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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Is this a portrait?

Katz

One sunny afternoon I decided to go to the Alex Katz exhibition in Munich. I expected to see many beautiful portraits, maybe a few landscapes. It turns out the exhibition at the Brandhorst Museum offers both. Without being a huge retrospective it does give a proper impression of what his work and artistry are about from his early days to today. What really made this show interesting to me though, was that it confronted me with one question: what makes a portrait? I couldn’t help feeling while walking through the exhibition that Katz’s approach to portraiture whether in the traditional painting on canvas or the cutouts oil on aluminium figures doesn’t quite comply with my idea of what a portrait is. Why is it so? Are these portraits?

a painting that looks simple

Paul Taylor, 1959, oil on canvas

At the start of this exhibition, we see a full body painting of Paul Taylor, dating of 1959. Katz started working with Paul Taylor in 1960, producing numerous costumes and sets for the Taylor dance company. This is still the early years for Katz, but already we see his clear trademark style: a monochrome background and a figure on it. It’s a rather simple idea, but actually quite refreshing and peaceful.  The background is clean and neat, no brushstrokes obvious or appearing to break the surface. The result is that there is a minimum of depth of field. The vision is reduced to one canvas and a figure on it. Actually it is quite a wonderful idea, seeing how our world has become so obsessed with multi-dimensional vision. Here we get back down to just what matters, and it is refreshing. “I try to make painting that looks simple.” (A.Katz)

No expression, no content, no form?

Private Domain, 1969, oil on canvas

“Private Domain” (1969) is, however, the first painting one sees when walking in the entrance room. This big painting and “Paul Taylor Dance Company” (1963-1964)  next to it really explains a lot to me about Katz’s artistic style. It seems to me, that Paul Katz is studying the physicality and aesthetics of the body here. His work with dancers as a set and costume designer seems logical when looking at these paintings.  Here are 2 paintings where the body is put in the forefront. Not the soul, but the physical aesthetics of the body. This is of course just my impression but it explains my starting to wonder whether it matters who stands in front of him, or whether the actual beauty and presence of the physique in space matters more. To confirm my thoughts this is what I found on his website about his impressions on Paul Taylor:

“I had seen Paul dance for the first time shortly before we met with Edwin [Denby] and thought his choreography was one of the most surprising things I had seen as an artist. Paul’s dancing seemed to be a real break with that of the previous generation: no expression, no content, no form, as he said, and with great technique and intelligence.” (A. Katz)

No expression, no content, no form? Could that apply for his paintings? The word Robot comes to mind when I read these words, but that is really not what Katz’s painting is about. These are no machines on the canvas. There is an aesthetic, a beauty which shines first and foremost. And yes, this beauty does have to do with the people in the paintings. It is a physical beauty, a superficial pleasing to the eye with perfect clean faces, no wrinkles to be found.

Paul Taylor Dance Company, 1964-64, oil on canvas

“I’m not telling you about the person’s inner feelings, I’m not interested in that stuff. Most realistic painting has to do with the plight of man, which  I find horribly sentimental. I’d rather deal with the energy of life than the sadness of it.” (A. Katz)

Fashion is ephemeral

Red hat, (Alba), 2013, oil on canvas

Katz is a very elegant and self-conscious man. Here is someone who at the age of 91 still does 4 hours of physical training a day! No wonder Katz is also said to be close to fashion. “I’ve always been interested in fashion because it’s ephemeral.” he says. In his later work “Red Hat” (Alba) of 2013, the hat takes almost half the canvas. This is a gorgeous painting in my eyes, yet not because of Alba, but because of the composition. Alba’s face is present but without emotion, such as a model on the catwalk.  She serves her purpose. Is a beautiful woman, but this isn’t about her, it’s about the hat she is wearing. Or in “Grey Coat” (1997), where the coat covers most of the figure, Alba’s face turning around to look at us in a direct yet distant manner being secondary to the actual full painting. Here I feel again Katz’s fascinating use of the composition. Just like in photography. The figure is set in a diagonal on the left side of the canvas which in turn means most of the canvas is occupied by the monochrome background. Just beautiful.

Serial models

Eyes closed, eyes open 1 (double Vivien), 2004, oil on canvas

His work has also been said to be close to the cinema. In “eyes closed, eyes open” (2004), one sees this clearly. The same person side by side has once her eyes open and once the eyes shut. Like an attempt to create movement through stills. Again a very beautiful painting, but a portrait? Even though the painting is about a figure, a face, in this case that of Vivien, it seems to me to be just too perfect. She is almost like a fashion doll. Saying that it doesn’t take away from the beauty of the work.  And that is quite incredible, to see that a painter can achieve that.

The black dress, 1960, oil on canvas

In “The Black Dress” (1960) Katz uses the image of Alba 6 times standing in various ways and also sitting, always dressed in the same black dress, yet all 6 figures are interwoven in a scene. In this painting, we do have a floor, some wall panels, and a section of a portrait by Katz. But the depth of field is still reduced to its minimum. And the person? Alba? Well, we see her 6 times in different poses, her facial expression though is secondary to the actual physical connections created by the composition. The painting stands strong with a story but not a personal story.

Renaissance Technique

Maybe this feeling is created by the technique Katz uses for his big paintings. In the early 1960s, as he was beginning to paint bigger, he started using the cartoon drawing technique from the Renaissance. For this, he makes a large line drawing with holes pinched along the lines. A small amount of charcoal or graphite go through the holes on the canvas and create thus a faint outline for his composition. This allows him then to repeat a figure or to repeat a whole painting just like in “Laure and Alain” (1964/1991). The same painting twice, put together side by side as one. The original was done in 1964 and then repeated again in 1991. The only difference is that in the later version his craftsmanship has been mastered expertly meaning that for instance the light in the hair of Laure is more subtly painted. Both figures seem in their own world, Alain is in profile, Laure frontal.

Laure and Alain, 1964/1991, oil on canvas, two panels

So, is this a portrait, Mr Katz?

To go back to my original question: are these portraits? Well, my first reaction says they are not. I feel a portrait is something personal. It is first and foremost a vision of a person, of the whole being with wrinkles or tired eyes. We all have different visions, of course, we all see things with our own eyes, and in my opinion, a portrait is the vision by a painter of a person’s soul. In Katz’ paintings, I feel it is about the painting, the aesthetics of the painting, the colours on it, the composition of it, the beauty of it… so really the people on the canvases are “just” models for the work of art Katz produces. Saying that, when I think of today’s obsession with looking young and being self-obsessed: the selfies, the likes and the Influencers’ “look at me” pose, well maybe Katz is just reflecting that and is after all making the portraits of today!

“The pictures are supposed to be lyric, they’re supposed to give you an up, I want to make something that’s sort of like your happier condition. Impressionist pictures are basically that—Impressionist painting is a happy lie.” (A. Katz)

 

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