Echoes and Reflections on Saint John the Baptist and Leonardo Da Vinci.

This is no ordinary painting. This is the will of an old man, the last work of great artist. His will to expose a glimpse of himself without ever revealing himself fully. This is the work of Leonardo Da Vinci. If it is easier to understand Da Vinci‘s work in science through his Codex. It is more difficult to read into his painting. He warns us in one of his notebooks by borrowing these verses to the Metamorphosis of Ovid: “ I doubt o Greek that you can do the account of my exploits even if you already know them. Because I made them without witnesses with only the forces of the darkness  as accomplice” .

The law of causality says that there is always something in the effect of a cause that belongs to the cause itself. Despite his will to conceal himself in his work, we are convinced that the Master left occasionally here and there a print of his true self through his brushes. Nevertheless, it is not so much what we understand about Da Vinci that helps us to understand him, but to understand ourselves. The entire work of Leonardo invites us to a great exercise of humility. How much of himself and ourselves can still be found in his last work? The radiant character and aura of the master, just like the sun which glows without discrimination, made of him a universal figure. He belongs to everybody because his works benefit the whole of humanity. What then can the Saint John The Baptist still give to us?

Saint John the Baptist is the last work of the master.

He gave to it his full care, even though, during that same time, he kept retouching and figuring out the portrait of Mona Lisa. Everything is present in the Saint John the Baptist and much more; the years of discoveries and sorrows of the past, the accumulated experiences in the moments of plenitude and scarceness, of wondering and wandering, the mastery of the theme of the light that illuminates Saint John the Baptist in contrast to the dark background, and finally the spiritual presence that springs from the holy man himself, whose index finger points upwards suggesting an otherworldly realm. What about his eyes and his smile that we see coming back on so many art work of Da Vinci, likewise in the Mona Lisa. Everything is there and much more in this remarkable beauty of the work, in the finesse and refinement of the features of Saint John the Baptist, the face, the arms, the posture, the shoulders, the chest and that sublime index finger pointing to the firmament.  All these details have been thought out, painted with extreme meticulousness and perfection to the point that Saint John the Baptist is confusing us. Is it really the man who baptized Christ that Leonardo painted? Or is it the master’s vision of what a beautiful human being should be in its most vivid expression?

It is worth noting that Da Vinci had an interest in the human anatomy and he devoted not only a great amount of time studying the body but also in doing so risking his own life by practicing autopsy because it was forbidden by the authorities, the Vatican. The Saint John The Baptist is a vision of beauty, in all its shapes and forms, all together in one body, all at the same time not only virile and masculine, but also brought to its ultimate perfection by all the femininity that emerges from it. A face of an elegant beauty with features that marries all forms of the masculine and also those of the feminine: whether it is the eyebrows, the cheekbones, the cheeks, the perfect curls of the hair that are an unequivocal feature, not only of the masculine, but also of the feminine.

Indeed it is not only physically that the Saint John the Baptist is an expression of such a  beauty, but also in his aura.

Features that only the mind can communicate like this flame in his eyes which connect to ours when we linger staring at them. Not the least is his smile, this pout, that says a lot about Leonardo. As a great master and as, at his usual, Da Vinci returns us to ourselves when we are facing him through his painting. The most disturbing thing about the Saint John the Baptist is that despite the fact that the Saint is announcing the spirit and the light, he has this look full of carnal vitality, very much in contrast to what he represents. His body, although masculine, is however suggesting something very feminine.

Some people see in it the expression of the master’s unproven homosexuality. In fact, on April 9, 1476, an anonymous indictment against Leonardo and three other men, accusing them of sexual practices against the young Goldsmith, Jacobo D’Andrea Salterelli, was filed in the infamous box of Florence, Tamburo, at the Palazzo della Signoria to the authorities. Due to the lack of evidence, the charge was dismissed. However, it must be said that although homosexuality in the fifteenth century was prohibited by the church, it was widespread in high society and among artists.

However, the interest and importance of Saint John the Baptist is not to inform us about the sexual orientations of the master, but rather about the ultimate expression of the beauty as he saw it later in his life. He pushed that understanding to its climax beyond the limits of the body and mocking not only the social conventions, but also the clear boundaries between the masculine and the feminine by merging them in one body. The art is a tension within the interiority of the artist and how he expresses it in the real world, how he transfers that tension into an idea and after into a matter. This precise degree of tension is very visible in Leonardo when we remember the extrovert that he was before that infamous indictment of April 1476 and the introvert he had become immediately after and for the rest of his life. 

The quote of Ovid that Da Vinci is using for himself is ever-present in the painting of the Saint John the Baptist, as if everything rested on this tension between the shadow and the light, the masculine and the feminine, the good and the evil, the reason and the passions. This in-between moment helps us to understand that the day adds nothing to the light itself, just as the dark mantle of the night does not subtract anything from the same light. Moreover, it makes us understand that it is an unfair exercise to pose the masculine as what is opposed to the feminine. It is important in what it means to be a human being: that our joys and sorrows, that our hopes and dreams show always the humanity in us and not the incarnate individual to whom Da Vinci opposes the Saint John the Baptist, who has both the beauty and the grace of the masculine and the feminine.

This half-man and this half-woman or better yet, this man and this woman at the same time is the Saint John the Baptist as painted by Leonardo. He is undoubtedly an androgyne being. Everything is there and much more, we know from his biographers that Leonardo, because of his situation as a child born outside of wedlock, was in his early childhood separated from his mother and was lonely. As a result, he could not receive a solid education. He spent a lot of time in the wild, marveling at plants, insects, birds, animals, etc. There he developed a great sense of intimacy with nature and also an out-of-the-ordinary visual acuity that will have decisive implications in his life, not only in science, but also in arts and as a person. As a living being, he was completely vegetarian urging his entourage in his words “Don’t make of your belly a grave”. It is certainly in his moments of solitude and observation that he understood that nature does not oppose the terms of the relation that it unites, but it completes them to perfection. 

It was nature itself, before his years of apprenticeship, in Verrochio‘s workshop, that was the only great master of the young Leonardo, introducing him to its subtle secrets of forms and light.

It is still that same nature that holds as homogeneous the whole structure of reality which the terms of our mind consider to be opposite. Hence the bold idea of a work of a perfect human body or an androgyne being may have certainly been tacitly and silently part of the interests of the young Leonardo, but without ever having been able to take the precedent on the existential necessities of the artist’s life up to the Saint John the Baptist very late in his life.

It should be said here that it is the ultimate effort to achieve a work that unifies all the aspects of the human beauty on the same medium that was certainly the first concern of Leonardo and not the androgyne being itself as the result. Otherwise, we would not only make a false trial to the master, but we would make him guilty of our intents to understand him through our lenses and not his perspective. Leonardo was not only a brilliant genius inventor, he also had the talent and ability to carry to perfection what some before him had already invented. The shortcomings of the inventions, which Da Vinci improved, were partly due to the lack of a keen sense of observation and also to the poor schematics of the sketches. It is no exaggeration to say that Leonardo is the pioneer of industrial design. He could visualize in his mind the parts and the whole. He could then develop perfect models that allowed a more efficient construction of the machines and tools that he already had in his mind. Leonardo‘s artistic universe followed that path using the same rule. He used science to paint the human body perfectly in its motion, as well as to expose its mind and the passions of its soul.

 The androgyne being is not a concept that Da Vinci created.

It is an old Greek myth. But the Saint John the Baptist’s painting, which rests on it and brings together both the beauty of the body, the light, the spirit and the passions of the soul is unique to Leonardo. Saint John the Baptist is therefore unique in this sense. We have to return to Greek antiquity, to understand, with the philosopher Plato, the myth of the androgyne beings. In the Symposium, 189d.193d, he gives the floor to the comic poet Aristophanes to explain the existence of the eros. The latter tells the story of three races; men, women and androgyne.

The last race was extraordinary in strength and in vigor, which led them to challenge the gods. Zeus decided that in order to weaken them and to take advantage of them, they had to be separated. The consequence of this separation was that each half was missing the other and went to search for it by embracing and kissing another half that they could find hoping to stumble on the right one. Zeus, helped by Apollo, had also taken care to fix the sexual organs in order to allow reproduction. This had two majors consequences; primo if two opposites mates; “they would give birth for the perpetuation of the species” and secundo if it is between the same sex, between a male and a male, it would “bring Satiety would separate them for a while” . For Plato, therefore, speaking through Aristophanes, “This is the moment when the innate love of men for one another comes”, in other words “the true love and pure friendship”.

The consequences and implications of these words for the Renaissance and Da Vinci’s society were capital punishment or exile. So why would Leonardo have painted an androgyne Saint John the Baptist to represent the person who baptized Christ?  When we have in mind the accusation against him about his alleged innate love of man for each other, this innate love was not a forbidden act in ancient Greek society, but centuries of Christianity up to the Renaissance had relegated it to the status of an abomination in the eyes of God. The plea in favor of Leonardo rests more on the side of the art, regarding The Saint John the Baptist, than the religion and the society. By the end of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, the androgyne myth will be revisited by psychoanalysis trying to understand in depth our sexualities and genders. 

There is no need to recall the scandal that Sigmund Freud’s newly elaborated theories had generated in the world at the end of the nineteenth century. The Pansexualism with its breakthrough, but also its limits, had been so decried and certainly misunderstood. Grotesquely understood, pansexualism wants that everything is sexual in our life, from the baby who experiences an erotic pleasure in sucking the breast milk, to the psychotic or neurotic adult. We will have to wait for Carl Gustave Jung, with the introduction of the collective unconscious and the concepts of the archetypes, to redraw our unconscious path and functions, and also to explain the key role of sexuality while relativizing the pansexualism.

Pierre Daco, much later in his book, The Triumphs Of Psychoanalysis, revisited Freud and Jung under new light going back to the meaning of the Greek myths, including the famous Oedipus complex, and also the myth of the androgyne being. Moreover, the results of the psycho-analysis sessions showed that the other sex is not only the one who faces us, but that we have in ourselves the other of ourselves. So we would be at some level of our personalities both male and female. So that gender is hard to determine. The way we understand our sex is not only a social construct, but also cultural and religious. Nowadays the findings in genetics also show that in the XY chromosome pair, it is only a molecule or a brick that determines whether an individual is male or female. Some individuals are XY, phenotype, but are actually lacking that brick on their Y. They may appear as male, but they have a XX genotype and vice versa. All these considerations, both in science and art, psychoanalysis and genetics, not only bring us back to the myth of the androgynous being, but also place us again in front of the Saint John the Baptist, which is stating the same thing.

Art transforms knowledge into understanding.

Art does not obey to the notion of causality according to the criteria of the mind. It acts on us beyond the sphere of the knowing, while supporting the knowledge. Art transforms knowledge into understanding. We call it an emotional understanding. It makes us feel the abstract through a concrete medium. It is not the music itself that is the cause of our joys and sorrows, but the layers and dimensions that it opens and touches within our souls. There is not only an endogenous or inner aspect to art but also another exogenous or external to any form of art invariably of its medium. So art talks to us, not only on an empirical level, but also on a metaphysical one. The “I love Mozart more than Beethoven” or “U2″ more than “The Police” is not always focused on the artist itself or the band. But on how their art finds us inside. Mozart, in the movie Amadeus, had this sentence for his defense;  “I am a vulgar man, but my music is not”.  As if art channels something higher than our mortal conditions, social ranks, nations, and belief system. Even the gods are not indifferent regarding to art.

Orpheus with his golden lyre had so deeply touched Hades to push the God to free Eurydice, Orpheus’ wife, from Hades kingdom. It is in these endogenous substrates that art has the infinite power to touch us in a silent dialogue. There is an entire network of connection and meaning between an artist, his work and his audience. These links are entangled in close and complex relations; all of them personal, historical, subjective and objective. The Saint John the Baptist offers us precisely this intimate and introspective look not only on Leonardo, but also on ourselves questioning our ideas of beauty, sex, gender, religion, society, freedom, etc.

The Saint John the Baptist ultimately stands before us, not only as a painting, but also as a mirror.

What we see through it, is more a reflection through the pareidolia effect than a painting. He is a man. He is a man with very feminine traits. He is maybe both a man and a woman. Just like the three races in the Symposium myth. There is much more to the Saint John the Baptist than what we see on the canvas. The art is an attempt to capture a moment of tension between the interiority and the exteriority. There is in each one of us a personality or some traits of our personality which are male and also female. They often ignore each other elegantly. It is our daily actions, our ways of moving and our gestures that highlight for each one of us these aspects of our inner personalities. The artists and their works are no strangers to that. It is even often an asset in art where creation is not only a conception but also a birth, a movement of life from the inside out.

In our previous article on Mona Lisa, we noted that she “will continue to evoke in us these various feelings and voices that refer us to our own internal dialogue with art and beauty through these multiple expressions“. The Saint John the Baptist does the same, and it goes even further because it touches the very notion of the beauty, which is not outside, but within. It is like touching some aspects that our culture and education are shutting down all the time, because of our rigid conception of the social function of our gender. But Leonardo, through the Saint Jean Baptist places the beauty in a movement of profound reconciliation between the masculine and the feminine. The Saint John the Baptist offers us, not only the painting of a Saint, but the psychological portrait of Leonardo himself as an artist. But much more as this man; fond of secrets, intrigues and mysteries that gives himself to us for the last time, but in a completely hidden way for us to discover. Finally, and above all, this is himself as the last vision of what is the absolute beauty of the human body and also pointing to the mind.

One of the most eloquent features of Da Vinci‘s personality is his free spirit. Some of his biographers reported that he would buy birds in a cage with the sole aim of freeing them in the wild. It is only natural that his last painting was in some ways a will to put together what centuries of traditions, religions, and cultural influences had always considered distinct: the body and the mind, the male and the female, in order to paint the most beautiful being which unites all those attributes. Those considerations help us even more to understand what truly an artist is. Artists are male and female from within who allow the transition of an idea into a shape, of the light into a matter. This latter painting is not only the last will of a painter to his profession, but also an open letter to the artists and all forms of arts. No form of art comes with a gender tag, but it is the artists, the patrons, the society, the religion (the market nowadays) that frame it that way.

Art is light.

All form of matter is born from the light, but the art exists first and independently of the artists who crystallize it accordingly to the medium offered to them by life. It is the nature of light to light up the world without discrimination. It is up to the artists to do the work of light within themselves, to let it pass without the filters of their culture, their religion and their prejudices. No matter how gifted an artist can be, he will always be a human being with all the perfections and the flaws that come with the gift. Just like the Saint John the Baptist is strongly suggesting a great testimony of the light, but still so human…

Everything is there in the Saint John the Baptist and even much more because he is not only the portrait of this holy man, but of Leonardo himself, and of us, as we evolve in our own understanding of the true nature of things, reality and life. Da Vinci through his painting has raised more questions than answering them. He gives us the right to ask those same questions, but shows us that we can only answer our own, if there is an answer, and not his. He gives us clues to find him and to know a bit about himself, but gives us the license to agree or disagree. There’s a spark in the Saint John the Baptist eyes and that spark is ours. It is our humanity, naked without title, gender, religion and social classes. That is why the Saint John the Baptist says so much about Leonardo and about ourselves.

 

 

7+

A Viennese Double – Dürer versus Caravaggio and Bernini

Almost every year I happen to be in Vienna around the Christmas holidays. This gives me the privilege to be able to view two big fall/winter exhibitions usually presented by two of Vienna’s most important museums, shortly before they close in mid-January.  Last year I experienced a wonderful Monet show in the Albertina, as well as a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition on Bruegel in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. This year it was the turn of a huge Dürer retrospective in the Albertina, and an exhibition called Caravaggio & Bernini – The Discovery Of Emotions in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.

A Matter Of Choices

The amount of cultural input for the eyes, the mind, and the soul is almost too much “to digest” at once. Especially when one has in mind to contribute to this blog by writing an article, and needs to choose a topic. Seeing two big exhibitions one after the other makes one unintentionally draw comparisons, at least concerning the way the shows are being curated and presented. Not having studied art history I don’t know what concepts of art-presentation exist. But seeing two big shows in a row, in two consecutive years gave me the impression that the museum’s director sets the agenda on the way a prestigious exhibition is being approached and showcased, of course in a constant interchange with the exhibition’s curator.  In the end, it is a matter of taste and choices.

Different Approaches

The Albertina follows a mostly chronological narrative in opposition to the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s rather thematical approach. Both methods have their merits, but I prefer the room-wise concentration on certain aspects of artistic creation which points out correlations, parallels as well as differences. Thus, it is easier to follow the exhibition and make own observations and discoveries, even without being a connoisseur.

A Dialog Between Painting And Sculpture

In the case of the Caravaggio – Bernini exhibition, this way of show-casing proves to be essential, as the number of exhibits by the two masters is not as numerous as the title might suggest. The subtitle – The Discovery Of Emotions – is more accurate in describing the show’s content and layout. By building eight units of emotions or “affects”, as I would rather name them following the doctrine of affects in baroque music, the museum introduces its visitors to the baroque way of thinking, looking and feeling. It points out both Caravaggio’s and Bernini’s interest and artistry in depicting as well as evoking strong feelings and passions in the spectator. To do so, it opens up a dialog between painting and sculpture.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, St John The Baptist, ca. 1602, Canvas
Gian Lorenzo Bernini A Putto Bitten by a Dolphin, ca. 1618, Marble

 

Quality And Quantity

On the other hand, the Dürer retrospective scores already by the number of valuable originals, many of which are in the museum’s permanent collection but cannot be shown regularly. As the exhibition’s introductory notice points out, “Dürer’s drawn oeuvre offers a complete picture of both his genesis as an artist and his reflections on art. This fact is due to the remarkable care with which the artist saw to the stock of his own drawings.” The Nürnberg born artist seems to have systematically consolidated and organized the collection stored in his workshop, which makes him an exception among artists of his time also in this matter.

Albrecht Dürer, Wing of a Blue Roller, ca. 1500, Watercolor and body color, on parchment

A Mind-Blowing Experience

The quantity and quality of the Northern master’s works presented in this once-in-a-century exhibition just blew my mind. Most of us know “the Dürer Hare” but probably aren’t aware of the novelties he introduced to his contemporaries, and know little of his universality as an artist.

His artistic qualities struck me already when I viewed his Self-Portrait at the Age of Thirteen in 1484, which by the way is the earliest preserved children’s drawing. But when I saw his Nude Self-Portrait, painted around 1499 and unique for its time, for a moment I thought I was standing in front of a drawing made by Egon Schiele.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait at the Age of Thirteen, 1484, Silverpoint
Albrecht Dürer, Nude Self-Portrait, ca. 1499, Pen and brush, heightened with white, on green prepared paper

Self-Confidence And Early Branding

What is also striking is Dürer’s self-confident appearance in and through his works. He often drew an image of himself in his pictures and didn’t hesitate to depict himself as Hercules or even in a Jesus-like pose. Albrecht Dürer was the first artist of his time to use a signet on all of his works. It soon became a quality mark. He established a workshop at the young age of 25, which specialized in high-quality prints. Thus he was able to reach a wider public. Reading about the way he built up connections throughout Europe and branded his name, I started thinking, that networking was as important as it is nowadays back then.

Dürer had made a journey to Italy in 1495, aiming to make contacts and start building up a network south of the Alps. Venice, the center of early book printing was of particular interest to him, and Andrea Mantegna, who marketed his works throughout Europe via a well-organized distribution network, his role model.

Andrea Mantegna, Battle of the Sea Gods, ca. 1470 – 1475, Engraving
Albrecht Dürer, Battle of the Sea Gods, Copy of Mantegna’s Engraving, 1494, Pen

Love Of Detail And Chiaroscuro

One could follow Dürer’s love of detail, as well as his artistry in depicting it throughout the exhibition. Using his extraordinary observation skills and making numerous studies, which could stand for themselves as outstanding works of arts, the German artist created world-famous masterpieces like The Hare and The Great Piece of Turf (both displayed in the exhibition). For Dürer the study of nature represented the foundation of art and included a meticulous observation of his own body, as seen in Three Studies of Dürer’s Left Hand.

Albrecht Dürer, Three Studies of Dürer’s Left Hand, 1493/94, Pen

Dürer was a master of the depiction of such diverse materials as skin and hair, stones and plants, and also showed a great interest in a naturalistic depiction of garments and draperies. His costume studies include a four-part series showing women from Nuremberg dressed in different public and domestic costumes. Coming from a family of goldsmiths and having been a goldsmith’s apprentice for a while, he continued throughout his life designing pieces of jewelry and splendorous vessels.

Albrecht Dürer, Nuremberg Women, 1500, Pen, watercolor
Albrecht Dürer, Vestment of God the Father, 1508, Brush, heightened with white, on green prepared paper

The German artist masterfully played with “chiaroscuro“, the effects of light and dark, making his drawings and engravings profoundly three-dimensional, and thus very exciting and theatrical. By the way, in the person of Caravaggio, he found a major successor to his chiaroscuro-artistry.

Albrecht Dürer, The Praying Hands, 1508, Brush, heightened with white, on blue prepared paper
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, St Francis in Ecstasy, ca. 1595/96, Canvas

 

The Artist’s Lesser-Known Side

The exhibition didn’t forget to mention the fact that Dürer, who experienced early recognition or even stardom as a printmaker, was eager to be recognized also as a painter. After all, painting is the most prestigious discipline in the fine arts. It was very interesting to follow the big amount of detailed studies to the few displayed paintings, mainly consisting of altarpieces. But the paintings themselves did not arouse the same fascination in me as the master’s drawings and printmaking work. To me, they didn’t appear to be as equally “modern” and innovative.

Albrecht Dürer, The Adoration of the Magi, 1504, Oil on wood

What I found more interesting because it brought me nearer to the artist as a “normal” human being, was a small curiosity on display:  a letter to Dürer’s Nuremberg friend Willibald Pirckheimer, in which the artist, after discussing different maters, inquires about the well-being of the addressee’s divers love-affairs, using encoded pictograms to characterize them.

Albrecht Dürer, Letter to Willibald Pirckheimer, 07.02.1506

Theoretical Work

Finally, the show also pointed out Dürer’s dedication to his theoretical work in the last years of his life. The German artist was convinced that the knowledge of perspective was fundamental when training to be an artist and indispensable to an artist’s work. He tried to discover and establish the ideal human measurements following the ideals of Ancient Greece. And probably he even gave us an insight into his working methods with his illustrations of A Man Drawing a Seated Man and A Man Drawing a Lute.

Albrecht Dürer, Study in Human Proportions: Male Body, Side and Front View, ca. 1513, Pen, black chalk
Albrecht Dürer, A Man Drawing A Seated Man and A Man Drawing A Lute, Illustrations in The Instruction In Measurement, 1525, Woodcut and type printing

 

 

 

2+

Anthony van Dyck in Munich

Anthony van Dyck

Last weekend I spent a couple of hours in the newly renovated Alte Pinakothek in Munich. This time not to see their permanent rooms but a special exhibition of Anthony Van Dyck’s work. As I sat in the cafeteria afterward, I pondered over the fact that although this was not the big retrospective show with highlights from London or elsewhere, it was an excellent exhibition. And it seems fitting that after seeing and writing on this blog about the big Bernard van Orley and the Mantegna-Bellini retrospectives I should now write about an exhibition of a great portrait artist (see my Alex Katz write up for more portraits discussion) which is not a retrospective.

Who is Anthony van Dyck?

Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) was a Flemish painter from Antwerp renowned for the painting of portraits. The seventh child to a wealthy silk merchant, his painting abilities were obvious at an early age. One of his first important influences was gained by working in Peter Paul Rubens’s workshop, close to the master so to speak. His trips to Italy in the 1620s were, however, the turning point in finding his style following his study of Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) and Tintoretto. After becoming a court painter in Flanders to the archduchess Isabella, Habsburg Governor of Flanders he returned to England in 1632 following a request from Charles I to be the main court painter there. Most paintings from this extremely rich period are still part of the huge Royal Family Collection in London.

Van Dyck at the Bavarian State Painting Collection

The paintings we see here belong mainly to the Bavarian State Painting Collection. The collection was built by two Wittelsbach family members in the 17th century and has been in Bavaria ever since. In 1628 Wolfgang Wilhelm, Count Palatine of Neuburg (1578-1653) commissioned Anthony van Dyck a portrait of himself, thus starting the first connection with the artist. His Grandson, Johann Wilhelm, Elector Palatine of Neuburg (1658-1716) later began a collection of 30 works by the painter. His cousin Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria (1662-1726), in many ways his rival, collected 51 works by the artist. Twenty-three of these originally acquired works by the Wittelsbach dynasty, are considered full original autographs by Anthony van Dyck.

The use of the workshop

It has been discovered over time, and especially with new scientific studies on the paintings, that what is assumed to be by Anthony van Dyck is not always fully by him. In those days, a workshop was absolutely vital for any serious artist. After all, van Dyck had also started out as one of Rubens’ workshop artists, before gaining his own reputation. So, how did it work? Well, those willing to give the highest sum got the whole van Dyck package, those paying less got the hands or more features painted by one or more of the artists from his studio. The basis for pose, heads, horses, hands were all catalogued on study sheets and paintings done by the master.

This is wonderfully displayed in this exhibition. Study heads paintings, for instance, occupy a whole wall. Most of these have been separated to create 2 or more paintings, making it more profitable to sell, some are still whole. How these study heads have been painted is being explained and shown here not only with informative texts on the wall but also very excellently with the help of an electronic info-table.

Subtle, yet very informative boards

 

What I particularly liked is that there are only a few such tables in the exhibition. They bring a wonderful insight by showing details of the paintings and accompanying them with explanations about the making of the works in the rooms. Yet, they do not overtake the exhibition. They are subtly set, are not interactive, so as not to disturb the more important viewing of the actual paintings. They remain just factual help. This information is in part the result of recent scientific work on the paintings from the house collection, triggering the impetus for presenting this exhibition.

Rubens versus van Dyck

Drunken Silenus, c. 1617/18 additions c. 1625, Peter Paul Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens was in many ways the artistic “father” of Anthonis van Dyck. Yet, his psychological approach to portraiture sets him apart from Rubens. It is obvious here that Rubens is all about big monumental figures, about representative paintings, whereas Van Dyck is about the emotions, the human being, the psychology of the person painted. In “Drunken Silenus” which both artists painted in 1617/18, in Rubens’ case with an additional bottom section in 1625 to make full figures, we can see this very clearly. Van Dyck paints an old man, not able to walk alone anymore because of his drunken state, Rubens, on the other hand, paints a strong Silenus, more of an allegorical painting.

Drunken Silenus, c. 1617/18, Anthony van Dyck

Titian

Nicely shown here is also the connection with Titian. During his trips to Italy, van Dyck studied Titian amongst other Italian artists closely. Titian, for instance, portrayed cherubs and his baby Jesus larger than life, very big in shape. Van Dyck decided to experiment with that too in his Madonna and Child paintings.

The full-length portrait format used by Titian is another factor influencing both Rubens and van Dyck. An example of the 3 artists side by side shows this very clearly.

Emperor Charles V, 1548, Titian

Titian’s portrait of Charles V from 1548 sets the standard, with its full format and its background, for the next generations to come. Next to it, following Titian’s example, is the huge representative painting of Rubens dating of 1620 of Aletheia Talbot, Countess of Arundel.

Aletheia Talbot, Countess of Arundel, 1620, Peter Paul Rubens

 

And completing this series is the more personal full portrait by van Dyck of Sebilla Vanden Berghe from 1630. Here he shows his greatness in capturing the aura and personality of his sitter.

Susanna Fourment and her daughter Clara del Monte, 1621, Anthony van Dyck

These 3 paintings belong to the Bavarian State Painting Collection, as are most paintings presented in the exhibition.

So, is this just as good as a retrospective?

What makes this exhibition so special for me, is the fact that it gives us a wonderful insight into how van Dyck worked. It presents how important the workshop was to the artists of this period, how van Dyck produced such gorgeous masterworks, how artists connected and influenced each other and how van Dyck’s portraiture sets him apart from other artists. One doesn’t always need the highlights from other collections to make an exhibition special. I didn’t miss the paintings from London or from Vienna here. Fittingly the exhibition ends by talking about the start of van Dyck’s London paintings, not by showing a portrait from that collection but with a house painting by a later English great portraitist to represent this: Thomas Gainsborough.

This exhibition is a wonderful opportunity for the Bavarian State Gallery to show off its great collection of van Dyck paintings. It allows works to be placed side by side, some not always on view showing very clear parallels between the artists.  Together with the few “guest” works, it gives a wonderful insight into van Dyck’s work and legacy. In my eyes, a wonderful show, well worth the visit!

 

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thoughts on classical open-air performances

As the wet fall takes over and the warmth and sunny summer leave us, I ponder this day on the many open-air festivals now over and on the theater season ahead. I decide to take the pen again, or should I say the computer keyboard, to write my thoughts in this post and to discuss a question which has followed me for a while: How important is the quality of an artist and of the music in big open-air classical events?

The 3 Tenors

I remember watching, as a child, the 3 tenors concert with big open eyes. The three tenors: Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras, made history that evening. They sang opera arias, some of these becoming big popular hits among non opera-goers after this event. The setting was very much that of big pop shows. We, my siblings and parents, sat in front of our little TV and watched this novelty with big expectations.

Coming from a very musical family, the music wasn’t new, but the event was. Classical music as a “pop” concert? This was a first for me. Yet, what made it so unique was not only that this was a totally new way of presenting classical music but also that these tenors kept their professional standards high, keeping true to themselves and their quality. These were 3 different voices singing opera, in the same register, at the highest possible level for a wide audience. And it worked! I can’t help thinking now, how fortunate it was that they were already well known, top of their league, serious opera singers having made their reputation before this event.

Opera in the big open

A little while back, I was at a big open-air opera event. This time visiting a colleague involved in a massive opera production. I couldn’t help thinking, whilst there, how small and secondary the performers became. The level of singing was good, the orchestra too, yet the actual magic of a voice connecting to one was virtually impossible. The music just became a backdrop to the lights, effects, show.

When on stage at such events, we singers become very reliable on the sound engineer. It is a weird situation, as the acoustic becomes a “machine-made” thing.  A smaller voice will be easier to play with, a bigger will become more challenging for the engineer. Yet, the magic of opera is when a voice, a sound, a timbre,  just 2 small vocal cords, sail without any extra help over an orchestra, however big it may be, in a seemingly effortless way, expressing emotions through the music and text with the help of dynamics, technique and years of non stop working on one’s sound. That magic didn’t come through here, and this wasn’t for a lack of good musicians.

John Williams and Anne-Sophie Mutter

Recently, I watched another open-air concert on television. This time with a world-renowned classical violinist: Anne-Sophie Mutter. It was a cross-over concert, her first open-air concert, playing film music written and adapted for her by John Williams. Big lights, different outfits, themed backdrop, full moon, a few special effects here and there, all this was part of the show.

What stroke me most, though, was the music John Williams had written for her based on his film music. These are challenging compositions, in places quite modern too. I was surprised to see and hear how seriously John Williams took Anne-Sophie Mutter as an artist. This wasn’t about making an event with light easy music for a huge audience with a famous violinist. Nor was it about not over challenging an open-air public who might not be thought to be up to it. This was about Anne-Sophie Mutter presenting a great composer and playing his music to the best possible level, and about John Williams having the liberty and taking the opportunity to write a score technically and musically challenging for a top artist. That really got me thinking…

Conclusion

One could discuss further whether open-air classical performances are good for this industry or not, at least on an artistic level. For me, I sometimes feel that open-air performances become a superficial act and less about the direct connection of an artist through his/her interpretation with the audience. It should be about a sound not being just a note, a rhythm not just a time span, and virtuoso playing not just quick-playing… Maybe the many other factors involved: sound engineers, big screens, effects, weather, lights, and so on, make it difficult for classical music to just be the deep, challenging and intimate art form and experience I feel it really is. What do you think?

 

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How necessary is Art? My thoughts after a week in Madrid

Having just come back from a successful and inspiring week in Madrid I can’t help thinking about what I experienced there. And by doing so, I am faced with a wonderful maybe unanswerable question: why is art so powerful? And furthermore: is it, that by touching an inner nerve art reminds us of what really matters? It isn’t that I don’t know how strong an artist can be, but perhaps amidst all the activities and impulses one is confronted with daily, one tends to forget just how important art’s impulses on us are…

Unexpected exhibition

Refuel Meal, 1996, Tetsuya Ishida, acryl on board

On my first day in Madrid, I experienced such a moment. Purely coincidently, I happened to walk through the Retiro Park and discovered the Reina Sofia‘s external exhibition space, the Palacio de Velázquez. After admiring the building and taking a few photos, I walked in, not knowing what to expect. A most fascinating exhibition of, an unknown to me, Japanese artist was being shown: “Tetsuya Ishida, Self-Portrait of Other“.

Not expecting anything, I observed the inside of the building first.  It is a beautiful, very bright and open space… perfect for exhibitions. Then, I started looking at the paintings. Very quickly, I felt disturbed by them. Who is this artist? Why do I get the feeling that the men being portrayed are machine-like human beings? Always the same person, sometimes alone sometimes as a series… More and more I started to reflect and understand that this is what our society is becoming. Men turning into producing machines, men being lost, men in search of their identity… Where has life gone? Questions upon questions springing to my mind…

Hothouse, 2003, Tetsuya Ishida, acryl and oil on canvas

Some paintings were so disturbing I first had to walk away to come back to them later. This artist touched a chord in me, moved something in me so that when walking out in the bright sunshine I was a little dazzled and first had to sit on a bench in the shade before moving on.

Zarzuela magic

A few days later during the dress rehearsal of Doña Francisquita at the Zarzuela Theater in Madrid, I experienced a different powerful moment. A dear friend of mine had managed to get us tickets, knowing that I very much wanted to see a Zarzuela. I had never seen one before and was very curious and excited to discover this typical Spanish Artform. What a wonderful evening it turned out to be. The theatre itself is a jewel, and the music by Amadeo Vives is lively and fun, the piece was premiered in 1923, using a big orchestra with a large guitar section added to it.

The highlight came when the Fandango, probably the most famous dance in this Zarzuela, was about to happen. We had already sat through most of the piece having enjoyed some beautiful singing, some laughter, and some flamenco dancing.  Now, in the 3rd Act, one of the protagonists suddenly came up front and spoke to the public directly explaining that the “Maestra” was here and that, totally unexpectedly, she had agreed to play for us the Fandango. My Spanish friend knew straight away who was meant, and was totally in shock and excited as Lucero Tena walked in and stood at the front of the stage waiting for the orchestra to start playing.

Lucero Tena is a legend, and I, although not knowing her until then, quickly found out why. She is now over 90 years old, and even if she doesn’t dance anymore, she most certainly plays the castanets like nobody else. The music she produces, the colours, the dynamics, the expression, the presence is absolutely breathtaking. As I sat there, I just could not believe what I was hearing. The whole audience just went crazy, and the 6 dancers who straight after danced, with their own castanets, the same Fandango, were so energized you couldn’t help but be fully taken in. Incredible!

Personal experience

The last experience I had which reminded me of the power art has, is probably the most personal. Of course, I wasn’t in Madrid just to visit, although that would be a good enough reason to go there. I was also there to perform. It turned out to be a very special performance, as this was also a present for a dear friend of mine’s birthday.

As a musician, one is very much busy thinking about this note or that rhythm, about this sound or that expression, this being together and that tempo… When the performance comes, it is necessary to let it all go, so that the performing can take place. Being an opera singer, I possess a certain amount of stage presence and acting ability. However when singing Lied, such as the Wesendonck Lieder (Richard Wagner) here, the acting becomes unnecessary, the music and especially the text are the most important.

On this evening, when singing “Träume” (the last of the cycle) I became aware of the power of my instrument and of my artistry… It is as if one touches the listener’s inner self through something unexplainable, one moves something inside… One feels the concentration, the silence, the strong emotions coming back from the audience, and really one can’t say how it happened… Quite magical really. And then, when public and performer join in a time of mutual silenced thanks after the last sound has rung, you know that you, as an artist, are important just for that.

Afterthought

Maybe I had, with all my little worries or stresses forgotten how vital and necessary my job and artform is. Not just as a performer, but also as a person. Today’s hectic competitive life often doesn’t allow us to remember this enough. But really without art, we become machines… just as in Tetsuya Ishida’s paintings. Maybe that is why these paintings were so disturbing and moving for me. It is vital to have such artists, reminding us of what is important: being a human being who feels and not a machine which produces.

Lost, 2001, Tetsuya Ishida, oil on canvas

 

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Lehmbruck And Rodin In Duisburg – Sculpturing A New Idea(l) Of Beauty

On the occasion of artists’ round birthdays and anniversaries of deaths, museums put on commemorating exhibitions. Since I started writing for this blog, I was lucky enough to happen upon three of this kind (see my posts Death in Trieste and Insights into Bruegel).  Every one of these shows helped me widen my horizons a little bit more and sharpened my observational skills.

An Easter Surprise: Lehmbruck And Rodin In Duisburg

This was especially the case with the exhibition I visited during the Easter holidays, not far from home. Not only did I get the chance to meet again with the work of a favorite artist of mine, Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), but at the same time I discovered a prominent sculptor I wasn’t at all familiar with, Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-1919). Happy to have come across this important German artist nearby, I went back another time a few days later.

On my first visit, I joined an exclusive guided tour offered by the TV-cultural magazine Westart. Their small, informative TV-report on the exhibition had made me curious. Besides, it is always exciting to win something. The art historian, author, and filmmaker Jörg Jung showed us around. By raising questions, he drew our attention to the similarities and, above all, the differences between the two outstanding artists. He invited us, again and again, to take a closer look and make our own discoveries and conclusions.

Taking a closer look at Wilhelm Lehmbrucks Pensive Woman, Bronze, 1913

Learning To Look Closer

Thus encouraged, I noticed, for example, what difference the choice of material makes and how a sculpture’s more or less smooth surface makes it more or less classical in an academic sense. Auguste Rodin, in particular, loved to work very physically with his coarse hands, giving many of his works sensual movement and an unfinished impression. Wilhelm Lehmbruck, on the other hand, experimented a lot with different materials and worked towards carving out more introspection and spirituality in his objects. Both artists played with sculpture excerpts and torsos, always in search of “the essence”.

Sculpture is the essence of things, the essence of nature,

that which is eternally human.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck

 

Beauty is not a starting point, but a result;

beauty exists only where there is truth.

Auguste Rodin

Studying The Past Before Creating A Personal Style

Our guide also drew our attention to the little innovations by which one can identify a young artist aiming to break with traditions, such as the undisguised body curves and folds in Lehmbruck’s first success, Bathing Woman (1902/05). The Academy of Fine Arts in Dusseldorf bought this work from its young master student and thus enabled him to go on a study trip to Italy. There he studied, among others, the works of Michelangelo, one of the greatest sculptors of all times. Michelangelo had also been a great inspirational figure for Rodin.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Bathing Woman, Bronze, 1902/05

In general, art lives from the fact that artists study the past, learn to analyze it and develop their own style over time, depending on their talent and nature, as well as their environment and the time they happen to live in. All artists get to chose their subjects from the great basin of art iconography. We thus can admire how differently a story can be interpreted and cast or shaped into form.

But Who Was Wilhelm Lehmbruck? And What About Auguste Rodin?

Wilhelm Lehmbruck was born in 1881 to a coal miner’s family in a suburb of Duisburg. Not only was his talent discovered early, but he soon became a master student of the Academy of Fine Arts in Dusseldorf. He celebrated early successes that allowed him to live from his art, as well as to travel. One of his first travels led him to Paris, the capital of art at the beginning of the 20th century, where he couldn’t but visit the atelier of his idol, Auguste Rodin. But he immediately realized that he was looking for something else in art. Maybe Rodin and he were too different as human beings?

Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Self-portrait, 1902

Auguste Rodin, born in Paris in 1840, obtained his craftsmanship by working as a stucco plasterer and decorator after having being refused admission to the sculpture class of the Paris Academy of Fine Arts three times. His approach to art seems to have been very intuitive and sensual, probably very much like his personality. Fascinated by the new medium of photography, the French artist, who wasn’t much of a reader, tried to capture movement, casting it in marble or bronze. He was a workaholic, who liked recombining parts of already existing works, thus revealing new contexts.

Auguste Rodin, I am Beautiful, Bronze, 1885, an example of Rodin’s Assemblage technique

More On Lehmbruck

Lehmbruck had a much more academic upraising despite his family’s working-class background. As if he knew, that his life wouldn’t last long and more of a rationalist as a person, he quickly detached himself from every young artist’s role model of that time, Rodin. The German artist, inspired by Plato’s ideology of soul over body, worked on finding sculptural solutions for the world of ideas, leaving the depiction of naturalistic bodies behind. He stretched the body parts of his figures, thus making them thin and somehow disproportional, but strong in their contemplativeness and resignation.

All art is measurement.

 

Wilhelm Lehmbruck

 

Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Rising Youth, Bronze, 1913/14

Of course, knowing that the artist put an end to his life at the early age of 38 one tends to see melancholy and sadness in his so introspective works. But shortly before and during World War I. the world seemed to be coming to an end and one can understand that a sensitive artist might not see any future. Lehmbruck expressed his feelings of despair in the poem Is There Anybody Left?, written in 1918, one year before his suicide. He had anticipated the content of this poem in his equally expressive sculpture Fallen Man in 1915 as a reaction to the city of Duisburg’s invitation to join the competition for a war memorial.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Fallen Man, 1915

Two Very Different Thinkers

The differences between the two artists couldn’t be more obvious than in Rodin’s The Thinker and Lehmbruck’s Seated Youth, also named The Friend or The Bowed One by himself. Whereas Rodin’s famous incarnation of Dante Alighieri shows a pensive, but virile man who looks like a boxer (in fact the actual model for this sculpture was Jean Baud, a price boxer, and wrestler), Lehmbruck’s sculpture displays a young naked man, sitting with his head down in grief and despair. Once again, the anatomy is reduced, elongated and abstracted.

Auguste Rodin, The Thinker, Medium Model, Original Size, Bronze, 1881/82

 

You see, this is my conception of a thinker. Rodin’s “penseur” is as muscular as a boxer… what we Expressionists are looking for is to precisely extract the spiritual content from our material.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck to Fritz von Unruh

 

Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Seated Youth, Bronze, 1916/17

 

The Second Impression

Just a few days after my first attendance at the Lehmbruck Museum, I visited it again. I wanted to read the explanations (which also talked about the Paris Salon and the Armory Show, the first great exhibition of modern art in the United States of America in 1913) and look at the exhibits calmly, taking time to take them in and reflect on them. Going through an exhibition on your own a second time after having taken a guided tour, rounds up the experience.

Auguste Rodin, The Age Of Bronze, Bronze, 1877 staged in the context of the Paris Salon
Wilhelm Lehmbrucks Kneeling Woman (Bronze, 1911) staged in the context of the Armory Show

I also needed to experience this museum once again, as a whole and in each of its three wings separately. It was built in 1964 mostly as a home to the oeuvre of Wilhelm Lehmbruck by his son, Manfred Lehmbruck (1913-1991), an expert in the field of museum architecture. The part consecrated only to the works of Wilhelm Lehmbruck has a sculptural aspect itself. Build around an atrium as a central source of light, it gives the exhibited sculptures a “feeling of security”. The architect made miniature copies of his father’s works so as to be able to position them in a targeted manner in the space he created especially to showcase them. What a wonderful tribute from a son to his father.

Manfred Lehmbruck, Lehmbruck Wing Model with 38 models of Wilhelm Lehmbrucks sculptures

Is this beautiful?

The Lehmbruck Museum’s exhibition entitled “Beauty. Lehmbruck & Rodin. Masters of Modernism.” opens up a dialogue between the two masters of modern sculpture. It shows how they both had a big impact on their contemporaries as well as their successors. By displaying the history-making works of Rodin and Lehmbruck in the midst of the works of their expressionism colleagues one realizes that both masters of early modernism found ways of bringing out the soul and emotion of their figures without, in most cases, completely leaving the forms of classicism. But their sculptures subtly break with the conventions and visual expectations of the late 19th century and thus point the way to modernism. The question “Is this beautiful?” goes hand in hand with subjective perception on one side, and the beauty ideal of each time period on the other, and thus remains unanswered.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Kneeling Woman, 1911

My two meetings with Rodin and Lehmbruck gave me moments of beauty and contemplation. But I’d like to end this article with a personal highlight of this exhibition, Camille Claudel’s The Waltz. Like Maurice Ravel’s also La Valse entitled choreographed poem (1906-1920), it captures for me in a fascinating way the tormented spirit of the Fin de Siècle which ended in the world and art transforming Great War.

Camille Claudel, The Waltz, Bronze, 1889-1905

 

 

Camille Claudel, The Waltz, Bronze, 1889-1905

 

 

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El Anatsui: Triomphant scales

An exhibition off the beaten path at Haus der Kunst in Munich.

I recently discovered this artist and his incredible work. A discovery that does not leave indifferent, quite on the contrary.
First of all, the facade of the museum is completely covered and transformed by the hand of the artist. This already triggers my curiosity.

Once in the Haus der Kunst, we enter the first room and immediately we have the impression that a huge majestic drapery fell on the wall.

We turn our heads to the left, and we have the impression that a huge net and its shells are hanging.

Illusion

Two absolutely unexpected impressions for me. We approach, curious, and we realize that the sections of fabric, like tapestries, are nothing other than bottle caps, cans and aluminium pieces, collected, cut, hammered, folded, twisted and assembled with great care. The same on the other side with shells, plugs folded in another way, is just as beautiful. The illusion is perfect.

Arriving in the central hall, a labyrinth faces us, the artist invites us to walk inside, be close to his work and by making so, we change perspective.
In the different rooms, we discover other facets of the artist, other materials with which he experimented. His use of wood, but also ceramics.
Indeed, he begins in 1976 by modelling the ground, breaking pots, then glueing them together, a metaphor of the African society.

What particularly caught my attention was his work on wood, recovered in the street, pieces of furniture, thrown away drawers, broken, dislocated… He cuts, polishes, burns, paints these pieces of wood. By unifies them, he is forming an artwork.

Look at this magnificent blue behind the wood, in the wood…and this feeling for detail

What is most remarkable is that all his works of art, are transported and made up of several pieces, then reconstituted always in a different way so that no exhibition is identical to another. This gives a certain movement, a freedom to the artist. The work is not static, it lives.

El Anatsui learned through the last five decades to master sculpture, painting and assembling.

All his work is very committed. For me, it carries a message that goes beyond African society. Using all these objects or pieces of torn things that no one wants, gathering this rubbish to finally unite it and make something beautiful with it. Creating a work of art with shimmering colours,  sublimating these little bits of nothing and letting them exist, it is simply magnificent and inspiring. I see our history in it, I see hope and more.

I hope you will have the urge and the chance to discover this artist if you haven’t done so already.

 

Erika Luisella

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Highlight in Brussels – Bernard van Orley

There are moments when time stands still. When discovering and being mesmerized become one, when an artist whose name you don’t really know, suddenly becomes a revelation to you. I experienced such a moment when visiting the monographic exhibition dedicated to Bernard van Orley in the Palais des Beaux-Arts (Bozar) in Brussels. How is it that Bernard van Orley has been unknown to me so far? When I last sang in the Cathedral Saints Michael and Gudula, I couldn’t stop looking at the absolutely incredible stained windows and still have them very clearly in my mind. Yet, it never occurred to me to check who the artist was.  Until now.

Who is Bernard van Orley?

Bernard van Orley is a Renaissance painter from Brussels. Born in 1488, he is thought to have been trained by his father Valentin. He was the court painter to Marguerite of Austria from 1518 and then to Mary from Hungary from 1532, receiving also commissions from Charles V. He was a very popular painter in his day, owning his studio and can be seen as the missing link between Rogier van der Weyden and  Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Seeing that this year celebrates the 450th anniversary of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s death, numerous exhibitions such as the one in Vienna which you can read about in the previous blog (Insights into Bruegel) are being shown all over. Here, in Brussels, Bruegel is being celebrated too. However, the Bozar has decided to take an indirect approach by celebrating his predecessor Bernard van Orley in a major exhibition and holding another show presenting “Prints in the Age of Bruegel“. What an excellent idea this is!

Van Orley was a very complete artist. He painted portraits, devotional paintings, produced tapestries and stained glass windows. In his beginnings, he did it all alone, but quite early on, he started his studio and left more and more the painting to his assistants, allowing him to concentrate on the tapestries and the stained glass windows.

Holy Family, 1521 (?), Bernard van Orley, Oil on Panel

Influences

In 1520, van Orley gave a feast in his house in honour of Albrecht Dürer. Dürer was at the time visiting the Low Countries and presented van Orley with several engravings and also painted his portrait. Van Orley was influenced in his work not only by Dürer but also by Italian painters such as Mantegna ( whose work you can see in Berlin in another wonderful exhibition ( Mantegna-Bellini ) or Da Vinci.

Segment from Tryptic Haneton, 1520, Bernard van Orley, Oil on Panel

Tapestries

Van Orley not only made tapestries for the Emperor Charles V: he excelled in this art already early on in his career. In the first room we find a gorgeous example from his early days: “Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon”, made for the imperial postmaster Frans van Taxis.

Legend of Our Lady of the Sablon: The Statue of the Virgin Welcomed with Grand Pomp in Brussels, 1526-28, Bernard van Orley – Unknown Brussels Workshop, Wool and silk

Margaret of Austria (Aunt to Charles V) took him into her service in 1518. She already then possessed an important collection of tapestries, extending it further with the orders to her court artist.  In the exhibition the “Square Passion” is being shown fully. It is a set of four devotional tapestries, which were produced between 1518-1522 and regarded as one of the most refined creations of this period.

The Crucifixion, 1518-1520 – Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, 1520-1522 (Square Passion), Bernard van Orley – Pannemaker workshop, Wool – silk – gold and silver thread

Around 1530, van Orley made two large tapestries series for the Emperor Charles V. These are among the most prestigious ever realized by the Brussels workshops. The Emperor Charles V was then at the height of his powers, and Brussels was the city he lived in most, making it the center of the western world. In this exhibition we see “The Battle of Pavia. Attack on the French Camp and Flight of the Besieged” from a series of 7 Tapestries depicting the military victory in Nothern Italy in 1525 by the new imperial armies. On the other side of the room a set of 3 tapestries from a series of twelve, depicting The Hunts of Charles V are shown. Here we find a beautiful representation of the Brussels landscape.

The Hunt of Charles V. The Month of September (Sign of Libra), About 1531-33, Bernard van Orley – Dermoyen workshop Brussels, Wool – silk – gold and silver thread

Famous in his days

When van Orley entered the services of Margaret of Austria he was a known painter, having already produced the prototypes for traditional portraits of the regent and young Charles  which were copied and distributed numerous times. This was reason enough for important public figures such as the doctor Georges de Zelle to get their portrait made by him too.

Portrait of Georges de Zelle, 1519, Bernard van Orley, Oil on Panel

What a feast this exhibition is. My afternoon there was reason enough for me to get the catalogue, which I can highly recommend even if it is a little pricy. I also want to point out that in the last room, at the end of the exhibition you will find a small flyer with an invitation to walk to different places in Brussels where you can discover more about this great artist. It is a little darkly lit there, so you may not see the flyer at first glance. Of course, the stained glass windows can’t be in the exhibition, although some wonderful drawings and sketches are shown. I have, however, found a photo from a segment of those at the Saints Michael and Gudula Cathedral from my last time there, which I want to share with you. It is a fine thing when one can finally recognize an artist whose work one has admired before.

Segment of stained glass Windows at Saints Michael and Gudula Cathedral in Brussels, Bernard van Orley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mantegna – Bellini, learning from each other

It was quite a coincidence that after publishing my last post about Katz’s portraits ( Is this a portrait ), I should have the opportunity to see the gorgeous Mantegna – Bellini exhibition at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. What better way is there than to go back to the Renaissance world and to what portraits were then. I will not try to compare both exhibitions here, although it could be an interesting post. I will instead speak of this recently opened beautiful show with the following questions in mind: how is it that such masters can learn from each other, respect each other and stand equally strong next to each other? And how by doing so can they gain a level of excellence not achievable without the other?

Presenting Mantegna and Bellini

Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) and Giovanni Bellini (around 1435-1516) were two major painters of the Renaissance period. They became in-laws in 1453 when Mantegna married Bellini’s sister Nicolosia. Andrea Mantegna came from nearby Padua. The son of a carpenter, he became an orphan at the age of ten. He was accepted in the painting school of Francesco Scquarcione, his talent having been discovered early. Giovanni Bellini, on the other hand, came from Venice. He was the son of the famous painter Jacopo Bellini. In those days the Bellini family had a very high rank in the Venetian society, and so he grew up with little worries, following his father’s path.

Saint Jerome Penitent in the Desert, 1448-51, egg tempera on panel, A. Mantegna
Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, about 1453-55, egg tempera on panel, G. Bellini

The earliest paintings these painters left us have coincidently the same subject, Saint Jerome. In actual fact, this exhibition is beautifully segmented in subject categories, most of which were very popular in the Renaissance Period: the Virgin with child, the portraits, the Agony in the Garden, the landscapes, the dead Christ, ancient civilisation, and so on. This makes it even more obvious to see in which manner they approached the same subject and how they influenced each other too. In Saint Jerome, one already notices two different approaches. The detailed composition is more prominent in the first, and in the other the landscape strikes the onlooker most. Mantegna’s portrayal was a few years earlier than Bellini’s, yet already in both, we see their own personality coming through.

Using the other’s drawing

The Descent of Christ into Limbo, about 1480-85, engraving, A. Mantegna

Just on the opposite side from Saint Jerome, we find a section with drawings, prints and paintings dealing with the subject of the “descent into Limbo”. This deals with the moment when Christ descends into the realm of death between his burial and his Resurrection. It is not mentioned in the Gospel but was a well-known subject in the 15th century which fascinated Mantegna.

The Descent of Christ into Limbo, about 1490, drawing, A. Mantegna

He made numerous drawings of this theme, resulting in an engraving and in paintings. Over one of these drawings, Bellini painted his own version. Yet even though he does so, he uses the drawing with the utmost respect and, by use of his own light and painting skills, makes it into his own. Both painters were in close contact and exchange, Bellini looking up to Mantegna as his “older” brother, even after Mantegna’s move to Mantua in 1460.

The Descent of Christ into Limbo, 1475-80, oil on parchment on panel, G. Bellini

Mantegna was known to be careful with his copyright. He nevertheless allowed Bellini to use his drawing, seeing this as a sign of honour and of admiration for his work. It is, in any case, a wonderful show of trust and a subtle dialogue between both painters.

Another example of this is seen in “The presentation of Christ in the Temple”.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, about 1454, egg tempera on canvas, A. Mantegna

Mantegna painted his painting around 1454, probably to celebrate the birth of his first child. In this painting, the Virgin Mary together with Joseph present the baby Jesus to the wise Simeon who, upon taking the child in his hands, recognises the Messiah. Here, we also see two other figures. On the far right is a self-portrait and on the far left a portrait of his wife Nicolosia.

In 1470/75 Bellini used this painting for his rendition by tracing the figures’ outlines in exactly the same manner. The painting differs in several ways though: in its colours, in the painted frame now being a parapet, and in the addition of two extra figures… possibly family members. It is thought that Bellini painted this upon the death of his father Jacopo Bellini. What a show of utter admiration this is!

The Presentation of Christ in the Tempel, about 1470-75, egg tempera on panel, G. Bellini

Learning from the other

This dialogue also went the other way around. Mantegna admired Bellini’s use of light and landscape greatly. Bellini, being a master at this, could achieve a calm realism supporting the scenes he painted. A wonderful example of this is Mantegna’s rendition of the “Death of the Virgin Mary”. In this painting, he has set special attention to the view out of the window. His landscape is very much in Bellini’s style. We see what probably was the view from the castle chapel of the Gonzaga family in Mantua, where Mantegna moved in 1460 to become the court painter.

The Death of the Virgin, about 1460-64, egg tempera on panel, A. Mantegna

Finishing a commission

The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome, 1505-06, glue size on canvas, A. Mantegna

In 1505, the Venetian nobleman Francesco Cornaro commissioned Mantegna a cycle depicting episodes from the second Punic War, described among others by the ancient Roman historian Livius. Mantegna was only able to finish the first painting of the cycle before his death in 1506: “ The introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome”. Mantegna was fascinated by ancient culture and studied it throughout his life. Bellini less so. Yet, he agreed to complete his brother-in-law’s unfinished work. Showing his respect, he remained faithful to Mantegna’s wonderful sculptural relief painting (grisaille) and coloured marble background in his own paintings.

The Continence of Scipio, about 1506-08, oil on canvas, G. Bellini

What differs and makes them individual

What about the “Virgin with Child” renditions? This was an extremely popular subject in the Renaissance, each household having at least one portrayal of this subject, either painted, sculptured or printed in their home. Both Mantegna and Bellini painted this theme therefore numerous times.

The Virgin Mary and Child, about 1460, egg tempera on panel, G. Bellini
The Virgin and Child (Simon Madonna), about 1455-60, glue on canvas, A. Mantegna

Here one can see the individuality but also the genius of both artists. Mantegna with his incredible search for different compositions, always trying something new and Bellini sticking to classical composition, yet always vibrant and innovative through his use of light and colour.

The Virgin and Child with Saint Catherine and Mary Magdalene, about 1490, oil on panel, G. Bellini
The Virgin and Child with Mary Magdalene and Saint John the Baptist, about 1490-1505, egg tempera on canvas, A. Mantegna

Knowing one’s strength

It can be said that Mantegna was more the historical and antique subject painter, whereas Bellini enjoyed staying mainly with religious themes. In 1460 Mantegna moved to Mantua becoming the court painter for the Gonzaga court. Isabella d’Este, who married Gianfrancesco II Gonzaga in 1490, commissioned both artists with a historical or ancient subject. Mantegna obliged gladly, offering her “Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue”. Bellini, however, refused to accept this commission, explaining that his painting couldn’t stand strong next to his brother-in-law’s masterpiece. In the end, Isabella d’Este gave in to Bellini who offered her a “Birth of Christ” instead, which she kept in her bedroom.

Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue, about 1500-02, egg tempera on canvas, A. Mantegna

How to end?

What a wonderful exhibition this is. Not only does it remind me of humanity, of the beauty of culture, of the constant non-ending search for an ideal, but also of a never-ending wish to learn and learn and learn. It doesn’t always have to be about competition. Here are two artists, each standing with their own strengths: one incredibly detailed and a master in composition, the other gifted with his use of light and colour. Of course, their relationship can’t have just been a bed of roses, but I do feel that there must have been a huge amount of respect between them. I believe both knew that there is no “me being better than you”. It can only be about trying to grow further… and what better way is there to do that, than to give space for the other, thus allowing oneself to learn from him or her.

 

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Hockney’s Thin Legs

Hockney Yorkshire

Well yes, it wasn’t really about his thin legs, but the fact that he mentioned them in the introductory blurb made me warm to him even more.  He wanted to complete an artwork every day, in the early spring of 2011, to document nature’s inevitable forward movement, and the sheer beauty of the spring in one particular lane in East Yorkshire,.  Spring temperatures being what they are in that part of the world, whilst he would have liked to face his subject directly, he had to take refuge in his car (due to the aforementioned thin legs).

The idea was to document every day in that spring, and that he did.  The exhibition collates those pictures with the most impact, and it has to be said that they are stunning.  Ridiculous that it costs nothing to see these fabulous artworks!

These images were created (I am wondering whether one can still say “painted”) using Hockney’s iPad and a bog-standard app;  the limitations of the medium are very obvious as soon as you get anywhere near the prints.  It doesn’t matter, though!  Move back a bit; unfocus the eyes if necessary; this is mastery.  Hockney knows how to block colour, how to pull the gaze; it’s a masterclass in composition.

From the unfrosting ice of the first pictures to the lacy froth of the greenness in the last, this is an artist documenting his environment, his times, his intimate world, as they change infinitesimally around him.  The pictures are arranged chronologically, so you can actually feel winter turning into spring.  (I managed to do this the wrong way round the first time I visited, though, and it didn’t spoil my enjoyment!)

Characteristic purple of the lane, with spring in full flush

This particular picture is so light and hopeful, the blossom on the bush appearing like lace in the gentle spring sunshine.   Like all of these compositions, it’s best viewed at a  certain distance; I include a detail here as support!

Close-up of the hawthorn blossom

 

 

 

 

 

It really was quite astonishing to see what he had managed to achieve with his iPad; I entered as a cynic, and came out a convert.  So much so that I persuaded my mother, who had come to see me in performance, that we should both stay over near the venue so that she could visit the exhibition the next day – so I saw it twice, once in louring rain, the next day in bright sunshine.  Fabulous!

A multicoloured fairytale of a day, evidently!

The site of the exhibition was also fascinating in itself; Salts Mill, in Saltaire, near Bradford, West Yorkshire.  A massive building with a fascinating history (in short, the mill and the surrounding town of Saltaire was planned and built in the mid-nineteenth century by a textiles magnate by the (utterly magnificent) name of Sit Titus Salt.  It was all designed as an antidote to the “dark, satanic mills” that constituted Bradford at the time.  Saltaire is an immensely pleasant place even now; well worth a wander round if you happen to be nearby (it’s has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

 

One last look around.

The massive spaces and iron pillars of the mill made it a very good fit for these particular paintings; Hockney is definitely not what you might call an effete aesthete.  In fact, there is also a corner of this exhibition where you can sit and watch the drawings he made on his iPad as little messages to friends, pop up on three digital screens, and I had to laugh out loud a couple of times, not least at his stubborn pro-smoking missives.

After we’d left the exhibition, she for the first time and I for the second, equally entranced, my mother and I headed to one of the cafés in Salts Mill for refreshment.  I ordered a dandelion and burdock (for those unfamiliar with the drink, explanation here) and proceeded to stare, fascinated, at the beautiful patterns the light made travelling through it, making the liquid glow deep red, with complex patterns caused by refraction in the glass patterning the table, and changing with every sip.  I believe that one of the things that makes good art so worth chasing after and drinking in is the degree to which it sensitises you to the beauty all around you.

Well, that’s my excuse – pretty certain the bloke at the next table thought I was a thoroughgoing weirdo, photographing my drink more than actually sipping it . . .

Oh, and did I mention that it’s free to visit this exhibition?  Free parking at the Mill, and Saltaire train station right across the road.  Do make time to go if you happen to be nearby.

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