Friday, November 14, 2008

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.

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