Bernini’s Corpus and Modern Movies

The Art Gallery of Ontario holds more than 79,000 items in its collection, from 100 A.D. to the present. I’d just seen a tiny fraction of them during the six hours I was there. But if I’m to say which one has stirred the most ripples, it would be the bronze sculpture by Bernini, Corpus (The Crucified Christ), ca. 1655.

Successor of Michelangelo, the Italian Baroque architect and artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini had produced many famous Papal works. I’m impressed by how contemporary this 17th C. sculpture looks with its silvery-bronze color and its minimalist styling. Further, I’m amazed that it has been in private hands all the years… Like you might hear at a party, “Oh, I just happen to own a Bernini.” Having been ‘lost’ and then ‘found’, the sculpture was last in the possession of the Frum family who donated it to the AGO in 2007, estimated value at that time was $50 million.

Murray Frum, real estate developer and philanthropist, had earlier donated an entire African art collection to the AGO. To the general public, probably the most well-known member of his family is his late wife who died of cancer in 1992, the prominent CBC news journalist Barbara Frum.

Unlike the other art works of the crucifix that I’ve seen, the Bernini Corpus has no cross. Its 5 foot 6 inches life-size body hung in midair, supported only at the base.  There it is, right in the middle of the darkened gallery room displayed at eye-level, the suffering Christ suspended in silence. You can get near to the outstretched arms, you can see the loincloth blown to the side, and every minute detail on the body.

Without the backing of the cross, the image gives a weightier impression. You can go right up to the work, except of course you can’t touch it or take a picture, even though both were what I actually wanted to do… But at least, I could look and wonder in nearness.

The cruciform pose of Christ being hung on an invisible cross turns the literal event into a symbolic timelessness. The mere posture of two outstretched arms has long been associated with the essence of the cross: suffering, sacrifice, redemptive salvation. Such a visual icon has been used in many movies effectively. Whether you agree with the director’s message or parallel is another matter. Nonetheless, the archetypal cruciform pose is a powerful image when aptly embedded in a visual context.

Here are a few movies that I can think of where the cruciform pose vividly depicts a memorable moment. (Warning: The following section carries Spoilers.)

How Green Was My Valley (1941): John Ford’s visually contemplative work. When the shaft comes up from the underground mine carrying survivors of the explosion, you can see the rescuer Mr. Gruffydd in the cruciform pose. What’s more, you can even see the Pieta image:

Through a Glass Darkly (1961): Ingmar Bergman’s classic. The estranged father David stretching his arms out in front of the window, sobbing and seeking redemption through family relationship: Cool Hand Luke (1967): After eating 50 eggs, it’s enough suffering for Luke (Paul Newman), a determined radical fighting a callous system in a hopeless prison. His graceful form is a clear contrast to the stark surroundings: The Graduate (1967): Ben (Dustin Hoffman) cries from above: “Elaine! Elaine! Elaine! …” Which yearning heart would not respond to such a passionate cry and be delivered in the nick of time out of a loveless union: Dances With Wolves (1990): Only when you’re not afraid to die, then can you live.  Lieutenant Dunbar (Kevin Costner) embraces death only to be ushered into a new life and adventure:

Shawshank Redemption (1994): Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) literally digs out a new path to salvation. This is the iconic scene of freedom and cleansing after climbing out from the sewage line: Superman Returns (2006): Superman (Brandon Routh) returning from Krypton to save the world. His famous line to Lois: “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but everyday I hear someone crying for one.” Gran Torino (2008): Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) laying down his life to save his young friends from a neighborhood gang, in search of self-redemption: … I’m sure you can think of more.


Related Posts you might enjoy:

Alex Colville and the Movies

The Art Gallery of Ontario


The AGA Exhibits: Images In Sight And Sound

The AGA actually is a much smaller building than I expected.  But what’s appealing is the ubiquitous windows and glass allowing natural light to pour in, visually expanding the interior space.  The windows also make the surrounding downtown buildings visible from within, enhancing the sense of connection with the adjacent urban environs.  The exhibits are distributed among three floors of galleries.

Figures in Motion showcases 40 of Edgar Degas’ (1834-1917) bronze sculptures of dancers, bathers, and horses.  Juxtaposed in the exhibits are paintings, pastels, drawings, and prints of early photographs showing these figures in action.  The nuance of a single movement, as simple as the drying motion of bathers, can turn into a subject of grace and beauty under the sensitive eyes and expressive hands of the artist.

In contrast, Francisco Goya’s (1746-1828) etching prints suites Los Caprichos (1799) and The Disasters of War (1810-1820) are the realistic depiction of the ugliness and foibles of humanity.  A sharp social critic, his art mightier than the sword, Goya’s works expose unreservedly the horror of war and his critique of his time.

Up to the second floor I came face to face with the archetypal portraits by the renowned Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002) in the exhibit Karsh: Image Maker.  We all must have seen some of his black and white portraits of famous people, somewhere.  The most well-known probably is Winston Churchill from whose mouth Karsh reportedly pulled out a cigar as he did his work.  Other famous portraits include that of Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Ernest Hemingway, Princess Elizabeth, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Alfred Hitchcock, Helen Keller, Grey Owl and numerous remarkable history makers.  I was totally absorbed as I walked by these meditative portraits of iconic personalities.

It seemed that the exhibits grew more interesting with every flight of stairs I stepped up.  The third floor offered an experience totally new to me.  As far as I can recall, this is the first sound installation mixed media art that I’ve encountered.  In a large, rectangular room occupying the whole floor, The Murder of Crows is installed.  Sound sculptors Janet Cardiff and George Miller have shown this work, their largest sound installation, in Australia, Germany and Brazil.  This is their North American premiere.

98 speakers are placed strategically and aesthetically in a large room, surrounding a table in the middle.  On the table is a megaphone.  Audience seats are grouped in the space encircled by the speakers.  The whole setting visually is a minimalist display.  The photo below is this installation in Berlin.  Even without the sound, the arrangement is an artistic presentation in itself.

But what we had at the AGA was a windowless room with dim lighting.  The added effects were even more haunting and claustrophobic.

The 30 minutes sound presentation is a fusion of narrations, voices, footsteps, birds and bats, choral and orchestral music.  It evokes sequences of dreamscapes, and in part is an audio rendition of Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters in the Los Caprichos series (See image above).  The etching shows the artist himself asleep at his desk, with owls and bats hovering over him. The title divulges layers of meaning, prompting speculations of Goya’s actual thoughts.  The sleep of reason unleashes powerful imagination, even nightmares. Or, the erosion of reason led humanity into chaos and irrationality…

The phrase ‘the murder of crows’ refers to the collective gathering of the ominous birds, re-created here by the groupings of the 98 black speakers, some mounted on stands, some placed on chairs.  The very title and the effects made me feel like I was in the middle of the Hitchcock movie The Birds.  The sound was so riveting that I was glued to my seat in suspense… and the music from the massive choir and orchestra was both amazing and disturbing.  Click here to watch a 5-minute video clip of the sound installation. Click here to read an interview with Cardiff and Miller.

The AGA is not a big structure, but what is offered inside spans the artistic expressions separated by a chasm of time, form, and style.  From Goya’s disturbing etchings to the graceful renditions of Degas’ dancers, to the photographic images of iconic personalities captured by Karsh, and to end with the haunting sound installation The Murder of Crows, the exhibits were rains of pebbles into this quiet pond of thoughts… something I had not anticipated at the start of the trip.

Photography was not allowed in the galleries, so I cannot post any authentic visual experience here.  The above images are from the following sources:

Degas’ bronze sculpture Little Dancer and Karsh’s portrait of Albert Einstein from AGA website

Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters from Wikipedia Commons

The Murder of Crows sound installation from Cardiff and Miller’s website


Art Gallery of Alberta

Drove up to Edmonton to take in the new Art Gallery of Alberta.  My first impression when I looked at the promotional materials was its similarity to a Frank Gehry like the Disney Concert Hall in L.A. and the Peter B. Lewis Building on the Case Western Reserve University campus.

A look at it in real life confirmed my thought, it sure was a Gehry style architecture.  A little googling later led me to the information that its architect Randall Stout used to work at Frank Gehry’s studio.  CLICK HERE for an extensive interview of Randall Stout and some spectacular images of his portfolio.

I don’t have any sophisticated photo software to take out the traffic lights and the sewage repair work underway, so the following picture shows the real life street scene of the remarkable structure at its most authentic.  But for some sparkling clear views and a detailed description of the architecture, CLICK HERE.

And here are some pictures of the inside, like the above, were taken by my little Panasonic Lumix pocket camera, no touch-up or editing:




The AGA is situated adjacent the Sir Winston Churchill Square in downtown Edmonton, a public open space linking the City Hall with the arts:

The Winspear Centre, home of the Edmonton Symphony is just across from the Square:

To finish off my day visit, I saw this colourful reflection of the slowly setting sun on the downtown buildings:


Of course, I didn’t drive three hours from Calgary just see the the architecture, but the exhibits.  And that has to be another post.

Photos taken by Arti of Ripple Effects, March 2010.
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