Alejandra de Argos by Elena Cué

This exhibition bombards us with a storm of ideas. It is a gauntlet thrown down to us by the Royal Academy and one that Gormley takes up, with all his weapons and from all sides: with lead, steel, seawater, a little blood from his veins and a battalion of iron men, dozens of soldier Gormleys. It has been four years in the making during which time, for the positioning of each and every piece, every conceivable permutation has been tried. Also during that time, the building’s architecture has been subjected to extremes, pushing it to its very limits: walls supporting massive weights, average-sized rooms housing pieces the size of something from another world, from Gulliver’s Travels, that balloon out against the doors, against the corners, while, in the adjoining room, the floor has been turned into a pond and is flooded with water.

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian
 Marina

 

 

 

 

Gormley
Subject  (2018), Royal Academy of Arts, London


This exhibition bombards us with a storm of ideas. It is a gauntlet thrown down to us by the Royal Academy and one that Gormley takes up, with all his weapons and from all sides: with lead, steel, seawater, a little blood from his veins and a battalion of iron men, dozens of soldier Gormleys. It has been four years in the making during which time, for the positioning of each and every piece, every conceivable permutation has been tried. Also during that time, the building’s architecture has been subjected to extremes, pushing it to its very limits: walls supporting massive weights, average-sized rooms housing pieces the size of something from another world, from Gulliver’s Travels, that balloon out against the doors, against the corners, while, in the adjoining room, the floor has been turned into a pond and is flooded with water.

However, here in this tension is where, constant and dense as a thread of light, Gormley's discourse lies. In that sense, this doesn’t seem like a conventional retrospective but a statement of the principles of the artist who, from the start, has persevered in the continuity of his incessant, unsettling question, like a gong, like a boot kicking metal and in his obsession with getting us involved, shaking us up, waking us up: "The body is more a place than an object for me: body "in" space and body "as" space. Come with me, close your eyes, look inside your body, into that darkness where the limits of space are lost, where we acquire the infinity of the cosmos." That's the key, that’s Antony Gormley's war cry.

The courtyard of the Royal Academy, with its neoclassical facade, is presided over by the statue of its first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. These days, the portraitist and promoter of the “Grand Style” in painting, looks askance at a tiny object at his feet: “Iron Baby” (1999) is the sculpture of a newborn, life-sized and curled up on the ground as if it were her cradle - it is based on Gormley's daughter, six days after her birth. The artist says: "Its density suggests energy potential like a small bomb. The material is iron (concentrated earth), the same as the core of our planet.” This projectile-piece sets the tone of the exhibition.

 Gormley 1 

Iron Baby (1999), Annenberg Courtyard, Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Antony Gormley was born in London in 1950 into a devout Roman Catholic family: he was baptized with a name whose initials make up A.M.D.G. (Ad maiorem Dei gloriam -To the greater glory of God) which is the Latin motto of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits): "My name is Antony Mark David Gormley and I wasn’t called that by accident." From the age of six, he had to obey the strict rules of his afternoon nap: he would go up to his small bedroom where it was hot, lie down and not move, his eyes closed, while the light flooded his bed mercilessly. In that claustrophobic environment, he felt imprisoned in his incandescent cage, alone with his eyes. Gradually, he began to focus on that enclosed, oppressive space, transforming it into a different place: dark, cool, floating in a deep, blue infinity. Sixty years later, he is a sculptor whose work wrestles with the concept of what it means to inhabit the human body.

Gormley boarded at a Benedictine public school and travelled to Lourdes as a volunteer, all of which shattered his Catholic faith. After graduating from Cambridge, he joined the hippy trail, travelling through Turkey, Syria and Afghanistan to India: "the place where things started to make some sense." He spent two years studying Buddhism: "Passion for meditation took me to a place I’d already been to as a child." 

His experience in India planted the seeds for his early sculptures. Sleeping place (1974) is the silhouette of a man lying down in the foetal position, covered by a white cloth. "For two weeks I wandered around Calcutta. The streets were made up of noise, the suitcases, the car crashes, the food stalls on the ground, the rickshaws ... and in the midst of all that were these bodies just lying there, not moving, covered up and noone knew if they were dead or alive. Sleeping Place was my way of turning that experience into an object."

 

 Gormley 2 

Sleeping place (1974)

Since 1981, Gormley has been working with the body and choosing his as the nucleus for everything. For the next 15 years, Vicken Parsons, his wife, accomplice and only assistant, wrapped the artist's naked body in plaster mesh in different poses, leaving only a hole for his mouth, trimming it and then freeing him from the plaster casing. And so began Gormley’s artistic hallmark, an army of iron men who today populate the world from the English coast to the rooftops of Manhattan. These "bodycase" sculptures - of which Lost Horizon I (2008) is the piece featured in this exhibition, consisting of 24 figures all pointing in different directions from the walls, floor and ceiling, questioning the perception of what is above and what is below - evolved thanks to cutting-edge infrared technology and a custom-made computer program which allowed him to take his dimensions and postures even further, delving deeper into abstraction. Increasingly, schematic "men" began to emerge whose bones, muscles and skin were decoded into computer or industrial forms, physical pixels made of rusty iron, bricks of metal that, like Lego, constitute beings without a name, without an identity. These are the Slabworks (2019) in Room 1.

 

 Gormley 4 

Lost Horizon I (2008), Royal Academy of Arts, London
 

Gormley 3

Slabworks (2019), Royal Academy of Arts, London

 

Antony Gormley has just turned 70 and the Royal Academy is thus honouring his trajectory here. However, Gormley’s works, as open-air sculptures, grow with an amplifying force that pierces urban and rural landscapes like acupuncture needles: beaches, deserts, Italian palaces and industrial England’s chimneys ... The sculptor leaves his solitary men there, like a forest of questions, forcing us to understand that place in a very different way. In the words of Simon Schama: "They are actors, not statues."

 

Gormley 5

Another Place (1997), Crosby Beach, Merseyside, Great Britain


Gormley also wanted to give voice to those who did not have one - "One&Other" (2009) with 2,400 volunteers occupying the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square - and "Sculpture for Derry Walls" (1987) was his link to 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland. Two back-to-back figures in symbolically Christian cruciform form, cast in iron to withstand the impact of bullets, were placed at strategic border points between Catholics and Protestants: "As soon as the sculptures came down from the cranes, a crowd of young people huddled around them, spitting at them. A young man on my team flew at them with a hammer at lightening speed. I will always remember that moment. Those gangs burned our sculptures, hung tires from their necks and set them on fire. The next morning the remains of the scorched tyres looked like crowns of thorns."

 

Gormley 6

Sculpture for Derry Walls (1987), Derry, Ireland

 

A connection with the spectator has also led him to invite the public to collaborate on the creation of his work. "Field" (1990) is an ocean of small clay figures made in three weeks by a family of brick builders outside Mexico City: "Every time I've done "Field", I've used local people and materials. That time I gave them some very basic instructions: Take a piece of mud, shape it with your hands, make two incisions for the eyes and see what becomes of it, let it make its own shape, which will be unique. What turns out, or better said, what is freed when you give a group of people a common goal? The result is magical."

The first time he did "Field", there were over 1,000 figures. When he did "Field for the British Isles" (1993), the army of small mud men surpassed 40,000. "I tried to physically offer a voice to those who did't have one. I grew up in the 1960s, in an orderly world where ordinary people were gradually reaching positions of power. That's the spirit of "Field", filling up every last inch of a museum so the pleasant experience of being in a museum is transformed into a confrontation with the accusatory looks of thousands of eyes challenging us," Gormley explains.

 

Gormley 7

Field for the British Isles (1993), St Helens, Liverpool, Great Britain


In 1994, Gormley won the Turner Prize which brought him recognition and an infinite launch pad for taking on larger projects. "Angel of the North" (1998) is a 20m high totem pole of 200 tonnes of angel-shaped steel. Its deployed wings stretch as wide as a Jumbo jet’s. Its location, just off the busy A1 motorway near Gateshead, makes it one of the most viewed works of art in the world.

 

Gormley 8

Angel of the North (1998), Gateshead, Great Britain


The spirit of these works can be felt to vibrate throughout  the 13 rooms of the exhibition which also display Gormley's drawings and which, like a 21st century Leonardo da Vinci but tinged with blood, oil, earth and flaxseed oil, demonstrate a sculptor's obsession with drawing. They are like diamonds shooting out hard, fast and direct like arrows from the neurons of his ingenuity.

 

Gormley 9

Mould (1981), Private collection


This exhibition is a co-production between spectator and creator. The sculptures demand our physical and imaginative participation: we are obliged to bend down, crawl and lose ourselves among them. Also fascinating is the play on scale with works the size of the palm of one’s hand beside other colossal ones. "Clearing VII" (2019), composed of miles of coiled aluminum tubes tracing an arch between the floor and ceiling and wall to wall, is a "drawing in space" that envelops the visitor. "Host" (2019) fills a room with sea water and mud, evoking the depths from which life emerged. "Matrix III" (2019) is a huge dark cloud of rectangular steel grilles suspended from the ceiling. Although some of his new pieces are abstract, his reference point is always the human body. Da Vinci drew his Vitruvian Man in 1490: "Vitruvius established in eight heads the proportion of man and also that the distance from the chin to the forehead should measure the same as the hand," Gormley says as he moves towards the Matrix III mesh to demonstrate.

 

Gormley 10

Matrix III (2019), Royal Academy of Arts, London


On these last days of summer light, it is still possible to view Gormley’s “Sight” installations on the island of Delos. Like modern-day sentinels, twenty-nine of his iron men defend this floating rock in the middle of the Aegean, whose name means 'The Visible' after Zeus offered it to Leto, his mortal lover, to give birth to Artemis and Apollo. Today, 5,000 years later, sees the first intervention by an artist. His sculptures greet us from strategic points: the seashore, surrounded by poppies on the ground between pillars or as strange companions to the marble gods in the museum …. while having an emotional conversation through the millennia of time. According to Martin Robertson, a British specialist in Greek archaeology, it was on this island that a marble statue depicting a woman appeared in the middle of the 7th century BC from the shrine of Delos. In the skirts of the figure reads an inscription in verse telling us that it was dedicated to Artemis by Nikandre of Naxos. That was the start of monumental sculpture in Greece.

 

Gormley 11

Sight, (2019), Delos Island


But Delos is also inhabited by Gormley sculptures that are more in keeping with that other abstract canon of his - pixelated men, which are surprisingly integrated into what remains of the island's architecture today: catalogued ruins laid in rows of stone blocks by archaeologists. In this sense, it is an objective correlation of the digital age, in which information comes to us in bits that we reconstruct to create an image: "That was the original idea that coordinated the syntax of this exhibition, from these decoded bodies, like material shadows of a living body," says the sculptor.

 

Gormley 12

Sight, (2019), Delos Island


Like David Hockney, Gormley belongs to that group of artists who have dedicated part of their lives to the writing of a discourse on the History of Art. In the BBC documentary 'How Art Began' and with the emotion of an English thespian, the sculptor tours the Paleolithic caves of France, Spain and Indonesia in search of humankind’s first artistic trace and the answer to a question: what triggered in homo sapiens the need to leave their footprint in time? Thus, installations such as "Sight", or "Still Standing" (2011) from the Hermitage’s permanent collection, have allowed him to confront us with his premise using the dialogue of his oeuvre with classical statuary. For Gormley, from Greece to the 19th century there was a single discourse in sculpture: the idealization of the human body. He insists that today times are different, that his work demands the participation of the viewer, that his empty bodies must be filled out by our sensations. "Cave" (2019), the jewel in the Royal Academy’s crown, is a sculpture of architectural proportions, an enormous body transformed into geometric caves with an entrance and exit. What Gormley aspires to is that we enter it and live inside its stomach, its limbs like tunnels of light and feel the cold and anguish inside the head of this Hulk, bursting into steel buckets on the ground. "I try to give the new language of modernity to the body that was rejected earlier as something classical. What I want to do concerns the abstract body, the one that corresponds to the language of Malevich, Picasso... and from there to Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt." Gormley and the past are as a propulsion of his sculpture into the future: two sensations that merge into a single victory.

 

Antony Gormley
Royal Academy of Arts

Burlington House Piccadilly,

London W1J 0BD

Curator: Martin Caiger-Smith

21 September - 3 December 2019

 

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

 

- Gormley at the Royal Academy: a discourse in iron -                        - Alejandra de Argos -

Geumhyung Jeong is an interdisciplinary Korean artist with roots in the worlds of theatre, animation and dance. Her arrival onto the contemporary art circuit as we understand it is relatively recent and, in just five years, she has exhibited her work and presented her performances in such places as the TATE Modern and the Delfina Foundation in London, the Kunsthalle in Basel and the Hermès Foundation in Seoul. The themes that Jeong explores in her work resonate perfectly with the hot topics of contemporary art today but she does so from an outsider position that lends her an air of the ‘genuine ingénue’.

Contributing Author: Maira Herrero, 
MA in Philosophy

Maira

 

 

 

 

THE RYDER GEUMHYUNG JEONG SPABEAUTY MADRID 8 OCTUBRE 2019 G1A5629

 Spa & Beauty. Geumhyung Jeong. The Ryder Gallery

 

Geumhyung Jeong is an interdisciplinary Korean artist with roots in the worlds of theatre, animation and dance. Her arrival onto the contemporary art circuit as we understand it is relatively recent and, in just five years, she has exhibited her work and presented her performances in such places as the TATE Modern and the Delfina Foundation in London, the Kunsthalle in Basel and the Hermès Foundation in Seoul. The themes that Jeong explores in her work resonate perfectly with the hot topics of contemporary art today but she does so from an outsider position that lends her an air of the ‘genuine ingénue’.

As an artist focused primarily on performance, her exhibition ‘Spa & Beauty’, happening simultaneously in London and Madrid, is a reflection on this very concept. Whilst the London exhibition presents the idea of performance without her, in Madrid she performs the ‘demonstration’ and installation herself.

 

THE RYDER GEUMHYUNG JEONG SPABEAUTY MADRID 8 OCTUBRE 2019 G1A5708

 Spa & Beauty. Geumhyung Jeong. The Ryder Gallery

 

‘Spa & Beauty’ is a project commissioned by the Tate Modern in which the artist creates a slightly modified spa, perhaps one with that sense of “the uncanny” that Freud talks about. The installation consists of furniture and objects typical of a spa (a bathtub, a massage table, brushes, sponges, …), but Jeong gives it all a twist by including mannequin limbs and teleshopping videos downloaded from the internet that add other levels of meaning and aim to portray a society obsessed with physical appearance and wellbeing. The irony with which she represents the health and beauty industries does not go unnoticed. Defining herself as a collector, the artist presents us with all the objects in her collection, objects that usually come into direct contact with the skin or that allude explicitly to the body. Further to her criticism of the beauty industry, there is also a discourse around the human and the mechanical in her work. Two of the videos that form part of the exhibit reveal the process involved in the production of a brush, one of them handcrafted, the other made by machine.

Jeong defines her ‘Spa & Beauty’ performance as a 'demonstration', a little-used term in the art world, but very revealing in that it describes a performance that seeks to give us a close-up of work in a spa. It has, therefore, something of the theatrical about it in the way it makes us participate in a fiction and accept the 'illusion' of actually being in a spa. In that sense, it might be appropriate here to mention Baudrillard's notion of simulation to describe how the project alludes to a reality familiar to all of us but is in fact one born of simulation.

 

THE RYDER GEUMHYUNG JEONG SPABEAUTY MADRID 8 OCTUBRE 2019 G1A5691

 Spa & Beauty. Geumhyung Jeong. The Ryder Gallery 

 

Geumhyung Jeong is an incredibly versatile artist, each of her projects broaching new themes as she implements different strategies of staging and interpretation. For instance, in her performance piece ‘7 Ways’ at the Tate in 2017, she dazzled with her skill at moving around the 'stage'. She interacted with objects from her collection but, on that occasion, not only did she create the illusion that she was moving the objects but also that they were the ones moving her. In her 2019 ‘RC Toy’ performance at the Kunsthalle in Basel, she created robots to which she attached body parts. The result was creatures, half-man-half-machine, with which she interacted in an overtly sexual way. The remote control activating each robot was located in the erogenous zones of the other robots so that they were all interconnected and activated by her presence in a kind of robotic orgy.

This is a groundbreaking debut from The Ryder Gallery which has just opened its doors in Madrid as part of an ambitious project involving over five years’ work at its headquarters in London.

 

 THE RYDER GEUMHYUNG JEONG SPABEAUTY MADRID 8 OCTUBRE 2019 G1A5725                                                                                                            

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

- Spa & Beauty. Geumhyung Jeong. The Ryder Gallery -                        - Alejandra de Argos -

Let me start by highlighting what makes the 'Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits' exhibition such an exceptional project. Firstly, because never before has this subject been featured in a monographic exhibition; secondly, because this is the first ever time an exhibition of the great Venetian artist's work has been organised in Spain, which has only one of his paintings on display, here at the Prado; thirdly, because it comprises almost fifty works, some of them among his best; fourthly, because, although Lotto's main focus was, as the exhibit title would suggest, the genre at which he excelled ~ portraiture, a substantial complementary space has been added to showcase his uniquely personal and beautifully rendered religious painting; and finally, for its splendid presentation and staging at the reputable hands of Jesus Moreno. And as if all that were not enough, it is also worth mentioning with regards to the venue that this inauguration coincides with two other first-rate exhibitions, namely 'Rubens. Painter of Sketches' and 'In lapide depictum. Italian painting on stone 1530-1550", constituting a trio of internationally unmatchable calibre at the Prado.

Dr. Francisco Calvo Serraller, writing exclusively for Alejandra de Argos 
Professor of the History of Contemporary Art
Complutense University of Madrid 

Francisco Calvo Serraller 

 

 

 

 

 

 Lorenzo Lotto  

Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia (1530 - 1533). Oil on canvas, 96.5 x 110.6 cm. The National Gallery, London 

 

Let me start by highlighting what makes the 'Lorenzo Lotto. Portraits' exhibition such an exceptional project. Firstly, because never before has this subject been featured in a monographic exhibition; secondly, because this is the first ever time an exhibition of the great Venetian artist's work has been organised in Spain, which has only one of his paintings on display, here at the Prado; thirdly, because it comprises almost fifty works, some of them among his best; fourthly, because, although Lotto's main focus was, as the exhibit title would suggest, the genre at which he excelled ~ portraiture, a substantial complementary space has been added to showcase his uniquely personal and beautifully rendered religious painting; and finally, for its splendid presentation and staging at the reputable hands of Jesus Moreno. And as if all that were not enough, it is also worth mentioning with regards to the venue that this inauguration coincides with two other first-rate exhibitions, namely 'Rubens. Painter of Sketches' and 'In lapide depictum. Italian painting on stone 1530-1550", constituting a trio of internationally unmatchable calibre at the Prado. 

 

 Lorenzo Lotto 3 

Portrait of Andrea Odoni (1527). The Royal Collection Trust, London


Moreover, Lorenzo Lotto's biography and subsequent destiny of critical acclaim are a constant source of interest. A native of Venice itself whose exact date of birth is unknown but is estimated by experts to be around 1580, our grand master's training and career start could not have been more brilliant, having as he did rolemodels such as Giovanni Bellini, of whom he was reputedly a direct disciple, along with Giorgione and Titian but he was also influenced by Antonello da Messina and Albrecht Durer, a manifestation of the great significance and variety in the configuration of his own particular style.

His early days as a professional in Venice were met with notable success and the promise of great things to come but the stiff competition with other local masters such as Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, all of whom were endowed with a more pugnacious and business-minded temperament than his, left him with no other alternative than to seek his fortune outside the closeted enclave of the Republic's capital, in the comparatively minor cities of Veneto and neighbouring areas. In this way, Lotto managed to make ends meet with varying degrees of success and, as can often happen in the course of anyone's life, with the passage of time his star waned, only for him to end up as an oblate in Loreto, not knowing where else to live out his last days.  

 

 

 Lorenzo Lotto 2 

Portrait of a Young Man (1530 - 1532). Oil on canvas, 98 x 111 cm. Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

 

Then and now, the reality is that very few artists are able to make a living from their work alone and fewer still if we look back at the past because, until recently, neither were there many other options if luck wasn't on your side. In this sense, Lotto's own personal frustrations cannot be taken as exceptional and neither can the fact that at the time of his death he had not received the recognition he deserved. In actual fact, recognition of his memory and work had to wait until the 20th century when Berenson revised and raised the profile of the hitherto disdained painting of 15th century Italy but, ultimately, he didn't receive proper public acclaim until the latter stages of the 1900s. And in some ways, this widespread recognition of his oeuvre is very recent indeed, as demonstrated by this exhibition which, as previously mentioned, is only the first ever in Spain as well as being the first in the world to monographically showcase his portraiture, a genre to which Lotto made outstanding contributions. These are evidenced in the only painting of his owned by the Prado, a novelty at the time in Italy for depicting a newly-wed couple, as can be seen in the various heraldic elements. Obliged on this occasion to use a landscape format, Lotto continued to do so with individual portraits which gave the subject much greater spacial freedom and the possibility of encompassing a wider horizon. In any case, what is so extraordinary about the quality of Lotto's portraits is not limited just to their format. There is also an effect on composition, psychological aspects, his astute judgement as to the symbolic use of circumstantial details to identify the personality, rank and office of the sitter, the beautiful way he paints hands, among many others. Whatever the case, the result is that Lotto's portraits seem so modern that their impact is perhaps greater now than when they were painted because they give us the impression that their physiognomies and expressions are the same as ours. Whilst true that during the first half of the 16th century, at the height of Mannerism, this type of painting that we are so fond of today proliferated, and notwithstanding other brilliant portraitists of the time, Lotto stands out. There are a selection of his best and most well-known here at the exhibition, for instance Portrait of a Young man with a Lamp (c. 1506), Andrea Odoni (1527), Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia (c. 1530-33) and Portrait of a Young Man (c. 1530-32) but there are also others of equally high quality albeit not as popular as the aforementioned, from the very early Portrait of a Young Man (c. 1498-1500), still heavily influenced by Bellini but with eyes and mouth that show a profound psychological insight, up to and including Bishop Bernardo de Rossi (1505), Portrait of a Young Man (c.1512-13), Lucina Brembati (1520-23), Portrait of a Young Man with a Book (c.1525), Portrait of a Gentleman (1535?), Portrait of a Man with a Beard (c. 1540), Portrait of a Man with a Felt Hat (h. 1541) or Portrait of an Architect (c.1540-42), to mention but a few of many outstanding pieces. 

 

 Lorenzo Lotto 4 

Portrait of a Married Couple (1523 - 1524). Oil on canvas, 96 x 116 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

 

But in addition to this magnificent display of portraits, the exhibition also includes other genres in Lotto's repertoire and, in particular, his religious painting where delicate, stylised figures writhe in space as in a harmonious ballet, their body language dramatized in studiously-arranged twists and turns and the scene as a whole is wrapped in a chromatic sheen of glossy satin where colours contrast with each other in original and imaginative ways. This added bonus is an essential complement in a country like ours where the work of this Venetian painter is only being exhibited monographically for the very first time.  

 

Lastly, and in another contribution to the ensemble, there are display cases containing various textile and gold or silver objects that don't just illustrate the dress and jewelery of those memorialised in the portraits but also explain their function within the narrative, thereby demonstrating that we are not just viewing a presentation of Lotto's paintings, but rather we are seeing an interpretation of them, and in many cases a novel one at that.  It is interesting that, in this regard, the focus is on portraits where the subject is represented as an incarnation of the ideal of holiness, a burning issue at the precise moment in history when the ideological battle to control and censor images was at its peak.   

 

 Lorenzo Lotto 5 

The Assumption of the Virgin with Saints Anthony Abbot and Louis of Toulouse (1506). Oil on panel, 175 x 165 cm. Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Asolo

 

This exhibition, which after its run at the Prado will move on to the National Gallery in London, has been curated by Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo y Miguel Falomir, in collaboration with Mathias Wivel. All of them deserve to be congratulated on their splendid work, along with the layout and arrangement of the pieces, not forgetting the beautiful and informative catalogue which, in this case, is an indispensable complement to the exhibition.

 

                                                                                                (Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)  

 

 

- The wonderful rediscovery of Lorenzo Lotto -                                   - Alejandra de Argos -

This could be the beginning of a novel: Poseidonia, 5th century BC, and tragedy befalls a family from the local aristocracy. The lifeless body of their only child, a son initiated into Orphic rites, is returned to them from the Wars of Sybaris. The mother covers her son's eyes with Poseidonia's first roses in flower, their praises sung by Virgil for their perfume and twice-yearly blooms. The mother then lays her musician son's lyre, its soundbox a turtle shell, on his breast. As dawn breaks, the father leaves the city walls to commission the most opulent of burials for his son. He seeks out the most gifted painters, those able to create the most moving scenes ..... This article pertains to the story of a burial: an element as intrinsic to the human condition as our own mortality.

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian
 Marina

 

 

 

 

  Tumba nadador 

 

2018 marked the fiftieth anniversary since the discovery of the enigmatic Tomb of the Diver. Now on display at the Museum of Paestum in Campania, its 37-year-old archaeologist director Gabriel Zuchtriegel - yet another German director of an Italian museum - curates the Autumn exhibitions celebrating this ephemeris.

 

*******

 

This could be the beginning of a novel: Poseidonia, 5th century BC, and tragedy befalls a family from the local aristocracy. The lifeless body of their only child, a son initiated into Orphic rites, is returned to them from the Wars of Sybaris. The mother covers her son's eyes with Poseidonia's first roses in flower, their praises sung by Virgil for their perfume and twice-yearly blooms. The mother then lays her musician son's lyre, its soundbox a turtle shell, on his breast. As dawn breaks, the father leaves the city walls to commission the most opulent of burials for his son. He seeks out the most gifted painters, those able to create the most moving scenes ..... This article pertains to the story of a burial: an element as intrinsic to the human condition as our own mortality.

A tomb was - then and possibly still now - a sacred place where, as believed among initiates in the Orphic mysteries, the transmutation of death into resurrection, the moment when the soul was liberated from the body, took place. And for that to occur, a perfect setting was required. This is why Egyptian tombs concentrated all their magnificence and all their condensed artistry on the inside. This is why perfection was sealed up and hidden away. And this was because there was a mystery contained within them.   

 

In Ancient Greece, as a partaker in the mystery religions rather than in terms of its Olympian beliefs, the tomb also became a sacred place. They were a kind of magnificent time capsule, decorated almost to perfection, a little chamber that led to another state of being.  

 

On 13th June 1968, the Italian archaeologist Mario Napoli is carrying out excavations at a small necropolis about a mile south of the city of Paestum - the Ancient Greek city of Poseidonia - on the Gulf of Salerno in Southern Italy. As evening falls, he starts work on a fourth tomb that, when finally dug free from the earth, looks surprisingly intact. With the sun setting, the box is opened and, after 2,500 years of darkness, light floods the interior of the tomb once more, bringing some astounding paintings back to life.

 

 

Nadador

 

Slabs from The Tomb of the Diver, in their original positions

 

The four sides and cover of the sepulchre consist of five slabs of local limestone, while the base is dug into the ground. The slabs are neatly bonded together and form a chamber about the size of an adult male. All of the slabs are painted using the 'true fresco' technique but the fact that the one forming the ceiling is also painted is somewhat unusual. Mario Napoli sees for the first time the scene that will ultimately give the tomb its name: a young man diving towards the curling waves in the waters below. The Tomb of the Diver has just been discovered, the only extant example of Greek painting with figurative scenes from the Orientalizing, Archaic or Classical periods to survive wholly intact. Among the thousands of Greek tombs known of at this time (700 - 400 BC), this is the only one decorated with frescoes depicting humans. It is, in this sense, a revolutionary one. The great paintings of Zeuxis, Apelles and Parrhasius have only come to us through narrative tradition and historians but we have never seen them. They exist only in fragmentary form and, of course, in the richness of the amphorae.  

 

Inside the grave and near the body - probably that of a young man - are two objects: the shell of a turtle, once the soundboard of a lyre whose wooden casing had long since rotted away and an Attic lekythos vase in black-figure technique, as used around 480 BC, which helped to date the year of the tomb to around 470 BC. The lateral frescos surrounding the body depict symposium scenes of a traditional Ancient Greek banquet: bare-chested young men wearing laurel garlands reclining on sofas, partying, dancing, drinking wine, playing lyres and games and being in love.

 

 

La tumba del nadador

The Tomb of the Diver. North Wall (banquet scene detail)

 

However, it is the ceiling slab, the one facing the gaze of the dead man, that has been the still-unresolved focus of much contentious interpretation. It is this segment that encapsulates the mystery and the rivers of ink written in archaeological research: a scene bordered by a black ribbon with palmettes in each of its four corners. In the centre, a naked man suspended in the air, diving into the river below. On the right are three stone pillars, presumably his diving board, and on either side are the bare outlines of two trees. And then, nothing. Just the white background, nothing else.   

 

 

Tumba nadador

The Tomb of the Diver. Ceiling slab. 

 

In Ancient Greece, neither swimming nor diving were activities the elite indulged in. The swimmer depicted in this tomb, isolated against the sky, symbolizes - the jury is still out on all the hypotheses - the intensity of the moment of death. This man and his leap are the visual metaphor for the transition to eternity from earthly life.

At that time, Greece was living the tradition of its Olympian beliefs, with its bored, mountain-dwelling gods, impervious to earthly needs toying with, for pure entertainment, and torturing mere mortals. For them, the vision of life after death was extremely pessimistic. Without exception, without differentiation, without judgement on the righteousness of their previous life, the souls of all mortals were condemned to Hades, a dismal place where they eked out a miserable existence envying the living.  

 

However, around the time The Tomb of the Diver  was constructed, for those living in Magna Graecian cities, new ideas from other Eastern belief systems would come and go in their everyday lives as if by capillary action: the mystic or Orphic cults, for instance, whose occult rites were based on the hope for some kind of life after death. As Pythagoreanism and Orphism spread, only those who had been initiated through a series of secret rituals could aspire to these other-worldly hopes.

 

And it is precisely this aspect that makes our tomb so special: the metaphysical message it communicates through visual language. Because it is the case of The Tomb of the Diver that the paintings seem to be portraying the central ritual of initiatic, religious practices entailing a banquet in which, through orgiastic stimuli, a state of exaltation and mystical fervour is invoked in the participants. This state recalls the passion of the God Dionysus and his presence inside an animal that was ripped to shreds, its flesh and blood  consumed by Titans in a ceremonial banquet. The intense fervency attained enabled participants to feel the force of the soul within the body and this anticipated the experiencing of its liberation from the body which could only happen after death, once the soul had finally departed the body.

 

Incidentally, this idea of life after death was being propagated in Greece a full five centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, Judea. We have here an early precedent for Christianity that would seem to be its replica projected backwards. 

 

It is believed that our young man, who died long before his time, would have been an initiate of these rites. In his tomb, the image of death as a rapid passage through water would remain forever above him. And his body would be surrounded by scenes from a banquet that would never end and in which he would participate for all eternity, playing his lyre with his musician friends.

 

But who was the young man buried there? What kind of life had he led? How did his parents commission his tomb? What of the two artists who painted it? What did they do with their son's body on the days when the tomb's walls were being cut out of rock, plastered, dried out, chiselled to outline the drawings and then filled in with vivid colours? And again, why paint a magnificent tomb to be seen at the precise moment of burial only to seal it up immediately, never to be seen again?

 

An invisible image

 

An invisible image is a challenge. What happens when an image, painted 2,500 years ago never to be seen again, bursts onto our contemporary, traditional, cultural landscape where being comprehensible is the equivalent of being visible?

 

One thinks of other images in art history with encrypted messages, from Malevich's Black Square or the mysterious Romanesque frescos of San Baudelio de Berlanga to the prehistoric Altamira Cave bison and the inscriptions on the earliest Christian catacombs and Banksy.

 

Perhaps what's puzzling about The Tomb of the Diver is not so much the impossibility of deciphering its meaning but rather our attempts at coming to terms with the powerfulness of an image's intrinsic ambiguity.

 

The temples of Paestum and The Tomb of the Diver

 

On this October day, the grassy area surrounding the temples of Paestum is empty of visitors and full of autumn roses. The three Doric temples appear erect and severe in their golden Campania stone, about 90 kms from Naples and the shade of Vesuvius. The Temple of Neptune (460 BC), thus called but wrongly attributed to Poseidonia's protective divinity, is, for many scholars, the best preserved temple in Greek civilization. It is not easy to describe the powerful impact of seeing its facade, devoid of any decoration whatsoever, not even holes in the stone that might have allowed us to imagine there once being a statue clamped into its tympanum, nothing resembling the Pantheon or Phidias's statues of gods, horses, warriors, ..... This temple was conceived of to be bare and stern, even in its triglyphs and the metopes between. No goddesses on horseback. The tension is achieved solely by its monumentality, by the magic of its proportions, by its second row of intact columns, with its fluted pillars high as a forest and its orientation towards the East.   

 

 

The Temple of Neptune. Paestum

 

In the 8th century BC, the Greeks were sailing the Tyrrhenean Sea around the mining regions of the Etrurian coast to buy metal. They settled near Ischia and so began their campaign of colonisation. Around 600 BC, sailors from the city of Sibaris founded the colony of Poseidonia, making it one of the northernmost extremes of Magna Graecia. It was then conquered by the Lucanians and finally, in 273 BC, fell under Roman rule and was renamed Paestum. The discovery of Paestum came in 1752 when King Charles VII (the future Charles III of Spain) ordered the construction of a road which would cut across the city. From then on, European intellectuals doing the Grand Tour, amazed by how well-preserved the temples were, made it their reference point for classical architecture until Athens was added to the European cultural itinerary. It was specifically in Paestum that Greek architecture achieved supremacy over the Roman and where the Greeks regained their "tyranny" over Europeans enamoured with their monuments. Winckelmann (1758), Piranesi (1777), Goethe (1787), John Soane (1779) and almost all the great architects of the time came here to see, study and measure the purest of all Doric temples. In 1758, the architect commissioned to build the Pantheon in Paris, Jacques-Germain Soufflot, found inspiration in the temples of Paestum, making the Neoclassical style so popular in France it would end up replacing the Barroque.

 

National Archeological Museum of Paestum

Vía Magna Graecia, 918

Paestum

Italy

 

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

- Una imagen invisible: la tumba del nadador -                                    - Alejandra de Argos -

My flight touched down in Marseille on a sunny September morning and although my ultimate destination was Barjac, I couldn't help but make a small detour to visit the Château La Coste vineyards, a magical symbiosis of architecture, sculpture and natural landscape in the south of France. The complex's curator Daniel Kennedy was waiting there to show me the collection. The Tadao Ando Art Centre is a building conceived with the artist's signature elements in mind: smooth concrete, lines that are simple, modern and in tune with the vestiges of Japanese tradition, water, the dominance of light and an architectural design in perfect harmony with its surroundings. Then there's the magnificent outdoor collection comprising projects by the likes of  Louise Bourgeois, Richard Serra, Tracey Emin, Frank Ghery, Jean Nouvel and Jenny Holzer to name but a few, dotted all over the landscape.

 Author: Elena Cué

 

 La Ribotte foto Elena cue 

La Ribaute. Barjac. Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Elena Cué

 

My flight touched down in Marseille on a sunny September morning and although my ultimate destination was Barjac, I couldn't help but make a small detour to visit the Château La Coste vineyards, a magical symbiosis of architecture, sculpture and natural landscape in the south of France. The complex's curator Daniel Kennedy was waiting there to show me the collection. The Tadao Ando Art Centre is a building conceived with the artist's signature elements in mind: smooth concrete, lines that are simple, modern and in tune with the vestiges of Japanese tradition, water, the dominance of light and an architectural design in perfect harmony with its surroundings. Then there's the magnificent outdoor collection comprising projects by the likes of  Louise Bourgeois, Richard Serra, Tracey Emin, Frank Ghery, Jean Nouvel and Jenny Holzer to name but a few, dotted all over the landscape.

 

Chateau la Coste Foto Elena Cue  

Maman. Louise Bourgeois. Château la Coste. Photo Elena Cué

 

But that's not why I came to Provence. The whole point of my trip was La Ribaute so I quickly made tracks for Barjac, my goal. And what or who was it about this little town that had attracted me there? Well, none other than a certain Teuton, his legend and his very personal cosmology. This is a 200 acre estate containing over 60 massive barns, pavilions and greenhouses brimming with Anselm Kiefer's work all inter-connected via subterranean tunnels with caves, grottos, bridges, crypts and an amphitheatre. He has planted trees and vegetation, he has built trails, walls and fences. The La Ribaute project was begun and developed from the abstract idea of a vacuum. A vacuum that had to be filled.

 

Anselm Kiefer moved to Barjac in 1992 where he found, albeit with some reservations, the ideal space to build his own personal creative paradise. On one  of the esplanades in these 40 hectare grounds stands a crown of his iconic and enigmatic towers: "The Seven Heavenly Palaces" that reference the mystic, Hebrew narrative of our celestial ascension by means of the gradual loss of our material bodies and spiritual elevation until we reach the final palace where only our souls remain forever. These apocalyptic towers symbolise the notion of creation and destruction that so characterises the work of the artist, who tells me: "I destroy whatever I make all the time. Then I store the broken bits in containers and wait for their resurrection."

 

 Die sieben Himmelspalaste Barj ac photo by Charles Duprat 

The Seven Heavenly Palaces. Photo: Charles Duprat. (c) Anselm Kiefer

 

This amazing artistic complex has hardly ever been visited, not yet being open to the public, and my tour of it was a succession of unique sensations, beginning at dusk as I made my way to the old silk factory where Anselm Kiefer and his trusty assistant Waltreaud were waiting for me. His face tanned, his eyes lively and intense, his smile inviting me to embark on our visit, we set off for the nearby buildings. We walked along paths lined with flora typical of the region and along which were placed sculptures of his characteristic lead books, symbolic of knowledge, strewn over or piled up on large blocks of stone, almost as if at any moment a sorcerer might emerge from the depths of the forest in some feat of alchemy.

 

  Barjac Foto Elena Cué 

 Anselm Kiefer. Barjac. Photo: Elena Cué

 

What first impacts me is a greenhouse topped with a World War II-like airplane made of lead with dried sunflowers spouting from it. Kiefer cultivates them here from Japanse seeds that grow to seven metres high. As if in a laboratory, he also cultivates tulips and other plants he will later use as materials for his work. These spaces devoted exclusively to one piece are the ones that resonate the most. We continue on to the next pavilions housing installations, paintings and sculptures all with the Holocaust as their theme. Kiefer's childhood was marked by a silence around what had happened: "When I was young, the Holocaust didn't exist. Nobody spoke about it in the 60's." He could feel there was something missing, something hidden and when he found out what it was, Kiefer tells me: "I was so affected by Hitler I started studying the Holocaust. I wanted to know what it was all about. What happened at that time is so horrible it's hard to imagine it." This would become a vital theme in his work. 

In 1945, in the Black Forest, in the city of Donaueschingen where the two sources of the river Danube converge, Anselm Kiefer, one of the most prominant artists of our time, was born into a devastated Germany. While his mother was giving birth in the basement of a hospital, the family home was being blown to pieces by Allied bombs. The son of a Wehrmacht official, his childhood was marked by the authoritarianism of his father and a strict Catholic education.

Growing up in the ruins of a Germany that was destroyed and anxious to erase its tragic past awakened a profound interest in Kiefer to get to know about Judaism and the event that embodied archetypal evil - the genocide committed by Nazis. That catastrophe, so infinite, so boundless in its terror, so impossible to imagine let alone depict was to become the central strand in Kiefer's aesthetic and ethics. 

Barely an hour later, I returned to the main house. In a huge, white, rectangular room of grandiose dimensions, the emptiness was only filled by one white linen sofa, some curtains hiding a bed at one end and an industrial kitchen with a large table of rustic wood at the other. I immediately joined the others for a supper that went on for five hours. Kiefer talked about the sensation he gets on seeing his paintings in retrospect, namely, a certain perception of his work as never being finished. As an aside, he mentioned how difficult it was to transport his "The Morgenthau Plan"  from La Ribaute. This installation, housed in one of the pavilions, is the metaphorical conceptualization of the proposal masterminded shortly before the end of WWII by the US Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau. The plan consisted of the elimination of Germany's industries and its subsequent transformation into an agricultural country. In it, Kiefer explores that would-be rural landscape: the resurgence of flowers from the devastation before. He considered it to be pure propaganda: "You know, all they did was help Hitler with this plan. They calculated that between 10 and 15 million Germans would die of hunger. And Roosevelt didn't want this. Hitler listened to Goebbels and, as far as they were concerned, it was a godsend; they would have the perfect excuse to maintain the German state by warning its citizens about what would happen if they didn't fight on. Not long ago, I also saw something about the Marshall Plan and that was all propaganda, too. Did you know that?"

 

  Der Morgenthau Plan 0326 

The Morgenthau Plan. Barjac. Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. (c) Anselm Kiefer

 

The conversation went on so long that it got very late and I was invited to stay the night. The room, as with the rest of the building, was huge and somewhat intimidating as much for its dimensions as for the austerity of its minimalist decor. The following morning, we went to have a look at a series of the catacombs that are connected to each other like the creeping roots of a rhizome and to the pavilions above them at ground level. Before going underground, we went into the amphitheatre, which is the centrepiece of La Ribaute, as the artist was telling me: "The amphitheatre came about the same way a painting would. I had a large wall where I hung all my large paintings and I just thought, why not make a little grotto inside? So, I got hold of some containers and covered them with liquid cement and put them all together. The aim was just  to have a little alcove in that big wall. Then, we continued with another layer on top, and another, etc and it kept on working out like a drawing. I've no idea how it will end up ...". This construction, 15 metres high, consists of different installations in each of the rooms within the containers. In one of them, there are reels of film, made out of strips of lead, hanging from the ceiling and featuring photographs taken by the artist thirty years ago.

 

 

  Amphitheatre Barjac 

Amphitheatre. Barjac. Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. (c) Anselm Kiefer

 

From there, we took an underground route that was somewhat reminiscent of a stone Gruyère cheese and I was immediately stopped in my tracks. Accessed by a narrow cave, we had come face to face with a deeply disturbing room, its walls lined with lead, the floor deep in water and a single light bulb hanging from a cable attached to the ceiling. Kiefer told me this was the first ever room he had completed and asked me, out of curiosity, what I thought of the acoustics. I answered that I hadn't experienced any sound at all. I'd been stunned into silence by what I saw.  

 

 

 Lead room Barjac photo by Charles Duprat 

Lead Room. Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. (c) Anselm Kiefer

 

As we make our way through the grottos, our perceptions change continually, the artist disappears and we are transported to other times, other places. Through these subterranean passages, we are able to travel to the Palaeolithic age, to the tragedies of Ancient Greece, to the time of Christ and to Auschwitz. And so we arrive at another impactful room: "The Women of the Revolution", sixteen beds with puddles of stagnant water on their rumpled, lead sheets  giving the impression of skin or leather. This was the dividing line between the female interior and exterior that the artist uses as a metaphor for the immense inner power of women faced with the bravado of  men. The highlight of the room is on the wall opposite - a lead panel picturing Kiefer with his back to us, in a landscape that very much reminded me of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich's "Wanderer Above A Sea Of Fog". It brought to mind the Kantian concept of the sublime and the inability of our imagination to grasp something so inestimable and so totally exceptional.  

 

  Les femmes de la Révolution Barjac 

The Women Of The Revolution. Anselm Kiefer. Photo: Charles Duprat. (c) Anselm Kiefer

 

The tour over, I returned, even more staggered by the experience than before, to the main house to interview Kiefer. We talked at length over lunch during which time I discovered Kiefer's interest in science. He spoke with great admiration of the Spanish scientist Luis Alvarez-Gaume and his light particle teleportations to distances of tens of thousands of kilometres. "It's called teleportation. It happened to me and my grandmother. We used to think the exact same thoughts at the exact same time."

 

And we remembered Kant: "Every mention of the sublime has within it more enchantment than the phantasmagoric charms of the beautiful."

 

  (Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

 

 

- In the grotto of the Teuton. Anselm Kiefer in Barjac -                                    - Alejandra de Argos -

2019: The Year of Rembrandt. Amsterdam kicks off Holland's 350th anniversary celebrations for the Old Master with its exhibition "All The Rembrandts of the Rijksmuseum" which will then make its way to Madrid's Prado  as "Vélazquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer ~ Artistic Likenesses from the Spanish and Dutch schools". One would be forgiven for thinking the central gallery of the Rijksmuseum was less than sixty metres long because, on opening its panelled doors of leaded glass, our eyes are immediately drawn to the illuminated hand held out towards us by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. It beckons us from that distance away, making us want to step into the canvas with him as he gives the order for his company to begin their night watch through the streets of Amsterdam.

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian
 Marina

 

 

 

Vermeer Rembrandt

 

2019: The Year of Rembrandt

 

Amsterdam kicks off Holland's 350th anniversary celebrations for the Old Master with its exhibition "All The Rembrandts of the Rijksmuseum" which will then make its way to Madrid's Prado  as "Vélazquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer ~ Artistic Likenesses from the Spanish and Dutch schools". 

 

One would be forgiven for thinking the central gallery of the Rijksmuseum was less than sixty metres long because, on opening its panelled doors of leaded glass, our eyes are immediately drawn to the illuminated hand held out towards us by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. It beckons us from that distance away, making us want to step into the canvas with him as he gives the order for his company to begin their night watch through the streets of Amsterdam.

 

The central gallery of this neo-Gothic museum somewhat resembles the stem of a basil plant, with its lateral chapels branching off either side of the central aisle and housing the world's largest collection of Dutch Golden Age paintings. The visitor is thus forced to zig-zag between them while, at the very end, in the apse, as if an alterpiece, hangs Rembrandt's "The Night Watch", his controversial, secular, colossal painting of 1642.

 

From the very start of this visit, we are already getting a sense of something quite different from the mythological, religious and military scenes usually found in other collections of 17th century Dutch, Spanish and Italian paintings. Where are the heavens opening to reveal the glory of God, the Depositions of Christ, the Flights from Egypt or the Epiphanies? Where are Apollo and Daphne, Danae, Proserpine?  

 

Even before arriving at the Rembrandt gallery, several other pictures, oddly small in format, showcase another style of painting.  Theirs saw the establishment of a brand-new genre of painting, one that is striking not just for its relentless verism but also for its never-before-seen themes. Domestic scenes portraying an urban, bourgeois life and families inside their homes of oak furnishings, Delft tiles and kitchens bathed in light. And  their world of scenarios that are essentially feminine and intimate in nature ~ women standing alone, reading a letter or playing the harpsichord, cradling a baby, sweeping a room or putting on a pearl necklace, their faces lit by daylight from an open window. Scenes that almost seem to be happening on a lazy day off.

 

 

vermeer 9

Vermeer, Woman Reading A Letter (1663-64), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

Staggering numbers


There has been, perhaps, no other country ever where so many paintings have been produced in such a short period of time. It is estimated that between 1600 and 1700, up to 10 million paintings were produced in the Netherlands. Between 1650 and 1675, both Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) were active as well as at least half a dozen other top-notch painters such as Carel Fabritius, Gerard Dou, Gerard ter Borch, Frans Van Mieris, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch and Gabriël Metsu.

 

What made such prolific artistic production possible? What led the United Provinces to write a fundamental chapter in the history of art? An art which, incidentally, was at once so very localised yet so eternal? 

 

From a technical point of view, the theorist Karel van Mander, echoing Giorgio Vasari, confirms that Golden Age Dutch painting derived from 15th century Flemish painting, from the preciosity of Jan van Eyck's, Robert Campin's and Roger van der Weyden's paintings, still under the guise of religious scenes but also depicting the interior of contemporary homes, their fireplaces, chancellors' bibles, saints' clogs, the damask and fur of their garments and the lilies of archangels.

 

The artists' lives were, coincidentally, punctuated by highly dramatic, military and political events that did not, however, seem to have left any mark on their work. The 17th century was one of the bloodiest in history, its wars notorious for their long duration. The Netherlands, divided by Civil War into Calvinists and Catholics, fought the Spanish Crown in the same way it fought the sea which inundated its plains time and time again, filling its landscapes with windmills, dykes, canals and bridges. They were Master Naval engineers whose fleets managed to achieve dominance over most of the world's commerce. Until the 1640's, the Dutch empire extended from Brazil to Africa and from Indonesia or Japan to the east coast of North America, establishing its capital there as New Amsterdam, now known as Manhattan.      

 

In 1602, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was founded, its 160 ships sailing the oceans transporting and unloading extraordinary cargo ~ tonnes of blue and white Chinese porcelain, wood and grain from the Baltics, Persian rugs, sugar from Brazil, fruit from the West Indies, spices and pepper from Java, Sumatra and Borneo. Turkish sultans sent tulips and with them came 'tulipmania' which, in the 1620's, almost caused riots due to a price rise. A few absurd sales receipts still exist ~ luxury mansions paid out in exchange for a single bulb. It was the first speculation bubble in history.

 

Amsterdam and its port thus became the greatest trade centre in the north of Europe. A Stock Exchange was established there and is considered, after that of Antwerp in 1460, the oldest in the world. Founded in 1602 by the VOC, and the first to function like the modern stock market, its aim was to create funding for future commercial shipping. 

 

This global trade network created an elite clientele with abundant amounts of money with which to adorn their houses. The decorative arts flourished, as did the quest for luxury items and, above all, paintings which were to become the new status symbols. Gone the patronage of aristocracy and Church, it would be the bourgeoisie from now on paying the piper and calling the tune on the subject matter to be painted. And they wanted to see a reflection of their own lives, their hardships and dreams in those paintings. They wanted to feel recognised. Dutch art, artists, buyers and dealers were the catalyst for the future international art market, such as we know it today.    

 

 

 Vermeer 1 

Vermeer, The Art Of Painting (1666), detail showing a map of the United Provinces, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

 

Leapfrogs and bounds 


This is script being written and informing our progress through the galleries, providing context and background against which Vermeer in Delft  and Rembrandt in Amsterdam showcase their own particular way of painting. In the case of Vermeer, it would appear to be a natural progression from the mentality of his time. For Rembrandt, it was a giant leap forward. 

On a wall near "The Night Watch"  hang three tiny paintings that signal, from the outset, an ethereal calm in space and time. These are all three Vermeer paintings owned by the Rijksmuseum. "The Little Street" (1658) measures little more than fifty centimetres and is so lifelike it appears not to exist at all. It is as if there were a hole in the museum wall through which a real street scene in Delft can be glimpsed. Perhaps for this reason, it is said of Vermeer's art that it predates the realism of photography, the only artform to, centuries later, attempt to portray the very air surrounding figures in this way.  

 

  Veermer3JPG 

Vermeer, The Little Street (1658), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

"The Milkmaid" (1659) is dressed in Vermeer's favourite colours of yellow and ultramarine, intently pouring a fine stream of milk into a clay bowl. She looks as if she is not to be disturbed. The still life on the table with its crusty bread and specks of sunlight, the wicker basket and, most noticeably, the wall behind her bathed in light creating a shadow under the nail, the different colourations of whites marking a stain or, as in the corner, the ochre variations of damp combine to form an intense reality, small but perfectly-formed, vast and magical. The precision of tone is remarkable. An artist must, in short, have the gift of seeing everyday things in a different way to us. Creativity has to entail something like how to illuminate these ordinary things with a brighter light, with more concentrated attention, with a distinctly powerful charge. When Rembrandt paints a glass of wine, it ceases to retain its natural state of being a glass of wine and becomes, rather, part of an action. He beams theatrical light onto it, he sets it on a stage. Vermeer, on the other hand, isolates it, wanting a light just for this one glass, he grants it the virtue of being itself, unique, material and independent, in a moment of time that is motionless. Vermeer paints the time that flies between things.

 


 vermeer 8 JPG 

Vermeer, The Milkmaid (1659), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

In the years when Rembrandt and Vermeer were active, the world was engaged in a scientific revolution. New ideas were being touted about what it meant to 'see'. People had started to believe Nature was hiding a world invisible to the naked eye and that science should focus on researching it and finding out. There was a wave of empirical thought needing to back itself up with instruments able to measure Nature and allow us to see parts of the world that had been hitherto invisible. Hence, the 17th century saw the invention of the thermometer, the barometer, the telescope and the microscope. And its painters, determined to discover Nature and to paint it using an array of optical effects, went back to relying heavily on lenses and camara obscura devices. We do not know whether Vermeer used such techniques in his painting or not but what is certain is that he was familiar with the effects they produced and how light influenced how we see the world. He reproduced how it accentuates colour tonalities until they appear jewel-like, how it blurs or sharpens the outlines of figures, how it highlights where the touches of light brighten and polish whichever reflective surface the sun falls on.    

 

Vermeer painted "The Milkmaid" some 16 years after Rembrandt started work on "The Night Watch". Both paintings were a pictorial revolution but they were poles apart. To simplify Svetlana Alpers' study of 17th century Dutch painting, one might say that Vermeer represents the pinnacle of descriptive painting and its debt to observation whilst Rembrandt uses narration and historical themes as a pretext for injecting a certain wildness into his painting as the key to expression, action, gesture and the innermost recesses of the soul. His studies of light and matter are merely a means by which to paint the depths of pain, loneliness, failure, power, blindness or life just before death.   

 

 

 vermeer 4 

Rembrandt, The Prophetess Anna (Rembrandt's Mother) (1631), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

Ten years, ten days


In a documentary about the last years of Rembrandt's life, Simon Schama describes a scene. It is 1885 and a young artist visiting the Rijksmuseum stops dead before a painting, his eyes transfixed, breaking into a feverish sweat as he gazes at the adored work. "I would give ten years of my life if I could simply sit and meditate, with a dry crust of bread, for ten days looking at it." So what was it about "The Jewish Bride" that so mesmerised the young Van Gogh? Days later, he would write that Rembrandt had painted it with "a hand of fire". Schama interprets the impact on Van Gogh as that of any masterpiece ~ it takes aim directly and viscerally. Van Gogh was another painter who took brushstrokes to their most physical extreme and this final work of Rembrandt's left him spellbound.  In it, the Old Master, by now penniless and at death's door, depicts the physical incarnation of love. Its whole meaning is that of touch and caress. "The Jewish Bride" is a symphony of four hands, those of a couple. A man's hand on his wife's heart, the woman's hand touching this hand, a man's hand protectively around his wife's shoulder ... 

 

Rembrandt rushes this final painting with the rage of his materials. The sleeve he paints here is not easily explained and one would need to be standing, as Van Gogh did, right in front of it.  The sleeve is a physical crust in dozens of shades of gold, a mass of pictorial density that has a whole world of matter embedded in it: pieces of egg shell, crushed glass, mud, silica, ... The Old Master is acting on the painting the way the likes of Pollock, Freud and Kiefer would act on theirs centuries later ~ painting emotions with their materials. 

 

 rembrandt 2 

Rembrandt, The Jewish Bride (1662), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

 

"The Jewish Bride" features in the exhibition, as does "The Night Watch" with its outstretched hand, along with the whole astounding collection - the world's largest - of Rembrandt's canvases, drawings and etchings owned by the museum. Nevertheless, what makes this exhibit unique is something else. It is, essentially, about finding oneself in the presence, just a few feet apart, of two genius but contrasting artists. In and out of Rembrandt, on to Vermeer, retrace our steps back to Rembrandt and ..... start all over again. As Simon Schama said about them: Vermeer versus Rembrandt ~ crystallization versus emotion.

 

 

Rembrant

Rembrandt, The Night Watch (1642), Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

 

All the Rembrandts at the Rijksmuseum 
Rijksmuseum
1070 DN Amsterdam
Curator: Jonathan Bikker
15 February ~ 10 June 2019

 

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

 

- Rembrandt versus Vermeer -                          - Alejandra de Argos -

The ending of Paolo Sorrentino's film The Great Beauty is one long, slow take over the River Tiber. The aerial camera rolls, at bird's eye height, from one bank to the other, flying over couples out for a summer stroll, or sometimes at one with the channel of water, crossing through the dark eyes underneath bridges or resting on streetlamps lit for a Roman sunrise. The very last scene in this serene finale takes us up close to the Sant’Angelo Bridge. Before the screen fades to black, Sorrentino abandons us on one of the angels that Bernini ideated to decorate this bridge connecting the Vatican with the Tiber. And from there, we call to mind what this city of popes, this epicentre of the 17th century world means for us as we marvel at the works of a unique man with the Eternal City always on his mind.

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian
 Marina

 

 

 

 Bernini 

The Rape Of Proserpina (detail), 1621-22, Borghese Gallery, Rome

 

The ending of Paolo Sorrentino's film The Great Beauty is one long, slow take over the River Tiber. The aerial camera rolls, at bird's eye height, from one bank to the other, flying over couples out for a summer stroll, or sometimes at one with the channel of water, crossing through the dark eyes underneath bridges or resting on streetlamps lit for a Roman sunrise. The very last scene in this serene finale takes us up close to the Sant’Angelo Bridge. Before the screen fades to black, Sorrentino abandons us on one of the angels that Bernini ideated to decorate this bridge connecting the Vatican with the Tiber. And from there, we call to mind what this city of popes, this epicentre of the 17th century world means for us as we marvel at the works of a unique man with the Eternal City always on his mind. 

 

 Bernini 1 

 Sant’Angelo Bridge, Rome

 

Rome is currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of the re-opening of the Borghese Gallery with an exhibition dedicated to Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), the last of the great, universal masters who made Italy the artistic heart of Europe for over 300 years. Not only was he the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, he was also an arquitect, painter, dramatic author, and, above all, the director general of papal Rome, a Rome that would be required to endure until the present day and to remain the most grandiose show of urbanism ever attempted. Bernini served under eight popes in this most Baroque of cities, a style that grew out of the triumphal catholicism of the Counter-Reformation. By 1600, Italy had already gone through many uneventful centuries when suddenly, in the space of a hundred years, it becomes more active than ever before. But why and how does Italy embody such artistic genius in its most absolute form time and time again? What is the mystery surrounding this small Mediterranean peninsula located between Spain and Turkey? What is its secret recipe for churning out artists of calibre from Giotto to Modigliani? What is the link between politics, the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation?

Let's take a closer look at the ten angels sculpted by Bernini between 1668 and 1669 when his entire oeuvre was dedicated exclusively to works that were full of emotion. The windswept Sant'Angelo Bridge angels are disconsolate between the clouds above and the solid, cylindrical Sant'Angelo Castle, with a black angel at its pinnacle, as a backdrop. In his latter years, Bernini, more than ever before, used the movement of robes such as theirs as a language with which to convey feeling.

The Sant’Angelo Bridge was built to connect the two banks of the River Tiber in the 1st century AD. In the Middle Ages, it gave access to the Vatican City. Since the 17th century, Bernini's sculptures have left the pilgrims crossing it open-mouthed with wonder. It is a matchless means of approach into the oval arms and colonnades of St Peter's Square, the bronze Baldechin ceiling, the spiritually-awakening Roman centurian Saint Longinus who had speared the crucified Jesus, the Throne of St Peter symbolic of the new Ecclesia Triumphans (Church Triumphant)  and so on.

 

 Bernini 2JPG 

St Peter's Basilica and Square, Vatican City, Rome

 

In the 17th century, the power of Rome and its popes was unbounded. The Catholic Church, despite having lost some of its territories, gained a renewed sense of triumph after saving itself and its dogma from herecy. The new popes converted their desire for power into a spiritual empire, believing themselves the heirs of Roman emperors. St Peter's was their work and Bernini their right-hand master artist for 57 uninterrupted years. When our young sculptor, not yet 30 years of age, received and accepted Pope Urban VIII's commission to complete St Peter's, it was a challenge and a feat that, one could say, surpassed that of replacing the Twin Towers in New York after 9/11.

 

 Bernini 3 

  David (detail), 1623-24, Borghese Gallery, Rome

 

Bernini at the Borghese Gallery

Adding to Cardinal Scipione Borghese's already unrivalled collection, his eponymous gallery, set amongst gardens, lemon trees and fountains between Popolo Square and Mount Pinzio, is currently exhibiting almost all the paintings ever attributed to Bernini. Also on display and facing each other are his two bronze Crucifixions which are both normally housed outside Italy, one in Madrid's Escorial Palace and the other in Toronto.  But, more especially, there are his greatest busts ~ the first and second versions of Scipione Borghese and that of Constanza Bonarelli.

 

 Bernini 4 

Bust of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, 1632, Borghese Gallery, Rome

 

Bernini brought about a total transformation in the sculpted portrait, taking it out of Renaissance immortality and breathing new life back into it. He was a prodigious craftsman who learnt the trade from his sculptor father. He never attended school, never studied Latin and, since childhood, had escaped from his chores and work in Santa Maria Maggiore to what was his one true place of learning ~ the Vatican Museums. There, he would study works such as the Belvedere Torso  or the Apollo and draw out his first sketches. However, in addition to his talent as a draughtsman and his technical mastery, Bernini's head also harboured the "concetto", the idea or the concept. It did not matter whether it was for an opera set or a village square. One of the "concetti" that obsessed him was to challenge his materials and make them exceed their limitations. To work at the whiteness of the marble until it appeared coloured. To invent unruly manes of hair speckled with shadows or deep beards like foam on the ocean waves, trepanning and chiselling away at his pale materials, the hands of Gods sinking into the flesh of a nymph or tears running down a cheek ... in such a way that he aspired to imbue cold, inert stone with movement and life.  

 

 Bernini 5 

Apollo and Daphne (detail), 1622-25, Borghese Gallery, Rome

 


Letting the city yield its mysteries

In Alejo Carpentier's preface to Love For the City, he writes: “To roam a city is to retrace it, deconstruct it and look at it until it yields up its mysteries." This exhibition also offers us an exciting second dimension whereby we discover Bernini's signature stamp throughout the rest of Rome via the ecstasies of his sculpted saints in church chapels, in the bronze stolen from the facade of the Pantheon to construct the Baldequin ceiling, in the heraldic bees from the Barberini family's coat of arms that embellish gods of mythology and funeral monuments alike, in his fountains with naked Neptunes stepping out of shells or his elephants carrying obelisks ....  

 

 

 Bernini 6 

The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Cornaro Chapel, Santa María della Vittoria Church, Rome

 

And finally, in the Piazza Navona, still as it ever was today, is the palatial home where Cardinal Giambattista Pamphili was living in 1644 when he was elected Pope Innocent X. There was much commentary at the time about his wish not to move into the Vatican, a remote place on the opposite banks of the Tiber that horrified him with its identikit salons and sacred museums. He wanted to stay here in Rome proper, in this square that had welcomed carriages and horses and the whole Roman spectacle for 16 centuries. The Piazza Navona rose out of the Circus Agonalis, Domitian's stadium built in AD 85 and changed name from Agone, to Navone and eventually Navona. Innocent X decided to advance the prestige of his already powerful family by enlarging their palace and revamping the square. After many a trial, tribulation and false start, Bernini was chosen and began his modelling of the Fountain Of The Four Rivers. Often, when strolling through this piazza by night, one might imagine the Innocent X of Velazquez's portrait, with his critical, calculating eyes looking down from a high window, at the end of the long gallery frescoed by Pietro da Cortona and which, at night, even today, remains lit, as if forcing us to remember him. From here, the pope would supervise Bernini, watching as his work took shape ~ the palm tree bent double by the wind, the Statue of the Moor wrestling with a dolphin, the rock that a stubborn Bernini wanted removing from the ground in order to then somehow drill into it and, as if by magic, make it anchor an obelisk in place. There also, in this night of reminiscences, are Francis Bacon's 40 plus versions of Velazquez's portrait and the video in which Jeremy Iron's inimitable voice reads the Irish-born artist's words: "I feel hungry for life and that hunger has enabled me to live. I eat, I drink ... until the emotion of creation surges. I believe art is an obsession for living."

 

 

 Piazza Navona 10 stitch 
 
 
 
Fountain of the Four Rivers (detail), Piazza Navona, Rome 

 

 

 Dialogue in a Vatican room

It is also said that “Art follows money” so questions about patrons and power are bound to come up. What is happening today in the realms of the art market? Perhaps even asking would be like putting one's foot in the serpentine hair of Bernini's Medusa. While waiting to enter the Vatican Museums, we remember Damien Hirst's 2017 behemoth of an exhibition in Venice that threatened to raise the roof of the Grassi Palace, home of the Pinault Collections. It all left one a little cold. Today, however, Laocoon and His Sons  awaits, as do works by Michelangelo and Raphael ... and a room in which we will be mesmerised by Caravaggio's Deposition of Christ, that vertical painting descending from the crown of Mary Magdalen's head in a straight line direct to Jesus' lifeless hand. Under the cornerstone of the tomb there is only darkness and abyss.    

 

 

 Bernini 7 

A Bernini angel in front of Caravaggio's Deposition of Christ, Vatican Museum, Rome

 

What is a Masterpiece?  wondered Kenneth Clark in his barely 40-page booklet of lecture transcriptions. The answer? It is art that, having entered the mind of a genius in a moment of enlightenment, is capable of giving us either or both butterflies and a punch to the stomach. Caravaggio, from his space on the wall, establishes a dialogue with the Bernini angel in the middle of the room. A kneeling angel, it was once the mold for a Vatican alterpiece and the iron rods that form his wings are exposed to view, having lost the plaster that used to cover them. Likewise, the tightly-packed bundles of straw that shaped his arms under a layer of clay. He is one angel prefiguring another. And a butterfly punch to the stomach. 

 

 

(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin) 

 

 

- Bernini's Rome: For Love Of The Eternal City -                                   - Alejandra de Argos -

 
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