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.