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.