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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On Poetry and Vulnerability

Writing poetry, it is drawing with words. Words woven, moreover words interwoven in our feelings, within our beings, on our close intimacy and far relations to self, others and the universe. All drafts, all sketches, all attempts are worth the try. Because they testify the ferment of our inner life. 
It comes down not only to draw a mountain as an object but also what it arouses deep in us. Similarly to draw with words a river, or a lake. It is not only drawing but also diving into its waters with our beings and feelings. It is also inviting others to swim with us, to dive within us, to discover what we meant to share, what we felt when we drew.
Sharing the way of words, being intimate with words in the way words touch us, in the way words turn us upside down
by little sketches, by little drafts, by little attempts.
This is poetry.
But Poetry has an even closer relationship to the beauty and all its expressions. However not all the expressions of  beauty are written and therefore not all the poems in the universe are contained in written poems but in many other shapes, many other clothing which are waiting to be said, to be expressed etc.  John Fowles, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, stated “We all write poems; it is simply that poets are the ones who write in words”
Poetry thus becomes a profound exposure of self to truths, feelings, life, values, time and love… This openness through self exposure is possible by touching and becoming familiar with our own vulnerability.
We are living in a technical era, very fond of efficiency. The jargon of scientific views from which we are building our world is a language of the mind that is at work into things and strengthened in the aridity of scientific concepts. In a world that is always productive and effective, vulnerability seems to become and pass as a weakness.
Nonetheless, there is such beauty into vulnerability that only love can embrace. We build upon our vulnerability. It does not make us lesser in merit than any other virtues. To say it with Kant “Beauty is what pleases without concept”. It is the same beauty that is the primary object of poetry itself and all its expressions written or not and also of love. Poetry, love and beauty are thus looking at vulnerability to start to open up.
 
Love within itself is not rigour in principle, nor lack of compassion. It is infinitely an opening, a movement. Its opening shows it vulnerable. Its movement  makes it understandable, mostly human. But the infinite plasticity of love is in its vulnerable face. Love is built on a ground of vulnerability. It is the vulnerability within love that allows us, to bud, to grow, even to love.
 
Only powerful people by decree are haunted by the idea that one day they are discovered vulnerable. So vulnerability is not a weakness within love. But just what Consolidates it. It is the other way around of love, the look-alike of strength and  power. Strength or love that will not consolidate themselves in acts virtues, as well as power which drifts from that kind of love are without vision. That strength based on that love, that power founded on that strength are unfounded. They may be necessary . . . But they are a love without intrinsic opening, without movement. They both succumb victims of themselves.
To be aware of our own vulnerability, may help us to turn it  into an asset. It is to allow an opening within us, a movement that carry us. Because love which opens itself, always opens itself in the world, where it exposed itself. Therefore  it cannot remain unchanged. It now knows that beyond it the world exists.
It is just a consciousness in the world among many others at work. To know our own vulnerability,  it is to strengthen ourselves in the events of life. It is also to be combative in the face of adversity.
Because hardship, adversity are part of life. It is also an act of deep compassion to the suffering of others. It’s coming to understand that the truth is in time. Being a human being, it is to be, a fragile being. Fragile as a truth, vulnerable as a thought, as  a vision, Which have to deepen in life.  Being just a thought, an idea, a vision, of  a vulnerable love, which are strengthened, which are empowered in time.
Poetry in its effort to seek to look at the expression of the beauty is not fully the expression of the mind but mostly of the heart to put into words the vulnerable heart of the poet. The soul of the poet is similar to the surface of a lake, its quietness reflects the life in the depth. If anything is changed, it is the whole calm that is altered. The colours of the lakes are due to the sky, to the presence of the algae or to the reflection of the sunlight.
It is in all these meanings in relation to the beauty, within the articulation of its expression which feeds upon the vulnerability of the poet that poetry comes to existence. All good poetry is a plural poetry in its composition as in its reading. We all have an acquaintance of this beauty without concept. It would be a mistake to try to make it equal to all, especially that its appreciation and evaluation are given  to us by our time and our culture.

Poetry and the vulnerability of the poet work together to allow us to have an emotional understanding of what is going on. It is touching from inside.

Thus Orpheus had been able to sedate the Cerberus by the power of its musical instrument. But before touching others, the poet is touched first by the muses. To say it with Bob Marley in his song,TrenchTown Rock, “ One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain”
Written by Paul Ma
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