By Jack Chen
Pala d'Oro, 1345
The Pala d’Oro forms part of the retable of the high altar of the Basilica di San Marco which glorifies St Mark the Evangelist. It sits on top of a wooden box containing the relic of St Mark. Encrusted with 250 enamels, and approximately 2000 pearls, rubies, emeralds, and other precious stones, when facing the congregation, it catches the bright sun and appears as a blaze of divine light.
“A light, then, that is stonal and cold unites the whole composition, creating a work of incomparable value which only the great and wealthy doge could invent as a demonstration of the power of the Venetian prince, in the place that was the symbol of power itself, the tomb of St Mark.” -Giovani Lorenzoni
The Pala d’Oro is very much a palimpsest: a composite of relics and jewels from Venice’s history that ultimately defines Venice’s cosmopolitan community.
The enamels of the lower section were commissioned by the Doge from Byzantine artists in Constantinople in 976.
In 1105 Doge Ordelaffo Falier commissioned enamels on the side frames depicting stories of St Mark, as well as scenes of Christ in Majesty. By presenting scenes of Venice’s patron Saint alongside scenes of Jesus’s life, weight and authority is added to St Mark: he is legitimized.
After the Fourth Crusade of 1204, precious loot from Constantinople was also added to the Pala d’Oro, and the artwork seemed to abandon its liturgical emphasis in favour of a political one: it gradually became an advertisement for Venetian power and identity.
Finally, in 1345 Doge Andrea Dandolo entrusted two Venetian goldsmiths to unite the Pala d’Oro to what it is today.
Vittore Carpaccio, 'The Lion of St Mark', 1516
Carpaccio’s The Lion of St Mark, painted in 1516, is a civic assertion of Venice’s power: a symbol of togetherness and mounting patriotism after a time of shared hardship. A large work, 1.3m by 3.7m, it is placed in the Doge’s palace.
In 1508, the Pope called for all Christian nations to join him in an expedition to subdue Venice, forming the League of Cambrai. The agreement was to defeat the Republic and split its territories. The onslaught arrived in May 1509, and within two months Venice had lost all of its territories on the mainland.
Carpaccio’s Lion in the painting symbolises the territorial struggle, standing with its hind legs in the water and forelegs on land. A symbol of Venice, the Lion emblematizes Venice’s power on the terraferma (land) and terramare (sea), perhaps an attempt to make Venice appear strong after the invasion put their territories at risk.
The Lion depicts the victorious bravery of Venice: they did not shy away from the War of the Holy Leagues, even hiring an army of mercenaries to fight an army that severely outnumbered them. The Lion stands with its paw on a book with the word ‘Pax’ (peace) boldly put: serenity has been achieved and order has been restored by a mighty victory.
In the left background, Carpaccio depicts in detail places where Venice has prospered and grown for centuries. We can see the south façade of the Palazzo Ducale, where ‘Venetian Gothic is well-laced with Eastern luxury’ (Paoletti and Radke). Showing the most prosperous side of the city, Carpaccio could be suggesting that Venice has prevailed, and will continue to prosper.
Pieter Bruegel, 'The Peasant Wedding', 1567
During the days when communities were very small, and individuals stayed rigidly within the boundaries of their socio-economic backgrounds, Pieter Bruegel pierced the indiscernible barbed wire of class to capture and understand communities of an alien nature: he used to dress up as a peasant to live among them and be a part of the lifestyle.
There is a prominent sense of liveliness in this scene of warm celebration, with each person engaged in some activity whether it is speaking or eating or filling a jug or playing an instrument. Each person is interconnected with another in some way, and this forms the large-scale bustling scene we see before us, where loved ones are united in a celebration of love.
The very nature of the painting contributes to a sense of a wider community. The aristocracy, for whom this painting was commissioned, would have received a glimpse of how traditions and ways of doing things were different in other communities. This glimpse enables the acknowledgement of a different lifestyle, different in its beauty – a wider community.
Paolo Veronese, 'Feast in the House of Levi', 1573
There are not many paintings that convey a sense of community as much as this one, depicting the scene of a glamorous feast. Each figure is actively involved in doing something: their gazes are focused on either another person, on their food, or on an object. An intensely lively atmosphere is created by the intermingling crowd, dressed in their finest and brightest silks, entertaining Jesus in the House of Levi. The dressed-up, almost costume-like nature, of this depicted event, reminds us of the joys of heading out, and enjoying a meal with friends at a popular spot.
The only one who seems to be having a terrible time is Judas, sitting in his bright red robes opposite Jesus. His classic ostracization in biblical feast scenes intensifies the sense of togetherness around him; his exclusion is often an emphatic device to show the bustling and jovial nature of things all around him.
Veronese was a lover of plays, and this is reflected in the painting. Not only are the figures united in a biblical narrative, they are united as a cast of players. The straight-on arrangement of figures across an elevated stage-like flooring, coupled with a flat and pastel coloured background, makes viewers feel part of a group of theatregoers.
Diego Velazquez, 'Las Meninas', 1656
This work by Velazquez depicts the infant and the Royal court. Taking account of its historical context, it is endowed with a sense of community: a kingdom united in its hardship, teetering before its final fall. Painted in an era known as the ‘End of the Hapsburgs’, it carries undertones referring to the equal suffering of all classes alike.
“At that date the King was 51, and in poor health; he had ruined Spain politically and economically; in reality the court coffers were empty, in winter there was no fire to warm the palace, and the fish served up on golden platters came stinking to the royal table.” -Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen
The Hapsburgs had been on the throne for five generations. During Philip's reign, Flanders was lost, the routes to colonies that produced silver were threatened by the naval strength of Britain and the vast Spanish Empire had become impossible to defend militarily.
Each of the individuals in the work are tied by mutual and individual hardship, and their individual difficulties are taken in their stride to hold together the Spanish court.
The presence of Philip and Mariana is implied by the mirror in the background; they are famously never shown together in paintings because of their notoriously bad relationship: she was 30 years his junior and unable to produce him an heir, while he was rumoured to have more mistresses than Louis XIV of France, with 32 illegitimate children. The maids have to abide by increased levels of court protocols to show deference, such as the maid on the left kneeling when addressing the five-year-old Infanta Margarita; an exaggerated act stipulated amidst the Royals’ waning power. Court jesters and dwarfs were also brought in to entertain the court, located on the right and grouped with the dog. Dwarves were severely discriminated against, considered equal to pets and animals.
Gustave Caillebotte, 'Young Man at his Window', 1875
The artist's brother, René Caillebotte, stands at a balcony by a window of the family home in the Rue de Miromesnil in Paris, looking outwards into Boulevard de Malesherbes.
Seeing the back of the figure as he gazes upon a vista is a theme which has precedents in German Romanticism, a notable example being Caspar David Friedrich's Woman at the Window. Caillebotte's painting differs from his German antecedents in several ways, however. The man does not gaze upon nature, but rather looks out upon an urban scene. According to the art historian Kirk Varnedoe, "a standard charm of the window view is our bemused curiosity as to what the observer is looking at; but Caillebotte's structure replaces this curiosity with something quite different." There is something tense about his shoulder, some dangerous sense of yearning in his legs, standing so close to the window that his feet are pressed against the parapet.
In this urban community, one is both within and without the excitement of social interaction. The figure seems isolated, almost lonely, despite being in a city full of people. In the background viewers can see similar windows as the one the figure is looking out of: there is no doubt that there is life all around, but it is private life, and the figure cannot take part.
During quarantine, with everyone staying at home, even the most tightly packed neighbourhoods can feel lonely. But perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that we are still all together, still one community, just behind closed doors.
Henri Matisse, 'Dance', 1910
People have come together to unite in a common pursuit of joy, as people tend to do.
The work, even its title, highlights the power of music, dance, and art to unify a group. Viewers can feel the flow of the music even in just the visual experience. In the entire artwork there is not a single straight line. Everything is rounded, and this creates that sense of fluidity we all know and love in music. Red, the colour of passion, covers these dancers: they are charged by the moment, eyes closed, heads waving in the pleasure of it all.
The work highlights the yearning to be together in an enterprise of joy, feeling an energetic connection to those around us. Perhaps something we’ll all enjoy very soon once things open up, but for now, this work serves as a worthy reminder of that feeling.
Keith Haring, 'Untitled', 1985
A cluster of tangled figures which seem to wail in distress without faces. Chaos ensues in this community amidst what seems to be pervasive panic: universal feelings of confusion, helplessness, and alarm.
In Haring’s oeuvre, images of crowds were viewed as a powerful phenomenon: they could be an invincible force. Seeing Vietnam War riots and Race riots at the impressionable age of ten, as well as witnessing the Jonestown massacre in 1978, the image of crowds inevitably carried notions of tragedy in all of Haring’s work.
Stylising the people to look all the same, Haring blends everyone into a group: they face whatever trouble together, whether they like it or not. The figures seem to be drowning in the fluid and almost-neon coloured background. The bright and alarming colours, as well as the figures which seem to convey panic in the most basic of lines, makes this work an emblem of society in crisis.
Felix Gonzales Torres, 'Untitled (Fortune Cookie Corner)', 1990
The cookie pile is part of “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner), a 1990 work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. It has been installed, mid-pandemic, as a collective work in hundreds of locations around the world involving more than 10,000 cookies, exhibiting from May 25 to July 5.
Piles of these Chinese desserts are scattered across the globe in random public areas, all free for the taking. The edible sculptures remind us of our interconnectedness to the community, the presence of this artwork often stimulating social interactions between strangers. In a time where cities are eerily quiet and the people weary of each other, these cookies spread joy through the random encounters it creates.
The fortune cookie is broken open to reveal a message regarding ones future: this very notion reminds us that there is indeed a future to look forward to for all of us, beyond this unexpected pandemic. The optimistic notion of rebirth and recovery – economically, socially, and emotionally – is metaphorically evoked by the one-time replenishing of all cookie piles on June 14th.
Andrea Rosen, one of the lead curators, believes this gives “everyone [the] opportunity to experience both the potential loss within the piece, and also the notions of rebuilding and regeneration" within the community.
The edible sculptures are based on Gonzales-Torres’ iconic candy piece, “Portrait of Ross”, 1991. During a similar era of pandemic, the artist, who was gay, lived on the front line of the AIDS hubbub, losing his partner, Ross Laycock. The sculptures were the “ideal weight” (Gonzales-Torres) of his partner in his prime. As people took candy from the sculpture it reflected the deterioration of Ross from Aids, conveying the horrifying state of his lover “physically disappearing right in front of [his] eyes” (Gonzales-Torres). Today, the mound of fortune cookies similarly carry dark connotations of diminishment of hope, faith, optimism, freedom, etc.
David Hammons, ‘Travelling’, 2002
“I’m enraged by basketball. This is my revenge.” (Hammons)
The framed sheet of paper is 4ft wide and 10ft tall, the regulation height of a basketball hoop. The pattern is formed by bouncing a dirty basketball over the top of the paper. Behind the frame is a hidden suitcase, perhaps a pun to do with the title, ‘travelling’.
The work is a political comment on upwards social mobility (or lack there of) for those living in his local community of Harlem. David Hammons grew up with basketball dreams, a sport played in predominantly black communities. For many living in troubled conditions, the sport was one of the only ways out of poverty. Hammons had practiced 7 hours a day, only to stop growing at 5 feet 8inches, and thus stymied by the sport’s height restrictions.
The eponymous rule of basketball that says you can’t take the ball and run with it embodies the notion of restriction and limitation faced by many. Bouncing the dirty ball all over the sheet of paper hundreds of times, Hammons conveys the sense of being trapped by the rules, “by the system” (Hammons). The hidden suitcase behind the frame also hints at the hidden dream of many to ‘travel’ upwards in life, to “come off the streets” (Hammons). However, like the concealed item, these dreams are often unrealised.