Tuesday 11 April brought the concert I had been most looking forward to – a performance of Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quatuor pour la fin du temps’. I was not disappointed – it was superbly played by the quartet of Renaud Capuçon, violin, Kian Soltani, cello, Pascal Moragues, clarinet and Hélène Mercier, piano.
The work was written by Messiaen in the most difficult circumstances imaginable – in Stalag VIII-A, a German prisoner of war camp, during the winter of 1941. He wrote it for the only instruments available in the camp – piano, violin, cello and clarinet. Its eight movements are a mixture of solos and duets, one trio and in only four of the movements do all the instruments feature.
It is a deeply expressive work and the Aix quartet certainly did it justice. The final movement, ‘Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus’ for violin and piano was particularly beautifully played.
Renaud Capuçon, Hélène Mercier, Kian Soltani and Pascal Moragues
A delightful early spring day in the Dropt Valley in the Lot-et-Garonne region of France.
The village of Sauvetat-du-Dropt was originally a sauveté, a place of refuge created in the sixth century and protected by the church, where it was impossible for the authorities to pursue fugitives. The village has a remarkable Romanesque bridge with Gothic extension over the River Dropt that appears to go on forever and has a total of twenty-three arches.
A section of the bridge at Sauvetat-du-Dropt
The Church of Saint Eutrope in neighbouring Allemans-du-Dropt has a series of exquisite fifteenth-century frescoes. Rediscovered in 1935 and now restored, they contain scenes from the Bible, including the Last Judgement.
The fresco cycle in the Church of Saint Eutrope, Allemans-du-Dropt
‘The Morozov Collection’ at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, is a companion exhibition to ‘The Shchukin Collection’ which was shown there in 2016. The brothers Mikhail and Ivan Morozov, like Sergei Shchukin, put together a vast collection of modern art from renowned French artists including Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Bonnard, Denis, Matisse, Derain and Picasso and these are displayed alongside works by Russian artists from the same period including Repin, Serov, Goncharova, Larionov, Malevich and Konchalovsky. The exhibition contains around two hundred masterpieces from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries lent by museums in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
Valentin Serov ‘Portrait of Ivan Abramovich Morozov’ (1910)
Auguste Renoir ‘Portrait of the Actress Jeanne Samary’ (1877)
Paul Gauguin ‘Café at Arles’ (1888)
Paul Gauguin Eu haere ia oe (Woman Holding a Fruit) Where Are You Going? (1893)
Vincent van Gogh ‘The Prison Courtyard’ (1890)
Paul Cézanne ‘Smoker’ (1891 – 92)
Paul Cézanne ‘Still Life with a Curtain’ (1892 – 94)
Paul Cézanne ‘Bathers’ (1892 – 94)
Edvard Munch ‘White Night. Aasgardstrand’ (‘Girls on the Bridge’) (1903)
Pablo Picasso ‘Young Acrobat on a Ball’ (1905)
André Derain ‘Drying the Sails, Collioure’ (1905)
Maurice Denis ‘The Story of Psyche’, panel five: ‘In the Presence of the Gods Jupiter Bestows Immortality on Psyche and Celebrates Her Marriage to Eros’ (1908)
Henri Matisse ‘Fruit and Bronze’ (1910)
Valentin Serov ‘Portrait of Margarita Kirillovna Morozova’ (1910)
Sandro Botticelli is rightly considered to be one of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance. The exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André celebrates the creative genius who developed a personal style that brought him enormous success in Florence at the end of the fifteenth century.
After initially training in a goldsmith’s shop, Botticelli entered the studio of Filippo Lippi where he learned the techniques of easel and fresco painting. Around 1467 he set up his own studio where he developed his own characteristic style which would attract the attention of the Medici family who favoured him with commissions. He also painted portraits on the walls of the Sistine Chapel and provided drawings for the first illustrated edition of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’.
A fascinating exhibition at the Musée de l’Orangerie of around fifty paintings by the Russian-born artist Chaïm Soutine, who worked in Paris from 1913 until his tragic death in 1943, and the Dutch-born American Abstract Impressionist, Willem de Kooning.
De Kooning was heavily influence by Soutine after seeing his paintings in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1950 retrospective. The Orangerie exhibition highlights the association between the two artists, showing the influence of Soutine, especially on De Kooning’s ‘Woman’ paintings.
Chaïm Soutine ‘The Hill at Céret’ (1921)
Willem de Kooning ‘Amityville’ (1971)
Chaïm Soutine ‘Portrait of Madeleine Castaing’ (1929)
Ilya Repin was one of the most-renowned Russian artists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris was a major retrospective covering his whole career from paintings completed during his studies at the Saint Petersburg Academy, works displayed as part of the Peredvizhniki group and his portraits of himself, his family and major Russian composers and writers.
Ilya Repin ‘Preparation for the Examination’ (1864)
Ilya Repin ‘Barge Haulers on the Volga’ (1870 – 73)
Ilya Repin ‘Religious Procession in the Province of Koursk’ (1881 – 83)
Ilya Repin ‘Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom’ (1876)
An excellent concert at Maison de la Radio France began with an extremely well-played rendition of Stravinsky’s short classical composition ‘Septet’, with strings, woodwinds and piano all performing superbly. Next was, for me, the highlight of the evening, Karen Gomyo as soloist in Shostakovich’s ‘Concerto for Violin and Orchestra no. 1’. It was an intensive, whirlwind performance that was also sensitive and technically brilliant that deservedly brought endless applause and an encore.
The second half was no less exciting as the Radio France Philharmonique under Mikko Franck performed a magnificent ‘Sacre du Printemps’, with the strings, winds and percussion all on top form. It was a memorable evening.
Karen Gomyo with Mikko Franck and the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Stravinsky: ‘Septuor’; Sostakovich ‘Concerto for Violin and Orchestra no. 1; Stravinsky ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’ (‘The Rite of Spring’)
The School of Paris was not a school at all but the name subsequently given to the artists, many of whom were Jewish, who mostly came from Eastern Europe and the Russian Empire, arriving in Paris between 1904 and 1914. They included Marc Chagall, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, Jules Pascin, Sonia Delaunay, Jacques Lipchitz, Moïse Kisling and Ossip Zadkine.
The exhibition at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme in the Marias district of Paris is devoted to these artists and their participation in the artistic scene in what was then the capital of modern art.
After a year and a half of Covid restrictions it is wonderful to be back in Italy at last, especially to be in Tuscany, in Siena, one of my favourite towns. Although I was very much looking forward to some Tuscan gastronomy, the pappardelle al ragù di cinghiale and Brunello di Montalcino had to wait a little while longer as I headed straight to the Museo dell’opera del Duomo in Siena to be reacquainted with Duccio di Buoninsegna’s magnificent ‘Maestà’.
The ‘Maestà’, more properly ‘The Virgin and Christ Child in Majesty with Angels and Saints’, was painted by Duccio and his studio between 1308 and 1311, when it was installed in the Duomo amid great celebrations. A contemporary account records that “on the day [the Maestà] was carried to the Duomo the shops were shut, and the bishop conducted a great and devout company of priests and friars in solemn procession … and they accompanied the said picture up to the Campo, as is the custom, all the bells ringing joyously, out of reverence for so noble a picture.”
The altarpiece was two sided, although it was later sawn into two separate parts so that now the front and back are displayed separately. The front has a large enthroned Madonna and Child with angels and saints, including John the Evangelist, Saint Paul, Catherine of Alexandria, John the Baptist, Saint Peter, Mary Magdalene and Saint Agnes, as well as Siena’s own patron saints. The predella, originally below the main panel, depicts the Childhood of Christ with prophets, whilst the reverse consists of a combined cycle of twenty-six scenes from the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ. However, when the altarpiece was dismantled in 1771 some of the panels were damaged and others sold, resulting in many ending up in museums around the world.
Duccio di Buoninsegna ‘Maestà’ (front panel)
Duccio di Buoninsegna ‘Maestà’ (reverse)
Duccio di Buoninsegna ‘Maestà’ (reconstruction)
The Museum’s collection also includes another Duccio, the ‘Madonna di Crevole’, from the parish church of Santa Cecilia in Crevole, and Pietro Lorenzetti’s masterpiece, ‘Nativity of the Virgin’ from 1342, which originally decorated the altar of St. Sabinus in the Duomo. Other important works in the collection include Giovanni Pisano’s original sculptures from the façade and sides of the Cathedral.
Duccio di Buoninsegna ‘Madonna di Crevole’ (1283 – 84)
Pietro Lorenzetti ‘Nativity of the Virgin’ (1342)
Giovanni Pisano Sculptures from Siena Cathedral
September is a good time to visit Siena Cathedral as it is one of the months during which the ‘pavimenti’, the superb marble mosaic floor, is uncovered.
The central nave of Siena Cathedral
Opposite the Cathedral is the Ospedale Santa Maria della Scala, an enormous medieval hospital complex, built on the Via Francigena to provide shelter and care to pilgrims en route from Northern Europe to Rome. Particularly impressive is the extraordinary ‘Pellegrinaio’ or Pilgrim’s Hall, decorated in the 1340s with frescoes by Lorenzo di Pitro, Domenico di Bartolo and Priamo della Quercia, depicting subjects such as ‘Caring and Healing of the Sick’ and ‘Almsgiving’.
Pelegrinaio, Santa Maria della Scala, Siena
Domenico di Bartolo ‘Care of the Sick’ (1341 – 42)
There is still much debate about the development of early Italian painting. That it was influenced by Byzantine art is not disputed but what happened after the innovations of artists such as Cimabue, Giotto and Duccio is much less clear. In fact, the precise roles of these artists in these innovations is argued about; for example, many art historians now have doubts about the involvement of Giotto at Assisi. These debates will, of course, continue and many of the questions will likely remain unanswered, but this is part of what makes it such an interesting subject. What is unquestionable is that the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena is one of the most important art museums in Italy and that it contains a wonderful collection of early Sienese paintings. My visit there was one of the most rewarding of this trip.
The oldest documented work of the Sienese school on display is ‘The Saviour Blessing and Stories of the True Cross’ dated 1215, a tempera and gold painting on wood by the Master of Tressa, who was active in Siena between 1215 and 1240. It was an antependium (in Italian ‘paliottoan’), an ornament that would have been placed on the front of the altar table.
Master of Tressa ‘The Saviour Blessing and Stories of the True Cross’ (1215)
Other thirteenth-century works include Guido da Siena’s dossal, (an ornamental panel hung behind the altar) consisting of three scenes, the Transfiguration, the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, and the Resurrection of Lazarus, from the 1270s.
Guido di Siena ‘Altarpiece’ (1270s)
From the beginning of the fourteenth century there are works by Duccio and his assistants, including what is known as ‘Polyptych no. 28’ and ‘Madonna of the Franciscans’.
Duccio ‘Polyptych no. 28’ (1300 – 05)
Duccio ‘Madonna of the Franciscans’ (c.1300)
From one of my favourite artists, Simone Martini, there is the excellent ‘Blessed Agostino Novello Altarpiece’, with illustrations of his miracles including saving a child falling from a window and bringing life back to a child who has been savaged by a dog, and the Duccio-influenced ‘Madonna of Mercy from Vertine’.
Simone Martini ‘Blessed Agostino Novello Altarpiece’ (1324)
Simone Martini ‘Madonna of Mercy’ (1308 – 10)
There are several works by the Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro and Ambrogio. From the former there is the beautiful ‘Madonna with Angels between St Nicholas and Prophet Elisha’, whilst from Ambrogio there is the equally delightful ‘Annunciation’, his last known work.
Pietro Lorenzetti ‘Madonna with Angels between St Nicholas and Prophet Elisha’ (1328 – 29)