History of Art in Japan

Muchaku_(detail,_2)

[Image: Unkei, Asanga (1212), carved and painted wood. Source: Wikimedia]

The scope of this volume is extensive. The author intends to outline the main features, persistent ideas and developments in Japanese fine arts, crafts and architecture from pre-history to today. Tsuji outlines the development of Japan’s culture through artefacts from its early eras of Jōmon, Yayoi, Kofun, Nara, Heian and Medieval. The subsequent Edo and Modern periods are much more familiar to non-Japanese readers and these are covered in more detail because of the complexity and large amount of documentation and artefacts from this time.

The cord patterning and stippling in winding linear layouts of the pot decoration in the Jōmon period (9300-500 BCE) can be seen as forerunners of Japanese fine art of our day, such as that by Minoru Onoda. Prefigured Modernism abounds in Japanese art. “[…] another dogū [freestanding ceramic figurines], discovered in 1992 at the Nishinomae site in Yamagata prefecture and designated as a National Treasure in 2012, whose legs suggest that the figure is wearing pants; the sharp drop along the back recalls the forms of sculptor Ossip Zadkine.” Debates continue about the relative levels immigration from Korea in the Yayoi period; what is not in dispute was the importance of their visual culture.

According to tradition, in 522 Buddhism arrived in Japan from China and in 538 it began to be incorporated into the imperial court. In the following centuries, carvings of the Buddha were fusions of indigenous Japanese culture and imported Korean and Chinese statuary. These were made from stone or wood, often gilded or intricately painted with paint and lacquer. Later statues showed sophisticated manipulation of pattern, emphatic volume, simplified forms and drapery, even with the loss of polychromy. Buddhist temples became more sophisticated and the Izumo-taisha (Izumo grand shrine) was constructed on giant pillars that may have been as tall as 100 metres, reached by a long straight staircase. The use of wood and paper in architecture has meant that early structures have been lost and rebuilt. At this time shōgon (sacred ornament) became a major strand in craft production. Tsuji explains the theological basis for the statues, mandalas and narrative paintings that dominate art in the following eras.

In the Middle Heian period (894-1086), isolation from the continent led to development of a more synthesised Japanese style (wayō). By this stage the main pillars of Japanese visual culture are well established. The art and craft are all recognisably Japanese, with architecture being more closely tied to Chinese models. Zōchōten (Virudhaka) (839) (carved wood with lacquer, colour and gold leaf, 182.5 cm high) has the guardian king in an imposing martial stance, the elaborate drapery and clothing emphasising rather than concealing his stature. His fierce visage is turned in profile, powerfully framed by a halo of fire. There is nothing of such accomplishment from the same period in Europe. The author comments on similarities between this group of statues and Indian carving.

Lacquer work and inlay on furniture had an established repertoire of decorative motifs by the early C12th – waves, flowers and other plants, mountains, clouds, animals. Painting was executed on scrolls, silk, fans, plaster walls, paper-panel walls and screens. Many paintings from temples or monasteries were discoloured by soot or destroyed by fire. The survival of painted screens from 1050-1100 allows us to get a glimpse of painting from the Late Heian period. Paintings at this time were religious, narrative or decorative in character; painting qua painting did not exist as a separate approach at this time. Japanese fans of the time were prized in China. The history of calligraphy is intertwined with those of handscrolls and fans. Buddhist scripture provided opportunities for imagination in the depiction of realms of heaven and hell, some of which are used as examples. Vivid scenes of suffering, famine, degradation and torture seem to be a mixture of observation of life at the time and pure imagination. The suffering of human existence is an important teaching of the Buddha, so such scenes are common throughout the region. A notable example is a grisly scene of the C13th of putrefaction and bodily dissolution, Aspects of the Unclean Human Path. In the late C13th a wave of Ch’an monks from China fleeing the Mongol invasion brought Zen teaching to Japan. It subsequently became the predominant school of Buddhism in the Japanese islands. Much of Japanese art continued to be influenced by China. One transplanted idea that the Japanese monks perfected was the idea of the dry garden, where water features were replaced by areas of raked gravel.

SONY DSC

[Image: Great South Gate (1199), Tōdai-ji, Nara. Source: Wikimedia: By 663highland – Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4369910%5D

The key architectural masterpiece in Japan is the Great South Gate (1199), Tōdai-ji, Nara featuring the classic double-roof, top roof steeply pitched, lower roof shallow, both with lifted corners. It houses two brilliantly expressive statues (1203) carved in wood by Unkei and Kaikei. For an analogue of great art that fuses realism and emotional hyper-expression we in the west could think of Grünewald’s Colmar Altarpiece (1512-6). Unkei’s other works display a forceful, reserved realism, including a masterful portrait of the monk Asanga (1212). Kaikei was more indebted to Song-style religious statuary. Wood carving at this time reached remarkable heights of competence and expressiveness without compromising the need to convey dignity and restraint. In contrast, painted portraits attributed to Fujiwara no Takanobu (d. 1204/5) situate the stylistic but realistic heads on bodies that are rendered geometric by their costumes.

Minamoto_no_Yoritomo

[Image: Fujiwara no Takanobu (attr.), Portrait of Yoritomo (1179), ink on silk scroll, 29 x 236 cm. Source: Wikimedia]

The Nanbokuchō (1333-92) and Muromachi (1392-1573) periods brought advances in landscape painting and genre scenes of everyday life. Detached from historical and religious content, these areas allowed greater freedom for artists and patrons. (This coincides with the emergence of secular subjects in art in Renaissance Europe.) In the late C16th Christian missionaries made a few converts in Japan and some Japanese painters began to mimic Western-style painting. Most of this was later destroyed in anti-Christian riots but what survives seems to have been of more historical curiosity than aesthetic value. Likewise, periodic fires destroyed temples and cities built using wood and paper, depriving us of a clear picture of early phases of Japanese architecture.

The modern period of Japan is the Edo period, lasting from 1615 to 1867. At this time, art became increasingly realistic and secular. The spectacular sliding-door decoration of Kanō Sanraku (1559-1635) and son Kanō Sansetsu (1590-1651), incorporating exquisite depiction of natural elements against a gold-leaf ground shows the sophistication of the period and the effortless application of fine-art technique to architectural use.

In the 1680s the ukiyo-e (floating world style) was established by Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694). These were genre scenes of everyday life in the pleasure quarters of Edo, featuring musicians, actors, geishas, courtesans and street life. Although best known in the prints of the time, the genre encompasses art in all forms. It is during the Edo period that the classic art of the colour woodblock print was developed (in 1765, by Suzuki Harunobu (1725?-1770)) and became for Westerners the epitome of Japanese visual culture. The economic sophistication of the system combined the skills of designer (eshi/gakō), cutter (horishi), printer (surishi) and publisher (hanmoto) (not neglecting the sellers) to produce an intricate system for the mass-production of great art.

In 1854 Japan was forcibly opened up to international trade and the 1867 appearance of a Japanese pavilion at the Paris international exposition marked the end of Japan’s isolation. This would mark the boom in japonisme in Europe and North America, which came to dominate the decorative arts and influenced the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. For better and worse, the art of the West also came to Japan, to very mixed results. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) was the most successful artist to adopt elements of Western style while remaining wedded to the advantages and traditions of Japan, working in prints. The adoption of copperplate engraving and oil paint used in conjunction with half-understood Western use of shading, perspective and so forth led to art that ranged from the beguiling to the deeply deficient. Many potentially competent Japanese artists ended up as makers of failed hybrids that seem ugly, ungainly and crude. Oil paint seems to have been disastrous for Japanese art, robbing it of its crispness, clarity, concision and planar qualities.

In 1867 Japanese society impressed Westerners as uniquely “Western” in its highly stratified social structure and very advanced literature and art, though lacking the widespread literacy and high average income that was beginning to begin standard in the West following the Industrial Revolution. Beyond less advanced societies in Asia, the Japanese were considered honorary Westerners in some respects. Even the tendency for women to paint their faces white was seen as a link to pale-skinned Westerners.

Japanese art of the Meiji and later periods is so wildly heterogeneous and mixed in character that it is hard for the author to describe or evaluate it. Making any general comments about Japanese art at this time is almost impossible and this is the weakest section of the book. Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915) stands out among the printmakers, making the most of Japanese subject matter and Western style in his colour prints. It is among the artists of nihonga (Japanese style) that we find the best of C20th art in Japan. The story reaches present day with some frames of anime and manga drawings, as well as fine-art paintings.

Tsuji explains the significance of the waves of different Buddhist teaching which directed cultural production, as well as how the art of Japan relates to the social, military, economic and imperial history of the nation. The use of proper terms will allow non-Japanese readers to acquire some familiarity – as they are defined as they are introduced – but the use does not seem excessive to this reviewer. The book has numerous illustrations of key works and typical examples. Even at 631 pages (of which 150 are reference), this book does seem long or overly detailed. Readers will likely close this book satisfied and inspired to search out monographs on certain artists and periods. As a guide History of Art in Japan meets its author’s intentions handsomely.

 

Tsuji Nobuo, Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere (trans.), History of Art in Japan, Columbia University Press, October 2019, paperback, 664pp, fully illus., $34.95/£27, ISBN 978 0 23119 341 2 (hardback available)

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

“David Inshaw”, Redfern Gallery, 2019

DI-108

[Image: David Inshaw, Wansdyke and Landscape (2016), oil on canvas, 76 x 76 cm. © David Inshaw courtesy of The Redfern Gallery]

The current London exhibition of David Inshaw (b. 1943) (Redfern Gallery, London, 9 October-29 November 2019) brings together 35 oil paintings, 3 large drawings and a suite of new etchings. Much of the imagery is familiar but there are some new departures. Most of the paintings are of Inshaw’s native Wiltshire and West Country (including Berkshire) and dwell on the downs, farmland, copses and Stone Age earthworks of the region. His Wiltshire Monument (2018) is a statement of intent. It combines disparate motifs from the landscape combined in an artificial yet plausible manner, juxtaposing features prehistorical and C19th with a bonfire, oblongs of baled hay and a patchwork of fields under a sharp blue sky. It is well chosen as the cover for the catalogue (Andrew Lambirth, Redfern Gallery, 2019, £10). Silbury Hill appears in several compositions. Paul Nash’s influence is apparent in the handling of motifs such as barrows, copses and views of downs at sunset, but not intrusively so.

the wall 2019 36x36

[Image: David Inshaw, Engine House, Botallack (2018), oil on canvas, 91 x 91 cm. © David Inshaw courtesy of The Redfern Gallery]

Engine House, Botallack (2018) is a beautiful essay in tonal modulation, Vermeer-like in its evocation of exact visual phenomena noted in painterly shorthand which implies more than it describes. The patterning of the ruined stone wall and vegetation beneath work respectively as zones of loose and tight pattern, the former non-directional in character, the latter directional in character (brisk as hatching in a pencil sketch). These areas impart tension and energy in what is a static composition. The cerulean against the ochre sings, with the cool hue wrapping around the block of warm earth hue. It is the great invention of the exhibition and will leave painters jealous of Inshaw’s skills as painter and composer of pictures.

Another outstanding work is Wansdyke and Landscape (2016). This is a tour de force of painterly skill. The scumbling of light ochre over burnt umber ground evokes stubble, dry grass and ripe wheat. The scumbled dyke banks form a tawny pelt – feline even. They describe the animal qualities of topography. This is similar to Degas’s monotype landscapes worked with pastel, within which the features of the landscape are made analogous to human anatomy. The combination of foliage greens, raw earth colours and cerulean sky is Inshaw’s most felicitous palette selection. It is one which accurately and plangently captures the English countryside. However, the compression and high horizon make this painting positively Balthusian, with Balthus having taken these compositional devices from Japanese landscapes in woodblock prints. The catalogue illustration does not do full justice to this painting.

Elsewhere common motifs of fireworks, tents and the chalk White Horse are represented. Paintings of birds and cats provide thematic range. There is a painting of Clyro, Wales, where the artist lived in the mid-1990s. It is recognisable to Inshaw followers by the yellow pussy willow. Dating from 1995, this is the earliest painting here, with almost all of the work coming from the last decade and particularly from the last couple of years. It is heartening that so most of the strongest paintings come from recent years, showing Inshaw to be sustaining his invention and attention. The decision to exclude paintings which feature figures prominently is a judicious one in a selection of this sacle. Some of the paintings of small size, which works well in the more enclosed gallery spaces and suggest how these paintings would appear in a domestic setting. Concentrating on the landscape – with a few of animals, trees and buildings – gives the exhibition a pleasing consistency even if it limits an appreciation of Inshaw’s full range and taste.

All of the pictures are in square format. I demure from Andrew Lambirth’s observation in the catalogue about Inshaw’s habitual use of the square format. Far from being “a shape often associated with harmony and serenity” – something which is true in a decorative context – the square is actually an unstable format, which is why it was never used by the ancients or Old Masters. The origin of the Golden Section is the knowledge that the human brain has a preference for mildly asymmetrical formats, which allows the mind to anchor itself to the dominant axis. This gives a sense of “rightness” to a type of imagery in a format of a certain ratio. Hence a vertical landscape (or a very narrow panorama) feels “off” or discordant. In a square format (also the tondo (circular) format, albeit to a lesser degree), the untethered gaze wanders and feels homeless without a dominant axis. Contrary to Lambirth, I would say that Inshaw’s use of the square format for landscape – something that Klimt pioneered – is evidence of his assertive modernity as a picture maker (along with his montage compositions).

Three large drawings of mature trees as single motifs are a departure for the artist. Inshaw has selected large sheets of paper for these and applied a light loosely brushed wash of colour to cut the glare of the brilliant white paper. Inshaw’s exhibition of drawings has been slight over recent decades even though his elaborate full-composition sketches made in preparation for his paintings on the 1970s produced many striking and satisfying drawings. Inshaw is a sensitive draughtsman, whose eye is informed by his painting experience. The modelling, dense blocks of tone, patterning and dramatic fades all come from painting. They resemble the nature studies of Caspar David Friedrich, CC Dahl and the Nazarenes, though whether or not Inshaw modelled his approach on their or simply reached a convergence independently is not clear. These tree drawings (each at 122 x 122 cm) are impressive, sustained efforts and appealing but they lack something compared to the drawings of the 1970s. An emphatic outline? Anchoring within deep pictorial space? Exactly what is missing is hard to identify and it may just be a matter of personal taste.

Inshaw turns his preferences into competencies – or vice versa. His taste for local over atmospheric (or reflected) colour works well in most of these paintings. Sunset from Silbury Hill (2019) shows Inshaw breaking from this to use atmospheric recession in an achromatic landscape. Vale of Pewsey (2019) is less effective. Whether or not the reflection on the underside of the band of cloud is was so exactly similar to the greens of the land below when Inshaw observed it, the resultant effect in the painting is unpleasant and distracting. In Dorset Snow II (2018; ex cat.), a ruddy sunset sky surmounts a dim landscape of hedges and snowclad fields composed in dull blues and charcoal. Some may find the striking dichotomy between warm sky and cool earth too strong. Could a few touches of reflected colour on the snow have leavened and harmonised the painting, even at the cost of pure realism? For whatever reasons, Inshaw’s skies of red and orange seem to work less well than the skies of cerulean or midnight blue.

Let us hope we soon have a chance to see a selection of Inshaw’s best work over his whole career in a full retrospective at a major venue. Inshaw is the only living British painter of our era working in the figurative tradition who is deserving of such attention.

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism

millet-gleaners-HR

[Image: Jean-François Millet, The Gleaners (1857), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (donation subject to usufruct of Mrs. Pommery)]

One of the leading French painters of mid-19th Century was Jean-François Millet (1814-1875). He was hailed as a realist, a champion of rural France, ally of the peasant and aesthetic pioneer. The current exhibition Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 4 October 2019-12 January 2020; touring to Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, 16 February-17 May 2020) situates Millet at the root of much of what became known as French Modernism. It includes works by artists influenced by Millet’s example, with special attention paid to his seminal influence on Van Gogh. This review is from the catalogue.

For the average viewer Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) is as unknown as he is famous. His life and oeuvre – beyond a handful of famous works – are shadowy. It is Courbet and Manet who are revolutionary painters of modern life in the country and town respectively; it is Géricault and Delacroix who are the adventurous titans developing sophisticated hybrid styles; it is Moreau who is a mysterious hermetic artist in dialogue with an imagined Orient; it is Degas who is the multifaceted technical chameleon; it is Ingres who wrestles with reinventing history painting whilst finding new ways to paint distinguished portraits. All of these artists excite scholars and curators set on proving theories and overturn art historical assumptions. One artist who does not command frequent monographic publications and exhibitions is Millet. Why should that be so?

It may largely be down to taste. Millet’s art so comfortably fits the mould of the anecdotal illustration or idealised pastoral that our sensibilities are left cool and unengaged. This is perhaps an incorrect appreciation, as noted later in this review, but it is an understandable conclusion. On a casual level judging themes and motifs, Millet seems a serving of stodgy worthiness drenched in saccharine sentimentality. On a technical level, Millet presents us no problems. He is not an artist of fragments; he is not wracked by doubt and his paintings are not conspicuously hard wrought. Although he is a painter of working people, his art is not overtly reformist. For the leftist, he is not radical enough politically. For the critic and student, his art is certainly rich veins of social and artistic material but offers few clear new “angles”. His art has seemingly nothing to say about the industrial revolution, the growth of the cities or the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. One would search in vain for signs indicating his sympathies regarding the uprising of February 1848 and the Paris Commune. Quite the contrary – Millet appears to revel in the timeless and universal. Again, that is not quite so but superficially there is nothing particularly contemporary to his art.

Millet’s art is a place people retreat to, turning their back on novelty and difficulty. Millet, being a serious artist, has more to him than that but that part is there. One can decide the see the eternal peasant in harmony with the land he cultivates tirelessly and nothing else. Those people are not wrong and – if one is conservatively minded – Millet’s art does provide comfort in its stability and conventionality. Hence it is intriguing to anticipate what curators and scholars of today have to say about this artist to an audience who may be indifferent or even hostile to his vision of rural life.

During his lifetime and for decades after his death, Millet was a hugely popular figure domestically and internationally. His art was widely reproduced. Artists frequently copied Millet’s compositions from original paintings and prints or reproduction prints. A sale of a collection of pastels soon after the artist’s death garnered high prices. On 1 July 1889 The Angelus (c. 1857-9) sold for 553,000 francs, the highest ever price in France for a modern painting. The following year it was sold again for 750,000 francs.

Millet was born in the Normandy countryside. He pursued traditional academic training, and worked in Cherbourg and Paris. Millet was one of the most prominent figures in the Barbizon School, located in the Barbizon region, dedicated to the cause of realist depictions of landscapes and people. They advocated plein air painting and are best known for their naturalistic landscapes.

Simon Kelly states that “by the late 1850s, Millet was supplanting Gustave Courbet as the most subversive painter of peasant life as the latter turned to landscapes and hunting scenes.” Although at least one writer claimed him as a political radical upon his death, most judged him in retrospect as a link in the chain of French art. A key example is the painting that made his name at the 1857 Salon, The Gleaners. It seems that conservatives reacted against The Gleaners for the artist’s apparent sympathy for the workers gathering grain for free after a harvest, at a time when farmers had begun selling the right to glean. He did however not shy from depicting women agricultural workers (fruit pickers, shearers, milkmaids, field hands, sewers). Such unvarnished portrayals of the physical toil and the occasional indignity – particularly upon the fairer sex – drew criticism from more conservative critics when the art appeared in Salons. The ugliness of the figures was caricatured in newspapers.

Late in life, the painter turned to the creation of unpeopled landscape. These were unusual in some respects, departing from the Barbizon credo of composing from direct observation. These are manipulated compositions. One influence on these landscapes was of Japanese prints. The dramatic cropping, high horizon, aerial perspective, tonal recession, blocks of pattern without features all indicate Millet in his last decade drew upon Japanese woodblock prints the way the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists did after him.

His drawings in conté crayon were considered more modern than his paintings. They were looser in execution and less finished; some of them were studies of individual figures. The building of modelling through dense shading prompted much later art, for example Redon and the smoky sfumato of Carrière. Rightly selected for this exhibition are drawing by Georges-Pierre Seurat (1859-1891). The conté drawings of Seurat are wonderful – atmospheric, stark and deeply ambiguous.

The pastels are more vigorous and brightly hued than his paintings. It may be that the pigments of the pastels have fared better than the oils, which is often the case when the oils, siccatives, fillers and adulterants of oil paint deteriorate over time in comparison to the more pigment-heavy medium of pastel. For whatever reason, viewers of a more modern aesthetic temperament may find themselves responding more strongly to the pastels. The Plain (c. 1868) is a fantastic example of tonal recession in a pastel landscape of a featureless expanse of land. The flatness of the ground is contrasted with the dramatic cloud and shafts of sunlight breaking upwards. The grey-blues and pale browns flicker across the depiction, becoming thicker at the horizon and starting to dematerialise the earth and vegetation. It conveys the impression of fine mist gathering between the tussocks of grass. For those who think of Millet as a painter of hearty peasants and sentimental family vignettes, this landscape alone will dispel their assumptions. It is easy to see why Monet revered him. The pastel paintings of sea cliff done by Millet in the 1860s and early 1870s may have been direct influences on Monet, prompting him to tackle the same subject at Honfleur and elsewhere in the 1880s. The pastels where the black conté outlining is too prominent in the landscapes the effects are less successful. These are coloured drawings, rigid and fixed by the demands of “colouring inside the lines”. Recession is diminished, energy confined, immersion broken. The two versions of The Cliffs of Gréville (1871 and 1871-2) have all the tedium of a diligent book illustration.

His great painting Haystacks: Autumn (c. 1874) has travelled from New York. It shows what Millet might yet have developed upon had he not died so soon after finishing this masterpiece. It is a painting full of excitement – the massive alien bulks of haystacks dwarfing the sheep, shepherd and buildings. The transporting inversion is the light lower area and dark sky during daytime, with heavy clouds threatening rain and dramatic shafts of direct sunlight illuminating the ground. In temperate zones we commonly encounter (and hence instinctively understand) landscapes to be dark material below a light sky. With the regular exception of winter snow, this is a rule that holds true almost all the time. When we find the rule inverted, with a dark sky and light ground, it is unusual and striking. Millet did this more than a few times (Spring (c. 1868-73)) and he must have instinctively understood the drama of the inversion even if he did not understand its perceptual basis.

Reproduction prints of Millet by Alfred Delauney (1830-1894) and Jacques Adrien Lavieille (1818-1862) are exhibited. They form an important link because it was frequently the intermediation of illustrators who summarised and transmitted Millet’s art to the broad public, including artists. One of the artists who spent more time with illustrations of Millet than with originals was Van Gogh. The catalogue contains a long essay by Nienke Bakker about Van Gogh’s veneration of Millet and numerous ways he emulated the master: copying directly in sketches, fuller drawings and paintings; adapting Millet’s motifs; adopting Millet’s manner and the peasant genre; invoking his spirit. Van Gogh decided to live in a rural agricultural setting to be closer to working life and garner material for his art. His Potato-Eaters (multiple versions; 1885) was a homage to Millet but envisaged in Dutch chromatic terms.

Gogh-Siesta_HR

[Image: Vincent van Gogh, The Siësta (after Millet) (1889-1890), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (gift of Mrs. Fernand Halphen, née Koenigswarter, 1952)]

 

Painting prints after Millet’s compositions in colour oils was a therapy for Van Gogh while recovering in the asylum of 1889-90. These 20 paintings were a way of forming an emotional bond with common people and families while Van Gogh was deeply depressed and isolated in the asylum, coming to terms with the fact his illness (whatever exactly it was) was serious, chronic and incurable. Abandoning his dream of marriage and fatherhood, realising that he would be forever cut off from ordinary people by his behaviour and the severity of his mental collapses and mania, Van Gogh’s paintings after Millet were a way of adjusting to a radically curtailed future. It was both a way of assuaging his loneliness and finding models when there were few people around him to pose. None of the Millet translations are great paintings. None has the spark of even one of the painted wheat fields, yet the Millet translations are heartfelt and painted with gusto and accomplishment.

Millet’s paintings of country people appealed to Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who was enamoured by the idea of primitivism revitalising art. For that reason he looked to the “less advanced” civilisations, such as those of Panama, Martinique and Tahiti, and also to the less urban, least cosmopolitan parts of France, such as Pont-Aven, Brittany and Arles, Provence. Related to this search for raw authenticity in the nativist French culture and its people, Millet’s art seemed to offer an approach that seemed fruitful for Gauguin. It may be that Millet’s influence was also transmitted to Gauguin via his mentor Pissarro. Art by Post-Impressionists Émile Bernard (1868-1941) and Paul Sérusier (1864-1927) is exhibited and discussed in relation to the model of Millet and his ideas.

Maite van Dijk writes of the influence that Millet had around 1900, at a time when Neo-Impressionism was exhausted and Symbolism and Post-Impressionism were giving way to the radical movements that largely disposed of naturalism (Suprematism, Cubism, Surrealism). Art included in Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism is by Degas, Giovanni Segantini, Angelo Morbelli, Jan Toorop, Edvard Munch, Ferdinand Hodler, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and others.

 

[Image: (left) Jean-François Millet, The Angelus (1857-1859), oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris (bequest of Alfred Chauchard, 1910); (right) Salvador Dalí, Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus (1933-1935), oil on panel, © Salvador Dali, Fundacion Gala-Salvador Dali, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2019]

One of the more notable inclusions is Salvador Dalí (1904-1989). His attachment to the art of Millet may have been part emotional, part fealty to the traditional art of his childhood, but it is in part perverse. What could be more subversive in an avant-garde than to praise pompier painters, academicians and a beloved old warhorse such as Millet? We could say that Dalí was embodying the true spirit of perversity and rebellion that Surrealism demanded by flouting every norm of Modernity. To give his perverse attachment a further twist, Dalí opined publicly about his sexual complex regarding the The Angelus. Dalí’s delirious fantasies fused the personal and universal, the nobility of religion and the animal desire of sex. He interpreted the couple as praying over the body of their son and that the woman was a praying mantis, about to devour the man. The pitchfork in the earth, Dalí saw as a Freudian symbol of copulation. The Angelus was quoted or copied by Dalí in a number of striking paintings and seems to have been a genuine obsession for the artist. The outcome was a sequence of paintings and drawings in the early 1930s. These turned out to some of the best works made during his prime period (roughly 1929-1936, at a stretch up to 1938) and have become art that is fully integrated into Dalí peculiar cosmology and expressed through his “paranoiac-critical method”. Dalí’s responses to Millet are some of the strangest and fertile in this survey.

The absence of Constantin Meunier (1831-1905) from the exhibition and catalogue is a peculiar and serious omission. Meunier is one of the most influential artists of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. His working figures were the template for the realism, social realism and Socialist Realism that dominated the period. Indeed, if we were to measure importance according to the quantity of art that followed his lead directly and indirectly, we might say Meunier was much more influential that Van Gogh or Picasso. It may be that Meunier’s preference for the miners, ironworkers, stevedores and other workers in the heavy industries of coal country may have made his art appear dissimilar to Millet. Far from it. Meunier comes directly from Millet. Woman Baking Bread (1854) is a direct forerunner to Meunier’s scenes of workers at a furnace. One does not need to know his bronze reliefs of scything peasants (Musée Meunier, Brussels) to recognise the artistic and temperamental debt that Meunier owes Millet. Surely one of the tangentially related artists could have been dropped from this exhibition to make space for Meunier.

While Millet may never be considered as revolutionary as Courbet, as daring as Gericault and Delacroix, as frank as Degas or as sophisticated as Ingres, this exhibition makes a cogent and carefully presented case for Millet being an important early pioneer of Modernism and one who had a deep influence on the artists who came directly after him. (In much the same way the recent Daubigny exhibition restored his reputation as an innovator in landscape painting.) It is most fitting that this exhibition brings Millet to Van Gogh’s museum. One can imagine the pleasure such an event would have brought Van Gogh. In a way the community of artist he longed to bring together around him has indeed happened posthumously and in his own museum in Amsterdam.

 

Simon Kelly, Maite van Dijk (eds.), Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modernism, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam/Saint Louis Art Museum/Thoth, October 2019, paperback, 208pp, 192 col. illus., €29.95, ISBN 978 90 6868 796 5  (Dutch version available)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Painting of the Low Countries Golden Age

142 Vermeer_View of Delft ©Mauritshuis

[Image: Jan Vermeer, View of Delft (c. 1660-1), oil on canvas, 96.5 x 115 cm, The Hague, Mauritshaus. (c) Maurithaus, The Hague]

Low Countries painting from the Seventeenth Century is a high point in the arts of Western civilisation and justly called a Golden Age. A new book lavishly presents a selection of its highlights. The German art historian Norbert Wolf examines the Golden Age of art of the Seventeenth Century in the Low Countries, today the states of the Netherlands and Belgium. As befits its prestigious subject, the production of this book is lavish. The large (37 x 31 cm) format and pictorial slipcase are imposing. Wolf’s formidable historical knowledge allows us to trust his judgment as he guides us through the highlights of the century.

The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 brought an end to an eighty-year war of independence in the Low Countries. The States General of the Netherlands gained autonomy from Spanish Habsburg rule, while the South Netherlands remained under the control of the Spanish as the Spanish Netherlands and would eventually become the territory called Belgium. In the North the decline of the aristocracy, foreign control and the religious restrictions of Habsburg control fostered a burgeoning of science, commerce, global exploration and a growth of a prosperous merchant class. Independence also brought about an abrupt end to the Counter Reformation in the North.

The international commerce and colonial expansion led to war with England and a degree of uncertainty about the future. Despite this, the increase in Dutch income and the commensurate spending on the arts was prodigious. The art of the North was predominantly secular and non-religious, though Biblical scenes were made and sold. The religious climate of the North fostered principally portraiture, still-lifes, marines, landscapes and genre scenes. There was morality but it was symbolic and indirect. Wolf points out that there was a fair degree of religious tolerance in the North, with Calvinism a minority sect and diverse Protestant doctrines and Catholicism permitted to be followed by citizens in the North. The situation was less lenient for Protestants in the Catholic South.

In the North the dichotomy between the austerity of Calvinist and Puritan doctrine and the desire of the merchant class to invest (and display) their disposable wealth in the form of art is visible when we look at the art. It was a balance between conspicuous consumption and a belief in moral and aesthetic restraint. The slow decline of art in the Southern Netherlands can be attributed to the effects of its status as a possession of the Spanish crown, notwithstanding the importance of cloth and wool trade of Brabant and Flanders. Only Antwerp and Brussels were significant centres of art production in the South during the Seventeenth Century. Wolf points out that artists migrated between the two states and sought patronage from collectors outside of their home regions. He posits that a fondness for morality contained in genre and peasant scenes common between Northerners and Southerners.

It is possible to see Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) as the dividing point when Netherlandish art becomes the schools of Dutch and Flemish painting, with Bruegel becoming the first stylistically Flemish painter. For convenience we can date 1550 as the point when this division begins to occur. Baroque has a dual meaning: pertaining to Baroque character and the Baroque period. Flemish painting is of both, whereas Dutch painting proper is only Baroque in period, its austere character and lack of ecstatic transcendent religious tone prevent it from being Baroque in content. All of these gradual changes occur before the formal division of the lands in 1648.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625) was the son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The sweetness, sentimentality and ethereal fantasies – as well as Catholic religious painting – of Jan Brueghel embody the Flemish school. His paintings of landscapes are characterised by a softness of touch and delicate graduation of depth. He was also noted for his flower pieces. He collaborated with Rubens and formed a link between the first stage of distinctly Flemish art and the art of Rubens and the Baroque period Counter Reformation in the Spanish Netherlands. Rubens can in some respects be seen as the counterpart to Jan’s painterly temperament.

064 Rubens_View of Het Steen ©National Gallery London

[Image: Peter Paul Rubens, A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (c. 1636), oil on wood, 131 x 229 cm, The National Gallery, London. (c) The National Gallery, London]

The scope of the study allows the author to discuss Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), those twin pillars (or poles) of Low Countries Golden Age painting. In addition there was a wealth of art produced by artists not influenced or associated with these two artists. Consider the still-lifes of Willem Kalf, Willem Claesz. Heda and Pieter Claesz, here represented by magnificent examples that are unsurpassed in deftness, clarity and impact. These are instances of the ideal of verisimilitude that Dutch art theorists of the time advanced.

Rubens was a revolutionary figure more for his landscapes than for his figure painting – although his nudes are now his best known motifs. It is curious that Wolf includes the Samson and Delilah (c. 1609?) ascribed to Rubens. This painting was recently bought by the National Gallery, London but is suspected to be a later copy, as it deviates from Rubens standard practice and its composition differs in some important respects from an early engraved copy of the original composition. (For more discussion about this attribution read this post on ArtWatch.)

Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) was Rubens assistant and seen as the artist who best took the mantle of portraitist to the aristocracy. His portrait of Charles I of England is a dazzling extension of Rubens colour and sensitivity, combined with Van Dyck’s flair. Wolf explains the relative statuses of Van Dyck and Rubens as such: “[…] Why does present-day art history nevertheless place Rubens above van Dyck? Primarily because van Dyck’s œuvre does not possess the same versatility, even universality, of that of his teacher, because van Dyck achieved greatness only in the genre of portraiture, whereas Rubens excelled at the portrait as well as the landscape and animal painting, at the monumental altarpiece, as well as at mythological scenes and allegorical sequences.”[i]

Jacob (Jacques) Jordaens (1593-1678) became the painter favoured by the rulers of the Spanish Netherlands after Rubens’s death, furthering the Counter Reformation in his giant canvases. The artist’s undeniable flair for depicting flesh and various textures and for organising a composition made him a worthy recipient of patronage. Wolf illustrates a large genre painting which proves that Jordaens range was larger than the allegories, myths and Biblical scenes by him that are most prominent in museums. He notes that in these genre paintings he is the descendent of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The Utrecht Caravaggisti formed the vanguard of Baroque sophistication in the early decades of the Seventeenth Century, influencing following painters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. There is little new to be said about Rembrandt. Wolf outlines Rembrandt’s principal contributions to painting, though he cannot mention his comparable innovations in drawing and printmaking. It is regrettable that for reasons of space, non-painting fine and decorative arts have had to have been excluded. The subject of painting of the period (believed to have generated the total production of 5 million paintings) is vast enough without consideration of these other arts. The size and quality of the illustrations allow readers to see Rembrandt’s daring painterly techniques and the emotional range. He rightly holds centre stage in this survey, with only Rubens and Vermeer rivalling him for significance.

Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) is seen as the linking figure between Rembrandt and Vermeer. Although long believed that Fabritius – who had been one of Rembrandt’s assistants – was the tutor of Vermeer, this seems not to be the case. However, emotionally and technically, Fabritius’s brilliance, painterly restraint, technical skill, narrative reticence and subtlety lead from Rembrandt to Vermeer. If Fabritius had not been killed at the age of 32 by a giant gunpowder explosion in Delft – which also destroyed many of his paintings – he could have matched Rembrandt and Vermeer in achievement. As with the early deaths of Giorgione, Schiele and Raphael, one wonders what posterity was robbed of due to Fabritius’s untimely death.

Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) used the camera obscura in his realistic depictions of women in interiors, although he apparently deviated from the image projected by the optical device. He needed the flexibility or electing to emphasis, remove and change motifs in the images the device produced. It is the second-rate artist who fixes upon a system, device or approach and applies it without deviation. It is the great artist who knows how to apply a system and when to change it to increase the effectiveness of a work of art. It is his judgment that allows him to understand how viewers will see and understand the art and he knows when to suspend the rules he usually implements. His best works are illustrated and the reproduction of the View of Delft benefits especially from the large size allowing us to see the intricate detail so clearly.

Frans Hals is the most significant Dutch portraitist after Rembrandt. His bravura brushwork is on display in the illustrated work. Adriaen Brouwer, David Teniers the Younger (son-in-law of Jan Breughel the Elder) and Adriaen and Isaak van Ostade are fine exponents of the genre painting of the working class engaged in drunken ribaldry. The more genteel scenes of middle-class people in domestic interiors were made by Gerard Dou, Gerard Terborch, Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer. These also included coded moral stories about virtues of chastity, fidelity and restraint, among others. Alongside the still-life, the moralistic genre scene is a Dutch specialisation which has become synonymous with Dutch art. Cornelis Norbertus Gjisbrechts and Samuel van Hoogstraten specialised in trompe-l’œil still-lifes. Meindert Hobbema and Jacob van Ruisdael are representative of the landscape painting that proved so influential in Western and Northern European national schools. The whole of English landscape is essentially an extension of Dutch principles inflected by Italianate topographic features and light. Jan van Goyen was a landscapist who relied on the animation of his scenes with people or animals. The selection seems a touch light on still-lifes and marines and touch heavy on the portraits and figure paintings, but every readers taste will vary. By no means is this selection a distortion or misrepresentation of the character of the best art of this region and era.

111 Rembrandt_Isaac and Rebecca ©Rijksmuseum

[Image: Rembrandt, Isaac and Rebecca (also called The Jewish Bride) (c. 1665), oil on canvas, 121 x 166 cm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum. (c) Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam]

Although most of the names are familiar, some of choices for illustrations are not obvious and some lesser known painters will engage readers. One of the less recognisable paintings is the brilliant Self-Portrait (c. 1651) by David Bailly (1584-1657). This large painting is unusually complex, with the seated figure of the artist placed beside an elaborate still-life with pictures, symbolic attributes, indications of his profession, references to his private life, as well as objects included for their optical variety and attractiveness. The bubbles refer to the briefness of life; the skull acts as a memento mori; the recorder indicates the sensory pleasure of music; the pipe is for the pleasure of smoking; money is the acquisition of worldly riches; the flowers are the brevity of earthly existence. The picture is playful with the complexity of symbolism, yet it is also a commentary on the deceptiveness of art. The painter is shown as a young man yet the painter was aged 67 when he made the picture. It seems that the portrait that the artist holds is not – as we might have guessed – a portrait of his father but actually a true likeness of the artist as he was at the time the self-portrait was created. It is the “real” figure of the artist that is based upon an earlier painting. The portrait of his deceased wife is placed behind the snuffed-out candle. Bailly dazzles us with his technique skill and his command of symbolism – complimenting our wisdom and discernment – at the same time he deceives us with by misrepresenting his age and thereby turning his past self into his present self.

The author concludes with discussion about the nature of the Baroque, the theatricality of painting, symbolism and concludes with some examples of the way Low Countries painting influenced art of later periods and other countries. The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting is an excellent guide to the highlights of this age of giants in the Flemish and Dutch schools.

 

Norbert Wolf, The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting, Prestel, 3 October 2019,  272pp, fully col. illus., hardback in pictorial slipcase, $140/£99, ISBN 978 3 7913 8406 1

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Women Artists in Victorian, Edwardian and Modern Eras

Two republications in the Routledge Revivals series make available once again two significant scholarly texts regarding women’s art of the late Nineteenth Century. Professional Women Painters in Nineteenth Century Scotland: Commitment, Friendship, Pleasure, (originally published 2000) surveys the situation of women artists in Edinburgh and Glasgow; Women and the Decorative Arts 1880-1935: The Gender of Ornament (originally published 2002) collects essays by experts on various women in the arts-and-craft field in a slightly later period.

In Professional Women Painters in Nineteenth Century Scotland: Commitment, Friendship, Pleasure, Janice Helland examines the exhibition catalogues and sales records of various organisations to gather data on women artists. She concludes that women were relatively numerous – certainly enough to make associations, clubs and associated exhibitions functional – and that while women artists had fewer options than make counterparts, determined women willing to network with others could exhibit and sell regularly, in some cases enough to make a living. Helland points out that women had a less difficult task being taken seriously as artists (namely training, exhibiting and selling art) than women had at becoming physicians.

Helland recounts the experiences of the well-documented careers of Christina Paterson Ross (1843-1906), Georgina Greenlees (1849-1932), Margaret Dempster (1863-?), Kate Macauley (c. 1849-1914) and others. Included in the book are some sample images of art to give us an idea of the production of female artists. As Helland notes, much of the art has disappeared with little trace – as has much unremarkable realist art of that period – and some line drawings from periodical reviews have been reproduced.

Arts societies and clubs were formed by artists in the Nineteenth Century. Women were no exceptions in this regard. The status of professional bodies conferred authority upon member artists and helped to distinguish them from amateurs – an important point for female artists. Artist associations in Great Britain took on the role of artist guilds, permitting members privileges and excluding non-members from operating on parity with members. This became effectively a restriction of trade and a bar to competition within the public-arts field. When faced by the operative restriction of being denied opportunities to train or exhibit alongside male colleagues, the women artists of Scotland (and other Western countries) formed their own quasi-guilds to advance their art and exclude the art of male colleagues, as well as that of their amateur sisters in order to protect the quality of their exhibitions. Additionally, excluding amateur female artists combatted the accusation that women’s art was product of pursuit of ladylike accomplishment rather than professional-level endeavour. Professional women artists in this period had to fight on two fronts – against men who tended to dominate organisations and receive the lion’s share of plaudits and rewards and against women who practised as hobbyists, whose activities undermined the professionals’ claim to legitimacy.

Art by Scottish women received respectful reviews, by and large. Articles, reviews and letters published in the newspapers were encouraging towards women artists and sympathetic to the plight of ill-served students who had to endure lacklustre teaching, cancelled classes, a poor library and lack of access to nude models. This swell of support was due partly to gallantry, an innate sense of fairness among writers and a consensus that this situation did not reflect well upon the cultural aspirations of the Scots vis-à-vis the situation in London. Apparently the conditions of display shaped the tone of reviews.Mary Cameron is presented as an example of traveling woman artist who was celebrated for her pictures of bullfights. The glowing praise by the press is evidence (if needed) that the public and press were willing to set aside reservations about women as painters if they earned respect through competence and – in this case – the novelty of her subject matter.

The author fairly discusses the monetary impetus in the production of art without squeamishness. Helland errs in suggesting that lower price for art by women is an instance of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. It was the result of a market mechanism pricing the desirability of unique goods in an open market, with price determined by demand, availability and utility. In Scotland in the Nineteenth Century there was simply less demand for art by lesser known artists than by more prestigious artists. Helland knows – or should have known – that women’s art has often commanded prices higher than that for art by men (e.g. Lavinia Terlinc, Rachel Ruysch, Angelica Kauffmann, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun and others). This is a lapse into ideological cant that mars an otherwise generally even-handed account.

* * * * * *

Women and the Decorative Arts 1880-1935: The Gender of Ornament  comprises 10 essays on different subjects. Elizabeth Cumming assesses the links between craftswomen Phoebe Anna Traquair (1852-1936) and Mary Seton Watts née Fraser-Tytler (1849-1938; wife of painter George Frederick Watts). Traquair was an illustrator, mural painter and embroiderer who worked in the Scottish Arts and Crafts movement. Watts was a potter and textile designer, based in Surrey. Whereas Traquair preferred to work alone, Watts collaborated with skilled artisans and technicians. The Watts’s interior decoration for the Compton Chapel (1890), attached to the house-studio she shared with her husband, was informed by her consultation of Traquair, who had previous experience of decorative schemes. Jan Marsh writes on May Morris (1862-1938), an Arts and Crafts embroiderer. She was the daughter of William Morris and founder of the Women Guild of Arts in 1907, records of which are apparently not extant. Australian commercial artist Thea Proctor (1879-1966) is considered as the epitome of Art Deco modernism by Pamela Gerrish Nunn. This essay is particularly enjoyable and worth thinking of in relation to the women linocut artists of the Grosvenor School, who flourished contemporaneously to Proctor. The last word in sophistication in Australian taste in the inter-war period, Proctor’s reputation has not experienced a revival comparable to Lempicka’s. Illustrations show Proctor was a gifted designer of posters and journal covers.

Other topics include ceramic design; British court dress; the 1920s film sets of Natacha Rambova; Hungarian embroiderer Laura Nagy; the 1913 Women’s Exhibition, Amsterdam; Romaine Brooks, Gluck and Eileen Gray; American artist, costume designer and interior designer Florine Stettheimer. Monochrome illustrations provide sufficient indication of these uncommon subjects. This title and the former are both serious and thought-provoking re-evaluations of lesser-known creative women.

 

Janice Helland, Professional Women Painters in Nineteenth Century Scotland: Commitment, Friendship, Pleasure, Routledge Revivals, 2019, hardback, 212pp + xiii, 40 mono illus., £90, ISBN 978 1 138 723 184

Bridget Elliott, Janice Helland (eds.), Women and the Decorative Arts 1880-1935: The Gender of Ornament, Routledge Revivals, 2019, hardback, 229pp + xiv, 47 mono illus., £29.99, ISBN 978 1 138 72145 6

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Lucian Freud: Herbarium

_Lucian Freud Herbarium jacket, high res

Lucian Freud (1922-2011) had a partiality for painting living things – people, animals and plants. Although there is no dearth of cloth, furniture and domestic interiors, these were hardly ever the subject of a Freud painting. He had a fascination for the way organic matter grows and degrades.

Herbarium collects paintings and drawings of plants by Freud, starting in his teenage years in the 1930s and ending a few years before his death. The drawings, pastels, paintings and etchings encompass the subjects of fruit, domestic plants, trees and bushes, with or without human companions. This attractive clothbound hardback includes two essays on Freud’s art of plants and a selection of illustrations, many with commentaries.

On the Greek island of Poros – holidaying with John Craxton in 1946 – Freud created a self-portrait with a thistle. The spiky sparse form of the leaf matched the psychological tension visible in Freud’s tense expression. There is a echoing of the psychology of sitters in the choice of plant attribute in a class of pathetic fallacy, when natural matches and amplifies the mood of the narrator or subject. When staying in Jamaica with Ruth and Ian Fleming, Freud painted a number of pictures of banana plants. Freud was responding to the proximity of a plant that was – in British terms – exotic. Freud took the opportunity of access to stretch himself in terms of subject matter. In later years, Freud did not travel much outside London and such fruitful encounters became less common.

The early Freud style was naïve, with exaggerations, flashes of precision and invented juxtaposition of real elements. Bold stylisation in line ink drawings – developed to suit the demands of book and magazine illustration – developed in the mid-1940s. Sprigs of plants (gorse, fig, thistle) were isolated enough to make an impact yet undemanding in terms of time and suited his preference for linearity. When fruit appeared, they took up relatively little space on the picture surfaces, surrounded by plain space. Drawings in pencil on tinted paper were tinted with chalk and pastel. In the late 1940s Freud developed the potential of plants as a foil or amplifier of human emotions by including them in portraits and self-portraits. This was accompanied by greater realism.

Interior at Paddington, 1951 (oil on canvas)

[Image: Lucian Freud, Interior at Paddington (1951), oil on canvas, 60×45 in. (152.4×114.3 cm), Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool. Image credit: © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Image]

This approach culminated in Interior at Paddington (1951), a portrait of future photographer Harry Diamond. It became an icon of post-war austerity and pictorial existentialism, layered with detachment, abandonment, anxiety and decay. The later Interior with Plant, Reflection Listening (Self-Portrait) (1967-8) is just as striking but cannot help but be more affected, using montage and abstract filling achieve its impact.

His small still-lifes of highly perishable fruit are not bagatelles but necessarily constrained by the fast decay of the subject. Whereas Freud would spend months painting people, he could not command time to halt to allow him to paint buttercups or strawberries at his leisure. His plant paintings have an intensity that turns them into plant portraits. It is something of a relief to enjoy Freud’s perspicacity and meticulousness without the psychological harshness of his portraits. One wishes he had painted more plant and animal pictures – perhaps even a few more townscapes – over his career. Another attraction of Freud’s plant paintings is that his habitual mannerist distortions are less distracting (or less noticeable) in these than his anatomy exaggerations in his figure pictures. The viewer with a botanist, farmer or gardener’s trained eye is less attuned to discerning minor distortions in plants than the average viewer is sensitive to the slightly elongated forearm or outsize forehead.

We can see Freud trying out ways of painting unusual subjects in a handful of canvases before dropping the subject entirely from his repertoire. (The lemons of 1946, for example.) That is not to say that lessons learned go unapplied in later paintings of different subjects. Certainly Freud showed that he liked working in intense colours that one does not find in the unclothed figure, as a form of break. Working in these strong non-human colours in plant pictures did presage passages of paintwork describing strongly coloured clothing. Other plants – such as yucca, zimmerlinde and buddleias – became recurrent subjects. Friends recall that the artist had definite preferences in plants and allowed his garden to become overgrown so that he paint surrounded by foliage. It is telling that Freud took on the challenge of painting such disordered, changing and dense foliage rather than regulating it, which would have made the task of painting it easier. In 2006, Freud completed his final plant painting, which was of his garden. Included in a corner – almost indiscernible – was the grave marker of his beloved whippet Pluto, forming an incidental memento mori.

The artist’s method of painting the motif over a blank ground then filling the background meant that sometimes when he stopped a painting incomplete it left the motif crisp and floating free from surroundings. This seems to have become a deliberate effect cultivated by the artist, especially apparent in his murals of cyclamen, which seem to been left a freestanding forms without contextual interpolation. In some canvases (Cyclamen (1960), Plant Fragment (1970)) the plants stand out crisp, bright and solid against a scuffed and inchoate primer ground.

Two Plants, 1977-80 (oil on canvas)

[Image: Lucian Freud, Two Plants (1977–80), oil on canvas, 59×47 1⁄4 in (150×120 cm), Tate, London. Image credit: © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

]In a handful of paintings and etchings Freud completely filled picture planes with foliage (Two Plants (1977-80), Garden, Notting Hill (1997)). Taking on such dense, patterned surfaces must have proved highly taxing in terms of concentration and stamina – with little respite from repeated forms and limited colours. Non-artists perhaps do not realise the great demands that these tasks pose to artists. It must have been only a minor release for Freud to know that he could create shortcuts by inventing and omitting with a fair degree of latitude in these pictures in a way that he could not in a picture of more commonplace and recognisable objects with regular geometry or anatomy. Two Plants almost drove him “round the bend. […] When I took one tiny leaf, and changed it, it affected all other areas of it, and so on.”[i]

Giovanni Aloi is a knowledgeable companion, having written previously on botany and art. He outlines the history of botanical art and the significance of plants in symbolism in art. He discusses the significance plants had for Freud the artist. His intelligent commentary and familiarity with Freud’s life and output is well judged and reliable. Herbarium is sure to bring pleasure to Freud fans and aficionados of realist (and Expressionist) art and is warmly recommended.

 

Giovanni Aloi, Lucian Freud Herbarium, Prestel, 5 September 2019, 176pp, 100 col. illus., cloth hardback, £39.99/$60, ISBN 978 3 7913 8533 4

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

British Geometric Abstract Art

 

[Image: (left) Marc Vaux, OV.M.13 (2014), acrylic on MDF, 132 x 115.5 cm; (right) John Carter, © courtesy of the Artist. Three Turns Variant (2007), acrylic with marble powder on plywood, 65 x 70 x 8 cm, © courtesy of the Artist.]

Geometric abstract art has generally been poorly received in Great Britain. Britain was late to visual Modernism and accepted only its most tepid forms until at least the mid-twentieth century. The hostility towards Modernism translated into especially strong disapproval of the most uncompromising avant-gardism: geometric abstraction.

In this book, James Bartos looks at the geometric abstraction in British art and provides case studies six artists: Alan Reynolds (1926-2014), Peter Joseph (b. 1929), Marc Vaux (b. 1932), John Carter (b. 1942), Callum Innes (b. 1962) and Luke Frost (b. 1976).

The author is unequivocally in favour of beauty, no matter how spurned that term is by the sophisticated consumers of advanced social and artistic theory. The publishers are to be commended for the decision to publish a book that advocates contemporary art, painting and beauty – a shamefully rare intersection of vectors in contemporary art publishing. Bartos uses Tim Craven’s tripartite categorisation of abstract art into biomorphic, expressive (gestural) and geometric. He comments on the associations between geometric abstraction and Minimalism.

I think painting can be minimal, and I think of minimalist art as being a sort of quiet art. Most art today is very shouty art. It shouts slogans and politics and social issues; it shouts with bizarre objects, chaotic graphics, loud colours, shiny surfaces, cacophonic sounds coming out of multiple speakers, multiple images coming out of multiple TV screens, complicated back-stories, hard-to-understand scenes of dystopia and jumbled installations that are difficult to take in or to walk through. Among this shouty cacophony, minimalist art seems at rest, creating within itself and around itself a quietude, a harmony or balance and a space for contemplation.

In the first part of the book, Bartos recounts the international development of the style, starting with Constructivism and de Stijl and running through later phases. Those phases and artists include Bauhaus, Naum Gabo, Josef Albers, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Minimalism (including Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt). The emphasis on prints and painting is expanded to include Judd’s sculptures made of painted aluminium components. Minimalism was a major area of experimentation for geometric art. A left-field addition is Larry Bell as a representative of California Light and Space. (The most well-known member of the group is James Turrell.) Commenced in 1964, his sculptures in glass and mirror, with addition coloration effects, are the light and subtly coloured West Coast counterpart to East Coast Minimalism. The example illustrated is striking – with its sprayed graduated opaque pigment combining with the glass box to form a cube of smoke. Apparently, Judd admired the art of Bell and Robert Irwin, so the Californians were far from peripheral in terms of influence. Fellow Californian Robert Mangold is also discussed. His combinations of solid colour and applied line designs place the coloured surfaces into the dual aspects of being solid material and immaterial colour inhabited by linear forms.        Callum Innes, Untitled, from the Cento series

[Image: Callum Innes, Untitled from the Canto series (1992), oil and turpentine on paper, 210 x 100 cm, © courtesy of the Artist.]

A separate section discusses the evolution of hard-edge abstraction in Britain. Vorticism was the first serious engagement with abstraction. It was only a brief eruption, with most of the artists retreating to the figurative neo-classical pastoralism of l’appel d’ordre in the immediate post-war period. In the 1930s continental abstraction had filtered into the consciousness of younger advanced artists and there came renewed engagement with hard-edge abstraction. Ben Nicholson was the most prominent and original member of this group. His geometric reliefs and circular incisions utilised clean lines and absence of colour to achieve their vigorous clarity. Bartos notes that these artists struggled for patronage. Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery and leading figure in the public arts, used the War Artists scheme to acquire art of figurative and Neo-Romantic artists for the nation. The documentary function of the war art project meant that abstract artists were excluded, which conformed to Clark’s taste. In the post-war period, British Constructionists Victor Pasmore, Adrian Heath, Kenneth and Mary Martin and others took up the baton. However, Bartos acknowledges that it was in the architecture of Brutalism that hard-edge abstraction found its greatest impact, most serious notoriety and vigorous expression in Britain after the 1945. A serious omission is Op Art, especially the art of Bridget Riley. Riley is the British artist most associated with hard-edge geometry in painting and printmaking in British Modernism. She is also an important figure.

This account is solid, illustrated with appropriate examples and could be used as a set text on the development of Modernist painting in Great Britain.

Deep Primary Cyan Volts.tif

[Image: Luke Frost, Deep primary cyan volts (2014), acrylic on aluminium, 84 x 84cm. © courtesy of the Artist. ]

The individual texts on artists include interviews, with context provided. In the case of the recently deceased Alan Reynolds, the interviews are with his dealers. The other artists consented to participate in interviews which provide a record of their progress and affiliations. Their interviews are sometimes unexpected and revealing. (Marc Vaux found more to admire in Pasmore’s abstract paintings than in his geometric relief sculptures. Peter Joseph never formally studied art. Luke Frost’s greatest influence is Dan Flavin.) Comments from their dealers and extracts from reviews of exhibitions explicate why the art appealed to viewers and how the art was accepted (sometimes reluctantly) by the public and museums. The interview transcriptions provide us with a record of the artists’ attitudes towards art and a glimpse of their working practices. Bartos adds his own thoughts about salient elements in the way the art operates. This is difficult because art which relies on visual effect – and very little else – is the hardest to write about.

The artists talk about their influences and what art they were looking at when they developed their signature styles. There are a lot of relief constructions and the multiple views from different angles allow us to appreciate the construction of these pieces, which straddle the line between painting and sculpture, surface and object. Some of this art is not well known, having been crowded out by more aggressive showy art that is easier to summarise verbally and which allows itself to be used for political causes. The attention paid to such restrained and careful art is thoroughly welcome. Let’s hope that publishers such as Unicorn and authors such as Bartos are held up as examples of independence and encourage others to investigate art that demands and rewards patient observation and prolonged interaction.

 

James Bartos, The Geometry of Beauty: The Not Very British Art of Six British Artists, Unicorn, 2019, hardback, 320pp, fully illus., £30, ISBN 978 1 912690 34 3

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadamsart.wordpress.com

Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime

9783030207656

In Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime, Penelope Jackson explores the multiple roles that women have played in art crimes major and minor. As well as crimes, the discussion includes infractions and misdemeanours. The author sets out her case as such: “I am hoping that the material here will encourage curiosity. For me it is the obligation of art historians to research and write about artists and aspects of art history that have been neglected by others. In my opinion, the cases and issues around about women, art, and crime, fulfils a much-neglected area.”

Jackson covers female vandals, fraudsters, art destroyers con women, thieves and assistors of criminals. Curiously, as Jackson notes, no (heretofore unmasked) art forgers have been women. If there have been some they have not yet been exposed. She recounts the stories of each, though she does not reach particular conclusions about how women as women might be adept or unsuited to such roles. Jackson is somewhat unreliable about the causes of the dearth of women’s art in museum collections and accepts too readily the feminist narrative of patriarchal exclusion. However, once one has recognised these deficiencies the book has much to commend it to the general reader.

Women as destroyers of art have included Clementine Churchill, known to have destroyed at least three portraits of her husband Winston Churchill. Other destroyers include the legatees of American Ashcan realist Robert Henri, who destroyed a large quantity of art they considered substandard. Women have been complicit in art theft and forgery actively and indirectly as the mothers and girlfriends of thieves and forgers. In at least two cases, the mothers of thieves destroyed paintings before the police could search, locate and confiscate the stolen art. Although they thought they were helping out their sons by concealing their crimes, they compounded the crime by making restitution impossible. The saddest section of the book is the description of how Marielle Schwengel (mother of thief Stéphane Breitwieser) destroyed historical paintings by Boucher, Dürer, Watteau and Cranach the Elder by hacking them to pieces, throwing them in a canal or leaving them out for the refuse collectors. Likewise, Olga Dogaru (mother of thief Radu Dogaru) burned he paintings he stole from a Rotterdam museum in an attempt to conceal his crime. These paintings included a Picasso, Monet, Matisse, Gauguin and Freud. The ashes in her stove were forensically analysed and found to contain the remnants of canvases and nails.

A chapter is devoted to vandals, either mentally unbalanced or politically motivated. The best known example is the Suffragette campaign of the 1910s. As prominent women were being arrested, imprisoned and injured (even accidentally killed) in acts of civil disobedience, a core of dedicated supporters took to the museums of Great Britain with the intention of outraging public morals by damaging art. The author’s sympathy for Suffragette iconoclasm (“[…] if there were ever a case of legitimate art vandalism, the Suffragettes take the cake hands down.”) will disappoint readers who realise that vandalising art for political reasons inevitably leads to the question “At which point do you consider legitimate political violence could be enacted by you?” The logic puts the security of cultural heritage in the hands of righteous activists who reserve the authority to destroy cultural material because of supposed inequities of society at large. This position risks sanctioning future iconoclasm, with the arbiters being the attackers and the degree of their indignation.

An additional area which is one of deception rather than outright fraud is the use of pseudonyms. Traditionally, women faced social disapproval, so it was relatively common for women to use aliases, initials or male names if they wrote or made art. Walter and Margaret worked together, starting in the 1950s. Although Walter Keane was known as an artist of kitsch children with large eyes, it was actually Margaret who painted them. Walter was the better salesman and for the apparently tenuous reason that buyers wanted contact with the artist, Walter claimed authorship of Margaret’s paintings. She permitted them to be sold as original “Walter Keanes” and shared in the profits. Even after their divorce, Margaret continued to paint as Walter, sending him finished pictures to exhibit and sell.

Whether he had the idea or not, it was Margaret Keane who executed the paintings and Walter Keane who took the credit for them, which is criminal given they were sold deceitfully. Walter Keane’s signing of Margaret Keane’s work was fraudulent. That Margaret was part of this deceit can also be viewed as criminal. Margaret Keane must have been aware of the implications but, because of the difficulty this would involve, she chose not to do anything about it until she was in a ‘safe’ time and place [i.e. not until after their divorce].

Strictly speaking, this is incorrect. Artists frequently employ assistants to work in their studios, always uncredited. The work can range to the menial, mundane and administrative to the highly technically demanding production of finished art. This practice started in the medieval period and continues today, with the most successful artists frequently employing assistants to do much work in a prescribed style, under the artist’s direction. The Keane studio system may have been domestic in character, emotionally abusive and highly secretive but it was by no means unprecedented or illegal. Artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons produce paintings in studios using unnamed assistants, a fact known to dealers and collectors.

A fascinating case is Australian painter Elizabeth Durack (1915-2000) taking up the alias of Eddie Burrup. Already a successful artist under her own name, Durack identified so closely with Aboriginal people that in 1995 she adopted an artistic persona as a male Aboriginal artist, complete with fictional biography. She painted in the distinctive style of the native Australians, using a pseudonym “Eddie Burrup”. The paintings were exhibited, sold and entered into prize competitions as by Burrup, with only a handful of insiders knowing the truth. When it was revealed by the artist, there was considerable controversy, with Durack being criticised for deception, appropriation and cultural insensitivity.

Females in the Frame provides a diverting and informative overview of the subject of women in art crime for general readers.

[NB: This review is from an electronic file, therefore paper, print quality, layout, binding and illustration detail could not be assessed.]

Penelope Jackson, Females in the Frame: Women, Art, and Crime, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, paperback, 223pp + xv, 13 col./5 mono illus., €20, ISBN 978-3-030-20765-6

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

The Bestiary in the Medieval World

gm_369767EX1_1000x1000

[Image: Unknown English artist, Lions (c. 1250), from Bestiary, parchment, leaf: 29.6 × 19 cm (11 5/8 × 7 1/2 in.), The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Bodl. 764, fols. 2v
EX.2019.2.93]

During the Middle Ages in Northern Europe, books of real and imaginary creatures and animal lore were made. These bestiaries were frequently variations on established texts, the main ones being the Bestiary of Philippe de Thaon and Physiologus by Theobaldus. Others were looser collections of animal images and knowledge. Some were illustrated and these are at the centre of a new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (14 May-19 August 2019). Although many were unillustrated and were essentially copies of earlier texts, the illuminations in some of the late 12th Century to mid-15th Century (but most in the earlier part of this period) are large, detailed and beautiful. This review is from the catalogue.

The standard list of animals contained in bestiaries was lion, tiger, panther, antelope, lynx, eagle, fishes, weasel, fox, monkey, camel, snake, walrus and whales, as well as more amazing creatures, such as the griffin, dragon, hydrus and phoenix. Some of the illustrations of real animals are so attenuated that they become incredible in our eyes – the crocodile is shown with long legs, bird feet and ears. There are half-human animals such as centaurs and sirens and more peculiar deviants, like relations of Boschian hybrids. The images of animals are accompanied by short texts describing the animals’ physiognomies, characters, behaviour and habitats. Early bestiaries included a few entries on exceptional trees and gemstones, however these were later dropped. The information is a mixture of the observed and invented. (For example, elephants only eat human children “if they are exceptionally hungry”.) Some of the animals are part of symbolic tales, such The Romance of Alexander, a diverse set of impossible tales about the doings of Alexander the Great. There is one in which Alexander descends to the bottom of the sea in a glass ship and encounters a whale.

The life of animals were often invented and presented as moral lessons from God. The unicorn the symbol of fidelity, purity and virginity and was associated with the Virgin Mary. Pelicans were often depicted as piercing their own hearts to feed its young, making its self-sacrifice as an analogue to the suffering of Christ. There is a damaged wooden sculpture of a pelican sacrificing itself for its brood, with the blood painted on. Polychromy was common in sculpture of the time.

These bestiaries were sometimes part of longer theological texts. The texts are mainly in Latin or French, written by monks and nuns for the large part. This catalogue is very thorough and includes essays by specialists and detailed discussion of individual items, explaining background, symbolism and peculiarities of the exhibits. Analysis shows that the texts are copies but frequently incorporating variations (additions and subtractions, as well as reordering), with attempts to make the texts more comprehensive or artistic by conforming meter and line length. The artistry of the illustrators is sometimes fantastic and individualistic, all working in what we would class the international Gothic style. Some of the volumes were broken up or had choice pages cut out. A handful has been defaced; many have been annotated.

gm_369680EX1_2000x2000

[Image: Bartholomaeus Anglicus, Grid with Nine Animals, France, about 1400–1415, from On the Properties of Things, parchment, leaf: 29 × 38 cm (11 7/16 × 14 15/16 in.). The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA, HM 27523
EX.2019.2.4]

The books are of a theological character. Whilst incorporating some older learning from Greek times, the books focus on the moral aspect, showing how God’s order is present in the animal kingdom as it is among people. There are aspects of what we would call science and history. They show the typical blend of the Medieval worldview – observation and book learning filtered through a Christian lens, with some knowledge classical mythology. The vast majority of material on display originated from the regions of modern-day France, England, Germany, northern Italy and the Low Countries. The loans come from museums and private collections in Europe and America.

The medieval world was rich with symbols. There were draughts of ivory cut with animal designs. Noble escutcheons used animals to symbolise attributes, which were codified and recorded in books. The exhibition includes metal aquamanilia, water containers for the washing of the hands of nobility. These were hollow vessels shaped as animals, often lions (the king of the beasts), and included handles and spigots. The horns of ibexes were presented as griffin claws; narwhal tusks were carved and mounted on silver, described as unicorn horns. Other items include combs and embossed metalwork.

Animals feature as part of church architectural decoration. These are illustrated in the catalogue and a handful of stone capitals and other ecclesiastical relief carvings are displayed in the exhibition. The best of the non-painted animals must be the embroideries and tapestries, some diminished by age but still vigorous in design, coloration and execution. The later encyclopaedia of animals featured comments on the ethics of animals – if they were brave or cowardly, if they stood and fought, if they were prepared to die to defend their territory and offspring. This strays into the area of comparative ethics, contrasting the behaviour of animals with that of people. The mixture of diligence, scholarship, assumption and falsehoods persists in these books as it did in the earlier bestiaries, often providing no more accurate picture of reality. However, we should not assume that scientific knowledge was the aspiration of writers and patrons of these books. They were often as much in search of spiritual sustenance as accurate information.

gm_369732EX1_2000x2000

[Image: Unknown English artist, Bee; Peridexion Tree; Serpent; Dragon (c. 1240–50) from Bestiary, parchment, leaf: 28 × 16.5 cm (11 × 6 1/2 in.). The British Library. Image: GRANGER EX.2019.2.58]

The later section of the exhibition includes a few examples of natural history, herbal miscellanies, maps and paintings of animals from the Renaissance and later. The exhibition here loses its way, with the strands becoming too numerous, diverse and separated to cohere – especially in small selections. Study of geography and natural history can be found in the bestiaries but that transition – and the contradictions and contrasts between the areas – requires a dedicated monograph (with or without monographic  exhibition). To have maximum impact and coherence, this exhibition should have terminated in the Renaissance and been limited to fewer areas. Nevertheless, the catalogue and exhibition Book of Beasts shed light on the Medieval mindset and allow us to see the complicated overlaps and schisms between theology, natural science, mythology and speculative art that later gave birth to the modern world. The catalogue is a grand affair, with large pin-sharp illustrations, thorough data, bibliography and index. Care has been taken to balance scholarship with approachable text for the engaged non-specialist reader.

 

Elizabeth Morrison (ed.), Book of Beasts: The Bestiary in the Medieval World, J. Paul Getty Museum, June 2019, half-cloth hardback, 354pp, 281 col. illus., $60/£45, ISBN 978 1 60606 590 7

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Flemish Primitives in Bruges

0000.GRO0161.I

[Image: Jan Van Eyck, Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele (1436), oil on panel, Groeningemuseum, Bruges]

Flemish Primitives in Bruges is a new book presenting paintings by Flemish painters from the Early and High Renaissance (also called the South (or Early) Netherlandish School). Till-Holger Borchert outlines the history of the city and how that affected the development of South Netherlandish painting. The story of art of the time is inextricably linked to the cloth trade in the Low Countries, especially in Flanders. The wealth and growing sophistication of the urban cloth merchants provided demand for religious objects of beauty and high cost. From around 1250 trade via the Hanseatic League, Baltic timber merchants and Flemish cloth merchants (aided by innovative Italian bankers) made the port city of Bruges an important hub for trade. With trade and wealth came culture. It was as part of the Burgundian state (the Duchy of Burgundy) that Bruges hosted the most advanced artists of the age. At this time the production of polychromed statuary, painted panels, painted furniture, manuscript illumination and book production were overlapping fields and makers often had multiple skills.

In 1431-2 Jan Van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) settled in Bruges, having moved from Ghent, where he had painted the Ghent Altarpiece with his now deceased brother Hubert. It has been suggested that whereas panel painting in Northern Italy became elevated over mere ornamentation due to the example of the fresco painting, it seems that the innovations in panel painting of the Van Eyck siblings Jan, Hubert, Lambert and Margaret derived from manuscript illustration. They may have trained as manuscript limners. (The famed manuscript illuminator Barthélemy d’Eyck (c. 1420-after 1470) was probably related to them.) The earliest painted panel here is from c. 1420. “Stylistically, there are interesting correspondences with Brabant painting, but also close links with Bruges manuscript illumination of the same period. Unfortunately, comparably early paintings in Bruges have not survived.” These paintings are only a fraction of art that adorned public and private places in the immediate pre-Reformation era. An earlier panel by Melchior Broederlam (c. 1350-after 1409), now housed in the Dijon, is illustrated. The skilful use of oil paint in this diptych of about 1396-9 is the forerunner to the Van Eycks’ advancement of the technique. Till-Holger Borchert writes, “The few surviving panel paintings that can be situated in Flanders with some probability – and did not originate in the immediate vicinity of the Burgundian court – are not sufficient in number to demonstrate the alleged continuity between the time of Van Eyck and the preceding period.”

Van Eyck’s achievements are well known and he was famous within his lifetime. Most Early Netherlandish painting springs directly from Van Eyck’s model. Exactly the competence of achievements and competence of his siblings is unknown as there are no firm attributions to anyone but Jan, with two pieces being attributed in part to Hubert. Jan’s authorship is secure because of his habit of signing and dating paintings.

Jan Van Eyck died in 1441 and his brother Lambert apparently continued the workshop for a time, at least finishing commissions and perhaps accepting new ones. In 1444 Petrus Christus (c. 1410-20-c. 1475/6) arrived in Bruges and became the leading painter of the following generation. His followed the Eyckian approach of elaborate detail, high finish, fidelity to nature and the production of large devotional paintings and small portraits, all painted in oil. He was also influenced by the Brussels painter Rogier van der Weyden. The German painter Hans Memling (c. 1430-1494) trained with Rogier in Brussels and moved to Bruges in 1465 and worked there until his death. His synthesis of Van Eyck and Rogier’s styles is considered the epitome of the Bruges School.

O.SJ0174.I

[Image: Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Woman (1480), oil on panel, Hopsital Museum, Bruges]

Gerard David (c. 1455-1523) trained in Gouda or Haarlem. In 1484 he became a member of the Guild of St Luke. His art represents an advance towards the High and Late Renaissance for the Bruges School. The chiaroscuro, naturalistic light and shade and subdued colours all mark a departure from the Netherlandish Early Renaissance. Although the facial physiognomies and clothing is distinctly Flemish, the pictorial language (and appearance) is now more Italianate and in line with Swiss, French and German painting of that time. The emerging Dutch style – within which David had developed – also exerted an influence on the painter, who arrived in Bruges as a master painter aged about 30. Borchert reports that David possibly travelled to Italy to install an altarpiece that was commissioned for an abbey in Liguria. “This would make him one of the first Flemish artists – before Joos van Cleve and Quinten Metsys – to be directly influenced by Italian painting. The journey could help explain the hitherto-unknown sfumato technique that characterized his later works […]”

There are many named masters to whom the many anonymous paintings cannot be connected, though undoubtedly these masters and paintings must overlap in authorship. Three of the most outstanding works are St Veronica presenting the Sudarium (c. 1495), the St Lucy paintings (1480) and Scenes from the Passion of Christ (1500). Other paintings have been associated with these masters and the process of teasing out the complicated and tenuous connections between pictures, painters and patrons continues today.

Later painters (Adriaen Isenbrant, Ambrosius Benson), influenced by David, are less noteworthy and have largely lost their Bruges character. An exception is Jan Provoost (c. 1465, who came from Hainaut (Mons). In 1494 he arrived in Bruges. In some ways Provoost owes more to Germanic painting than Early Netherlandish art. We can find touches of Grunewald and Bosch in his macabre Death and the Miser (c. 1515-21), where a wealthy merchant holds out a (promissory?) note to a skeletal Death.

Around 1500, the Zwin channel, which provided ships access to Bruges, began to silt up. Bruges lost status and income as trade moved to other cities, notably Antwerp. This led to artistic activity largely transferring to other cities. Bruges became a backwater. Happily, this neglect meant that there was a lack of funds for rebuilding, renovation and extensive alterations to the city layout, which caused the preservation of the centre of Bruges as a largely late Medieval city.

Borchert guides us through art of related centres of art production including Tournai, Artois, Ghent, Valenciennes, Brabant and ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Thus he discusses Rogier, Robert Campin, Jacques Daret and the mysterious Master of Flémalle, who may not have been a separate painter but rather the putative author of art by Campin, Rogier, Daret and others. Simon Marmion, Dieric Bouts, Bosch, Hugo van der Goes is mentioned in passing. All of these are presented with many illustrations and include recent scholarly conclusions about the activities of these artists.

The plates section shows the highlights of Bruges-related painters currently in the museums of Bruges. The paintings are located in the Goeningemuseum, Hospital Museum, Treasury of St Salvator’s Cathedral, Sint-Jacobskerk, Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, our Lady’s Church, Museum van de Edele Confrérie van het Heilig Bloed, Grootseminarie and Public Library. Notable pictures include Jan Van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele (1436) and portrait of the artist’s wife, Memling’s Triptych of the Two Saints John (1479), a fine portrait diptych (with a Madonna and Child on one panel and a donor portrait on the other) and a painted and gilded reliquary in the shape of a shrine, David’s Triptych of the Baptism of Christ (1502-8) and the gruesome scene of the flaying of Judge Sisamnes (1498), Jan Provoost’s Crucifixion (1505-10), and van der Goes’s completion of Dieric Bouts’s unfinished Triptych of the Martyrdom of St Hippolytus (1475-80). The single oversight is the omission of dimensions and medium details (although one presumes they are all oil paint on panel).

In short (two-page) side discussions, the author describes the origins of oil painting technique (which made Early Netherlandish art so distinctive), the triptych format and social conventions of art donation for religious purposes. A bibliography is included. This guide will be of use to visitors to Bruges, those studying the Bruges School and anyone who likes the painting of the Early and High Renaissance in the Low Countries.

 

Till-Holger Borchert, Flemish Primitives in Bruges, Ludion, 2019, paperback, 128pp, fully illus., English language version (Dutch and French versions available), €19, ISBN 978 9 493039117

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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