Countdown to Christmas
El recién nacido (the Newborn) Georges de La Tour
This beautiful painting of a swaddled newborn child is delicate and at the same time bold and robust. The child is calm and totally dependant on the mother and what looks like a nursemaid. However, clever use of the shielded candle in the nursemaid’s hand gives the child an almost heavenly glow, as if the child itself is giving off the light.
There is an ambiguity in this picture; is it simply a touching family scene of the period it was painted, or a direct reference to the baby Jesus? We are not sure. Many people are not sure if they believe that the Christmas story of the baby Jesus, angels, shepherds and Kings really happened. But one thing is undeniable; this baby, that many people do believe was born over 2000 years ago, has had a huge influence over the world we live in.
In the busy weeks leading up to the big day, perhaps we should all try and find a moment to be calm and quietly joyful like the mother in this picture.
Christmas Village Thomas Kinkade
People tend to either love Kinkade’s slightly over sugared winter/Christmas scenes or, like me, do not.
They are hugely popular, especially in North America, and are dripping with sentimentality, and make the viewer reminiscent of a Christmas time that probably never existed.
This one is no exception. Beautiful snow evenly covering the village, thatched cottages with a warm and inviting glow coming from every window, smoke rising from every chimney suggesting even more warmth is to be found inside.
The (modern health and safety nightmare) bridge even has delicate Christmas wreaths and garlands. And to top it all there is a picture perfect Christmas tree growing and decorated in someone’s front garden.
Actually, what’s there not to like about the Christmas that this picture is offering? Perhaps, rather than being judgmental about other people’s view of Christmas I should embrace it. We are a bit quick to dismiss other people’s ways of doing things, especially if they don’t fit into our own views and thoughts.
I think I’ll give Thomas Kinkade another chance.
Christmas Tree Shirazeh Houshiary
Judgeing by the number of postings on Facebook I suspect over the weekend a good number of Christmas trees went up. What is always lovely about Christmas trees is they are all so individual and particular to the individuals, groups or families that put them up.
I doubt many looked like this though! This was put up in the Tate Modern Gallery a few years ago and caused a few raised eyebrows. It is upside down! The roots have been carefully preserved and covered in real gold leaf. These golden roots themselves make a strangely attractive and beautiful addition. By placing them ‘on top’ the roots are given a status that is not normally given to them. But they are possibly the most important part of any tree, and many of us just chop them off and discard them. Houshiary has made them the most important part of this tree.
Don’t forget your roots this Christmas. Where you come from, and those that made you who you are, are worth celebrating. Perhaps an ‘upsidedown’ Christmas is what we all need!
From ‘ How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ Dr Seuss
'Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! "Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store." "Maybe Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!"'
Something a little different today. If you have not read the original version of this wonderful book (and only seen the films or shockingly bad cartoon), then you must! The drawings are wonderful and full of quirky, lively charm. The charming tale of how a miserable, mean character is convinced of the merit of Christmas by a small and caring soul is a Christmas must.
As Christmas zooms towards us occasionally we can all get a bit Grinch like! Look for the little things around you to pick you up and cheer you up. And remember it might not be something you find in a shop!
The Annunciation Botticelli
In this painting we see the moment that Mary is told that she will be the mother of Jesus. Finding out you are going to have a child can be a shocking moment at the best of times. However, to find out that He is to be the Son of God is a bit of a shocker!
It is interesting to look at the body language going on in the painting. Mary is standing, and turns her body and lifts her hands showing some sort of resistance. The angel (carrying the lily – a symbol of Mary’s purity) is crouched and on one knee, a bit subservient. Initially it all looks a bit awkward. But when you look at the face of Mary there is a calm peace over her - an acceptance. And the angel looks serious but yet calm, reassuring and ready to sooth. I love the interplay in this beautifully executed painting, between the two characters in this often forgotten part of the Christian Christmas story.
Mary had no real idea of where this news would lead, but had the faith to accept what was coming. I sometimes wish I could just take on board big news and just deal with it in the same way!
Night Snow at Kambara Utagawa Hiroshige
There is something particularly magical about snow at night time. The muffled silence of the air and the gentle crunch of snow underfoot - nothing is quite like it.
Although it does snow in Japan a fair deal this picture is almost certainly from the imagination of this artist, as it rarely snows in this area. It’s a picture perfect snow scene – Japanese Woodcut style!
I love the flashes of colour added on to the monochrome background, and the sense of depth achieved by the mountains going off into the distance. And although it is not a ‘Christmas Picture’ it still makes me think of festive times! A ‘White Christmas’ is not really a common event. However, it doesn’t stop me dreaming of one! Here’s hoping!
Adoration of the Shepherds El Greco
This painting has a surprisingly modern feel for one that was painted in the early 1600s! With the strong lighting effects and the twisted and distorted bodily figures El Greco is way before his time in his style.
I love the dramatic use of light and colour in this nativity scene. The dramatic darkness with light coming from the baby Jesus and the simple bold colours all make this private and delicate moment have all the drama of a Hollywood blockbuster.
And why not? For many people the birth of Jesus is a major part of their lives. Christians all over the world will be celebrating the birth of Jesus. El Greco was no exception and he wanted to celebrate the birth in the way he knew best; as a dramatic painting (one that would turn out to be one of his last)
Whether you are celebrating Christmas as the birth of Jesus, or just that it’s ‘that time of the year’, you surely can’t help but be taken by the excitement and grandeur of this painting.
Christmas Tree Norman Rockwell
It wouldn’t be a collection of Christmas pictures with out at least one Norman Rockwell picture. He captures Christmas so perfectly; his gentle sense of humour, attention to detail, and exquisitely proportioned sentimentality make him the just person to capture the Christmas mood.
Rockwell was an American illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post, for almost five decades, and his Christmas illustrations captured the American festive season in a way no other artist has.
I suspect that over this weekend there will be many of us who share the ‘Christmas Tree Light Frustration’ that is shown in this painting! Broken and tangled (how DOES that happen?) lights, decorations in the wrong place, arguments over what sort of tree and where; all can lead to a very stressful decorating session.
I suggest a glass of wine (or cup of coco!), turn on the Christmas music, and take your time.
‘‘Tis the season to be jolly’ after all.
Landscape with Snow Vincent van Gogh
In this painting we see some of van Gogh’s characteristic techniques. His short brush strokes and keen observation of colours help him capture this scene brilliantly.
Van Gogh was very keen on the town of Arles , in the south of France, He wanted to ‘see colour under a stronger sun’ and he decided that it was Arles that he would attempt to set up an artist’s community. It was ill fated, as was a lot about van Gogh’s life.
Arles had had an unusually cold spell and van Gogh painted this scene between two bouts of snow. The ground showing the mud and plants peeking through the slushy snow, and the purplish hue of a sky heavy with snow. You can almost feel how hard it is for the lone figure (and his dog) to trudge their way through this field.
It has an unusual calmness over the scene. I feel it is a good painting to take time to look at, and have a ‘pause’ in this busy time of the year.
Christmas Morning Thomas Falcon Marshall
The Victorians are often attributed with making Christmas what we know it as today. Many of the traditions and events of Christmas come from this time in history. It is paintings like this on that help give us our view of what a ‘traditional’ Christmas should feel like.
The children have been collecting holly (perhaps to decorate the church), the snowy scenery, the kindly benevolent adults, the clever use of light in the painting … they all add up to a Christmas scene of yesteryear. I do wonder if this sort of scene ever happened or if it is just the artist imagining an image of a Christmas that he invented.
I often wonder in a hundred years or so what artists will make of Christmas in 2018? Will there still be that sentimentality and ‘soft focus’ to the whole event? I do hope so – I hope the commercial, busy, and stressful side fades over time to show the side of Christmas that matters the most.
Winter Landscape Wassily Kandinsky
Kandinsky is often best known for his semi abstract pieces with swirling shapes and colours. Here we have a more figurative piece, but still full of bursting colours; who ever said that snow was white!
The thin black trees split the picture in half, and their forced perspective lead the eye to the house in the middle. To me he’s trying to get that strange event where there is heavy snow, and more to come (the darkness in the sky to the left) but for a brief time there is strong sunlight. Never one to shy away from colour, Kandinsky has over exaggerated the subtleties of the colours he might have found in this scene to come up with this painting.
A few things to look for that make this picture special: the thin whispy shadows from the trees on the right (as opposed to the oddly dark and strangely short shadows on the left trees), the short van Gogh like strokes of colour on the hills in the back ground and the dabs of red that draw the eye on the roof of the house and in the woodland on the left. All subtleties that work together to make this a visual feast.
Do They Know It’s Christmas Peter Blake
1984 saw the incredible music phenomena of Band Aid create the huge number one ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’. It was record breaking piece of music history in many ways. The artist Peter Blake was asked to create the record sleeve picture.
Peter Blake is one of the great British Artists that are still alive! He created many amazing pieces of work, and is probably most well known for the legendary album cover for St. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band.
This piece of ‘Christmas Art’ is a fantastically strong image. The multiple cozy, on the whole Victorian feeling, pictures are cut out and collaged into a fantastical ‘perfect Christmas’. Roaring log fires, a beautiful Christmas tree, happy smiling children playing with the toys they have always wanted, even Father Christmas makes an appearance. How cozy!
This wonderful scene is only ‘spoilt’ by the image of the starving children. Black and white, stark, covered in flies. How dare they ruin this perfect Christmas?
Sadly we don’t need to look as far as Ethiopia to find those that are suffering this Christmas. On the streets of Britain many sleep rough. In homes and houses in our street there are those that suffer in silence. I sometimes wonder if they know it is Christmas – and I long to do something to help. I think this year I will try.
Christmas Album Sleeve Keith Haring
I am in the process of sorting out my Christmas cards today! Haring produced this image for a special album of music… but it is now often used as a Christmas Card. Haring went from controversial graffiti artist to mainstream norm very quickly, his style loved by many.
I know a lot of people are now using e-cards or other electronic ways to send Christmas greetings to make life easier. There is also the environmental impact of sending ‘single use greeting cards’ to consider. But, call me old fashioned, and possibly un-environmental, but there is little else that gives me as big a cheer as receiving and sending a Christmas card!
I think that one like this would be lovely to receive! It would make it a ‘Very Special Christmas’.
I think Ill find another card for tomorrow!
German Christmas Card from World War 1
This year has been a special one. One hundred years ago the First World War, on the whole, came to an end. The trench warfare had been appalling; atrocious living conditions, huge loss of life and an overwhelming sense of futility.
But still Christmas happened.
Rather than have a Christmas card that was for the Allied troops, I thought one from Germany would be more interesting. Pictured are the German soldiers having opened a parcel from home; singing songs, reading letters gathering around a fire. There is no doubt some edible cheer in that package. Snow lays all around and there is a calmness in the air. If it were not for the vigilant soldier on the look out on the right the whole scene would have a merry feel to it. Pictured at the top of the card is a typical family, waiting patiently for the return of the soldiers, in their best clothes having a pleasant cup of tea. This jolly scene is far from the reality of the event.
Even now we have conflict all over the world. Soldiers, and civilians, are caught up in the worst of conditions and terrorism and sadness seem to be everywhere if you watch the news.
But still Christmas happens.
There is something about Christmas that can break through the sadness and bring joy. I hope that it manages to bring you and your loved ones joy this year.
Part of a mural in Shorditch Zadok and Ninth Seal, Sokar Uno
This image is part of a mural that was painted by a collaboration of artists from the UK and Germany. It was part of the 14-18 commemorations, thinking about the end of the First World War.
We see an image of the now famous football match that happened in the trenches on Christmas Day 1914. A time when war was put to one side and Christmas managed to cause peace in one war-torn part of the world.
Using photographic references the artists have created these soldiers with very disproportionately sized bodies. The large heads and ill-fitting clothes give the people a child like quality. They look like children playing at being adults. The simple use of red/black/white adds to the starkness of the scene. If it were not for the barbed wire on the right hand side this could almost be a playground scene.
I think the artists have captured the futility of the situation. This truce that lead to play was temporary. To those involved it was important and it allowed them to see that there were no real differences between either side. But ultimately this dissolved away it lead to no real understanding.
This Christmas let’s cling onto the element of Christmas that is childlike and fun, that allows us to be friends to all– let’s not let this fade away.
The Census at Bethlehem Pieter Bruegel the Elder
As usual Bruegel’s painting is full of life. People everywhere doing all sorts of things. This painting is an imagining of the part of the Christmas story where Mary and Joseph are arriving in Bethlehem, Mary heavily pregnant riding a donkey and the town full of people for the census decreed by Caesar Augustus.
The location has been transported to a Flemish town in the 1500s. The census office is on the left of the picture; people gathering round to register. There are children playing games, people preparing food, maintaining their wagons, playing on sledges, … in fact it’s almost a 16thCentury ‘Where’s Wally’. If you look carefully you can see Mary, on a donkey, and Joseph!
I love Bruegel’s paintings they are so busy and full of characters. What I love most about them is that almost all the characters in the painting are people we could meet now! The clothes may be different but the people the same. It just goes to show that people are people where ever they are and whatever century they are in!
The plight of that pregnant mother to be on the donkey, is as relevant today as it was 500 years ago or even 2000 years ago. Displaced and desperate they found comfort in the most humble of places – a stable because that was all that was available.
Illustration for ‘The Night Before Christmas’ Arthur Rackham
Arthur Rackham was an illustrator that produced charming detailed pictures that were packed with nostalgic beauty. This is one of several pictures created especially for the poem by Clement C Moore.
Here we have Father Christmas working his way through the houses (smothered in beautiful snow) ready to give out the gifts to the boys and girls. Most of the town is asleep; only the odd light is on here and there.
The softness and detail in this picture make it instantly charming with out being overly sentimental. I love it.
It’s the Father Christmas that I remember from my childhood. It’s the kind of town I wanted to live in. It’s the snow I want on Christmas day.
I can’t wait until it’s the night before Christmas this year!