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.

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