City boy goes to the country. Country things happen to city boy.
Taking a breather from Ben Aaronovitch’s on-going story of the Faceless Man, and giving PC Peter Grant a break after having his partner, PC Lesley May turn traitor and join with said Faceless Man to drop a brutalist high-rise apartment block — the story of Grant and architecture right there. Off to Herefordshire.
About half-way through Foxglove Summer, I opened Maps and traced the story, based in Leominster, following the River Lugg up to Mortimer’s Cross, up the gorge to Aymestrey, into the parks and forests of Croft Castle and Gatley Park, where the land folds in long, north-east to south-west ridges, all the way to Raymond Erith’s Folly, with its domed roof, full of bees. It took a while, but worth it.
This could almost be read on its own, if you were prepared to let references to past events slide, and characters arrive with little or no establishing scenes. Sometimes I like that, an antidote to the plodding literalism of much genre fiction which has to tell and explain every step. So we have fairies, retired wizards (with granddaughters with said bees), unicorns, Roman roads — and Romans, countryside relationships (even queer ones, ’cos rural doesn’t mean parochial), Beverley Brook, goddess of the same river in London, who arranges for a small stream near the Lugg to be reborn (with help from Peter) kidnapped children and changelings, and the original forest of Britain. Just the kind of diversion he needs — and just the kind of opening up of the series so it doesn’t become one tiresome slog to nail a singular evildoer.
And if I could not like this series more, there’s a quiet love of hoonage throughout, from PC Grant’s Ford ASBO, to Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale’s Jaguar Mark 2 with the 3.8 litre XK6 engine, to the Utes of Herefordshire, and a Ferrari 288 GTO in the next novel (which I’m taking as a poignant homage to Iain Banks’ The Business, also, yes, “Brutal.”). He’s got my heart here, Muslim ninja cops and hoonage.
Flying into Tegel from Brussels yesterday evening, north of Berlin. I sat in 20-F, the sun coming in over my right shoulder, as we cut a giant curve from the Berliner Ring to turn back west, I sang, “… As we moved out of the farmlands into the grid …”.
These lyrics. How she sings them. Just my regular reminder to self that after 24 years Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville is still one of the best albums ever.
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.
From the airy natural light of the Oldmasters Museum, it was along, down, around, down some more, turn some corners, past some more art, ricochet off the gates of the Chagall exhibition, more stairs. Sort of how the Gründerzeit of the Zeughaus unfolds into the 21st century of I. M. Pei’s Deutsches Historisches Museum extension. Or something like Daniel Liebeskind’s Jüdisches Museum Berlin. Lots of angles. Kinda dim also. Dim with blobs of light. Or occasionally shards of natural light, in whose line delicate paintings were placed rendering them unviewable from the usual position art is viewed from.
Yes, I’m on my regular hate paragraph about shithouse lighting in museums. I actually noticed it when Medieval POC reblogged one of the works from Oldmasters Museum and I was horrified at how shoddy it looked, especially as I’d spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to unshoddify it. The orb of blue glare was strong in the upper parts of too many works in Brussels. But Henri Evenepoel’s De annkondiging van het negerfest te Blida which suffered from the ridiculous, “Let’s place a work that’s generally quite muted and dark, with figures who have dark skin, where all the details are in variations of dark tones, let’s place this work, covered with a pane of glass, in the one place on the entire floor where direct, natural exterior light will bounce off it and into the viewer’s eyes.” Did no one stop to think, “Nah, crap idea”? Obviously not. I photographed it from around a 45º angle to the left, underexposed it hugely, and photoshopped the crap out of it.
Ooievaars by Louis Dubois was also in a dim, obscure location. I guess it looked something like this. It was one of my favourites, brooding, eerie, entirely untrustworthy. I don’t think anyone meeting a gang of fowl like that would come out the other side of the swamp intact.
There were a lot—in fact probably one of the two main themes in the museum—of paintings of poverty, poor migrant workers, farmers, exhausted labourers at work or stumbling to and from the factories, single women working alone in ill-lit rooms. Léon Frederic’s triptych De krijtverkopers was one of the strongest, muted colours, lack of contrast, general hopelessness, the expression of the girl in the centre of the middle panel looking out directly at the viewer is incalculably grim.
The other main theme: women alone in similar situations, or in ateliers, or straight portraits. Maybe it was where my attention went. James Ensor’s Een coloriste, Portret van Marguerite Khnopff by Fernand Knopff, Henri Fantin-Latour’s De tekenles in het atelier. If anything marked fin-de-siècle art besides mysticism and romanticism, it’s this acutely political work.
Speaking of mysticism, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’ De bruidsstoet van Psyche struck me as the endgame of whiteness in European art. Go back through the museum and there’s works of orientalism in various forms; go back through the history of art and people who aren’t excruciatingly white are regular occurrences. This Pre-Raphaelite piece though pushes skin colour to a particular, uniform monotony (something I do see in the movement’s inspiration, Italian Quattrocento). They’re all exactly the same light tone, all also besides their hair colour have identical faces. I wanted to include it here because it spoke to me so clearly of this complete erasure, and the European fantasy of the pure white woman.
Just after, an utter treat for me: a whole corridor devoted to opera in Brussels, starting with and dominated by Wagner and Parsifal. The staging from Act II, Klingsor’s enchanted castle where the Flowermaidens attempt to seduce Parsifal, where Kundry emerges to face him. This scenography for the Belgian Première, all hot reds, oranges, yellows, looks completely modern, also for the empty blackness of the door, almost a signifier of Amfortas’ wound. Next to this, a commemorative book with Wagner’s profile on the frontispiece. Then the restaurant menu, Parsifal mounted on a horse, Klingsor’s cloud-wrapped castle hanging in the distance. And two large bronze coins, one with the Holy Grail, the other with the dancing Flowermaidens. On the wall behind all this, posters for the premiere, and for other Wagner operas staged in La Monnaie De Munt.
Three other paintings: Théo Van Rysselberghe’s Arabische fantasia. Dumb name for awesome painting. The right half mostly empty sand, a man with a long rifle riding a chestnut horse with white facial blaze. He’s in orange robes and light yellow turban, pulling the horse in, his rifle smoking, mouth open, eyes looking left and down. Behind him a mounted quintet in white all brandishing similar rifles. The thin border on the right is populated with a standing crowd of which two boys stand out. The triangle on the left is full with riders watching the scene, on horses with vermillion harnesses. One in white leans back, his bare arm supporting his weight on his horse’s grey back. Behind him, another rider in grey-blue robes looks out into the viewer’s eyes. Behind all, a white walled city blocks the horizon in a low line, above that, intense blue sky. The painting is from the artist’s second trip to Morocco in 1883/4. All the riders and audience are North African, arabic, muslim.
Then two by Henri Evenepoel, De annkondiging van het negerfest te Blida (the horribly lit one), and next to it, Sinaasappelmarkt te Blida, both from the artist’s time in Algeria in 1898.They’re substantially different to Arabische fantasia, brushwork less detailed, blocks of moving colour Fauvist rather than realism and light of Rysselberghe. Thematically also they’re more intimate, smaller, a corner in a market alley, the market itself, but mostly obscured by the figures in the foreground.
Completely opposite this these three works are three by Guillaume Vogels, all dour, grey, winter Belgium realism, skeletal, leafless trees, snow, light only through clouds and low on the horizon, everything a formless, inexact mash. I loved these also, as unique as the harsh light and colour of North Africa.
Lastly, Xavier Mellery’s La danse. I’m not sure what to make of it, it’s kinda ugly, the solid gold background, the female dancers somewhere between dark-skinned and in shadow, but not quite either, moving and jumping yet not quite either, for such a scene of movement it’s annoyingly concrete and unmoving.
And 293 images later (plus another score with Hans and in the theatre) that’s the end of four museums on a weekend in Brussels.
I’ve never liked Magritte. I find his stuff tedious and insipid, exemplary only of the twee French purgatory of symbolism. The three floors of Magritte confirmed it. While Der Blaue Reiter, Die Brücke, expressionism, and all the other radical breaks with conservative ideas was going on, he was comfortable rolling out decades of conservative fantasies. I got through all that in about 5 minutes.
On to the proper fucking art of the Old Masters!
There was so much good stuff here, I ended up having to blog a couple of works separately: Pieter Bruegel de Oude’s De Aanbiddung der Wijze and Peter Paul Rubens’ Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor. The collection here is comparable to the Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie (which I’ve been to several times now), though the gallery itself is nowhere near as conducive to good art viewing. It does flow around in concentric arcs of rooms encouraging diverse meandering, but the lighting, ooh such pain. The ideal of natural light collides solidly with the insane glossy reflectiveness of so very much of art in the past few hundred years. Some of the works suffered terribly, I could barely see them if I stood in front, and was doing severe underexposed and photograph from off to one side tricks to get something part-way useful. I was also a bit shitty after my visit to the poorly curated Jubelparkmuseum / Musée de Cinquantenaire, so when I saw part of the collection was closed, I wanted to start kicking paintings over the balcony.
The first two works, Tafereel van de Septembertagen 1830, op de Grote Markt te Brussel, and Jezus bij Simon Farizeër are in the atrium, along with a few other huge-scale works. Upstairs, in a ring around the space is the Oldmasters Museum. There were so many good works here, I’m not sure what to say on any of them. The panel of the prophet Jeremiah standing on a plinth reading flanked by another panel of Noli me tangere, the background sky a red and blue tapestry. Virgo Inter Virgines, with Saint Agatha and one of her breasts held in pincers like a delectable cake; the two different but both equally beautiful Maria met Kind, especially Quinten Metsys’ one for the expression on her face; the kissing and washing of Jesus’ feet, in Triptiek van de Abdij van Dielegem (the middle panel being again Jezus bij Simon Farizeër), and Jezus in het Huis van Simon de Farizeër; Cranach’s astounding Caritas, the colour of their skin and the shadows almost unearthly.
Later many works by Pieters Brughel the Younger and the Elder, the glorious De Aanbiddung der Wijzen met Sneeuweffect and others completely overshadowed by the uncompleted De Aanbiddung der Wijze. In Triptiek van de Familie Micault, the colour of his skin is distinctly that of a dead person, which is to say there was a particular tone and colour used to represent a person as dead even when they were prancing around. Also the guy on the left panel in the cat clothes. He is totally meme-worthy. Triptiek met de Deugd van het Geduld is one of many that has camels. Camels everywhere. I’ve never seen so many (if any at all) camels in late-mediæval art as I have in Brussels.
The works change to more recognisably Flemish and Netherlandish in Jesus bij Martha en Maria and De Keukenmeid. Both, along with Keukenstuk and Warmoezeniershof are as much about the colour and form of still-lifes of meat, vegetables, fowl as they are about the women in the scene—and women are presented as succulently as the food. It’s kinda debauched.
A couple, Portret van een Bejaarde Dame and De Bankier met zijn Vrouw I liked for themselves though could have excluded from my ridiculously long archive of images, but I kept in because I like them and because of the works’ titles. “An old woman” “his wife” both women are unnamed yet in the former obviously she is someone of bearing and importance—anyone who called her ‘old woman’ she’d just level that withering stare and their cocks would shrivel up. In the latter, the lighting, the strong red of her clothing, him in shadow and almost blending into the background, her attention pulled away from the book to him examining a coin, it seems to me it’s rather the other way around: he is hers; she is the subject.
A quick diversion into Juno voedt Hercules which at first I thought was a Maria lactans, and I suppose Rubens can pretend all he likes it’s not but everything about this work makes it obvious. The prodigious gushing of milk from her breast sprays out into the background covering it like the milky way in night sky. It’s so excessive, almost an equivalent to the bloody Jesus paintings and sculptures of the Northern Germanic middle ages.
Het Atelier van de Schilderessen, differently titled in French as L’atelier des Femmes Peintres, I couldn’t get a full image of it thanks to horrible lighting, but the group of female painters surrounding the model with her massive bludgeon and bearskin, its mouth over her head like a cowl, one of them reading, five of the others drawing and painting her, it’s the two with glowing cigarettes jammed in their mouths I love the most, and I do love everything about this work.
There were other works (oh so many others), as I finished this museum and meandered down, along, up, into the Fin de Siècle Museum (ignoring the Chagall exhibition—far too expensive). Those images are still pestering me to get on and edit, thankfully not so many. Nonetheless, this for the moment is an incomplete account of visiting a museum.
Home one day early. Improbably cheap bus from beloved Wrocław to beloved Berlin through afternoon and evening, Snow departure. Snow across southern Poland. Snow and darkness in Germany. Two weeks before, Budapest to Kraków, another bus. Those photos were better. I was trying to do what I remembered from then, the combination of dirty and tinted glass, dim light, snow, cold air, interior light reflection. My memory was of them far more abstract. Another thing, then I was photographing towards the sun, this time the sun was on my front-left and I was photographing to the right or at most front-right. Still, a couple of them have something interesting for me. I had a strange daydream of spending winter on budget busses going back and forth across the Carpathians just so I could get the right dirty windows to photograph through.
Paul Emmanuel, whom I met in Taipei ages ago, has an exhibition opening in a couple of weeks. Farms, sheep, painting, baaaaaaa!!! (download the pdf here)
paul emmanuel fleece painting
Oriel Myrddin Gallery
8 January – 26 February 2011
Paul Emmanuel’s most recent body of work Fleece Paintings are just that, unrefined sheep fleece onto which the artist has applied variously coloured oil paints.
The fleece is sourced locally from farms surrounding the artist’s studio in the Brecon Beacons and the works themselves are named after each of these farms. The initial inspiration for these works came from the artist noticing scraps of matted fleece in the grass and caught in the barbed wire fencing enclosing the fields around the farm where he lives and works. These paintings are also inspired by the use of sheep marker; different colours daubed directly onto the animals back as a way of delineating one flock from another.