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