Category Archives: Baroque

Bandits, Wilderness & Magic (Salvator Rosa) – Autumn 2010 – Dulwich Picture Gallery

Salvator Rosa’s paintings are old style, the type of pictures that you imagine hanging in a musty museum, or in the hallway of a fading English country house. Ask a non art person to imagine an ‘Old Master’ and the pale colours, lack of visual clarity and the inexplicable narratives of some of Rosa’s weakest paintings might be a useful template. In fact, ask an art fan about a dull day at the gallery, and Rosa might well feature.

Yet Salvator Rosa remains appealing, particularly in England. It’s partly because the idea of Salvator Rosa fascinates, more so than his actual oeuvre. He is a painter with a strong literary bent, a noble outsider, a proto-Romantic with a love for dramatic countryside. These are the kind of the things that appeal to a certain English mentality.

Additionally, his biography reveals him fighting desperately to be an artist, and to be an artist in a sense that is familiar to contemporary eyes, i.e. someone who allies their creativity with their independence and integrity; someone who defines themselves as an individual, rather than simply turning out soulless work for philistine patrons.

The plots which fill his paintings reflect this well. The storylines themselves are full of invention dramatic gestures and emotions – the philosopher Empedocles, for example, throwing himself into a cavernous Etna

Picture 2.png
The Death of Empedocles, 1665–70, Eastnor Castle, Ledbury

Yet in their execution they lose much of the drama that Rosa wanted to convey. The classical nature of seventeenth-century easel painting, with its demand for rational explanation of the actors in a scene, mitigates against Rosa’s sense of drama. Rosa’s personal instincts were much more Caravaggesque; but his style of painting was inherited from the much more classical school of seventeenth-century easel painting (as exemplified by the cool, rational oeuvre of Poussin). It’s this contradiction that so undermined what Rosa wanted to achieve.

Picture 1.png
The Death of Attilus Regius, 1652

The Death of Attilus Regius is certainly a dramatic conceit. The story concerns a Roman politician being placed in a barrel studded with spikes before being rolled down an obliging hill to his exceedingly painful death. A Carvaggesque treatment would have involved an intense focus on the central character, closing in on his stoic (or maybe not so stoic) acceptance of the pain about to be endured. But Rosa steps back and includes a host of other figures – horsemen, assistant workmen, ancillary spectators – and provides a calm, reflective skyscape, widening the panorama of the painting. The result it that there is too much distance between spectator and the painting’s central character. Any anguish or acceptance on the face of Attilus Regius is lost in a more generic, melancholy reflection.

But that’s not to say that Rosa’s paintings are not interesting. You just need to approach them from a different angle. He avoids so many of the cliches of seventeenth century Italian painting, the softened angels, the reductive piety and instead travels down entirely different avenues of the imagination.

The pressure to invent created some awfully strange paintings, almost surreal in the metaphorical complexity.
His enthusiasm for taking well-established genres (history painting and landscape) and then injecting them with his own imaginative distortions produce unlikely works of art.

WitchesWitches at their Incantations, c.1646, National Gallery, London

The National Gallery’s Witches is a strange painting, a nocturnal landscape filled with disfigured outsiders, with little rich patches of colour shining out against the darkness. The painting is the flip side of Claude’s sun dappled perfections. With magic, death and disfigurement, Witches at their Incantations could be seen as a stab in the eye of religious orthodoxy. Yet I suspect it never induced really induced fear or indignation in the seventeenth century mind, but rather, just as it might today, curiosity and pity. The figures are certainly evocative, but the any evil intent is diminished. The monsters are exaggerated and fantastic, the saggy woman in the centre seems sad, the plotters on the left oblivious to any spectator, and the gaping beast seems to be rather pantomime in its expression. It’s an engaging and unusual painting, but the effect is one of humour rather than fear.

Picture 4.jpg
Soldiers Playing Dice, c.1656 (?), Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Picture 4.png
Lucrezia as Poetry, 1641, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

It’s perhaps in the portraits of individuals that Rosa approaches the grandeur the craved. They allow Rosa to focus on the sitter, and thus by removing the poetic details and environments that intrude in the other paintings, the sitters’ characters shine through. The Soldiers Playing Dice stands out, particularly the brooding figure, replete with glinting silver helmet, overseeing the game with philosophical intent; his noble contemplation rather at odds with his rather desolate surroundings. The allegorical portrait of Poetry also contains not seen elsewhere, her rather haughty, precise gaze possibly reflecting the difficulty Rosa had throughout his career, of attracting, maintaining and fulfilling his artistic muse.


1 Comment

Filed under Baroque, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Rosa

Van Dyck and Britain – Tate Britain – Spring 2009

The crucial painting in Tate Britain’s excellent Van Dyck and Britain show isn’t a Van Dyck after all. Robert Peake’s Henry, Prince of Wales and Sir John Harington in the Hunting Field stands proud but confused in the very first room. The absurd boy in a hunter’s body, the pistachio green clothes, the misshapen limbs, the angular style, the cadaver of the stag hanging awkwardly at the bottom of the canvas, the miniature crests swinging on twigs: Peake’s magnificent yet deeply flawed British school painting represents everything Van Dyck’s majestic style would eliminate over the course of the seventeenth century.

For the connoisseur and the art historian this is a brilliant exhibition. It shows how British art became European. How the stiff Dutch and oblique British painters of the sixteenth century gave way to the flowing, regal style of the seventeenth. How we got from the Cholmondeley Sisters to Kneller, Lely and beyond.

But it’s more than just transformation in the history of art. Van Dyck developed not just a pictorial manner, but a whole visual concept of nobility and royalty emanated from his workshop. The portraits of Charles I would become a touchstone for depicting kings and queens, or indeed for imbuing any sitter with a sense of majesty. And because Van Dyck has been so influential, because we are so used to a certain type of regal portrait, it is Peake’s painting that leaps out (here compared against Van Dyck’s painting of the future Charles II)

Robert Peake, Henry, Prince of Wales and Sir John Harington in the Hunting Field, 1603, Metropolitan Museum, New York

Young Charles II
Anthony Van Dyck, Future Charles II as Prince of Wales, c.1637-8, Private Collection

And just as Van Dyck canceled out a whole aesthetic, removing not just the painted stiffness, but he clarified what a painting is, a recording of the visualised world which suspended disbelief.

So in Peake’s canvas, there still remain the artificial elements which would leave a viewer to question its visual authenticity. The studded colouration on the saddle, giving the canvas a tactile presence, the two crests dangling from the trees or the text at the bottom left or etched on the trees. Such devices were relics of a mode of visual communication which thought not of painting as simply representing the visual world but providing a more heterogeneous mode of communication, which documented abstract values in more concrete fashion.

In Van Dyck’s oeuvre just about any device which distracts the illusion of verisimilitude is eliminated; the Fleming has such belief in the rhetoric of his style that he is not need to bolster the message of majesty with other symbols and icons. The paintings speaks for itself. And once Van Dyck had made this transformation Britain, or perhaps more correctly England, could no longer be insulated from southern as well as lowland Europe.

How did he do this?

Anthony Van Dyck,Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart, c.1638, National Gallery London

Van Dyck creates sitters that are effortlessly relaxed. The splendid clothes (probably done by assistants as well as Van Dyck) show an absolute mastery of the textures of silk and satin – close-ups of trousers and skirts form their own abstract symphonies.

Detail of Stuart brothers painting above

Each item is unsullied and loudly declares that their wearers need not work nor labour.

William Killigrew, 1638, Tate Britain

Emotions are calm and restrained, showing the sitter’s absolute control of any internal sentiment and often stand in contrast to the more tempestuous weather in the background (for example the portrait of William Killigrew) And while there are dark greens and browns in the background, the lead characters are illuminated by a clean, pure light.

Details of noses

And with the poses themselves, the way the sitters organise themselves within the space around them, that each characters asserts his regal bearing. Van Dyck’s characters are often (although not always) haughty in their attitude, carrying their arrogance before them. The gaze of the viewer is disdained. Sitters either look askance, bearing acknowledging a spectator’s presence, or simply look through the viewer. This is no level playing field; the spectator is clearly in the presence of superiors The phrase ‘looking down your nose’ seems a perfect fit for Van Dyck’s sitters. The fingers too are worth noting, long graceful digits that add to a sitter’s elegance.

Details of fingers

Yet all the while that Van Dyck was concocting the new regal approach, the English political scene was fermenting – the Civil War would explode in the year of Van Dyck’s death. Does the exhibition blindly ignore all the fault lines cracking open in English society, the gaping ideological differences which would result in twenty years of trauma? Well, in a sense yes. There is little or no mention of politics in the labels, and there is no contextual visual documentation to place Van Dyck in the society in which he worked. We learn nothing about this history. But at the same time, Van Dyck gave the contemporary curator very little to work with. Van Dyck’s visual world, entirely focused on the world of the cavaliers rather than the roundheads, offers no indication of the friction and strife that would follow. Is that really a surprise? Patrons did not commission paintings that reflected doubt. I suppose the political interpretation is in the very absence of politics in Van Dyck’s oeuvre, showing a mindset that was desperately trying to close itself off and develop in splendid isolation. The great antagonisms of the Civil War were everything Van Dyck’s leisured, majestic world was not.

1 Comment

Filed under Baroque, Tate Britain, Van Dyck

Velazquez, National Gallery

Exhibition held in Winter 2006

The little catalogue handed out to visitors at the National Gallery’s Velázquez exhibition was at pains to chart the painter’s ascent to artistic genius. Not only were the breathtaking leaps in ability mentioned but also the youthful slips and errors defects that accompanied this climb. “Although they are endowed with great presence,” it say speaking of the early Adoration of the Magi, Velázquez cannot yet relate a convincing space around them.” It’s almost as if the aesthetic merit of each canvas could be determined by Velazquez’ age at the time he painted the work in question.

Such a thesis may be tenable in the ultimate Velázquez exhibition, with every one of his glittering jewels exposed in some fabulous uber-gallery. But what struck me more about the collection of paintings on show at the National Gallery was that the artist, whilst working within a broad familiar approach (some very familiar, others largely unknown, some very obviously absent), was keen and able to explore different paths, exploring different manner of painting over time. The dark, metallic colouring of An Old Woman Cooking Eggs contrasts with the washed-out pastiness of Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob; portrait styles subtly adjust themselves – the fleshy, mottled jowls of the caustic poet Luis de Góngoray Argote; the soft-focus view of the haughty collector Camillo Massimo; or the cold, precise intimacy afforded the nun Jerónima de la Fuente.

Velázquez, Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob, 1629-30, El Escorial, Madrid.

Velázquez, Portrait of Camillo Massimo, 1650, The Bankes Collection, London.

Rather than delineate a smooth trajectory towards the glories of Las Meninas and the other late portraits, Velázquez seems to have zig-zagged. This makes him a more interesting painter for me, not less.

Velázquez, Detail of Apollo at Forge of Vulcan, 1630, Prado, Madrid.

Velázquez, Detail of Mars, 1638, Prado, Madrid.

One can look at different styles in Velazquez’s paintings. One can also draw much from the incredible variety of body-sizes in the exhibition – how the painter manipulated the body’s dimensions and appearance to provide added magnification of the sitter’s character. So we see the petite frames of the unsuspecting princesses, their fragile innocence already ruined by their exposure to the mechanics of royalty; the deflated sagginess of Mars, God of War contrasting with to the trim, muscled bucks working in Vulcan’s forge. Don Balthasar Carlos, a youth gilded with adulthood before his time is hoisted up on swollen horses, his frame expanding outwards on each canvas, dressed up in clothes and concepts that no child should have to face. Or the huge balloon-like frame of the courtier Don Pedro de Barbernana y Aparregui, puffed up by the large collar and jacket that seemingly holds a tumultuous body in place. And of course the tall elongated portraits of the regal but apprehensive Philip IV. In these, and with many other of Velazquez’s portraits of noblemen, the head almost touches the upper part of the frame, and the feet the lower. So the viewer, when observing a portrait correctly hung, sees the royal personage stretch below and far above him – a king of truly grand stature.

The continuing appearance of dwarves and jesters allows Velázquez to provide an additional corporeal perspective. Here were people of actual low or misshapen stature being represented next to those whose dimensions Velázquez was rearranging in pigment. So while Velazquez’s manipulation of size allowed him a certain freedom in how he visually expressed his sitters, the juxtaposition with the miniature or the crippled allowed him to emphasise the reality or truthfulness of this situation. ‘My sitters are all different shapes and sizes, because this is how reality is,’ he seems to say. As with the best artists, Velázquez mimics not the external world nor fabricates an idealised, perfect world, but fashions a glorious space somewhere in between.

Velázquez, Portrait of Abbess Jerónima de la Fuente, 1620, Private Collection.

And then there’s the Nun – Abbess Jerónima de la Fuente, submerged in intensity. The lined, suspicious face, with two piercing dark eyes, wrapped in the tight folds of her off-white skullcap. A small rope clasping the folds of her cloak in place. The veined, pulsating (and huge) hand cradling the bible. Further down, a knotted rope slips out, a small and almost unnecessary reminder of her Franciscan ideals. She is a painted personification of the religious super-ego, ready to take the harsh, disapproving line at the merest hint of disobedience. Indeed, there’s a knowing weariness on her face. She has seen and she expects disobedience.

And perhaps most auspicious of all is Jero’nima’s hand, tightly clasping the crucifix, not with reverence or piety, but as one would hold a hammer. The beam of the cross is pushed upwards (as if to give added purchase) and the curved banner that issues from Jero’nima’s neck could equally describe the trajectory that this crucifix/weapon will follow. The text along the bottom, presumably added by another hand, contributes to the power of the painting as well. A ceaseless, inexorable flow of words, pushed around by her folds of her cloak. Even with painted words, the Abbess Jero’nima de la Fuente can dominate the shape of things. Bonum est prestolari cum silento salvatare dei reads the motto above – very (very) roughly, “it serves you well to speak to God in silence”. The tight-lipped Abbess will strike at the merest hint of noise.

Another interesting question this exhibition of the Spaniard’s paintings raised – does Velazquez’ difficulty in presenting comprehensive narratives work to his advantage? Does that fact that storylines are rarely clear in his paintings give the characters added psychological depth? For you’re never quite sure what story Velázquez is trying to convey. While he shares with other Catholic painters of the era a fascination with intense psychological states, there is none of the insistence on a bland, unambiguous storyline that is to the detriment of painters such as Guido Reni, Guercino or Murillo.

It’s the early paintings in particular, gathered together in the first room for the National Gallery exhibition, that focus attention on this question. Characters don’t engage with one another visually; they seem distracted, absentminded, as if reacting to their (troubling?) thoughts rather than an actual event. Such pictures are indeed strange, but they have much stronger resonance for it. Paintings seem artificial when characters are just puppets for a storyline or moral tale. In Velazquez, the storyline is opaque, thus imbuing the characters with a confusing reality. The experimentations with the secondary images placed in the corner, (are they windows, paintings, thought-bubbles?), such as in Christ in the House of Mary and Martha only augment this uncertainty.

Velázquez, The Water Seller, 1618-22, The Wellington Collection, London.

In The Water Seller, we see the boy gaze intently not at the water he is trying to sell (or maybe drink), but inexplicably, at the cloak of the older man. And the man himself engages not with the boy or the water, but gazes moodily at something above the glass of water. In the background, a man drinks, but his eyes are not focussed on the drinking vessel, but on some other distant event.

Velázquez, Old Woman Cooking Eggs, 1628, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh.

And in the Old Woman Cooking Eggs, the boy approaches, hands full with flask and barrel, but his eyes gaze away from the direction he walks, past the ken of painter and viewer. The woman, famously, stares into the far distance, instead of watching the eggs being fried. This has often been interpreted as blindness, but fits in more easily with the mood of the other paintings – the everyday worker, engaged in mundane tasks, disturbed by more weighty thoughts.

And this is exaggerated by the stark, physical immediacy of the objects around them. For the viewer, these are painted with such calculated brilliance that they are pleasure to behold. Curves, textures, reflections, droplets and shadows are painted with a forensic beauty. But for the characters within the paintings, these knifes, jar, onions and barrels are nothing compared to the thoughts within their heads.

Velázquez does that tricky thing – he represents the interior life; one sees that his figures think, reflect, judge. How many artists have attempted to do such a thing and failed dismally! And here Velázquez has no need of props like books or globes or character dressed as philosopher or mages. A thoughtful life belongs to everyone. Like Chardin over a hundred years later, Velázquez imbues the common man or woman with a weighty sense of being.

A note on the exhibition space. Four lighter, airier rooms of the main gallery were used, I think for the first time. Ignoring the fact that this meant pushing some of the permanent collection to the dungeons downstairs, I think this helped the exhibition. There was more space for the paintings to breathe, especially the large history paintings which benefited from their juxtaposition with each other in the same room. But it’s still not good enough for a world-leading museum. There’s still too many visitors peering over each others shoulders, heads and hairpieces. Only with spacious, well-lit dedicated exhibition space will one gain enjoyment that one would wish.

Leave a comment

Filed under Baroque, National Gallery, Velazquez

Caravaggio: The Late Years, National Gallery

Exhibition held early 2005

I’d always had the feeling that, as Caravaggio fled and journeyed through southern Italy, his technique suffered. Somehow, I imagine him applying paint with unprofessional haste; instead of being focussed on the canvas, his eyes would twitch and dart rapidly, always checking the authorities weren’t about to storm in and nab him.

And in such a position, my thinking went, he obviously was not in the correct mental state to repeat the masterpieces of the Roman years. He didn’t have time to organise paints, canvases and ideas. As a result, the colours become more milky, skimmed of the primary brilliance and the stark chiaroscuro that illuminates the Roman paintings, while the characters become ponderous and half-hearted.

Or so I thought. Caravaggio: the Later Years places a stomping big question mark next to that thesis. Certainly, the paintings do not show quite the same consistency as there exists in the pre-1606 work. But whole chapters of his latter oeuvre shine through with the same clarity and intensity that characterises, say, the Contarini Chapel or the del Monte paintings.

Caravaggio, The Raising of Lazarus, 1609, Museo Regionale, Messina.

There were several hypnotic paintings in the exhibition – the silent retreat of the meditative St Francis, the melancholy of the second Supper at Emmaus, the spiralling whiplash composition that animates the Flagellation – but it was the trio of massive canvases in the National Gallery’s central room that took the breath away.

To begin with, their sheer size. The Raising of Lazarus, the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Shepherds stand well over three metres tall and towered impressively over the spectator. At last the National Gallery hosts an exhibition where the dimensions of the walls are sympathetic to the paintings.

Of course, size is no testament to quality, and one can think of numerous baroque putti-fests where cramming the surface with joyant, radiant angels serves to make the painting more than faintly ridiculous. But Caravaggio used all this space in a much more effective manner.

Just as he employs dramatic contrasts in light, so he does the same with space. One is struck at how little of the painting features the actual figures of the narrative. There is no attempt to fill the entire canvas with dramatic action. Great chambers of space surround and contrast with the narrative focus of the paintings, those tight balls of human energy.

The Raising of Lazarus is noticeable in particular for the great empty space, nearly half the painting, which sits wordlessly above the actors of the scene. As in a giant Rothko, a sober field of paint, muted by centuries of incense and candle-smoke, hovers in the darkness. And then in the flat, almost relief-like, space beneath, light bursts on to the 13 characters (a coincidence? the original gospel mentions that the apostles follow Jesus to Bethany, but obviously the twelve featured in the painting are not all apostles), crammed into a single, central strip. And once Caravaggio has locked the viewer onto this part of the painting, there is no letting go. Lulling viewers with his manipulation of space, he can unleash the emotional intensity of his characters, an intensity that is magnified several times once jammed into this tiny area.

The group of six characters that cluster around Jesus are particularly astonishing. Seven faces in all, one calm and six torn with emotion, are pressed into a small segment of the painting that is perhaps three percent of its surface. Fleeing from the empty space above, the eye comes across this group and whoosh – is hit by the astonishment, fear, shock and resolve of those following witnessing the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection.

Compare this with the formulaic patterns of Poussin, where each actor in the painted narrative has his own little circle of personal space, and the responding emotion of the spectator becomes diffused, switching from raw instinct to rational understanding. Caravaggio grabs the spectator and makes her react before she knows she is reacting.

It’s a bit of a cliché to say it, but the gritty humanity of Caravaggio also shines through. The use of space plays a part in this. Nearly all the action takes place at eye-level. Man’s physical dimensions are clearly mapped out; his position on the ground confirmed. Nobody here is floating to heaven. Indeed, the shaft of light and the gaze of the spectators clearly indicate that any heavenly manifestation takes place outside the frame of the canvas. (It would be interesting to know what is to the left of the painting in its original setting in Messina)

One gets the sense of the crowd, the jostling, the shouting, the shock of the event. How the characters were feeling or what they were doing prior to witnessing this resurrection. Compare again to many other baroque paintings where the presence of the divine is taken for granted and each character is trapped in a permanent reverie of piety. Caravaggio’s characters develop and respond with recognisably human emotions. The astonishment that the figures exhibit reflects not only on the miracle occurring but their doubt, the everydayness of their position, beforehand.

Another feature: I love how Caravaggio has so carefully calibrated the responses of his characters in reaction to their physical position in the scene. I’m struck by the figure at the top left of the left-hand group. Stuck behind the rest of the crowd he has not quite seen all that is happening. He cranes his neck forward to gain a better view and his mouth just begins to open in astonishment. In order to make the character more visible, another artist may have positioned him awkwardly elsewhere, thus making the narrative more explicit but puncturing the sense of realism. Caravaggio, instead, revels in the narrative problem of having so many characters in so small a space and manages to produce spectacular solutions.

The man crouching down to lift open the tombstone is another convincing figure. His neck has turned in response to the shaft of light behind Christ. Obviously, he is witnessing something divine. But Caravaggio does not forget where he came from, what he was doing previously, in picking up the huge stone that covers Lazarus’ tomb. Even in the presence of the divine, the man has to deal with the physical, the earthly. He remains crouching, the tendons in his fingers strain as he pulls on the heavy slab.

It requires a special visual intelligence to present so many expressive faces and bodies, capable of being understood by the spectator without sacrificing their potency and realism. And to fit so much into such a tiny space! Famously, Caravaggio has left us no drawings. Yet it is difficult to understand how such a complex scenario could have been constructed without some prior sketched planning.

Like many great painters, Caravaggio triumphs not only in composition but in the details. He has an extraordinary sensitivity to how movement and aging effect not just facial expressions, but the entirety of the body.

Wrinkles are a common feature; on the shepherds staring intently at the baby Jesus; on the mother of Salome; curling around the eyebrows of the Maltese Knight; lacing the face of Jerome, as he struggles to work in the face of his own mortality. Caravaggio had a sure way of transmitting the passing of time.

But it is the fingers of Caravaggio’s protagonists that struck me most. (Indeed looking at the fingers always seems to be a good way to distinguish the Caravaggios from Caravaggios’ copyists – digits on the latter appear unarticulated and pudgy.) They seem uncannily significant, expressing the movements or emotions of their owners in revealing fashion. Thus we have, almost directly in the middle of the painting, the clenched fist of the swordsman who decapitated John, his fingers wrapped tightly around the Baptist’s hair, emphasising the heavy, dead nature of John’s head. In the same painting, the hands of Salome’s mother are folded together in contemplation, managing to express satisfaction at a job completed, but also hinting at a guilty wring of the hands. The long finger of the angel in the Annunciation does more than point, but implies the calling that defines the narrative. It juts out from the hand, as if preparing to swoop and complete the spiritual union between Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary by the merest touch of a fingertip. In Caravaggio’s world, the whole body is animated, not just the soul.

And finally back to the Raising of Lazarus, where the most potent finger resides. With a single movement, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, his finger tracing a line toward Lazarus’ soul. With this gesture orchestrating the painting, so familiar from the context of the Sistine Chapel, Caravaggio not only articulates his own vision of Jesus, but also shows himself a worthy heir to Michelangelo.

(A note on the catalogue. The printing good and the photographs of a good quality. The translation is middling, although it appears as if it is still stuck with Italian syntax. But the layout is shocking, with no line breaks between paragraphs. And then the content; how many readers are really interested the dusty questions about provenance that seemingly feature in every catalogue entry? I’m astonished how art historians miss the point, almost deliberately, in catalogue entries.)


Filed under Baroque, Caravaggio, National Gallery