500 YEARS OF BOSCH

The devil’s ass is hell’s gateway.
Netherlandish Proverb

To mark the 500th anniversary of Hieronymus Bosch’s death, Het Noordbrabants Museum has mounted Jheronimus Bosch, a survey exhibition of the Netherlandish master’s career.

The exhibitions brings together 16 of the 25 surviving paintings and 19 of the 20 known drawings by Bosch. The curators secured unprecedented loans for the show, including the Prado’s Haywain, which has not left Spain for 450 years, the Ship of Fools from the Louvre and Death and the Miser from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, recently re-attributed to Bosch, comes from as far as the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. The show is all the more remarkable because Het Noordbrabants Museum, while located in Bosch’s natal city of ’s-Hertogenbosch, has no works by the artist in its own collections.

The Surrealists saw Bosch as an anti-clerical madman visualizing his dark unconscious; in the 1960s, the counterculture embraced Bosch as a proto-hippie celebrating free love and hallucinations. Both of these self-serving theories are wrong: Bosch appears to have been a religious ascetic who firmly supported official church dogma concerning the fallen nature of humanity, the transience of human desires and, his great theme, the afterlife. Phillip II of Spain was an enthusiastic patron of both Bosch and the Inquisition.

As seen in these details, even by the lurid standards of the Late Middle Ages, Bosch had an exceptional ability to imagine the horrors of eternal damnation,  which were obsessively rendered in oil paint in order to convince the viewer to repent and abjure sin. If we find them unnerving or repellent, then we are having an orthodox 15th-century response, which is perhaps the greatest testimony to Bosch’s skill as an image maker.

Jheronimus Bosch is on view at Het Noordbrabants Museum from 13 February – 8 May 2016. More information.

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ART OF THE ANCIENT AMERICAS I: Tlingit and Haida Nations

 

The indigenous people that make up the Tlingit and Haida nations inhabit the coastal regions of what are now Alaska and British Columbia. With its abundant and easily harvested natural resources, the Pacific Northwest supported populations large enough to make it the most densely-inhabited indigenous region on the globe for a time.

Fueled by prosperity and a great concern for social rank, the aristocracy of the North Coast tribes engaged in the ostentatious display of wealth, including rituals of hospitality and expenditure (the potlatch), and personal adornment. A chief could also demonstrate his wealth, and thereby enhance his social status, by hiring artists and buying, displaying, giving away and even destroying works of art, valued for their precious materials and fine craftsmanship,

Images permeated Tlingit and Haida culture to a higher degree than other Native American groups. Objects ranging from prestigious 60-foot totem poles representing the chief’s ancestry, embroidered ceremonial blankets and carved amulets, to simple objects meant for daily use like canoe paddles, bowls and ladles, were decorated with figural imagery, rendered in a highly-stylized formal language that is still practiced today and is a major component of the self-definition and cultural identity of both nations.

The iconography of Tlingit and Haida art is almost entirely figural, with the representation of humans and animals at its center. In North Coast mythology, animals and their behaviors are reflections and/or antiypes of human acts and traits. This is given visual form in the images of ravens, wolves, salmon, bears and seals who stand upright and mimic human facial expressions and comportment.

LA FÊTE À SAINT CLOUD

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In a recent exhibition* and catalogue, La Fête à Saint-Cloud by Jean-Honoré Fragonard was adduced as a late example of the fête galante genre.

Antoine Watteau formulated the fête galante in the 1710s. The genre consists of figures in contemporary dress and/or commedia dell’arte characters performing the tropes of pastoral poetry while diverting themselves in lushly-landscaped parks. Like the mythic Arcadia, the fête galante’s overall mood of ease and pleasurable sociability is shadowed by a vague melancholy or longing–a sense that the depicted Golden Age must pass, or has already passed.

To be sure, Fragonard’s picture fulfills enough of the genre requirements to be classified as a fête galante, but one with amplifications and qualifications. Whereas Watteau and his followers usually worked in small- to medium-sized formats, La Fête à Saint-Cloud is the expansive centerpiece (2.16m x 3.35m) of an interior decoration scheme for the salon of a Parisian hôtel particulier.

Fragonard’s content also deviates from the generic norm. Not only are contemporary fashions and entertainments depicted in La Fête à Saint Cloud, the fête itself is a representation of an historical event, an annual fair held in September in the park of Saint Cloud. The various spectacles and diversions, including theatrical performances, marionette shows, games, concessions, and the water features for which the park was famous, are all depicted with great accuracy. (Fragonard’s earlier Fête à Rambouillet also overlays a depiction of an historical fair with fête galante imagery.)

Not only does the historicity of the painting’s subject matter run counter to Watteau’s deliberate balancing of equally indeterminate mythic, pastoral and modern elements, Fragonard suggests that the fête galante has been literalized in actual events such as the Saint Cloud fair. Whereas Watteau’s galants embark on a journey to an imaginary destination, in Fragonard’s picture, they have already arrived at a fully-colonized reality. At that moment, when the reification obtains, the fête galante genre ceases to exist, its social function having been absorbed completely into the general culture. La Fête à Saint Cloud is, therefore, not a fête galante genre picture, but documentation of a cultural production derived from the genre.

Since the late 18th century, La Fête à Saint Cloud has hung in the Hôtel de Toulouse, the Paris residence of Louis Jean Marie de Bourbon, duc de Penthièvre.** The mansion was confiscated by the revolutionary government upon the duke’s death in 1793 and, in 1811, Napoleon authorized its sale to the Banque de France. The bank makes the painting, still in its original setting, available to over 10,000 visitors per year.

De Watteau à Fragonard: Les Fêtes Galantes, Paris, Musée Jacquemart-André, 14 March – 21 July 2014.

** No documentation concerning either a direct commission from the artist or a purchase from a third party survives, but that is consistent with the artist’s casual approach to business. Of the 550 known paintings by Fragonard, only 5 are documented–an unusually low figure for a prominent artist of the period.