Apr 3, 2012

Caravaggio ' was killed by the Knights of Malta'

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His mysterious death at the age of 38 has been blamed variously on malaria, an intestinal infection, lead poisoning from the oil paints he used or a violent brawl. 

 'Judith beheading Holofernes' by Caravaggio
'Judith beheading Holofernes' by Caravaggio 

Now an intriguing new theory has been put forward for the demise of the rabble-rousing Renaissance artist Caravaggio – that he was killed in cold blood on the orders of the Knights of Malta to avenge an attack on one of their members.

The chivalric order, which was formed during the Crusades, hunted down the painter because he had seriously wounded a knight during a fight, according to Vincenzo Pacelli, an Italian historian and expert on Caravaggio.

The death of Caravaggio, who earned notoriety during his lifetime for his quick temper and hell-raising ways, has long been shrouded in mystery.

Some historians believe that he died of malaria in the Tuscan coastal town of Porto Ercole in 1610 and that he was buried there.

But Prof Pacelli, of the University of Naples, has unearthed documents from the Vatican Secret Archives and from archives in Rome which suggest that the artist was instead murdered by the Knights of Malta, who then threw his body in the sea at Palo, near Civitavecchia north of Rome.
If true, it was a violent end that Caravaggio himself foretold in one of his most famous works, David with the Head of Goliath (1610), in which he painted his own face onto the severed head of the slain giant.

The "state-sponsored assassination" was carried out with the secret approval of the Vatican, Prof Pacelli claims in a forthcoming book, Caravaggio – Between Art and Science.

"It was commissioned and organised by the Knights of Malta, with the tacit assent of the Roman Curia" – the governing body of the Holy See – because of the grave offence Caravaggio had caused by attacking a high-ranking knight, he said.

The decision to dump the body at sea explained why there are no funeral or burial records recording Caravaggio's death.

"Had he died at Porto Ercole, he would have been given a funeral, especially given the fact that his brother was a priest," Prof Pacelli said. "He would not just have been forgotten." Caravaggio, whose artistic genius was matched only by a supreme talent for creating enemies, was subjected to a violent attack in Naples in 1609 by unidentified assailants which left him disfigured.

Prof Pacelli believes they were almost certainly assassins sent by the Knights of Malta, an order which was founded in the 11th century.

The academic found historical documents which suggest that the Vatican, which objected to Caravaggio's questioning of Catholic doctrine, tried to cover up the truth of Caravaggio's death.

He discovered mysterious discrepancies in correspondence between Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a powerful Vatican secretary of state, and Deodato Gentile, a papal 'nuncio' or ambassador, in which the painter's place of death was cited as the island of Procida near Naples, "a place that Caravaggio had nothing to do with." 

A document written by Caravaggio's doctor and first biographer, Giulio Mancini, claimed that the painter had died near Civitavecchia, but the place name was later scrubbed out and replaced by Porto Ercole.

Prof Pacelli has also found an account written 20 years after Caravaggio's death, in which an Italian archivist, Francesco Bolvito, wrote that the artist had been "assassinated".

Caravaggio – whose real name was Michelangelo Merisi – lived a turbulent life in which violent altercations forced him to flee from one city to another.

After finding fame in Rome for his distinctive "chiaro-scuro" painting technique – the contrast of shadow and light – he suddenly had to leave the city in 1606 after he was involved in a brawl in which he killed a man.

He eventually wound up in Malta, the headquarters of the Knights of Malta, where he was made a member of the order.

But by 1608 he was in prison, most probably after becoming involved in another fight, in which he wounded a knight.

He was expelled by the Knights on the grounds that he had become "a foul and rotten member" of the order and imprisoned in a castle dungeon.

He was released under mysterious circumstances and fled to first Sicily and then Naples.

He was heading to Rome in the hope of obtaining a papal pardon for the murder he had committed when he died.

Dr John T. Spike, a Caravaggio expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, agreed that there was no evidence to prove the theory that Caravaggio died in Tuscany.

But he was sceptical of the idea that the tortured genius was murdered by the Knights of Malta.

"They had ample opportunities to kill him sooner – either when he was in Malta, or during the time he spent in nearby Sicily afterwards." Dr Spike believes the artist was killed – possibly accidentally – in a fight, and that his body was unceremoniously dumped.

In 2010, after a year-long investigation using DNA analysis and carbon dating, Italian researchers claimed to have found Caravaggio's bones in Porto Ercole.

They said they were 85 per cent sure that the remains belonged to the artists, but many historians have disputed those findings. 



Apr 2, 2012

What Do Women Artists Think of Women's History Month?

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Kelly Darke

I was one of three women artists interviewed recently by TheDetroiter.com for a series on women artists in the Detroit area. The other two artists interviewed were Claudia Shepard and Kristin Beaver, both accomplished painters. We were asked some basic questions about our art practice and its progress. We were also asked three more substantive questions that I would like to talk about:

1. Does beauty play a role in your art?

2. Are you particularly inspired by any women artists?

3. Do you see any roadblocks for being a professional artist that are particular to women?

Does beauty play a role in your art?
Beauty in art is a never-ending debate. Recently, the editor of TheDetroiter.com webzine, Colin Darke curated an exhibit titled Beauty Debate to address this topic. He invited artists whose works range from abstract sculpture to figurative paintings, from collage to video, to everything in-between. Every piece is unique and strong and somehow they all coexist comfortably within the gallery space at Art Effect in Detroit. I found some of the pieces to be beautiful in technique and craftsmanship; for some I thought the idea of the work addressed our societal concept of what beauty is or is not; and for some pieces I wasn't sure what to think. In my own work, I don't really try to create beauty but I work towards a feeling that I'm comfortable with - something that resonates with me and hopefully with viewers. Kristin Beaver, in contrast, says,

Beauty is central to my work; I paint people and things I find attractive. However, I am interested in the other side of beauty, as well." Claudia Shepard's response is similar to mine in that there is importance to the feeling of the work, she says she does not set out to make a beautiful painting and that "beauty for [her] is [her] own visceral response to the visual, imbued with meaning.
Are you particularly inspired by any women artists?

I think this is an important question to ask because we need to acknowledge that women artists have made an impact in the art world and paved the way for newer generations because of their high quality work, not just because they are women. There are also many current artists that are making great work and we should take notice. Some names that were mentioned did not surprise me, because they are in all the art history books. We named artists that create work that is exclusively from a female perspective and we named artists that are working now using old "traditionally women's work" in new ways. Some of the artists that we named are Emily Barletta, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keefe, Helen Frankenthaler, Jenny Saville, Lee Bontecou, Louse Nevelson, among others.

Do you see any roadblocks for being a professional artist that are particular to women?

I like Claudia's answer to this question:

Actually, the generation of feminists as well as feminism in the arts helped pave the way to our thinking beyond a limited view of our roles as mothers and wives to achieving our own dreams and passions. Kate Chopin's "A Room of Ones' Own" empowered me to have my own studio. I feel that women artists who are as driven as men to focus on their art lives and education and who maintain high quality in their work should no longer have the roadblocks of the past.
I believe, however, that while women artists should no longer have the roadblocks of the past, they still do to varying degrees. Along with Claudia and Kristin, I am grateful for all the women artists that have worked so hard to make it easier for the rest of us. But it seems we -- women (not just artists) -- will need to continuously fight for what men take for granted. Like Kristin says, "The state of wavering in the current political landscape in terms of women's rights is utterly baffling and unacceptable..." In fact, the typical expectations of men and women are an issue that has been bothering me lately. I feel that a women's role as homemaker and nurturer is so engrained in our psyche that we feel guilty when we take time to ourselves to create artwork. I even asked my kids (nine and six years old) their opinions just to get an idea if and how our family patterns might shape their view. It was an interesting conversation and I was happy to hear them express the importance of gender equality. I hope it stays that way. 

By the way, did you know the theme for this year's women's history month is women's empowerment? Ironic. 



Robot painter draws on abstract thoughts

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The Painting Fool is a piece of software that produces its own artwork. So could it ever be taken as seriously as a human artist? Its designer, Dr Simon Colton, believes that it could

Painting Fool - Dancing Salesman Problem
Detail from The Dancing Salesman Problem, an artwork created by software called the Painting Fool.

In 2006 Dr Simon Colton, a researcher in computational creativity at Imperial College, London, started to explore whether a computer program with the capacity to create art could be taken as seriously as a human artist.

Where did the idea for the program you call the Painting Fool come from?

As a hobby I wrote software that would turn a photograph into a more artistic piece, but six years ago I brought it into my field of research. I realised that the Painting Fool was a very good mechanism for testing out all sorts of theories, such as what it means for software to be creative. The aim of the project is for the software itself to be taken seriously as a creative artist in its own right, one day.

How does it work?

The Painting Fool produces artwork in a number of ways. The first is the simplest one: the software paints according to user-defined input, such as a photograph. But last year I had an exhibition in Paris called No Photos Were Harmed that challenged the public perception of computer art. I presented a couple of pieces, one of which was The Dancing Salesman Problem, where the figures were generated by a context-free design grammar, which is similar to the grammatical structure of natural language but for images.

I've also paired the Painting Fool with emotion-detection software by Maja Pantic, a colleague of mine, so it paints pictures in different styles according to the subject's mood, like the Really Sad picture of me, where it chose muted colours and graphite pencil. Each of these projects tries to challenge a notion about computer programs - that they can't be imaginative, that they can't appreciate how the output might affect people.

How will you know when it is taken seriously as an artist?

People want to know artwork has been constructed with an intelligent thought process, so perhaps once the software produces pieces that are culturally valuable, that get people talking, and are not necessarily anything that I'm keen on aesthetically or conceptually, that would be a good indication of its independence from me.



Art is "world's greatest currency", says Hirst

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The sculpture 'Hymn', by British artist Damien Hirst is seen outside the Tate Modern gallery in London April 2, 2012. Hirst's retrospective show runs from April 4 to September 9.  REUTERS-Toby Melville

Some artists prefer not to talk about the value of their work. Damien Hirst clearly revels in it, going so far as to call art "the greatest currency in the world".

On the eve of Hirst's first major retrospective in his native Britain, he hit back at a leading critic who dismissed him as a conman and advised anyone owning his work to sell it fast.

Julian Spalding, a curator and critic who has just written a short book called "Con Art - Why you ought to sell your Damien Hirsts while you can", went on the attack last week with articles in at least two national newspapers.

They were designed to coincide both with the release of his book and the opening this week of an exhibition at Tate Modern tracing Hirst's journey from a student at Goldsmiths College to the world's most commercially successful living artist.

Spalding questioned whether Hirst, known for his shark suspended in formaldehyde, a diamond-encrusted skull, spot paintings and medicine cabinets, was an artist at all and described his works, which fetch millions at auction, as "worthless financially".

Hirst, speaking on Monday to a small group of journalists at the Tate Modern gallery overlooking the river Thames, was clearly used to such jibes and brushed Spalding's criticism aside with a grin.

"It's like, you say 'sell your Hirst'. I say 'don't sell your Hirsts, hang on to them.' If you look at the numbers ...

"It's always healthy to have both views -- people love it, people hate it. I once said as long as they spell my name right I don't mind. As I've got older I don't really mind if they spell my name right either.

"Andy Warhol said that great thing didn't he? 'Don't read your reviews, weigh them'."


The fact that Hirst quoted Warhol was hardly surprising -- both artists have been commercially canny and saw the value of their works as inextricably linked to the art itself.

Hirst's spot paintings, for example, are made by employees and untouched by the artist, a fact that did not prevent them becoming status symbols for the rich and famous.

The artist has come to embody the spirit of 1990s London where his works, often given intriguing titles, appealed to hedge fund managers and oligarchs as well as an art world clamouring for new ideas.

Championed early on by collector Charles Saatchi, Bristol-born Hirst personifies conspicuous consumption, yet the 46-year-old, with a fortune estimated at over 200 million pounds, insisted that the art came first.

"I'm one of those lucky artists that makes money in their lifetime, and makes lots of money," he said. "I'm not afraid of that but I think the goal's always been to make art and not money. Making money is a by-product, a very happy by-product.

"I think art's the greatest currency in the world. Gold, diamonds, art -- I think they are equal ... I think it's a great thing to invest in."

The show itself focuses on some of Hirst's most important early works with a view to putting his later series into context.

The first spot painting, for example, was made in 1986 and, instead of the precise grid of equally spaced, equally sized circles of different hues comes a slap-dash affair with paint dripping down a canvas of rows of irregular shapes.

Two years later Hirst conceived and curated the "Freeze" exhibition of his work and that of fellow students, an early and important step towards establishing him as the leading figure in the influential "Young British Artists" YBA.L movement.

By 1995 he was a famous artist, winning the coveted Turner Prize and, in his acceptance speech, reminding the world of his humble academic background and rebellious spirit.

"It's amazing what you can do with an E in A-Level art, a twisted imagination and a chainsaw," he said.

The chainsaw referred to "Mother and Child, Divided", a bisected cow and calf which went on display at the Turner show and provoked widespread criticism.

Another Hirst work featuring a rotting cow and bull was banned in New York because of fears it would "prompt vomiting among visitors".

It was leading U.S. dealer Larry Gagosian who showcased Hirst in the United States, presenting the "No Sense of Absolute Corruption" show in New York in 1996.


Hirst's famous "pickled" shark, entitled "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" stands in the middle of the Tate show, a reminder of how death has been a dominant theme throughout Hirst's 25-year career.

Also familiar will be cabinets filled with medicine and his "spin" and butterfly paintings, but new to many will be "In and Out of Love", a room in which butterflies hatch, live and die as the public passes through.

Visitors are asked to check they are not unwittingly carrying a part of the art work with them when they leave.

It shares some of the themes with "A Thousand Years" from 1990 in which maggots hatch inside a glass vitrine, develop into flies, feed on the severed head of a cow and meet their end on an "insect-o-cutor".

A whiff of decaying flesh escapes from the glass container, to go with the odour of stale cigarette butts in his giant ash-tray "Crematorium" and the inescapable smell of money.

That is strongest towards the end of the show in a gold wallpapered room dedicated to Hirst's record-breaking auction at Sotheby's in 2008 where he raised 111 million pounds from over 200 new works.

Called "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever", it was a groundbreaking event, conceived as a single work of art that bypassed the dealers -- and their hefty fees -- altogether.

The Golden Calf, a bull in formaldehyde adorned with horns, hooves and a disk above its head made of 18-carat gold, raised 10.3 million pounds alone.

In the Tate's gift shop is a limited edition plastic skull decorated in "household gloss" paint priced at 36,800 pounds, while a roll of Hirst-designed wallpaper cost 675 pounds.

There is also the chance to see his diamond-encrusted skull "For the Love of God" displayed in a blacked-out box in the cavernous Turbine Hall lit only by spotlights shining on the 8,601 flawless gems set in a platinum cast of a human skull.

The sculpture fetched the then equivalent of $100 million in 2007, when it sold to a consortium of investors that included Hirst himself.

The artist has long avoided a retrospective, deeming it "more OAP" (old age pensioner) than YBA and worrying that his life's work would "amount to nothing" once it went on display.

But Hirst finally accepted the idea and the exhibition is one of the highlights of the Cultural Olympiad which is based around this summer's Olympic Games in London.

"I feel honoured to be given this slot and hopefully I've done it justice," he said. "I definitely hope that more people walk away liking it than hating, but I'm not under any illusions that everyone's going to love it."



Herbarium Specimen Painting at Kew Gardens

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Rachel Pedder-Smith’s 18ft Herbarium Specimen Painting, which is on display at Kew Gardens, is not only scientifically accurate, it’s an exquisite and groundbreaking work of art. 

It lies along a succession of tables in the library at Kew, the 18ft Herbarium Specimen Painting. It is covered in sheets of tissue that are pulled back as I approach to reveal a whirling stream of pods, husks, fronds and flowers, rendered in such vivid detail that it’s hard to believe they can be flat images on paper. 
The result of nearly four years’ labour by the artist Rachel Pedder-Smith, the work includes at least one specimen of each of the 506 flowering plant families — more than 700 images — in all their ancient woodiness and translucent fragility. Depicting everything from pastel-shaded flowers to gnarled pods of almost primeval appearance, it is at once an extraordinary technical achievement and a kind of diagram of the current state of botanical understanding. 
“It really is mind-blowing,” says Dr Gwilym Lewis, head of the Legume Section at the Kew Herbarium. “Science, and knowledge generally, is becoming ever more specialised. So to find someone who can bring together such very different worlds as art and science in a beautiful object that is also a coherent piece of scientific research is very rare and inspiring.” Perhaps most important of all, the painting is an embodiment of, and indeed a hymn of praise to, the Kew Herbarium, one of the world’s great scientific institutions. 
“It includes at least one specimen from every year since the Herbarium was founded in 1853,” says Pedder-Smith. “It represents the people who have come through its doors, the collections made by eminent scientists, and the stories that go with them.” 
If we tend to think of Kew as a day out among glorious gardens, the Herbarium, little seen by the public, is its scientific nerve centre. Hidden behind a Georgian facade on Kew Green, it’s a labyrinth of storage spaces and corridors from the Victorian era to the present day, crammed with 7.5  million dried plants, accompanied by the mostly handwritten field notes of their collectors, including Charles Darwin and David Livingstone. 

“I first came here in 2001 as an MA student,” says Pedder-Smith. “I was so inspired, I thought, I want to be here forever.” A down-to-earth 36 year-old, Pedder-Smith is not the stereotypical botanical illustrator. She acquired some of her earliest specimens by sawing branches off neighbours’ shrubs when she was a student. “I don’t suppose anyone noticed.” 

The painting and drawing of plants has always been central to the Herbarium’s activities, and remains so even in our age of digital imaging. Pedder-Smith is one of a new generation of botanical illustrators who are revivifying the area that exists between art and science, but isn’t quite accepted as either. 

Brought up in East Anglia, Pedder-Smith did a degree at Leeds Metropolitan University – one of the few illustration courses that allowed students to concentrate on natural history. “It was seen as a dead area,” she says. Moving to London, she became a regular visitor to the Herbarium, establishing a distinctive visual style that eschewed the insipid tones of conventional botanical illustration in favour of darker, more vivid colours. Rather than green-leafed living samples, she works always from dried specimens, whose desiccated, sculptural qualities she finds “particularly beautiful”. 

Wanting to take on an ambitious and scientifically demanding project for a PhD at the Royal College of Art designed to bring together art and science, she decided to tackle all the 506 known flowering plant families in one painting, establishing their distinguishing characteristics with the Herbarium botanists — a task that would have floored most people. 

“I have got an obsessive temperament,” she concedes. “For me there was a thrill to starting a massive project, and a sense of security in knowing what I’d be doing for years.” 

Starting with amborella, supposedly the oldest and most “primitive” plant family, and working forward according to the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group II (one of the classification systems used in the Herbarium), brought her into step with one of the establishment’s essential purposes. 

“One upon a time there was a progenitor of all plants,” says Dr Lewis. “They all started somewhere, and we’re trying to build a picture of how that happened in a catalogued, scientific way — looking back millions of years into deep geological time. 

“Originally we looked at plants morphologically, in terms of their shape and appearance. A spiny plant, for example, must be related to other spiny plants. But with the development of molecular biology over the past 30 years, we’re looking at much deeper structures. A plant in the desert and a plant on a Swiss mountainside that look nothing like each other may be closely related. 

“The more information we have, and the more that information forms the same patterns, the closer we are to the reality of the tree of life.” 

Along the painting’s kaleidoscopic sweep are a whole range of quirky plant samples: a passionflower leaf collected by Darwin in the Galapagos Islands; a piece of quinine-producing cinchona bark brought from the Amazon by Richard Spruce, a 19th-century Yorkshireman who personally tested the hallucinogenic properties of all the plants he collected; a fragment of olive branch from Tutankhamun’s tomb; and a cannabis leaf found on a council refuse tip in the Seventies. 

But, for all the project’s painstaking accuracy, the layout and composition were unplanned. “To select and draw out 700 specimens in advance would have been mind-numbingly boring,” says Pedder-Smith. Instead, she added the specimens one by one in pencil and watercolour, consulting the scientists but trusting her instincts in selecting striking examples. 

Since completing the painting, Pedder-Smith’s life has taken a turbulent turn. She had her first baby last year, but her mother, a teacher who inspired her love of the natural world, died in February, without seeing the finished work. Now she has the opportunity to sell the painting and see some reward for her labour. Yet for her, interacting with the Herbarium and its specimens was payment in itself. 

“Picking them up, touching them, thinking about them and painting them, you feel a link to the person who chose and collected them that is more meaningful than just painting any old plant. And I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do that.”