Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Thingness of Things

A letter rack (below) holds an assortment of mismatched objects: a pair of sewing scissors and a pincushion, a horn comb and a string of pearls, a cameo, a bronze medallion and a red wax seal, a pocketbook inscribed with the date 1664, and a rolled-up pamphlet and a quill which evidently has seen better days. These things seem like mysterious clues to the identity of their unknown feminine owner. The artist who painted these objects - Samuel van Hoogstraten - leaves us wondering.

Film director Luis Buñuel coined the perfect phrase for that common experience which we all have of encountering such everyday objects. Buñuel called it 'the thingness of things'. Whether these objects happen to be a dining table, or the pieces of fruit in a bowl that sits upon that table, they occupy the same familiar material reality as we ourselves do.

When artists set out to describe this 'thingness' in an image, the result is a still-life (the painting of apple blossoms which includes a not-so-still living lizard, two butterflies and a caterpillar by Balthasar van der Ast, above). Now to be honest, this was one subject which, when we were given such an assignment at art school, I practically had to jab myself with my pencil to prevent myself from dozing off with boredom. But although my own choice of subject matter lies in other directions, and a tastefully arranged empty bottle, a china jug and a fruit bowl don't really do it for me, there certainly are any number of artists who have chosen to make this particular province of art their own.

What could be more ordinary than a bundle of asparagus? But when that asparagus is painted by Adriaen Coorte (above), its stark simplicity and luminous lightfall seem to generate a compelling power: a true manifestation of its 'thingness'. As, for the same reason, do the three salmon steaks by Francisco Goya (below). The intensity of these works (their 'asparagus-ness', their 'salmon-steak-ness') is only increased by the artists' choice of dramatic velvet-shadowed backgrounds.

If Goya's empty blackness daringly fills half of the space of his composition, what are we to make of Juan Sanchez Cotán's bizarre still-life featuring a quince, a cabbage, a melon and half a cucumber (below)? The eye of the viewer slides uncomfortably down the suspended quince and cabbage to land upon the ledge of the niche where the cut melon and a fat green gherkin are lying. The intense black nothingness which swallows up most of the space seems almost shocking. I am left wondering just how startling the artist intended his off-beat composition to be. It was, after all, painted four hundred years ago!

All those years ago, fresh game was a normal item on the European menu. That game included fowl, and fowl regularly found their way, not only onto the dinner plates, but onto the canvases of still-life subjects. Frans Cuyck van Myerop's treatment of what to our contemporary eyes is perhaps a strange choice of subject matter (below) is certainly more original than most. These two birds (I'm guessing that they are a small woodcock and a *bittern) hang against a white plaster wall, their shadows giving them a three-dimensional reality that is further enhanced by the artist's clever use of a painted black frame into which the wing of the bittern intrudes. At least dead things have the advantage of keeping nice and still while they're being painted, and the artist's treatment of the plumage textures and patterns is masterfully convincing without the brushwork being laboured.

The artist Cornelis Gijsbrechts presents us with a still-life as curious as it is inventive (below). For the still-life is a painting which actually features a still-life painting within it as part of the still-life. Central in the composition is a rather conventional still-life painting of grapes and other fruit. But the painting, which is peeling away from its wood mount (a trademark touch in Gijsbrechts' art), in its turn shares a shelf with the belongings of the artist: his palette and brushes, rag and glass dipper (for linseed oil), and his clay pipe and tobacco tin. And on the wood panel next to the painting the artist himself puts in a cameo appearance as a portrait miniature. Gijsbrechts' painting manages to be at the same time both charming and rather disconcerting, stranding the viewer in an uneasy no-man's-land between different visual illusions.

Both van Hoogstraten and Gijsbrechts (and in the image shown here, also Cuyck van Myerop) specialised in the form of still-life known by the French phrase tromp-l'oeil (literally: 'fools-the-eye'), in which visual sleight-of-hand is used (painted frames and shadows, etc.) to confuse what is real and what is part of the painting. But it is not so much the eye which is fooled, as it is the brain which interprets - or misinterprets - what the eye is seeing, challenging our confidence to define exactly where reality ends and illusion begins.

Artist: Samuel van Hoogstraten
Work: Tromp-l'oeil Still-Life, 1664
Medium: Oils
Location: Dordrechts Museum, Dordrecht

Artist: Balthasar van der Ast
Work: Still-Life with Apple Blossoms, 1635
Medium: Oils
Location: Staatliche Museum, Berlin

Artist: Adriaen Coorte
Work: Asparagus, 1697
Medium: Oils
Location: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Artist: Francisco Goya
Work: Three Salmon Steaks, 1808-12
Medium: Oils
Location: Oskar Reinhart Collection, Winterthur

Artist: Juan Sanchez Cotán
Work: Still-life with Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, c.1600
Medium: Oils
Location: Museum of Art, San Diego

Artist: Frans Cuyck van Myerop
Work: Still-Life with Fowl, 1670's
Medium: Oils
Location: Groeninge Museum, Bruges

Artist: Cornelis Gijsbrechts
Work: Still-Life with Self-Portrait, 1663
Medium: Oils
Location: National Gallery, Prague

The Coorte image is from the Rijksmuseum website. All other images are from the Web Gallery of Art.

*The bittern (Botaurus stellaris) is now on the list of endangered species with a Red status (in severe decline and at serious risk), and has become one of the rarest of British breeding birds. The woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) is on the endangered list with an Amber status (in general decline). Source: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Blood on the Earth

Carried on a makeshift pallet of hides and wooden poles, an elderly woman (below) attempts to comfort her two listless grandchildren. The woman's back is supported by a deer: a trophy of the hunt. Four men, their bodies straining with the effort, carry the heavy pallet forward. Other figures trudge wearily alongside it, or trail to the rear, their heals kicking up dust from the dry and seemingly-barren earth. It is a formidable tableau: the unforgiving parched landscape, muscle and sinew, hides and skins, primitive axes and spears, all combine to convey a rough and bleak desolation. But what commands our attention is not so much this striking central group, as the gaunt figure who leads it.

We can assume by his advanced age that it is the man's *wife who is being borne on the pallet, and it is therefore his sons and extended family who form the escorting group. But who is this greybeard patriarch? Every knotted sinew of his body seems taught with inexpressible remorse. His shoulders appear as if bent under some terrible unseen burden (detail, below). His gaze is not raised to the horizon which he walks to meet, and towards which his hand mutely gestures, but downwards to the dry earth at his feet. The title of the painting tells us all that we need to know. It is Cain, by the 19th-century artist Fernand Cormon. We might think that we are familiar with Cain's story, but here is my brief take on those terrible events.

Imagine a supreme being with, apparently, such an acquired taste for blood that he accepts the sacrifice of first-born lambs offered to him fresh from a shepherd's own flock, but turns up his nose at the offering of crops - the bounty of the earth - made to him by that shepherd's farming brother. A little far-fetched, perhaps? We might expect to find such a picky deity among the pantheon of petulant pagan gods, but this is the serious scenario presented to us in the Bible's *Book of Genesis. The brothers in question are, of course, the children of Adam and Eve: Cain and Abel. Abel being the shepherd who offered the blood sacrifice, and Cain being the well-intentioned (and undoubtedly equally hard-working) agriculturalist.

Whatever inscrutable reason God had for rejecting Cain's offering, human nature being what it is, God must have realised that his seemingly illogical choice of one brother's offering over the other's was asking for trouble. And it came. For as we are told, jealous Cain slew his brother (*Gustave Doré's image, above), thus inventing both homicide in general and fratricide in particular. In the next part of the story, God, to whom all things presumably are known, then has to ask Cain where his missing brother is. 'Am I my brother's keeper?' Cain famously replies.

God, seeing the *bloodsoaked earth, then utters a curse upon Cain. The worst curse, in fact, that a farmer could endure: the earth will no longer yield its bounty to Cain. But as a gesture of mercy God gives the murdering brother a mysterious mark - the Mark of Cain - as a protection against vengeance from others. The accursed farmer then wanders the Earth, finally settling 'in the land of Nod, east of Eden', to found the first city. The city eventually collapses upon the aged Cain, *killing him in the same year that his father Adam dies.

Now, whether this story is for you a matter of faith or a folktale, it's certainly a story with a lot going for it. Jealousy, murder, retribution: all the right plot buttons are pushed. And of course its drama appeals as a classic theme for artists to portray. Some choose the moment of greatest physical drama: the act of murder itself. Others such as Doré opt for the immediate aftermath, laden with the implied consequences of the horrific deed. Unusually (and perhaps more originally), Cormon portrays the wandering Cain. Cormon's painting carries the implication, through the aged Cain and his attendant generations (detail, above), of just how long Cain's wanderings have lasted.

Cormon evidently was at home with such material. He would later go on to portray various scenes from our Neolithic and bronze-age past (The Return from a Bear Hunt in the Stone Age, and other scenes, above) for the Musée des Antiquities Nationales in Paris. Although this project was never completed, even his sketches for the proposed mural scenes are full of the aura of an ancient past (his sketches portraying Spinning and Fishing, below left, and Hunting and Agriculture, below right).

The transition from Cormon's portrayal of the Biblical Cain to these archaeological museum murals is a seamless one. The group of figures in Cain walk straight out of the Stone Age, even if the artist's vision of the Neolithic is typically a 19th-century one. In portraying the story from Genesis in such a way, Cormon makes his subjects not merely Biblical, but epic: figures, not from folklore, but from our archaeological collective past. In these straggling outcasts we see our own ancestors, and Abel's spilt blood on the earth is still as fresh as today's headlines.

Artist: Fernand Cormon
Work: Cain, c.1880
Medium: Oils
Location: Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Artist: Fernand Cormon
Work: Return from a Bear Hunt in the Stone Age, 1884
Medium: Oils
Location: Musée des Antiquités nationales, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Artist: Fernand Cormon
Works: Spinning and Fishing, Hunting and Agriculture, 1897
Medium: Thinned oils over pen and ink
Location: Musée du Petit Palais, Paris

*The ex-canonical Book of Jubilees identifies Cain's wife as his sister, Awan. This is, after all, just one generation removed from the first man and woman, and Cain had only his siblings from which to choose a partner. The gene pool sure was limited back then.
*Genesis 4: 1-16. For all those various Biblical 'begattings', read on from verse 17.
*Doré perhaps included the snake in his scene as a nod to the Hebrew tradition that Cain was actually the son of Eve and the serpent, and therefore intrinsically a doer of 'evil'. Maybe it's just my overheated imagination, but you practically can hear the serpent saying to Cain, 'Good job, Son..'
*Apparently God had no problem with Abel soaking the earth with the blood of innocent animals (who also were, nota bene, His own creations) in His name.
*In the Book of Jubilees' version.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Girl in a Kimono

She was born in 1877 in Zaandam, in the province of North Holland. When she was 16, *Geesje Kwak (a name perhaps as unlikely-sounding to Dutch ears as it is to other languages) moved with her sister Anna to Amsterdam to settle into the safe young ladies' profession of milliner. There, among the ladies' hats and bonnets, ribbons and bustling clients, she might have remained in obscurity, her name - and her features - unknown to art history. Except that one day her path crossed that of the artist George Hendrik Breitner.

Breitner, already something of a name in the art world of the time, had recently acquired a studio on Amsterdam's Lauriergracht (Laurel Canal); one of the prettiest parts of the city. In 1892 the artist had visited an influential exhibition of Japanese art in The Hague (which style had earlier inspired Vincent van Gogh, among others), and he had enthusiastically acquired several kimonos and some decorative room screens as a result.

Now a year later, the artist's chance meeting with the young milliner seems to have lit a spark of inspiration, and Geesje found herself being asked - on a paid professional basis - to pose as a model in the kimonos. Breitner, then 36, seems to have been meticulous about details. There is an existing notebook in which he recorded the various dates and hours when Geesje posed for him, and the amounts which she was paid for her time.

The notebook suggests a methodical, business-like approach to the model sessions, but the series of paintings which resulted makes it plain that Geesje had something - an x-factor - which tapped into a true well of inspiration for the artist. Breitner's brushwork in the canvasses shows extraordinary verve and confidence, as if nowhere was it necessary to go over the same brushstroke twice. They are images which indicate that the artist knew exactly where he needed to go to achieve the result required, and what he needed to do to get there.

Posed either in a red or in a silvery-white kimono, Geesje is there in the canvasses as a tangible presence, even when only her face and her hands are visible. Breitner never allows that presence to be swamped by the surrounding patterns of cherry blossoms, birds, carpets and room screens which swirl busily around her; the balance between the naturalistic treatment of the model and the eddying patterns is always perfectly maintained.

Always a restless innovator, Breitner made extensive use of the relatively new medium of photography as a tool, and built up his own reference library of photographs of the subjects which became his principal themes. It is thanks to the artist's embracing of this medium that we have so many views of the Amsterdam of the time, not just as it was, but as it was in the process of becoming, with building works in progress and tramlines (for horse-drawn trams) being laid down. And indeed; among his collection we also come across his photographs of Geesje, some of which (below) are clearly intended as references for his paintings.

One photograph by Breitner in the Leiden Museum print collection (below) shows a thoughtful Geesje posing hand-on-chin. This gelatine-silver print offers us perhaps our clearest look at the girl who inspired the artist. I wonder sometimes what she must have thought about it all. Was she bemused? Was she flattered by the unexpected attention? In any event, she did not feature further in Breitner's work. There are two reasons for this.

The first reason is that, incomprehensibly, the series of paintings featuring Geesje met with either an indifferent or a scoffing critical reception when they were exhibited. The critical reaction was cold enough, apparently, to discourage the artist further in this direction, and he went on to other themes and subjects. The second reason is Geesje herself. Two years later she emigrated with her older sister Niesje to Pretoria in South Africa.

We have one last spectral glimpse of Geesje (above), together with her older sister, taken by a professional photographic studio in Pretoria. Just two years after the photograph was taken, Geesje died before reaching her 22nd birthday. The canvasses which are her legacy are now prized among the museum collections which house them, and the one which is now in a private collection reached an auction price in 2003 of almost *600,000.

Artist: George Hendrik Breitner
Works: Girl in a Kimono (Geesje Kwak)
Medium: Oils
Locations (from the top): Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1893). Gemeentemuseum, The Hague (1893). Private Collection (1893). Enschede Museum (1894). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (1894).

Source: George Hendrik Breitner, 1857-1923: schilderijen, tekeningen, foto's, by J.F. Heijbroek, Kees Keyer, et al. Uitgeverij Thoth, Bussum, 1994.

*Curiously (and perhaps ironically), when given its correct Dutch pronunciation, the name actually sounds like the word 'geisha'.