Monday, August 24, 2015

Caravaggio in Dublin, Triumph of the Soulless

Having once been in Malta and failing to see that island's sole Caravaggio painting, I was determined not to make the same mistake when recently visiting the island of Ireland. The Taking of Christ can be found in Dublin's delightful National Gallery of Ireland - delightful because of  the courtesy of the museum staff, the fine collection of art, the lack of crowds and the fact that it is free of charge. So, perfectly reasonable to drop in, in pursuit of a glimpse of a single work.

The Taking of Christ is the latest Caravaggio to be discovered. Half the art history world (admittedly, a small, select world) had been wondering for years where could Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ be? For a half-dozen or so passionate academics (not an oxymoron by the way)) the hunt for the missing Caravaggio was the equivalent of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. And it was eventually found in, of all places, Dirty Old Dublin Town. It had been hanging for years in the dining hall of the Jesuit order in Dublin without the Men in Black quite knowing that they had a treasure from the master himself. They believed that the painting that greeted them every morning while they eat their simple porridge was a copy of Caravaggio's missing masterpiece. In the early 1990s it was discovered that what they had thought was a copy, was actually the real thing!  Now it hangs proudly, all cleaned up, spic and span, in the National Gallery.

Let's skip the fact that Caravaggio, between wild nights of debauchery, regular fighting and murder was an incomparable master of his craft, possessing a knowledge of light and shadow that puts him almost on a par with Rembrandt. All that is a given. But there are a couple of quirky things about this work that I must say I love. Firstly, there is the centre of the piece. It is the chap's armed shoulder. In a painting that depicts the arrest of Jesus Christ, Caravaggio dares to make the exact centre of the picture the luminous orb that is the soldier's metal shoulder. He has literally given us the cold shoulder. What a dare-devil. And incredible that it works. We are drawn towards the reflective surface, half expecting to see our own image staring back at us.And where does the mysterious light that illuminates the long metal arm come from? Certainly not from the rain-swollen Dublin sky.

Then there is the face of the guards. We only catch a glimpse of of the first one. But it could be your Dad. For some strange reason his nose is eerily 21st century.  And the chap to his right looks like he could be standing on the terraces cheering for St. Patrick's Athletic. His beard is red-tinged, making him very at home in Dublin. He is just a bearded, working-class lad, doing his job. 

I also love how Caravaggio has inserted himself into the painting. He is in the top right, holding the lantern. Yes, holding the lantern that throws a bit more light upon the scene, but not to help out the soldiers in their filthy work, those obedient, brutal footmen of the establishment. No, he is holding up the lantern in order to lighten up the scene, so we can enjoy it. That's right. The artist is someone who holds up the light so that we can see. As Matisse wrote, happiness comes from "illuminating the fog that surrounds us." Look at his eager face;  he doesn't want to miss a second of the scene that he is illuminating, the scene that he is painting.

One more thing that I love about this picture, and maybe it is purely personal, but it so very obviously reminds me of Star Wars, or any mythic-science-fiction-fantasy in which freedom is threatened by the mindless robots that serve the conformity of the machine. For that is what the armor does to the guards arresting Jesus. There is a third guard hidden behind Caravaggio; we can only see his helmet and one staring eye. The faceless eye of surveillance. That's what armor does to all us, doesn't it? Maybe in the weekend we cheer our children's football team, or sink a few pints with the lads. Maybe we're good fathers, loving husbands. But let us clamber into our shiny, squeaky uniforms and we become exactly what is needed in order for the soulless to triumph. Such are the ideas that seeing this Caravaggio puts into my head. I dare you: see Caravaggio and tremble.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Zurich's Kunsthaus Could be the Receiver of Stolen Jewish Art.

Manet, La Sultana (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Sometime ago I wrote about the new extension planned for Zurich's Kunsthaus, designed by the British architect David Chipperfield. The extension will house the impressive Bürhle collection, part of which was last exhibited a few years ago at the Kunsthaus. The collection will, when opened to the public in 2020, torpedo Zurich's Kunsthaus into the top tier for public collections of French Impressionism. In fact, Zurich will be second only to Paris.  But tomorrow a book will be published from which the fallout is sure to complicate matters.

During the past few decades most major art museums have been forced to audit their collections, or at least give an impression they are doing so, in order to ascertain whether they hold any art that was wrongfully taken from Jewish owners during the era of Nazi rule in Europe. This can be in the form of art that was simply robbed by the Nazis, or art that was bought by an innovative collector at knock-down prices because the unfortunate Jewish owners, fleeing from the Nazis, were being forced to sell.

A couple of years ago the world was intrigued by the Cornelius Gurlitt story, when over 1,000 formerly Jewish owned works of art were discovered in an apartment in Munich. Gurlitt has since died and, for some strange reason, he bequeathed his collection to an art museum in Bern. This was a nice windfall for the museum, but brought rather a lot of unwanted attention - was Switzerland simply going to accept a gift, even when the gift is stained with Jewish blood?

Cezanne, Paysage (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The new book that will appear in bookstores tomorrow, Schwarzbuch Bührle [Blackbook Bührle] makes the argument that the Kunsthaus might be the receiver of stolen goods via the controversial Bürhle collection. The fact that the industrialist Bürhle supplied Nazi Germany with weapons is already somewhat embarrassing, but now the Kunsthaus will have to deal with this added complication. The grave accusations will certainly lead to further public discussion as co-editor and one of the authors of the book is Guido Magnaguagno, who happens to have once been Vice-Director of the Kunsthaus. The opinions of this esteemed art historian and museum leader will be taken seriously. Indeed the pending appearance of his book has already made front page news in Switzerland this weekend.

In the new book Magnaguagno lists 12 works that are particularly suspicious because of the so called gaps in provenance, works from Cezanne, Courbet, Manet, Utrillo, Monet, Van Gogh, Modigliani, Kalf, Braque and Corot. No doubt we will hear a lot more about this before the new extension opens in 2020.
Monet, Poppy-fields at Vetheuil (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Sunday, August 9, 2015

On Late Rembrandt at the National Gallery and the Rijksmuseum

In the spring I spent a few days in Amsterdam and happily went along to the newly renovated Rijksmuseum. This was my first visit to the museum in many years. Although it had been closed for a few years for renovation, a part of its collection had still been available to the public at Schipol International Airport. This was an excellent example of Dutch innovative thinking - what other international airport offered for contemplation the works of masters like Vermeer and Hals to passengers in transit?

I was impressed by the renovation, especially the new entrance hall, which reminded me of a scaled down version of the entrance to the Louvre in Paris and even the British Museum in London.  But the main point of my visit was the exhibition "Late Rembrandt", which had already been shown in London's National Gallery in 2014-1015. Now, however, the artist's late works were all coming home. to the city in which he had lived and worked.

The Jewish Bride
Surprisingly, this was the first exhibition ever dedicated exclusively to Rembrandt's late works. I particularly enjoyed seeing two of my favourite paintings. "The Jewish Bride" and Bathsheba with King David's Letter.

The so called The Jewish Bride is properly known as Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca.  Vincent van Gogh told a friend that he would gladly give ten years of his life just to be able to sit in front of this painting for two weeks. Let's be grateful that he didn't, for a van Gogh dead ten years younger would have cheated the world out of a great number of  his masterpieces.  But we can all understand his sentiment. The moving embrace and the loving yet sad expressions on the faces make this one of the world's most intimate paintings.

The tender embrace

But seeing it in the flesh, so to speak, what struck me most was the complexity of the texture of the painter. It is no wonder that Rembrandt was considered a revolutionary.  The jewelry sparkles and seems to reflect the light on the room. The paint is caked onto the canvas. And I use the term caked deliberately -  I was tempted to lick it! Rembrandt layered the paint on thickly using his palette knife, or probably multiple knives.  Look at this sleeve for instance. You can almost reach out and tug it.

A close up of his sleeve - you feel like you could tug it
Close up of her dress, layered on with a knife
The other painting of Rembrandt that I love is Bathsheba with King David's Letter. It rivals The Jewish Bride for its tenderness. The force of this painting is extraordinary in the way that it makes the invisible visible.

It is the inner emotional turmoil of the mind that is the subject of the work - should Bathsheba agree to the king's demands outlined in his letter that she holds in her hand, or should she remain faithful to her husband. Recently X-radiography has revealed that originally Rembrandt had painted her with a shocked expression on her uplifted head. But in a stroke of genius he changed this. Instead, the picture is almost entirely motionless, she is profiled against a dark background, her white body illuminated by light. Our eyes travel upward, from the servant at her feet, to the letter in her hand, along her nude body and arrive at her face, exquisitely rendered, lost in contemplation. It is, I would venture, one of the most beautiful faces in western art.

One of the most beautiful faces in western art

Late Rembrandt brought together many exceptional works by one of the most exceptional artists. That said, not everyone was impressed. This young lady for instance. While she might share the beauty of Bathsheba's face, her expression does not reflect an inner moral dilemma, just plain irritation. She is clearly thinking, when is my dad going to be done and we can get out of here.