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.
Three pieces from Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu I particularly liked and thought might get lost amongst the other 90.
The last of four posts on Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, this one perfunctorily covering the European Art of the 15th-20th Centuries collection. My camera battery was flat, I’d been there already three hours, no museum café open to take a break in, and already had over 300 photos which I was dreading culling for here. I went there on Thursday afternoon; it’s Saturday. I’ll keep this short.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s Winter Landscape with Skaters and Bird Trap. I was exuberant about his The Sermon of St. John the Baptist in Muzeum Narodowego w Krakowie, and this isn’t comparable. I just liked it for his style, simplicity, depth and how my eye constantly circles in his work.
Philipp Peter Roos’ Sheep and Ram gets all the lulz. I have no idea why Roos thought painting one farm animal drinking the other’s piss with both of them staring hurrhurr at the viewer, the pisser’s tail lifted for a full arse shot. Doing this now with people in England is illegal. But here in 1690, there’s obviously enough of an audience for sheep piss porn. I actually quite like Roos’ farmyard portraits, he clearly enjoys his subjects’ company and personality. I like him even more for this strange work.
Otello Tells the Stories of his Adventures by Carl Becker is a huge canvas, close to 2 metres horizontally. It’s also the one work where a black person is the main subject. There were a few Adoration of the Magi across all collections, and works like Antoine Pesne’s Gypsy Fortuneteller, or Alfred Wierusz Kowalski’s Couriers in Morocco, the latter broadly fitting into a theme of Arabic subject in the late-19th century, but predominately it’s someone with pale skin who is the subject in theme, position, and lighting. The people with darker skin colour habitually are pushed into the shadows, or out of the light focus; sometimes even their dark skin allows them to be closer than others without pulling attention, like in Corrado Giaquinto’s The Adoration of the Magi. There’s a bit of this too in Becker’s. Otello is in the shadow thrown by the pillar, while his audience pair are in the light (strange shadows that seem to bend according to their own physics). Otello’s lower half, the table beside him and the lower left third are substantially darker than the lighting would suggest, particularly seeing how brilliantly illuminated his golden sleeve is. If he was not Otello, if he was the same skin colour as the other two, then attention would be drawn to him, to his face, away from the pale woman in white in the light and sun.
I’ve seen similar in mediæval art, in the Magi works, this use of skin colour to create or heighten the appearance of light and shadow, to move the focus to the centre. It’s often not helped by poor museum lighting, which ruins everything dark with horrible glare, or just fails to light at all, being outside the narrow focus. I was still struck by it, its size, his central position, his clothing.
Later, a single work of Olga Boznańska. After all of her in Kraków, it’s like seeing someone I’ve just got to know. I didn’t even look at the 20th century Polish collection. I hope the rest of the museums in Wrocław aren’t so good or I’ll be ruined.
A little more brief after the excess of the Sculptures. The Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu collection of 12th-16th Century Silesian Sacral Art paintings is really a good one, just that it pales somewhat when amidst the sculptures, which must be one of the finest collections in Europe. Also, as I’ve seen quite a lot of paintings recently, it’s the oddities that caught my eye.
The Deesis panel by a Silesian Master from around 1420 to start. The other three panels are fairly standard, gilt halos overlapping into a storm of reflective gold, but this last panel, with Jesus in a eye-like slit of rainbow colours is a weird hallucination, its simplicity and sparseness also breaking the quartet’s rhythm. There were a number of Veraicon or Veil of Veronica as well. I’ve seen a couple of these elsewhere, but here there were enough to make it a theme in the work, this repetition of a subject again and again until it dominates.
The Flagellation from the Workshop of the Master of the Years seems to go well with the Wrocław Workshop’s bloody Pietà. Here, Jesus is whipped until his skin forms a regular geometric pattern, diagonal lines of mouth-like wounds crossed by vertical lines of dripping blood. The clothing is more eastern than what I’m used to seeing in Berlin, something I’ve enjoyed on this tour of Museums, the geographic and cultural specifics coming forth in the art.
I really didn’t photograph many paintings though, at least compared to my orgy of sculptures. One that did make me stop is from a Wrocław painter, Portrait of the Bearded Helena Antonia, after 1621. She looked on first glance like a rather regal, possibly arabic man. I read the title, “Bearded Helena” looked again at the clothing, wondered very hard about what I was seeing, came home, found her: “Helena Antonia was a bearded female court dwarf of Maria of Austria, Holy Roman Empress and was a favorite of Margaret of Austria, Queen of Spain, and also a lady-in-waiting for Constance of Austria.” And that’s about all I found on cursory searching. But this is why I love (and despair at) museums, for these recognitions of people who were if not common in art, then at least consistent in the frequency of their appearance, who by the 19th century were almost entirely absent, and only in the past couple of decades is the revisionism of history being undone. It’s also a pretty awesome painting and a very fine beard.
I’m mixing up the collections here. I’ve combined paintings from the Silesian 12th-16th, 17th-19th, and the Polish 16th-19th into one, some of it isn’t even sacral. Mainly because I hadn’t photographed so much of this and wanted to keep things from getting too out of hand. There were a lot of works in the latter two collections I just breezed by, landscapes by the score, important old white men and women (even though usually the women I like to photograph), all that romantic nationalist dross of the late-19th century, at the moment it simply doesn’t interest me; even Baroque art I’m ambivalent about. So, this and the European Art of the 15th-20th Centuries post are flimsy compared to all that sculpture.
I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. I’m still lost from what I’ve seen. I seem also to have privileged the wood sculpture over the paintings in the Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu collection of 12th-16th Century Silesian Sacral Art. The next post on the paintings isn’t nearly as substantial, despite being about a third of the exhibition. But the collection is about the sculptures, the majority from Wrocław, and many, many of them are the finest I’ve seen anywhere.
During and after, I was thinking about the effect religious art has on the viewer. To see St. Catherine or St. Barbara over and over becomes like seeing a friend in different circumstances, or maybe a favourite actor in various roles. This repetition seems fundamental to religion, whether Christian with its iconography, set prayers, Islam with its, Buddhist or others. The repetition engenders a physical and emotional response, particularly visually in art, and particularly when the art touches the sublime as so many of the works here do. Entering a cathedral in the 14th century and being confronted by larger than life works in vibrant colour arrayed around and above, many with signifiers of their suffering and martyrdom, and frequently flanking the centrepiece of Jesus in his brutal and unending torment must have been overwhelming. Even in a museum, out of their original context and closer to, approachable as equals than saints, it’s still unnerving, their power.
It begins quiet, calm, modest, through a door into a corridor, both sides lined with small works, a couple of them attractive in their strong use of blues and reds. I should say also the rooms twist and turn through each other, and the attendants always like to point you in the right direction (and they were very helpful and friendly). There was also an International Gothic style Virgin and Child which I haven’t included here, without the child, the extreme S-curve of her body is made clear by this absence.
Into the first main room. The beginning was a ruse. A two-metre Knight (Workshop of the Master of the Apostles’ Figures, from Convent of Poor Clares), smiling and probably originally with sword but now looking like they’re joyously toasting the arrival, possibly with a reliquary in their chest (like Stark from Iron Man). There’s another room to the left, so caught as I was by the Knight, I didn’t look right until exiting and backtracking (already deeply impressed by the pieces in there, like the gorgeous, smiling Virgin and Child Enthroned on Lions), and then: The wall. Ten metres of eight Saints, all from the Workshop of the Master of the Apostles, each of them alone worthy of a principal place in any other museum I’ve seen, but here merely one of eight (possibly of nine or ten with the gap).
It was when I turned from that, having had a sit-down to recover from what I was seeing, that I had the beginnings of realisation of what I’d gotten myself into.
I call these Caroline Walker Bynums. Crucifixions, Pietàs, Jesus bleeding. Not merely bleeding as an ordinary person, but blood hanging in bunches of grapes or pearls, or fountaining gloriously, or running in improbable floods and streams, all signifiers of what she wrote about in documenting mediæval Germanic Christian blood cults. And here, the Wrocław Workshop again, a Pietà from St Dorothy’s Church. blood hanging like masses of dripped wax, wounds opening like mouths, and not only the usual five. Here, across torso, arms, legs, hands and feet, mouths opened from below, each with three long drops of blood, each mouth no more than a hand-width from the next. And the spear wound, more than a wound or mouth or opening. A space, a thing outside the world, it could engulf this world irrespective of its smallness. It contains the whole world also.
This is by far the most exquisite work of this type I’ve ever seen. I got lost in it, took me quite a while to venture to the next room for which I was again completely unprepared.
The Wrocław Workshop again. I should expect their any such colossal work comes from them. The Crucifixion from the Roof-beam of St. Mary Magdalene’s Church. It’s also a ruse, to see this first would be a letdown, the rooms filled as they are with so many smaller ones. It’s also a preparation. The detail though is remarkable, seeing this was a work meant to be many metres above the faithful’s heads, it contains as much as the smallest, and each face, stance, dress is rich in expressiveness.
After this, there are a succession of moderately-sized sculptures and paintings. In the Lamentation from both the Wrocław Workshop of the Master of the Annunciation Polyptych of St. Elizabeth’s Church, and the Workshop of the Master of the Dormition of Swidnica Polyptych from Lwówek Sląski, as well as others, the attention to skin colour and tone is notable. The latter’s Jesus is blue-white of death, lips especially, while the living around him move from pale northern European to Mediterranean to Semitic, each carefully painted to display the reflection and shadow convincingly. The artistry and sensitivity really is profound.
Amongst all this are works that sit outside the usual, so many I’d have to write a book to do justice. So many details, the jade-coloured wings on an angel, the trio in the Dormition, several Adoration of the Magi with beautiful Persian and African Magi. The Half-Figures of the Magi from the Circle of the Workshop of the Master of the Annunciation Polyptych from Drozków is one, his joyous, open face is transfixing.
The Wrocław Workshop again, almost what the collection circles around. The Road to Calvary from St Mary Magdalene’s Church Wrocław in 1500 fills an entire room. Each of the ten figures is life-size or larger, the faces, legs, tilt, tension, and movement of the bodies, armour, tunics, all this magnificent work is merely a frame for Jesus on his hands and knees dragging the cross, staring squarely, tortured, abject, horrified at me.
So much and I’m barely a quarter of the way through. I did pass only fleetingly through the latter stages of Polish and European 16th-19th century art, and didn’t even go into the contemporary Polish are collection. As for the paintings in this collection, that’s the next post.
As usual, my visit to Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu got out of hand, only saved by flat camera battery and lack of an open café in the building. This is a superb collection, I don’t think I can do it justice; even splitting it over four posts is mostly substituting quantity for quality. If anything, the small, ground floor collection of Silesian Stone Sculpture from the 12th-16th Centuries is the easiest, having thirty or so works, but even that, with the group of large sarcophagus I skimped on, what’s here is barely representative. But firstly,:
- Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu — 1: Silesian Stone Sculpture 12th-16th Centuries
- Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu — 2: Silesian Sacral Art 12th-16th Century Wood Sculpture
- Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu — 3: Silesian Sacral Art 12th-16th Century Painting
- Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu — 4: European Art of the 15th-20th Centuries
So, stone work both sacral and secular. In addition to the large works, there’s also several smaller ones, cartouches, keystones, statues from portals. A couple of these, the Wrocław Workshop’s Figure of a Bishop and Annunciation (?) are some of the oldest mediæval stone work I’ve seen—mediæval here being what museums categorise as covering from around 1200-1500—from the Romanesque period. It could be I’m going to the wrong museums, but pre-Gothic art is quite rare, unless it’s in the Archæological or Ethnological museums, in which case it tends work other than art and sculpture.
Three pieces I particularly liked: two of them being Vir Dolorum (Suffering Christ), the first from the Altar of Wrocław Goldsmiths, both in the former Parish Church of St. Mary Magdalene. The third, a large Pietà, from the BVM Church on Sand Island in Wrocław ~1400, notable for being in limestone with the polychrome still largely intact, which makes it look like the wood sculptures I’m more used to seeing.
Of the two Vir Dolorum, the first also in limestone is a massive piece, very sensitive and detailed, with only traces of the original, vibrant polychrome and gilding remaining. It’s still spectacular despite all the damage. The last one in sandstone and the oldest by around thirty years of the three is a different style entirely. I thought of it as a Caroline Walker Bynum work, as the blood from his wounds hangs like bunches of grapes or pearls from his side and hands, entirely unlike blood. I think this is what I’m finding so interesting in mediæval art at the moment, not so much the endless repetition of a few subjects, but the changing symbolism within—well, also the changing styles and aesthetics over a few hundred years and across different regions in Central Europe. To me, the changing representations of blood signify deep philosophical arguments that are not so different from the ones taking place in the Renaissance or even in the past half-century. It seems to me also, that the subject matter sits behind these signifiers, that is to say, if I walked into a church in 1370 and saw blood represented as these bunches of pearls or not, I would immediately be cognisant of this church’s place in an ongoing debate, and the collectivity of works with a church would serve to summarise and elucidate that.
Out of that one room, up the stairs and into colossal, violent, horrible, beautiful art.