Keeping things orderly here. Last week of my Naarm / Melbourne trip, Monday 26th March, I got myself along to NGV National Gallery of Victoria for the 2018 Triennial and weird European art.
- NGV Triennial: Richard Mosse — Incoming
- National Gallery of Victoria: J. M. W. Turner — Falls of Schaffhausen (Val d’Aosta)
- NGV Triennial 2018 & 21st Century Collection
- NGV National Gallery of Victoria — Mediæval Art
- NGV National Gallery of Victoria — Baroque & Rococo Art
- NGV National Gallery of Victoria — 19th & 20th Century Art
- NGV National Gallery of Victoria — St. George Hare: The Victory of Faith
- NGV National Gallery of Victoria — Jizō Bosatsu
A few pieces of European mediæval art I saw on my very wrecked, post-season, post-bumpout afternoon in the NGV National Gallery of Victoria. Considering how long I lived in Naarm / Melbourne, and considering I spent five years across the road at Victorian College of the Arts, I’m pretty sure I went inside a total of maybe once, and that for a special exhibition which I can’t remember — the permanent collection and the building itself I never wandered through. Mainly ’cos I wasn’t into museums then.
So, mediæval European stuff, ’cos I am into it. Weird to go to Australia to see bits and pieces of back home. I was looking for Saint Mauritius (of course), because somehow I got it in my head they have a rather nice painting of him. Didn’t find it. Might not be on display. Didn’t find it on their website either, but that’s a horror to search so … Did find exactly one Biblical Magi / Heilige Drei Könige / Aanbidding der Wijzen (it’s from Antwerpen, let’s go with that last one), very buried in the bottom right corner of a retable, which I shone my phone light on to get some illumination to photograph (then butchered it in Photoshop — is not my best work).
The first room, with the wooden sculptures reminded me of Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu (still one of the best mediæval collections and museums I’ve seen), but the dissonance of German next to Spanish next to Italian next to Flemish made for an odd journey. A small collection, lack of space, prioritising newer art and temporary exhibitions can justify the jumble somewhat, yet it proposes a strange, fantastical idea of the history of Europe, a Europe that is monolithic, singular, consistent. Yeah, I’m spoilt here. I can go to small cities like Magdeburg and see a thousand years of history from just that region of central, northern, Germanic Europe all in the original church, and the depth and detail imparted shapes a massively different reality for Europe’s history.
But still, they have a Hans Memling, some Dürer etchings, and a pile of other works that are pretty solid examples of what was going on in Western Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. The German pieces are solid and heavy and dark; the French all flowing in International Gothic style; the Italian ramping up for the Renaissance. Most of the pieces aren’t brilliant, though pretty much all are solid pieces by renowned artists, and nothing is of the poor, regional copies that litter museums over here. And occasionally there’s a work I’m frankly surprised got out of Europe, which speaks of the kind of money backing the NGV.
Favourite piece? Jaume Cascalls’ St Catherine, from around 1350 in Spain. Not just because she’s my favourite saint, patron of unmarried girls, spinsters, archivists, jurists, librarians, mechanics, scholars, and fucking knife sharpeners.
I saw this. It’s mad brilliant. Like it should have the grimiest beat vibrating the walls and NoLay spitting for 500 years.
One more from Brussels’ Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België / Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in my lazy-blogging of single paintings.
I’d already blogged this museum heavily back in 2015 (Musée Oldmasters Museum, Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum, and the very popular Peter Paul Rubens’ Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor, among others), so I wasn’t really committed this visit to much more than staring at a few Bruegels, namely De val der opstandige engelen, along with Pieter Aertsen’s De Keukenmeid, and Gustaf Wappers’ Tafereel van de Septemberdagen 1830. And seeing I just mentioned almost all my posts on this museum, I can’t not mention the sublime Pieter Bruegel de Oude’s De Aanbiddung der Wijze, which is alone worth visiting the museum for.
Another De Aanbidding der Wijzen then. This one from Peter Paul Rubens and Atelier around early-1600s — no date on the caption and it seems to be one of his lesser known Adoration of the Magis. It’s in the Rubens Room, a massive, high-ceilinged chamber with natural light pouring in from above. Really one of the few rooms in the museum capable of the dimensions to display his epic works. I always have trouble remembering how large a piece was, but the figures are larger than life, and I dredged up 384 × 280 cm from the internet. And this room had walls of the stuff.
I blame the light. When it hits the top of a painting 2 metres above me and bounces down, I don’t know what to do. Yes, post-processing, but you can still see the upper half is blown out, and has an awkward blue colour cast. So my editing skills also suck. It’s the main reason I only photographed a couple of works this time. Sure I can take hundreds of photos, but the editing takes multiples of the time I spent actually in the museum, and it’s gotten a little out of hand — one of the main reasons I didn’t go to Ghent. These photos, then, don’t do the painting any favours, but it’s Rubens and it’s the Adoration of the Magi, and it makes me smile.
These were the last images I edited from The National Gallery, large works by Paolo Veronese, El Greco, Jan Gossaert and others.
The same room in the Louvre that houses the Mona Lisa also contains that colossal, 10 metre wide by 6 high Les Noces de Cana by Paolo Veronese, as well as the smaller but equally superb Esther et Assuérus. The National Gallery has his The Adoration of the Kings (which required a lot of editing to deal with light glare in the top, right corner), The Consecration of Saint Nicholas, and The Family of Darius before Alexander. And I reckon there’s a lot of the same people in all of them. I think the person with dwarfism on the far left with the toy dogs might be the same person as in the Louvre works, or Veronese had a habit of including little people in many of his works I’ve seen.
Jacopo Tintoretto’s Christ washing the Feet of the Disciples is another work that suffered from glare, which I mangled until it looked passable, but the photo doesn’t convey the sublime light, which comes from both the left-front, and softly from behind, giving them all a golden halo. Sometimes it’s just the lighting in a painting that really moves me. Bronzino’s An Allegory with Venus and Cupid is quite the opposite, so stylised, posed, and far from the more photographic naturalism of Tintoretto. And same for whoever did Leda and the Swan, which is both grotesque and dreamlike, and gets an inclusion because of Orphan Black.
El Greco. My first outing with him was in the Gemäldegalerie’s El Siglo de Oro, and I would have spent the whole day just sprawling in his brilliance. Here there’s his The Adoration of the Name of Jesus and Christ driving the Traders from the Temple and pretty much I could have spent the afternoon with him (again a lot of work to compensate for glare, especially on the latter work). Beside him is Bartholomaeus Spranger’s glorious The Adoration of the Kings and it’s worth mentioning these two plus the Titian, Diana and Actaeon are not haphazardly thrown together. Spranger and El Greco knew each other in Rome, both were protégés of Giulio Clovio, and were influenced by Titian. So despite the significantly different paths they took, there’s a similarity. The use of light and the oval face of Mary, the colour and draping in the robes, there’s a lot of El Greco in Spranger.
Later there’s Quinten Massys, firstly with The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Barbara, another work on cloth, and yes, I still love the soft, muted colours and delicate contrast. Beside that is his famous An Old Woman (‘The Ugly Duchess’), about which and whom so much has been said, and — as is frankly predictable for art historians — so much is shameful. So here’s what I’m seeing. The current position is she was suffering from Paget’s disease, rather than being a particularly nasty caricature of an old woman who didn’t know when to put away being a young maiden. I’ll go further and say she knew exactly what she was doing, wearing unfashionable clothes, holding the flower to signify she was available to a suitor.
Often when I read museums describing their own work, or art historians debating, there is an absence of the idea a subject has self-awareness, that they could be — with the artist — laughing not at themselves, but at those who see them as merely a constellation of disease and infirmities, as less than ideal, lacking in beauty, ugly, to be mocked. Like the Portrait of the Bearded Helena Antonia in Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, or the little people in Veronese’ paintings. Yes, there was an element of the exotic at play, as with representations of Saint Mauritius, or Balthazar in The Adoration of the Magi, yet there’s something more, just as with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, where there’s a queer femininity that is unmistakable, one which he lived amidst. It does both the sitter and the artist a disservice to hold fast to the mean idea the latter was only there to mock the former and the former was too stupid or vain to realise. It feeds the pernicious trope that we who are not good and normal enough are not deserving of love and desire.
Here’s another version of the painting: There was no mockery or laughing at, either of her or others. She was desirable and desired, and had many lovers despite her age, and her dress and accoutrements signify this unambiguously — they were fashion in her youth and here denote her place and standing and history.
And speaking of Magi, two magnificent piece by Jan Gossaert (and Circle of ~) finish this century. And my photos don’t do them many favours. But feast your eyes on them anyway, particularly the last one, so opulent and grand. For me, this is the high point in European art until the Expressionists rolled in.
Some days are better spent adoring art.
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.)
I think I’ve been more than six times to the Gemäldegalerie, but a couple of those visits were without camera – though with friend! So we all don’t get lost, here they all are, along with 300 or more photos:
I was going to run out to Dahlem and poke around the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, but kinda lazy here. Plus I wanted to gawp at some mediæval art, so off to the Gemäldegalerie. And it turned out to be Internationaler Museumstag 2016.
Six times (that I count) I’ve been to the Gemäldegalerie. Am I bored with it? Is that even a question? Do you know how huge it is? It takes me 3 hours just to get through the mediæval art – Northern European and Italian that is – which leaves around 2/3rds of the place unseen. Not that I cared, I really was just antsy for some old shit to stare at, and did it disappoint? Hell no!
It gets better every time, partly because there’s so many favourites of mine – Hans Baldung’s (gen. Grien) Der Dreikönigsaltar, Meister des Aachener Altars’ Die Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige, I’m talking about, but oh so many others. I gave St. Mauritius in Baldung’s alter a wink, “Saw you in Magdeburg, dude!” “Awesooome! You know St. Katharina’s over there?” “Fuck no, I didn’t! St. Katharina!” “Hey Frances! You’ve been ignoring me!” I’d been walking past her every time cos she’s on a separate wing and not part of the main altarpiece. Saving photographing her for my next visit.
Speaking of not paying attention, I didn’t really want to photograph much, but also knew I kinda needed to: it’s part of the deal. So I’m looking at Albrecht Dürer’s one, the famous one of Hieronymus Holzschuher, and beside that there’s this small, matt black rectangle of I dunno, never looked at it too closely cos it’s not very impressive – until you look at it closely. It’s the sliding cover for Dürer’s portrait, and has the coat of arms of both Holzschuher and Dorothea Müntzer, to whom he was married. It’s indeed as dark as in the photos below.
Then there was Die Madonna als Apokalyptische Frau, which I like just for the title (and sorted out a little more why she’s occasionally rolling in a slammed crescent moon). It’s next to Diptychon mit der Kreuzigung und dem Schmerzensmann, which is near the top of my, “Oh yes, I will steal you one day,” list, and just over from Maria am Spinnrocken, which I love because Maria’s there spinning (& yes, she does have a creepy old man perving on her through the window).
Die Kreuzigung Christi (Kaufmannsche Kreuzigung) I’ve photographed before, but in the two years since I’ve been heavily photographing art, I’ve got a lot better (or I convince myself I have) and a lot of the earlier stuff is frankly shitful. As well, I love this one for the arrangement of people on both sides of the crucifixion. I’ve noticed recently that these group portraits can be seen at the subject of the work, rather than the obvious dude bleeding everywhere who is needed so they have an excuse to be all present. It’s striking to hold my hand up blotting him out, and see just how prominent and crucial these clusters of the public are.
As usual, there’s a few Die Anbetung der Könige. The one after Jacques Daret wasn’t in my St. Mauritius & Companions post, which shows you how much I miss even after half a dozen visits. What’s interesting here – besides being a truly beautiful work – is how representation of blackness in mediæval art isn’t explicitly tied to skin tone. Or that’s what I’m thinking lately. These three Magi look not so different from Mary or the old geezer slobbering on baby Jesus’ hand, but knowing how they are frequently—predominately represented in mediæval art, it’s enough to interpret signifiers like the slightly different skin tone of each of the three, their headdresses, the colour of their hair and say who Balthazar here is (and Caspar and Melchior for that matter).
On to Maria Magdalene, im Hintergrund Christus bei Martha, which is a marvel, her dressed in furs with a lute (or an oud if you like), and the detail in her apartment: the pale azure cups and plate high on one wall, the backgammon board left mid-game, her with a sheet music book that’s entirely legible, much more going on here than simply Mary Magdalene.
Here I reversed out of the right wing of the Gamäldegalerie and crossed over into the left wing where the Italian collection lives. Giotto di Bondone’s Die Kreuzigung Christi is another one of those crucifixions with a lively public gathered below. I’ve seen this one before, and no, I did not notice the back of his head, in 3/4 reverse profile. Then there’s Giovanni di Paolo’s Zwei Tafeln einer Predella – Die Einkleidung der hl. Klara durch den hl. Franziskus, which is St. Klara of Assis joining the church after hearing St. Francis of Assisi preach. I’d not heard of her before, but she’s contemporaneous with Mechthild von Magdeburg and that mob and a bit of an Italian sister in similarity.
I was finding it strange to be looking at Italian mediæval art, being so involved in Northern European stuff. The differences are not so pronounced before the mid-1400s, in fact the east-west differences are the most obvious – that and the differences in pigments and colour choices. It’s only when Italy gets into using perspective that things change. And even then for much of the duration of the 15th century, it’s only the backgrounds that display this shift; the groupings and arrangements of people remain relatively flat within themselves. Along with this, there’s an obvious move to more naturalistic, softer styles. Look at Ferraresisch’s Die Muse Polyhymnia, it could be an early 20th century work if not for the obviously mediæval background.
Francisco Ubertini’s Die Taufe Christi, almost 100 years after perspective was first used in Florence still retains a kind of static, pseudo-perspective tableau approach, small clustered groups that decrease in size and move higher up the landscape the further they are from the viewer, more two-dimensional than actual perspective. Oh and a quite excellent work I spent my last minutes oogling. There’s so many different people and clothing here, plus it has White Angels Throwing Up Gang Signs.
Two hours and a bit. Then a sharp bike ride to Hasenheide for Sarah-Jane’s barfday on a warm Berlin Sunday.
Off we go with mediæval art in Valenciennes. And the very first thing is an a winged altarpiece by Pieter Coecke Van Aels of L’Adoration des mages, and guess who’s there? Nah, don’t, just look at that beautiful left wing.
A sad theme throughout the smaller salles was heavily varnished works like this facing outwards to uncovered windows. There were diffusing blinds, but only drawn three-quarters of the way down. Works like this I had to assemble from multiple images, or in this case, photograph from the side, above, or combination of unflattering angles and fix the mess in Photoshop. There’s only so much fixing of specular highlights and distortion software can do, so call these approximate.
And directly to Hieronymous Bosch. Never easy to call a favourite (because of all the mawkish adoration—kinda like the Mona Lisa, except the Mona Lisa is actually crap), but fuck me if he wasn’t on some strong acid. It’s some Salvador Dalí-shaming levels of freak.
Opposite that, and this gives an idea of how small the museum is, how quick it moves through epochs—we’re covering about a century in these three works—one of those Le banquier et sa femme pieces which I love cos it’s actually The Banker and her Employee. I’m all for historical revisionism right here. There were plenty of successful female merchants and guildswomen in the middle ages and renaissance, and reframing the possessive if nothing else helps regard works with slightly lesser unconscious contemporary bias. And I like she being all boss, “Count my money while I read important shit.”
Into the main hall. It’s called the salle Rubens for a reason.
Let’s divert and do some context: the outer wing salles are about 35 metres long, 12 metres wide, 8-10 metres high to the roofline, topped with steep glass atrium. The whole place was reopened in September after a two-year renovation, concurrent with quite a few restorations. There’s 400 paintings and 160 sculptures on display, of which I stupidly committed to blogging ninety-nine. But we’re talking size here. Both of those 12×8 metre end walls are filled to leaking with a single Rubens each.
I had a moment of vertiginous comprehension right then of art in Europe. In Australia seeing a Rubens is the province of special Once-In-A-Lifetime touring exhibitions in the National Galleries—Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra—and of shelling out $30 or more for the privilege, probably a camera ban too, extremely unlikely to be these massive, monolithic almost 100 square metre pieces. In Europe, I wander into the equivalent of Albury–Wodonga, pay 4.50€ and have a hall where each of the works has the surface area of a room and they’re all fucking Rubens or Maerten de Vos or Caravaggistis or you know, like digging up your backyard and finding a Roman burial chamber.
The first and smallest is a de Vos, another L’Adoration des mages and it’s a charmer. And cos photography doesn’t tell you anything about how big or small a work is, in this case the figures are about lifesize. You’re probably thinking, “But Frances, it’s all religious shit right there. WTF?” (Coz I see your eyes glaze over when I talk about this shit, just like they do when I go all Nürburgring 24h on you.) And you’d be right. But you’re wrong. Ignore Mary and the Holy Family for a second and look at the crowd scene. Look at the clothing, the headdresses, the people. Look at the camels. Look at the elephants!
Next to that, another de Vos, La Sainte Parenté, which I love for its wall-to-wall women.
And opposite, Rubens’ Le martyre de Saint Etienne. The brushwork, movement, light, photos don’t really convey this, especially with its size. And for size: his Le Triomphe de l’Eucharistie, one of those end wall pieces. We’re talking not quite double life-size here. And check out the babes at the bottom. Totally, “That’s my Fetish!” right there.
Out of the salle and into the small ones. Jean-Baptiste Vanmour is a very interesting guy, as his name indicates. Portrait d’un dignitaire noir is the size of a large book, buckets of glaze and subdued tones and requisite naked window lighting glare. It’s a full-length piece, his clothing is sumptuous. This is about the best I could do, and even then the colour balance is iffy.
And then a goat. Any museum without goats, I am not interested. This one had at least three.
I’m whipping through some rooms here, until we get to Jan Cossiers’ La diseuse de bonne aventure, which I realised in the Louvre is a bit of a northern European theme (pretty sure I’ve seen this subject in Gemäldegalerie). The rich young fop who has his purse cut on one side while getting his palm read on the other. I’m not sure if the message is, “Gypsies. amirite?” or “LOL Fop!” slash “Doin’ it for teh lulz.” Anyway, Baroque memes.
Approximately next to that, drunk family and bagpipes. Thank you very much, Jacob Jordaens and your Les Jeunes piaillent comme chantent les vieux, quite a bit for the pleased woman on the right and her glass. You know you’d get your drunk on with her.
In the same chamber—I think, one of the smaller quartet ones anyway—is the brilliant Architecture animée de personnages by Jacobus Ferdinandus Saeys. He was seriously into painting architecture, but it’s personnages here, the women in their mad clothing, hats and parasols, and the principally the prancing guy filling up the empty lower left quarter, tripping gaily with two dogs and a red parrot matching his boots and scarf, dressed in black and yellow stripes, a feather in his turban … in all my museuming I’ve seen none finer. None. Finer.
So I’m just going to stop this first part here, and let you wander through the remaining pieces.
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes continues in the Rotonda & salon Carpeaux.