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Lunar New Year: Red and Gold Appreciation

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Happy Lunar New Year everybody! All in all, Year of the Rooster has been alright, Trump Presidency, Tide Pod-eating children, and elusive Sartle Thief withstanding. But we’re hoping Year of the Dog will be excellent.

As you may know, red and gold are the traditional colors displayed during Chinese New Year festivities. If you’re anything like me, however, you probably never thought about why. Fear not, friends: I have done a little investigating and now I’m here to clarify a few things. And by clarify a few things, I mean talk about monsters.

Legend tells of a creature named Nian, a despicable beast who lived under the sea or up in the mountains (depending on where you would have lived). Once every year Nian would rise from the depths or climb down from the peaks to feed, going after crops, livestock, and children. Mostly children. The villagers were tormented year after year until they discovered Nian hated the color red. They began to write charms scribbled on red papers and paste them all over their houses and doorways until Nian took a hike and from then on, the time has become a celebration of all villagers’ safe passing from Nian into the New Year. Here’s to not getting eaten by monsters!

So red has become associated with folklore, but there’s more to the color. In Chinese culture, red symbolizes fire, good fortune, and joy. It is the color of happiness, used strictly for celebrations. Unsurprisingly, gold symbolizes wealth and prosperity. Together, they are used to spread the message of good fortune and prosperity for everyone in the coming new year. A nice sentiment, and those red and gold paper envelopes filled with money aren’t so bad either.

In celebration of the holiday and its representative colors, I thought it would be fun to do some hunting and find some of the best artworks on Sartle that prominently display red and gold together in similar ways (spoiler alert: none of these artworks are Chinese).

Without further ado, here are some red and gold pieces to get us in that festive mood.

Odalisque with Red Culottes by Henri Matisse at the Georges Pompidou Center

Here’s Henri Matisse’s Odalisque with Red Culottes. Check out those red and gold culottes! The work was inspired by a trip to the carnival, where everyone got to play dress up and Henriette Darricarrère (Matisse’s model) really just seemed to nail the look. This being an Orientalist painting, I wouldn’t be surprised if you could find a similar pattern on the back of some red envelopes today.

Salon by Otto Dix at the Stuttgart Art Museum

Otto Dix’s Salon transports us to Germany after World War I is over, where a mixture of nihilism and despair invite two polar extremes: Nazism and the Cabaret. Here, sitting around a red and gold tablecloth, are four burlesque prostitutes waiting for their clients. The cruel irony of the Chinese colors’ symbolism (that of fortune and prosperity) is gloomily absent for these four characters, and worse yet is the long, long history of war still to come.

Officer of the Hussars by Kehinde Wiley at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Kehinde Wiley’s Officer of the Hussars uses a gorgeous red and gold background for its glorious subject, a knock to Western art’s equestrian portraiture: a black, tatted up New Yorker in Timberlands, wielding a sword and Napoleonic stance with gusto. Behold and relish the transgression! And also the colors. The colors are spot on.

Venus and Cupid by Lorenzo Lotto at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Things get a little messier here. Yes, besides Cupid’s locks and Venus’s tiara, it is Cupid’s golden piss that most prominently complements Lorenzo Lotto’s red drapery background in Venus and Cupid. The pattern may be subtle, folks, but our red and gold motif strikes yet again. Fun fact: apparently this creepy painting was also a wedding gift, and it wasn’t free, either. Something for all of us to think about as we move forward into the new year with our lives and big decisions.

Caravaggio's Medusa, 1950 by Vik Muniz at the Phoenix Art Museum

Okay, I know, I know. But hear me out: despite the almost comedic nature of Vik Muniz’s totally insane, marinara-lathered tribute to Caravaggio’s original, this piece still clearly falls in line with the rest of our red and gold works. And, once you get over Medusa’s screaming, it’s a pretty fun one to look at. We all might need the reminder now and then that playing with our food isn’t always such a bad thing. Thanks, Vik.

Woman with Children in an Interior by Pieter de Hooch at the Legion of Honor

Okay, we’re bringing things back to normal a bit with Pieter de Hooch’s Woman with Children in an Interior. Yes, the mother is breastfeeding, yes, the child seems to be creepily mimicking her as she feeds the dog, but let’s not think about that right now. Let’s just focus on that beautiful red dress outlined with gold. A small part of the painting, sure, but it draws our attention in. Red and gold, red and gold. That’s it. Say it with me.

The Fountain of Youth by Lucas Cranach the Elder at the Gemaldegalerie

Speaking of small areas of focus, Old Man Cranach gives us just a little bit of red and gold on a tent to the far right in The Fountain of Youth. I guess the tent is there for after all the peasant women bathe in the fountain and become youthful and fresh and nice and need to scramble over to change into classier clothes. Ol’ Cranach had a vision, I suppose, but it’s the tent we should be focused on. Although, honestly, is that gold outlining the fabric? It might be white. It’s hard to tell. Shoot. Let’s keep moving.

Theodore Duret by Édouard Vuillard at National Gallery of Art Washington DC

Bringing things in a lot closer, we get a good view of Theodore Duret, esteemed art critic and heir to a Cognac fortune, in his “golden” years, clasping a cat and waiting for death. No mistake about it, Édouard Vuillard’s portrait also showcases a lovely red and gold wallpaper that nicely reflects our New Years colors. Whew! Back on track.

Nahi'ena'ena (Sister of Kamehameha III) by Robert Dampier at the Honolulu Museum of Art

Behind all the drama of colonialism, lost love, and sibling incest surrounding this Hawaiian princess “Harriet” Keopuolani Nahi’ena’ena’s life story, Dampier’s portrait displays first and foremost a tribute to her culture and heritage. Though she was expected to wear a European dress of black silk (as her British overseers preferred), Dampier insisted she change into this beautiful gold and red featherwork we see here, something meant to indicate her Indigenous Hawaiian royalty. Fine robes indeed, and an excellent way to end this silly blog post.

Except.

HONORABLE MENTION:

Gas by Edward Hopper at the Museum of Modern Art

Okay, I kid. But not really. The colors of red enveloping gold traditionally associated with the Lunar New Year can be found anywhere, if you know where to look. Keep your eyes peeled!

Have a great New Year!

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Daniel Bresnahan

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