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)