Level 0 is in the basement of The National Gallery. Or feels like it after the airy heights of Level 2 and the Sainsbury Wing. It contains a cruciform quintet of rooms, with a couple more off one side I blasted through. This was “Running out of time!” territory and “Really need to get to airport, Frances.” Gallery A, though, how could I not?
Honoré-Victorin Daumier’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza was before all that, but appears at the end here, as chronologically it makes more sense, and was in one of those other small rooms. It’s a bit of an orphan. I would gladly steal it and have it break me into a smile every morning.
So much good art here! Gallery A is a rotating exhibition of the Gallery’s collection, and spans much of the last seven hundred years. On its own it could be a small town museum, like Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes with its walls of Rubens. And there’s a Rubens here: A Roman Triumph, which is frankly bonkers, more or less in keeping with him. A lot of mediæval and Renaissance Italian art, the dominant region for these periods in the gallery. It speaks of how vast and strong the collection is that some of these are only worthy of being in Gallery A and not upstairs.
Amidst all the mediæval art, Agnolo Gaddi’s The Coronation of the Virgin caught me for the delicate colour that needs to be seen up close, as does Benozzo Gozzoli’s The Virgin and Child Enthroned among Angels and Saints, almost sculptural in its flatness, like a bas relief. Yes, Rubens, elephants and a huge, thronging crowd of musicians, dancers, animals probably going to be slaughtered, fire, smoke, noise, they’re all well amped for a party, definitely one of my favourites of his.
Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s The Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross reminds me of Master of the Saint Bartholomew’s The Deposition though each such different works in style and technique. It’s the grotesque, visceral movement in both, frozen and posed, like a scene in a film. And I felt like I’d already written this exact sentence before realising there is an almost identical one by him in the Level 2, 1700–1930 collection, from a slightly different angle, like two moments in time by photographers standing side by side.
I was by then running late for the airport and now have been writing all day, so in both instances this where I stop. Abruptly.
Pushing on through the centuries in The National Gallery. I’d been blasting through, sated on mediæval stuff and just wanting to not leave without walking through every room, even if nothing moved me. We’re getting into Baroque here, and to be clear, my interest in European art diminishes from here on, really until the Expressionists and Post-Impressionists. It becomes wallpaper of rich white men who were doing all the colonialism and other barbarity; women dwindle and largely vanish, and the diversity of previous eras is replaced by a monotony of aggrandisement.
But there’s still a few pearls here, like Juan de Valdés’ The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, with Two Donors, which — as with so many of my photos — fails to capture the depth and beauty, but just pretend the photo is as striking and profound as it actually is.
Later there is Mattia Preti’s The Marriage at Cana, a homage to Paolo Veronese’ Les Noces de Cana in the Louvre. It’s compositionally very different, and the use of light, contrast, and depth is closer to El Greco, than Veronese, as well as the naturalism. But what struck me is the figure pouring the wine, a black youth or maybe a little person. His face almost in profile and with the exception of the outline of his ear is a solid dark brown, there’s almost no variation in colour or tone. Nearby is Luca Giordano’s A Homage to Velázquez, with a similar figure in the bottom-left corner, not quite as singularly painted as Preti’s but pretty close, with again his ear highlighted, and faintly the contours of his face.
Lastly, Carlo Dolci’s The Adoration of the Kings. I think I traipse around Europe just looking at these. I love his white turban and the floral embroidery; he’s particularly finely dressed is our Balthazar here.
I’m writing these posts only slightly slower than I saw all the art, so next stop is the 1700–1930 bunch.
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.
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.
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.
The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962–1976 is Frank Dikötter’s final book in the trilogy covering China and Chairman Mao from 1945 until his death in 1976. An earlier, much shorter work covering the Republican era makes it something of a quartet. I haven’t read his work prior to these four — he’s been publishing on China for 25 years, and has been Chair Professor of Humanities at University of Hong Kong since 2006. He’s one of a handful of China historians who I will always read and look forward to whatever they write next.
It’s difficult to say this work has a weakness, when I think the previous two are some of the finest and most meticulously researched in any of the subjects I read (I’m holding the likes or Caroline Walker Bynum and Susan Mann as my exemplars), it might simply be my familiarity with the subject, both from reading and from friends in China. For most readers, especially if they slam the trilogy one after the other it’s a horrifying, relentless work of history, and that has no peer I can think of for 20th century Maoist China.
One thing I am unsure about though, and I’ve found this in other writers on Mao (like Jung Chang) and on the other singular figures of 20th century despotism (like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot) is the ease with which so much power and capability is assigned to them. What I remain unsure on in all my reading on China under Mao is the complicity of others. It’s that question, if he was indeed an individual in all this why didn’t they stop him? If not, why, during those three decades of his rule, did they not see the repeating patterns of behaviour and rule, and not make the same bad decisions over and over. Were they fucking stupid? It’s not that there’s an absence of resistance in this book, in fact there’s plenty of it once we get down to the regional and village levels, but perhaps what I’d like to read is a history of Mao’s China without him in it.
What The Cultural Revolution illustrates, in a way I think no other work on the subject has done so clearly, is that this period was essentially a continuation, or a reinvigoration of the Great Leap Forward. Certainly it was a total war against culture and history, and it demonstrates just how rapidly a culture can be erased (a couple of weeks if you’re curious as to how fast your world can vanish), but the preparations for nuclear war, the inland industrialisation, the return of collectivisation and all that went with this, were all methods of that genocidal period a decade earlier.
Maybe I throw around the term genocide too freely. It seems to me it’s not used enough. I think with Mao and his mob it rests on whether the deaths of tens of millions and the destruction of culture were intentional. Is ‘I don’t care how many die as long as I achieve my goals’ intentional, or merely indifference? What about engineering chaos for the same ends which as a side-effect result in what we currently call collateral damage? What about if you say, “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” If that half die because you ‘let’ them, is that genocide, or something else? If we have to ascribe intentionality to genocide, then the most recognition of culpability we can expect from a perpetrator is “Oops, my bad.” Which is approximately as much as the current ruling party of China says — the same party of all these three books, ruling in unbroken succession. Or maybe, “30% my bad.” Because the final ruling by the party on itself for all these atrocities was “70% good, 30% bad.”
I would like to think that in the next decade or so Dikötter’s works become less remarkable as more historians write ever more fine and detailed works on 20th century China. I do think some of the criticisms of his work are valid, in particular that it’s “more like a catalogue of anecdotes about atrocities than a sustained analytic argument”. But against that is the fact there are sod all historians writing on 20th century China compared to say 20th century Germany or Russia. Guangdong history alone could and should occupy entire departments, yet here we are, still treating China as a monolith. Worth reading all three at once, not just for history, but as a lesson in how easily a dictatorship can grow and devour continents.
All the Victoria & Albert Museum. Well, all the mediæval stuff. That I could find. Plus some renaissance stuff, and a couple of other nice pieces. Masses of art from a Sunday afternoon with the awesome Jennifer Evans for company. Shared hangover also. In the sun in the courtyard garden. Romping the halls and galleries.
I saw: half of Level 0; less than a third of Level 1; a bit under half of Level 2; not much more than a quarter of Level 3; nothing of Levels 4 and 5; dunno if Level 6 even exists. All that in five hours until I got kicked out. I get booted from museums at closing time like most people get booted from bars, pubs, and clubs.
I missed: The brilliant Würzburg St. Maurice wooden statue because … I dunno. Was the room closed? Did I think there was nothing in the next room? Like many museums, incompleteness is a reason to return, to the city and the museum.
Best thing: It’s free! Blimey! So was the National Gallery. What kind of witchcraft is that where museums are free? Other best thing: It’s organised by material as well as chronologically. Which is frankly awesome. Another best thing: It was packed. And I mean packed. They must get millions of visitors a year. Yay, art! (Good estimate based on a single day, Frances: 3.5 million in 2015.)
How many photos did you take, Frances? A shade over 300, including captions. And how many have you blogged? This is the bit that always embarrasses me when I’ve finished editing them all: 111. The number’s kinda like an objective remark on my tendency towards excessive fun. I mean it’s not like I’m banging heroin anymore, is it? Museums it is, then.
Speaking of massive altarpieces, here we go. Level 1 of Victoria & Albert Museum, the ground floor entrance, lofty, airy ceilings and art stretching up to them. It’s a bit like the Bode Museum for scale of art and architecture. Unlike the Bode, it’s packed. People are promenading like it’s life’s greatest accomplishment to wander around mediæval art. Which it is.
I’m first taken by The Troyes Altarpiece. We’re getting into very Late Mediæval / Early Renaissance here, and it’s not the most virtuoso altarpiece I’ve seen, it’s in limestone so the finesse possible in wood isn’t here, but it has a solidity and depth, like exaggerated perspective between the foreground and background figures. It’s not even especially large compared to The Brixen Altarpiece, which is so huge it’s impossible to look up at without seeing converging lines. Because photographs turn everything, no matter how big or small, into objects of the same dimension and all scale is lost, my head is about level with the heads of the four saints in the predella of The Brixen Altarpiece.
There were also several works I couldn’t or didn’t photograph, either because they were under glass, or I was too hasty. The Brixen Altarpiece was only one of many similarly gigantic altarpieces; The St Margaret Altarpiece was another. An especially fine Northern Germanic piece of a saint I rarely see, and certainly never with her life and torture so disturbingly depicted. This was made around the same time as The Brixen Altarpiece, yet shows the style that continued to develop north of the Alps, distinct from the Renaissance in Italy.
And then there’s Andrea della Robbia’s The Adoration of the Kings, also around the same time and from Italy, in tin-glazed terracotta, and very much committed to Renaissance and even anticipating the Baroque. I think this is one of the V&A’s more famous pieces, and it’s gorgeous in real life. It exemplifies the character of the V&A collections. They’re concerned with materiality; the works on display emphasise the diversity of choice of materials, of techniques, of aesthetics, making the museum as much a place of science and technology as art.
Last piece in these rooms, Perino del Vaga’s The Raising of Lazarus I mention because I realised I’m attracted to works like this fresco, or some of the preparatory sketches or unfinished works (I’m thinking of Pieter Brueghel’s De Aanbiddung der Wijzen here) where there’s a softness and visible exploratory process.
From there, I went into the Cast Courts, where I knew I had no hope; the V&A had been playing with me up to then. It wasn’t quite Louvre scale of tiny people in epic architecture, but for sure reminded me of it. So I got lost trying to find the sculpture corridors, completely missed the St. Mauritius sculpture in the last room (I still have no idea if I was inattentive or if it wasn’t open), turned around, got lost in acres of the Asian collection (Persian miniatures are my thing and I almost put the brakes on the rest of my mediævaling for this and the Islamic collection), found the Raphael rooms—he’s really not my thing, I think people like him because they confuse their fascination with a kind of seductive, transfixing blandness for the sublime, a lot like how people do over the Mona Lisa—the altarpiece was impressive the way the megalith is in 2001—also not Raphael but the ‘Master of the Centenar’ (possible German painter Andrès Marçal de Sas)—sometimes I wish museums put multi-level viewing platforms (with binoculars) in front of these towering pieces, but that’s just because I love smearing my nose right up against the art. Then I’m off up the stairs to Levels 2 and 3.