Museum Kunstpalast Düsseldorf — Part 1: The Mediæval Art

Thursday morning (well, lunch-ish really) and a couple of spare hours. I’d been planning this for weeks. Off to Düsseldorf’s Museum Kunstpalast to look at mediæval stuff. And other stuff. Lots of stuff. Blogged that other stuff here. It’s a very pretty museum.

The mediæval and renaissance art sandwiched all the other collections, split as it was by various closed parts, instead of walking a chronological route from 1000 years ago to the last decade. I kinda feel this obedience to chronology enforces one unique, right way to experience a museum, which breaks down when that path is closed (like here), or for people like me who habitually wander where-the-fuck-ever my attention pulls me causes a general tension and something like disapproval of the “There’s no right way to visit a museum, but: You’re doing it wrong!”

To me combining mediæval and renaissance art doesn’t feel so dischordant; it goes together as a long and diverse continuum that the enlightenment, or say post-1750’s art and culture decisively differs from. Mostly I was here for the mediæval stuff. Give me 1350s paintings and sculpture or even better, 1250s! I wasn’t expecting a large collection, but hoping for a few new things, maybe a difference in style or subject matter, Düsseldorf being more connected with Belgium and Netherlands than Berlin and it’s southwards history with Czech, Hungary, eastwards with Poland. I was also hoping for some pre-13th century stuff, that square, blocky style leaking over from Byzantine art and presaging mediæval art proper. It’s so rare to see that I have a feeling I need to see more to make sense of the later stuff.

First then, an beautiful, flowing, arabesque woodwork piece, Stammbaum Christi, the Family Tree of Christ, it’s a really fine, late piece, glorious detailed composition and carving. A total winner to start with. Next is an odd choice, being so near to the first (in location and age), and so different, Lucas Cranach der Ältere Das ungleiche Paar. I like Cranach, probably a bit obvious, but who cares? This is such a lecherous, grotesque piece, his toothless gaze and her detached half-smile.

Around the corner, Zwei Engel from Southern Germany, they were so pretty on the wall and I did think I could get them out the front door if I was fast enough. Thronende Madonna is one of the earlier pieces, along with Kruzifixus and even Thronende Muttergottes retains some of that early style I seem to be drawn to at the moment. Blocky, simple, longer faces and almost abstract eyes, a heavy vertical weight and line. And the expression on Jesus’ face in Kruzifixus, such an exceptional, poignant piece. Stylistically opposite is Muttergottes and Marienklage Pietà, which take the International Gothic Style to an extreme. In the former, Mary’s s-curve is so highly exaggerated, much more so than the photo looks, her pelvis isn’t remotely attached to her knees or shoulders, and Jesus is not merely a baby in her arms, but leaps, flies off in the other direction. Likewise in the Pietà, a far smaller piece, Mary leaps at the fallen Jesus, her robes flowing like a superhero’s cape. I’ve not seen anything comparable to this movement, energy, and lightness in similar works in Berlin or further east.

I’m dancing around the Oberrhein Flügelaltar. I approached it from the back, seeing the painting on the central panel, not brilliant, but nonetheless I thought it boded well for the other side, and in any case I’m always up for some female saints. The other side though. Completely not what I expected. If the original polychromy was there, then perhaps, yes, but the bare lime wood, stripped of colour and polished, glowing in the light, with the Adoration of the Magi in the central panel. I made a lot of noise.

It’s about 3 metres long and 160cm high. The outer wings probably carved by a different person, though still with fantastic detail, and show on the left the Adoration of the Child by Mary and the Circumcision, and the right the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand and the Holy Family. That centre panel though, cute as baby Jesus is pawing the face of that one Magi it’s the upper-left third dominated by the black Magi and his servant, his delicate fingers taking the crown, the stance of his body and the parallel folds of his clothes, maybe it’s not so obvious in the photo but this winged altar is entirely about him. Maybe also when it was painted, the colours moved the eye across the image in a different way, but as it is, it’s up there with the Gemäldegalerie’s St Mauritius.

Once I’d stopped hyperventilating over that, I wandered face-first into Abraham Janssens I’s (Janssens van Nuyssen) Die Sibylla Agrippina. It’s so far in my museum-ing rare for me to see black women in mediæval or renaissance art as primary subjects. Partly this is because of the black magi tradition on Germanic art, but also women when they do appear tend to be in the background. I think most of the works I’ve seen have been later historical or mythological ones, where the women are servants, entirely unlike this one, a full portrait, around 150cm high, no other person or distraction in the frame (and as usual for large and tall paintings, it was a beast to photograph, glare from the lighting blowing out the top quarter, so I ended up assembling it from three separate images).

Then in another room, after the break of all the other stuff, there were the oil painting sketches, which became a style of their own. Some of these, like Domenico Zanetti’s Studie einer Fama I find simply beautiful, more so because of the damage. Joseph Anton Feuchtmayer’s Putto is not so much beautiful as diabolical. I know on close look the pink blotches are meant to represent rosy cheeks, but from a slight distance they look like glowing alien laser eyes. Attached to drunken, chubby winged monsters.

There was a couple in the Rubens’ room also. The two Die Allegorie “Kuss von Gerichtigkeit und Frieden” which are basically renaissance lesbian porn. There was also another massive Adoration of the Magi, but the light for that was out, and no amount of photo editing is going to help. Lastly, there is Lodovico Mazzanti’s Der Tod des hl. Franz Xaver, whose death in real life off the coast of China in 1552 after nearly 12 years sailing around India and South-East Asia is remarkable enough in itself. I’m really not sure what’s going on in this painting, done almost 200 years later, especially the feathered crown. Context. Works of art need context and explanation, especially old stuff.

I pretty much threw myself out after that, really cutting it fine to get to the theatre. Enough! Pictures!