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.