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.
Either Gemäldegalerie rotate some of their collection (the smaller works it seems) or I magically have seen this work before on their walls. Or it’s from the room that’s currently holding Jean Fouquet’s Das Diptychon von Melun, ’cos one of my faves was definitely missing. Hans Springinklee, a student of Albrecht Dürer (notably worked on Durer’s Triumphal Arch, Ehrenpforte Maximilians I.), more known for woodcuts and illustrations, but occasionally he painted, and here’s his Allegorie auf die Binde- und Lösegewalt des Papsttums, (Allegory on the Binding and Loosening of the Papacy), a riot of saints and martyrs floating on clouds, waving palm fronds (Saint Christóforos is up the back; you could play Name that Saint all day), St. Peter offering the pope a chalice full of crowned black snakes, and St. Michael busy heaving a sword and weighing souls on his scales.
Two more Adoration of the Magi from Gemäldegalerie’s In Neuem Licht exhibition. The first, a copy after Hugo van der Goes’ Die Anbetung der Könige vor dem Stall im Hügel from around 1500 (or maybe more like a copy of Gerard David’s early-1500s copy of van der Goes’ now lost original, though this one’s narrower and missing a couple of figues on the left — either way, done around the same time). The second, the Meister der Crispinus-Legende’s Die Anbetung der Heiligen Drei Könige panel from the Straußfurter Marienaltar, from around 1520. Van der Goes did one of my favourite works in the Gemäldegalerie, Die Anbetung der Hirten, as well, the gallery has another of his, the Monforte altarpiece Der Anbetung der Könige. Meister der Crispinus-Legende I’ve never heard of, but does remind me of some pieces in Magyar Nemzeti Galéria in Budapest, I saw on my eastern Europe jaunt a couple of winters ago.
(These photos were taken when I’ve been not so inclined to spend days editing scores of images, nor to agonise over photographing under crap light — and the lighting in In Neuem Licht is on the crap end — so they’re both not really up to my usual standard, but on the off-chance I don’t go back to photograph these pieces properly, they seem to be the only easily findable images of these on the internet.)
An afternoon at the Gemäldegalerie with one of my favourite museum partners, Robert. We spent a lot of time in front of Jean Fouquet’s Das Diptychon von Melun — which I will photograph, ’cos I have to go back for In Neuem Licht. I don’t think I can imagine the extent of their stockrooms. They’ve got 70 works on display in the central atrium, all deep blue walls and the gentle murmur of the long fountain, and any of them could easily win a fight for a hanging spot on in permanent collection (where I’m pretty sure some of them occasionally reside).
I’m fighting my urge to photograph everything in a museum at the moment. I wasn’t going to point camera at anything, but then I saw a trio of northern European mediæval Die Anbetung der Könige, and … especially when one of them is a copy of the very famous Hieronymus Bosch one, which hangs in Museo del Prado. It’s like I’ve already seen it, I know it so well. So I’m going to try blogging individually some of the pieces I like, and I have to go back anyway, ’cos it was all kinda rushed with the camera. This one, then, is a copy of Bosch’s Adoration of the Magi or The Epiphany, from around 1550, on oak, Kat.-Nr. 1223. It’s been in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s collection since it was acquired in 1837 from General Otto August Rühle von Lilienstern. I’d love to go to Madrid and see the original, it’s one of my favourites, along with Pieter Bruegel de Oude’s unfinished De Aanbiddung der Wijzen.
Reading started ten years ago with just the covers of whatever I was reading — or about to read, blogged at the start. Then I added a paragraph or two about why I was reading whatever. Definitely not a review, I kept on repeating. More or less they’ve become reviews which I write either some way into the reading or at the end. Sometimes still at the beginning. Reviews, not reviews, whatever, reasons for reading. This last year at least, that’s turned into multi-thousand word essays on some books.
Fark! But wot about the cover art, Frances?
Reading is about the object, its materiality. The weight of the paper, the typography, the width of the margins, the smell of the ink and binding, the texture of the cover, the volume it occupies. The cover art.
A good cover thrills me. A bad one makes me cringe. Cover art is bound as much to genre constraints as it is to budget — and every class and decimal of Dewey is a genre. A good cover on a mass market paperback is not diminished by the crappiness of the print (cos the paper will yellow and grow brittle in the space of years), but no amount of expensive binding or price makes up for shiteful cover art and typography. So here are my favourite covers from 2017.
I love thematic consistency, editions or series by the same designer with a common style. I know it’s been done for decades, but it still seems new to me, maybe because I enjoy seeing the idea developed across multiple books. I especially love it when there’s a consonance between cover and story, like Steph Swainston’s Castle series, of which I read Fair Rebel this year (no idea who did the cover art, but it reprises the original trilogy). Totally fits the world. I see these covers and I immediately have images of the Fourlands, the Circle, of Jant fill my head.
Becky Chambers, whose The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit I read this year do attractive simplicity — lowercase typeface in shifting colour over astrophotography and silhouette of small figures on a hill in the lowest fifth. Again, I see these covers and know the world and characters. At the opposite end, full design, where typography and art are one, there’s Ben Aaronovitch’s Moon Over Soho and Rivers of London (cover art by Stephen Walter, and cheers again to Gala for introducing me to his brilliant series). Aesthetically, they’re not really my thing, but they suit the novels in a way (or you could go the whole Ayize Jama-Everett direction, or South London Grime, which might be more congruent, though scare off the nice readers).
I have Iain M. Banks covers. Not published any time recently but just as he’ll never not be my favourite author (“On what timescale, Frances?” “Oh, you know, heat death of the universe?”) the unified cover art of his various editions I love. The original editions are by Mark Salwowski (and I just discovered I can buy prints!), then the 2005 imprint was done by blacksheep, some of which I like more than the originals, but some, like Feersum Endjinn are iconic. No matter what edition or genre, these covers do solid typography and art. The post-2005 novels retain the 2005 style, but — for The Hydrogen Sonata at least — Lauren Panepinto is the artist. I could easily throw in any of these late-Banks covers here, but this is his last Culture novel and I have a deep fondness for it. The colour of the cover is that of the story.
11 covers then, in my first — and perhaps last — dance with cover art. Slightly less than a third of the books I read have covers (or complete design and binding, which is an even smaller subset) I think really gives the author and writing their due — and the reader, ’cos there’s nothing I love more than a beautiful book. So cheers to all you designers and artists and typographers, and cheers to the publishers who represent their authors with such art, you make the world a better place.
Another year of reading. Ten years I’ve been at this, blogging every book I read (almost every, a few slipped by over the years). Going from just blogging the book covers, to a few lines on why I was reading, to my recent frankly absurd multi-thousand word essays on some of Iain (M. or not) Banks novels. Trying to rein in that latter particular excess.
Usually at this point, I look at what I wrote a year ago, so I can aim for some sort of consistency.
A lot of fiction this year, almost twice as much as non-fiction, for a total of 34 books read — or attempted, I gave up on a few, and there’s a couple that I’ve already started but won’t make this list, ’cos I haven’t blogged them yet. Blogging is reading, just like rubbing is racing.
There were a few other non-fiction works, but let’s get onto the fiction, or science-fiction and fantasy, ’cos I still don’t read anything else. I went on a lengthy Iain M. (plus a couple of non-M.) Banks binge earlier this year. I needed to just read, eyes rush over the pages, know before I started I’d love the story, sink back into familiar worlds and lives. Obviously that mean starting with my favourite book ever, Feersum Endjinn, and this being my first Banks re-read in some years, I came to him with a tonne of new reading behind me, and wow did I ever write about all my new thoughts. I followed that up with Whit, which has never been one of my favourites, nor did I think of it as one of his best. Wrong again, Frances. Back to The Business after that, definitely one I adore, and have read at least 6 times, then back into his skiffy with the late / last trio: Surface Detail, The Hydrogen Sonata, and Matter. I feel a little unsure putting these in my year’s reading here, as though there’s nothing remarkable about reading him multiple times, or that this is supposed to be about new books I’ve read. On the other hand, fuck it, it’s my blog and my reading and I can fuck off if that’s the attitude I’m going to bring.
There was a sizeable dip early- to mid-year, disappointment in fiction, feeling apathetic about the heaviness of non-fiction (thanks, Twitter), and also perhaps just steamrolling through scores of books year after year is an unrealistic monotone that I’m not. I did have a thrill with one more of Steph Swainston’s Castle novels, Fair Rebel, followed almost immediately by Above the Snowline, and love that she decided to return to writing, ’cos she’s one of the best. Not easy, these are large, demanding works that don’t mainline narrative reward, but she’s got one of the most captivating and extensive fantasy worlds I’ve read.
At the same time as Swainston, I got my grubby mitts on Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger. Something of marketed as Young Adult (is not), and not especially long (longer though than his novella Slow Bullets), and it feels like a Girl’s Own bit of romp, then he massacres an entire ship’s crew and continues in his very, very dark and existentially terrifying way right up till the end. Book of the Year for me, right there. Then there was the aforementioned Banks tour, and not until I was in Brussels did I get mad thrilled about fiction again. Cheers, once again, Gala. Ben Aaronovitch’s PC Grant series, A young Idris Elba / Stormzy cop with Harry Potter powers. A more cheerful Liminal People series. I started with number 2, Moon Over Soho, which meant reading the first in the series, Rivers of London had both plenty of, “I know who these people are,” and “Oh shit, her face is gonna fall off, isn’t it?” I’ve got the other 5 in the series on order.
I get to this point of writing, and I’ve added the covers of all these books, so I’ve got a nice visual treat in front of my mug, and I scroll through them … smiles all the way. And a little shiver of goosebumps. I’m lucky as all shit to be able to buy new books almost every week even when I’m on the verge of poverty (cheers, Germany and your incomprehensible to Australia attitude to cheap books), and lucky as all shit to have the time and education and all the rest to be able to read them. It’s a human right and every day I give thanks to the people (shout out to Eleanor Roosevelt here!) who fought and continue to fight for our inalienable rights.
Maybe I’m going to make this a thing (which always feels contrived), but I’ll finish quoting myself again, first from 2013 and then from 2015:
Buy books! Buy books for your friends! Encourage people to read. If you know someone who Can’t Read Good (And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too), help them, reading is only difficult if you’ve been told it is. Support your local libraries!
So here’s to the writers, and their publishers and proofreaders and editors and typesetters and designers and artists and agents and friends and families who make it possible for them to write so that I may read.
And speaking of designers and artists, I decided to do a Book Covers of the Year thing, dunno why I haven’t before now. Mainly because both Revenger and October have covers that smash it. Also the original Feersum Endjinn, class late-20th century sci-fi cover art there.
Thrilled and awed by all this reading? Here’s the last years’ anniversary lists:
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.
I had thought MedievalPOC had Twitted/tumbled this recently, but it was rather John Singleton Copley’s The Death of Major Peirson at the Battle of Jersey (here on Twit, and tumblr) with the Black Scottish auctioneer’s assistant to James Christie front-and-centre doing the business with the flintlock. When I last visited the museum, I blogged Wappers’ painting, but — as is my tendency — it’s kinda under-exposed and dim, and the photos I took last week are far more detailed. As for whether under- or over-exposed or -contrasted, I dunno, this museum has some fucking abysmal lighting, both natural and artificial, and I’m only slightly competent at point-and-click.
So, seeing Twit is shite to search, and it doesn’t seem that MPOC tumbled it, I thought I’d throw this one up, for the shoeless Drummer Boy who’s at the centre of history, keeping one foot dainty on a woman’s dress. Very compositional.
One last thing. The dickwad bro with his shirt open, last person on the right in the foreground light, is totally pushing over a woman carrying a baby with a hearty face shove. No idea what this is supposed to represent or signify, but guy’s spreading all over where the women are, and the third woman (the one lending her dress to Drummer Boy) in this triangle around the other shirtless guy, who’s busy dying, is giving Mr. ’Scuse Me, Bitch, Must Spread a nasty stink eye. So obvs means something, perhaps that the women here are around a hundred years off getting the vote, slightly before Blacks in the Belgian Congo could.