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Saturday, 26 January 2013


Gustav Klimt. Tree of Life. 1905

Last week I was teaching my Grade Ones about Austrian painter Gustav Klimt and his Tree of Life painting, in which a whimsical tree with spiralling branches is depicted against a background completely covered with gold leaf. I told them Klimt’s father was a jeweller, but technically he was a “gold engraver.” Engraver of what, I wondered? Pocket watches?

Of reliquaries? Chalices and patens? Tabernacles? 

Of vessels to contain God?

Gold, in art, always seems to be about the sacred. Think of the gold-leafed halos of saints and angels. Of the glory of God -- colour fields of luminous gold -- surrounding Mother and Child or Christ himself in Orthodox icons, in early Renaissance altar pieces, in Byzantine mosaics. Of the minute gold highlights in illuminated manuscripts, laboured over in dark monasteries; of the gilt-edged pages of Bibles. And farther back still, the gifts of the Magi.

And that’s just the Christian tradition.

Giotto. Crucifixion (detail). 1315-20.

Christ Pantocrator mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. 12th century.

Christ in Majesty. Aberdeen Bestiary (illuminated manuscript). 1200.

So when gold appears in a contemporary work of art, is it still a signifier of what is sacred? Sometimes, yes.

In 2006, I had the great fun of sitting down across from Canadian visual artist Sarah Alford in a cafe. We talked about craft and art and Marxist politics and, at some point, gold. She introduced me to the “aesthetics of light.” 

“There is a whole western theology based on this idea that the universe is made of light in various densities,” she told me. “And the lighter things were, the closer they were to the divine. And I (Alford) thought: ‘Oh – it’s because it’s SHINY!’ (Laughter) That’s why we like it! And there’s this quality that we need and that we love. And so I just sort of took that idea out into the landscape....”

Sarah Alford. Flaws 5. Gold leaf on asphalt. 2009

Alford began gilding cracks in sidewalks, highlighting the flaws in the ground of our own making. Gracing it with gold to reflect the ground of our being.

Dorothy Cross. Relic. Shark skin and 21 carat gold. 2010.

Most recently I came across an art work by Irish artist Dorothy Cross, who was working in the Galapagos Islands. She had gold-leafed the interior of a shark skin, and called it “Relic;" a word which she may have meant solely as a reference to the shark's survival since the time before the dinosaurs. Or maybe not.

Which made me think again, that gold (in art) is often an arrow of light, pointing to the things we hold sacred.

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