A short and brilliant history of gold in art, from the glittering tombs of ancient Egypt to the shockingly gilded surfaces of Gustav Klimt


Gold is a color in its own right. Just ask any chrysophile – a fancy word for lovers of the substance, that is, almost everyone. For millennia, this material has been used as a glittering symbol reserved for what is most sacred and revered. The Incas called gold “the tears of the sun”. The Egyptians knew it as “the flesh of the gods”. The hue adorned homages to deities, branded representations of kings and queens, and symbolized the opulence, power, and spiritual splendor of another world.

The mythologies and stories surrounding gold have also been troubling at times. In mythology, King Midas’s wish for a touch of gold becomes a curse. Belief in magic played a role, with alchemists seeking to transform ordinary metals into coveted matter. The actual quest to acquire gold ore has at times had horrific consequences, including colonial plunder that spanned centuries. During the American Golden Age, gold took on more sinister implications, embodying decadence, excess and corruption (the emerald city of Oz, in The Wizard of Oz, was itself a reference to “ounces” of gold and the American obsession with silver).

Nonetheless, gold has retained its powerful hold to this day (who could forget the hubbub on The golden toilets of Maurizio Cattelan at the Guggenheim?). With the recent announcement of the discovery of golden treasures in France and in Denmark, we decided to take a brief look at the enduring role of gold in the history of art.

Ancient symbol of the gods

The funerary mask of King Tutankhamun at the Cairo Museum, Egypt. Photo: Tim Graham, courtesy of Getty Images.

Although it is not known exactly when humans first encountered gold or began to create art from it (the Scandinavian solar chariot of Trundholm dates back to at least 1,400 BC). era), it was in the fertile crescent of Egypt that gold flourished in new and brilliant forms, thanks to many artisans.

Egypt had a veritable glut of gold, it should be noted. While other civilizations must have searched for the precious material, the element was so common in Egypt that royalty adorned themselves with gold glitter as a cosmetic. Additionally, the Egyptians were technically savvy, successfully transforming the naturally soft material into enduring objects and adornments for rulers for both this life and the next. In the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun (one of the only tombs to have been excavated largely intact), archaeologists have discovered the famous Tutankhamun mask, a funeral mask of the face of the young king in 11 karat gold and encrusted with precious stones. Entering the tomb for the first time, archaeologist Howard Carter wrote in rapture: “Strange animals, statues and gold… everywhere a reflection of gold. It should be noted that even since these early experiences, gold has been associated not only with wealth and power, but also with spirituality, transcendence, and the hereafter. Fascinating information for jewelry purists: The Egyptians were more concerned with the specific hue of gold than its quality, and often used alloys, especially gold-silver alloy electrum, to create their objects of gold. ‘art.

Byzantine beauty

Christ Pantocrator, flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist (c. 1261), Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

Christ Pantocrator, flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist (c. 1261), Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

Gold was at the heart of artistic creation during the reign of the Byzantine Empire (4th-15th century). Its rulers have often been honored with artistic tributes, such as the famous 6th-century mosaics depicting Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora at the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Further west, Celtic manuscripts illuminated with gold leaf, and in paintings, images of Christian religious figures were placed on ethereal backgrounds and flattened with gold leaf. At this time, the gold once associated with the ancient solar gods was transferred into the Christian faith, with gold reflecting divine light and radiance, as well as the illuminating omnipresence of God. Viewed by candlelight, as they were meant to be, such works would have had a sparkling, otherworldly beauty.

Islamic calligraphy and Persian miniature paintings

Baysonghor Shahnameh, 1430.

A miniature from Baysonghor Shahnameh (1430), a Persian epic renowned for its art.

Gold has a long tradition in court paintings in the Islamic world. One of the most acclaimed works of Islamic calligraphy, the Blue Quran, features brilliant gold leaf calligraphy on rare indigo parchment. In miniature paintings of the Indo-Persian world, the hue also found special meaning. Mughal Emperor Akbar (1542–1605) was particularly fond of the art of miniature paintings, small and delicate, often intended to be collected in books or albums for private consumption. During his reign, an artistic milieu flourished, producing intricate scenes of architecture, events, decorative elements and clothing, all wonderfully enhanced with golden details.

Louis XIV as the Sun King

Drawing by Henri de Gissey of the Apollo costume worn by Louis XIV in Le Ballet de la Nuit (16530>” width =”664″ height =”1024″ srcset =”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2021/09/Ballet_de_la_nuit_1653-664×1024.jpg 664w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2021/09/Ballet_de_la_nuit_1653-194×300 .jpg 194w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2021/09/Ballet_de_la_nuit_1653-32×50.jpg 32w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2021/09 /Ballet_de_la_nuit_1653.jpg 750w” sizes =”(max-width: 664px) 100vw, 664px”/></p>
<p class=Drawing by Henri de Gissey of the Apollo costume worn by Louis XIV in Le Ballet Royal de la Nuit (1653).

As power shifted between the Catholic Church and divinely ordained rulers and merchant classes throughout the Renaissance and Enlightenment, gold took on shifting political meanings. In the ancient world, Zeus, god of the sky, appeared to Danae as a shower of light (often represented as a shower of gold coins). Louis XIV of France renewed these old associations by proclaiming himself Sun King. In a famous ballet show, The Royal Ballet of the Night, the 14-year-old king (by all accounts an excellent dancer) appeared as costumed as the sun itself, happy in sparkling gold. Louis XIV’s celestial aspirations are also manifested in the architecture of Versailles, with abundant use of gold and mirrors to create a glittering effect as the king walks through the halls.

Gustav Klimt and the Vienna Secession

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss (Lovers) (1907-1908).  Courtesy of Galerie Belvédère.

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss (Lovers) (1907-1908). Courtesy of Galerie Belvédère.

While Pablo Picasso had his blue period, Gustav Klimt flourished in his golden phase. The Austrian artist had trained as a goldsmith in his father’s studio before becoming a painter, and the material had deep personal meaning for Klimt. In his work, he used gold leaf for a novel effect, flattening the plane of the image in a way reminiscent of the Japanese prints that inspired him so much. His application of gold also imbued his works with a certain “objectivity” that crossed the fields of design and decorative artists, qualities that embodied the unique characteristics of his fellow Viennese Secession artists. Moreover, Klimt’s decadent use of gold was not related to ideas of power or religion, but to sexuality and what Klimt saw as the transcendence of intimacy between men and women. . Indeed, his most famous painting, The Kiss (Lovers) (1907-1908), scandalized some critics with his obvious allusions to religious icons while exalting not God, but man and woman.

Yves Klein’s golden sublime

Yves Klein, Untitled monogold (1961). Courtesy of Christie’s.

While French conceptual artist Yves Klein is certainly most famous for his patented International Klein Blue, the artist was also deeply fascinated by the golden hues. Klein considered his more pink and gold blue to symbolize the holy trinity, with gold embodying God the father; blue, God the son; and risen, the Holy Spirit. Klein is coveted Monogolds the series featured sculptural surfaces entirely covered in gold leaf. As places of abstract reflection, these works refer to Byzantine icons.

Gold played an important role as Klein expanded his metaphysical investigation with the “Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility” series of the late 1950s, in which he sold spaces of “pure pictorial sensibility” otherwise known as space itself. Gold also played an important role in this work. In January 1962, Yves Klein went to the banks of the Seine to perform a “ritual transfer of immateriality” with the Italian author Dino Buzzati, who paid the artist for his area of ​​“pictorial sensitivity” with gold leaf . To complete the transaction, Klein produced a receipt for Buzzati – who burned it – and threw the majority of the gold leaf into the river to float, sparkling, away.

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