Saturday, September 5, 2009

Cornelis Bega

Cornelis Bega. Woman Playing Guitar Hero, 1664-65.

Colleagues! I have much for which to atone: let me preface first, for my own sake (and so you forget what is to come) that I have moved from dreary Ithaca, New York, to the lush and verdant shores of Northern California, to work as an independent scholar and researcher near Berkeley, California. I can say nothing of the experience that the Bard has not already written, and note the "darling bud of May" – which indeed is not roughly shook here, but persists throughout the year!

The unfortunate aspect of the above is that I was, while an adjunct professor at Cornell, unable to complete the necessary research for The Sacred Kitchen. I would like to say that the reasons for this had to do with my own scholarly inability (and in a sense, they did), but the truth is this: at some point, several months ago, I can't remember when, my fellow professor (and condo-mate) Marcus Grum bought, for his research into Gaming as a Cultural Text, the video game Guitar Hero. At first I imagined my participation in Professor Grum's research to be merely an act of assistance to my friend and colleague. But as I began to return to my apartment for "lunch breaks" only to find myself, several hours later, desperately trying to conquer Eric Johnson's "Cliffs of Dover" (on medium, no less!), I realized that I had surpassed even my own capacity for cognitive dissonance and rationalization. So – the move! Here I am, now, ensconced in the green California hills, with nary a television set or Wii in sight, returning diligently to my work.

And the painting – ah, the painting! Indeed, Cornelis Bega is a favorite of mine, as any friends know. Something in the way he treats his subjects – caricatures, really – should do well to remind us all, professors or laypeople, that even on our worst behavior (cf. Bega's "Tavern Scene" of 1664), we maintain the indelible mark of pure humanity. And that, my friends, warrants thought. Even in her squalor, amidst the Costco snack packs and novelty wizard bongs, our young musician, in form and moral intention, resembles the finest Renaissance angel. I take this, indeed, as part of Bega's philosophy, at which I just hinted: whether in the gutter or on the dais, we as humans share, every day, in the blissful spark of creation.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Jan de Bray et al

Jan de Bray. The Governors of the Guild of St. Luke, Haarlem, 1675.

This painting, while credited to Jan de Bray, is in actuality the work of four separate men. Jan de Bray is pictured here, second from the left. His drawing board is perched against the back of a companion, Jan de Jong. De Jong painted his own likeness, and is pictured here in a relaxed and contemplative pose. In the back left we see painter Jan van Hotingh seated in the shadows. Van Hotingh painted himself into the work, as well. And the seated man resting his head against his hand is none other than Jan de Bray's brother Dirck de Bray. For this painting the brothers de Bray painted one another. Jan is shown making a preliminary sketch of Dirck in a reference to the painting before its completion! A remarkable work, a great synthesis of talent and camaraderie.

The collaborative nature of the painting is most plainly evidenced by the sketch shown on the table.

We are unbelievably lucky that this sketch is extant! Good fortune has allowed the painting to survive. The mind can freeze when considering the survival of any fragile material through hundreds of years. Many of our favorite paintings benefit from their sheer size. It is unlikely that a stretched and painted canvas measuring many square feet could go missing but it is a true wonder that such a small scrap of paper could survive intact! Legend goes that in the early 19th century an art scholar by the name of Bartholomew Ionides discovered the sketch at a flea market in Antwerp. It is now in the collections at the Rijksmuseum. Here is the full scrap.

It is a revelatory sketch. The members of the Beatles achieved their greatest genius as group. While the four men were abundantly talented, each in his own right, their work was its best when made together. The painting of the governors alludes to the Fab Four and their famous collaborations. A majority of the Beatles' best-known songs were penned by Lennon and McCartney. Though the credits go to the men in front, the work would have been impossibly incomplete without the contributions of Harrison and Starkey. Surely, the same is true here. Without the added touches of de Jong, van Hotingh and brother Dirck de Bray Jan de Bray's painting would remain incomplete. May we delight with them in their friendship and admire their collective spirit!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten II

Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten. Self Portrait, ca. 1647.

This self-portrait of such alarming alacrity should give any astute viewer a glimpse into the very soul of a young Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten (this painting was done at a mere 16 years of age!), prior to his meteoric rise as painting virtuoso, constructor of 3D "peepshow" boxes, poet, and author of the watershed Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst, Rotterdam, 1678.

Look at his self-assuredness, look at the deftness with which he reveals the depths of 16-year-old van Hoogstraten's heavy-lidded eyes – and look at the meta-art of his sketches of Kurt Cobain, exact copies of those found in his meticulous journals! My heart floods with pleasure at this picture; indeed, in the company of fellow scholars at the Samuel van Hoogstraten symposium, I passed so many sweet hours at dinner discussing this very painting with some of the gentlest, most astute scholars I have met of late. (Paul Taylor, I will see you again – I'm practicing my checkers game now!)

Ah, there is much to say about van Hoogstraten. And I will say much more – in my research I have pored more over his art as of late than nearly any other painter! But let me give you this excerpt from the aforementioned Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst (I have been poring through so many primary sources in preparation for an upcoming publication, "Readymade Breakfasts in 16th Century Holland," in The Chicago Art Journal):
Let me give the reader a pause here, to I discuss a bit of my own childhood – in the hopes of raising the spirits of those young artists who read this book under their blankets at night, as I did, resisting the desires of parents who wish them to go into such professions as law and moneychanging; those young artists who must draw in their closets, as I did, at night, under secrecy.
So many hours I spent sitting in my own clothes closet, having stuffed the clothing under my bed and filled that tiny corner with records, easels, mortars and pestles, and my favorite Forever 27 poster (RIP, all). Indeed, drawing endless pictures of Kurt Cobain, taking deep puffs from a contraband bong (often my only confidant in these late hours), eating tonnes of Goldfish snacks – this was my ritual, my communion, my glimmer of hope in an awful, awful childhood. Keep your heads up, and keep hold of your brushes, fellows of Her Mistress Art!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dirck van Baburen

Dirck van Baburen. Man with Spoon Pipe and Game Boy, 1621.

Let us meditate a moment, if you have the time (I do!), on the obvious artistic wellhead of this painting: Caravaggio! Think, briefly, on the irregular composition, the lighting – but where is Caravaggio's eminent seriousness? That is the Dutch spirit, friends! Van Baburen, during his time in Rome (where he was nicknamed "Biervlieg," or "Beerfly" for his proclivities), was a member of the Bentvueghels, a Bacchic society devoted to the humanistic process of painting, as opposed to the rote, detail-oriented processes of classical Italian art education.

And yet van Baburen has chosen both, it seems – the skilled eye and hand of a Caravaggio devotee, and the gleeful abandon of the Dutch. His composition here is close and rough, lacking Caravaggio's secretive seriousness, presenting an intimate view (as if leaning over a table) of a youth, dressed festively for a toga party and wearing an elaborate hat of ostrich feathers, as was the fashion of the time. The youth fixes us with wide, reddened eyes as he grips a vernacular Dutch spoon bowl, his Game Boy (of an older vintage, one far predating the Game Boy Advance, which would not have been familiar to van Baburen – and regardless would have been too expensive for a rough-edged artist like him) sneaking out of the frame, laid atop sheets of Dutch feestmuziek.

Indeed, this painting, imperfect though it is (it seems casual, unserious, perhaps a preparative painting for a larger, more majestic, piece), is a wonderful look at what makes Low Country art so significant: it elevates small things, mundane things, familiar things, to heights equal to Caravaggio's – light plays in delicate patterns, heavy atmospheres abound, and yet these are our daily tasks, our hobbies, our small loves.

Let me close with a quotation from one of van Baburen's journals, which perfectly and succintly elaborates this point, and which I am of the finest fortune to possess – as I am of even finer fortune to be a distant relative of his, blessedly and blithly through the lineage of my Aunt Bettina!
Indeed, as we finished the night – I having lived up to the name Biervlieg – and rambled home through the tangled, manic streets of Trastevere, I looked on my fellows and saw that in the wan light of moon, their faces – Il Bamboccio, Het Fret, Calzetta bianca – all ruddy and worn, red-eyed from hotboxing, were semipiternal, elevated of a grace beyond us, capable with our brushes of fixing moments like these in time, on canvas, forever.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Jan Jansz Treck

Jan Jansz Treck. Still life vanitas, 1648.

A bout of foul weather can unnerve even the most subdued urbanite. This week in Amsterdam the temperatures have been moderate but damp.

But there is sunshine ahead. The slick pavement and puddles bested me following an abnormally long week of reupholstering and then correcting footnotes for a draft of an essay I'm finishing. Yesterday morning I was rushing to a meeting with my son and an admissions officer from an American school he's applying to. Over my shoulder was a large bundle with a suit and freshly-pressed shirt inside that I had cleaned for the meeting. I was crossing the street towards my office when a German couple stopped me. They were looking to get to the Van Gogh Museum. Already late and irritated I considered ignoring them. "Can't you order a Starry Night mousepad from the internet?" I thought. I was instead polite and patient and helped them with directions. We parted. As I was stepping onto the curb a large van rolled by, kicking up a wave of rainwater, dirt and fine gravel. All of the closed were soaked. What I was wearing and carrying were in an awful state. With no time to lose I kept my stride. I called the gentleman from the university to warn him of my appearance. He was fortunately a reasonable man and expressed his condolence with an reassuring laugh.

How I ramble!

On the walk I was attempting to force myself into a better mood. I am often able to calm myself by meditating on a favorite painting (usually one of Claesz's breakfast pieces). In my frustration I found Jan Jansz Treck's vanitas lodged in my mind.

This painting is particularly wretched. It is stuffed with signifiers of death. Of course there is a skull. This one is wrapped with brittle thorns that have been clipped from their vine. The standard meta reference to the arts is here in the form of a flute. The hour glass has toppled. A play by Rodenburgh entitled "Evil is its Own Reward" lays open, propped against a box of pre-cooked bacon. The tax form has me gripping my temples, recalling the absurd adage of life's only certainties. How awful this painting is!

I was fortunate to have freed the afternoon so that I might share it with my son. And, sharp as he is to my bad humors, he was happy to change our plans so that we might walk the halls of the Rijkmuseum and rejoice in the paintings there. An afternoon with the old masters is enough to put me in good spirits for days.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cornelis Anthonisz

Cornelis Anthonisz. Banquet of Members of Amsterdam's Crossbow Guard, 1533.

Indeed, toiling away in Cornell's Sibley Hall (home of the wonderful Fine Arts Library) during this snowy, wintry nights can be a trouble to the soul. But as I continue to compile material for my book, I find that the paintings themselves begin to warm me; I feel in them a depth of camaraderie that I (to be completely honest) do not always feel even in the company of my colleagues here at the University – where I am, at the moment, a scholar in residence. But at the banquet tables of Anthonisz, Hals, and Hoegstraaten, I am warmed by their candles, soothed by the scents of their breads.

Here, in one of Anthonisz's lesser paintings (I admit so much), we see the early birthings of this style that I love so much. I readily admit, of course, that the composition is nearly medieval; the psychologies of these men, the crossbow guard, barely developed; the perspectival and painterly techniques just at the cusp of a true master. (Please, reader, see past my rashness: one need not be a master to stir the heart!)

But one hardly needs to analyse technique or theory to feel a painting. Here I must hand over commentary to one Nils Poepjes, assistant to Cornelis Anthonisz from 1530-1538, whose journals have been utterly indispensible in my research (again, thank you, Cornell University):

Here today at the banquet of the CIVIC GUARD I found myself in awe of such a lustrous and delectable spread as I or Cornelis have ever seen – at once we felt ourselves hollow shells, empty stomachs entire; how long it has been since our dinner consisted of anything, anything but Kraft singles and white bread! And yet as Cornelis began to paint I began an interior catalog of the lushness even as Cornelis began his visual one:

A DiGiorno* pizza – imagine that – cooked in the Guard's new convection oven, served with ranch dressing, with chilly, delicious ice cream sandwiches for dessert; an ostentatious bong, which never ceased to waft the room in fragrant smoke; a seemingly endless pile of marijuana buds from which the Guard's members plucked their fill with nary a care for cost. Indeed, the Guardsmen were fond of attempting to draw Cornelis' and my attention to their larder, perhaps (I hope, at least – would that they were not being rude!) making offers unawares that Cornelis and I take no breaks and can brook no distractions during our work.

* It must be noted that while frozen pizzas today are often afterthoughts, cheap eats, at the time of Anthonisz, ovens were such a rarity that frozen pizzas were reserved only for those with time and money; delivery services like Papa John's were thought, in the words of Poepjes, "uncouth and low."

Friday, February 20, 2009


Caravaggio. The Cardsharps, c. 1596.

Please, let me preface this – forgive my absence! I contracted a rather awful case of pneumonia while on an otherwise quite enjoyable "rain hike" in Northumberland. While my recovery period was long, and the illness was quite serious, I did enjoy my surroundings, and my snug room provided me with the perfect setting for reading and re-reading some of my guiltiest pleasures (as I was without my stack of much-neglected journals of art criticism – colleagues, do forgive me; Prof. Witz, I owe you commentary on your brilliant treatise about indoor gardening in the 18th century!): gothic novels!

But let me present to you now a painting that represents a turning point for an artist who truly needs no introduction, painted shortly after he left his first position of employment in the arts (which I will soon describe to you) – it represents, for me, perhaps more than any other painting, the artist's molting from being mere workman, artificer, decorator, to prophet, seer, preserver of daily life's fleeting beauties.

Caravaggio, for some time before his "big break" (so to speak) painted the miniatures that adorned cards for the collectible card game (CCG) Magic: The Gathering – surely a boring, menial task for a man of Caravaggio's scintillating brilliance. Here, he seems to comment on that previous employment; what ought to be a scene of casual, charming, trivial divertisment hides a brutal take on the lengths to which humans go for the sake of competition and collection.

A close look at the painting reveals the game afoot: a well-heeled boy in velvet is the target of a dupe; the lad opposing him receives a signal from his partner regarding the cards held by his opponent (and perhaps regarding his strategy) – he slips from his belt a previously concealed "Counterspell" card, sure to change the game for his favor. The cup of Dunkin Donuts© coffee would indicate that the game has been in progress for quite some time: it is unlikely to be morning, given the circumstances, so it is probable that the setting is late at night, with the coffee having been purchased more for its function than for enjoyment.

And this game's stakes are not low. A cursory glance would tell that the stack of Pogs© in the left-hand corner of the painting, on the part of the table that protrudes into the viewer's space, is the ante here – but a discerning eye (and the aid of an issue of Wizard magazine) reveals, on the table between the two, a "Black Lotus" card from the "Alpha" collection of Magic: The Gathering, whose value even in Caravaggio's time (shortly after the "Mirage" collection's release) was not by any means small. The ruse is made more cutting by the presence of a delicate pipe – likely shared under the guise of friendship.

The most important aspect of this painting, to me, is Caravaggio's delicacy in handling both a criticism of his former employers and in creating a scene of lyrical power, a dangerous game, a children's game, but one whose meaning runs so deep that any sensitive viewer might feel an uneasy twinge at the commonness of that selfish, competitive feeling that must drive our two rogues.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Jans Davidsz de Heem

Jans Davidsz de Heem. Still Life with Books, 1628

On a Sunday snowed in I find myself pulling drawers and perusing neglected bookshelves. I often do my best to put extra work into the fermenting essay or the nearly-completed set of footnotes. On days of severe weather I am sometimes kept from my ritual diversions from sitting and writing. My woodshed, at the edge of our property, is snowbound as well. While I am trapped in, from my shed I am kept out. Moving from the house and across the field is a large task itself, but digging out the door to the shed usually extolls all the energy I had stored for my lathe and planes. Alas, I turn to fill my time with activities less cumbersome.

Today I took to a tattered copy of Sunday Times crosswords. While racking my memory for the answer to 42 Across (8 letters): Rastafarian incarnate and Ethiopian Emperor (answer: SELASSIE) my mind wandered through the world of recreational linguistics. A list of games formed in my mind: the Surrelaists' Exquisite Corpse, Scrabble, the games Okki-taal and Panovese Kal from my childhood, the word Jumble that my niece uses to practice her English, Hangman, Pig-Latin and, finally, Mad Libs. Of course my mind was immediately evacuated so that it might be occupied with the splendors of Jans Davidsz de Heem's Still Life with Books.

De Heem was trained in Utrecth by Balthasar van der Ast and his earlier work illustrates the influence of his instructor. In this later work de Heem had begun painting in a tradition of his own. Rather than the natural objects regularly found in the works of van der Ast - the seashells, the flowers and inching snails, buzzing insects - de Heem often favored a display of the manmade.

In doing so de Heem doesn't totally abandon the master; his lesson book is not closed. While the objects that occupy van der Ast's paintings are not fabricated by man the arrangements in his scenes are. The swollen fruit, woven baskets and ornate, hand-harvested shells have been arranged with a personal touch. A fly or snail is invited to join the scene not by the artist but by the appetizing natural objects he has selected.

De Heem's still lifes demonstrate their human fabrications as well. Here we see the desk of an enthusiastic student. The scene is cluttered with tattered books and leaves of Mad Libs. All of the puzzles have been completed, it would appear one right after the next. They are strewn about the table with a compassion and appreciation characterized, oddly enough, by their haphazard treatment. As one is completed it is frantically discarded so that the next might be explored in full. In a fervor of inspiration, as a writer reaching for the blank leaf or a painter thoughtlessly refreshing his palette, the Mad Libs have been devoured.

In what some call games or hobbies, explored on weekends or in the backs of newspapers, others find their calling. There is the weekend furniture maker, the after-school painter and the car-ride reader. Here de Heem has offered us a scene of the improviser of verbs, adverbs and plural nouns. In creating this piece he encourages us to reconsider the familiar and to pay a finer attention to what is most often neglected.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Frans Hals

Frans Hals. Regents of the Old Men's Alms House, 1664.

These darker months are a fine time for fraternization. Winter is an exciting season where the cold tempts us to bundle our clothes, savor warm and heavy foods and defend against the chill with strong drink. And who better to share in these delights than our close friends and colleagues? When the days are shorter time passes strangely. As we enter our favorite basement tavern or ground-floor pub following an afternoon lecture the evening has already turned black. A short gathering can feel as if it were stretched across several hours once the sun has receded; the measurement by its shadows is lost. Our lethargy is encouraged by the threat of cold. We seek the warmth of another drink and shiver with the thought of leaving the comfort of our compatriots for the cutting winds. Our excursions into friendships become grand, and our revelry can become excessive. Ah, the wonder! The stasis of a winter gathering often matches (and surely Prof. Peeters would agree) the agile meandering and bar-stool swapping of the summertime.

In Hals' painting of a group of regents we find a similar wintery scene. Hals was famously destitute at the time of this painting and aged well into his eighties. Though he had struggled with debts through all of his professional life it was the charity of a few bags of peat that helped the painter through the winter of 1664, without which he would have died. The facilitators of this charity were the Regents seated here (or a group nearly identical).

For this commissioned piece objectivity was likely Hals' greatest struggle. The impoverished artist was reliant on his sitters for his survival. Working coatless in a frigid tavern he had to maintain concentration in the face of the regents' obvious spoils. They were made comfortable by their heavy cloaks, their finely-made hats, the humming warmth of a neon lamp and - according to Hals' diary - "a small but swollen velvet purse from which bouquets of cannabis poured like granules from a canister of salt."

The painting, once completed, bore Hals finest hallmarks (forgive the inadvertent pun!). Point to any of the regents' cloaks and the color there will be described as black. But note the varieties of this single shade! The blacks mix with reds and blues, fluctuating in the ripples of fabric and light. The tones of the regents' skins take similar shape. Our group is a rosy one. The man with the dangling cigarette, judging by the flush of his skin, may be enjoying himself a bit more than the other fellows. To our right we find a gentleman who may be abstaining from the merriment; note his faint complexion. Though his gloved fingers suggest he is fighting for warmth his fallow skin indicates that he may have been "thin-blooded."

Though we may not delight in Hals' circumstances we may be thankful for the mastery of his hand. And while we may squint at the group of regents to whom Hals was indentured they may stand to remind us of our own friends, close and familiar as they are.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde

Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde. A Dealer in His "Office," 1672.

Most of you probably know Berckheyde for his lavish, stimulating views of Dutch church interiors. Indeed, he was a master of utilizing perspective as an emotionally evocative aesthetic tool even as he dazzled the eye with seemingly endless vaults and naves -- but Berckheyde, like so many of his countrymen, found spiritual founts among simpler things. His genre paintings are often overlooked in favor of the aforementioned urban and ecclesiastical works, but I find such pleasure among his less sumptuous subjects!

Here we have a common 17th Century Dutch occurrence: a visit to one's choice supplier. As others have noted, there is something of a class imbalance here; the buyer, as he bumbles with his purse, is watched almost mockingly by the dealer and his chap. His grotty attire contrasts with the sumptuous colors and drapery of the dealer and his furnishings. The heavy curtains seem to part and allow us to look upon a private affair. The tiles and the receding perspective into the dealer's bedroom (indicated by the Dave Matthews Band's European tour poster, something unlikely to be shown in Dutch sitting rooms of the time and reserved only for private chambers) allow us a moment to revel in Berckheyde's trenchant mastery of perspective.

Despite this comedy of class, the dealer is a relatable figure: his eyes are understanding and observant; the grinder in his lap shows that he cares for his friends, despite their social standing; and the Dilbert comic above his desk lets us, viewers from another age, in on a little joke. Ah, life -- how mundane, how beautiful! Sit back, as I am, with a cup of tea, and take a moment to cherish the everyday.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet. Le Guitarrero, 1844.

It may seem odd for me to feature Courbet here, he being somewhat outside the family of painters we study (and outside the realm of my scholarship, apart from simple appreciation!) -- but truly he is a kindred spirit of Hals, Claesz, Holbein, and our other heroes, by simple fact of his unerring commitment to the representation of simple truth.

Here we have a beautiful example of that commitment. But, more deeply, we have a study -- perhaps an appreciation, rather? -- of the artist's craft in general, which takes place on two levels: the appreciation of the artist's communion with nature (nature serving as a meditation on truth, of course); and, second, of the communion the artist makes with truth in his translation of object to art.

Nature, of course, is endlessly inspiring; countless painters have made their careers on portraying its plunging depths, its sweet wisdoms, its soaring highs. The young man playing his guitar is communing with nature, then. His eyes lift heavenward. His papers, matches, and fresh joint, in the hands of a Courbet, seem alert and full of energy. He gingerly plucks what looks to be a C Major chord, his hand already moving for the next chord change, probably inspired by what all of us have experienced in nature: sitting, letting nature be, breathing sincerely and deeply of the piney silence. The young man realizes that life, as we live it, as artists live it, is a struggle against inertia, a vigorous thrust toward living and not just life.