Category Archives: Painting

An Incomplete History of Medieval Art XV

KONRAD WITZ

The German painter Konrad Witz (German, 1400 – 1447) transferred his workshop to Basel to seek work among the wealthy bishops, abbots and cardinals who had converged on the Swiss city to participate in Church Council of 1431-45. While in Basel, he received important commissions to paint the wings for large, sculptural altarpieces, none of which survive intact today. After his death he fell out of memory until 1901, when the curator of the Basel Kunstmuseum, Daniel Burckhardt-Werthemann, linked a panel painting in Geneva signed Konrad Witz to similar works in the Basel collection, hitherto attributed to an unbekannte Maler. The municipal archives of Basel from the period yielded several references to Witz, which allowed for the dating of some works and identified the patrons of others.

Witz’s most important work produced in Basel is the now-dismembered Heilsspiegel altarpiece, probably created for the church of St. Leonard. The iconography is based on the Speculum Humanae Salvationis, a popular 14th-century typological compendium. The 11 surviving panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament and pagan Antiquity bear a formal resemblance to events of the New Testament that they prefigure. Witz has a magic touch when it comes to depicting sumptuous garments and exotic head gear, particularly in the Heilsspiegel Altarpiece.

Despite Witz’s long association with Basel, the greatest commission of his career took him to Geneva, in the western, French-speaking part of Switzerland, to paint the high altarpiece for the Cathedral of St Pierre. The work was donated by Cardinal François de Metz, resident bishop of Geneva since 1436, who probably became acquainted with Witz’s work while at the Council of Basel. Witz took measures to insure he would remembered as the creator of this major civic monument, adding an inscription to the frame of the Miraculous Draught of Fishes, that reads, hoc opus pinxit magister conradus sapientis de basilea MCCCCXLIV (Master Konrad Witz of Basel painted this work 1444). His surname, Witz, which means wit or mental sharpness in Middle High German, is rendered in Latin as sapientis or wise.

In the paintings that survive, Witz, like his contemporary Jan van Eyck, shows a serious interest in developing ways to represent certain types of visual experience in two-dimensions. In both the Miraculous Draught and the St Christopher panel, he pays a great deal of attention to effects of refraction of light in water, as well as to color changes and different degrees of sharpness among submerged bodies, including stones and the lower body of St Peter.

On land, Witz experimented with different devices for creating the illusion of three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional surface. Reflecting a knowledge of Italian trecento paintings, the interior spaces of Sts Catherine and Mary Magdelene and the Annunciation are well ahead of Witz’s Geman contemporaries. In an outdoor scene such as Joachim and Anna Meeting at the Golden Gate, Witz compensates for the flat gold backdrop by having the dramatically foreshortened wooden gate project directly into the viewer’s space. Nothing in the narrative requires the gate to be so assertively present, and late medieval artists, on the whole, do not take liberties with religious iconography. The gate must have been of special importance, perhaps as a way of compensating for viewing angle, for Witz to have taken the liberty of foregrounding it.

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HET NEDERLANDSE STILLEVEN

The taste for highly-illusionistic pictures of tables heaped with inert/inanimate, often costly objects overlaid with dour moralizations could only have originated in the Netherlands.

The Calvinist rejection of religious imagery had coincided with the rise of capitalism and colonialism, resulting in an expanding middle class faced with greatly reduced options for art consumption. The increased demand for images was filled by the rapid development of the secular genres of landscape, portraiture and still life, the latter inviting the viewer to a meditation on materialism.

Along with the genre, the term still life originates in the Low Countries in the early 17th century. Karel van Mander describes Netherlandish pictures of flowers as stilleven in Het Schilder-Boeck (1604) and in 1622, Constantijn Huygens refers to pictures by Jacobus Torrentius and Jacques de Gheyn as inanimatis, a latinization of the vernacular term.

LICHTENSTEIN’S CHINESE LANDSCAPES


Much like the reproductions of Song landscapes Roy Lichtenstein consulted, the Landscapes in the Chinese Style project the illusion of a transcendent realm. The vastness of nature in both Song works and his renditions is heightened by the inclusion of tiny details such as a lone tree, boat, or philosopher in repose. Lichtenstein’s virtuosity is especially impressive, as he used a technical. approach radically different from traditional Chinese brushwork. This was a consequence of both dot size—Treetops through the Fog (1996), for example, utilizes at least 15 different sizes—and the complex spacing, which accounts for the extraordinary suggestion of atmosphere.

The Chinese landscapes, the last series Lichtenstein completed before his death in 1997, were included in the retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012.

MANET’S EXECUTION

L’histoire est une résurrection.
–Jules Michelet

Immediately after news of the execution of Emperor Maximillian I of Mexico reached Paris on 1 July 1867, Édouard Manet began work on monumental painting depicting the event. The planned work would appropriate the scale and gravitas of history painting for the representation of a barely historical,  politically dangerous event.

Initially, the painting’s political credibility was thought to depend on its observed veracity–the painter of modern life, Baudelaire’s man in the crowd, must be present as history unfolds. That wasn’t possible in this case, but Manet was able to obtain details of dress, setting, and figure position from the few published accounts and photographs of the execution that had evaded Napoléon III’s censorship of the press following the incident. Over the following 18 months, revisions, corrections, and additions to those accounts caused Manet to abandon two  large-scale versions of the Execution of Maximilian, which misrepresented either the place, time of day or order of events, before he arrived at the final version. For that version, instead of doggedly attempting to create an illusion of empiricism, he focused on the ability of his chosen medium to capture and frame history. He did so by setting the representation of a political execution in broader art historical context by conspicuously alluding to Goya’s Third of May 1808, which he had seen for the first time on a recent trip to Spain.

The wisdom of Manet’s decision to forego full, descriptive accuracy in order tell a deeper truth about the execution’s political and historical significance becomes clear when his final version is compared to The Last Moments of Maximilian (1882), by academician Jean-Paul Laurens. Fifteen years after Maximilan’s death and 11 years after the end of the Second Empire, Laurens had access to the full historical record, which he scrupulously recreates in every detail of costume, setting, gesture, and position. Laurens’ slavish accuracy overwhelms the viewer with superficiality, as if to divert attention from the utterly banal interpretation of the event, which idealizes and flatters the emperor and demonizes the executioners. Despite his ostentatious fidelity to the record, Laurens omits the most, if not the only, significant fact of that record, the execution itself, sparing us the sight of violence in favor of sentimental “last moments,” while Manet shows us the precise and horrible moment when incident passes into history.

Turning back to Manet, aspects of the Execution of Maximilian that initially appeared to be faults–cramped composition, overly-close point of view, awkward occlusions and so on–now seem like virtues, as the cursory brushwork and laconic approach to detail underscore the empty prolixity and meretricious nature of Laurens’ handling of history and paint.

Due the politically-charged content, none of Manet’s versions of the Execution of Maximilian were exhibited in France in his lifetime.

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.

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.

THE NORTHERN NATIVITY


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