Friday, April 3, 2020

Hans Baldung: Three Ages of Woman and Death

 Three ages of woman and death by Hans Baldung

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, painting dated 1510

One wonders, looking at Three Ages of Women and Death whether Hans Baldung originally planned to paint Der Tod und das M├Ądchen before crowding an infant and an old woman into the left side of the painting. The old woman is only half visible in the painting; and the position of the child's foot touching the young lady's seems forced. The young lady and Death, alone, would have provided balance; but the painting would have suffered from a lack of intensity. As it is, Baldung imparts a commentary on society. Riding a hobbyhorse, the infant falls when it becomes entangled in the young lady's gossamer covering. The child, half rising, is nearly in tears as it tries to free itself. Behind, the old woman supports the young lady's mirror with one hand and wards off Death with the other. The young lady, however, is unconscious to all around her. Transfixed by her own image, she does not see the child in pain or recognize the presence of the old woman confronting Death. The young lady is representative of self-absorbed youth that neither perceives whom it might hurt nor who provides support and protection.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Jan van Eyck: The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin

The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin
(ca. 1435)

Jan van Eyck's The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin portrays the donor Rolin kneeling in adoration of the Christ child. In the middle of the canvas two miniature figures draw the eye to a bucolic exterior. The interior is rich in color, but this tends to conceal the coldness within. In the spiritual world, as in the political, the chancellor dominates.

Van Eyck could not easily refuse Rolin; but he did depict the chancellor unkindly. In Van Eyck's painting The Madonna of Canon van der Paele, the donor, der Paele is accompanied by saints who act as guides. There is no sense that he breaks the boundary that should separate him from the Virgin and Child, who look at him. With Rolin, there is no interceding saint; and he is on a level equal to Virgin and Child. He stares forbiddingly at them while the Virgin recoils from his gaze. Van Eyck did not end with this. The background of the Virgin includes magnificent churches. Behind Rolin, however, there is a commonplace town. The changes to the painting likely came about under Rolin's direction. His huge money bag is painted over; and now the Child blesses him.

In the background, just below Rolin's folded hands, are peacocks. These symbols of eternal life are likely meant here to signify ostentation. If the two tiny figures are the artist and his (deceased) brother, as others have suggested, then the artists turn their back on Rolin. Between the artists and the interior two rooks walk the grounds of a flower garden. Do the artists leave their mocking selves behind?

The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele (1434-36)

The Case of the Missing Populace (2)

The professor's prediction held true: an open park swam into view once the disorientation of time travel dissipated. The cage's two passengers stepped out into a world of fantastical ruin.

Holmes scanned the browned and overgrown skyline. "It's New York, all right, judging by what's left of its early waterfront. Hallo-what have we here?" He paced about a rusted conveyance whose inflated wheels had gone flat. "Some sort of motorized carriage, I'll wager." Its doors and windows had frozen shut; nor did it bear any manufacturer's mark.

"Most curious," Watson opined. "No trace of people--not even a corpse. Yet I spotted a pack of dogs loping atop that collapsed warehouse."

"Quite." Holmes watched a flock of blackbirds headed north. "This was not the work of warfare. Note the absence of bomb craters or bullet holes. What's your impression, Watson?"

"Overwhelming neglect, I'd say."

"Precisely as one would expect from lack of regular maintenance." Holmes bent to handle a fallen brick. "This one is sound enough. Not even a scrap of old mortar." Just then, some remnants of shattered glass smashed down from the heights. Both men sheltered behind the vehicle. Another dog pack trailed along the same route as the others, and another flight of birds winged their way behind jagged, windowless spires. "Come, Watson, let us see what clues await in these charnel houses."

As the loftier buildings looked in imminent threat of falling, Holmes picked his way toward a factory on the outskirts. Sunlight angled through gaps in the floors above, awink with falling water drops. A gigantic tree had burst through to spread its canopy far above. Suddenly, all was blackness.

"Eh?" Holmes brought out his torch, but save for a bewildered Watson, it illumined nothing. Yet the doorframe stood outlined by wan white light out in the street. All lay awash in a surreal stillness, nearly barren of color. While letters, written backward, appeared in a starless black sky.

Watson stared. "What could it mean?--'Three hundred years after people'."

Immediately the daytime returned. Now the buildings moldered in more advanced decay. With an ominous crack, a distant titan tilted, spilling stones and glass, and came down with a resounding crash. It spooked a storm of bats from empty windows.

"By the Rood, Holmes--we've jumped forward in time!" Watson looked for their fragile conveyance. "Blast! The cage is half buried in silt!"

"Quickly, Watson!" Holmes hurried to the site, where both of them scooped away mud and soot, until they could get the door open. "It's fortunate that the batteries are waterproofed. Let's be off before a flood or earthquake settles the matter." They climbed inside.

"We've not solved the mystery, Holmes. That writing in the sky; the fate of the people."

"I surmise, old fellow, there never were people here."

"Indeed? Then who built all this?"

"It was not built by physical hands. Consider the evidence." Holmes took up his pipe, his habit when matters were nearing resolution. "Birds and dogs that appear in regular cycles; sun shadows that never changed during the hour we were here; pristine bricks that fell from decayed buildings; the lack of trade signs; doors and windows never intended to open. I daresay we've tapped into some sort of mass media. We shall someday have viewers that conduct both sound and moving images."

"Preposterous!" Watson had a ready hand on the return lever.

"Those sky letters--they appeared for someone looking in from the outside. It's logical to assume these increments in time will be exponential; we dare not wait for the sea to claim this place, or a tree to carry our cage aloft in tangled pieces."

"Incredible, Holmes. While it's a relief that our future is safe, what shall we tell the professor?"

"That his time machine is very much in want of a few tweaks."

In the British office of the TV show "Life After People", a supervisor peered over the shoulder of his lead programmer, having been summoned with alacrity. A pair of Victorian chaps roamed the streets of a simulated New York.

"Somebody has an odd sense of humor," the programmer complained.

The supervisor rubbed his chin. "No time for it now. Edit that our before it goes to print."

"Hmpf." The programmer got to work. "Whoever did this has an amazing skill set. It's a matter for Scotland Yard."

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Case of the Missing Populace

The cavernous warehouse pulsed with an air of electric menace. A glass-brick wall illumined the two-story structure with grayish light, lending sinister life to skeletal frameworks stuffed with mechanical innards.

"It looks the same," Dr Watson said with a shudder of unease. "It's a shame Professor Tavington's teleportation device proved unfeasible."

"The Case of the Frozen Monkey," Holmes recalled, strolling down one of the humming passageways. "The professor neglected the planet's movement and rotation. His simian test subject ended up in orbit. Indeed, the calculations are exceedingly complex, lest the adventurer fall from a great height, or arrive with ankles fused in the ground."

Watson scowled. "There's something sacrilegious about the business. And now he's tampering with time itself!" Hence the professor's frantic summons of the great detective. What devilment had he gotten into this time?

"Ah, Holmes!" Tavington hurried toward them, open lab coat flowing behind.  A mass of wiry hair topped his high forehead. Though no believer in phrenology, Watson thought him the quintessential mad scientist.

Holmes took the proffered hand. "What's this about the end of the world?"

"Come with me!" Tavington led them to a small paneled office where the clamor of the infernal engines was muffled. He clasped hands on his cluttered desk and faced them grimly. "Curiously, I cannot travel less than a century forward in time. I first sent a dog in a cage to New York, along with a sign inviting someone to send back a message. None came."

Watson settled back in a creaking leather chair. "And then you were obliged to brave it yourself."

"I did, Doctor, setting the same destination. It lay in ruins! Worse still, it was the same with every major city I visited in the future. All ruined!--and nary a soul to be seen."

"What about animals?" Holmes inquired.

"I saw birds, vermin, all manner of plants."

"Ah." Holmes fired up his pipe. "Then the malady does not involve disease or poison, unless specifically aimed at humans."

Watson harrumphed. "You've taken a grave risk, Professor. I must examine you for signs of infection or toxins."

"I feel fine," Tavington insisted. "We must uncover the cause of this. Who's to say we even have a hundred years? I haven't yet deduced why I'm unable to access the near future. Nor could I bring back samples, which simply disappeared."

Holmes puffed thoughtfully. "Our first two clues, then. Gathering others means a trip to the crime scene. Come, gentlemen--the chase is on!"

The professor conducted them to the same barred cage used in the teleport experiments. One corner held the control unit, which sat atop a bank of batteries. "I've adjusted the setting, as the first arrival point was on a street. This should locate you in an open park, reasonably safe from falling debris. New York in the year 2004 is quite a tumble."

Watson blanched when the cage door clanged shut. The professor took up station behind a console comprising a forest of dials, switches, and glowing tubes.

Holmes nudged the doctor. "I'm glad you've brought along your bag. You shall have to give yourself a tranquilizer."

"Tut!" Watson huffed. "After that case involving the succubus, I'm prepared to believe anything."

With a grim expression, Tavington sent them on their way over a hundred years to the future.