Morocco: The Saadian Tombs of Marrakech

Saadian Tombs, Marrakech, Morocco

Saadian Tombs, Marrakech, Morocco

There are two mausoleums in the Saadian Tombs: one for the sultan who built this complex, Ahmed al-Mansour ed-Dahbi, and one for the most important woman in his life. Who was that? Well, according to this exchange I overheard between a tour guide and one of his group members:

Now this was for the most important woman in his life — who do you think that was?

His queen?

We don’t have queens. No, this was for his mother.

Should’ve posted this closer to Mother’s Day…

Al-Mansour basically had enough time to make sure the complex was built, before he had need of the mausoleum himself. Wives, chancellors, princes, and other descendants were buried here over the next several decades. But the Saadian dynasty fell, and around 1672 the new sultan, Moulay Ismail, sealed up the tombs.

Aerial photographs taken in 1917 (I’m guessing during WWI though I can’t find confirmation of that) revealed the location of the tombs to the French, who then re-opened them up. They found somewhere between 170 and 200 graves, some in the gardens and some in the Chamber of 12 Pillars (where al-Mansour and his son are buried).

Today, you find the tombs by walking down a narrow alleyway, paying a small fee, and turning a corner into a small, sunny courtyard. The graves are decorated in colorful geometric patterns and Arabic script quoting the Koran. A few orange and palm trees rustle gently in the breeze. A tortoise munches its way across the grass. Apparently, cats guard the mother’s tomb, but I didn’t see them — perhaps it was too warm that day and they were off duty.

Without making too light of the fact that this is the final resting place for the people buried here, I will also say that the gardens in the Saadian Tombs make for a wonderful respite from the bustle of Marrakech.

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The Lady and the Unicorn, a Lesbian Love Story

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, masterpieces of the form from the late 15th/early 16th centuries on display in the Museum of the Middle Ages (formerly the Cluny Museum), have appeared in novels, poems, songs, and as some sharp viewer noticed, on the walls of the Gryffindor common room in the Harry Potter movies. Ever since George Sand rediscovered them and wrote about them in the mid-19th century, these tapestries haven’t been exactly obscure. And yet, no one knows quite how to interpret them. There are several theories, the most prominent being that they are about the five senses and the soul, since at the time the tapestries were woven, the senses could be seen as doorways to the sacred but also reminders of our base humanity. The final tapestry, which bears the inscription à mon seul désir (“to my one desire/love” or “by my desire/will alone”), is usually seen as the lady putting aside material things for higher ideals. It could also be about the lady preparing to give up her virginity (unicorns are symbols of chastity but that long horn is also a bit suggestive, so unicorns are generally sexually ambiguous). But these interpretations are all wrong. Clearly, The Lady and the Unicorn series shows the lady and her maidservant falling in love.

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

Okay, here’s our first tapestry, “Touch.” Our lady is bracing herself, holding on with one hand to the flagpole bearing her family’s crest, and with the other to the unicorn’s horn. The unicorn looks up at her calmly, secure in the knowledge that he is what she needs. She knows what’s expected of her, that she will be married off to a man, but she can’t even bear to look at him, to admit what her future will be. The lady is isolated, just her and the lion and unicorn, and one brave little bunny. Notice that many of the animals here are shackled, chained and unhappy.

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

Ooh, our lady and her maidservant meet here in “Taste.” Right away, the lion and unicorn are up on their hind legs, reflecting that feeling you get when you meet someone you’re immediately attracted to–you feel alert, alive, like you have to stand up and take more notice of the world. Notice that the animals are unchained and free now, and several of them have joined the women and lion and unicorn on the little island. Everyone feels like more things are possible now. The maidservant is offering up a bowl of sweets to the lady, literally offering up something sweet for the lady to taste. How does the lady feel about that? Well, she would never be so unrefined as to have her hair blown back, but her veil is waving about behind her. A little bird lands on an outstretched finger, a little symbol of freedom. Check out the look on the unicorn’s face; he knows that serious competition has just arrived.

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

In “Smell”, our lady and maidservant get to know each other better, as they hitch up their skirts for the work of the day, a gesture of intimacy we haven’t seen yet. Our lady, who before was so overcome with feeling that she had to glance shyly away from her maidservant, is now able to look her right in the eye. Our maidservant holds up a tray of flowers, from which our lady gathers blossoms to make into a garland. Delicate lady-flowers are definitely in play here.

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

Look, now they are literally making music together. In “Hearing,” our lady plays the notes on the organ while our maidservant works the bellows. This is a two-person job, and dare I say they have to be perfectly in tune with one another to do it properly? The lion is even sort of turned away to give them some privacy, although he can’t help peeking. The unicorn is coming around to the idea of this whole arrangement; the tilt of his head seems to be saying, “Go on, babe, I see what you’ve got going here.” Our wonderful maidservant looks frankly at her lady, as she has done in all the tapestries she’s been in so far. No maidenly shyness here; she knows what she wants and she’s looking right at her. I’m pretty sure we have not one but two goats on the little island as well (goats being well-known symbols of randiness).

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

In “Sight,” our lady bids farewell to the unicorn. Our maidservant isn’t here–she has tact–so our lady looks almost sorrowfully at the unicorn as she breaks it to him that this is never going to work between them. But look at him, he’s pretty sanguine about the whole thing. He rests his hooves on her legs and gazes at her with affection. He’s not going to get in the way. She holds up a mirror so he can see himself, and what he sees isn’t a reflection of himself now but as he will be in the near future–alone, maybe, but head held high and looking out for what’s next.

the lady and the unicorn tapestry paris

Finally, here we are on the final tapestry, which shows a little tent, a bench, and our maidservant holding up a big ol’ chest of jewelry for our lady. Perhaps she’s placing the necklace back in the chest because she doesn’t need material items to be happy, just the love of this woman. Perhaps she’s taking a necklace out of the chest to give to this woman as a token of her affection. Perhaps she’s getting undressed because they’re about to go inside that tent and get busy. But whatever she’s doing with the jewelry, it’s clear what she’s doing with her future: she’s building it with this woman, her maidservant becoming her partner. A little lap dog appears for the first time, a symbol of domesticity. The lion and unicorn hold up a long veil that looks remarkably similar to what women often wear on their wedding day. And now that ambiguous phrase overhead makes sense: à mon seul désirIt both means “to my only desire/love,” as she gives her heart over to her maidservant, and also “by my desire/will alone,” as she lives her life according to her own desires and not by what was expected of her. She still displays her family’s flags proudly, she’s not trying to reject them, and look she’s even still friends with the unicorn (in a he’s-bowing-down-to-her kind of way). But she knows what she wants, and she’s looking right at her.

Dulwich Picture Gallery: Art for the People

Once you’ve visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery, you definitely know two things: this was the first art gallery in Britain specifically created for the public, and the building was designed by Sir John Soane. These two facts are brought up in the guided tour, the building map, the website, and probably a few other places. But they’re rather remarkable facts, so I can see why the gallery emphasizes them.

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A Girl at a Window, Rembrandt

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The entrance to Dulwich Picture Gallery

Soane was already Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy when his friend’s will requested he design the gallery, so it was a big deal for him to spend his time on it (not only that, but he did it for no fee when it turned out there weren’t enough funds to cover his fee plus building costs). Soane was very interested in natural light and most of his buildings have some form of the domed canopy that we’re all familiar with from the iconic red telephone boxes (a trustee of the Sir John Soane Museum, Giles Gilbert Scott, designed the telephone boxes). He did something similar here, putting in massive skylights which light the pictures indirectly; this was a new approach and influenced future art gallery designs.

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A well-lit series of interconnected rooms

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The original paintings of Dulwich College–a terrible William I, a lady, and four actors (the college was founded by actor Edward Alleyn)

The other point–that this was the first public gallery in Britain–is also remarkable. The gallery was opened in 1817, at a time when common people were only just starting to be seen as worth educating, let alone exposing to the finer things in life like art. I think the gallery’s openness must be because its founders, Noel Desenfans and Francis Bourgeois, were themselves not aristocrats. They hustled hard as art dealers (getting their start with the money Margaret Morris brought in when she married Desenfans), and they lived in comfortable nouveau riche style, inviting well-heeled friends to their home in Charlotte Street to view their personal collection. (Let’s just take a moment to appreciate how perfect that a middle-class man who worked as an art dealer was named Bourgeois–is there anything more bougie than that?) They clearly didn’t forget their roots, though, and I think it’s great that Bourgeois used his powerful connections (he was personal friends with Soane, he was wooed by Dulwich College to bequeath his collection to them) to create something for people with no connections to enjoy.

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Miss Margaret Morris, later Mrs Desenfans, Reynolds

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Head of an Old Man, Caracci

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They’ve used period furniture to decorate the gallery

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A cut-up piece of an altar piece by Veronese; other parts are in museums in California, Canada, and Scotland

Although perhaps this collection was destined for public viewing regardless. It was originally commissioned by Stanislaus Augustus, King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, to form a national gallery of the old masters as part of his plans to encourage fine art in his country. Perhaps the public would have been invited to view that gallery? But his country kept getting partitioned by greedy nearby states, and five years after the commission, Stanislaus wasn’t ruler of anything anymore, which left Desenfans and Bourgeois with over 300 paintings to house.

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Detail of Vase with Flowers, Huysum

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Three works by Murillo
This is one of the first times the faces of the Virgin & the baby Jesus are drawn from life studies rather than as iconic types

dulwich picture gallery

Saint Sebastian, Reni
Reni apparently claimed he could paint 100 different ways of people looking up, and indeed a lot of his pictures show a variation on that pose

The collection now numbers more than 600 paintings, and although the gallery doesn’t make any purchases, people try to make gifts pretty frequently. Because of limited storage space, the gallery has to be quite selective, only accepting pictures that fill a specific gap in the collection.

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Venus, Mars and Cupid, Rubens

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An x-ray of Rubens’ painting, which shows how he made changes like moving the left legs of both Venus and Cupid

The rooms are split up into different schools of painting, which more or less followed along national lines: British, Dutch, Flemish, French, Italian. Or as was explained to Queen Elizabeth II when she stood in the center of the gallery to re-open it after a major renovation in 2000: “To the left are the beer drinkers, ma’am, and to the right, the wine drinkers.” Meaning, of course, that the northern Europeans were to the left and the southern Europeans to the right. (Thanks to guide Hillary for this delightful anecdote.)

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Paintings have been hung in a stacked style similar to the one used when the gallery first opened

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Jacob III de Gheyn, Rembrandt
This painting has been stolen from the museum more than any other–four times!

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Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse, Reynolds
This was Sarah Siddons’ favorite portrait of herself, because she felt it did the best job of highlighting her as a tragedian

After the tour was over and we started to disperse, I looked around at who was visiting on a Saturday. A lot of gray-haired folks, yes, but a few other people my age, a teenaged couple who held hands in front of a Rubens, and a couple young kids scampering about while their parents made their way around the Dutch room. Dulwich Picture Gallery might contain expensive works of art centuries years old, but it’s still filling its intended purpose of making that art available to the masses. Its founders would be proud.

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Mrs Elizabeth Moody with her sons Samuel and Thomas, Gainsborough

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The Nurture of Jupiter, Poussin

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Teenagers enjoying the museum’s most famous painting

Unlofty Thoughts on the Lofty Art at the Staedel Museum

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Sandro Botticelli, Idealized Portrait of a Lady

Idealized or not, I want to try that hairstyle.

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Luca Giordano, Youth Tempted by the Vices

I like how one of the tempters in this temptation scene is cockblocking the lady in blue, who is so desperately trying to get her temptation through to the temptee lad in red that she is squirting breast milk at him. Which, to be fair, it looks like he wants some of that.

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Simon George of Cornwall

Oh hey, it’s my new bae. So hot, so stylish, with a particularly suggestive broach (it’s Leda and the Swan). Yeah, okay, so he’s bringing me a carnation as a symbol of his love, but that’s just the flower of choice from his time, okay? He doesn’t know how unfashionable they are now.

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Rhenish Master, Altenberg Altarpiece

I just like that Mary and Elizabeth get a panel to themselves. They get to have a breath here and exclaim over the news they’ve just received before it’s all about angels and holy sons again.

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Aert de Gelder, Self-Portrait as Zeuxis Portraying an Ugly Old Woman

THIS dickweed. Here we have a self-portrait of the artist painting a middle-aged, ‘ugly’ lady so that she appears younger and more conventionally attractive. The smirk on his face says it all: ‘Delusional bitches, huh? But ya gotta pay the rent.’

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes

I really admire the way she’s working hard to keep blood splatter off their dresses.

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Pompeo Girolamo Batoni, Allegory of the Arts

Architecture and Music in the background all, ‘No it’s fine, we like it back here in the dark, we prefer it actually, we’re pretty sensitive to light, we know you didn’t mean to imply that we’re unimportant or anything, yeah we understand, it’s just for the layout of the painting, sure, sure.’

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Middle Rhenish master, Crucifixion Altarpiece allegedly from St Peter’s in Frankfurt

Poor woman, she’s clinging to the crucifix and mourning the death of Jesus, and then along comes this horse that clearly wants a piece of her.

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Strasbourg master, The Preparation of the Cross

Wardrobe & makeup doing some fix-up work on Jesus between takes on set.

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Adriaen Brouwer, The Bitter Potion

Ordered ale. Got lager.

 

Staedel Museum, Frankfurt

Northern Netherlandish master, Triptych with the Crucifixion, Saints and Donors

‘We’re definitely in the wrong triptych.’
‘I told you we went to the wrong one.’
‘I know, I’m sorry! I just got nervous and jumped in. What are we going to do now?’
‘Smile. Look like you’re praying. Maybe they won’t notice.’

The Staedel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany is a wonderful place. I spent three hours on the Old Masters’ floor alone. Many beautiful pieces to discover–if you’re ever in Frankfurt, be sure to visit!

Lumiere London 2016

It’s cliched but true: living in a city means you always have dozens of cool things to do on any given day. In the last few weeks alone, I’ve gone to an art/design exhibit, a couple comedy shows, and a city-wide art show consisting of light installation pieces. Lumiere London was a free event around the West End and Kings Cross over four chilly days in mid-January. Fortified by a few beers at the pub, I walked around with friends and saw probably two-thirds of the entire show. There were some less-than-inspired pieces (including a few illuminated birdhouses in a sterile garden, so dull I didn’t even take photos of them), but many more lovely and weird ones. No surprise that I especially enjoyed the pieces that incorporated sound into the light show.  I would’ve liked to see the whole thing, but time and cold both got in the way.

I made a short video, a pretty choppy affair due to multiple fights with Movie Maker–sorry about that. Still, it gives a pretty good sense of what I saw last week. Keep your eyes peeled for the elephant butt and the larger-than-life lily-of-the-valley.

 

An Artist’s Vision Realized: Guayasamín’s Capilla del Hombre in Quito

In a misunderstanding straight out of a sitcom about traveling in foreign lands, I almost didn’t visit Guayasamín’s Capilla del Hombre when my language school offered an excursion there. The school sign simply read “Capilla del Hombre,” which my friends and I correctly translated as “Chapel of Man.” I didn’t connect this to the much-lauded museum mentioned in my guidebook, and I dithered about whether we wanted to go to yet another church; it seemed like I’d been to a lot of churches lately. Happily, I did decide to go, and once our taxi shuddered to a stop at the top of the steep hill the building’s located atop, I made the connection. Oh, this is the museum and house of the famous Ecuadorian artist, Oswaldo Guayasamín.

Grand purpose

Grand purpose

The Chapel of Man, designed by Guayasamín himself, is pitched as a tribute to the oppressed peoples of the world, especially the indigenous of South America, and in fact is a museum for many of Guayasamín’s works. There’s nothing wrong with that, and his commitment to social justice is apparent, but I do take some issue with using exclusively your own art in a building dedicated to all of humanity.

La Capilla

La Capilla

Still, his art is amazing. He was a Cubist and Expressionist, and he painted huge canvases of elongated figures, huge eyes, bold colors. He had three major periods, which have been dubbed tears, suffering, and tenderness. Darker colors in the first, brighter in the second, warmer in the third. One painting was called “The Mutilated,” and it showed pieces of bodies torn apart by war. He painted them on six panels, and those panels can be moved around in different configurations, to show the random cruelty of war, the way we’re all reduced to body parts when violence takes us. The panels themselves are fixed in place by the museum, but there’s a computer nearby that lets you move them around on the screen, in a sort of gruesome game.

I snuck just one photo inside

I snuck just one photo inside–photos were not allowed, so please Google Images his work and see some great stuff

One of my favorites was a reworking of a 14th century Pieta, which removed the halos, stigmata, priest, and Christ’s clothes of the original and put in a blood-red background and Mary’s hands held up to heaven in grief rather than pressed together in prayer. It stripped away the religiosity and presented a mother’s grief, a man’s death. It was striking and beautiful.

Many pieces were dedicated to the enslaved indigenous peoples (Mayans, Quechuans, Incas, Aztecs—not much seemed to be made of the fact that many of these were conquerors themselves, that was not his focus), and enslaved Africans. The walls boasted several quotes about helping each other, being the light in the world. One said “I cried because I did not have shoes until I saw a child that did not have feet.” The center of the museum contains a giant bowl with an eternal flame inside, because when he was dying, Guayasamín said, “Keep the light on, I will be back.”

Not a bad view from your front yard

Not a bad view from your front yard

Unfortunately, the museum guide knew about as much English as I know Spanish, and our school guide had much more interesting asides, so I wish our group had just gone around alone with the school guide. Also, the museum guide would ask for interpretations of the paintings and then tell us we were wrong! As in, “What do you see here?” “I see despair.” “No, not despair. Anyone else?” A different approach to appreciating art, for sure!

Not a bad front yard, either

Not a bad front yard, either

The ticket price includes admission to Guayasamín’s house and studio, which are on the same grounds. We caught up with a tour midway through, but I zoned out for most of it and just stared at the amazing number of beautiful things Guayasamín amassed during his life. A handmade guitar inlaid with mother-of-pearl, erotic statues from various parts of the world, Catholic icons, traditional paintings, etc., etc. It would be a privilege to wake up in this house every day, never mind then going to work in your own cavernous studio next door.

I’m glad I didn’t let my own ignorance get in the way, and I decided to go to the Capilla del Hombre. It was my first introduction to Guayasamín, and an impressive one at that. I saw his art in all sorts of places after that, seeing his style and influence through Ecuador (including in the governmental palace in the center of Quito).

Final resting place

Final resting place

Guayasamín died before construction was quite complete, but he got to see the beginning of the realization of his vision. He’s buried under a tree in the corner of the yard. Flowers dot the ground and wind chimes sing in the breeze over his final resting place, with his chapel just behind and his city in the distance.

A postcard showing one of his pieces from the "Tenderness" phase

A postcard showing one of his pieces from the “Tenderness” phase