Grad-about Misadventures: at last, Caravaggio!

Last night’s wanderings were a bit discouraging, especially after I started feeling ill, and began imagining dragging my sick corpus through the gallery (only to fall over halfway through). But early bed restored all good humour, the grocery store was an easy walk, and I set out for the gallery well fortified with three tiny bowls of cereal (and blueberries), and accompanied by sandwiches.

I continued to be temporarily perplexed by the tiny bowls.

And a map. I’ve also gotten very good at asking neatly-dressed persons with newspapers for directions (assuming that these are the bankers, office people, and lawyers who permanently populate downtown Ottawa), and have by now constructed a series of landmarks to keep from going astray (including the National Arts Centre, and the scaffolding with the enormous Canadian flag on it).

I think that might be it...

Finding the gallery was simple enough given the imperative that all galleries must have enormous sculptures surrounding their grounds (and, well, directional signs everywhere). The “Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome” exhibit was just what I wanted. It was, as always, a very strange experience to see an enormous collection of works that get circulated in textbooks hanging within arm’s reach (but no reaching allowed!). Almost all of the paintings were scenes (rather than portraits) — early Caravaggio and co. tavern and gamester scenes, and later Caravaggio scenes from biblical and classical narratives. The kind of Baroque style that Caravaggio was painting doesn’t seem to have been much fussed with backgrounds and clothing, but very much with expressions and gestures, so scenes where a number of people are communicating in a close space (and often conveying an entire narrative in a single frame) are well-suited to the style. Animals featured in rather a big way at the end of the exhibit, especially in a series of the early  Christian saints and another of the Sacrifice of Isaac. The animals ended up having as much expression as the humans (which strikes me as not often the case in medieval and early Renaissance religious art and 18th-century military scenes and portraits). I think I may have bothered a woman while looking at one of the Isaac paintings (not Caravaggio’s version), because I sort of giggled aloud at the ram with its head lifted up to Abraham in an earnestly pleading way.

I suppose if one is painting religious tableaus in the Renaissance  one develops a knack for painting lifelike animals. The Orpheus painting (and I cannot at all remember who painted it, except, again, not Caravaggio; I’ll have order to exhibition book when I get home) was one of my favourites, mainly because the animals (including a cat and a dog) were all lounging about the singer’s feet, in very cat- and dog- (and tortoise- and lion-) like ways.

Caravaggio seems to have an excellent sense of humour — not only terribly obvious in the room devoted to showcasing the tavern and gamester scenes (with all sorts of cheating, swindling, and theft), but also in paintings like his “Mary and Martha” scene, where all the light and detail has gone into Mary Magdalene’s cloths and jewels (Caravaggio seems to have gone out of his way to take all sympathy from her).

The tavern/revelry/con-artist scenes, however, were the room I enjoyed the most; these were scenes where the exchanges of expressions and gestures were most playful (revealing who was in on the pickpocketing and card cheating cons). Nicholas Tournier’s revelling scenes also included a recurring character standing at the left side of the frame gazing out at the viewer, simultaneously pointing out the cheats and gesturing for silence (thereby seeming to include us in the con): the painting equivalent of city comedy (and indeed, sharing many of the figures from Italian Commedia dell’Arte).

There was also a sinister lute plsyer, a very strange St Christopher (where the baby looked like a wizened gnome), a delightfully gruesome Judith and Holofernes by Artemesia Gentileschi (like Carvaggio — but unlike most of her male contemporaries — she paints the scene mid-beheading rather than Judith carrying the already-decapitated head).

Outside the featured exhibit the National Gallery is overwhelmingly big. I wended through the “American-European” wing of the permanent collection, fell in love again with Monet, Morisot Pissaro, Degas, and Cezanne  (impressionists have so so so much colour), and Rothko. And discovered why Van Gogh’s “Iris” paintings are made a fuss of (more colour!), as well as Alexander Calder’s mobiles — which are again very playful pieces of art, and unusual (even for sculptures in a gallery) in that one can walk under and within them as the move. And there were futurists, and Picasso, and oh, just these 2000-year old reliefs and statuettes (which were dishearteningly left both nigh-unvisited and unattended). I could only make it halfway through this wing in just two hours, and finally had to leave out of exhaustion; I’d like to go back tomorrow if I can.

Beautiful stairs.

I was in the gallery for five hours. Somewhere in that time I had lunch with an elderly British couple who wished me luck on this PhD thing, read some Richard Brome, marveled at what I think is the best staircase design ever concocted (and which I was not at all nervous about traveling about on), and sat for awhile with Champlain  in the little outdoor theatre seats that overlook the rear of Parliament (where all the flags were at half-mast today).

Samuel awaits the boats.

Then I left to loiter about some bookstores, get the tiniest bit lost (alright, I circled the American embassy twice), and the tiniest bit more confused by the changing of the guard ceremony at the war memorial (the confusion is mostly about why the guards look like they should be at Buckingham palace), and then wended home.

Tomorrow, after writing, I’ll find a place to buy a sweater of light jacket (it is far far cooler than I thought already), wander about Parliament, maybe travel back to the National gallery, and definitely to the Library and Archives (I’ve been warned that U of O’s library isn’t terribly impressive). And then I will be chaperoned to scones (and coffee?) by A., who apparently still lives in Ottawa, and promises the experience won’t be weird.

"Into Parliament, into parliament, parliament, parliament he shall go, into parliament he shall go!"

Now: sleep, sleep, sleep.

23 August 2011 ~ Ottawa

[Er, the larger view is upside down. How fun!]

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