December 31, 2011

Jan Sluijters: Bar Tabarin (1906); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.

Today, Jan Sluijters (1881-1957) is considered to be one of the pioneering figures in the development of Modernism in the Netherlands. Throughout his life, he experimented with numerous styles. Ironically, his modern career took off when he was awarded the Prix de Rome based on a traditional biblical scene. Understandably, the jury members were very disgruntled to find out that he used the money to travel to France where he changed his style radically. It was in the City of Light that the relatively new phenomenon of electric lights (rather than gas lamps) around the turn of the century inspired Sluijters to develop works in an ultra-modern style, Dutch Luminism. The big city nightlife and French Fauvism were the main influences on this style, which is characterized by splashes of color, as we can see in this exuberant work, Bal Tabarin (1906).
Bal Tabarin in Paris’ Montmartre was the place to be for the young and hip. The nightclub featured costumed balls and can-can dancing by showgirls, which was all the more dazzling due to the fact that people were unaccustomed to the color effects of electric lights. The mesmerizing, almost psychedelic atmosphere as caught by Sluijters abhorred the Prix de Rome committee: in their eyes, this painting of the Bal Tabarin expressed a loathing of beauty and mockery of technique. As a result, they decided to end his yearly allowance.
His unorthodox work was also sharply criticized by the Dutch press. Nonetheless, a number of Dutch painters welcomed this new current. Upon his return to the Netherlands, Sluijters applied the bright colors of the Parisian nightlife to his representation of landscapes. The same tendency can be seen in nature scenes by other Luminists, like Leo Gestel and Piet Mondriaan.

I’m hoping that this festive painting by Jan Sluijters will put you in the right mood for tonight’s celebrations. From all of us at The World According to Art: HAPPY NEW YEAR!
(Text: Pauline Dorhout)

December 24, 2011

Geertgen tot Sint Jans: Nativity at Night (ca. 1490); National Gallery, London.

To me, this panel by Geertgen tot Sint Jans is one of the most convincing interpretations of the Nativity story. Even those of us who have little or no affinity with Christmas or religion, will probably be touched by the heartfelt intensity expressed in the painting. Along with Mary, and the other creatures in the dilapidated stable, we share in the adoration for the newborn child, who will turn out to be so special.
Light plays a leading role in the conveyance of this feeling. This is true in a compositional way – the concentration of light leads our eye away from the less important elements towards the essence of the painting, the infant Jesus, but its symbolic significance is equally important: the light actually emanates from the newborn, signifying that he will bring light into the darkness, into this earthly vale of tears.
Paintings of the Nativity in this style are typically connected to the devotional movements of late-medieval Europe. In these, the need for intense mysticism went hand in hand with a deep desire to sympathize with the biblical events in a practical, almost physical way. Ideally, the faithful were to personally experience the divine.
Geertgen’s use of illumination as an instrument to create both a compositional and substantial unity is remarkably drastic for the standards of his time, the late fifteenth century. It is even reminiscent of the treatment of light and shadow that we know so well from seventeenth-century baroque art. There is an important difference, however: baroque painters commonly used illumination to create drama, striving for the ultimate visual effect, while Geertgen tot Sint Jans gently invites us to experience this unintelligibly great miracle.
(Text: Maarten Levendig)

December 21, 2011

Anonymous: Triptych with the 14 Holy Helpers (around 1500); Bode Museum, Berlin)

The 14 Holy Helpers – Episode 1
Readers of this page are used by now to compact stories on great individual works of art. The group of art history enthusiasts writing them is now also developing various serial subjects. Each of these will share a common theme, divided over different artists, styles, periods or materials. 

This episode introduces the first series:
The triptych in the Berlin Bode-museum was produced in a South German workshop around 1500. While the gilded wood-carving of its majestic central panel and its painted wings concentrate on a limited number of saints dedicated to a local church, donor family or guild, our attention is caught by the image on the predella – the painted base along the frame at the bottom of the altarpiece. Here we see what looks like a team photo of 14 additional figures, divided in two equal groups and positioned between a parapet and a blue and gold backdrop. There are women as well as men, all of them personalized by their dress or by the attributes displayed in their hands and on the parapet in the foreground. All are saints, as their haloed heads testify.
It is a representation of the ‘14 holy helpers’ – a collective of saints, venerated together, whose intercession was believed to cure specific diseases. These Nothelfer (‘helpers in need’) originated in the 14th century, initially as a result of the Black Death that ravaged the country. Popular belief soon added other specialist saints to ensure maximum ‘health insurance’ coverage (and to economize on praying time).

In a next episode we will focus on particular healing skills of individual holy helpers, using a different example and starting with St. Vitus. In the Bode predella, he is the boy-saint in the third place from the right, proudly pointing at the attribute of his martyrdom: a kettle filled with boiling oil.

December 17, 2011

Gertrude Käsebier: Miss N. (1902)

Gertrude Käsebier was 37 and a mother of three when she decided to attend art school in 1889. Within 10 years, she had acquired a favorable reputation and in the early 1900s, she became a co-founder of the Photo Secession movement. This American organization aimed to promote photography as a craft and a proper art form, rather than just a visual aid to painters or a means to record facts. In order to achieve pictorial images, its members often experimented with new techniques and surfaces, and manipulation was seen as a logical constituent of the creative process. The results could be deliberately scratched, grainy, soft-focus or very moody and were indeed a far cry from the traditional photographs that had prevailed during the 19th century.
As Käsebier’s star rose, some of her work fetched record prices and this commercial success led to a troubled relationship with the leader of the Photo Secession, Alfred Stieglitz, who felt this to be at odds with the spirit of a true artist. She resigned from the Photo Secession, but continued to produce and advocate fine art photography.
In all its simplicity, this photo of a young Evelyn Nesbit shows Käsebier’s quality as a portraitist: it’s both dreamy and direct, posed and natural. It seems to contain the essence of adolescence: Evelyn looks at ease, aware of her beauty, while the road ahead of her is still unknown. She has the irresistible combination which puts fear into a mother’s heart and makes men lose their heads: she’s sexy and innocent at the same time. In Evelyn’s case, sadly, this would indeed prove to have fatal consequences when her husband shot a well-known architect and former lover in a jealous rage. This sensational crime of passion reappeared 70 years later in E.L. Doctorow’s famous novel Ragtime.
(Text: Pauline Dorhout)

Anonymous: Last Judgment (12th/13th century); Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in 639 on the island of Torcello near Venice, Italy, contains an exceptional Last Judgment mosaic. Torcello is situated in the lagoon, about an hour by boat. The mosaic shown here covers the Cathedral’s west wall. It was made in the twelfth and thirteenth century by Venetian Byzantine workmen. Why is this mosaic so special?
On the lower right side, we see Hell in its most disgusting appearance ever. Angels pierce their hayforks into human bodies, black devils are flying around. This Hell is a Paradise for Byzantine Art lovers. The atrocities depicted here are not seen anywhere else. At the bottom of the scene countless skulls are floating around. Jaws are smirking and squalid wormlike creatures are creeping out of eye sockets. Body parts circle around: hands, feet, skulls, bones. The intriguing question is how the artist could put such unusual pictures in these mosaics. Probably craftsmen from Constantinople were at work here. They were highly qualified specialists who brought a rich array of imaginative power. But what drove them to depict snakes, legs and bones all over the place?
The twelfth century was not a lucky period for the people living around the lagoon. For instance, we know that in this period the island of Torcello turned into a swamp. Many people died by diseases like malaria. These circumstances possibly play a part. Moreover, Sant’ Ariano, an island near Torcello, was an ossuary. For ages, bones dug up from the San Michele cemetery were brought to Sant’ Ariano. If Sant’ Ariano was already an ossuary in the twelfth century, then bones that were found there may have inspired the artists. The Last Judgment of Santa Maria Assunta may well have reflected the geographic location. 

(Text: Annet Withagen)

December 10, 2011

Jan Breughel & Peter Paul Rubens: The Garden of Eden (1615); Mauritshuis, Den Haag

This marvelous depiction of the Garden of Eden is not painted by one, but two well-known artists: Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder. While Breughel’s father, the even more famous Pieter Breughel the Elder, excelled in peasant scenes, Jan was especially gifted as a painter of exuberant nature scenes and floral still lifes. The fineness and accuracy with which he rendered flowers and plants earned him the nickname ‘Velvet Brueghel’. Jan regularly worked together with other artists, letting them add human figures to his landscapes, mostly to create biblical or allegorical scenes.
His most fruitful collaboration was with Peter Paul Rubens, who was as skilful in painting human figures as Jan Breughel was in depicting nature. Though they were both respected and popular artists in their own right, their joint works were in even greater demand than their solo work.
This Paradise scene, on show in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, is a good example of the successful merging of their talents. Research has shown that it was Breughel who began sketching the outlines of the composition on the panel, but that it was Rubens who put the first scenes into paint: Adam and Eve, but also a part of the tree and the horse beside them. When this was done, Brueghel added the sky, the landscape and filled the rest of the painting with animals and plants.
The painting captures the moment right before Adam eats from the fatal apple that Eve is handing him, which would result in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Rubens en Breughel show us an ideal world where everything is in perfect harmony. Nothing in this peaceful setting seems to indicate the approaching doom.

December 3, 2011

Jan Steen: St. Nicholas Feast (1663); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The day after tomorrow most Dutch celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas. This painting by Jan Steen shows that this festival on the evening of December 5th is a centuries-old tradition in the Netherlands. St. Nicholas (or Sinterklaas, as the Dutch say) is basically a children’s feast: they get presents from St. Nicholas, who rides the rooftops on his horse and brings gifts through the chimney. Children sing carols and leave their shoes empty before the fireplace, to see them filled with presents from the Saint when they return. That is, if they have been obedient; naughty children will find nothing or a birch rod in their shoe.
The figure of Sinterklaas is based on bishop Nicholas of Myra, a city in Asia Minor, who lived around the turn of the fourth century. He was known for his charity and became the patron saint of sailors and children. The fact that the Northern Netherlands converted to Protestantism in the late 16th century did not keep people from celebrating this typically Catholic feast. In North America, Dutch colonists reinvented their tradition away from home, which eventually led to the appearance of another children’s friend: Santa Claus.
Jan Steen is, of course, a brilliant storyteller and he is clearly in his element with this subject. He depicts scenes which are still familiar to us: the children gazing and pointing at the chimney in awe, the little girl who is so content with her doll and the father who watches the whole scene with delight. The most touching element is the crying boy, who must have behaved badly and therefore didn’t get a present from Sinterklaas in his shoe. His little brother and sister poke fun at him, but the old woman in the back beckons: she has a present for the naughty boy after all, hidden behind the curtain.