James Ensor: Chronicle of his Life

Xavier Tricot, Ensor scholar and author of his catalogue raisonné, has written James Ensor: Chronicle of His Life, a summary biography of James Ensor (1860-1949). Ensor is a significant artist in the development of Post-Impressionism and the foundation of Expressionism and has gone to be one of the most influential of Belgian artists. This book illustrates paintings and photographs, giving an account of major events and relationships, with lengthy quotations from letters and press articles.

Ensor was born in Ostend in 1860. His mother was Belgian and his father English. He met his future wife while on holiday in her native city. Ensor revered his father, whom he described as exceptionally intelligent, handsome and athletic. He had hoped to start a new life for the family in the USA but his foray across the Atlantic coincided with the Civil War and he had to return. It seems the set-back left him increasingly resentful of narrow materialism and limited intellectual scope of Ostend. More than a little of this attitude seems to have been adopted by his son. The family ran a gift, curio and seashell shop. The many masks in the shop and the apartment above provided Ensor with his most compelling subject, one that make him famous.

Ensor studied fine art in Brussels from 1877 to 1880. His art education in Ostend had been limited and traditional. At the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts he received more traditional training. He did not do well in examinations and tended to be placed in the middle or bottom of the class. One of his fellow students was Fernand Khnopff. Ensor worked alongside Willy Finch (1854-1930). They sometimes painted the same still-life side by side and they used similar styles; they painted each other’s portraits.

Ensor was disillusioned by the expectations of the academy and the opportunities for advanced art in Belgium in 1880. That year he left both the academy and the capital, to return to live with his parents in Ostend. Advanced art was synonymous with Impressionism and Realism. Ensor enthusiastically explored both avenues, relishing the use of paint that made clear its materiality. The Oyster-eater (1882) is a good example of Impressionist-inflected Realism.

His early paintings were marines, townscapes, still-lifes and interiors. They show careful observation and the adoption of a Realist palette, enlivened by attention to facture. Tricot has included seminal works by Ensor, stressing the paintings rather than the drawings or etchings. The book amounts to a biography of Ensor through his own words and art as Chronicle contains quotes from Ensor’s own writings, which were extensive. He wrote some articles and many letters, few of which are available in English translation. The reproductions are largely accurate and all the paintings are reproduced in colour.

Ensor’s paintings earned respect from critics and fellow artist when they were exhibited in numerous group exhibitions over the 1880s. He was building the reputation of being a leading painter, without there being anything unique about his paintings. His association with Les XX (the Belgian group of avant-gardists, operational 1883-1893) and La Libre Esthétique group (the successor group, 1893-1914) helped to spread knowledge of Ensor’s art. Despite this recognition, sales were slow and prices low.

In 1883 Ensor began painting his mask series in earnest. These paintings were of figures wearing carnival and theatrical masks – and the masks with figures – as well as skeletons, each interacting with each other and with figures who seem unaware of their presence. They were to prove Ensor’s greatest achievement. They destabilised the narrative of Realist art and took on aspects of caricature, satire and dream imagery. They extended gothic art and fantasy art. Ensor was playing with the boundaries between real and unreal, living and inanimate, high and low art, entering the territory that Symbolists were examining in the same period. What made Ensor different was his wit and the use of images and conventions found in satirical prints. The Symbolists were rather averse to humour, satire and social commentary, which can make their art rather self-important, grand and detached.

He started to overpaint his older pictures, adding masks which mock the oblivious subjects. Ensor’s mask paintings were not his sole output during this time. He was as likely to exhibit a still-life, view of Ostend or a religious drawing. Ensor’s religious paintings are almost all centred on Christ, interpreting the life of Christ through a personal fusion of Ensor’s own surroundings and the art he loved. They are highly idiosyncratic pieces and vary in tone from the devotional to satirical and the autobiographical. His spurt of originality lasted from around 1883 to 1900, when Ensor’s verve diminished rapidly. His love of Turner blunted his earthy palette. He reprised old subjects but never recaptured his fire. Ironically, it was after 1900 that artistic taste caught up with Ensor and collector interest increased substantially.  

Ensor participated in the 1901 Venice Biennale. A series of publications and exhibitions raised his profile. He was knighted in 1903. In 1904 he met art dealer François Franck and in 1910 the well-connected gallerist Herbert von Garvens-Garvensburg, both of whom bought and exhibited his art. Ensor ended up painting replicas of his old paintings to meet the demand of collectors but his new compositions were generally unremarkable. In 1925 Ensor was admitted to the Académie Royale. In 1929 a huge retrospective was held in Brussels, including 337 paintings, 325 drawings and 135 etchings. The same year he was awarded a barony.   

Tricot has uncovered new data about Ensor’s life from memoirs and Ensor’s own letters. It seems his father was brutally attacked in 1885 and was hospitalised, apparently mentally unstable, and died in 1887. Tricot reveals links between Ensor and a number of artists well-known and obscure. He quotes letters written to (and from) Ensor’s publishers and collectors. He discusses matters of price and provenance that allow us to understand Ensor’s attitude towards the disposal of his art. In particular, Tricot provides information about how Ensor attempted to place key pictures with certain museums. Although this is not a full biography, the inclusion of the artist’s words gives a vivid sense of his character and views. His sardonic humour, wild wit, self-pity and capriciousness emanate from his comments. Memoirs and letters of others tell us how he was seen. Tricot has corrected the dating of At the Conservatoire from 1902 to 1893, altering his position the publication of his 2009 catalogue raisonné.

Overall, this is a very useful guide to Ensor’s life and art, especially when read in conjunction with larger catalogues. Perhaps the only shortcoming is the absence of graphic work, which may be less familiar to readers but was a key aspect of Ensor’s oeuvre.

Xavier Tricot, James Ensor: Chronicle of His Life, 1860-1949, Mercatorfonds/Yale University Press (distr. Yale), 2020, paperback, 224pp, 200 col. and mono illus., £30, ISBN 978 0 300 25397 9

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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

Publication: Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History

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I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book.
 
 
Alexander Adams, Professor Frank Furedi (foreword), Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History, (Societas) Imprint Academic (UK/US, distr. worldwide), paperback/e-book, 170pp (approx.), £14.95/$29.90, illustrated by the author, mono illus., published worldwide 6 October 2020
 
 
Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History surveys the origins, uses and manifestations of iconoclasm in history, art and public culture. It examines the various causes and uses of image/property defacement as a tool of political, national, religious and artistic process. This is one of the first books to examine the outbreak of iconoclasm in Europe and North America in the summer of 2020 in the context of previous outbreaks, and it examines the implications of iconoclasm as a form of control, censorship and expression.
 
 
The book contains detailed discussion of the history of iconoclasm in the following areas: Egypt, Byzantium, England, France, Switzerland, the Low Countries, Mexico, Wahhabism/ISIS/Taliban, Nazi/post-unification Germany, Spain, Russia, Ukraine, China and USA. The phenomenon of art vandalism and defacement as an artistic strategy are analysed. The book contains a discussion of the 2020 iconoclasm, Confederate monuments and identity politics, including a thorough list of monuments destroyed or removed. It is fully footnoted and written in a clear, accessible style.
 
 
 
 
The book is available for purchase from the publisher’s website (UK and USA), via internet booksellers internationally and usual book retailers.
 
 
 
To view my books and art, visit www.alexanderadams.art

History of Art in Japan

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[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.

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[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.

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[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

Iconoclasm & the Erasing of History

“At 1:32am on the morning of 8 March 1966, a loud explosion was heard in the center of Dublin. When dawn came, visitors to O’Connell Street were greeted by the sight of a pile of rubble and the sheered column base of Nelson’s Pillar. Completed in 1809 in British-administered Ireland, the monument had honored the late Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, who had defeated Napoleon’s navy at the Battle of Trafalgar. The statue, on its Doric column, reached 134ft (40m) into the sky—almost the same height as Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. Although Irish sailors and soldiers had died in the Napoleonic wars in the British armed forces, the statue of a British military hero in the Independent Republic of Ireland still grated with Irish Nationalists, even 150 years after the erection of the monument….”

My first article for Areo Magazine is on iconoclasm. Read the article here: https://areomagazine.com/2019/04/11/iconoclasm-and-the-erasing-of-history/

The Renaissance Nude

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[Image: installation view, Conegliano St Sebastian (1500-2), right: Titian Venus]

One of the central parts of the Renaissance of thought and culture in Europe, starting around 1400, was acceptance of the unclothed human figure. For the previous millennium, Christianity had disapproved of depictions of the unclothed figure, decisively rejecting the heritage and practices of Mediterranean art. The engagement by philosophers, clerics, scholars and artists with the ideas of Greece and Roman opened up a willingness to use the nude as a viable and respectable part of culture. As a component of mythological and Biblical subjects in art – and anatomical study as a part of the technical training of a professional artist – the nude became a locus for both finished artistic products and the basis for artist education.

The current exhibition The Renaissance Nude currently at the Royal Academy (2 March-2 June 2019, previously at the J. Paul Getty Center, Los Angeles, 30 October 2018-27 January 2019) includes a selection of the vast range of material including the nude, all taken from European art made over the Early (1400-1495) and High Renaissance (1495-1520), with a handful of pieces from the Late Renaissance (1520-1550). (This review is from the catalogue.) In an age when feminist pressure and progressive education has made even politically uncommitted experts hesitant about presenting nude imagery, honest discussion and scholarship about nudity in art has become politicised. Has the influence of gender studies and New Criticism undone traditional art historiography?

Renaissance Nude-46

Neoplatonist thought sought to achieve a synthesis between Christian values and classical learning, despite the obvious conflicts that this entailed. Art was the one area where the two traditions could be fused with little internal contradiction. Apollo of the Greeks could become the template for Christ. The sinners in hell are naked and unprotected from demons. Adam and Eve could appear in realistic form taken from study of live models by an artist who was not simple an artisan but a thinker. It would be inaccurate to talk of a classical thaw from the Mediterranean south travelling northward from Italy to Germany and the Low Countries. The first full-length nudes of the period came from the Low Countries and were spread Southward via engravings and woodcuts, and were in part extensions of traditions that came from native schools drawing from fragments of Roman art. (The Medieval nude can be found in the numerous decorative carvings of churches.) We could say that Northern and Southern traditions developed in parallel but both looked to incorporate nudity into Biblical art and used the legitimacy of classical art to support this. This exhibition acknowledges the contribution of German, Netherlandish and Swiss artists and includes paintings by Martin Schoengauer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Memling, Jan Gossart, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Baldung (Grien) and others.

The exhibition comprises paintings, drawings, prints, manuscript illustration and sculpture (statues, bas reliefs, reliquaries, medals). Catalogue illustrations cover the sweep of Renaissance art featuring the nude, with the most notable works being by Jan Van Eyck, Leonardo, Signorelli, Mantegna, Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, Titian and others. The great diversity of forms and approaches to the nude remind us of the breadth of Renaissance visual and intellectual culture.

The human body was the locus of medieval and Renaissance science. Scholars, theologians, artists, mathematicians and architects attempted to correlate the physical body with the heavenly bodies, the dimensions of the perfect church, orders of architecture and other apparently ordered systems. The music of the spheres and the uncanny correlation between mathematics, science, arts and other systems including supposed scales or harmonies. The hidden order of life was seen to link various fields. The prints of ideal human figures designed by Vitruvius are included. They seem more derived from theory than observation. While observation sometimes suggested correlations, it often undermined assumptions of philosophers and scientists. We find in Dürer, Signorelli and Leonardo artists getting closer to reality than Vitruvius, doubtless due to their deference to reality over theory.

As the body was a product of order, so ugliness and illness were signs of disorder of earthly or divine origin. There are images of unideal figures – the elderly, the sick and others. The prime form of the nude that evokes horror and aversion is Death personified. Death and the Maiden is a great subject of the Northern European artists of this time, showing the healthy attractive nude with the morbid repulsive cadaver. This is something that only the Northern artists mastered. German carvings of grotesques are distinctly geographically specific subjects found during the 1480-1500 period. The Northern genius for the wild, bizarre and gothic always surpassed the Italian imagination, so attuned as it was the graceful, grand and beautiful. Even the inventions of Leonardo and Piero di Cosimo pale compared to Baldung and Grunewald.

A piquant instance of sex-war politics is Hans Baldung’s woodcut Aristotle and Phyllis (1513). This print illustrates the anecdote of Phyllis enslaving and humiliating Aristotle by riding him nude around a garden to demonstrate to Alexander the Great her domination of the great thinker. For society of the time, free-spirited sexually assertive women were dangerous temptresses capable of humiliating men and bringing shame on themselves and others. This finds further expression in Baldung’s many pictures of witches, where naked women are objects of desire and derision.

The print of a male bathhouse scene by Dürer is an example of homo-eroticism. It is widely conjectured that the artist was homosexual and this print suggests a sympathy or attraction for the nude male in the homosocial environment. Prints by various printmakers of German lands show full-nude figures. From the Netherlandish artists we see Adam and Eve and scenes of sinners tormented in the afterlife.

Single use only; not to be archived or passed on to third parties.

[Image: Raphael, The Three Graces (c. 1517-18), red chalk on paper, 20.3 x 25.8 cm. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019]

The exhibition reminds us the grace and charm of Piero di Cosimo, particularly in a sweet profile portrait of a young woman, presumed to be a friend or lover of the artist whom he took as his muse. Many great masterpieces could not be included in the exhibition but they are illustrated in the catalogue. There is new art to encounter in the exhibition. The Lucretia (c. 1510-5) of Conrad Meit displays the extreme emotionality that we associate with Northern art. Her face is a mask of tragic suffering, underlining the nobility of her self-sacrifice. Again we see the primacy of expression in German art.

Kren writes of the Limbourg Brothers illuminated manuscript Trés riches heures (1405-1408/9), suggesting that the Biblical scenes featuring sensual nudity were adapted to the erotic proclivities of the Duke of Berry, the commissioner of the book. Other favourite subjects that permitted depiction of female nudes were Bathsheba Bathing and Susannah and the Elders. Adam and Eve allowed an artist to demonstrate his command of anatomy of both sexes.

The mixed-sex public nude bathing in Basel, shocked an Italian visitor in 1461. Nudity was apparent in Northern and Central European tableaux vivants. Today we still have an impression of a medieval and Renaissance attitude of strict conservative attitudes towards nudity. This exhibition and catalogue demonstrates the diversity in attitudes.

It can be considered some instances of nudity in art were gratuitous and came about due to sheer pleasure and fascination. Pisanello’s Luxuria seems strikingly modern. The gamine woman, slender and unashamed, with her afro of vegetation, is like a glossy magazine photo-shoot or Instagram Goth. It was drawn around 1426.

Some depictions of religious scenes including nudity apparently went too far. There was the case of Fra Bartolommeo’s St Sebastian installed in a church which, female parishioners confessed caused them sinful thoughts. The clerics decided to sell the painting. There is a silver relief of around 1510 of Madonna and Child accompanied by St Sebastian, who is completely nude – effectively a classical nude.

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[Image: Moderno, Virgin and Child with Saints (c. 1510), cast silver with gilding, 13.9 x 10.2 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Kunstkammer]

Sandro Botticelli is represented here as an important artist of the period using the nude, most famously in The Birth of Venus. Botticelli fell under the influence of religious zealot Savonarola and subsequently supposedly burned some of his depictions of nude figures, deciding they were impious.

In the mid-Sixteenth Century the rising Lutheranism and the responsive Counter Reformation both were critical of the use of nudes in Christian image making, which effectively ended the Late Renaissance and the proliferation of nude figures in art. Although we see the nude appearing in Mannerist and Baroque, it is no longer the centre of advances or a battle ground for art during this time.

The personalisation of painting particular subjects comes to the fore in paintings of mythological, religious and symbolic content that are of specific people. One case is Jean Fouquet’s celebrated Virgin and Child (c. 1452-5). The pale Virgin and Child are surrounded by red and blue cherubs. The subjects are as white as linen, unsullied, exquisite as porcelain. The Virgin’s nursing breast is exposed, released from her tight corset. She is apparently based upon the lover of the donor, King Charles VII, a woman named Agnès Sorel. Sorel had died in 1450, at the age of about 27, before the painting was made. Thus the painting was religious but based upon a profane love; for the donor, viewing the painting would have combined the devotion of worship and the pleasure of the erotic and would have been a pleasure of seeing a close companion to the level of the mother of God and a sensation of deep loss and grief. Inadvertently, this painting is an embodiment of the myriad functions and interpretations of art that were current in the Renaissance period.

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[Image: Titian, Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) (c. 1520), oil on canvas, 75.8 x 57.6 cm. National Galleries of Scotland. Accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax by HM Government (hybrid arrangement) and allocated to the Scottish National Gallery, with additional funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), and the Scottish Executive, 2003]

The Renaissance Nude tells of the many reasons for the existence of imagery of the nude – didactic and sensual, moral and licentious, realistic and idealised – and draws on new technical research and historical data. The catalogue essays and entries on individual exhibited items balance detail and general overview. The illustrations are large and the production quality is excellent. This catalogue makes an intelligent and comprehensive introduction to the various roles of the nude in Renaissance art.

We can be relieved that we have escaped an exhibition based on the gender politics of our age. Although the writers are aware and informed about discussions regarding gender and sexual studies (and the semiological readings of recent decades), they wisely elected to elucidate the attitudes and theories of the Renaissance rather than impose their views. Thus they give us an informed basic understanding of why a picture may have come into existence and how it was seen at the time, leaving us to interpret ourselves how we wish to understand it today. In that respect, the curators have credited us with discernment and sophistication equivalent that of the artists, writers and thinkers presented in this exhibition and catalogue.

 

 

Thomas Kren (ed.), The Renaissance Nude, Getty Publications, November 2018, cloth hardback, illus., $65/£48, 432pp, 273 col. illus., ISBN 978 1 60606 584 6

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

Berlinde de Bruyckere: It almost seemed a lily

Museum Hof van Busleyden_campagnebeeld

The current exhibition by Berlinde de Bruyckere (b. 1964) dwells upon the complicated layers of material that intermittently conceal or reveal bodily forms. Berlinde de Bruyckere: It almost seemed a lily, Museum Hof van Busleyden, Mechelen (until 12 May 2019) includes 31 works includes sculptural objects/assemblages, drawings by the artist and Enclosed Gardens (a number of religious constructions from the late Renaissance period) loaned from the permanent collection De Beata Vita Foundation. The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The exhibition consists mainly of new work by de Bruyckere, made between 2008 and 2018. The assemblages utilise materials including wallpaper, wood, fabric, wax, lead-sheathed electrical wire and epoxy resin. Wax as an ideal flesh analogue. Sometimes it is tinted, colour showing translucently through semi-opaque layers. Casting seams are apparent, with no concealment. Nails attached casts to wood are apparent. Some larger pieces made for this exhibition are partial body casts arranged into ersatz lilies. The material in this exhibition covers some familiar territory in terms of type. The artist prefers to use materials that have a pre-history and these constructions include such materials. The cloth and electrical wire in old-fashioned lead wrapping are typical, salvaged from modest sources. Decorative fabrics have been saved from destruction to play a part in de Bruyckere’s composite objects. Blank pages from old books are the artist’s preferred supports for drawing on.

De Bruyckere’s art frequently includes religious imagery. The idea of the suffering and sacrifice of Christ is compared to the mute suffering of animals – the slaughtered horse in particular. The pathos of pain is one of the cores of de Bruyckere’s art. As she writes:

I connect the petals of the lilies to images of skin, of flesh; their fragrance to lust and pleasure; their unsavoury smell while wilting to ephemerality and pain. This intense scent brought to mind the skin traders’ workshop in Anderlecht, the odour of fresh cow skins.

She also notes that her art naturally defaults to 1:1 scale, with casts and skins used at their original scale. When it came to making her own lilies she decided to use casts of herself manipulated rather than anything smaller.

Berlinde De Bruyckere (c)MirjamDevriendt_2

[Image: Berlinde De Bruyckere, ‘It almost seemed a lily IV, 2017-2018, 2018, wood, wallpaper, wax, textile, lead, epoxy, 281 x 238 x 40 cm. Photo: Mirjam Devriendt. © Berlinde De Bruyckere. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth]

De Bruyckere chose to exhibit her pieces beside the Enclosed Gardens – cabinets including pictorial scenes, originally made for a nunnery in Mechelen.

For centuries, wooden cabinets filled with a mixture of artefacts adorned the cells of Mechelen’s Augustinian Sisters. They were made in the first half of the sixteenth century, in and around the convent of the Hospital Sisters. This lay within the city walls of Mechelen, a few streets away from the palace of Margaret of Austria, Governess of the Netherlands. For the Hospital Sisters, whose main tasks were to care for the sick and elderly and to manage the hospital, the Gardens were a microcosm of the wider world.

There are seven extant oaken cabinets containing polychrome sculptures made in various materials that exist today. The retables (or shallow dioramas of composite materials to form religious scenes) depict enclosed gardens occupied by religious figures including Madonna and Child, saints, crucified Christ, unicorns and others. The dioramas are highly decorative, including intricate beadwork, embroidery, sewing and painting, including semi-precious materials. The makers’ names of the Enclosed Gardens are unknown and they are likely collaborative pieces. The inclusion of Renaissance art is not a new aspect of the way the artist has presented her work. A former exhibition in London included paintings by Luca Giordano.

The accumulation of de Bruyckere’s objects into shallow assemblages mirrors the accumulation of details and historical repairs of the ancient Enclosed Gardens. These Enclosed Gardens were prompts for meditation and sites of imaginative pilgrimage for the nuns who could not travel or leave their charges to make actual pilgrimages. There is a definite closeness between these retables and the reliquaries that were so common in Catholic countries in the period. The restoration of the Enclosed Gardens coincided with the exhibition and the catalogue illustrations of close-up photographs of the repairs of elements parallel the details of de Bruyckere’s sculpture. The delicacy of the tiny artificial flowers echoes the delicate stitching and woven patterns of de Bruyckere’s partially sewn fabrics.

Casts of skins reveal the imperfections of the uncured pelts. Bound forms under glass cloches have the air of injured deformed beings cared for despite their imperfections. They are kept decent and warm with shabby scraps of cloth sewn around them. They are half infants, half phalluses. They evoke pity and disgust as hybrids or mutants. One could also associate these beings with mummified children or baboons found in Egyptian tombs.

Berlinde DeBruyckere ∏MirjamDevriendt_4

[Image: Berlinde De Bruyckere, ‘Stamen, 2017-2018’, 2018, wax, textile, iron, wood, glass, epoxy, 109 x 44 x 44 cm. Photo: Mirjam Devriendt. Both: © Berlinde De Bruyckere. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth]

The embroidered lilies of the retables are related to the lily symbolically depicted as being delivered by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin on the occasion of the Annunciation in Christian iconography. It is the symbol of divine blessing and also the sexual organ of a plant. There are drawings of genitalia by the artist. In these drawings, there is little impression of fully functional body composed of parts infused with lividity, capable of tumescence and naturally in a state of moistness. We are encountering anatomy as formerly functioning body as a pathological specimen or butchered beast. (Some pictures include lily leaves drooping beside the penises.) Just as obsolete materials sourced from old buildings have an air of tiredness and redundancy, so de Bruyckere’s drawings have similar qualities. These are anatomical fragments that have been exhausted of their natural functions and detached from their possessing entity. Drawings of genitalia makes direct the simile of the flower as genitalia as flower. Her drawings have – despite their sometimes loose and sketchy qualities – a certain static character. The labile aspect of genitalia – its changeable character – is not present in the drawings, evading something that defines that part of the anatomy.

The catalogue consists of six large-format unbound sections and an index in a folder. The sections are: I. Enclosed Garden, II. It almost seemed a lily, III. Stamen, IV. Nest, V. Petals, and VI. Santa Venera. The texts by the artist and a few experts are brief but informative. The large page size allows us to “get close” to the art, viewing details as well as whole objects. The format is attractive though the light cardboard portfolio does not seem robust.

This exhibition further deepens the artist’s complex, fruitful and ambivalent responses to the Low Countries’ tradition of religious art. De Bruyckere is the direct inheritor of the Flemish and Netherlandish religious artists without being explicitly devotional. As with Francis Bacon, de Bruyckere intelligently and sensitively reanimates the forms of sacred art whilst keeping her views on deism and theism to herself. She remains one of the most accomplished and serious artists of our age.

 

Berlinde de Bruyckere, Barbara Baert, Lieve Watteeuw, Berlinde de Bruyckere: It almost seemed a lily, Hannibal, 2018, card folder with loose sections, unpag., €59, ISBN 978 94 9267 777 8 (Dutch/English bilingual text)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art