Italian Novecento painting

Carrà - Marina 50x70 1941

[Image: Carlo Carra, Marine (1941), oil on canvas, 50 x 70 cm. Courtesy of Tornabuoni Art]

This exhibition catalogue accompanied an exhibition at Tornabuoni Art, London (12 February-18 April 2020). This review is from the catalogue.

The 1920 to 1950 was an eventful period in Italian history. It saw the aftermath of World War I, the rise of Fascism, World War II, military occupation and defeat, a resurgence in Communist sympathy and the beginning of economic reconstruction. In the plastic arts, there were conflicting tendencies. The Futurist movement – with its bellicosity, militarism and adulation of technology – was discredited following the horrors of World War I. The rappel de l’ordre (call to order or return to order) was a movement advocating a return to realism, traditionalism and regional/national schools of art, mainly French. This movement of traditional figurative art (inflected by Modernism) derived from Metaphysical Art was called Novecento (“Twentieth Century”).

This exhibition selects art by leading Italian painters from the inter-war period. The curators describe critic Margherita Sarfatti (who was also Mussolini’s lover and biographer) as a lynchpin to the Novecento group, following its inaugural exhibition in 1922 at Galleria Pesaro, Milan. Prominent painters in Novecento were Giacomo Balla, Pompeo Borra, Anselmo Bucci, Achille Funi, Gian Emilio Malerba, Ubaldo Oppi, Fortunato Depero, Massimo Campigli, Carrà, Felice Casorati, de Chirico, Filippo De Pisis, Piero Marussig, Morandi, René Paresce, Ottone Rosai, Gino Severini, Mario Sironi, Ardengo Soffici, Mario Tozzi and others. Some of these were former Futurists. The Futurists were politically aligned to Fascism. Balla dropped his commitment to Futurist aesthetics in order to follow Fascism. Severini turned from Futurism to Cubism during World War I and then briefly to Neoclassicism before blending Cubist and Neoclassical styles and elements. Severini amalgams are some of the satisfactory painting in this exhibition. Marinetti – leading Futurist theorist – was not a practicing artist.

Writer Flavia Frigeri claims: “[…] the style of the works on view was far from unified. Heterogeneity was, in fact, at the heart of the Novecento project.” She cites Sironi claiming that the primary original figures in Novecento were independent painters who formed a loose alliance and that Novecentismo style only came later, with minor painters forming a style. However, even in these major artists in this exhibition, we can detect certain consistencies. The chief subjects of Novecento featured in this exhibition are landscapes, still-lifes, portraits and nudes (mainly female). Women are portrayed as passive. Most of the paintings of women in this exhibition are nudes, excluding the many portraits and maternities that can be found in exhibitions of the time. Novecento paintings are distinguished by their simplicity, clarity and solidity and the utilisation of the flat picture plane and inclusion of Cubist aspects (pattern, abstraction, planar aspects). There is a deliberate attempt to make art that was recognisably Italian and also timeless, avoiding references to contemporary life. We can discern a number of specific precursors, such as the portraits of women by Camille Corot portraits, Pablo Picasso (of his pre-Cubist and Neoclassical periods), Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca and the Italian Primitives. Sarfatti cast Novecento as aspiring to the Quattrocento. Novecento painting has the restrained chalky colours of fresco painting.

As has been pointed out in numerous studies, Italian Fascism had a very different character to Nazism. The attitude to the arts in Italy was much broader than the stylistic prescriptions of German Fascism. The Italians not only permitted stylistic diversity, they encouraged it, stating that the strength of the nation under Fascism was great enough to resist the divisive effects of plurality of voices, as long as they did not conflict with the unity and good of the state. Thus, the Italian state in fine art did not impose requirements upon painters. (The situation in architecture is slightly different but this falls outside the parameters of this review.) Sarfatti rejected the excesses of Futurism – in style, breaking tradition and cultivating individualism – and she saw Novecento as an asset to nationalism and Fascism in its realism and reduction in individualism.

For enthusiasts of moderate Modernism, there is much here to give pleasure. Marussig’s Vase of Flowers (1917) is redolent of Gauguin’s still-lifes, with its restrained use of powerful separated by rough drawing and neutral-tone ground. Balla’s light-drenched landscape is atypically loose and focuses on the optical. One of the defining features of the Novecento is the tightness of drawing and the dryness of paint application. Novecento has a pre-Renaissance attitude rejection of later developments in art, such as the play of light, reflection, transparency and cool shadow. Overall, Balla’s landscape and Soffici’s smudged townscapes look out of place in this company.

Novecento art is static. None of the figures portrayed seem caught in movement. Novecento presents figures with pre-Renaissance hieratic stances. Even the nudes are rather inanimate. Severini’s Fashion Over Time (1945) typifies the Novecento’s borrowings from Braque and Picasso repurposed as a cosmetic addition to a composition that is unambitious. The rare, early Morandi portrait is as static as his still-lifes. Other Morandis are more familiar still-lifes and townscapes. Morandi reverses the expectations associated with landscape painting by making his landscapes horizontally orientated.

De Pisis’s painting of Venice seems an adaptation of Dufy. Carrà’s landscapes are disappointing: slight, blurred, chromatically muzzy. They lack the mystery of his Metaphysical period. Campigli seems to reach back to Etruscan funerary monuments and late Roman-period Egypt funerary portraits in encaustic for his portrait of 1950. His highly stylised figure paintings are deliberate rejections of both modernism and realism, constructing a personal archaism that turns away from the Italy of his own time. (Ironically, for all its archaism, it is very much of its time and could have met common comprehension and acceptance throughout the non-Fascist West.)

Added to the variety of Novecento is Sironi’s faux-naïf paintings that gather fragments, drawn in paint in quite a crude way, that steers a course equidistant from the sophistication of Futurism and the sophistication of Renaissance art. His paintings aim for timelessness of Roman murals made by a modern-day hermit. Viewers will have to decide whether they consider them persuasive. An early townscape parallels Beckmann. Sironi was the most ideologically committed to Fascism. Sironi aimed for his art to be politically persuasive. Given Fascism’s intention to combine modern technology and means to revival and extend long-standing collective nationalist identity, this blend of classical imagery and Modernist style makes sense. It also shows the distance between Italian Fascism and German National Socialism in the arts. Sironi’s art would have been inconceivable in Germany, certainly as art exhibited or in any way sanctioned by the state.

Casorati - Nudo di schiena

[Image: Felice Casorati, Nude Seen from the Rear (1939), oil on canvas, 160 x 74 cm. Courtesy of Tornabuoni Art”]

Casorati’s art is some of the best shown here. His Nude Seen from the Rear (1939) benefits from its simplicity, muted coloration and shallow picture space. It is both tender in tone while being severe in its stylistic austerity. The two other nudes are also strong. The bust of a nude woman (1942) recalls Beckmann in its uses of black and strong shadows lightly modelled. There is another picture that looks effective. Unfortunately, the page gutter of the catalogue obscures the pivotal figure of the painting, making it impossible to view accurately. This is a flaw in book design. Casorati’s 1922 portrait of Silvana Cenni is an iconic portrait of the movement, the period and Italian traditional art. Casorati is described as a Magical Realist.

chirico new (1)

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Still-Life (1930), oil on canvas, 53.5 x 74 cm. Courtesy of Tornabuoni Art.]

De Chirico’s art as a pictor classicus was not completely congruent with Novecento but Sarfatti’s inclusion of de Chirico’s still-lifes and nudes (and the art of Carrà) was perhaps a matter of prestige or credibility. In truth, their art is not dissonant in this company. Certainly, these two artists were deeply engaged with classical art, localism and a rejection of overt Modernism, which is Novecento at least, even if de Chirico’s engagement with Baroque art and Romanticism run counter to the austerity and primitivism of Fascist art. De Chirico’s nudes (including one exhibited here, dated 1923) and Carrà’s paint handling is more sensuous the other art in this catalogue. Morandi attached himself to Novecento because of a need to exhibit and sell art. He had the approval of Carrà’s positive approval in print in 1925. Sarfatti may have selected Morandi for his first Novecento group exhibition on the basis of this review.

The catalogue is in English and Italian and contains biographies of artists, facsimiles of documents (with translations) and a bibliography. Full-page illustrations face pages with comparative figures, often of pieces that were included in original Novecento exhibitions. Data gives information about the literature and exhibitions relating to the exhibits. This catalogue will help to spread knowledge of art beyond the well-known movements of Metaphysical Art and Futurism; that makes it a useful addition to any library covering Novecento and Modernist Italian and European art generally.

Flavia Frigeri, Janet Abramovicz, Morandi, Balla, de Chirico and Italian Painting 1920-1950, Tornabuoni Art, 2020, hardback, 175pp, fully illus., English/Italian text

For more information and buy the catalogue visit Tornabuoni website here: https://www.tornabuoniart.com/en/

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

“The Melancholy of Obsolete Futures”

“Brutalism has seen a surge in interest among young people keen on bold uncompromising Modernist design. Whole books of moody photographic studies of concrete buildings are snapped up by fans of urban life and retro design. A crop of new books explores the Brutalism of socialist states.

“While Constructivism and avant-gardism in fine art came to prominence during the October Revolution, it was suppressed in favour of Socialist Realism by the mid-1930s. In architecture more adventurous forms and materials persisted, although in the minority. Under Stalin there was a degree of stylistic conformity and austerity, yet adventurous architecture was not seen as “bourgeois formalism” as it was in art. Following the death of Stalin in 1953, historicism receded and a greater variety of art, design and architecture (including Modernist architecture) became possible. While supposedly for the masses, many of the showpiece constructions were moribund from the start: inverted ziggurat hotels that were barely occupied and shopping centres with few consumer goods to offer. Much of this architecture was completed less than a decade before the economic and political collapse of the Eastern Bloc….”

Read the full review online at The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/melancholy-of-obsolete-futures/

29 art reviews by Alexander Adams

Here are links to 29 art reviews by me published on the website Cassone Art between 2011 and 2015.

Leonardo and Milan, book: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2015/12/leonardo-returns-to-milan/?psrc=art-and-artists

Tanenbaum donation of French art to Hamilton, Ontario: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2015/09/french-high-culture-comes-to-ontario/?psrc=around-the-galleries

Leonardo drawings, book: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2015/09/range-depth-and-sophistication-leonardos-drawings/?psrc=art-and-artists

Jean Michel Basquiat, books: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2015/09/street-cred-the-work-of-jean-michel-basquiat/?psrc=art-and-artists

Ute Klein, book: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2015/04/paint-gravity-and-fluid-dynamics-the-work-of-ute-klein/?psrc=perspectives

Bellini’s St Francis at the Frick: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2015/04/bellinis-st-francis-a-renaissance-masterpiece/?psrc=around-the-galleries

The Hermitage, St Petersburg, book: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2015/03/russias-treasure-house-the-hermitage/?psrc=featured-reviews

Picasso and Sylvette David, book: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2015/02/sylvette-and-the-picasso-style/?psrc=art-and-artists

Michelangelo, Complete Works, book: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2015/02/michelangelo-from-david-to-the-sistine-ceiling/?psrc=art-and-artists

Victorian Salon art, book: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2015/02/michelangelo-from-david-to-the-sistine-ceiling/?psrc=art-and-artists

Mondrian’s Studios, Tate Liverpool: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2014/07/paintings-for-living-mondrians-mature-work/?psrc=around-the-galleries

Musee de fin-de-siecle, Brussels: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2014/05/the-art-of-the-belle-epoque-celebrated-in-brussels/?psrc=perspectives

Edvard Munch, Works on Paper: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2014/04/edvard-munch-a-life-on-paper/?psrc=art-and-artists

Photographs by Burroughs/Lynch/Warhol: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2014/04/american-visions/?psrc=photography-and-media

Cezanne Letters, book: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2014/02/czanne-in-his-own-words/?psrc=art-and-artists

Persian art, book: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2014/02/how-east-met-west-in-safavid-dynastypersia/?psrc=art-and-artists

Edgar Degas: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2013/12/the-art-and-artifice-of-edgar-degas/?psrc=art-and-artists

Egon Schiele, books: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2013/10/egon-schiele-from-teenage-beginnings-to-complex-relationships-with-women/?psrc=art-and-artists

Marc Chagall, Liverpool exhibition: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2013/09/marc-chagalls-magical-scenes-of-everyday-life/?psrc=around-the-galleries

Paul Delvaux, exhibition: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2013/08/delvaux-the-detached-surrealist/?psrc=art-and-artists

Chaim Soutine, Paris exhibition: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2013/02/soutine-a-painters-painter/?psrc=around-the-galleries

Matisse and his Muses, New York: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2012/01/matisse-and-his-muses/?psrc=around-the-galleries

Basil Beattie, book: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2012/01/motifs-and-ideas-in-the-work-of-basil-beattie/?psrc=around-the-galleries

Infinite Jest, exhibition of prints: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2011/11/infinite-jest-satirizing-human-weakness/?psrc=around-the-galleries

Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery., WDC: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2011/11/the-chester-dale-collection-washington-dc/?psrc=around-the-galleries

British Public Catalogue Foundation: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2011/10/from-tradition-to-innovation-the-uks-heritage-goes-online/?psrc=interviews

Egon Schiele, London: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2011/09/egon-schiele-in-london/?psrc=art-and-artists

Callum Innes, London: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2011/09/callum-innes-in-london/?psrc=art-and-artists

Ratjen drawing collections: http://www.cassone-art.com/magazine/article/2011/07/drawing-comparisons-some-of-the-worlds-great-collections-of-drawings/?psrc=featured-reviews

 

Edward O. Wilson, The Diversity of Life

DOL_S_11 (1)

[Image: © The Folio Society, 2019]

Edward O. Wilson (b. 1929), University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, is one of the world’s leading biologists. Damage to his eyesight during childhood led him to study insects, which is why he became a myrmecologist (a scientist specialising in ants). His research led to breakthroughs in understanding of the social structures of ants and wildlife more widely. He has taught and written on entomology and biology and won numerous awards and prizes during his distinguished career. It is his book BioDiversity (1988) that is credited with introducing the phrase “biodiversity” into scientific and general usage.

The Diversity of Life was first published in 1992. This Folio edition is a republication of the second edition (2010), with a new foreword by Bill McKibben, renowned environmentalist author. This issue – as is usual with Folio Society books – contains unique visual elements, discussed at the end of this review.

Wilson’s thesis is that although life is vigorous and multifarious, it is also delicate. Ecosystems are dynamic but depend upon multiple factors, with relatively small changes to a few species causing a great knock-on impact. Wilson starts by outlining the rich diversity of life in the tropical rainforest, before outlining the impact of the eruption of Krakatau (Krakatoa), in the Indonesia archipelago. The famous eruption – more properly volcanic explosion – in 1883 destroyed all life on the small island. The event destroyed most of the island and left the remainder desolate. Naturalists realised this was a test bed for biological study: as flora and fauna returned to the land, observations could be made about the evolution of ecosystems. New species arrived – to thrive or die off and sometimes old species never returned to the island. Forest regrew on the island but to this day none of the species of rainforest giant trees have arrived on the island.

Wilson explains the thorny issue of inter-subspecies hybridisation. It is possible to interbreed lions and tigers in captivity. That being so, why do we not see natural hybridisation? In other words, why do we have two distinct groups at all? One reason is that the subspecies are separated geographically (though this has not always been the case) and the second is that in terms of social structure and preferred climate, the subspecies are dissimilar and therefore would have little in common and thus rarely mix. Plants in temperate regions hybridise more than those in tropical regions.

Division into subspecies can come about by the environment changing (leading to a local population diverging by developing unique deviations from its original form), isolation (a population being suddenly separated by a flood, earthquake or volcanic activity) or by colonisation (waifs being translocated to islands and subsequently evolving). (“The 10,000 known endemic species of insects in Hawaii are believed to have evolved from only about 400 immigrant species.”) The use of subspecies as a taxonomical classification is tricky. Wilson points out that these classifications can be relatively arbitrary, only denoting how much scientific attention a widely distributed species has attracted, for many such species could be broken down into numerous subspecies. Exactly what markers denote a population to be worthy of assuming the status of a subspecies is flexible.

DOL_S_14 (1)

[Image: © The Folio Society, 2019]

Some species develop distinct characteristics faster than others, with insects of short lifespans evolving fastest. In Lake Victoria, a family of freshwater fish called cichlids evolved into a variety of unique species with specialised physiognomies, diets and behaviour in only 200,000 years. “If evolution can occur rapidly, with the number of species quickly restored, why should we worry about species extinction? The answer is that new species are usually cheap species. […] Great biological diversity takes long stretches of geological time and the accumulation of large reservoirs of unique genes. The richest ecosystems build slowly, over millions of years.” In the case of the chichlids, they are rapidly approaching extinction because of the predation of the Nile perch, a non-native species introduced by man as a sport fish. This giant predator has adapted well to Lake Victoria and could well outcompete the specialised and isolated chichlid species.

The author introduces technical discussions where necessary but does this sparingly, allowing the non-scientist to follow is discussions easily and pleasurably. He finds apt examples to demonstrate points. The explain how absence of competition can lead to parallel evolutions in separate species, he chooses Hawaii. The honeycreeper is a family of bird species native to the islands of Hawaii. They have developed beaks and behaviour that resemble woodpeckers, albeit in inefficient forms. Wilson points out that had woodpeckers migrated to the islands, honeycreepers would never have developed their woodpecker-type features because they would have been competing with a much more efficient family that would have exploited the ecological niche already, outcompeting for associated resources. The absence of woodpeckers allowed the honeycreeper space to evolve woodpecker-style behaviour and physiological forms.

The sheer variety of life forms defies scientific understanding, with potentially millions of species, ranging from microbes to viruses, fungi, lichen, advanced plants, insects and mammals. The precautionary principle suggests we should beware of destroying species and environments of which we are not even aware, in case their removal leads to significant consequences for the ecosystem. When the sea otter was hunted to near extinction in the Aleutian Island, the sea urchins they preyed upon – now largely unpredated – decimated the kelp forests. The subsequent barrenness severely reduced the biodiversity of the environment. Thus, a single apex predator can shape an ecosystem.

Wilson is honest about the impact of human migration on reduction of biodiversity – as many non-indigenous apex predators have upon ecosystems. He discusses the extinction of the moa (a giant flightless bird in New Zealand) at the hands of the Maori and the damage done by species introduced by Western colonists. He shows sharp declines in numbers of species in recent eras match the expansion of Homo sapiens. An alarming map of reducing forest in Ecuador gives a graphic warning of the impact of man-made habitat change. The case is put for the practical benefits species preservation has for humanity, in the form of medicines or crop hybridisation derived from life forms not yet studied. A couple of fascinating lists give native species that could be reared as potential crops and animals for human consumption, all of which might prove superior in their native environs the imported Western staples. The book ends with some positive steps that are being taken and avenues for future activity to prevent loss of biodiversity.

DOL_S_16 (1)

[Image: © The Folio Society, 2019]

Edward O. Wilson is a gifted communicator, full of enthusiasm. The clarity and vigour of Wilson’s prose is a great pleasure to read. The importance of his warnings is as relevant now as when The Diversity of Life was originally published. Wilson’s personal encounters (sometimes as part of field experiments) add touches of personal experience – elegiac but lacking false sentimentality. The book contains footnotes, a glossary and an index.

The Folio Society edition boasts a full-colour iridescent hardback cover, protected by a slipcase. The cover was designed by Jamie Keenan. The complex, demanding and precise process that was used to apply the special holographic film over the cover is described in a Folio Society blog post here. This edition includes maps, charts and graphs with attractive ornamentation. The line and stipple ink drawings by Amy Bartlett Wright are concise and attractive, acting as visual aides and enriching the reading experience. There are plate sections of 24 colour wildlife photographs, featuring close-ups that showcase the beautiful variety of flora and fauna. The simple textured board used to make the protective slipcase has a pleasing eco-friendly feel to it.

The Folio Society edition of The Diversity of Life is an ideal gift for a child over 14 or young adult interested by science and for anyone delighted by the natural world. The visual touches enhance the message and the content in a sympathetic and considered manner. Highly recommended.

 

The Folio Society edition of Edward O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life, with foreword by Bill McKibben and preface by the author, with extensive Folio Society picture research, is available exclusively from The Folio Society.

Edward O. Wilson, Bill McKibben (foreword), The Diversity of Life, The Folio Society, 2019, hardback, 448pp, 24 col./47 mono illus., slipcase, £49.95

 

© Alexander Adams 2020

To view my books and art visit: www.alexanderadams.art

Bruegel: The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow

Abb. 1_Pieter Bruegel d. Ä._Die Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige im Schnee 1[Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow (1563), Sammlung Oskar Reinhart «Am Römerholz», Winterthur © Sammlung Oskar Reinhart «Am Römerholz», Winterthur]

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-30-1569) is celebrated for his paintings of snow. His blend of realism (accurate depictions of clothing and buildings) and artificiality (landscapes that combine Brabant environs and Alpine topography) made a profound impression at the time and – after a reputational lull – from the Nineteenth Century onwards.

A recent exhibition (23 November 2019-1 March 2020) at Oskar Reinhart Collection ‘Am Römerholz’, Winterthur, Switzerland collected art associated to its own Bruegel painting The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow (1563). This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. As is usual with Bruegel’s major painted compositions, numerous later copies were produced including a version exhibited here. One scholar catalogues 36 copies of this composition, 26 of which he attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638).

The painting shows the Holy Family sheltering in an adequate shelter in a Brabant town. Townsfolk are continuing with their daily lives – collecting water, cutting willow twigs, conveying tributes or seeking warmth. The scene is set in deep winter, with snow falling. The kings and the Holy Family are ignored by the people, just as the fall of Icarus is ignored by the ploughman in Bruegel’s famous painting in Brussels. There are political references in the picture – including the presence of Spanish troops and the Habsburg insignia on the tribute being sent. The Habsburg Spanish control of the Low Countries was creating resentment at the time the picture was made; it would break out into warfare (on the bases of Reformation theology and national independence) in 1568, the year before Bruegel’s death. The painting is oil on oak panel, 35 x 55cm, in generally good condition. The discovery of the date “1563” alongside the artist’s signature confirms that date of production.

Although a number of Bruegel paintings depict snow and ice, The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow is the only painting in which snow is falling. It is apparently the first surviving oil painting of falling snow in Western art. (There are earlier miniatures.) Later versions omit the falling snow, which strongly suggests the copyists (or at least Pieter Brueghel the Younger, whose version may have acted as a common source for later copyists) used a detailed drawing Bruegel that did not include snowfall. Other differences include coloration and small details. The older artist would have made such changes, altering his design as he went. Considering the high demand for Bruegel’s art, it is likely that Brueghel never saw a number of father’s paintings, all of which were painted before his son Pieter was born or while he was a small child.

Dendrochronology data proves that this painting was painted on an oak panel from the same plank that was used for Death of the Virgin (c. 1562-5), Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (1563) and Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap (1565), imported from the Eastern Baltic. The Adoration panel is smaller than the others and shows evidence of being cut down on the top and right sides, which is corroborated by posthumous copies showing these areas of the composition. However, the copies may be based on drawings and Bruegel may never have actually painted these margins in his picture.Bruegel’s paint handling was new and Impressionistic, radically simplifying forms and allowing the qualities of paint and application to act as a shorthand for the physical bodies he was describing. “Bruegel’s treatment of figures in this small panel is often looser than in his larger works. This Adoration of the Kings in the Snow, with its novel snowflakes, may have represented a somewhat experimental work for Bruegel, which could explain the relatively spontaneous handling.”

The exhibition gathered 15 items, including paintings and engravings. Some of the engravings were derived from Bruegel drawings made specifically for engravers. When Bruegel commenced his career in Antwerp, he was solely a print designer; only later did he begin making oil paintings and move to Brussels. He painted a series of seasons but he was working on a series of prints of seasons, which was left unfinished at his death.

Abb. 6_Pieter van der Heyden nach Pieter Bruegel d. Ä._verlegt von Hieronymus Cock_Sommer (1)

[Image: Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, published by Hieronymus Cock, Summer,(1570), engraving, sheet from The Four Seasons, Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich © Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich]

The print Summer (drawn 1569, cut and printed 1570, posthumously) displays Bruegel’s late ambition to imbue figures of peasants with grandeur and monumentality, inspired by Michelangelo. It also shows his ability to use foreshortening, with the foot and scythe projecting out of the picture plane. (Actually, it displays his lack of anatomical training, as the foot should be larger.) The other print designed was Spring, showing gardeners at work. Two classic compositions by Bruegel (St Jerome and Journey to Emmaus), where one foreground corner to close up and the rest of the low-land landscape is shown from an aerial perspective, with a high horizon line, were published by Hieronymous Cock. Cock also commissioned pastiches of Bruegel’s compositional style, due to the demand for his designs.

Abb. 2_Joannes und Lucas van Doetecum nach Pieter Bruegel d. Ä._verlegt von Hieronymus Cock_S. Hieronymus in Deserto (1)

[Image: Pieter van der Heyden after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, published by Hieronymus Cock, The Temptation of Saint Jerome, (1556), engraving, Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich © Graphische Sammlung ETH Zürich]

The catalogue contains a section summarising the main observations in French. Although a small volume, The Miracle in the Snow: Pieter Bruegel the Elder contains significant new information about a key painting by Bruegel and is an approachable book for non-specialist readers.

The Miracle in the Snow: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Oskar Reinhart Collection ‘Am Römerholz’, Winterthur (SOR)/Hirmer (distr. Hirmer), 2019, paperback, 96pp, 50 col. illus., £24.95, English text, some French, ISBN 978 3 7774 3498 8

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books, visit www.alexanderadams.art