Friday, December 26, 2008

Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velásquez

Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velásquez. Holiday Breakfast with Booberry and Joint, 1618.

Ah, Professor Wundrum's holiday post did dredge up the memories -- long walks in the snow in Leiden, holiday trips to Zaanse Schans, huddling under the covers to await Sinterklaas! I must say, this holiday season was not terribly different for me, though instead of traipsing amongst the canals of Holland, I basked in the glow of the beautiful tree at Rockefeller Center! New York City is truly a wonder. And instead of waiting for Sinterklaas, as I did as a boy, I hid my present to myself (a new stocking cap stuffed full of candied plums) under my tea cozy and went to bed early to finish the most recent issue of Granta.

Indeed, the wakker en bak subjects of Velásquez's painting (A Spaniard! Few painted lush buds with such raw, sensual emotion!) remind me muchly of my childhood -- a bottle of Mr. Boston's egg nog, a fresh box of Booberry (a seasonal dish, meaning that one must save it for at least a month in order to enjoy it during the holidays!), a smouldering joint.

And much like my own experience, the three men (an elder, a virile youth, a child) are frugal and perhaps poor, but their enjoyment of the Christmas spirit is undiminished. I must say that I enjoy this, one of Velásquez's earliest post-apprenticeship paintings, more than some of his later courtly paintings; perhaps his embroilment in the intrigues of Philip II curbed his impulses toward the lower classes, or perhaps he simply became too comfortable. Ah, well -- we have this, for now! And for me, there is a bag of freshly candied plums from Harry & David, and and Siri Hustvedt on the anxiety of influence! Merry Christmas to all!

Floris Gerritsz Van Schooten II

Floris Gerritsz Van Schooten. Christmas Breakfast, 1621

This morning, while walking to feed the pigs, I was struck by the sharp calm on our farm. I was reminded of a boyhood Christmas in Vaalserberg, peering from the window of my Aunt Femek's cabin at the just-fallen snow. There was a certain peace when the snow had stopped. A gauzy layer wrapped the trees, carriages and outer houses. In the evenness of light the distant hills seemed to disappear as the ground and sky bled together. The cabin swelled with the aromas of frying ham and oliebollen baking in the oven. Admiring the snow my thoughts slowed. My mind slipped away from the excitement of the oil paints and walnuts that Sinterklaas had left me to absorb the monochromatic landscape. Of course Floris Gerritsz Van Schooten's Christmas Breakfast appeared vividly in my mind.

Much like Van Schooten's 1621 painting, Still life with Larder, farmyard fowl, a turkey, pigeons, a plover, duck, a starling, partridge and snipe, with game and songbirds and rabbits suspended from nails, a rib of beef, a bong and an artichoke, grape, with copper pans, watched by a couple seated at the end of a table, a landscape with two men visible through the embrasure , the scene presents an abundance of food. The table is laid with a hearty Christmas breakfast: puffy breads and rich cheeses, an overflowing plate of oliebollen, pears and apples, a carton of egg nog and an oozing bean pie. The plate of butter and the one-hitter heighten the mood. We can expect a lifelike rendering from any work by Van Schooten (an early master of the genre) but here the pipe and melty butter signify indulgence. Christmas is a time when familiar things become new and sensational. A morning meal is more rich than the previous day's, the cheese is sharper, the rolls are chewier, the weed more sticky. On this Christmas morning I hope that you and yours might enjoy Van Schooten's scene with refreshed senses. Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Jan Steen II

Jan Steen. Argument over a Role-Playing Game. Date unknown.

A lovely reminder of one of my youthful pastimes: role-playing games! I confess, I lived a lonely youth. I was a solemn boy. And yet, during those summer months when my family left the pastoral (yet restrictive) bounds of Culemborg, and traveled to see our relations in Amsterdam and its environs, I played hours upon hours of Dungeons & Dragons with my cousin Per (who is, not incidentally, now a very well-known fantasy novelist in our home country). Steen himself was an avid gamer and frequently slipped references to his hobbies into his paintings, lovingly crafted scenes of everyday life. Here he has made it the centrepiece.

Of course, Steen recognized the vices associated with gaming: sloth, envy, detachment from reality. One can lose oneself in such games, and Steen knew this; his keen psychological insight penetrated every soul in his paintings, revealing wickedness and beauty alike – witness the Dungeon Master's face here, his gaze crushing diagonally across the painting's composition to lock eyes with the man whose character he has likely just put to an end – the action surges in a brutal wave upward and out from the table, ripping physical violence from the imagined realms of conniving rogues and menacing wizards. Witness the slow fall of the swordsman's drawing of his character (probably a mage).

Thus the moral here: these are but games. Steen, brilliantly, has revealed the meta-worlds within his painting; but his true brilliance is in bridging the psychological gap of imagined world (again, a meta-reference – the painting is an imagined world, bridged from the reality of Steen to the worldless brilliance of art-language!) and the physical world – view Steen, and view the vertiginous abyss between what we know and what we think.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Hendrick Jansz ter Brugghen

Hendrick Jansz ter Brugghen. Laughing Bravo with Bass Viola and Pretzel, 1625

Though known chiefly for his religious paintings this genre piece allows both the artist and the viewer to remain nimble. The musician is a reminder that the sublime can extend beyond the damask. The player may be described as ugly and uncomfortable, tired and filthy but Ter Brugghen reaches beyond these surface matters. Note the brilliantly rendered folds in the shirtsleeves: crevice and shadow. And to the right, the viola's veneer. But Ter Brugghen has not presented us with a mere portrait. Although no doubt based on one of the itinerant musicians who traveled in the Netherlands at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the subject is most probably an allegory. Here the senses of Hearing (the bass viol) and Taste (the pretzel). It is also possible that the artist is illustrating the theme of vanitas whereby the brevity of a joint is equated with a short life-span.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Jan Steen

Jan Steen. The Bean Feast, 1668.

A gift for my American friends! Even as I rush hurriedly from conference to conference, I have time to remember the gift of peace that the colonial Americans gave to the Natives, and the good feelings, feasts, and fests to which it gave rise!

Of course, Steen's painting of a Bean Feast is not quite apropos Thanksgiving, but nevertheless, it is a perfect depiction of the kind of familial good time that I hope my friends across the Young Country are having today. The Bean Feast, of course, was originally a winter festival among farm workers, at which a cake with a bean inside would be cut and distributed among the festival-goers: he or she who was lucky enough to get the bean would be the Bean King (or Queen) and thus preside over the festivities. In this painting, Steen's grasp of charm and frivolity is on full, resplendent display: a young boy has been chosen for the King (likely his first Bean Feast); a nun holds and lights his Sherlock pipe as the revelers look on, surely delighting in the comic nature of the scene. (Note, too, Steen's immaculate brushwork in the Magic Eye poster: he truly delighted in hiding nuggets of this sort in his paintings, and it is a treat for the art historian and amateur alike to find them! And consider the technical difficulty in painting the clouds of smoke!)

Ah, though I write this from a library in New Haven, I recall my young days at Bean Feasts, the custom of which has not changed a whit since Mr. Steen painted this lovely treasure – and I am sure that Professor Wundrum does as well (though I was not as lucky as he – I was never the Bean King!): delicious foods (herring, turkey, breads of many sorts, pizzas, fresh fruits, cakes), wreaths of heady smoke, psychedelic music, and the company of dear friends. Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Pieter Gerritsz Van Roestraeten

Pieter Gerritsz Van Roestraeten. Chinese Tea Bowls, 17th century.

Roestraeten was one of the most successful Dutch painters working in England, moving to London in the 1660s and remaining there until his death. Though his painting remained characteristically Dutch, his success was perhaps largely dependent on his ability to portray glass in pipe and cup form, alike.

Van Roestraeten presents a lamentably English scene: afternoon tea. There is a dull edge to the daylight here, the cups and kettle appear to be slouching. There is a depression in the painting, as if Van Roestraeten himself were distracted. The tones suggest a wanton mind; while Pieter painted his likely-commissioned work he dreamed of the relief that comes with the common tea break. Though painting the London aristocracy's most common scene Van Roestraeten holds tightly to the precision of his Dutch predecessors. The edges of the kettle make a sharp appearance before ducking quickly into the shadows; the candy cane colors of the piece sweep into the black and frictionless tabletop; the milk-sweetened teas shimmer in their cups. While the painter tightens the strings of attention and wrings the rag of concentration he is unable to shake a hopeful thought for release. Release from commissions for a time to reflect, to savor and to neglect the tasks that have filled the day and those that will round it out. Despite Van Roestraeten's disinterest the representations are as sharp as this morning's razor.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Godfried Schalcken

Godfried Schalcken. Gentleman Offering Lady a Joint in a Candlelit Bedroom, c. 1698.

Take all my loves, my love, yea, take them all;
What hast thou then more than thou hadst before?

No love, my love, that thou mayst true love call;

All mine was thine before thou hadst this more.

Then if for my love thou my love receivest,

I cannot blame thee for my love thou usest;

But yet be blamed, if thou thyself deceivest

By wilful taste of what thyself refusest.

I do forgive thy robbery, gentle thief,

Although thou steal thee all my poverty;
And yet, love knows, it is a greater grief
To bear love's wrong than hate's known injury.

Lascivious grace, in whom all ill well shows,

Kill me with spites; yet we must not be foes.

-- Wm. Shakespeare, Sonnet 40

Ah, love – as you burn, you destroy. The pain of loving and even of attraction can make one weak. And yet remember the bounties love has brought to the world of art: Shakespeare, Schalcken. Love is never harmless. But its fervor can invoke into the world things unspoken, unarticulatable – art! I let Schalcken, master of the candlelight painters, speak for me here. Love is the greatest candle.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Hans Holbein the Younger

Hans Holbein the Younger. Unknown Gentleman with Far Side Comics and Bong, 1534.

As I pass a cloudy weekend in New York City, enjoying the archives of Columbia University's Butler Library and watching flighty young co-eds flit from classroom to library to bar, I often take breaks to step over to the library's oversized art history textbooks to compare renderings of this fabulous Holbein painting, completed during Holbein's London Bong years, which began in 1526.

Holbein's deftness at capturing the nuanced characters of his subjects is on full display here – the gentleman, breaking momentarily from his reading of G. Larson's 1983 collection Beyond the Far Side, is caught in a moment of reverie, gazing confidently into the middle distance, perhaps watching the smoke curl into nothing (a subtle memento mori and one of Holbein's favorite devices during the London Bong period). It seems, sometimes, that Holbein delights as much in lovingly painting texture as he does in capturing his courtly subjects: the drapery furls dramatically; the gentleman's velvet coat verily shimmers, its Queensryche pin a dainty point; the bong's aquatic texture is brilliantly concieved. This painting is a joy.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Floris Gerritsz Van Schooten

Floris Gerritsz Van Schooten, Still life with Larder, farmyard fowl, a turkey, pigeons, a plover, duck, a starling, partridge and snipe, with game and songbirds and rabbits suspended from nails, a rib of beef, a bong and an artichoke, grape, with copper pans, watched by a couple seated at the end of a table, a landscape with two men visible through the embrasure, 1621

'Vogelen' (literally 'birding') was a slang term for fornication in 17th-century Holland, and a then-familiar double-entendre is intended by the (vogels) in the present picture. They are in no short order. Here we have varieties including partidge, duck, turkey, pigeon, snipe and songbird to name a few. The painterly pun is emphasized in particular by the hen held in the man's lap. Van Schooten thus alludes to the amorous intent of the young woman who is distracting him with her charms while picking his pocket. But is he the cleverer of the two? The man might enjoy the caresses of the burgling woman over his shoulder while also meeting the embrace of another: Sweet Lady Bong.

Unknown Master (Dutch)

Unknown Master (Dutch). Still Life with Books, Magazine, Sticker, and Nug Jar, c. 1628.

At times, the work of art historical exegesis is Herculean – I am currently writing a close study of a set of three Claesz still lifes and their relation to the theology of Huldrych Zwingli, and it is no small task to wrench the nuances of Zwinglean metaphysics from Claesz's deft painting.

But there are times when exegesis is a pleasure. And I, whenever possible, return to this painting as an exercise in what I call "quiet reading": the art of taking in the smaller details of painting and of life, and relating them to life's deeper, subtler beauties (which is, of course, the bedrock ideal of this weblog).

This painting is as cluttered with meaning as the unknown master's desk is with paraphernalia. I will only hint at this painting's cornucopia of subtext. Consider, in the first place, the state of the desk – absolute clutter, and yet clutter of a loving sort, the clutter of a man who loves his work and his art, the clutter of a fully realized life. When one's life brims with unfocused creative energy, organization is often ignored (or perhaps unnecessary). Among the desk's histories, biographies, theologies, a Model Railroader magazine betrays more encompassing interests, the sign of a man who tempers his serious studies with the creative contemplation of building new, tiny worlds. (There is, in the model railroader himself, a creative impulse of the most detailed sort – the workings of these small sets is quite complicated). A Ron Paul bumper sticker reveals the hopes of a detached idealist, earnest but unreal.

The greatest tragedy of this work is its maker's namelessness. Certainly, the painting is Baroque – light dances deeply and beautifully across the magnificently complex composition; the brushwork is impeccable; and yet we note it as a mere exercise for the clearly talented painter. If only we knew who he was! Ah – there is beauty in loss, sometimes; there is beauty in not knowing. Simply enjoy.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Guercino, Allegory of Painting and Sculpture, 1637.

Forgive my long absence! After a particularly troublesome spot in my research (it's quite hard to find thorough examinations of 17th Century Dutch kitchen habits), I decided to take a trip down to Amsterdam, where I spent well over a week taking in the beauty of one of the Netherlands' crown jewels: The Rijksmuseum! I have been to many of the world's most famous museums (the Prado, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art...), but something of my own Dutch blood brings me forever back to the Rijksmuseum, and whenever I begin to lose my creative verve, it takes only a visit to the Rijksmuseum's Old Masters' wing to rejuvenate myself.

And so it seems odd that I should highlight this painting, Guercino's Allegory of Painting and Sculpture, which is an Italian piece (obviously) of the High Baroque period. But bear with me! The pure focus here, given the elementary symmetrical composition and base flatness of the figures, is the allegory at hand – the transferral of creative energy from one artist to another, and thus, inside a single painting (a meta-allegory), to us as well: a surreptitious glimpse into the artist's genius and reverie. A beautiful, classical example of the creative process: from heavily impasted multi-chambered bong, to brush, and then to brush again, and then to our eyes – relish this!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Domenico Fetti

Domenic Fetti, Archimedes Thoughtful, 1620

A quick post, this afternoon. We've just finished a conference call with a few gentlemen at Oxford (we're planning a lecture for early next year) and now I'm off to finish some work on a German cabinet (ca. 1780) that I'm restoring for the Ashmolean.

Here, we'll let Signor Fetti speak for himself.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Giuseppe Maria Crespi

Giuseppe Maria Crespi, Bookshelves, 1725

Although Crespi was a fine portrait painter, he is best known for his lively, informally posed scenes of daily life, which influenced artists throughout Europe in the later eighteenth century. Crespi also worked in genre painting and his Bookshelves makes a fine addition to his hefty oeuvre. At once immediate and timeless, this study of an overflowing set of bookshelves demonstrates Crespi's gift for showing life in the inanimate and for enriching a subtle palette with warm, diffuse light.

The books, all bound in a rich leather, blend with the hues of the woodgrain in the shelves themselves. They are full of dusty tomes on music and scores that have been hastily consulted and shoved back. Crespi continues the compliment of mild tones with the addition of an amber-colored bong. And as a flourish, in contrast to the notes of pulp and flesh, he offers a set of expired Domino's Pizza coupons that, like the books, have gone neglected after their initial use.

The work was probably commissioned by Giovan Battista Martini, a famous Bolognese musicologist who was respected and feared across Europe as a music critic.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Pieter Pietersz

Pieter Pietersz. Man and Woman by the Spinning Wheel with Bong, c. 1570.

Pieter Pietersz, born 1540 in Antwerp, son of the brilliant, bold Pieter Aertsen (whose work I plan to share with you sometime in the future), began his career by painting altarpieces and other religious works. But with the Reformation's individualist impulses (the same impulses that surged Christian capitalism around Europe), that career path soon ended, with commissions landing with those artists who, like Pietersz, could capture the simpler spirit of the times – away from Europe's grand churches, away from Amsterdam's Oude Kerk, toward the kitchen and the den.

Here, a bemused young woman meets our gazes, relaxed and distracted from her spinning. (Consider here the old "Protestant work ethic!") A gentleman caller, ignorant of the viewer's encroachment, leans in to her, predatory, perhaps about to whisper a jape or invite the young lady out carousing. Will she submit? Who can be sure – her gaze, though, is casually powerful, revealing to us something of Pietersz's sympathy for the female liberation latent in some Reformation theology. But still – the young man, lovingly painted bong in hand, may drive a hard bargain. Fancy-free and liberated times may await.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Hans Holbein the Younger

Hans Holbein the Younger. Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze, 1532.

This portrait shows Holbein at the height of his powers. The dominating figure of the sitter, silhouetted by means of just a few clear lines, forms the central focus of an interior filled with a seemingly random arrangement of objects. The angled table and the position of the sitter, turned slightly inwards, are combined into a skillful spatial composition. Holbein observes his model with the same cool, searching gaze with which the sitter looks at us.

The objects on the table reflect an enduring delight in the portrayal of still-life detail - something which Holbein inherited not just from the German painting of the 15th century, but more especially from the Netherlands.

While the individual objects - the vase of flowers, the cashbox, the items carved of wood, the four scattered joints, the books and the writing implements - may not reveal the warm luminosity so characteristic of Early Netherlandish artists from Jan van Eyck to Hugo van der Goes, Holbein nevertheless demonstrates supreme sophistication in the iridescent white heightening on the sitter's red sleeves, in the elaborate, almost palpable weave of the tablecloth, and in the shimmering glass vase.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Cecco del Caravaggio

Cecco del Caravaggio. Interior with a young Man holding a Bong, 1620.

Formerly attributed to Louis Finson, the bong smoker was identified as a piece by Cecco in 1943. Little documentary evidence exists for this distinctive follower of Caravaggio. Like his master, he favoured strongly-lit compositions often of enigmatic themes: here a young man confronts the viewer with a challenging air, a billow of smoke and an acrylic bong amidst an abundant assortment of still-life elements. An ambrosia of foods; a crackled hunk of cheese, a knotty gourd, a handful of peaches and a bagel. Cecco del Caravaggio delights in the precision of the elder master in his renderings of a violin, a newspaper-clipped photograph of Marlon Brando and a milky billow of smoke.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Maarten van Heemskerck

Marten Jacobszoon Heemskerk van Veen (Maarten van Heemskerck), Family Portrait with Bong and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Paperback, 1530.

Professor Wundrum's comment on my recent post jogged my memory of this lovely painting, done during van Heemskerck's Roman period. How lovely it is – on the surface! This family, with bong and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas paperback novel, is in fact a bucolic reaction to the tumult of 1530, which van Heemskerck, in his deep sensitivity to the world, must certainly have felt: the Augsberg Confession and its ripple through the Dutch Reformation community; the flooding of Rome; the 1529 siege of Vienna. Indeed, in so many of these paintings, our painters are not recreating simple moments (How we wish they were!) as much as they are resisting powerfully against the unquenched passions and roiling doubts of the High Renaissance and Reformation periods.

Indeed, van Heemskerck's composition is full of doubt. The diagonals, surging downward from the two sober, serious parents onto the heads of their scions (like the political doubt of the age, presaging the religious chaos of the latter half of the 16th century) practically slashes the picture into quarters; deep theological and ecclesiastical anxiety wrenches, for me anyway, any satiety from this scene.

The table hangs awkwardly on the canvas, urging the viewer to correct it (i.e., to correct the conflicts in Christian theology at the time) – the figures are awkwardly posed, with only the artist's innate sense of rightness holding them in any sensible position at all. The parents form a supportive "V," as they should, but the incongruity of the table's placement destroys any sense of stability we have. Ah – the 16th Century! We await the placidity of the sweet 1600s.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Barthel Bruyn

Barthel Bruyn, Vanitas with Concert Tickets and Bong, 16th Century

Bartholomaeus Bruyn, the dominant painter in Cologne in the first half of the sixteenth century, was born in 1493 in the region of the Lower Rhine. No signed paintings by the artist are known, but his oeuvre has been reconstructed around two documented altarpieces. Several dated works permit the establishment of a general chronology. Earlier paintings (to the mid-1520s) show the influence of Jan Joest and especially Joos van Cleve. Beginning in the late 1520s Bruyn's work reflects the Netherlandish "Romanism" of Jan van Scorel (1495-1562) and Maerten van Heemskerck.

This undated painting, Vanitas with Concert Tickets and Bong, functions as a showpiece, demonstrating Bruyn's scope in talent. It breaks from the bulk of his work in portraiture: images of the patrician, or upper bourgeois, citizens of Cologne. It is painted with the same detailed precision as the portraits but here Bruyn trades the living for the dead.

We find a dismembered skull and an extinguished candle. A placard reading Omnia morte cadunt, mors ultima linia rerwn ("Everything passes with death, death is the ultimate limit of things") sits below the broken jaw and the bone-dry bong. The concert tickets are conspicuous and neglected. In his painting Bruyn has created an inventory of the expired. The only suggestion of life comes in the form of a fly, the carrion creature that feasts from the dead and living alike.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

William Harnett

William Michael Harnett. The Old Violin with Weed and Rolling Papers, 1886.

Our first American! Ah, this painting brings many memories to me – I have a print of it framed in my office (both at home and at the University), a reminder of the waxing and waning of the artistic (and scholarly!) process. Let me digress. For a time, during the late 1990s, I found myself at an academic impasse. I was, at the time, a visiting scholar at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, teaching a course on Low Country painting and writing a piece for the Journal of the Association of Art Historians on Claesz's late-period still-lifes with bongs.

To be honest – I was alone in America and frustrated at my lack of motivation in my own work. On a whim, I boarded a train to Washington, D.C., for a change of surroundings and to visit America's sublime National Gallery. As I walked the steps to the Gallery, vexed about my work and filled with anxious tension, I felt an ineffable pull – I was drawn to this, Harnett's spectacularly playful trompe l'oiel, and immediately, unexplainably, I brightened; my breath became fuller, my blood stronger. Never before had I taken American painting seriously (Forgive me! I have learned much since then.). But here was an American with the same verve, tenacity, and wit as any European painter. I was utterly taken by this painting; the resting violin, the envelope, the weed and rolling papers all pulled forth a new but utterly simple realization from me: like the violin's sweet music unplayed, but ready, potential, in its strings, my own inspiration was inside me, ready for the bow to strike, to set the taut, kinetic string of inspiration vibrating in tune. The violin is clearly used, but the letter reveals its owner's communications, his inner correspondences still vibrant; the sheet music is fresh and exciting; the weed is not dried-up. The door is much-used – a life passing in and out of activity.

On the train back to Boston, deep in the night and the American hinterland (so different from what Harnett must have seen), I smiled – contentedly and for the first time in weeks. I hope that this painting touches you as it did me.

Pieter Claesz

Pieter Claesz. Still Life with Peacock Pie, Bong, St. Elmo's Fire DVD, 1627

In a posting earlier this week Professor Peeters marveled at the meticulously painted damask in Still Life With Cheeses, Bong and DVD, 1615 by Floris Claesz van Dijck. He referenced the above painting when he wrote, "Not even the great Pieter Claesz, in his seminal Still Life with Peacock Pie, Bong, and St. Elmo's Fire DVD (1627) captured damask with such verve." It is true that the Elder Claesz was not to be outdone, though the painting by the young Pieter is not without merit. The focus of this painting is purely tactile. The ripples of shadow on the monochromatic tablecloth, the glistening skin on the cooked turkey, the silky transparency of the bong.

The earlier painting revels in its composition and acuity. Still Life with Peacock Pie, Bong and St. Elmo's Fire DVD plays host to a number of objects found in the earlier painting: fruit, nuts, a bong and a shining silver platter. The damask is present, yet again. By scattering these objects and then adding a juicy turkey carcass, a bowl of peas and a live peacock Pieter Claesz succeeds in at once recognizing the masterwork of his mentor and finding an equaled precision in objects of his own.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Samuel Van Hoogstraten

Samuel Van Hoogstraten. Still Life with Ziplock Bag of Weed, Tom Petty Cassette, c. 1666-1668

Dutch painter Samuel Van Hoogstraten is one of many artists with a keen interest in trompe-l'oeil ("trick the eye") techniques. He was a specialist in this field and the work shown here is typical of the genre. Because such tromp-l'oeil effects do not work well in depth the artist chose to portray flat objects that could be placed on the picture plane to which relatively flat items could be added. Observe the quill, the wax-sealed letter and opener. The medallion, dime bag and comb. The rolled ribbon, scissors and Full Moon Fever cassette. Despite their variety each item is but a few millimeters thick.

That old chestnut about the spectator who is actually fooled by such painted objects is quite easy to imagine in this case, but we should not forget that such paintings were actually intended as a joke and that they were meant to produce a sense of surprise on discovering that the objects were painted rather than real.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Balthasar van der Ast

Balthasar van der Ast. Still Life with Flowers, Shells, Insects, and Novelty Elephant Pipe, ca. 1635.

Such dread here! Normally, I would not draw attention to such a misanthropic painting, but van der Ast's still life paintings are, in their own way, wonderfully idiosyncratic and captivating. Van der Ast's still lifes are darker than most – they crawl with insects, symbols of death and putrefaction, while his flowers rot and wither. (Of course, many of his other paintings are sunnier in their outlook – but, to me, van der Ast's bleaker moments let us glimpse the darker half of every artist's soul.) It is worth noting, though, that even among his more disgusting memento mori, van der Ast has placed shells (he is a pioneer of the glorious art of shell painting), symbols not only of protection and rebirth (consider the hermit crab) but, more nobly, of Christian redemption. At last, though, moments of levity in the shadow of his fleurs du mal, purity among the skulking arachnids – two fresh flowers (though we know them to be at the verge of a withering death) and a jovial novelty elephant pipe, treated with the same tender care as van der Ast's beloved shells.

Floris Claesz van Dijck

Claesz. Still Life with Cheeses, Bong and DVD, 1615 (?)

Spread out on a richly prepared table are a variety of cheeses. All around are dishes with fruit, glasses, a jug, a bong, nuts, bread, a pear and a DVD. Bright colours dominate in this still life by Floris Claesz. van Dijck: a white damask tablecloth on a heavy, red oriental rug, yellow cheeses and an off-white collage of the star-heavy cast of Good Will Hunting.

Lucas van Leyden

Lucas van Leyden. The Chess Game with Bong, ca. 1508.

Ah, van Leyden – beautiful, overlooked, Low Country link between the aloof mastery of van Eyck and the gristle of Hals and the Brueghels. Let us look at his painting: a group of laconic, distracted members of the middle class, engaged in a trivial game of chess. The chess board, with its bong and disposable lighter, draws the eye quickly, but it is not conceptually central here. What is meaningful are the everyday moments for which the game and bong serve only as a visual center: the fat merchant's meddling, the brewer's idle headscratching, the gossip, the idle flirtation, the perfectly captured dullards' gazes. In terms of technique, Leyden's use of purple in the disposable lighter is quite unusual but not obscure. And while his painting is certainly not perfect, not so much as his brilliant etchings, it is a precursor to the noble mundanity of 17th Century Low Country art with bongs.

Henri Fantin-Latour

Henri Fantin-Latour. Still Life with Bong and Rush Cassette, 1866.

Few capture the idylls of summer like Fantin-Latour: a true virtuoso of sweet nostalgia, Proust in oils. Let us consider Herr Wundrum's posting of 22 September, Cotan's 1602 "Still Life with Bong" – let us put these two masters in communion, if you will. Cotan's dangling apple, as Herr Wundrum noted, is "past its best," a symbol of our mortal bodies, our languishing on Earth. Fantin-Latour's fruits are lush and suppliant. They invite us to taste of their sweetness; sticky rot is surely days away. The tray hangs casually over the edge of the table, its oblique positioning almost shocking compared to Claesz's and Cotan's rigid horizontals. A lovely bong completes the table's admirably balanced arrangement, while a cassette of Rush's classic Moving Pictures sits, absent its case, atop a much-read novel, both recalling the afternoon's sweet leisures and reminding us that technology, like these fruits and flowers, will change and fade. A sublime reminder of pleasant times.

Pieter Claesz

Pieter Claesz. Still Life with Roemer, Oysters, Bong, and Rick Wakeman Poster, 1642.

Domestic but fraught with hungry tension – a brilliant example of Dutch ontbijt in the 17th century. A picked-over tray of oysters, labial symbols of Christian rebirth, rests before a half-filled roemer of white wine, itself as much a reminder of the pale purity of Christ's blood as it is a venue for Claesz's mastery of the painted reflection, daring the viewer to deny the scene's verisimilitude. Bread, the body of Christ, is arranged on the diagonal of the severant knife, instrument of martyrdom and liberation. A softly transparent bong sits at the table's corner. A Rick Wakeman poster bleeds beyond the frame, a tantalizing invitation to explore the space beyond Claesz's painted bounds.

Jan Vermeer

Jan Vermeer. A Girl Asleep with Bong, 1657

Here, for the first time, we see the light, mood, complex composition, and the symbolism characteristic of mature Vermeer. The girl is well-dressed, perhaps the lady of the house, and we are separated from her by a table and chair. There is a white pitcher, and in front of the girl is an almost invisible wine-glass: presumably she is sleeping off the wine. But a closer investigation reveals a glass bong with a hand-worked slide.

The table is covered in a rich oriental carpet, with a bowl of fruit, symbolic of the Fall of Eve, and a partially wrapped egg, implying unbridled lust. The disheveled table is in glaring contrast to the cool, clean lines of the adjoining room and suggests that in her indulgence the woman has neglected her duties as home keeper. While neat and level it is a near certainty that the poster advertising a director's cut of Blade Runner is covered in a thick layer of dust.

Juan Sanchez Cotan

Juan Sanchez Cotan. Still Life with Bong, c. 1602 (?)

Everyday objects: a melon, cut open to reveal its pale pink flesh, a
knobbly cucumber, a yellow apple that is past its best, a cabbage with
thick leaves, a crisp glass bong. Parallel to the picture plane, a
smooth frame delineates the opening for a window. From the direction
of the spectator, light falls upon the parapet, on which the slice of
melon, the cucumber and a copy of JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye are
placed so that they jut over slightly and thereby they seem to be
almost within reach - a trompe l'oeil effect that was particularly
popular in Netherlandish painting in the 17th century.

Luis Melendez

Luis Melendez. Still Life with Melon, Pears, Bong and DVD, 1770

Pieter Claesz

Pieter Claesz. Vanitas, 1630