June 28, 2019

Master of Mary of Burgundy: The Virgin in a church with Mary of Burgundy at her devotions (ca. 1477)

Between 1250 and 1700, nobility and prosperous bourgeoisie commissioned thousands of Books of Hours: prestigious prayer books for laypeople. Originally based on devotional texts chanted in religious communities at the eight canonical hours of the twenty-four-hour day, the number and variety of prayers eventually became flexible and personalized. Painted initials and illuminated borders decorated them, while full-page pictures helped to enhance individual reflection. Some of them are among the greatest art of the period.
A set of prayers all books shared were the Hours of the Virgin, dedicated to the praise of Mary, mother of Jesus. Mary of Burgundy, then the wealthiest woman in Europe, owned a precious book (ca. 1470-1477) in which a 263 x 225 mm miniature shows the fashionably dressed princess herself, sitting at a windowsill in her private chapel. She reads her prayer book, draped in green cloth to protect it from stains by direct hand contact. Her finger traces the capital O, starting a prayer of indulgence to her patron saint Mary: “Obsecro te Domina Sancta Maria” (I Beseech Thee, Holy Mary, Come and hasten to my aid and counsel, in all my prayers and requests, etc). Along the ledge, various objects of a still-life connect with Our Lady, such as rosary beads. The transparent veil, pearls and the crystal vase symbolize purity and virginity, while carnations prefigure the Passion of Jesus. The irises or ‘Sword Lilies’ in the vase represent Mary’s Seven Sorrows.
The window beyond this main pictorial setting transforms into a different, spiritual world. As if in audience to the painted prayer, the Virgin and Child are enthroned in the choir of a Gothic cathedral. Angels holding gold candlesticks mark the sacred space. In this image within an image, another noblewoman (Mary of Burgundy herself or her stepmother Margaret, who commissioned the book) pays her respect to the heavenly scene. Behind her, court ladies clasp their hands in prayer, while in the foreground a male figure (possibly Mary’s husband Maximillian of Austria) swings a censer of burning incense.
Identification of the figures in the transcendental setting is debated in the context of contemporary political circumstances. However, the total scene may be interpreted as Mary of Burgundy praying to the Virgin for the well-being of her stepmother and husband. They in turn petition Mary on her behalf. Either way, the spatial understanding of the anonymous artist known as the Master of Mary of Burgundy is impressive. Technical skill and psychological insight work together to merge physical and mystical worlds In a convincing trompe-l'oeil perspective.
(Jos Hanou)

May 19, 2017

Michael Maier: Atalanta Fugiens [...] (1617); publisher Johann Theodor de Bry

In my last article I explained how with the gardens of Heidelberg Castle there had been created a perfect example of a gesamtkunstwerk, a place where science merged with philosophy as well as pleasure and beauty; where sounds, smells and sights were all applied and combined to create an overwhelming, confounding, yet harmonious sensation. At exactly the same time – the second decade of the 17th century – in the town of Oppenheim, which belonged to the same tiny Palatine state as Heidelberg, a similar attempt to accommodate the senses on several levels was published in book form: the Atalanta Fugiens.
Besides illuminated manuscripts, books are not often considered art forms in themselves. Atalanta Fugiens is much more than a book though and merges several art forms. It contains fifty emblems, copper engravings by the renowned engraver Matthäus Merian, each of which is accompanied by a motto, an epigram in German and Latin, an explanatory discourse and a fugue – a piece of music for instruments and three voices.
The book was assembled by the German philosopher, physician and alchemist Michael Maier. Just as in the case of the Heidelberg gardens, the references, imagery and multi-layered metaphors applied are so complex that these days no one is quite sure what the true meaning of it all is. And for whom was it created? Who could decipher riddles that required knowledge of all known fields of early 17th century science and philosophy?
A few things are clear about Michael Maier's enigmatic masterpiece: the emblems and accompanying texts are a guide to alchemical processes. In fact some of the riddles, when deciphered in a scientific way will lead to actual results in laboratory chemistry. Yet the book was published in a time when spiritual and mythological alchemy were a rage, and these elements can also be found abundantly in the Atalanta Fugiens. The mysterious Rosicrucian Manifesto had just appeared, a text that advocated a philosophical approach to life based on spiritual alchemy. It strongly condemned practical alchemy. One of its fiercest supporters (and perhaps authors) was Michael Maier. So perhaps Atalanta Fugiens contains an entire philosophical system, maybe even the foundations of a new religion. We'll probably never know.

(Edgar Foley)

May 9, 2017

Joseph-Benoit Suvée: Invention of the Art of Drawing (1791); Groeninge Museum, Bruges

In his comprehensive work on Natural History, Roman writer Pliny the Elder (23-79) described what the Ancient World believed to be the origin of mimetic, or more specifically portrait art. The daughter of the Greek potter Butades, deeply in love with a young man about to depart on a long journey, traced the profile of his face, thrown upon the wall by the light of a lamp. Next, Butades filled the outline with clay to shape a lasting portrait, which he hardened by fire with the rest of his pottery.
We can read this mythological story on different levels. First, it notes a difference between 2D and 3D representation: painting began as a shadow trace, while plastic arts were the next step. Philosophically inclined interpreters will recognize Plato’s aesthetic theory that defines art as merely a shadow of reality. Anthropologists see a connection between image, shadow and imminent death (phantom images of the dead are called ‘shadows’ in ancient civilizations). On a more practical note, the myth contains all elements necessary to create an image: the artist, his subject matter or model, the artist’s equipment (brush, pencil, raw material) and the indispensable presence o
f light.
Pliny’s story was popular from the mid-18th until the early 19th century, when the Age of Enlightenment renewed appreciation of Greek and Roman cultures. It inspired Neoclassicist artists to revive styles and spirit of antiquity. Boosted by the excavation of the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii, painters like Jacques-Louis David re-introduced classical subject matter, combining restraint, grandeur, and simplicity with clear and sharp outlines.
David is still a famous name, though his less known rival Joseph Suvée (1743-1807) beat him into second place to win the 1771 Prix de Rome. Suvée’s touching play of light and shadow (1791) concentrates on the farewell session of the daughter and her lover, and may reflect his own life and times during the French Revolution. Families were ripped apart in the turmoil of civil war, while thousands of young men were conscripted to defend the French borders against foreign armies. It made the wish to keep a lasting memory of friends in mortal danger an urgent concern.
Ironically, Pliny the Elder died during the 79 eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Fortunately, his story of Butades’ daughter survives in the art of Suvée and others.

(Jos Hanou)

April 28, 2017

Jacques Fouquier: Hortus Palatinus and Heidelberg Castle (ca. 1619); Kurpfälzisches Museum, Heidelberg

The epithet Eight Wonder of the World is a commonplace that is used far too often, yet in the case of the Hortus Palatinus it was justified. Sadly the use of the past tense has to be applied with regard to these miraculous gardens, attached to the Heidelberg Castle, for they only existed for some ten years before they fell victim to the mayhem of the Thirty Years War. They have never been restored to their former splendour, but even in their ruined state they are still a much admired, popular attraction.
The gardens were created in the second decade of the 17th century for princess Elizabeth Stuart, commissioned by her husband Frederick V, a grandson of William of Orange, who had become the ruler of the Palatine (a state in the middle of Germany). The project was executed by the French engineer Salomon de Caus with the help of his friend, the architect Inigo Jones. The latter was the foremost English architect of his time, while de Caus had established a reputation for himself as the French Leonardo da Vinci. Interestingly, they were among the last great artists who belonged to the same Renaissance world da Vinci had belonged to. In fact the Hortus Palatinus can be seen as the last grand manifestation of the Renaissance. Never before had the ideals of Renaissance Neo-Platonic / Hermetic philosophy been pursued this rigorously. An astonishing attempt was made to create a magical place were all human knowledge and all known technology were united according to the principles of divine harmony. So, while the gardens reflected a bygone age, technologically they were more advanced than anything else in the world.
Explosives were used to create absolutely flat terraces on a mountain top. Tropical plants were imported and ways were devised to make them grow in the middle of Germany without the use of greenhouses. There was an automatic water organ; automated birds that could sing (literally) like nightingales; and perhaps most intriguing of all: a statue that began to make noises when it was hit by sun rays.
It is a great tragedy that the existence of Frederick and Elizabeth's magical kingdom only lasted a decade before it was ravished by the religious wars of the 17th century.
(Edgar Foley)

April 10, 2017

Jan Weissenbruch: The Steigerpoort at Leerdam (1837), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Steigerpoort at Leerdam by Jan Weissenbruch

In the early 19th century the once great tradition of Dutch painting was dead and buried. There were no great masters to be found in the Netherlands any more. There was only one art academy left in the entire country and those who taught there were French. It is therefore most remarkable that during the 19th century the tradition of Dutch painting was revived to such an extent that one could speak of a second golden age.
One of the artists who initiated this rebirth was Jan Weissenbruch (1822 – 1880). In the 1840's, together with several friends and relatives, he founded an academy for art in the Hague called the Pulchri Studio (named after the Latin word for beauty 'pulchritudo'). This studio attracted and trained a group of artists who several decades later would be known collectively as the Hague School.
Jan Weissenbruch was one of the first 19th century painters to rediscover Dutch Golden Age art. He began to create paintings that could be seen as a homage to the idealized Dutch landscape and city views that had been the speciality of such 17th century masters as Salomon van Ruydael, Gerrit Berckheyde and Johannes Vermeer.
Although Jan Weissenbruch's representations of Dutch cities seem highly realistic, they are not. Weissenbruch created an idealized version of a Holland that was vanishing, or had never even existed. This can clearly be seen in one of his masterpieces, the view of the Steigerpoort at Leerdam (1869). Up to the the mid-19th century almost every Dutch city had been surrounded by city gates. But because of urbanization and the advance of railways (and a sheer lack of historical perspective), almost all of these gates were demolished. It seems that Jan Weissenbruch set himself the task to paint as many gates as possible before they vanished. City gates appear in dozens of his painting. Yet it seems Weissenbruch was not particularly interested in leaving accurate memories for posterity, for he changed elements at will until he had created his ideal combination of shapes, mass and shadows. In this case he even flipped the city gate around – so that the shooting holes face the city – to suit his purposes.
(Edgar Foley)

April 7, 2017

Piet Mondriaan: Farm near Duivendrecht ( c. 1916); Art Institute Chicago

Mondriaan - Landscape painter par excellence

As 2017 is the year in which the 100th anniversary of the Stijl movement is celebrated, it's a good time to take a closer look at the work of its greatest artist: Piet Mondriaan. This painter, outside of the Netherlands usually simply referred to as 'Mondrian', is widely regarded as one of the quintessential avant-garde artists of the 20th century. To the general public he is the man who crafted carefully calculated grid patterns on white surfaces with black lines and primary colours. That he was also a magnificent landscape painter is slightly less well known.
Mondriaan started his artistic career as a member of the movement that specialized in Dutch landscapes that was known as the Hague School. His uncle, Frits Mondriaan, whom himself was a respected and talented painter, had introduced Piet to this group and its stylistic ideals. Mondriaan and his uncle often made trips to the Dutch countryside together to capture its specific characteristics on canvas.
In the last decade of the 19th century work associated to the Hague School began to sell exceptionally well and it was thus an almost inevitable style to adapt for any aspiring young Dutch artist. Mondriaan made rapid progress, yet he felt constrained in this tried idiom. Influenced by Neoplatonic and esoteric theories he began to experiment with colour schemes – a process that eventually led to his hypermodern grid patterns. Before he got there Mondriaan's art went through all sorts of experimental phases, yet the Dutch landscape always remained his main source of inspiration. This is still clearly the case in Farm near Duivendrecht (1916), one of his last works that is not completely abstract. It shows a farm next to the river Gein, a place he had visited and depicted dozens of times since he first visited it as a teenager with his uncle Frits. In this version the colours are no longer realistic; they are reminiscent of the colours used by the French Post-Impressionists. The almost abstract patterns of the tree branches and the flattening of the picture surface hinted at what was soon to come.
(Edgar Foley)

June 23, 2013

Alexander Roslin: The Lady with the Veil (1768); Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

While largely forgotten today, Alexander Roslin (1718-1793) was one of the leading portraitists of his time and surely the most successful Swedish artist from the 18th century era. Roslin, who was born in Malmö, got his training and developed his skills as an artist in Stockholm, but decided to leave Sweden in 1745, in hope of important commissions abroad.
This decision proved wise: soon he was given the opportunity to demonstrate his qualities as a portrait painter at the courts of Bayreuth, Parma and Rome, among others. Roslin found his final destination in Paris, where he would live – with an exception of two years in service of Catherina the Great - from 1752 until his death. In Paris, he was admitted to the French Academy of Fine Arts and painted numerous portraits of significant figures of the leading political and cultural circles.
The reason why he was in such high demand as a portraitist, particularly among the rich and famous, must be sought in the fabulous way that Roslin could render the texture of precious materials such as fabrics and jewels, as well as his talent to show people at their best. His work possesses Classicist elements, but also bears characteristics of the Rococo style in its elegance and charm.
Ironically, Roslin’s best-known portrait by far, The Lady with the Veil, is not of a member of the high society, but of his own wife, Marie-Suzanne Giroust. Roslin depicted her as a Bolognese lady dressed up for the carnival. Her mischievous smile, the veil and the fan in her hand have strong amorous connotations. The seductive quality was not lost on the famous philosopher and critic Denis Diderot, who, when he saw the painting on show at the Parisian Salon, characterized it as ‘très piquante’.
(text: Maarten Levendig)

June 8, 2013

Pablo Picasso: The Weeping Woman (1937); Tate Gallery, Liverpool

Pablo Picasso (1881 –1973) was known for his obsession with women. Picasso's relationships were always intense and passionate, though he also had a reputation for being abusive and cruel. Their impact on his work was immense: one could easily describe Picasso’s entire career based on his wives and lovers. For each of them, he created a unique pictorial vocabulary, and thus each of his style periods can be linked to a certain person. As Dora Maar, one of Picasso’s most important mistresses, put it: ‘When the woman in the artist’s life changed, virtually everything else changed.’
Picasso met Dora Maar in 1936, on a terrace in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris and was instantly fascinated by her. That same night, she was playing a game at the café table, jabbing a sharp knife between her gloved fingers in rapid succession. Inevitably, Maar wounded herself. Picasso would exhibit her bloody gloves for years in his apartment, as a souvenir of their first meeting.
Dora Maar was an impressive, striking woman and a well-known photographer and respected artist in Surrealist circles. She was also involved in left-wing political activities, and it is well possible that she stimulated Picasso to paint the Guernica (1937), his famous condemnation of Fascist Spain for bombing this Basque town. As part of the preliminary studies for Guernica, Picasso made a series of drawings and paintings of weeping women, trying to express their pain and suffering during a war. These portraits clearly reveal the facial features of Dora.
The universal and personal significance for Picasso coincided here: the style of The Weeping Woman reflects the rising tension in their relationship and forebodes its disintegration. Dora’s face is fragmented and her features are dislocated. The Surrealist artist Ronald Penrose, who purchased Weeping Woman shortly after its completion, poetically caught its essence, writing: ‘The white handkerchief pressed to her face hides nothing of the agonized grimace on her lips: it serves merely to bleach her cheeks with the color of death. Her fumbling hands knotted with the pain of her emotion join the teardrops that pour from her eyes.’
(text: Maarten Levendig)

May 22, 2013

Michelangelo: Moses (1513-1516); San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

When confronted with this impressive statue of Moses in Rome’s Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, one cannot help but be awestruck. It was created between 1513 and 1516 by Michelangelo Buonarotti as part of a gigantic freestanding tomb for Pope Julius II and destined for the famous St Peter’s Basilica, where the Pope was to be buried. After Julius’ death in 1513 though, plans for the tomb were first postponed and subsequently the subject of endless quarrels. The resulting monument was a source of tremendous grief and frustration to Michelangelo: it was only a fraction of the intended size, and finished 32 years after the Pope’s demise. Moreover, it wasn’t and would never be a tomb, but rather just a cenotaph, as Julius’s body was buried in St Peter’s Basilica.
The statue of Moses was one of the few remaining elements that were executed according to the original design. Michelangelo (1475-1564) regarded it as one of his most lifelike creations. The fierce eyes of the Old Testament prophet, his swollen muscles and bulging veins, are indeed very realistic, almost scarily so.
Something else catches our attention: why on earth would Michelangelo choose to endow Moses with two horns? The explanation for this can be found in a translation error. In those days, the most commonly used translation of the Bible was the Latin Vulgate. Today, Exodus 34:29 reads: ‘When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the LORD.’ The Hebrew word ‘qeren’ in the original text has two meanings, ‘radiant’ or ‘with horns.’ In the Vulgate, this part of the passage was translated as ‘cornuta esset facies sua’ (‘that his face was horned’). For centuries, Moses was depicted with horns on his head as a result of this mistake. While Michelangelo’s statue isn’t the only example of this phenomenon, it certainly is the most famous one.
(text: Maarten Levendig)

Anonymous: Cartoon on the Flight of William V (c. 1795); Collection Atlas van Stolk.

State art is propaganda. Important artists glorified ruling powers, while popular opinion hardly survived until freed by printing. After the French Revolution (1789) let crowned heads roll, republican ideals flooded Europe. The Netherlands were already a Republic since 1581, but dealt with political and military influence from the ‘stadtholder’ or governor, an elected post exclusively held by the ever monarchy-eager House of Orange. French-fuelled unrest between Prussian and British-backed Orangists and enlightened ‘Patriot’ opposition finally caused the infamous flight of last stadtholder William V (1748-1806) to England.
This anonymous 1795 cartoon puts a Patriot spin on the event. It mocks William, sadly waving goodbye from a fishing-boat. Meanwhile, lightning drives Prussian eagles from the skies, an orange-tree is uprooted and an English bulldog is on the run. A broken yoke and a torn paper saying ‘stadtholdership’ lie in the foreground, flanked by a ‘now safe’ Patriot ‘keeshond’ dog. The seated Dutch Virgin thanks a ‘brave Frenchman’ for restoring her ‘deprived human rights’. Their hands meet holding a liberty tree, while another Frenchman promises safety under his banner. The woman on the right holds a plummet and a shield, symbolizing equality and fraternity.
French fraternity forced the Netherlands into a client state, first as ‘Batavian Republic’, then as ‘Kingdom Holland’ under Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Louis, before ultimately becoming a French province. Ironically, Louis’ kingship prepared the Dutch for monarchy, for after Napoleon’s defeat the allied victors restored conservative regimes through Europe. William V’s son became the first Orange King William I, remembered in history for losing half his kingdom to Belgian insurgents.
Crown prince William II was wounded fighting at Waterloo, a minor feat maximally exploited in Orangist propaganda painting. Today, royal weaponry is limited to scissors for cutting ribbons. But now ratings-driven media are king and whip their loyal subjects into flag-waving frenzy, peaking during next week’s inauguration of William’s great-great-great-great grandson as the Netherlands’ next monarch. Modern patriots seeking freedom from this tyrannical ‘display of infantile public coquetry’, as one critical columnist put it, had better go biking in the countryside.
(text: Jos Hanou)

James Ensor: Les bains à Ostende (1890); Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent.

That Vincent van Gogh was a prime innovator of modern art, a bridge between impressionism and expressionism, is undisputed. That the same can be said of the Flemish artist James Ensor is less established. Ensor himself was quite aware of his position, and stressed his role as major influence on the myriad of styles that erupted in the early twentieth century. His claims were acknowledged by the most important German expressionists, such as Kirchner, Grosz and Nolde.
Like many crucial innovators in art, Ensor diametrically opposed and questioned society and its values. Like Van Gogh, he felt frustrated by the general consensus on what constituted good art. And like him, he produced his best works in the years around 1890. But interestingly, Ensor, by any means the more radical of the two, creator of art that was certainly further removed from the general ideas of beauty than Van Gogh's, did not suffer the bitter rejection the Dutchman endured. In fact, as time passed, Ensor's status as an artist’s artist grew considerably, he became a favourite of the Belgian king, and was made a count in 1929. Still, while over time Van Gogh's art became mainstream, Ensor's never did. Even today, people do not quite know what to make of the radical work he produced in the late 19th century.
Les Bains à Ostende is a key work in Ensor's oeuvre. It shows a bathing scene in Ostend, the fashionable bathing resort in which he lived nearly his entire life. Looking carefully at the way the frolicking in the surf is depicted, it becomes clear that Ensor is not at all charmed by these bathers. In deceptively simple, naïf and cheerful shapes and colours, Ensor paints a picture of infinite banality. Through telescope-like binoculars, seedy voyeurs shamelessly spy on a sea of creatures that exhibit vulgar behaviour: fornicating dogs, a man grabbing a woman's chest, a fat lady flaunting her naked behind, two clownish fools kissing, a floating obese figure – it goes on and on... a grotesque infinity that, in all its apparent cheerfulness, is strangely reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch's depiction of hell.
(text: Edgar Foley)

Vincent van Gogh: Pink Peach Tree in Blossom (Reminiscence of Mauve) (1888); Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

Flowering orchards are probably never depicted more beautifully than by Vincent van Gogh during his stay in Arles, southern France. Throughout this period, he was tormented by depressions and despair - ultimately leading to his tragic suicide in 1890 - but the blossoming fruit trees were a source of hope and comfort to him. Vincent was struck by the fact that even the most weathered, gnarled trees could produce the most delicate of flowers; a symbol of renewal.
Van Gogh had ended up in Arles after many wanderings. Pivotal for his artistic development was his move to Paris, where he immersed himself in the latest trends in fine art. He shared an apartment with his brother Theo, who was an art dealer. Partly because of his poor health and the difficult relationship with his brother, Vincent decided to move to the south of France in 1888, to follow the sun and find favorable surroundings for his painting.
In Arles, Vincent worked like a man possessed, producing more than 200 paintings in less than 15 months. But, while today his paintings are among the most sought after of all times, Theo managed to sell just one of Vincent’s canvases. The only person ever to buy a work during his life was the Belgian impressionist painter Anna Boch.
Van Gogh made Pink Peach Tree in Blossom (Reminiscence of Mauve) in March of 1888, shortly after his arrival in Arles. The subtitle refers to Anton Mauve, a renowned Dutch painter who had taught and encouraged Vincent in earlier days. Vincent wrote to Theo: ‘I have been working on a size 20 canvas in the open air in an orchard, lilac ploughland, a reed fence, two pink peach trees against a sky of glorious blue and white. Probably the best landscape I have done. I had just brought it home when I received from our sister a Dutch notice in memory of Anton Mauve [..] Something - I don't know what - took hold of me and brought a lump to my throat, and I wrote on my picture: Souvenir de Mauve.’
(text: Maarten Levendig and Pauline Dorhout)

April 10, 2013

Franz von Stuck: Salome (1906); Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus

Opposites attract, so sensuality and disgust fight for precedence in this 1906 painting by Franz Ritter von Stuck. An exotic dancer fills the foreground almost completely. Dressed in just an airy skirt, castanets and jewellery, she tempts us with an erotic pose. In the shadows on her right a troll-like black servant looms up, adding horror and physical contrast. Grinning vulgarly, the creature presents a severed head on a platter. In life, it belonged to a bearded, longhaired man whose fate as a haloed martyr seems connected with the dancer’s triumphant attitude. Both the living and the dead share a glittering, star-studded night for a backdrop. While this may symbolize a saintly hereafter, it also warns against imminent danger: the girl’s glamour seems close but is out of reach, and there is only cold, deep darkness beyond.
The ambiguous scene is inspired by the Gospel story in Mark 6:21-29. When John the Baptist criticized King Herod for illegally marrying Herodias, the divorced wife of his half-brother, the prophet was imprisoned for his efforts. But Herodias was after more serious revenge and pressed her daughter Salome to charm her stepfather with a birthday dance, making him promise to give her anything she wished. Prompted by her bloodthirsty mother, Salome asked for John’s head on a platter. Herod had to comply.
The Salome image has been popular in art for centuries. Originally intended to create empathy with John’s religious righteousness, it gradually developed a life of its own and became an example of men falling victim to vicious women (before you blame this innocent writer, there were also virtuous tricksters like Judith and Esther!). Especially the artistic and philosophical milieu of the fin de siècle produced a large repertoire of fatally tempting women. Von Stuck was fascinated with this paradox and painted the Salome theme three times. She epitomized the inherent female ability believed to ‘innocently’ attract, then pervert the male’s soul.
Born a miller’s son, Franz Stuck became famous as an all-round ‘prince of art’ and was knighted to ‘Ritter von’ the year before painting this terrifying scene. His Munich villa, designed and decorated by himself, is now a museum.
(text: Jos Hanou)

Sandro Botticelli: La Primavera (c. 1481); Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (detail)

Last week, we concluded that La Primavera probably had been intended as a wedding present for one of the young descendants of the illustrious Florentine Medici family. Sandro Botticelli created a monumental scene with mythological figures, representing such appropriate themes as love, passion and spring.
There are strong suspicions that, in addition to this more obvious symbolism, some other ‘messages’, of a much more complex content, were ‘hidden’ in the painting. This hidden content can be traced back to the intellectual circles around the Medici, including prominent artists like Leonardo, Michelangelo and Botticelli and poets and philosophers such as Poliziano, Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino.
Ficino (1433–1499) in particular was a key figure in the scientific and cultural developments in fifteenth-century Florence. Cosimo de’ Medici appointed Ficino as head of his newly erected philosophical school. In this function, one of his greatest merits was the translation of some important texts, including all the works of Plato and Plotinus.
Ficino’s outspoken, if not radical, points of view repeatedly clashed with the papal authorities. Within humanist Medici circles, however, he enjoyed great freedom and his ideas were appreciated and imitated. His philosophy combines (Neo) Platonism, astrology, Christianity and Hermetica (Egyptian-Greek mysticism). Ficino adapted Plato’s theory of sublime love and identified it with Caritas or Christian love, introducing the concept of ‘Platonic love’. He also believed that art, if created ‘perfectly’, could stimulate contemplation. This vision on beauty as a catalyst also allows a different interpretation of the painting.
La Primavera is probably a depiction of the ‘human faculties’ – the five senses plus the mind, an important aspect of Ficino’s hierarchical vision of love. The figures on the right represent the ‘lower’ senses - touch, smell and taste - and thus the corresponding earthly, physical love. In contrast, the Three Graces symbolize the 'higher' human faculties - hearing, sight and mind - and therefore the preferable love. Venus acts as a mediatrix between higher and lower love. Finally, Mercury’s upward gaze stresses his function as messenger of the gods, bringing people on earth into contact with the divine world above.
(text: Maarten Levendig)

Sandro Botticelli: La Primavera (c. 1481); Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

This astoundingly beautiful and intriguing painting was most likely made in commission in 1481, to serve as a wedding gift for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, a member of the Medici family, and Semiramide Apiani. The subject matter of the painting was, very appropriately, the Realm of Venus, goddess of love.
La Primavera (The Spring) is the oldest known example from the Renaissance era that shows full-length mythological figures. A work of such proportions with a classical content was quite rare during this period. The explanation for this unusual choice may be found in the humanistic background of the Medicis: not only were they immensely important in the political and economic arena of Florence, they also played a pivotal role in the revival of the classical antiquity as a source of inspiration for the cultural elite of that time.
The picture is best ‘read’ from right to left. Zephyrus enters the scene, imposing himself on the object of his desire, the nymph Chloris. Regretting his actions, Zephyrus then transforms Chloris to Flora, the goddess of flowers and spring. Botticelli shows the start of the transformation of Chloris by letting the first flowers spill from her mouth. In the next instant, the transformation is complete and Flora has strewn the garden with (almost two hundred different types of!) flowers.
The central figure is Venus, escorted by her usual companions, the Three Graces. Her blindfolded son Cupid is aiming his arrow at them. On the far left, Mercury wards off dark clouds with his caduceus, a staff with two serpents twined around it.
The iconography is based on classical texts, in particular Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura: ‘Spring-time and Venus come/ And Venus' boy, the winged harbinger, steps on before/ And hard on Zephyr's foot-prints Mother Flora/ Sprinkling the ways before them, filleth all/ With colours and with odours excellent.’
While all of these elements illustrate the fact that La Primavera was a very suitable gift for newlyweds, it is assumed that the painting also harbors details that were specifically included for the refined circles around the Medici family. To be continued…
(text: Maarten Levendig

H.N. Werkman: The Tale on the Market (1943); From The Hasidic Legends II; Groninger Museum

Hendrik Werkman (1882- 1945) was an avant-garde artist and printer, who ran a print shop in Groningen, a major city in the north of the Netherlands. He was a member of a society of Groningen artists, called De Ploeg (‘The Plough’), for which he produced many posters, catalogues, invitations and the like. De Ploeg had ties to other modernist groups in Europe, in particular the German Expressionists.
During World War II, Werkman, together with some friends, established a clandestine printing house which produced texts that were subversive to the Nazi regime. One of their most beautiful and daring projects was to make an illustrated edition in Dutch of Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidim, a collection of Jewish folk tales. Buber, an Austrian philosopher, had published them in the early 1930s with the purpose of offering consolation, hope and religious inspiration to the Eastern European Jews in their miserable conditions. Though not Jewish himself, Werkman was very touched and intrigued by the spirituality and mysticism in the stories.
The series titled ‘Hasidic Legends’ consisted of fourteen tales, illustrated with colorful prints of Werkman’s hand. In spirit with Buber’s intentions, the series was meant to offer the Dutch people the prospect of better times. It was also a sign of solidarity with the Dutch Jews, of whom ultimately more than 75% would be killed during the war.
To produce the illustrations, Werkman made use of an experimental template technique which he had invented himself. Figures were cut out of wrapping paper, and then transferred onto the paper with an inking roller in various ways. Additionally, he used a myriad of graphic techniques. Because of the complexity of Werkman’s working method, each copy of his ‘druksels’ (as he called them) can be considered unique.
Unfortunately, Werkman paid the highest price for his underground activities. He was arrested by the secret police, and subsequently executed on 10 April 1945, three days before the liberation of Groningen by Allied Forces.
(text: Maarten Levendig)

March 16, 2013

Unknown photographer: Young African American woman (ca. 1899); Library of Congress, from the album 'Types of American Negroes,' compiled and prepared by W.E.B. Du Bois, v. 1, no. 74

At the 1900 Exposition Universelle held in Paris, part of the United States’ contribution was dedicated to ‘the American Negro.’ The aim of this exhibit was to show the progress the African American community had made during the decades that had passed since the abolishment of slavery.
In earlier versions of the World Fair and other exhibitions, blacks had appeared mostly as the exotic inhabitants of colonial possessions. Thus, visitors were offered a view into the life of ‘Others,’ given by white Europeans, sometimes even in the form of a human zoo. In contrast, the ‘American Negro’ exhibit was one of self-representation, rather than representation.
The two main organizers of the exhibit were Thomas J. Calloway and W.E.B. Du Bois, both activists who strove for equal rights for African Americans. Du Bois was a firm believer in the uplifting power of education, which he saw as the driving force in attaining equality.
Sadly, at that time, the image of blacks as being inferior, ignorant and immoral was still the rule, rather than the exception. For the Paris World Fair, Du Bois sought to replace such common racial stereotypes with a balanced view of the history and current situation of the African American, ‘without apology or gloss.’ To achieve his goal, he included books, periodicals and articles by black scholars and authors, statistical summaries and charts, plus a collection of photographs.
The European viewers must have marveled at some of the blonde, fair-skinned ones amongst them, who were nonetheless regarded as black in the United States. Du Bois was acutely aware of this effect and of the importance of self-representation, asserting that the photographs of ‘typical Negro faces’ were ‘hardly square with conventional American ideas.’
With the photographs, he showed the audience not only the familiar field workers, but also university graduates and the belles of the burgeoning middle class. Looking at the young woman shown in this picture today, we can still admire her calm, self-assured posture, and be proud of her achievements in a world of turmoil, where nothing could be taken for granted.
(text: Pauline Dorhout)

B. Perat: Salon de Paris (1866)

The French word ‘vernissage’ literally means varnishing. Now used for the opening celebration of an art show, it dates back to when painters literally put a finishing layer of varnish to their works at the start of an exhibition.
From 1748 to 1890, the Salon de Paris was the official exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts. The greatest art event in the Western world, its (bi)annual shows were highly popular with the public. Entrance fees were affordable for all, and sixty thousand curious visitors would flock to the show’s first day. Exhibitions ran for several weeks. Newspapers competed to report on the quality of the works and the attitudes of artists and public, often in the form of satire and caricature.
Admission to the Salon was essential for an artist’s commercial success, and many struggled to get their works past a jury of settled academics and critics. Not surprisingly, this ensured a conservative admittance climate, which sometimes resulted in breakaway exhibitions for refused works, or by independent groups like the impressionists.
Painters given to self-doubt often continued working on last-moment improvements. Their last opportunity ended on opening night, when the final layer of varnish had to be applied. This original ‘vernissage’ was a grand social occasion, only attended by invited patrons and elite. In this realistic rendition (1866) by B. Perat the happy few admire new works, unhindered by the trampling hordes crowding public opening hours. On the floor, a painter holding a pot of varnish critically considers the result of his labour, flanked by security personnel: a policeman and a ‘pompier’ (fireman). All across the background, artists on ladders are still busy varnishing. The scene also gives a realistic impression of the Salon’s exhibition policy, which was alphabetically, floor-to-ceiling, on every available inch of space and regardless of size and subject.
The varnishing tradition has disappeared for modern opening nights. The name ‘vernissage’ survives, but alcohol, snacks and heavy perfume have replaced the aura of lacquer.
(text: Jos Hanou)

H.N. Werkman e H.N. Werkman: The Tale on the Market (1943); From The Hasidic Legends II; Groninger Museum

Hendrik Werkman (1882- 1945) was an avant-garde artist and printer, who ran a print shop in Groningen, a major city in the north of the Netherlands. He was a member of a society of Groningen artists, called De Ploeg (‘The Plough’), for which he produced many posters, catalogues, invitations and the like. De Ploeg had ties to other modernist groups in Europe, in particular the German Expressionists.
During World War II, Werkman, together with some friends, established a clandestine printing house which produced texts that were subversive to the Nazi regime. One of their most beautiful and daring projects was to make an illustrated edition in Dutch of Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidim, a collection of Jewish folk tales. Buber, an Austrian philosopher, had published them in the early 1930s with the purpose of offering consolation, hope and religious inspiration to the Eastern European Jews in their miserable conditions. Though not Jewish himself, Werkman was very touched and intrigued by the spirituality and mysticism in the stories.
The series titled ‘Hasidic Legends’ consisted of fourteen tales, illustrated with colorful prints of Werkman’s hand. In spirit with Buber’s intentions, the series was meant to offer the Dutch people the prospect of better times. It was also a sign of solidarity with the Dutch Jews, of whom ultimately more than 75% would be killed during the war.
To produce the illustrations, Werkman made use of an experimental template technique which he had invented himself. Figures were cut out of wrapping paper, and then transferred onto the paper with an inking roller in various ways. Additionally, he used a myriad of graphic techniques. Because of the complexity of Werkman’s working method, each copy of his ‘druksels’ (as he called them) can be considered unique.
Unfortunately, Werkman paid the highest price for his underground activities. He was arrested by the secret police, and subsequently executed on 10 April 1945, three days before the liberation of Groningen by Allied Forces.
(text: Maarten Levendig)

February 16, 2013

Raphael: Transfiguration (1520); Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City

In December of 1516, Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (the future pope Clement VII) commissioned Rafaello Sanzio da Urbino, better known as Raphael, to paint this religious scene. The panel, which is over 4 meters tall, was to serve as an altar piece for Narbonne’s Cathedral, where Giulio had just become Arch Bishop. In the end, Giulio decided that he preferred to have the painting closer to home and he had it installed in the Roman church San Pietro in Montorio instead. These days, we can admire it at the Vatican Museum.
It isn’t hard to understand why Giulio found this piece so hard to part with. With its exquisite colors, complex postures and expressive light effects, it is a feast for the eyes. Raphael succeeded in creating a spectacularly lively representation of a rather abstract episode from the Bible: the Transfiguration. It takes place on top of Mount Tabor where the apostles Peter, John and James witness the metamorphosis of their Christ. For a brief moment, Jesus’ true, divine nature is revealed to them, ‘His face shining as the sun, and his garments became white as the light.’ The Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah appear at his side.
Raphael combined the Transfiguration theme with another biblical story, where Jesus’ disciples try - in vain - to cure a possessed (epileptic) boy. The frantic, wide-eyed boy is shown in the front, surrounded by his family. This drama adds a human dimension to the scene. To the left, the apostles are desperately trying to determine how to help the young man. One of them points up, indicating that the only one capable of curing him is Jesus.
The pointing arm is a visual aid as well, used to guide our focus and to connect the upper and lower part of the image. With his composition, Raphael wants us to realize that Christ belongs just as much to heaven as to earth. The pyramid shape in the lower half of the painting leads our eyes to the circle of light in the top half, where we’ll find the true subject of interest.
(text: Maarten Levendig)

February 10, 2013

Félicien Rops: Pornocrates (1878); Musée Félicien Rops, Namur

When the Belgian artist Félicien Rops worked on this image in 1878, he was in a state of fever, brought on by the stifling heat and intoxicating perfumes of cyclamen and opopanax in his room, which he considered to be very beneficial to the end result.
The image, called Pornocrates or The Lady with the Pig, challenges us to decide who is leading who. After all, the woman has the pig on a leash; at the same time, she is blindfolded, so perhaps it is the pig that is actually controlling where she goes. What does the pig represent? Is it man, bestial and ignorant, or does its golden tail represent the lure of worldly goods? And what does its title tell us?
Looking at this picture, it is not hard to imagine that Rops belongs to a movement called Decadence. Rops' works are often sexually explicit and in the eyes of many, perverted. Religion is ridiculed. He was fascinated by the dark side of life: death, satanism and sin. Most of all, he was intrigued by the contemporary woman: assertive, seductive, ruthless and devouring, a Femme Fatale. Just like men were possessed by women, women were possessed by Satan.
To Rops, his art showed scenes which typified the 19th century. Living in Paris, he saw the excesses of modern city life and their consequences. A degenerate society, driven by sexual urges, with fancy clothes concealing the dangers within. Several in his circle of friends, like Baudelaire, Flaubert and Manet, died of syphilis. It was a world where the fine arts would suffer, as we can deduce from the frieze below the lady with the pig.
While it is often assumed that Rops harbored feelings of hate against women, the perversities of the city and its women energized him. Towards the end of his life, he expressed his greatest fear: ‘I am afraid of being old and of no longer being able to inspire love in a woman, which is a true death for a man of my nature and with my needs for madness of mind and body.’
(text: Pauline Dorhout)

February 4, 2013

Conrad Felixmüller: Death of the Poet Walter Rheiner (1925); Robert Gore Rifkind Collection and Foundation, Beverly Hills.

Having cultivated a drug habit in order to avoid conscription at the beginning of the First World War, the expressionist poet Walter Rheiner – whose novella Kokain, illustrated by Conrad Felixmüller, had been well received in 1918 – took a fatal overdose in his cheap rented apartment in Berlin in June 1925.
War was over (for the time being) and expressionism looked increasingly outdated. A new generation of painters, photographers and architects – who had survived or avoided the murder in the trenches – turned away from utopian ideals. Instead, artists such as Otto Dix, Georg Grosz and Christian Schad revelled in capturing life – away from the mainstream – realistically and honestly.
The Dresden born painter Conrad Felixmüller became part of this new movement, which was dubbed Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) a few weeks after Rheiner’s death. But to paint an obituary to his poet friend, the 28 year-old revisited the idiom of the expressionist Brücke artists of his home town. Felixmüller depicts the metropolis Berlin as a labyrinth of angular planes, showing Cubist influences. The foreboding confusion of edifices and thrusting trains is contrasted with the warm lights in the windows and the curiously homely net curtains and pots of geraniums framing the dying writer, who holds the fatal syringe delicately between his fingers. The spots of luminous or garish colour add to the dreamlike quality of the scene. Is the poet falling or is he flying? Is it pain or bliss expressed in his face?
(text: Christoph & Charlotte Kreutzmüller)

February 3, 2013

Exekias : Black-figured amphora (540-530 BC); British Museum, London

Did Brad Pitt study just the Troy movie script or Homer’s complete Iliad when he played Greek warrior hero Achilles? Homer’s 8th century BC epic only covered 51 days of the legendary ten-year siege, sandwiched between a quarrel of Agamemnon and Achilles and Hector’s funeral. If Brad read it, he will have found little similarity with the movie. But neither the script nor the Iliad provides insight into all Troy spin-offs in Greek and Roman mythology.
One of these tells the tale of Amazon queen Penthesileia, who brought her women warriors to help defend King Priamos and his Trojans. Homer only hints at ‘that day when the Amazon women came, men's equals.’ Roman writer Virgil describes Penthesileia’s heroism more vividly in his epic Aeneid: ‘Furious Penthesileia leads the crescent-shielded ranks of Amazons, blazing amid her thousands; a golden belt she binds below her naked breast, and, as a warrior queen, dares battle, a maid clashing with men.’ But her success in battle rouses Achilles’ anger. A Greek writer describes the tragedy that follows: ‘He thrust with sudden spear, and pierced Penthesileia. Straightway fell she down into the earth, the arms of death, in grace and comeliness, for naught of shame dishonoured her fair form. Face down she lay on the long spear, outgasping her last breath. There, fallen in dust and blood she lay, pink, like the breaking of dawn, revealing beneath pencilled brows a face lovely in death so that Achilles might be pierced with the sharp arrow of repentant love.’
The tragic scene was popular in Greek art. Exekias painted this 6th-century BC black-figured amphora, showing Achilles looming above Penthesileia as she sinks to the ground. His helmet protects his face, while hers is pushed back to expose her features. Harmlessly, her spear passes across Achilles’ chest, while his pierces her throat and blood spurts out. According to myth, at this very moment the eyes of the two warriors met and they fell, too late, in love.
(text: Jos Hanou)

January 19, 2013

Hendrick Avercamp: Winter Landscape with Skaters (1608); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

One of the all-time favorite paintings at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam is this winter landscape by Hendrick Avercamp. Small children in particular can spend ages staring breathlessly at the countless people depicted on and near the frozen river. Most of the figures enjoy themselves with ice-skating, sleighing and playing kolf (a sport similar to hockey), while others are busy selling merchandise or performing daily chores such as chopping wood and washing clothes. Avercamp didn’t forget to add some naughty details, such as the love couple in the hay stack on the left and other persons who are defecating, urinating or just show their buttocks.
Avercamp (1585-1634) lived and worked in the relatively small town Kampen, in the Dutch province of Overijssel. Here, far removed from known centers of artistic production such as Haarlem and Leiden, he became one of the first landscape painters of the Dutch School. Avercamp (nicknamed ‘The Mute of Kampen’ for his inability to speak) specialized in paintings depicting ice-skating people, not a very odd choice given the abundance of water in the Netherlands and the harsh winters of that period.
This painting from 1608 is typical for his work: its high horizon and bird's-eye view offer the artist the opportunity to show as many aspects of winter life as possible. But, due to Avercamp’s refined use of color and atmospheric perspective (colours and shapes that fade into the distance), the spectator experiences depth instead of just an accumulation of elements.
Besides such carefully conceived artistic concepts, Avercamp’s winter landscapes also provide an insight into historical reality, namely that in the Low Countries, skating fun brought together a wide range of people (and in a sense still does). All different strata of society, young and old, poor and rich, were enjoying themselves on the slippery ice. Avercamp shows them all, with their respective practices, specific accessories and apparel, thus presenting a wonderful visual overview of 17th-century society.
(text: Maarten Levendig)

January 12, 2013

Paul Signac: Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Colours, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890 (1890); Museum of Modern Art, New York

We see a man’s portrait against a decorative background. An eccentric-looking gentleman in left profile, holding top hat and cane, keeps a sharp eye on a white flower apparently presented to an off-canvas recipient. The psychedelic-looking backdrop is a kaleidoscopic pinwheel of coloured patterns, swirling to the right.
However, there is more than meets the eye in Paul Signac’s painting, playfully entitled Opus 217. Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones, and Colours, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890.
By 1886, the heyday of French Impressionism was over. Modern painters like Seurat and Signac searched for discipline and abandoned the intuitive, spontaneous impressionist brushstrokes for the scientific approach of Divisionism. Making colour an accessory to form, they experimented with new techniques based on optical laws. Their canvasses are filled with painstakingly juxtaposed dots of pure colour, believed to produce more luminosity when reunited in the viewer’s eye than premixed on the palette. The portrayed publicist, anarchist and art critic Félix Fénéon was a rare but fervent supporter of the Divisionists’ unusual theory. He introduced the term Neo-Impressionism for their organized, ‘pointillist’ treatment of colour and light.
Scientist Charles Henry was another Neo-Impressionist champion. His publications (illustrated by a colour wheel done by Signac) on optical theories included the psychology of visual perception. Henry proposed a mathematically calculable correspondence between outer stimuli and psychic reaction. Art, he said, is a medium affecting the relationship between sense and psyche; audibly by music, visually by colours and lines. And music and painting share the principle of continual ‘autogenesis’: reproductive, creative energy.
The background (and title) of Opus 217 translate Signac’s understanding of Henry’s ideas into a visual music of pure, non-representational dynamics. Expanding kinetic energies, divided into eight separate parts of colour and design, flow inexhaustibly from a centre point. At the same time, the static representation of the Neo-impressionists’ literary champion Fénéon holds a symbolist key to this reconciliation of figurative and almost abstract painting. The white flower in his writing-hand is a cyclamen, a reference to the rhythmic cycle of decorative energy behind him.
(text: Jos Hanou)

January 6, 2013

Jan Gossaert called Mabuse: The Adoration of the Kings (ca. 1510); National Gallery, London

Today, Epiphany is celebrated, the feast day commemorating the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem. This holiday has been very popular since the first stages of Christianity. The religious can identify themselves with the Magi, admiring and honoring the newborn child Jesus. In art, the depiction of the nativity scene in sculpture or painting provides the believer with the suggestion of a direct, almost physical contact with the son of God.
It was therefore all the more regrettable that the description of this episode in the Bible is rather sparse. Gradually, the need arose to expand the biblical history of the Epiphany with more story lines and details. The added story elements were partly derived from the Apocryphal Gospels (Christian texts which aren’t part of the accepted canon of Scripture), others were derived from prophecies and events from the Old Testament which were assumed to be a pre-figuration of those in the New Testament. The ox and the donkey entered the birth house and the Magi (wise men) developed into kings, with a specific appearance and carrying certain gifts.
Especially in the later Middle Ages, books elaborating on the birth and life of Jesus, like The Golden Legend of the thirteenth-century writer Jacobus de Voragine, were outright bestsellers. Although the Church was initially skeptical about these expansions of the biblical story, she also saw the positive influence on the piety of the faithful. For artists, the stories were a desirable source of inspiration.
This beautiful Epiphany from ca. 1510 by Jan Gossaert is typical of the late medieval perception of the story. For example, the ruinous setting is derived from medieval sourcebooks. They describe how Mary gave birth on the remnants of the dilapidated palace of King David, Jesus’ ancestor. It is an interpretation of a prophecy by Amos in the Old Testament: ‘In that day I will restore the fallen house of David. I will repair its damaged walls. From the ruins I will rebuild it and restore its former glory.’ The metaphor is clear: the Old Order is destroyed, and now a new era can begin.
(text: Maarten Levendig)