While Someone Else is Sleeping

Bruegel in Black and White: Three Grisailles Reunited (Courtauld Gallery, 4 February–8 May 2016)

I knew Pieter Bruegel the Elder from that W.H. Auden poem, about Icarus and life going on, and I went away and looked at reproductions of his extraordinary canvases back in the day to see what W.H. was on about. Most years I turn to Bruegel’s Battle of Carnival and Lent to illustrate Bakhtin’s ideas of carnival – or at least, the historical sweep.

The Courtauld Gallery has given us a unique chance – one of the works cannot leave the gallery – to look at his three authenticated grisailles for the first time.

No, I had no idea what they were either.

A grisaille is a painting more or less in black and white, although shades of grey seem possible. Sometimes, I gather, in brown. These can be used to extraordinary effect – the depiction of night and darkness, perhaps, or a three dimensional impact on a plane. One of the locations of such works is on the closed flaps of altarpieces in Dutch churches – and so a religious subject is often presupposed and Hieronymus Bosch had already produced some of these. What Bruegel seems to have done is to lay down an area of white on wood – compare L.S. Lowry’s use of white paint to prime his canvases – a drawing added in charcoal or red chalk, a thin black wash added to most of the canvas and then Bruegel painted on top of that, presumably mostly in greys. The grisailles seem to have been painted in a hurry, with alterations whilst the paint dried.

Until the mid-twentieth century, two examples were known: The Death of the Virgin and Three Soldiers, with a third, A Woman Taken in Adultery coming up for auction in 1952 and eventually being bequeathed to the Samuel Courtauld Trust collection. Two of these clearly have religious themes, and the existence both of prints of these and of a Resurrection suggests that there is at least one more yet to be found.

catThe Death of the Virgin is dated c. 1562-5 and is a nocturnal, almost chiaroscuro, depiction of the dying moments of the Virgin Mary surrounded by worshippers, partly lit by a candle in her hands, but also luminescent. Everyone is in (then) contemporary dress, of course – it is an extra-Biblical interpolation. Life goes on, too, of course, a cluttered table and chair are at the end of the bed, someone is asleep in the corner and, best of all, a cat is in the prime position by the fire. These details show up better in the 1574 print version by Philips Galle, where the light levels are considerably higher and some of the awkward perspectives of a chair are rectified. On the other hand, that chair perhaps nods to Van Gogh to come. One the other hand, that underplays the religious significance of the light of Mary set against the candles and the fire.

A Woman Taken in Adultery is taken from the He-that-is-without-sin bit of John (8.1-11) – although why Christ is writing this rather than saying it out loud eludes me. Christ is leaning over on the left hand side of the picture, scratching in the dust in Dutch, his head just overlapping the woman, and the Pharisees are on the right of the picture, stones to the ready on the paving. Note Christ is either on a lower step or (I can’t quite tell from the perspective) there is a gap between his paving and the Pharisees’. There is a crowd in the background – some passing by, others gawping. The fact that Christ is writing with his right hand suggests this was an original work rather than a preparation for prints.

Pieter’s son Jan sent the grisaille to patron Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Milan, but the latter felt this was too generous, had a copy made in about 1825, and sent it back. Pieter Perret made a print in 1579 – again this is much light, with a foreground text – and Jan had painted a copy roughly 1597, which brings us slightly closer to the foreground foursome and isolated the crowd more distinctly. None of these have the vitally of Bruegel’s original. Pieter’s son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger, also copied the painting, apparently several times, with a colour one on display here. The realism and the individuation of the figures is at the expense of the spiritual dimension – it feels less religious.

The Three Soldiers (1568) seem not to be a religious subject – there is a drummer and a fifer and in the background a soldier with a flag. The best guess is that these are Landsknechte, mercenaries, which could have fought for Spain or the Holy Roman Empire. My dim and distant history A Level reminds me of the ongoing wars in Europe – the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, the Holy Roman Empire – and the forces of Catholicism, various flavours of Protestantism and the counter-reformation. It is perhaps a plea for religious tolerance? At one point, the grisaille was owned by the future Charles I, although it briefly left the royal collections during the Commonwealth, it seems to have passed from William III to a private secretary, William van Huls.

Two more grisailles round out the exhibition — The Visit to the Far (c. 1600), attributed to Jan Brueghel the Elder, and Frans Pourbus the Elder’s The Last Supper (c. 1570). The former had been thought to be by Pieter, but is reckoned to be inferior – a series of figures in a farmhouse, with a nurse and baby in the foreground. It may be a copy of a lost Bruegel painting, it may be a pastiche. Again the absence of a religious subject must be noted – but of course non-religious examples may have been lost.

Bridget Courbevoie

Bridget Riley: Learning from Seurat (Courtauld Art Gallery, 17 September 2015–17 January 2016)

I tried to find the bridge (Bridge at Courbevoie (1886-87)) on Google maps but failed — the river Seine, the bridge, a distant factory, trees, fisher men, walkers. Georges Seurat’s brand of Post-Impressionism, pointillism, made up from coloured dots, half way between colour printing and cathode ray tubes. In another place, Roy Lichtenstein was to enlarge dots and make pop art of comics.

Copying is original.

Deliberately, if annoyingly, the copy and original hang either side of the doorway, challenging you to find a viewpoint from which they can be compared. You carry the memory of one to the other.
photo (2)

Bridget Riley may have seen the painting at the Courtauld – I presume it was at the Warburg Institute, Woburn Square in 1959, having recently moved from Portman Square? — but instead it struck her in R.H. Wilenski’s book on Seurat and she then decoded to paint her own version. It’s bigger, of course, but then the book may not have been clear how big the original was. I think she knew, really, so decided to make the dots larger, and so the intensity of the original is pushed even further from photorealism. The sky is curiously yellow, matching the colour in the water and the grass. He creates light from colour and that seems to be what fascinated Riley.

If the colours become abstract, then so do the shapes — triangles, poles, lozenges, anticipating Riley’s move from stripes into something more… foliated. The Lagoon paintings, for example.

sketch

And then, on an opposite wall, Pink Landscape (1960), the shimmer of summer heat in Sienna represented by dots of red and green and pink and orange and blue, and a child’s farmhouse of white walls and a red roof. The shapes of the fields form lozenges.

Wilenski writes of Bridge that “The little man in the bowler hat has missed his train back to Paris and will be scolded by his wife; the child will be late for tea and spanked, maybe, by its mother.”

Heigho.

But we would lose the narrative in Riley as the pinstripes become stripes.

Here we’re offered variants on stripes — Late Morning I (1967) with green and red and white and blue stripes insisting on length and direction, the vertical, Vapour (1970) with white, brown, purple, green stripes overlapping, question the plane and Ecclesia (1985), thicker stripes, taking on volume.

But Tremor (1962) draws the eye — black and white triables that also form curves and ribbons and you swear the painting rotates in front of you.

A painting approximates reality through strokes, dots, stripes and the pointillist returns it to dots. Riley’s insight was to occupy the geometry, to chase the relation of shape, in canvases that move both optically and emotionally, to create luminence.

Bibliography

  • Bridget Riley: Learning from Seurat (London: The Courtauld Gallery/Ridinghouse, 2015)
  • Wilenski, R. H., Seurat (London: Faber & Faber, 1949)