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Posts tagged ‘Lady with an Ermine’

A weekend in Kraków | Day 2 – Kings, Communists and the Kazimierz Ghetto

Having awoken to the sweet serenade of the hejnalista to the accompaniment of the most glorious of peachy pink sunrises (see my post yesterday) I thought I could barely be reawoken to anything more beautiful. Yet when, having gone back to bed at 6am, I arose two hours later to the now sundrenched view of the Rynek Główny, I soon realised that in the beauty stakes, Kraków is the city that just keeps on giving. And not just the city – in our hotel,  the Hotel Wentzl we started our day in the lap of luxury: an espresso machine installed in the room pumping out coffee-rich espressos with which to enjoy the unbeatable view, and breakfast in Polish TV personality Magda Gessler’s Wentzl restaurant, conveniently located in our hotel, serving up the perfect of Polish continental breakfasts in the opulent surroundings of her lavishly and quirky interior decors. I particularly loved the pastoral quality to the design – the huge pheasant chandeliers and heavily embroidered bucolic curtains being particular favourites.

Our view by morning

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Pondering the quirky interiors of Magda Gessler’s restaurant…

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So after a doubly-good beginning to our second day in Kraków, we were well slept, well fed and full of energy to explore all the city had to offer. And just as well. For the city’s old town in itself takes some exploring, and as we made our way to the Wawel Hill, upon which sits the city’s former royal residence as well as its stunning main cathedral, we soon found that other tourists too had discovered the attraction, resulting in an hour’s queue for tickets. The length of the queue was perhaps augmented by a particular attraction which is currently in residence at the museum: Leonardo Da Vinci’s sensational Lady with an Ermine, with whom I became acquainted when she was on display in London’s superb Da Vinci exhibition, but who usually hangs in Kraków’s Princes Czartoryski museum, currently closed for major renovations.

While a visit to see Da Vinci’s masterpiece was undoubtedly a must of my Kraków experience, the ticket queues certainly took the sparkle out of this reconnaissance, although happily for me, my self-sacrificing partner took on much of the sting of the queue, waiting in line for the full hour while releasing me to look around the vast Wawel complex. And how glad I was to have time to experience the palatial compound to the full, starting with the lavish Wawel Cathedral, whose outside is covered with so many complex cupolas in devastatingly extravagant gold and elegantly crafted copper, that upon my first sight of the building, I literally had to gasp for air. Owing to the ban on inside photography, I cannot demonstrate to you the interior ravishment which more than matched the splendour of the outside, but rest assured, this Cathedral is awe-inspiring on the inside and out.

Wawel Cathedral

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Rejoined by my partner, we made our way to see Da Vinci’s portait of Cecilia Gallerani, tranquil as ever caught in the midsts of a far off gaze, the perfection of her skin remarkable considering the age of the painting. Then, sadly finding no further works from the Czartoryski museum to enjoy, we headed off to Sandomierska Tower, one of various towers built into the Wawel’s vast ramparts, and which reminded me of an oversized Moomin House. From up there we had the benefit of unbeatable views across the Vistula River and the whole of the Wawel complex, while descending back to ground level, we made our way deeper into the Wawel Hill, where a series of creepy caves are said to have once housed the legendary Wawel Dragon.

Wawel Castle

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Back out into the sunlight, we wandered off in search of lunch and a rest, out to the East of the City where the Jewish district (the Kazimierz) now stands. It’s strange to think of the district as being truly Jewish, being as the city lays claim to only a paltry Jewish population compared to what it once contained in the decades before the horrors of the holocaust, although the evidence of both Jewish culture, and the scars of the former Jewish Ghetto which stood on the site are still prominent today. But rather than dwelling in the horrors of the past, Kraków actively celebrates its Jewish heritage, playing host to a Jewish Cultural Festival every year, and in the Kazimierz area offering rich pickings of Jewish culture, from Jewish restaurants and interminable book shops, to ancient synagogues and both an old and new Jewish cemetery.

The Kazimierz

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We visited the oldest of the two, being struck as we did so by the distinct differences between this and the typical Catholic cemetery for example, filled not with angels, elaborate crosses and flowers aplenty, but a more austere selection of headstones, each covered with what appeared to be a little hat upon which families of the dead have placed stones, said to symbolise the permanence of memory.

The Jewish Cemetery

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From the Ghetto and its connotations of war-torn Poland, to the next phase of Poland’s traumatic recent history – Communism. Marking this stretch of Poland’s occupational history, we visited a Communist Propaganda Bar – something of a send up on the Communist world which once controlled Poland with such an iron fist – a dirty den of a place, covered from floor to ceiling with old adverts plastered with Communist slogans and platitudes. It was here that, getting into the spirit of the old harsh realities of iron-curtain Poland, we knocked back a shot of Polish vodka – a drink so harsh that I felt my throat enflame like an inferno, and my mind haze over.

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The haze was not so strong as to preclude our continued adventures through Kraków however, and we ended our day with a stroll around the beautiful Planty greenbelt – an arch of parks and playgrounds which was once the moat of the old fortressed city and which today makes for the most pleasant of strolls around the outskirts of the city.

And so there, watching the sun sparkle across ponds and through fountains, we sat and watched and mused over the day – a day in which we had sampled Kraków through the ages – from the splendour of its days of monarchy, to the horrors of the German occupation, and the desolation of the communist regime which followed, suppressing all joy and life out of the city. It was a period which stained so much of the Poland which exists today – concrete tower blocks and dour grey industrial suburbs pepper so much of the country, but Kraków, mercifully, was preserved in all its medieval glory. Why? Well , apparently Stalin himself so enjoyed the view of the Rynek Główny when he sipped his coffee at the Cloth Hall which extends across the square’s centre that he decided to keep the city preserved for that very purpose. A vain monster he may have been, but he had good taste when it came to cities. And you have to give thanks for small mercies.

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All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2013 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

Da Vinci Season – Part 2: National Gallery exhibition review

Christmas is fast upon us, people are rushing around shopping like maniacs, there are now gigantic queues for macaroons at Ladurée on Piccadilly (I thought this madness only occurred on the Champs Élysées. We did however queue for 3 boxes…) and people are allegedly selling Waitrose Heston Blumenthal Christmas puddings for millions on ebay. However something else is in the air in London, and now, scattered across my coffee table and desk, where newly arrived Christmas cards should be taking central place, postcards of the masterpieces of Leonardo Da Vinci are fanned all over, renaissance music replacing carols on the CD player, and an open, full scale catalogue of Da Vinci’s works enables lavish Leonardo indulgence at every turn of the glossy pages. Yes, as promised, I have visited the much hyped National Gallery blockbuster, and now I can firmly pronounce myself to be a huge Da Vinci fan.

The Musician (Da Vinci, around 1486-7)

The exhibition, Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, is not, at least to my mind, the exhibition of the decade as some commentators have lauded it. Nothing can quite surpass last year’s The Real Van Gogh at the Royal Academy which displayed a vast collection of mind-bogglingly superb works, nor indeed Tate’s incredibly comprehensive 2005 Frida Kahlo retrospective. It is, however, almost undoubtedly the exhibition of 2011. Unlike the close competitor – Tate’s Miro retrospective – Da Vinci did not go arrogantly off the rails towards the end of his career and start burning canvases or indeed painting them white with a single wiggly black line running somewhere across centre. No, for with the Da Vinci show, we are shown, from one work to another, what an undeniable master draftsman and painter this man was (asides from his various other mathematical, scientific, architectural, and engineering plaudits, to name but a few). Considering, compared to most artists, Da Vinci painted only a handful of works, each and every one is executed to an exceptional standard. Even in their various degrees of preservation, it is possible to see how superbly Da Vinci catches the light on his sitter’s skin, how accurately he has utilised his advanced knowledge of the human anatomy and perfect mathematical ratios to capture the very essence of human expression in his portraits, and how brilliantly, through detailed studies and sheer artistic brilliance, he was able to paint the most perfect drapery, clothing and overall compositional balance.

Da Vinci, Drapery Study for an angel (1495-8)

The paintings on show are far and few between, but we know this before entering. To have displayed 9 of only 15 surviving paintings is a coup for the National, and one can’t really ask for more. Take the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, and it would be like ripping Big Ben away from the Houses of Parliament. However, by reason of their sheer rarity, the sight of one, glowing majestically against a plum painted wall (the lighting is, by the way, very well executed) sends excitement through the audience in the same way that one becomes suddenly star struck when seeing a previous nobody reality TV star in a supermarket (I speak from experience – and no, I am not trying to suggest that Da Vinci’s paintings could ever be considered inconsequential). Then, filling the galleries besides are a great number of preparatory sketches and paintings executed by Da Vinci’s pupils and assistants. However the sketches are far from fillers (much like the use of endless sketches and scientific memorabilia in the recent Royal Academy Degas Ballerina show). Rather, they are crucial to understanding how Da Vinci managed to achieve such polished results, as well as gaining an insight into his thought processes (for example, this wonderful drapery study shows his intention for an altered composition for his painting, The Virgin of the Rocks in its second version, an alteration which, owing to pressure from his patrons, was never actually realised –  the original compositional planning for which can now be seen, using xray, under the paint of the final version). They are also crucial, no doubt, to proving the provenance of the various paintings, all of which seem to have undergone some level of doubt as to whether Da Vinci actually painted them.

The Belle Ferronniere (Da Vinci, around 1493-4)

Having said that, the sketches are small, as, indeed, are the majority of the paintings, and, predictably, one does find oneself becoming ever so slightly aggressive in trying to get within a metre’s distance of a work. While the National Gallery has been quite careful to limit the visitors to the show (and the huge queue for the daily released tickets which spirals outside is testament to the Gallery’s strict policy when it comes to letting in too many people all at once) there are still an awful lot of people all vying to have their fill of each and every detail of this show. Thus, I did find that one became unavoidably sucked into a sort of revolving carousel around the various exhibits, so that, like a slow conveyor belt, you could get your moment before a painting before being politely shoved forward by the belly of the man standing behind as he/it got a little too close for comfort. Break off from the conveyor and you would find it difficult to get close to a painting again for a while. And thus my eyes were not so much veiled by tears, as one commentator predicted I would, but rather by the sight of people’s heads. But then it’s alright for the reviewers isn’t it – they get to see the exhibition among only a handful of other critics. No wonder they were overcome with emotion – at how bloomin lucky they were to get the exhibition to themselves! Still, I’ve experienced worse, and for the National it does provide the added bonus that more people will buy the expensive exhibition catalogue in order to actually get a good look at what was on show.

Admirer looking at Lady with an Ermine as exhibited at the National

So what was on show at the exhibition? Well the exhibition was broadly split into 7 galleries, each room centralised around one or two Da Vinci masterpieces. In the first room, we met The Musician which is allegedly unfinished, but looks pretty good to me. In the next room, the stunning Belle Ferronniere was hung just across from my favourite, Lady with an Ermine, the two ladies almost competing with one another for who would be judged most beautiful as they had probably competed in life, the lady with an ermine being Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of Duke Ludovico Sforza, and the Belle Ferronnere thouht to have been the Duke’s wife. The Belle Ferronniere is a stunning work, her pose so confident, petulant almost, as though challenging Cecilia Gallerani, whose portrait was literally hung in the direction of La Belle’s gaze, to usurp her role as primary lover to the Duke. Both exhibit truly modern, strongly characterised poses, particularly considering the century in which they were painted.

Da Vinci's unfinished Saint Jerome (around 1488-90)

In the next room, the evidently unfinished Saint Jerome takes centre stage, but even in this state of incompletion, the painting demonstrates how accurately Da Vinci painted the human anatomy. It also proves a useful demonstration of Da Vinci’s working techniques and the stages he undertook in building up layers of paint on a canvas. Moving through into the exhibition’s central gallery, two much larger, more complex compositions are hung opposite one another is a fantastic pairing which is a unique achievement of the Gallery’s show: Da Vinci’s original Virgin of the Rocks, usually to be found in the Louvre in Paris, has been hung with the second version of the same composition, which is owned by the National Gallery. This allows for a direct comparison to be made of the two “rocks”. Personally my favourite was the National Gallery’s later version, where the colours were brighter, and the details more refined such as the little flowers in the foreground. Nonetheless, this version has been recently restored, hence the enhanced colours and more obvious details.

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Da Vinci Season – Part 1: Norms do… The Lady with an Ermine

Da Vinci is back in vogue in London. The exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan which is currently running at London’s National Gallery has received unprecedented high praise across the board. Critics are calling it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so comprehensive a collection of Da Vinci’s remaining masterpieces in one show. One art critic’s review was so expressive with superlatives and emotional exasperation that it read as though she had been party to some kind of religious transmogrification. The paintings, she said, were so stunning that one could barely take them in through eyes which were uncontrollably veiled with tears of unrepressed joy. Or something like that. High praise indeed, and with 5 stars across the board, what better way to grasp at some last minute Christmas sparkle than by attending the exhibition itself, a visit upon which I shall embark tomorrow. While you will of course be the first to receive my review of the show for which tickets are allegedly selling for £400 each online (yes, the temptation to sell is there – for these two tickets I could get a 5 star weekend in Milan, let alone see a show about nine paintings and a load of sketches… but naturally I am opting, in good conscience, for the  cultural extravaganza of the year), in the meantime, Part 1 of my seasonal homage to Da Vinci is in the form of the good old Norm parodies which you now know and love. Yes, today, the Norms bring you: Norm Lady with an Ermine.

Norm Lady with an Ermine (after Da Vinci) (acrylic on canvas, 2011 © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

And by way of comparison, here is Da Vinci’s stunning original masterpiece…

The Lady with an Ermine (Leonardo Da Vinci)

Da Vinci’s masterpiece was painted in around 1489-1490 and is usually to be found housed in the Czartoryski Museum, Kraków, Poland. It is in fact the central masterpiece of the Museum’s collection, and it’s inclusion in the London show is said to be the greatest coup for London curators of all their achievements in putting the show together. However, her inclusion was not without difficulty, and the Lady with an Ermine’s visit to London  comes only as a result of huge democratic efforts, not just on the part of the National Gallery, but on behalf of the UK Government’s diplomats and foreign office officials.

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