For a city about as far from the Mediterranean as it’s possible to be and still be in Europe, not as much Northern European mediæval art here as Italian. I’m still surprised at this in The National Gallery. And as with all the Italian art in my previous post, I’m just mentioning a few things that attracted me to the works I both photographed and later liked enough to edit and post here.
The Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden: I’m consistently a fan of him. If I ever want to argue for the importance of Northern European mediæval art with someone for whom all art begins and ends in Italy, I just need to mention his name. The Exhumation of Saint Hubert is from the same period as much of the Italian works, mid-1400s, yet could never be confused with art from south of the Alps, as with Portrait of a Lady. Maybe it’s the muted colours and absence of swathes of gold, as well as the different arrangements of figures, use of depth, and structuring of scenes. The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels and Saints, probably by Michael Pacher is another that has this distinct northern style, along with Master of Cappenberg’s (Jan Baegert?) The Coronation of the Virgin, where it’s the rich tapestry in the fabric and the almost flat, formal, symmetrical composition.
The Master of the Saint Bartholomew’s The Deposition is strangely three-dimensional and animated. It was the two bringing Jesus down off the cross that first drew me in, but the odd proportions of all their bodies, the slightly large heads that seem vaguely detached from their necks, and how you go through the scene to this empty space behind the cross and before the gold screens, yet the foreground is definitely ground, cracked and broken, so in no way a staging — all these contradictions. And in closeup, all their fingers are like spider’s legs and they’re all posed, as if shortly after they’ll break and have a drink and bite to eat before resuming the tableau. The Master is also responsible for The Virgin and Child with Musical Angels with its own unique set of weirdnesses. Lastly is Dirk Bouts’ The Entombment, one of those soft, muted pieces I love so much, on linen, and like fresco a distinctive, fragile technique. It’s sparse and austere, like lightless northern winters.
Last Wednesday of March, I’m in London staying with Jenn up in Archway, a few days of meetings and generally having a riot. I have to be at Gatwick for a 9pm flight, which means leaving before 5pm is probably the sensible thing. So I have an afternoon of museum-ing.
The National Gallery was second on my list after the V&A, which dealt to me on Sunday, and was duly blogged once I was back in Berlin (via Oldenburg and more museums). It’s more than three months later (and more museum-ing in the interim), and the folder of images sitting on my desktop had been haunting me until the weekend. It’s like the Louvre, I had to divide it up into sections in order to make it manageable. Close to 500 images (a bit under half are the artwork captions) which I ended up ‘reducing’ to two hundred and forty something. A bit excessive; I’ve been having a conversation with self about moderation.
And now I’m trying to write about all that art, which is a tall ask.
From Archway into town, Trafalgar Square is packed like it’s a tourist parade. Not sure which is the proper entrance, but find my way to the Salisbury Wing, offload bags and up the stairs to mediæval art land. It’s vast and airy and light, and the white walls are teeming with the stuff, and for a north-west European city, it’s heavy on the Italian art. So that’s what this post is. The Northern European stuff is in another.
We start around the early-mid 1300s, the usual for mediæval art unless it’s a rare museum that goes back to the 10th or 11th century. I’ve been looking mostly at Northern European mediæval art for the last some years, and seeing so much of art from south of the Alps is probably why I photographed so much. I don’t even know where to start. I love so much of this, each work for different reasons. Master of the Blessed Clare’s Vision of the Blessed Clare of Rimini for the softer gold tones, the cluster of heads, the contrasting left half almost entirely blank, reminding me of Persian miniatures. Jacopo di Cione and Workshop’s The San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece for its repetition across six separate pieces; The Coronation of the Virgin with Adoring Saints for the massed Saints and the musicians below the central panel — these I could spend a whole day on.
Barnaba da Modena’s The Coronation of the Virgin; the Trinity; the Virgin and Child; the Crucifixion, the solid lapis blue of the robes and the gold lines of their draping, and the animal heads with Mary below the Crucifixion, which I have no idea about, but are strangely comforting. Bernardo Daddi — who I feel I’ve seen before — The Coronation of the Virgin, almost an altogether different style, soft, light, detailed, like some of the later Netherlands artists.
More massed heads in Fra Angelico’s Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven, the predella of the high altarpiece of San Domenico in Fiesole. This was a beast to photograph, being so long, and pushed me into photographing each panel separately, admittedly worth it. Lorenzo Monaco’s The Coronation of the Virgin with Adoring Saints was my first sighting of The Young Pope in his tiara; a later sighting is in Pisanello’s The Virgin and Child with Saints, this time in a hugely wide-brimmed hat. Yes, I did indeed go, “Heh, Young Pope.”
Paolo Uccello’s Saint George and the Dragon for the butterfly-like wings of the green dragon, the portentous dark clouds behind George, and the princess who looks rather too relaxed. The musicians in Piero della Francesca’s The Nativity, as well as the muted, pastel colours and verging on perspective depth. Another Uccello, the massive and dense The Battle of San Romano one of the first real breaks from religious art, and so complex, becoming a geometric abstract when approached.
There’s a couple of Botticellis, an artist I find uninteresting, yet ‘Mystic Nativity’ is far from his usual blandness, full of joyous movement. The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine by an unknown Portuguese artist, cold, muted colours, fully into the perspective and naturalistic period, and shot with gold. The Master of 1487, probably Pietro del Donzello’s The Departure of the Argonauts, another huge work, another horribly difficult one to photograph, but the knight on the horse with a scimitar, all the fabric billowing in the wind, and there’s violence going on in the background. Carlo Crivelli’s The Vision of the Blessed Gabriele, which I thought was Saint Francis at first, for Mary coming out of a mystical, celestial womb beneath a pear tree. Sometimes this art is like witnessing another planet.
Carlo Crivelli’s The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius, the photograph does not do it justice. The perspective in this small work is mesmerising. I came back to it more than once, it’s like looking down into another world, not out a window and across a courtyard, plus the supernatural light beaming out of the sky, and the mundane articles in her apartment. It’s a busy work that manages to look simple and uncluttered.
Lucao Signorelli’s pair, The Triumph of Chastity: Love Disarmed and Bound and Coriolanus persuaded by his Family to spare Rome have the same soft, muted fresco technique I am always drawn to, and form part of the Three Frescoes from Palazzo del Magnifico, Siena along with Pintoriccio’s Penelope with the Suitors. I love Pintoriccio’s the most. She’s totally, “Sorry, can’t marry. Working.” and her assistant is all, “Nope, not even looking up.”
The mediæval and Renaissance art was both Italian and Northern European, but I had to make arbitrary divisions somewhere, so they each get their own posts. Off to Northern Europe next.
Bartholomaeus Spranger (1546–1611)
The Adoration of the Kings,
The Three Kings present their gifts to the infant Christ. Caspar, the first King, kneels. His offering of gold is beside him. Behind him is St. Joseph and a wooden stable with the ox and ass. In the distance is a perspective view of a town. This was probably made for the Bishop of Bamberg’s chapel in Seehof, Southern Germany
(Detail of Balthazar, his child assistant and Mary, assembled from five images.)
A month after I was in Wuppertal, I finally finish editing all the images from the Von der Heydt-Museum, which I sprinted through on a Friday morning before Gala and Michael’s dress rehearsal, two hours of indiscriminate camera-ing. Michael said, “I’ve lived here two years; never been.” Well it’s a regional museum, so you never know if it’s going to be banging, sad, or somewhere in-between.
Somewhere in-between, with moments or rather bloody good, plus fuck that was well done why don’t more museums do it like that? Lighting was a bit crap, lots of the natural stuff, which is good, but not diffused enough and pointing at heavily varnished old paintings, which is not, and some rooms where the clowns took over the illumination, so I’m wondering if the museum people even look at their own art. They don’t like people photographing though, that’s for sure. Cheap entrance price and utter thieving gouging ten euros to flop out a camera. Kinda stunned at that, like, you’re not the Louvre, you know that, eh?
Not much mediæval stuff, which is always my first stop, but there is a 1563 print of Martin Luther (minus nail holes), plus a stack of Albrecht Dürer copper engravings, which are achingly beautiful. I especially love the bagpipe player and the more disturbing works that didn’t photograph well, so no wild boar with an extra set of legs on its back, nor his mythological stuff. Past the wooden sculptures covering 500 years in a room, and into into another dim room with holy crap!
Francisco Goya’s Los caprichos. Everyone knows him for his Los desastres de la guerra series, but Los capricos was the my inspiration for bitches 婊子 and is by far my favourite work of his. And here’s half a dozen (they probably have the whole series buried somewhere) lined up along a wall.
Then what happens is that “Why don’t more museums do it like that?” thing. Nearby a Rembrandt engraving (the Zweiter Orientalerkopf one) is a 19th century Japanese watercolour, heavy orange sun setting over a turbulent wave, followed by Jan van Bylert’s Singende Hirte. It’s just the beginning. Some rooms later, when we’re deep in 20th century German Expressionism and Neue Sachlichkeit all over the walls, the centre of the room is Japanese and South-East Asian sculpture and works on paper. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever seen artwork from across the globe arranged like that in the same room … same museum? Coming up a blank. It’s rare even to see, say, Buddhist sculpture in the same museum as European art, outside of monster museums like London’s V&A where multiple departments are under one roof, but even there that former stuff is anthropology or The Asian Collection, and somehow implicitly not art — it’s craft or religious iconography, or Other … anything other than proper art coming from proper artists. So to put the two together, two thousand years East and South-East Asian mingled with half that of European; the head of a stone Ghandara Buddha figure from the first to third century next to Adolf Erbslöh’s Blaue Reiter period Schwebebahn; Javanese Wayang kulit shadow puppets and a folding screen by Kano Mitsunobu beside hard 21st century works by Sabine Moritz, Tamara K.E., and Tatjana Valsang; they work together so well and it isn’t an imperative to see the former as art like the latter but it becomes very uncomplicated and unremarkable to do so.
To see this stuff that’s always less art than art because it’s ‘for a purpose’ or whatever, be seen firstly and even solely as art is unexpected and radical. See the colour and that delicate but relentless Expressionism in the tapestry of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s from his time in Switzerland, facing off an equally colourful and delicate Chinese or Japanese Buddha / Luohan from centuries earlier. If nothing else, even if this arrangement does nothing for you, at least these works are being seen. And I’d totally be up for a big museum that does it like this. Imagine being in the Louvre or on Museum Insel in Berlin and not going into separate museums for each arbitrary delineation, but wandering through European mediæval art, and Ghaznavid Islamic art, and Japanese Kamakura art, and Chinese Song and Yuan, and South-East Asian, and the mediæval Americas and Africa and Australia … a global mediæval art exhibition mashed with a 20th century one. Sometimes I think museums are just going through the motions of museum-ing and exhibition-ing — however awesome their collections are — and then I find something like this, not this neo-liberal museum bollocks infestation, but something profoundly Museum: here is art, let’s look at it all together and find out what that looks like, what it causes, how it enriches all the artworks.
Complete divergence here. Back whenever Alte Nationalgalerie had the Impressionismus – Expressionismus. Kunstwende exhibition (almost two years ago), amongst all the sublime brilliance they had this Degas piece. He’s a sleazy tosser, but I have a love for his ballet pieces, like Tänzerinnen im Probensaal, which I cried over. Fucking art. So I’m in Von der Heydt-Museum, and there’s a Degas! And it’s the same one. Didn’t cry this time, I’m hard, me. There was another of his too. Yeah, I know he’s a cliché, but it’s because he started it. All of that was to say, same work, different exhibition, different museum, different wall, different lighting, different companion works, different audience (a lot smaller and quieter for one), all that makes a different artwork. I didn’t even recognise it as the same one. I was talking with Robert Bartholot about this, how to photograph art, and how the work changes as fast as the light moving outside, and I dunno, maybe compare the two. Same, different.
Other special works. Besides Adolph Erbslöh’s Schwebebahn, cos I was in Wuppertal and the Schwebebahn is the best Bahn. How about Bahnhof Gesundbrunnen? My home station. I know that bridge so well even if that station hasn’t looked like that since the ’40s. There was also an Edvard Munch, which I got mad excited about, cos I don’t think I’ve ever seen his stuff on a wall. A whole bunch of 20th century post-war German art, almost all by men until the century flips over, Kuno Gonschior’s massive yellow minimalist / colour field / abstract expressionist piece was definitely a fave. So much I missed and haven’t even mentioned.
Worth going to? If you’re in or near Wuppertal, then yeah, says Frances who lived in Melbourne and went to the NGV maybe once — and didn’t pay attention. It’s difficult to modulate this for people who aren’t like me, who don’t travel hours with an agenda of binging art. If I was in the Ruhrgebiet or Düsseldorf for a bit, then it’d be a no-brainer: go to Wuppertal, see museums, see Pina Bausch. See Pina Bausch, ride the Schwebebahn.
Occasionally, writers I love disappoint me so entirely I’ll say “I’m done with them.”
Neal Stephenson did it with Anathem, though I stuck round for Reamde, hoping he’d return to what I loved in The Baroque Trilogy. Maybe I drifted away from him, even while he committed fully to the least interesting facets of his story writing. William Gibson, around Spook Country and Zero History, though made something of a conditional comeback with The Peripheral (I’m not touching his ‘tranny with big hands’ embarrassment though, so that might be the last of him for me). Ada Palmer did it for me with Seven Surrenders.
People seemed to love Too Like the Lightning, enough that Crooked Timber did a whole seminar on it. I thought the beginning was some of the very best sci-fi I’ve read, which petered out mid-way, and ended deeply unsatisfactorily, and required the purchase of Seven Surrenders to (hopefully) get resolution. I’m not going to rehash what I said about Lightning, half-way into the second novel I can say with some certainty it all stands, and confirms my scepticism.
It’s also profoundly boring.
I want to care about these characters, but fucked if after a few hundred pages I even know who they are. I have serious reservations about what Palmer thinks about gender, identity, selfhood. I called her a crypto-conservative last time, and like I said about Lightning, “I also trust my “I smell bollocks” sense, even when I can’t immediately say what those bollocks smell of.”( Also fuck her for using ‘it’ as the personal pronoun for an intersex / non-binary character, whatever her reasons, it just smacks of yet another cis writer trying to be cool.) As for history itself, because she is a historian, there’s something uncritically Amerocentric about it all (and Anglo-Euro- at that), in the same way Gibson’s novels — for all their seductive near-futurism — have an inescapable post-modern Orientalism. And frankly for a historian she does a piss poor job.
A weeks ago I saw Wonder Woman with Dasniya in a small independent cinema up in Schöneberg. The trailers before the film were an insidious and horrifying glorification of war in a language I’d thought had been buried — or at least we had a degree of literacy to see it for what it is — all honour and duty and the noble sacrifice of dying for your mates. I was filled with terror, because I think the point of these films and this language is to prepare us for exactly this all-encompassing war. It’s to make us willing fodder. I don’t trust these stories, and I don’t trust the directors and writers or their reasons for wanting to tell them. I feel the same way about Lightning and Seven Surrenders.
I was cleaning out my browser bookmarks last night, first time in years, bookmarks going back to the early-’00s, thousands of them. I opened them in batches, every one, to see if I wanted to keep them. Hundreds, thousands of dead sites, no longer found, no longer existing. All that history and culture vanished as if it never was, only the link and title in my bookmarks proving they once existed, and once I deleted that …