

Indian miniature, Akbar period, 1600-1605
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Royal figures with their falcons are a fairly common theme in Indian miniatures. In this beautifully naturalistic portrait, the bird is imbued with a definite personality and temperament. Only a member of a royal family would have worn such a magnificent robe. The silk brocade, which depicts animals, birds and plants in a lush landscape, was probably woven in Iran.

Mark Catesby, The White Crown Pigeon, The Coco Plum
Natural History, Volume 1, Plate 25
Hand-colored Etching, London, 1727-1731

Mark Catesby (1682-1749) was an English naturalist who spent 10 years in the American colonies observing the natural history of the New World and collecting specimens. The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, which he wrote and illustrated, is a magnificent achievement. Catesby’s etchings were innovative—whenever possible, he drew from life, and he often portrays his subjects in flight or in motion, with bits of plants and landscape that suggest their native habitat. His fascination and love of the natural world is evident in each illustration, especially the ones from the original edition, which he personally hand-colored.

John Anster Fitzgerald, The Captive Robin, c. 1864
Oil on canvas
Private collection

At first glance, the work of  Victorian fairy painter John Anster Fitzgerald (1819-1906) is very deceptive—the intense, saturated colors and the beauty of the images initially distract from the often macabre, nightmarish or sadistic subtexts. There’s plenty of evidence that Fitzgerald’s imagery owed more than a little to opium and laudanum use, not an uncommon vice in Victorian England. Robins have a complicated role in fairy-lore which is often ambiguous—they are variously allies and enemies. Fitzgerald painted a number of paintings about robins. As was often the case with fairy paintings, The Captive Robin is mounted in a large hand-made gilded twig frame that is quite extraordinary.

Paul Klee, Twittering Machine, 1922
Oil transfer drawing on paper with watercolor and ink on board with gouache and ink borders
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Swiss artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) brings us into the modern era, which reveals a new kind of menace. His Twittering Machine seems to be about the uneasy alliance between nature and the mechanical, with the distinct possibility that mayhem will ensue. Klee’s nervous, edgy line, contrasted with the soothing blue and violet background, adds another layer of meaning to this unsettling fusion of bird and machine.

René Magritte, The Natural Graces, c. 1961
Oil  on canvas
Private collection

Belgian Surrealist painter René Magritte (1898-1967) transformed and juxtaposed every day things—the changed context jolts us into seeing things we thought were familiar in a new light. Magritte described painting as:

…the art of putting colors side by side in such a way that their real aspect is effaced, so that familiar objects—the sky, people, trees, mountains, furniture, the stars, solid structures, graffiti—become united in a single poetically disciplined image. The poetry of this image dispenses with any symbolic significance, old or new.

Remedios Varo, Troubadour, 1959
Oil on masonite
Private collection

Remedios Varo (1908-1963) was a Spanish-born Surrealist painter who adopted Mexico as her home. Varo’s imagery was drawn from nature, and she had an intense and abiding interest in science. As a child she often visited the Prado with her father, and it there that she discovered Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, whose mixture of wit and menace she found inspiring. Birds play a large role in Varo’s personal iconography and appear often in various stages of transformation in her work.

Walton Ford, Eothen, 2001
Watercolor, gouache, pencil and ink on paper
Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York

American watercolorist and printmaker Walton Ford (1960-) creates beautifully rendered large-scale images of nature gone amok. At first we are seduced by the beauty of the image, then we realize that the work is haunted by a sense of impending doom—something sinister and violent is taking place. Ford’s work operates on several levels at once, seeming to celebrate the romantic beauty of the work of naturalist John James Audubon while it satirizes colonialism and consumerism, mourns the extinction of species and dispassionately chronicles the destructive forces inherent in nature.

Darwin’s finches from the Galapagos Islands

No other creatures in nature represent as complex and intriguing a variety of qualities as birds. Artists have pictured them in many guises—as harbingers of doom, symbols of resurrection and as intermediaries between man and the Divine. They represent dreams, magical powers, clairvoyance and the mysteries of the unconscious. With their enormous variety and often spectacular beauty they embody the infinite and fearful powers of nature. As Charles Darwin wrote:

We behold the face of nature bright with gladness. We do not see, or we forget, that the birds singing around us live on insects or seeds, constantly destroying life.


First Impressions: The Art of Design

by Christine Cariati

Tile or panel design, W.T. Copeland & Sons, Ltd. (formerly Spode), c. 1880

As much as I love textiles and decorative objects, I am often just as attracted to the designer’s drawings, sketches and samples as to the finished pieces. The objects, no matter how beautiful, are immutable, fixed in the here and now. On paper, it is all possibility—often the line work is graceful and sinuous, the colors are rich and vibrant, and the patterns, free of prosaic form, veer toward the abstract. The flatness of the design is part of what I find so appealing. In two dimensions, the objects are not subject to gravity, they represent that most fleeting thing—the creative impulse. They embody the alchemy of transformation, idea into image, captured in pencil, ink or watercolor.

Dagobert Peche Design for a coffeepot, c. 1920

Design for a Sèvres porcelain cup, Empire period, c. 1800

In some cases, as in the designs of James Leman, the delicious yellows and oranges that are so pleasing to the eye represent various shades of metallic thread— which however sumptuous and elegant in the finished textile, is a completely different visual experience. In Leman’s designs on paper, his lyrical line and masterful layering of abstracted botanical images are enhanced by the warm, saturated colors. As patterns, woven in metallic thread on a heavy silk fabric, they are breathtaking and grand, but no longer have the down to earth, fresh from the garden appeal that they have on paper.

James Leman, design for silk fabric, 1711

I love the annotations on many of these sketches—dates, yardages, cost calculations, style names and numbers—many are in the artist’s hand alongside the images. They are a decorative counterpoint to the design, often extremely graceful and engaging in themselves. You can also see marks and notations made by the printers, engravers, weavers and dyers—the artisans who actually executed the designs. The combination of the drawing and the notations provide a compelling history, tracing the evolution from design to finished product.

Design for candelabra, c. 1840-1873
Elkington & Co. Ltd.

Tin-plate molds, Shoolbred, Loveridge & Shoolbred of Wolverhampton

Tea pots, creamers and sugar bowls, Liberty archive, c. 1900-1912

These working sketches were executed on paper, and, at the time they were created, not considered precious pieces to be treated with great care. As a result, the paper is often yellowed and brittle, and you can see smudges, folds, creases and spills. On many of them you can still see the grids and guidelines—another interesting counterpoint to the pattern and design. I don’t see these designs as mere preliminaries, inferior to a perfect, finished object. To my eye, they are works of art in themselves.

William Morris, Watercolor design for Evenlode, 1883
(design for  cotton fabric, printed by indigo discharge)

William Morris, watercolor design for Redcar carpet, c. 1881-1885

William Morris & Co. wallpaper designs, c. 1860s

I’ve restricted myself to designs for decorative objects, tableware, textiles and wallpaper and resisted the temptation to include designs for furniture, architecture and fashion. I have also deliberately not juxtaposed the drawings with the finished objects made from the sketch, because for me these stand as complete works on their own.

Design for seven-piece coffee set, Sèvres, 1899

The designs below, drawn in pencil or pen and ink, are quite elegant and visually stunning. This page of designs for tea strainers is beautifully drawn, patterned and balanced—and could easily be taken for a contemporary abstract drawing.

Designs for tea strainers, c. 1900-1912
Pen and ink on ruled paper, Liberty, London

In a narrative vein, this delightful Rococo-style sketch of insect figures, for use as a decorative motif, is playful and lively.

Charles-Germain de Saint Aubin (1721-86), sketch for decorative motif

This Wiener Werkstätte floor lamp design has a figurative totem-like quality, and is drawn in a loose and graceful style. Dagobert Peche’s sketches always have a flowing, effortless hand-drawn quality—a wonderful contrast to the elegant formalism of the objects made from his designs.

Dagobert Peche, design for floor lamp, 1920

This sketch for a graceful carafe has a very different presence than the finished piece of heavily embossed silver. As an object, the carafe has weight, volume, shine and a beautifully textured surface. The drawing, flat and decorative, has a very different, wonderful combination of elements. There is a narrative feel to it—the intricate patterning, sensuous curves, twisted serpent handle and amusing squirrel seem to be telling a story.

Arabian shape Claret jug, c. 1880
Workshop drawings of Oomersee Mawjee & Sons, Kutch

This gorgeous ink and wash drawing of a cloche has so much presence and volume. The sculptural decorative element at the top is exquisitely rendered.

Cloche, French, eighteenth century

Much of the inspiration for decorative objects comes from nature, as these floral designs for textiles by Anna Maria Garthwaite illustrate so beautifully. These botanical patterns, which take on a seriousness and formality when woven in silk and brocade, are exuberant on the page.

Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk design, c. 1730

Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk design, detail, c. 1730

Anna Maria Garthwaite, silk design (possibly a copy of a French original) detail, 1733

Some of my favorite designs are for tea pots, tea cups and china patterns. They are drawn in flattened-out, foreshortened shapes to best show the designs—you can really appreciate the quality of line, pattern and detail. The decorative motifs are fanciful, lighthearted and graceful—exactly the qualities treasured in a piece of delicate porcelain.

Tea cup designs, Spode, c. 1846

Majolica design, Apple Blossom flower pot, Wedgewood, c. 1850-1860

Coffee and Tea Cups, Spode, c. 1840

Dagobert Peche, Design for a teapot, c. 1922

Textile designs are executed in both minimalist and very painterly styles. Often you will see only one piece of the design completed painted, with the repeats only sketched in. When the designs are for woven fabric or rugs, you sometimes see the graph paper grids they are sketched on.

Fabric designs from Lyons, France, 19th century

Textile design, factory of Jean-Michel Haussmann, Colmar, 1797

Dagobert Peche, design for tapestry fabric for Johann Backhausen & Söhne, 1912

Textile and wallpaper designs were often collected in sample books—some were for companies and/or designers to keep track of their patterns, others were used to market the fabrics. Sample books for textiles, very popular in the 18th century through the 20th century, provide a wealth of information about the history of pattern design, dyeing techniques and the technical means of production. Often they contain swatches of the actual fabrics, shown in the various available colorways.

Wallpaper and border designs, Manufacture Dufour, Paris, early 19th century

Designs for block print fabric, French,  early 19th century

In 2008, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum mounted an interesting exhibition, Multiple Choice: from Sample to Product, that featured sample books for tableware, textiles for interiors and fashion, wallpaper, even buttons. Seeing these lovely books, which contain such a rich visual history, was quite poignant—in the contemporary design world, with electronic formats taking precedence, the paper sample book is truly a thing of the past.

Among the sketches I’ve referenced in this post, many are by well-known designers, others are from an anonymous hand. Some designs were never turned into objects, others are still being manufactured today. But they all continue to live vibrantly on the page, their yellowed and tattered pages still emitting sparks of inspiration.

Wider Connections

The French Archive of Design and Decoration by Stafford Cliff

The English Archive of Design and Decoration by Stafford Cliff

Dagobert Peche and the Wiener Werkstätte, edited by Peter Noever

Gods, Serpents, Leaves and Flowers: Indian Silver for the Raj

by Christine Cariati

Chinar Leaf Bowl, Kashmir, c. 1885
Paul Walter Collection

Note: All objects shown in this post are from the Paul Walter collection unless otherwise indicated.

The Raj, the period of British occupation in India, lasted from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. During this time, the silversmiths of India produced an incredible array of beautiful luxury tableware—including tea services, bowls, goblets, ewers, cutlery, gravy boats and card cases. Initially these pieces were made as gifts and for use in the homes of the British in India. They were also exhibited widely in Europe at expositions and shows. One of these was the Paris exposition of 1878, where the tea service for 12 given by a maharaja to the visiting Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) in 1876 was on display, along with many other examples of Kashmiri silver. Indian silver soon became very sought-after in British and European markets. The London establishments Liberty & Co., Regent Street and Proctor & Co., Oxford Street, set up workshops in India to meet the demand.

Calling Card Case featuring Krishna, Madras, c. 1880

A tradition of European silversmithing had been established in Madras and Calcutta in the 1760s, but by the 1860s the Indian silversmiths had made it their own—wedding their traditional designs and love of embellishment with objects to suit the needs of the British.

Chinar Leaf Tea Service, Kashmir, c. 1885

The British love affair with tea began when they came across it in China, and silver tea services had long been a staple in the elegant English home. So when the British came to India and discovered that two of Indian’s greatest natural resources were tea (from northern India) and silver, the result was inevitable.

Workshop drawings of Oomersee Mawjee & Sons of Kutch
various dates, c. 1899-1904

What makes this work so fascinating is the ingenious blending of Indian motifs with western forms. These pieces have tremendous visual interest, intricate detail and texture. The Indian silversmiths created a wonderful hybrid, objects no longer strictly Indian or western, but an interesting amalgam of the two.

Kutch Silversmith at Work
Sketch by Percy Brown after John Lockwood Kipling, 1902-03

Another fascinating aspect of silver work produced during the Raj is that the various Indian regional design traditions, adapted for these new uses, were reflected in the objects. The silver from Kutch in Gujarat, in far western India, is heavily embossed, filled with all-over curves and arabesques. The patterns appear quite abstract and are often embellished with wonderful details such as a tea pot handle fashioned in the shape of a serpent, or a spout in the form of an elephant’s head.

Kutch teapot with snake handle and elephant-head spout, c. 1880
Private collection

Calling Card Case with Floral Pattern, Kutch, c. 1880

Four Pepper Pots, Kutch, c. 1885-1910

The silver produced in Calcutta contains very different imagery, depicting idyllic scenes from rural Bengali life—workers picking fruit, fetching water, planting or harvesting grain—as well palm trees, and an occasional cow or itinerant holy man.

Beaker with Village Scenes, Calcutta, c. 1885

The so-called Swami silver produced in Madras was filled with Hindu imagery—gods and temples, processions and scenes of music and dance. Much of this work was produced by P. Orr & Sons, a British firm established in India in 1876.

Five-piece Tea Service (detail)
P. Orr & Sons, Madras, c. 1876

P. Orr & Sons showroom, Madras, c. 1899
Courtesy: City Palace Museum, Udaipur

Gravy Boat, Madras, c. 1890

The silversmiths of Kashmir produced some of the most beautiful pieces of the period, highly embellished with botanical imagery. The British had a presence in Kashmir by the early 19th century and greatly admired the crafts of Kashmir, including the weaving. Of particular interest was the “shawl pattern” or paisley. The paisley, which looks like an elongated and stylized mango, got its name from the town of Paisley in Scotland, where many shawls of this pattern were woven. By 1887, silversmiths were incising paisley designs on plain silver against a background of intricately incised leaves, flowers and trees of the region, three of which dominated the designs. Coriander was depicted on the stem, often in continuous scroll work. The poppy, a very popular motif in Mughal art, was depicted both as closed buds and in full flower. The chinar leaf (from the Oriental plane tree (platanus orientalis) was often used in repoussé, with a background design of poppies or coriander (see a superb example at top of post.)

Lobed Stemmed Bowl, Kashmir, c. 1880

Chinar Leaf Plates, Kashmir, c. 1890

Until the late 20th century, the silver for the Raj, like other art of mixed heritage, was not widely valued by scholars who considered it “impure” and outside classical traditions. Fortunately, aesthetic horizons have expanded in recent years and this wonderful work is now getting the attention it deserves.

Wider Connections

Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj by Vidya Dehejia
The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott

Mathias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece

by Christine Cariati

Mathias Grünewald, Crucifixion, Isenheim Altarpiece, c.1512/15
Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar

I’ve been thinking lately about the transformative power of art and its relevance in our troubled world. In medieval times, through its connection to the church, art held a more central place in people’s lives, as it sought to enlighten, instruct and relieve suffering.

This brought to mind the Isenheim Altarpiece by German painter Mathias Grünewald (c. 1475-1528). The Isenheim Altarpiece embodies the human condition laid bare—from the extremes of catastrophic darkness to the rapture of resurrection and eternal life. The graceful, linear quality of the drawing and the vibrant, expressionist use of color would be enough to set this work apart—but Grünewald’s individualistic iconography and the intense emotional impact of the Isenheim Altarpiece make it completely unique.

There is also another aspect of the Isenheim Altarpiece which intensifies its powerful spiritual presence—it was commissioned by the monks of a medieval hospital in the tiny hamlet of Isenheim to help lessen the suffering of their patients afflicted with a terrible skin disease called St. Anthony’s fire, or ergotism, which was caused by rye fungus. In a time before painkillers, the patients meditated on Christ’s intense suffering and resurrection to help them cope with their own agonies.

Crucifixion: Mary, John and Mary Magdalene (detail)

The Isenheim Altarpiece, painted on nine hinged panels, contains twelve images, including two sets of folding wings. It can be viewed in three ways. In its closed position—the way it would have been viewed originally on weekdays at the hospital—the central panel shows the Crucifixion, with side panels of St. Anthony and St. Sebastian. The second view shows the Annunciation, the Angelic Concert, the Madonna and Child and the Resurrection. In the third view, a pre-existing carved and gilded wooden altarpiece is flanked by Grünewald’s paintings of the Temptation of St. Anthony and the Meeting with Anthony and Paul.

The Annunciation

Madonna and Child

Resurrection

As the panels of the altarpiece were unfolded, the enormous scope of the intense, riveting drama was revealed. Grünewald’s image of the crucified Christ is imbued with a visceral and emotional intensity. Christ, his skin a grayish green, covered with wounds—has clearly writhed in agony, his limbs twisted, his hands distorted, his head with its crown of thorns hanging painfully on his chest. This is a portrait of a brutal, solitary death—the sense of immediacy, agony and isolation is palpable. By contrast, the resurrected Christ, surrounded by light, is a triumphant image of the rapture of eternal life.

Crucifixion: Head of Christ (detail)

Resurrection: Head of Christ (detail)

Mathias Grünewald’s real name was Mathis Gothardt Neihardt—the name Grünewald was mistakenly attributed to him 150 years after his death. For a painter who was so well-thought of in his own time, remarkably little information about him has been passed down and few of his works survive—only about ten paintings (including multi-paneled altar pieces) and 35 drawings. All the work that remains is religious in nature. Unlike Albrecht Dürer and the other great German artists of the time, who excelled at woodcarving and other forms of print making, Grünewald only made paintings and drawings, which in itself is very unusual. So little was known about Grünewald, that until the 19th century, it was believed that the Isenheim Altarpiece was painted by Albrecht Dürer.

Study for Isenheim Altarpiece, c. 1512

What we do know is that by 1509, Grünewald was court painter to the Archbishop of Mainz, and that he was commissioned to paint the Isenheim Altarpiece around 1512-15.  Art historians disagree as to interpretations and influences—for example, one categorically states that Grünewald, because of his clear knowledge of Italian painting, must have traveled widely—another asserts he never left Germany. Personally, I don’t think the facts of Grünewald’s life can really do much to explain the expressive, luminous intensity of the work or how he pushed his artistic skill to the point where he could capture so powerfully the tension and emotion of this transformative  work.

Crucifixion: St. Sebastian (detail)

The complex and unusual iconography of the Isenheim Altarpiece is puzzling. The imagery in religious art of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance may seem mysterious to many of us today, but can be easily deciphered by art historians—the reason and background behind every element depicted can be traced, parsed and explained. Not so with Grünewald. Some of his iconography appears to be related to the work of the 14th century mystic, St Bridget of Sweden, whose Revelations was widely read in Germany at that time, but that does not explain all of the unusual visual references. It seems that Grünewald took an eclectic approach not only stylistically, but as regards subject matter as well.

Crucifixion: John the Baptist and the Lamb

Altarpieces were created for one purpose: to embody a specific aspect of generally recognized religious truth. In the process of spiritual meditation the barrier between the viewer and the artistic creation is broken. The Isenheim Altarpiece, in its intensity, tenderness and majesty is the power of this transformation made visible. Like Hieronymous Bosch, Grünewald infuses his work with a highly personal imagination that elicits a strong reaction from the viewer.

Monsters from the Temptation of St. Anthony panel

Grünewald clearly had a knowledge of Central European art from the late Gothic to the beginning of the 16th century, and incorporates elements from these various time periods in a highly original and independent way. There are links to Bosch and Netherlandish painting, as well as intimations of the naturalism of the Renaissance in Italy. Grünewald, on the cusp of the German Reformation, embodies aspects of both medieval and Renaissance art. Unlike the masters of the Italian Renaissance—whose work Grünewald may or may not have seen personally—Grünewald’s heavenly creatures are conjured from light, they are clearly not of this world. Painters of the Italian Renaissance incorporated spiritual beings into the known world. As an example, see the work of Michaelangelo who was painting the Sistine Chapel at the same time Grünewald was painting his altarpiece. In Grünewald, the supernatural world exists outside the human realm.

The Angelic Concert

Angels of the Annunciation

Grünewald’s masterpiece, forgotten for centuries, was rediscovered by a wider public following the horrors of World War I. At the outbreak of war, the Isenheim Altarpiece was moved from the Musée d’Unterlinden and sent for safe-keeping to Munich. After the war it was restored and exhibited for a time in the Alte Pinakothek before returning to Colmar. The Expressionists, then dominating the art scene in Germany, looked to Grünewald as their forerunner and to the Isenheim Altarpiece as the confirmation of their philosophy. The world, traumatized and overwhelmed by the death and destruction of the war, turned to the Isenheim Altarpiece for solace and inspiration.

Wider Connections

The Isenheim Altar: Suffering and Salvation in the Art of Grunewald by Gottfried Richter
Mathias Grünewald
by Horst Ziermann
Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar

Christian Bérard: Painter, Designer, Illustrator

by Christine Cariati

Christian Bérard, Self-portrait, 1948
Oil on canvas, 18″ x 24″
Private collection, Paris

Christian Bérard (1902-1949) was a prodigiously-talented artist, whose tremendous facility across different fields, and his status as the darling of fashionable society in the Paris of the 1920s and 1930s, undermined his reputation as a serious painter. Bérard’s work confounded the critics because his work was unclassifiable—it existed outside the current theories of art, and he interchanged techniques and disciplines. Bérard’s ground-breaking set and costume designs, fashion and book illustrations, murals, decorative screens and interior designs all demonstrated a sensitive, fluid, graceful, elegant line.

Christian Bérard, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1932
Mural for Jean Cocteau’s flat, Paris

Christian Bérard, set for Margot, 1935
Margot’s Room at the Louvre, Act II, Scene 1
Gouache on paper

Bérard’s paintings, mostly portraits and self-portraits, added another dimension to his talent as a draughtsman. Painted with insight and great skill, in a neo-romantic, poetic style, they exhibit a deeply-felt humanism. His friend and partner of 20 years, Boris Kochno, remarked that when he was painting, Bérard’s usual childlike exuberance would vanish, and he would work with great concentration and intensity, seeming to take instruction from an unseen third party. Bérard often reused canvases, painting over work he was dissatisfied with—so one can occasionally glimpse ghost-like images, faint faces, emerging from some of his paintings.

Christian Bérard, Madame L., 1947
Oil on canvas, 32″ x 26″
Private Collection

Christian Bérard, Boris Kochno, 1930
Oil on cardboard, 43″ x 31″
Collection Boris Kochno

Christian Bérard, Emilio Terry, 1931
Oil on canvas, 36″ x 28″
Private collection, Paris

Born in Paris in 1902, Bérard was the son of the official architect of the city of Paris, André Bérard. His mother’s early death from tuberculosis was traumatic for the young Bérard. After his wife’s death, the elder Bérard married his secretary, who joined him in the constant disparaging and belittling of his son’s talents, friendships and spending habits. Perhaps Bérard’s life-long desire to please and give pleasure, and his susceptibility to flattery, was a reaction to this early and intense hostility from his family.

Christian Bérard, 1932
Photograph, Hoyningen-Huene

Bérard showed artistic talent at a young age. As a child he filled sketchbooks with drawings of ballets and circus performances that he attended with his parents. He also copied the couture gowns from his mother’s fashion magazines, which at that time were heavily influenced by the Orientalism of Léon Bakst’s sets for Diaghilev’s ballets. As a young man, he studied at the Académie Ranson with Edouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis and had his first gallery show in 1925. His early work was collected by Gertrude Stein, and he did portraits of his friends Coco Chanel, Jean Cocteau, Cecil Beaton and Horst P. Horst.

Christian Bérard, Jean Cocteau, 1928
Oil on canvas, 26″ x 21″
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Christian Bérard, Horst P. Horst, 1933/34
Oil on canvas, 31″ x 41″
Private collection, New York

Throughout his career, when he needed the income, Bérard continued to do illustrations for fashion and interior design magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Art et Style, Formes et Coleurs and Style en France. He had a great eye for fashion and style, and his work elevated the art of fashion illustration, updating a Watteau or Fragonard sensibility for women’s fashion to the styles of the 1930s and 40s. His work often inspired the couture collections of designers like Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli and Nina Ricci. Bérard also did some interior decoration and textile design—painting murals and decorative screens, designing rugs—as well as a line of scarves for Ascher Silks, London.

Christian Bérard, illustration, beachwear for Schiaparelli, n.d.

Christian Bérard, Scarf designed for Ascher Silks, London

Christian Bérard, carpet design, c. 1940
Made by Maurice Lauer/Aubusson and Cogolin, reissued 1951

Bérard also continued to do illustrations for theater and ballet posters, music scores, and advertising throughout his life.

Christian Bérard, Sketch for an illustration of Gigi by Colette, n.d.
Pastel and gouache, 13″ x 8″

Christian Bérard, Poster for the Ballets des Champs-Elysées

Christian Bérard, Empress Josephine
Illustration for Queens of France by Jean Cocteau and Guillaume, 1949
Drypoint

Christian Berard, Illustration for score by Georges Auric, 1935
Gouache on paper

Christian Bérard was a large man, with fair hair, luminous blue eyes, and a rosy plump face that earned him the nickname Bébé, given to him by his friends because he resembled the baby in an advertisement for soap that was currently up all over Paris. Bérard’s appearance was often disheveled, he would stride into Maxim’s or other society nightspots in tattered paint-spattered smock and torn coveralls, with a large patterned scarf flung dramatically over his baggy workman’s jacket. Boris Kochno also recounts long walks through Paris at night—Bérard constantly noticing and pointing out glimpses of magical scenes, almost like a conjurer. Bérard never lost his childhood enjoyment of carnivals and street fairs and threw himself with great enthusiasm into the constant round of costume parties given by his friends. He excelled at spontaneously creating costumes from fabrics and items at hand.

Christian Bérard, sketch for Cyrano de Bergerac, 1938
Indian ink and gouache
Private collection

When agitated or absorbed in his work, Bérard could be very clumsy, and he could turn a well-ordered room into chaos in short order—leaving a wake of crumbled papers, overflowing ash trays, and stepped-on tubes of paint.  He was also extremely witty and charming—his spontaneity, kindness and charisma made him very popular in fashionable circles. He was always creating—while dining with friends, like New York society hostess Elsa Maxwell, Bérard would constantly be drawing on table cloths, napkins, menus—caricatures, stage sets, costumes. The waiters would hover and often quickly whisk them away, usually to sell to collectors.

Christian Bèrard, Program for Le Théàtre de la Mode, 1945

In 1930, Bérard designed his first theater set, for Jean Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine at the Comédie-Française. Cocteau was a life-long friend, and the work that Bérard is perhaps most famous for, is his set and costume design for Cocteau’s film masterpiece, La Belle et la Bête. Unfortunately, Bérard also shared Cocteau’s vice, the smoking of opium, which lead to a life of drug addiction, repeated sanatorium cures, and contributed to his early death.

Christian Bérard, sketchess for sets for Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bête, 1946
Chalk and gouache on black paper
Private Collection

In 1931, Bérard joined the company of the Ballet Russes in Monte Carlo, working with choreographer George Balanchine on the ballet Cotillon. Balanchine had taken over for ballet impresario and founder of the Ballet Russes, Sergei Diaghilev. Balanchine continued in Diaghilev’s tradition of scouring the garrets of Montparnasse and Montmartre to find unknown choreographers, set designers or musicians to collaborate with. At first Balanchine declined to work with Bérard because he thought his work was already too well-known as an artist and illustrator, but the quality of Bérard’s work caused him to change his mind.

Christian Bérard, sketch for L’Ecole des Femmes, 1936
Horace’s Costume, Gouache

In the 1930s, Bérard did the sets and costumes for four ballets as well as many plays, such as Moliere’s L’Ecole des Femmes at the Théàtre de l’Athenée in 1936. He also worked with Jean Genet and Jean Giraudoux, among others. Bérard’s work was revolutionary and changed theater design forever—his set for L’Ecole consisted of a small garden, two flowerbeds and 5 chandeliers. He believed that  sets should serve and enhance the work, he was always subtracting elements, leaving just the essentials. His set for Léonid Massine’s ballet set to the music of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, was a masterpiece of delicate, weightless friezes. Except for the judicious use of deep red, Bérard eschewed bright colors, believing that pale, soft color better served the performances. To see Bérard working on a set was to see an outpouring of inventiveness. After Bérard’s death, Jean Cocteau said of working with his friend:

Christian Bérard was my right hand. Since he was left-handed, I had a special, clever, gracious, light right hand: a magical hand.
You may imagine the emptiness left by an artist who guessed all, and with the dilligence of an archeologist, conjured up naked beauty from the thin air where she resides. Bérard is dead, but that is no reason to stop following his instructions. I know what he would say about anything, in any circumstances. I listen to him and carry out his orders.

Christian Bérard in the studio at Fourques, 1940

Christian Berard died in 1949, while at work on the costumes and sets for Les Fourberies de Scapin at the Théàtre Marigny, working with friends director Louis Jouvet and actors Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud. After giving some final instructions, Bérard stood up and said: “Well, that’s that,” and collapsed from a cerebral embolism. Jean-Louis Barrault wrote:

If I had to chose only one among the many impressions of Christian Bérard that spring to mind, it would be one that soon became for him a profession of faith: the joy of living, to the extent of perishing from that joy…It is as if, while I think intensely of him, all of the Bérards leaping about me reply:

‘Love of life is based on suffering, anguish, nostalgia, sorrow and sadness…that’s true, but all that is the source of joy.’

Wider Connections

Christian Bérard’s work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Menil Collection, Houston and the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas.

Christian Bérard, by Boris Kochno, with an introduction by John Russell. Thames and Hudson, 1988.