Eavesdropping

Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age (National Gallery, London)

Tucked away on the ground floor of the National Gallery has been an exhibition devoted to Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693), an almost industrial producer of portraits – some 900, apparently – but earlier in his career better known genre pictures. In fact, such is the divide, that some critics have suggested there were two artists on the same name.

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Fathers and Sons

My Rembrandt (Oeke Hoogendijk, 2019)

Rembrandt Let the Little Children Come to MeThere’s a telling moment early on in this documentary, when Jan Six discusses Rembrandt‘s portraits of his son Titus over the years: I’ll do it for you Dad, but on my own terms.

(I paraphrase.)

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The Young One

Young Rembrandt (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn has all the makings of a tragic hero — with perhaps his fatal flaw of pride. He seems to have a meteoric rise — but as with the tulip bulb market, the bottom fell out and he, overstretched, crashed. He gets up to a couple of nasties — but that is a tale for another day.

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Bish Bash Bosch

And so somewhere along the line I heard that a once in a lifetime exhibition of the work of Hieronymus Bosch was being shown in his home town of Den Bosch. Somewhat nervously, I decided that I wanted to go, although I nearly left it too late to book a slot. I booked a hotel in Amsterdam, a city I’d wanted to visit for years, and could have got to from Hull, had I spare time and spare cash and the same time.

So I went, and did the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh and took the train down to Den Bosch for what was a crowded but fantastic exhibition. I paid for it the next day, as my knee decided to pack up.

Ouchie.

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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.

Not the Town in Surrey

The Amazing World of M.C. Escher (Modern Two, Edinburgh, 27 June-27 September 2015, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, 14 October 2015-17 January 2016)

I have three memories.

Viewing an Escher exhibition in Manchester in the mid-1980s.

A family holiday in the Lake District, after the best part of a year spent in Hull, clinging onto the side of a hill with vertigo.

A colleague showing us paintings at the National Gallery and pointing out the Dutch interest in squares.

The first memory is almost certainly false – I suspect the only previous Escher show in the UK I could have seen was at Croydon in the 1990s and I’m pretty sure I didn’t see that, nor when it moved north.

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born in Leeuwarden, Friesland, in 1898, son of a civil engineer, and went to school in Arnhem, which was a dreadful experience. He was a good drawer, but he was initially expected to train as an architect. However, it was speedily agreed that his talents lay in the visual arts. He travelled around Western Europe and, whilst in Italy, met and fell in love with Jetta Umiker. Their parents agreed an allowance for the couple, whilst Escher began a career as an artist specialising in woodcuts.

In 1922 he designed a grouping of eight heads, “Eight Heads”, which cut be fitted together indefinitely and seems to have been the earlier example of an interest in tessellations. When he was to come to the Alhambra in Granada later that year and admire the Moorish tiles there, it was already part of his set of interests. Over the next five decades he was to play with birds, fish, lizards and all kinds of animals in a series of tessellations.

But before he developed that theme, he was to work on landscapes, especially those seen on his travels. The Tower of Babel (1928) is a nod to Brueghel, but generates a vertiginous sense in us by depicting it from above. Castrovalva (1930) – a name familiar to me from Doctor Who — depicts a series of buildings, a monastery perhaps, high on a hill, with a village deep below. I suspect that there is a play with vanishing points here, as there is so often, so that the distance is increased in several directions. I cannot help but feel that Escher, as someone from a flat country, would have felt the hills and cliffs of Europe to be steeper than they really are. Indeed, the landscapes that have a real-world counterpart are apparently exaggerated.

He was to move from the possible to impossible – the fantastical Dream (Mantis Religiosa) (1935) has an ambiguity over whether it is a bishop dreaming he is a praying mantis or a praying mantis dreaming she is a bishop, with an Alhambra palace architecture behind. In a street scene he balances rows of books against buildings, as it transforms into a bedside table. In a mirror, the street outside the room is reflected, but not the room. All of this is rendered in wood cut, occasionally wood print or lithograph, rarely mezzotint.

His work came to the attention of two mathematicians, Coxeter and Penrose. H. S. M. Coxeter, a British-born Canadian, was an expert in geometry and tessellations and was impressed with Escher’s apparently instinctive approach. In correspondence with Escher, he came up with a better way to represent infinitely tessellating fish in a circle – the way you do. Meanwhile Roger Penrose and his father Lionel Penrose were inspired to devise an impossible triangle – which Escher was to use in his endless Waterfall (1961) – and endless stairs – which Escher used in Ascending and Descending (1960). (Penrose’s uncle was Roland Penrose who was husband to photographer Lee Miller and whose library is in Modern Two.)

His work continued to play with perspective, some of it incorporating the staircases and halls from his hated school. A final piece of work was a tangle of snakes and chain, based around the circle motif. By then he was already being subsumed into popular culture – although he said no to Jagger and Kubrick who wanted his services.

I was suddenly reminded on seeing relatively straightforward work such as Three Worlds (1955), with fish in the water reflecting the sky and trees, how far his play with the play has influenced my own photographic aesthetic. I am a sucker for reflected surfaces.

Elements
Apparently there is only one Escher work in a British collection, Night and Day (1938) in the Hunterian, Glasgow, and that only because it interested a geographer. He would seem to be just too popular – and also, one suspects, there is a bias toward oils and watercolours over prints.

So go see Escher in Edinburgh if you can – it may be more convenient for the metropolitans in Dulwich, but I’m not sure they can fit in all the work and Modern Two has a rather more generous scale. I fear it will be heaving.