December 23, 2012

Jean Fouquet: The Building of a Cathedral (c. 1465); Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris

Medieval construction business is in full swing in the foreground. Anonymous craftsmen, grey with stone dust, are hammering and chiseling away on masonry segments. A kneeling sculptor is carefully carving a statue, while others are preparing mortar to join decorative and structural parts. On the left, citizens carrying financial contributions climb the stairs of a palace. On its balcony a king, assisted by his architect, oversees the work with one hand pointing to heaven. In the middle ground, we see the purpose of these efforts. Churchgoers, both wealthy citizens and poorly clad pilgrims equipped with staff and rucksack, enter the portals of a Gothic cathedral richly ornamented with prophets, biblical kings and saints. But work goes on, for towers are still lacking. On the roof, a crane hoists up more building material.
French painter and illuminator Jean Fouquet created this miniature around 1465, closely following the cathedral architecture of his hometown Tours. But it is not what it seems. The scene illustrates a manuscript page of Jewish Antiquities, a history of the Jewish people. Written by Jewish first century historian Flavius Josephus, it remained widely read by both Christians and Jews since Roman times. Fouquet’s building site illustrates the story of King Solomon constructing the Temple of Jerusalem, but his contemporary architecture appropriates the ancient Temple in form and meaning. According to Christian theology, Ecclesia or the Catholic Church had displaced Synagoga or the Jewish Temple, and its construction was now considered a metaphor for building the Spiritual or Heavenly Temple of the New Testament. Like no other architectural style before or afterwards, Gothic cathedrals represent this notion of reaching for heaven. Emphasizing verticality, slenderness and light pouring in through stained glass windows, their sky-high design aims at Salvation and eternal life as a return on investment. The unfinished state of Fouquet’s structure expresses the ongoing character of this process, both metaphorically and in practice. The construction of Tours cathedral, for example, started in 1170 and continued at a leisurely pace until 1547. 
(text: Jos Hanou)

December 15, 2012

Tomb of Pakal (615-683 AD); Pyramid of the Inscriptions, Palenque, Mexico

One of the most significant archaeological finds of the 20th century was the tomb of K'inich Janaab' Pakal, ruler of the Mayan city of Palenque from 615 to 683 AD. After having assumed the throne at age twelve, he ruled Palenque for an astonishing 68 years. During his reign, Palenque became a Mayan Florence, a medium-sized city crammed with unsurpassed architecture and art.
Pakal's tomb was found in the so-called Pyramid of Inscriptions. Until this find, it was not known that the Mayan's buried their rulers in a very similar fashion to the ancient Egyptians.
The concept and execution of Pakal's tomb are really remarkably similar to the Egyptian pyramids, which served as a sort of launching platform for deceased pharaohs, including worldly goods the Pharaoh would need and elaborate inscriptions as to how the Pharaohs' soul was to navigate through the underworld and reach the afterlife. Pakal's tomb was not only filled with relics and treasures, it also contained six servants.
The lid on the tomb describes how Pakal's soul is to manoeuvre through the underworld. It shows the ruler seated upon the Monster of the Sun, in its state of transition between life and death: a skeleton from the mouth down, yet with the eyes of a living being. The sun enters into this state of transition at dawn and at dusk. Here, the emblem of the Monster of the Sun contains the ‘cimi’, the sign of death, representing the ‘death of the sun’ or sunset, with the sun located on the horizon, sinking into Xibalba – the underworld.
The movement of the sun from east to west represents Pakal's journey from life into death. Inside the underworld at the centre of the universe, stands the sacred World Tree with a Celestial Bird—symbol of the kingdom of heaven.
Each night, the Mayans saw the Milky Way rise after the sun had set. For them, this starry river was the Underworld, and the dark space at its centre was the ‘Dragon's Mouth’ - its entrance. The ‘World Tree’ was basically the cross formed by the Milky Way rising perpendicular to the horizon.
(text: Edgar Foley)

December 1, 2012

William Bouguereau: Nymphs and Satyr (1873); Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown MA

Today, many people see the paintings of William Bouguereau as being too smooth and even kitschy, but this wasn’t always the case. In his own time, Bouguereau (1825-1905) was considered one of the greatest painters in the world. He was praised extensively for his ability to depict mythological themes and other traditional subjects in a ‘fresh,’ modern way, and for his fabulous technical skills and complex compositions. Especially his piquant yet graceful rendering of the female nude was admired by both the public and in academic circles. His work, that would eventually comprise 826 paintings, was very popular with wealthy collectors, who loved to decorate their houses with Bouguereau’s idealizing pictures.
His success made him a very rich man, but there was also much criticism. New generation artists, who abstained from the formal, academic conventions, opposed Bouguereau’s traditional, inoffensive style. Edgar Degas and some of his fellow-artists even invented the word ‘Bouguereauté’ to describe slick and artificial works of art. Their harsh critiques have surely contributed to Bouguereau’s fall into disgrace.
Bouguereau’s painting Nymphs and Satyr was exhibited in Paris for the first time in 1873, one year before the daring exposition where the Impressionists showed their radical, controversial art. It is a typical Bouguereau in all aspects: it deals with a classical theme (actually a free interpretation of a text by the Latin poet Statius), it consists mainly of female nudes, who are depicted in the most complex body postures, and it is painted in his characteristic smooth, glossy style. Bouguereau was a perfectionist and he made numerous preparatory drawings; for example, for the body of the satyr he studied the rear of a real goat as well as the ears of a horse.
While the Impressionists’ aversion can be understood from their point of view and the period they lived in, the time may have come for a renewed appreciation for Bouguereau’s lighthearted, playful art as well as his astonishing craftsmanship.
(text: Maarten Levendig)

November 24, 2012

Adriaen Brouwer: The Bitter Potion (ca. 1630); Städel Art Museum, Frankfurt

A somewhat crude-looking man has just swallowed a bitter medicine and his face expresses his disgust of it in all possible ways. The painting, which depicts the man’s physical reflexes quite convincingly, may be a representation of the sense of taste. Some parts of the canvas, especially the background, are painted rather roughly, but the facial features are rendered very precisely.
Its creator, Adriaen Brouwer (1605–1638), specialized in witty low-life scenes, mostly of drunken peasants, brawls and debauchery. Such scenes were popular among townspeople who would look with amusement at these uncivilized figures. Amongst his many admirers were both Rubens and Rembrandt, who had quite a few of his paintings in their personal collections.
There are many uncertainties about Brouwer’s life. For example, it is assumed, but not proven, that he was originally from Flanders. Furthermore, there is no concrete evidence for the current theory that he was a pupil of Frans Hals. It is not unlikely though, because we know that Brouwer was active as a painter in Hals’s residence Haarlem before settling for good in Antwerp in the early thirties. Brouwer's style also points in this direction: it combines the individuality and loose working method typical of Dutch artists like Hals with the Flemish interest in peasant scenes.
The lack of biographical data led to a stream of speculations about his personal life. A romantic image was created of a bohemian artist who drank and smoked all the time, painting in crowded pubs, amidst his subjects. Such assumptions arose from the well-known tendency to identify an artist with his work.
In the case of Adriaen Brouwer, we shall never be fully able to separate myth and reality. What’s left is a magnificent oeuvre, full of vibrant paintings that offer a glimpse into a raw world from centuries ago.
(text: Maarten Gaillard)

November 17, 2012

Ansel Adams: Richard Kobayashi, farmer with cabbages, Manzanar Relocation Center, California (1943); Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppprs-00453.

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is world-renowned for his excellent landscape photography, and his perfect tonality. But not many are familiar with his photographs of the Japanese American internment during World War II.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, anti-Japanese sentiments in America were understandably strong. This, in turn, had a major effect on the lives of the members of the Japanese community in the United States. Within a few months, the government, fearing sabotage, issued a notice to all people of Japanese descent that they were to be evacuated from the Pacific Coast. This included not only first-generation Japanese, who had not been allowed to naturalize, but also their children, who were American by birth. In all, about two-thirds of the 110,000 people who were taken to relocation centers in remote areas of the US were American citizens.
Ansel Adams wanted to capture the resilience and good spirit of the Japanese Americans and to encourage Americans to accept them back into the community after the war. To this end, he published a book, Born Free and Equal. While this sounds commendable, he was a bit overzealous in stressing the positive. Many of Adams’s photographs show smiling faces, pretty gardens, beautiful mountains, and sports events. The man with his cabbages seems to have stepped right out of an advertisement.
In reality, conditions in the camps were far from ideal. When we compare his work to that of fellow photographers, it becomes clear what Adams doesn’t show: the armed guards, the barbed wire, and the primitive and squalid living conditions.
After their release from the camps, many Japanese Americans had to start from scratch, having lost all their possessions. Most were met with hostility. Their experiences were ignored for decades, and it wasn’t until 1993 that President Clinton sent an apology to the surviving former inhabitants of the relocation centers. In hindsight, a more balanced and honest picture than that which Adams presented might have helped raise awareness and sympathy among other Americans and soften their hearts sooner. Thus, ironically, his idealism may have attributed to the failure of achieving his goal.
(text: Pauline Dorhout)

November 11, 2012

Karl Schmidt-Rottluff: Dangast Landscape (1910); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

This thrilling impression of the German village Dangast was painted in 1910 by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976). He was one of the founding members of a group of Dresden artists, along with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Erich Heckel, who named themselves Die Brücke (The Bridge). The Brücke artists believed that art needed to develop itself into a more ‘youthful’ direction. They opposed the older generation who, to their taste, only made ‘bourgeois’ art. Together with Der Blaue Reiter, a somewhat later group from Munich, they laid the foundations for a movement that would be called Expressionism.
The Expressionists strove for the ‘unspoiled natural,’ art freed from academic restrictions. Inspired by authors such as Nietzsche, Ibsen and Strindberg, and painters like Van Gogh and Gauguin, they wanted to convert reality into a ‘visual character.’ Unlike the Impressionists, their primary purpose was not pure perception, but a psychologization of the perceived impression.
This aim for individuality und pureness also affected their way of working. The Expressionist artists liked to work in natural surroundings, away from the negative effects of industrialization. Furthermore, they started to mix their own individual colors and thinned their paint with petroleum, so that they were able to create smoother strokes and had more freedom in their working method.
Schmidt-Rottluff’s painting of Dangas, a Northern-German spa town where he spent half of the year, is a typical example of these new insights. Natural colors have been neglected in favor of shrill, aggressive, contrasting color planes of blue, yellow and green. The rhythmically applied patches of paint lend a restless movement to the whole landscape. Rather than being an accurate description of a village scene, Schmidt-Rottluff represented his inner state.
The unrestrained style and psychological approach of Expressionist was not appreciated by all: in 1937, the Nazis declared their works Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) and a large number of their paintings and sculptures were destroyed.
(text: Maarten Levendig)

November 3, 2012

ohannes Vermeer: The Milkmaid (c. 1658); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Johannes Vermeer’s Milkmaid (c. 1658) is perfect in its self-evident naturalness. The spectator will have no doubts as to what he sees: an ordinary, somewhat sturdy kitchen maid who pours milk from a jug into a bowl with quiet concentration. Yet we can be sure that Vermeer would have needed all his skills, knowledge and genius to create such an uncomplicated-looking picture.
Let us take a look, for instance, at his masterly depiction of the milk, which really seems to flow from the jug. Many artists have tried to defy the evident limitation of painting that it can show no movement, but few were as convincing as Vermeer.
Furthermore, the artist paid great attention to details. Vermeer gives thought to a nail set high in the white wall, as well as the tiny rough patches in the texture of the white plasterwork. Also note how the strong outdoor light enters through a crack in the windowpane. This interest in detail may explain why - despite the fact that art was his only source of income - Vermeer finished a mere 45 works during his life.
It is generally assumed - but not undisputed - that Vermeer made use of technical aids to study and create certain optical effects. Research has revealed a tiny hole in the vanishing point of thirteen of Vermeer's interior paintings, including this one. By inserting a pin with a string attached to it, he could reach any area of his canvas to correct perspective lines.
Also typical for Vermeer’s work are his carefully arranged compositions, which have a photograph-like quality. It is believed that Vermeer used a camera obscura, an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings onto a flat surface. This would have facilitated playing around with possible framings until he found one that pleased him.
If it is true that Vermeer worked with such tools, this would also provide a clue to his miraculous mastery of light reflections (such as the light spot on the maid’s forehead), as well as to the wonderful illusion of depth and immediacy in his paintings.
(text: Maarten Levendig)

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: The Valpinçon Bather (1806); Musée du Louvre, Paris

Although the Neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780 – 1867) produced a variety of works, from portraits to history painting, he is nowadays most famous for his sensuous female nudes. This work from 1806, The Valpinçon Bather, is considered to be a precursor to many of Ingres’s later nudes, most notably his Turkish Bath from 1862.
More than a century later, the idealistic, serene depiction of this voluptuous yet chaste girl in an exotic context, inspired Man Ray to create his well-known photograph, Le violon d’Ingres ( Typical for the surrealist movement that he belonged to, Man Ray’s 1924 recreation of Ingres’s work plays with the meaning of words and the associations and imagination of the spectator. He photographed his favorite model and muse, Kiki de Montparnasse, in a setting and pose that refers to Ingres’s enchanting painting. By adding the f-holes to her naked back, he transformed her body into a violin. This seems to explain its title, Ingres’s Violin, sufficiently, but we will see that that it is more than just the mix of a painting and an instrument.
Ingres’s great passion besides his art was playing the violin. As a violinist, he was not without merit and he maintained musical contacts with, among others, Paganini and Liszt. This pastime would eventually lead to a general expression in French: ‘violon d’Ingres’, meaning a skill other than that at which one excels, a hobby.
Man Ray’s photograph can thus be seen as a visualization of this French expression. And it can’t be a coincidence that Man Ray, though viewed as one of the most famous photographers ever, always persevered that he was a painter and sculptor and that his photography was just something he did on the side, in other words a ‘violon d’Ingres’.
(text: Maarten Levendig and Pauline Dorhout)

October 28, 2012

Aristide Maillol: L'air (Air) 1939; Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo,Netherlands

Although the phenomenon muse is as old as art itself, there have been few muses as exceptional as Dina Vierny (1919-2009). Dina, who came from a Jewish-Moldovan family, still studied at the lycée in Paris when she was recommended as a model to the sculptor Aristide Maillol in 1934. Maillol (1861-1944) was known for his monumental sculptures, depicting voluptuous women of a very specific type and it was exactly this type that the then fifteen-year old Dina embodied.
The 73-year old Maillol wrote a letter to Dina, telling her (humbly): ‘I am told that you resemble a Maillol and a Renoir. I would be satisfied with a Renoir’. She would be his muse for the last ten years of his life, inspiring the old sculptor to unexpected masterpieces. Their relation was strictly professional and would always stay platonic. When she began to study chemistry and physics, Maillol invented postures in which she could keep on reading her books. Dina Vierny would grow into a key figure in the French art world, befriending important artists like Matisse, Bonnard and artists from the Surrealistic movement.
During WWII, Vierny risked her life by guiding refugees over the Pyrenees from occupied France to Spain. As soon as he discovered these activities, Maillol – who was a native resident of Banyuls, a small fishing village near the Spanish border – decided to help her by showing all the goat paths and smuggler routes needed to cross the mountains unnoticed. Soon his workshop in the hills of Banyuls became the starting point of the route. Dina Vierny got arrested twice, by the French police and by the Gestapo. Maillol saved her both times, the second time through the intercession of his friend Arno Breker, who – ironically - was a Nazi and known as ‘Hitler's favorite sculptor.’
After the war, Dina Vierny carried out two important projects in Paris with the intent to immortalize Maillol’s name: she gave twenty masterpieces of Maillol to the French state for exhibition in the Tuileries; later, she founded a Maillol museum in Paris. She died there in 1999, above the exposition rooms, aged 89.
(text: Maarten Levendig)

October 10, 2012

Limbourg Brothers: ‘October’, in: Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (15th century); Musée Condé, Chantilly

In the early 1400s, Paris straddled the Seine banks on either side of the Ile de la Cité. Country life started already inside the city walls. Fields stretch all the way to the Left Bank, lined with willows. In the foregroun
d, a peasant in a blue tunic sows seeds, his gesture repeated centuries later by Millet and van Gogh. A full bag waits where he just left his footprints. Birds fight over grain scattered in the neatly ploughed furrows, avoiding the scarecrow archer and the network of threads protecting an already seeded parcel. Another peasant in red uses reins and whip to guide a horse, covered with a white blanket and pulling a harrow weighted down by a stone, in the opposite direction.
Heavy walls, twin towers and the central dungeon of the royal residence of the Louvre dominate the horizon. One small door opens onto the embankment, where friends chat leisurely, people walk their dogs, and washerwomen beat laundry on the steps of a stairway, feet in the water.
We see this miniature view on daily life from the Parisian residence and through the aristocratic eyes of Jean, Duc de Berry, the French king’s brother. It illustrates the calendarium - a monthly list of saints' days – in Jean’s Very Rich Book of Hours, a private devotional collection of prayers to be recited at regular hours. Scenes from the labours of the month, for October tilling and sowing, illuminate each precious calendar page. The solar chariot pulled by winged horses (a nice contrast with October’s heavy workhorse) and the zodiac signs, all in costly gold and lapis lazuli, surmount each month’s earthly chores.
Work on this prestigious, 416 page high point of manuscript illumination was commissioned to the famous Limbourg Brothers from the Netherlands, but came to a tragic halt when the plague struck both painters and Duke in 1416. Other artists finished some already partly prepared illuminations, probably including this precise but lively observation of autumn activity.
(text: Jos Hanou)

— met Antonio Canova: Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (1802); Apsley House, London.

This colossal sculpture might not be everybody’s taste, but the story behind it is most intriguing. How did a statue of a naked French emperor made by an Italian sculptor end up in the staircase of a British general?
In 1802, Napoleon decided he wanted to have a full-length sculpture made by Antonio Canova (1757-1822) and sent him a highly flattering invitation. Both men were
extremely celebrated at that time; the first was at the height of his power, the latter was generally considered to be the most talented sculptor of the Western world.
But Canova was not very enthusiastic about this honorable commission. He regarded the French, who had occupied his hometown Venice with great violence, as barbarians and resented Napoleon for looting Italian art treasures and dragging them to Paris. It was only through the mediation of several dignitaries, including Pope Pius VII, that Canova eventually felt forced to oblige.
He proposed to depict Napoleon as a heroic nude: Mars the Peacemaker. Napoleon initially refused - he insisted to be portrayed in his regimental uniform - but he must also have felt flattered to be depicted as a pacifying war god and ultimately he trusted on the insight of the artist.
The huge statue arrived in Paris no earlier than 1811. When Napoleon first saw it, he was so shocked that he immediately ordered it to be hidden from the public. Napoleon’s comment that the statue was ‘trop athlétique’ suggests that his physical appearance may have played a role. While the concept of depicting the Little General as a giant of nearly three and half meters was already fairly grotesque in 1802, he had become quite corpulent since then.
After Napoleon’s defeat in The Battle of Waterloo (1815), by an alliance of armies under the command of the Duke of Wellington, the moment had come for the restitution of Napoleon’s looted art and the hidden Mars-statue resurfaced. It was presented as a gift to the Duke. ‘The Victor of Waterloo’ proudly showed his new acquisition in the stairwell of his London residence, Apsley House.
This prominent place for the statue of his arch enemy is often interpreted as a form of schadenfreude, but the opposite is true. Wellington had a tremendous respect for him. When asked whom he considered the greatest general of the age, he answered: 'In this age, in past ages, in any age, Napoleon'.
(text: Maarten Levendig)

October 6, 2012

Limbourg Brothers: ‘October’, in: Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (15th century); Musée Condé, Chantilly, France

In the early 1400s, Paris straddled the Seine banks on either side of the Ile de la Cité. Country life started already inside the city walls. Fields stretch all the way to the Left Bank, lined with willows. In the foreground, a peasant in a blue tunic sows seeds, his gesture repeated centuries later by Millet and van Gogh. A full bag waits where he just left his footprints. Birds fight over grain scattered in the neatly ploughed furrows, avoiding the scarecrow archer and the network of threads protecting an already seeded parcel. Another peasant in red uses reins and whip to guide a horse, covered with a white blanket and pulling a harrow weighted down by a stone, in the opposite direction.
Heavy walls, twin towers and the central dungeon of the royal residence of the Louvre dominate the horizon. One small door opens onto the embankment, where friends chat leisurely, people walk their dogs, and washerwomen beat laundry on the steps of a stairway, feet in the water.
We see this miniature view on daily life from the Parisian residence and through the aristocratic eyes of Jean, Duc de Berry, the French king’s brother. It illustrates the calendarium - a monthly list of saints' days – in Jean’s Very Rich Book of Hours, a private devotional collection of prayers to be recited at regular hours. Scenes from the labours of the month, for October tilling and sowing, illuminate each precious calendar page. The solar chariot pulled by winged horses (a nice contrast with October’s heavy workhorse) and the zodiac signs, all in costly gold and lapis lazuli, surmount each month’s earthly chores.
Work on this prestigious, 416 page high point of manuscript illumination was commissioned to the famous Limbourg Brothers from the Netherlands, but came to a tragic halt when the plague struck both painters and Duke in 1416. Other artists finished some already partly prepared illuminations, probably including this precise but lively observation of autumn activity.
(text: Jos Hanou)

September 23, 2012

Jan Mankes: Big Owl on Screen (1913); Private collection.

To the Dutch artist Jan Mankes (1889-1920), painting was a means to express the ineffable. He studied and sketched his subjects endlessly, until he knew them by heart. Then he painted them from memory, not necessarily as they were, but rather capturing their essence. All of his works show elements of his immediate environment. Besides painting numerous birds and farm animals, he produced dreamy images of the landscape surrounding his parents’ home in Friesland, and views from his studio in Eerbeek. His portraits are seldom flattering, but almost always very sensitive.
In this oil painting, we see Jan’s own favorite bird, a barn owl, which he kept in his parents’ living room (despite their initial protests). It was given to him by his friend and patron Pauwels, who was in the habit of providing him with all types of birds, particularly birds of prey. Jan let him know how much he admired the owl: ‘A truly miraculous animal, in shape, hues and character; all together an idyll.’
In order to convey this idyll, he used a glazing technique, where many transparent layers of color are applied onto an opaque base, creating soft lines and a beautiful flow and depth of colors. It lends a fairytale-like quality to the owl, who seems self-assured and very much at ease, sitting on his parents’ folding screen.
Regrettably, Jan Mankes died of tuberculosis at the early age of just 30. Nonetheless, he left behind an impressive oeuvre of about 200 paintings and a large number of drawings and prints.
(text: Pauline Dorhout)

September 15, 2012

James McNeill Whistler: Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room (1876-1877 - 1877); Freer Gallery of Art, Washington

The American painter James McNeill Whistler was no stranger to controversy. From falling out with the realist painter Courbet – because the latter had painted Whistler's mistress Jo – to suing an art critic – the Whistler vs. Ruskin case, which nearly ruined both parties – to a public clash with his friend Oscar Wilde; Whistler was at the centre of many tempests.
One of Whistler's most remarkable rows involved the wealthy shipowner Frederick Leyland, who had been establishing himself as Whistler's Maecenas, having commissioned several portraits by the painter. Leyland had asked the architect Thomas Jeckell to transform the dining room of his mansion in London into an exhibition space for his prized china collection. Focal point was to be Whistler's painting La Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine. Jeckell had the walls of the room covered in expensive red Cordova leather embossed with red flowers. Although lavish, the combination proved to be somewhat sickening and Leyland turned to Whistler to 'harmonize the space'.
Once working on the room Whistler got carried away, not minding any conventions or financial restrictions, declaring afterwards: 'Well, you know, I just painted on.' He covered the ceiling with imitation gold leaf and a pattern of peacock feathers, gilded the shelving and embellished the shutters with plumed peacocks. The Cordova was no longer visible and all red hues had been replaced by blue and gold.
When he saw this the architect Jeckell suffered a complete mental collapse from which he never recovered. Leyland was not pleased either. He scorned Whistler for the financial liberties the painter had taken and the bizarre, uncalled for transformation of the room.
Whistler reacted: 'Ah, I have made you famous. My work will live when you are forgotten. Still, perchance, in the dim ages to come you will be remembered as the proprietor of the Peacock Room.'
...which was indeed the case. To add insult to injury, Whistler seized the last opportunity he had to access the room by painting two quarrelling peacocks, one with a brush and the other with a bag of coins, labelled: Art and Money, or, The Story of the Room.
(text: Edgar Foley)

September 7, 2012

Anonymous: Chludov Psalter (9th century); Historical Museum, Moscow

Much of the art shown on this site owes its creation to religion, politics, or both combined. For ages, state and church have used the power of images and architecture to assert their status, teach doctrine and
generate devotion. For the same reasons, countless works of art were irreparably lost in times of conflict: buildings demolished, statues smashed, paintings burned.
Serious outbursts of iconoclasm - deliberate destruction of images - regularly happened in history. According to the (short version) of the Second Commandment, God forbids to make a ‘graven image’ of anything living. This has caused disagreement between Christian theologians for the past 2000 years. Some scholars believed the commandment only referred to images of pagan idols, while others took the strict view and included images of all creatures. Extended arguments flared up in the Byzantine Empire during the 8th and 9th centuries. Several emperors, possibly interpreting their military defeats against likewise iconoclastic Islam as a punishment by God, ordered icons and other religious images destroyed.
Obviously this provoked resistance from rivalling iconophiles - supporters of images. A contemporary, anonymous monk illuminated a page in this ‘Chludov’ Psalter - a book of psalms - of 850 AD with a polemic illustration pairing the whitewashing of a fresco with the Crucifixion. Next to the text ‘They gave me gall to eat, and when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink’, a soldier offers Christ vinegar on a sponge attached to a pole, as per St. John’s Gospel. At the foot of Calvary, our satirical artist painted John the Grammarian, Constantinople’s iconoclast Patriarch, whitewashing over an icon of Christ with a similar sponge on a pole. Also his paint-pot and the soldier’s vinegar-pot are identical. While the analogy is acidly clear - iconoclasts are tormenters of Christ - the monastic rebel added insult to injury by giving the venerable Patriarch ‘funny hair’.
Leaving doctrine aside, our monk’s biting satire represents a powerful iconophile weapon in the arms race against iconoclasts: a picture is worth a thousand words.
(text: Jos Hanou)

September 2, 2012

Anonymous: Seated Scribe (2620–2500 BC); Louvre Museum, Paris.

This colorful sculpture was discovered in 1850 by Auguste Mariette, an eminent French archeologist, who worked for the Louvre museum at that time. It was excavated at Saqqara, an ancient burial ground southwest of Cairo, which served as the necropolis for Memphis, the Egyptian capital during the Old Kingdom (2686–2181 BC). Egyptology was a relatively young science - generally perceived as beginning around 1822 – and this was one of the first real masterpieces of Egyptian art discovered there.
Although the identity of the portrayed remains unknown until the present day, his profession is obvious: he’s a scribe. He is depicted doing his job, in a characteristic cross-legged posture, holding a papyrus scroll in his left hand. Originally, he must have held a reed pen in his other hand which is now lost. The sculpture consists mainly of painted limestone with some other materials added, like pieces of wood for the nipples and magnesite and crystal for the life-like eyes.
The scribe is rendered in an overwhelmingly realistic manner with his sharp facial features, protruding nipples and chubby belly. The sculptor has rendered the various parts of his body in a very delicate and detailed way; note how convincing his right foot is slid under the left leg.
The artistic quality and strong individual features of this work make it very probable that this person must have been a highly esteemed dignitary. This is not as strange as it may seem: scribes were very important for Egyptian society. They were part of a small elite that could write and read and were involved in the supervision and organization of vital activities such as craftwork and agriculture. Another indication of the scribe’s high social position are his fat rolls, as has been revealed in comparative iconographic studies by Egyptologists.
(text: Maarten Levendig)

August 25, 2012

Adriaen van der Werff: Amorous Couple Spied upon by Children (1694); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

This somewhat cheeky image was painted by Adriaen van der Werff (1659 –1722). The style of this Dutch artist is considered to be a transition between the seventeenth-century Baroque and the more classical, elegant manner of the eighteenth century. Amorous Couple Spied upon by Children is a relatively early work, dating from 1694. Later in his career, when he had acquired fame as a ‘noble’ and elevated artist, Van der Werff disassociated himself from these frivolous, ‘immature’ paintings.
The panel depicts a, barely covered, young man and woman who seem oblivious to the presence of the children on the right, who are secretly spying on them from behind the bushes. A saucy detail is the glance the woman throws at the viewer, essentially turning us into voyeurs. Some other elements in the background, like the statues of the dancing satyr and Silenus - the always drunken companion of the god Dionysus – further emphasize the painting’s erotic character.
The sculptures also add to the classical atmosphere of the scene, as do the wreath on the head of the young man, the flute on the ground and the couple’s garments. They place the painting in the pastoral tradition, a genre celebrating the classical past in an idealized manner. One of its standard features is the Arcadian romance of amorous shepherds.
Van der Werff was widely praised for his fabulous skills, not just by his compatriots, but throughout Europe. His fine paintings, mostly biblical and (erotic) mythological scenes, were fanatically collected by rulers such as Louis XVI of France and Frederick the Great. Unfortunately, Van der Werff would posthumously fall out of grace, as museums and art historians in later centuries blamed him for ‘betraying’ the Dutch realistic tradition.
 (text: Maarten Levendig and Pauline Dorhout)

August 11, 2012

Henri Rousseau: The Football Players (1908); Guggenheim Museum, New York

In my grandparents’ house used to hang a reproduction of this work by Henri Rousseau. As a child, I was completely fascinated by the painting and I could look at it for hours. I was touched by the ineffable combination of colors and shapes on the canvas, rather than the actual scene. Of course, I marveled at the footballer’s strange sport clothing and their extraordinary mustaches, but above all there was a magical atmosphere in the painting that wouldn’t let go of me. More than 35 years later, I'm still enchanted.
Rousseau (1844-1910) is commonly classified as a Naïve painter, because of his uncomplicated, 'childish' style. He was a late bloomer and only started to paint at the age of forty. He never had any formal education in the arts and earned his money as a toll collector, a profession that won him the nickname ‘Le Douanier’. Rousseau’s subjects vary widely, but he is best known for his depictions of jungle scenes, which is remarkable given the fact that he never set foot outside his native France.
Despite the fact that his work was rejected and ridiculed by most critics, Rousseau continued to believe in his own qualities and tried to exhibit as much as possible. And not entirely fruitless: after he received his first positive review in 1891 from the painter Felix Valloton, the appreciation of his work began to increase, albeit mainly from avant-garde artists like Picasso, Signac, Brancusi, and Apollinaire. Today, his ‘naïve’ art is considered to have had a huge influence on the emergence of modernism and as an indispensable source of inspiration for important innovators such as Beckmann, Kandinsky and Léger.
(text: Maarten Levendig)

Adriaen Coorte: Still Life with Strawberries (1705); Mauritshuis, The Hague

This unassuming, but utterly charming bunch of wild strawberries was made by Adriaen Coorte, a Dutch 17th century painter who lived in or near the city of Middelburg in Zeeland.
To most people nowadays, Middelburg is n

o more than a friendly provincial town. During the Dutch Golden Age, however, it was quite a different story! Middelburg was the second most important trading center of the country (Amsterdam being the first), with large shares in the Dutch East and West India Companies. Its prosperous citizens collected foreign artifacts and ordered luxury goods for their interior, and silversmiths, weavers and glassmakers had thriving businesses.
The overseas travels also sparked a growing interest in botany, and Middelburg doctors, preachers and merchants alike created luxurious gardens filled with newly imported exotic plants. In order to study such rare species outside their flowering and fruit-bearing periods, they were recorded in drawings and paintings to provide them with a permanent lease of life.
Flower and fruit still lifes became a hugely popular genre. For painters, they offered an opportunity to show their mastery of rendering different textures. For the owners, they formed a pleasant way of showing off wealth without compromising on religious virtue, since they celebrated God’s creations.
Toward the end of the 17th century, the arrangements became more and more ornate, resulting in elaborate displays of fruit, vegetables and tableware called “pronkstilleven.” While his contemporaries tried do outdo themselves, Coorte moved in the exact opposite direction: over the years, his works gained in simplicity, often showing just a single type of fruit. By reducing the composition of his backgrounds to bare ledges or niches, the focus on the main subject is intensified, revealing the extraordinary qualities of ordinary objects.
While his unfashionable austerity caused the painter’s name to sink into oblivion for centuries, it is precisely this plain design which prompted his reappraisal in recent years and which makes his work so timeless.
(text: Pauline Dorhout)

July 29, 2012

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: At the Moulin Rouge (1892); Art Institute of Chicago.

Au Moulin Rouge is a key work in the oeuvre of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It is one of his largest and most orthodox – finished, in a traditional sense – works. The subject, people drinking, talking and dancing in the Moulin Rouge dance hall is a recurring motif in Lautrec's work, and pivotal, as it was precisely this subject that propelled him into the ranks of the all-time greats. Moreover, the people depicted in this scene were the ones his world revolved around: the dancers La Goulue (‘the Glutton’) and Jane Avril; his friends, seated round the table, of which the photographer Paul Sescau was the most important one; and in the background we can see Lautrec's cousin Dr. Tapie de Celeyran, together with the unmistakable figure of the painter himself.
Toulouse-Lautrec was one of the foremost representatives of the post-impressionist movement, with Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne and Seurat. These painters found inspiration in Impressionism, but also outside of western art; in Van Gogh's and Lautrec's case mainly in Japanese prints. From the Japanese they learned how to use an oblique, skewed perspective.
The Impressionist Edgar Degas had also been inspired by Japanese prints. This is interesting, since Lautrec was a great admirer of Degas. Au Moulin Rouge has a very similar feeling to Degas' painting the Absinthe Drinker – one of the defining paintings of Impressionism. When compared these two paintings clearly exemplify the differences between Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Evident is Lautrec's much more dramatic use of Japanese influences with regard to perspective: the picture is cut with strong diagonal lines, directed at not one, but two vanishing points.
Au Moulin Rouge also belongs to a genre of groups of bohémien characters huddled around tables, a popular motif in 19th century French painting. Lautrec felt drawn to this peculiar, nocturnal world, with its uninhibited denizens. And although he blended in perfectly, the bohémien lifestyle took its toll: Toulouse-Lautrec died of alcoholism at the age of thirty-six. Yet his short life was free and fascinating, and with this painting Lautrec has immortalized his age, the fin de siècle.
(text: Edgar Foley)

July 8, 2012

Walter Leistikow (1865-1908): Evening Mood at Schlachtensee (circa 1895); Stadtmuseum, Berlin.

The Schlachtensee near Berlin as portrayed here combines a sense of rest and peacefulness with melancholia; the darkness of the forest and the glimmering reflection of the last rays of the sun mingle to a quiet harmony. It was painted in 1895 by Walter Leistikow, one of the founding members of the Berlin Secession.
Toward the end of the 19th century and early 20th century, Secessionist movements sprang up all over Europe. Their goal was to cast off the stifling corset of the reigning conservative academic style, which prescribed classic shapes and idealized scenes. In Berlin, the academic style was strongly connected to the wishes of Emperor Wilhelm II. Wilhelm saw art as a means of glorifying German history and was abhorred by non-academic works, which he deemed anti-German and potentially disruptive. He made sure they were excluded from the “Salons,” where art was shown and sold. The foundation of the Berlin Secession in 1898 put an end to this political kidnapping of the arts.
At age 18, Leistikow had been dismissed from the government-run Berlin Academy for “lack of talent.” Unfazed, he took private lessons and developed his own style over time. He abandoned the common practice of adding staffage (human or animal figures) to his landscapes, focusing instead on their own intrinsic strength. His work seems to have a Scandinavian feel to it, in terms of tonality and prolonged lines, but also in its sense of loneliness and austere beauty. This might be explained by several connections: he had private lessons from a Norwegian teacher, befriended Edvard Munch during his stay in Berlin, and was married to a Danish poet. He also traveled through the Nordic countries, and upon his return, appreciated the lakes and forests of Mark Brandenburg, the area surrounding Berlin, with renewed passion.
In hindsight, the moody atmosphere of the Schlachtensee forest which he created proved eerily befitting: having suffered from third-stage syphilis for years, it was here that he shot himself. The beloved lake would be the scene of Leistikow’s last moments on earth.
(text: Pauline Dorhout)

The Antikythera Ephebe (4th century BC); National Archaeological Museum, Athens

In the year 1900 the crew of a Greek ship made a wonderful discovery near Antikythera, an island in the Aegean Sea. While actually diving for sponges, suddenly they encountered an ancient shipwreck. The first diver who caught sight of the ship came back instantly, terrified by the appearance of what he thought to be rotting human corpses. The captain assumed that the diver had gone completely mad from an overdose of carbon dioxide in his helmet and decided to take a look himself. It soon turned out to be one of the most magnificent archaeological finds ever: the boat, dated around 70-60 BC, was loaded with priceless treasures, including some superb Greek bronze statues from the 4th century BC.
This discovery had a profound impact on the modern view on ancient Greek sculpture. Until then, it was known only from historical sources that Greek sculptors manufactured thousands of high quality bronzes. No impressive examples had survived and our knowledge of ancient Greek sculpture depended mainly on marble Greek statues and Roman copies. And, in a way, it still does: although the Antikythera wreck was followed by some other spectacular (underwater) finds of ancient bronze Greek statues, still only a few of them are among us. The rest seems to have been lost, destroyed or melted down for weapons or utensils.
This beautiful young man, known as the Antikythera Ephebe, is mostly thought to be a depiction of the mythological figure Paris presenting the Apple of Discord to Aphrodite, based on the assumption that his right hand originally held a spherical object. The ephebe (male adolescent) is standing in the so-called contrapposto, with most of his weight on one foot. This asymmetrical pose is typical for the classical phase of 4th century Greek art, a style that is characterized by a looser and also more lifelike portrayal of the human figure. This muscled young man can be admired in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Incidentally, he is part of their temporary exhibition about the Antikythera Shipwreck (until next spring).
(text: Maarten Levendig)

June 23, 2012

Rembrandt van Rijn: Self-portrait as Zeuxis Laughing (1662); Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne

During his lifetime Rembrandt painted about 90 self-portraits. Psychoanalytically challenged art historians claim he did so as psychological research into his ‘self’. Self-reflection cannot be totally excluded, but reality is more down-to-earth. The art market especially required historical pieces and ‘tronies’ – heads expressing a particular emotion. By not using a model but himself, posing as a biblical or mythological person, Rembrandt saved time, money and addressed different art-buyers simultaneously. Moreover, famous masters painted themselves for collectors of celebrities’ heads, and most also kept self-portraits in their studio to show their skill to potential customers.
The ‘self-portrait as Zeuxis laughing’ is Rembrandt’s second last one, painted 6 years before his death. He does not hide his old age; thick layers of paint make the furrows on his brow and the heavy bags under his eyes literally touchable. But in spite of this rough and realistic style (a contemporary critic wrote ‘you can pick up a portrait by Rembrandt from the floor by its nose’), it differs from his other self-portraits. For once, the brush and maulstick in Rembrandt’s hands identify his profession. But why is he laughing, looking directly at the viewer? The image of the old woman in the shadows on the left gives the answer. It refers to a legend about the antique painter Zeuxis, who laughed himself to death after painting an old hag who ordered a portrait of herself as Aphrodite, goddess of love. No doubt this story appealed to the painter of real life, at a time in his career when buyers abandoned him in favour of a new, idealizing classicist style. By portraying himself as Zeuxis, who also often felt misunderstood by the public, Rembrandt ridicules a world that pretends to be better than it is. Rembrandt’s last laugh in this provocative painting is on the beholder: his ironic gaze challenges the old woman in all of us (but not you, of course).
(text: Jos Hanou)

June 16, 2012

Leng Mei: Spring Evening Banquet at the Peach and Pear Blossom Garden (c. 1700) ; National Palace Museum, Taipei

Leng Mei's painting Spring Evening Banquet at the Peach and Pear Blossom Garden (ca. 1700) provides a wonderful opportunity to explain a great deal about Chinese art. Not only is this painting representative for a style of painting that comprises almost all earlier Chinese painting styles, it also deals with one of China's greatest poets: Li Bai.
Leng Mei, active as a painter from 1677 to 1742, specialized in figure painting and worked for the atelier of the Kangxi emperor. Spring Evening Banquet is much more than a figure painting though: it belongs to the Orthodox Style (typical of the 1700s). Its practitioners sought to create a synthesis of figure and landscape painting with the ‘Literati Style’ – which had emerged during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) - and focused on representing the painter's inner world. So the Orthodox style aimed for representing the inner and the outer world simultaneously.
The poet Li Bai, who lived some thousand years earlier, during the Tang Dynasty, is one of China's greatest poets. Li Bai was quite a character, a libertarian, who besides being an accomplished swordsman, philosopher and poet, was a great lover and advocate of booze. A substantial part of his poetry is dedicated to describing the delights of drinking.
This painting is a depiction of a Li Bai poem – written in the top left corner. We see the poet accompanied by a group of friends in a lush garden, surrounded by blossoming trees, with the mountains of Sichuan in the background. The friends are having a banquet. They are drinking and exchanging verses.
The final lines of the poem demonstrate just how well Leng Mei has succeeded in depicting the outer as well as the inner world:

The ambrosian banquet is served amid the flowers,
and the flight of the winged goblet makes us drunk under the moon.
Without fine poems how can our refined taste be satisfied?
If anyone fails to produce a poem,
let him be punished according to the rule of the Gold Valley Garden.

(text: Edgar Foley)

June 9, 2012

Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Dulle Griet (1561); Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp.

When the panel Dulle Griet by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in 1894 was presented at an auction sale in Cologne, no one was really interested. Yet, art collector Fritz Mayer intuitively decided to buy the panel at the auction anyway and took it to his Flemish hometown Antwerp. Since 1904, the public can enjoy it in the small, but very recommendable museum Mayer van den Bergh.
Bruegel was then commonly known as ‘Peasant Bruegel’, famous for his landscapes and what were assumed to be authentic representations of Flemish folk life. This spooky and chaotic painting, dating from 1561, did not fit that image. Essentially, in the 19th century, nobody understood its original significance anymore. Who was this mysterious, colossal woman that the painting earned its nickname from? ‘Dulle Griet’ (‘crazy girl’, often translated as ‘Mad Meg’) wears a military costume and seems to be heading for the mouth of hell, visible on the left. Her female followers loot the house on the other side of the bridge. Another giant figure, sitting on top of the building, carries a boat on his shoulder. And these are only a few elements of this picture, which is chock-full of monstrous creatures and enigmatic symbols that were probably easily understood by Bruegel’s contemporaries.
The present appreciation of Dulle Griet does not necessarily imply that one understands a lot more of this work, although many scholars have speculated about the significance since then. For example, the panel has been interpreted in the context of the warfare in sixteenth-century Flanders, Dante’s Inferno, Erasmian humanism, medieval allegory, gender studies and much more.
In my opinion, the safest interpretation is that Bruegel wants to show us an upside down world, in which all social and ethical standards that make civil society liveable are inverted. As such, it delivers an implicit warning: if we don’t behave in a proper way, i.e. without folly, greed and cruelty, our world ends in complete madness.
(text: Maarten Levendig, for close-ups see:

June 3, 2012

The Alhambra (from the 9th century onwards); Granada, Spain

Under extreme pressure coal can become diamonds. This might be an appropriate analogy for how the Alhambra in Granada came into being. These days, this hilltop fortress with its palaces and gardens is one of Spain's prime tourist attractions; one of the most stunning sights in Europe. Its splendour seems a natural reflection of the mighty Kaliphate of Al-Andalus – but it isn't.
During the days Al-Andalus was the epicentre of the world, Granada was no more than an important provincial town. There was and had been a number of fortresses on the site of the current Alhambra since Roman times, erected from the red stones of the cliffs on which they stood – al-Hamra is Arabic for “the red one”.
After many centuries of internal strife and war with its Christian and Muslim neighbours, the Kaliphate of Al-Andalus had been crushed, and splintered into many small emirates. These emirates were subsequently conquered one after another by the Christian armies from the north, until eventually just one remained, tucked in the mountains of the extreme south of the peninsula: the emirate of Granada. Somehow, in defiance of overwhelming odds (constant wars with multiple enemies, crusades) this emirate managed to remain in existence for 254 years. It was founded by the master strategist Muhammed Ibn Nasr, and ruled by his predecessors, the Nasrids, until 1492. The Nasrids made Granada their capital and built their palace on the site of the old red fortress.
And somehow, though under constant threat, its economy crippled by war and tribute payments to neighbouring states, Granada became a thriving metropolis where the arts and the sciences flourished. Its palace became a citadel unrivalled by any other of its day. It was built in a style developed just for this one building, even with its own style of column. The extremely intricate interior design elaborates on and combines all the building styles that existed on the Spanish peninsula since the arrival of the Moors and thus the Alhambra became – unwittingly or not – a physical crescendo, a grand finale to an epoch in world history.
(text: Edgar Foley)

June 2, 2012

Paolo Veronese: The Feast in the House of Levi (1573); Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice.

In 1573 Paolo Veronese painted this enormous canvas (555 x 1280 cm) for the refectory of the Venetian Giovanni e Paolo monastery. Originally commissioned as a Last Supper - a standard subject for monastic dining-halls - it was to replace a work by Titian destroyed by fire.
The splendour of the painting probably stimulated prestigious, rather than pious appetites. Christ and his apostles are seated in the middle, surrounded by contemporary, extravagantly dressed people busily interacting inside grandiose Venetian architecture. But Veronese also included frivolities, like one apostle picking his teeth, a servant with a nosebleed and non-Gospel figures like a dog, midgets, a jester with a parrot, German mercenaries, drunks and other fantasies. Overall, it looks more like a Venetian patrician banquet than a sacred subject.
Understandably, this setting provoked grumbling about irreverence with religious hardliners. Even worse, the painting caused an investigation by the Inquisition, who accused the artist of heresy, then a capital sin. The tribunal records reveal why. Veronese had to explain why he painted ‘buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such absurdities’, considering that ‘in Germany and other countries infested by heresy, it is habitual, by means of pictures full of absurdities, to ridicule the things of the Holy Catholic Church, in order to teach false doctrine to ignorant people who have no common sense’
The artist remorsefully argued that ‘we painters use the same license as poets and jesters, and I represented those halberdiers because it seemed proper to me that the rich and magnificent master of the house would have such servants.’ After promising to remove the Germans and to replace the dog by Mary Magdalen he was acquitted, but never touched the work again. Probably he or his principals felt that the power of the Inquisition was limited in Venice. Instead, he changed its name to a less doctrine-sensitive biblical episode: Christ in the House of Levi.
(text: Jos Hanou ; for close-ups see

May 22, 2012

Claes Oldenburg: Trowel I (1976); Museum Kröller-Müller, Otterlo.

For modern artists, it has become kind of fashionable to declare that their art is 'investigating' something. Very often, the object of such an artistic 'research' concerns the viewer’s perception of visual reality, i.e. the 'added value' that a spectator attributes to the presented image.
One of the methods used is to present familiar objects in a completely different context, thus providing them with a new identity. The godfather of this technique is the French artist Marcel Duchamp (1878-1968), who ‘transformed’ utensils like a bicycle wheel, wine bottle drying rack or urinal, only by presenting them, almost unchanged, in a museum context. Thus, the change was in the eye of the beholder.
From the mid-fifties onwards, the artists of the pop art movement took this principle a step further. They also isolated everyday objects from their original context, but their goals were different. While Duchamp, with his ‘found objects’, wanted to raise the question of what is or is not ‘art’, pop artists, by use of exaggeration, multiplication and other transformations, wanted to draw attention to both formal and hilarious aspects of the media world and modern mass consumption.
One of them was the American-Swedish sculptor Claes Oldenburg (1929), who became particularly famous for his radically enlarged utensils. By increasing the scale of objects like screws, clothespins, lipsticks or ice bags, blowing them up to a colossal size, he seriously confused the public.
This work from 1976, Trowel I, demonstrates the idea: the tool, loosely inserted into the ground, is a common image for nearly everyone, until you realize that this trowel is twelve meters high! The sculpture seems familiar and alien at the same moment, which can have an unsettling effect on the spectator.
Oldenburg created Trowel I, together with his partner Coosje van Bruggen, for an important exhibition of outdoor sculpture in the Netherlands called Sonsbeek. Oldenburg himself declared that he thought the giant trowel, plunged into the earth, was a ‘perfect example of a sculpture with no need for a base.’
(text: Maarten Levendig)


May 11, 2012

Jean Malouel: Calvary and the Martyrdom of St Denis (1398); Louvre, Paris

On December 21st, we introduced the Holy Helpers – a co-operative of
Saints to be invoked together against miscellaneous problems. One of
the team’s male specialists is St. Denis or Dionysius, patron saint of
France and bishop of Paris when decapitated during a Roman persecution
of Christians in 285 AD. Unimpressed by the loss of his head, St.
Denis picked it up and walked 10 kilometres along the Seine bank,
preaching a sermon all the way from Montmartre, his execution place,
to a spot suitable for his burial, the site of the Gothic abbey church
named after him and funeral church of the French kings. (Incidentally,
Saints in the habit of walking about this way are called
The picture shows an altarpiece in the ‘International Gothic’ style,
commissioned in 1398 for a Holy Trinity programme in the Carthusian
monastery church of Champmol, near Dijon. The artist is Jean Malouel
(Johan Maelwael) of Nijmegen, a North Netherlandish painter working
for the French and Burgundian courts and uncle of the famous Limburg
brothers. Deeply immersed in late medieval aesthetics, Malouel’s altar
excels in profound piety. The vivid blue of the mantles of Christ and
the martyrs dominates his extensive palette, literally enriched by a
gold background. The powerful composition follows part of St. Denis’
legend. Still imprisoned on the left, he receives the last Communion
from Christ himself, assisted by angels. In the centre, a crucified
Christ watched over by God the Father and the Holy Spirit bridges to
the scene on the right, where a burly executioner lifts his axe anew
to definitely sever the blindfolded bishop’s head from his neck. A
companion already lost his tonsured head, while another waits his
turn. Turbaned spectators comment upon the event.
Obviously St. Denis’ Holy Helper expertise was to cure people from
headaches. Here is a comforting thought for those who distrust saintly
mediation: a brisk outdoor walk may also do miracles to overcome a
splitting headache.
(text: Jos Hanou)