Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu — 4: European Art of the 15th-20th Centuries

The last of four posts on Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, this one perfunctorily covering the European Art of the 15th-20th Centuries collection. My camera battery was flat, I’d been there already three hours, no museum café open to take a break in, and already had over 300 photos which I was dreading culling for here. I went there on Thursday afternoon; it’s Saturday. I’ll keep this short.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap. I was exuberant about his The Sermon of St. John the Baptist in Muzeum Narodowego w Krakowie, and this isn’t comparable. I just liked it for his style, simplicity, depth and how my eye constantly circles in his work.

Philipp Peter Roos’ Sheep and Ram gets all the lulz. I have no idea why Roos thought painting one farm animal drinking the other’s piss with both of them staring hurrhurr at the viewer, the pisser’s tail lifted for a full arse shot. Doing this now with people in England is illegal. But here in 1690, there’s obviously enough of an audience for sheep piss porn. I actually quite like Roos’ farmyard portraits, he clearly enjoys his subjects’ company and personality. I like him even more for this strange work.

Otello Tells the Stories of his Adventures by Carl Becker is a huge canvas, close to 2 metres horizontally. It’s also the one work where a black person is the main subject. There were a few Adoration of the Magi across all collections, and works like Antoine Pesne’s Gypsy Fortuneteller, or Alfred Wierusz Kowalski’s Couriers in Morocco, the latter broadly fitting into a theme of Arabic subject in the late-19th century, but predominately it’s someone with pale skin who is the subject in theme, position, and lighting. The people with darker skin colour habitually are pushed into the shadows, or out of the light focus; sometimes even their dark skin allows them to be closer than others without pulling attention, like in Corrado Giaquinto’s The Adoration of the Magi. There’s a bit of this too in Becker’s. Otello is in the shadow thrown by the pillar, while his audience pair are in the light (strange shadows that seem to bend according to their own physics). Otello’s lower half, the table beside him and the lower left third are substantially darker than the lighting would suggest, particularly seeing how brilliantly illuminated his golden sleeve is. If he was not Otello, if he was the same skin colour as the other two, then attention would be drawn to him, to his face, away from the pale woman in white in the light and sun.

I’ve seen similar in mediæval art, in the Magi works, this use of skin colour to create or heighten the appearance of light and shadow, to move the focus to the centre. It’s often not helped by poor museum lighting, which ruins everything dark with horrible glare, or just fails to light at all, being outside the narrow focus. I was still struck by it, its size, his central position, his clothing.

Later, a single work of Olga Boznańska. After all of her in Kraków, it’s like seeing someone I’ve just got to know. I didn’t even look at the 20th century Polish collection. I hope the rest of the museums in Wrocław aren’t so good or I’ll be ruined.