Picture Of The Week

With apologies to Daniel Maclise and, of course, Lord Nelson.

Rembrandt’s Cyclops

So important is Rembrandt van Rijn’s Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Bannick Cocq aka The Night Watch to Amsterdam’s  Rijkmuseum that the authorities are proposing from July to restore it under public gaze, a curious form of watching paint dry. Completed in 1642, it is a colossal piece and rightly considered to be one of the painter’s finest works.

Commissioned in around 1639 by the company to hang in the banquet hall of their newly constructed Meeting Hall and funded by subscriptions from Cocq and seventeen of his comrades, their names appear on a shield, a later addition dating to 1715, it defied the conventions of group portraiture by adding a strong sense of movement and drama to the composition. Clever use of light and shade leads the viewer’s eye to the principal characters at the centre of the picture. It is laden with symbolism and a dash of humour, the half-seen face of a male character, perhaps Rembrandt himself, lurking in the background and peering over the shoulder of a top-hatted and moustachioed contributor.

Its sheer size was to cause difficulties. When, in 1715, the picture was moved to the Amsterdam Town Hall, it would not fit in the space allocated to it between two columns. The answer to the predicament was blindingly obvious; trim all four sides of the painting, losing along the way two of the figures on the left-hand side, the top of the arch, the balustrade and the edge of a step. This done, the picture fitted perfectly but this piece of artistic vandalism destroyed the symmetry of the composition and removed two of the props Rembrandt had used to enhance the impression of forward movement.

Taking commissions was a double-edged sword for Rembrandt. For an impecunious painter it could guarantee welcome income but in return you needed to pander to the tastes and sensibilities of your paymasters. Amsterdam’s new Town Hall, now the Royal Palace, was built in 1655 and Govert Flinck, a better-connected painter who had had the sense to marry the daughter of a director of the powerful Dutch East India Company, was commissioned to paint some pictures to adorn the walls. But in 1660 Flinck rather inconveniently died, leaving unfinished his homage to the Batavian leader, Gaius Julius or Claudius Civilis.

The subject matter was a seminal moment in proto-Dutch history, a feast, in which Civilis gathered together the tribal chiefs and soldiers and, according to the Roman historian, Tacitus, roused them to rebel against their Roman oppressors, binding them “with barbarous rites and strange forms of oaths”. Whilst the rebellion, in 69 CE, was initially successful, superior Roman military muscle forced the Batavi to sue for peace.

The Batavi, hailing from southern end of what is now the Netherlands, were seen by the Dutch as their ancestors and gave their name to the hub of the Dutch Eastern trading operations, Batavia, now modern-day Jakarta in Indonesia. Their uprising could be viewed as the first signs of the emergence of the now thriving, prosperous Dutch nation and a picture commemorating Civilis, who had served in the Roman army for 25 years, losing an eye in battle before turning rebel, appealed to the burgeoning sense of Dutch nationalism.

In 1661 Rembrandt was commissioned to pick up from where Flinck had left off but, instead, he started from scratch with his own radical and dramatic reinterpretation of this pivotal moment. The resulting The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis, shows Civilis as a mountain of a man, a strong and powerful leader, dressed in lavish costume with striking headgear, sword in hand. His fierce stare shows his steely determination, Rembrandt’s choice of a frontal profile emphasising Civilis’ missing eye.

The rebels, their rather crude and primitive forms highlighting their barbarism, show their intent by crossing swords rather than shaking hands. Rembrandt’s use of light is clever. It shines from the table, the source obscured by figures in the foreground, giving the figure of Civilis an almost messianic quality. The picture is truly astonishing and, in my opinion, is right up there amongst the best of his work.

His putative paymasters, alas, did not agree. At five and a half metres square it was Rembrandt’s largest work and whilst it was hung, it soon fell into disfavour. The city officials probably found Civilis’ piercing eye unsettling and the unconventional portrayal of the scene and its primitivism disturbing. Rembrandt almost certainly wasn’t paid for the work and to add insult to injury, it was returned to him and he had the indignity of seeing Jürgen Ovens complete Flinck’s version, which adorned the City Hall walls instead.       

What do you do with such a large painting? Taking a leaf out of the book of the City fathers, Rembrandt cut it down to a more manageable size, it is now just 196 by 309 centimetres in size, a mere snapshot of the original, repainted parts, dampening down some of the colours in Civilis’ garb along the way, and sold it. By 1782 it had found its way to Sweden and now hangs in Stockholm’s Nationalmuseum. It came to London in 2014 as part of the National Gallery’s excellent Rembrandt: The Late Works exhibition.

Is it too fanciful to think that the figure peering over the shoulder of the man with a top hat in the Night Watch, one eye visible, is a nod to the first Dutch hero, Civilis? I wonder.

Discovery Of The Week (8)

You never know what you might find when you go rooting around.

Tracy Wood and her father, Brian Russell, were digging out the rockery of their garden in Guernsey when they struck metal. After some further patient excavation work, they unearthed a chassis, engine block, front bumper, window frames and other automotive parts which have since been established as belonging to a Daimler dating from the 1940s or 1950s.

Quite how it got there is unclear but the most popular theory is that the previous owner of the house started to do the car up, got bored with it and put a rockery over it to hide it, as you do.

Brian is looking for someone to cart it all away.

Still, this find is not as valuable as that made by Robert Warren as he was rooting around a cupboard in the Hoyt Sherman Place art gallery in Des Moines, Iowa in 2016, on the search for a couple of Civil War flags, as you do.

Wedged between a table and a plaster wall he came across a wood panel painting, water stained and badly damaged. Now it has been cleaned up and restored – a job that took four months – it turns out to be Apollo and Venus by the Flemish painter, Otto van Veen, conservatively valued at $4 million.

It seems that the painting was donated to the Des Moines Women’s Club in 1923 but the subject matter, a naked cherub and Venus de Milo’s unclothed posterior, may have been too racy for the good folk of Des Moines and so it was hidden away.

Performance Artist Of The Week

The courthouse of the Belgian coastal town of Ostend was the venue for an unusual piece of performance art, I read this week. The rules of what constitutes art are not set in stone but Mikes Poppe was, using a 10 foot long shackle to chain himself by the ankle to a four ton block of Carrara marble. |In the piece entitled De Profondis the stone represented the inescapable burden of history – of course it did, silly me – and the idea was that Poppe would chisel his way to freedom.

Unfortunately, 19 days after, despite constantly chipping away and eating and sleeping on the job, Poppe still hadn’t freed himself from the shackles of history and Joanna Davos, the curator of the courthouse, decided that enough was enough. In another piece of performance art a workman was sent for who, angle grinder in hand, cut the artist out.

Poppe claimed he had misjudged the strength of the marble – you don’t say? Still, undaunted, he claimed that his moment in the spotlight was a success. After all, you just can’t escape the burden of history. I could have told him that and saved him all the trouble. Artists, eh?

The Object Is An Actor

Matisse in the Studio – Royal Academy

Well, would you believe it? Henri Matisse owned a pewter jug, an Andalusian glass vase, a chocolate pot and a replica of a beautiful Venetian rococo chair – treasured possessions all. They made unusual and interesting shapes and, well, he included them in many of his still lives. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the point of a still life is to take some everyday objects and make an interesting composition out of them. Matisse was just following convention. Some of the objects were unusual – there were some interesting African masks, Chinese calligraphy and Islamic embroidery – but the premise of the Royal Academy exhibition in the Sackler Wing is that the 35 objects on display give us an insight into how they informed and influenced the 65 works on display.

The problem with this was that it turned the viewing experience into a bit of a game of I-Spy. I was more interested in spotting the various artefacts and shapes in the assembled collection that I almost forgot to appreciate the art as art.

Similarly, we are told that Matisse used to cut out his strange and colourful shapes and position them on the walls of his studio, moving them around until he found a pattern that met his approval. Interesting for sure but it poses the question as to whether knowing about the mechanics of how a piece of art was produced enhances our appreciation or whether it is unnecessary and distracting noise. Do we appreciate a book more because we know the author drank a bottle of whisky a day before putting pen to paper or used green ink on pastel blue notepaper? I think not.

 

Don’t get me wrong, there is some wonderful art on display and once I had got beyond the game of spotting the objects in the pictures, I began to get a better appreciation of an artist I had always previously thought of as a bit overrated. Rocaille Chair is a powerful minimalisation of the chair, down to its essence of shape and colour whilst Odalisque in a Turkish Chair seemed to set the convention of portraiture on its head, paying more attention to the objects around her than to the model herself. I wonder what she thought when she saw it?

I almost missed a small but lovely exhibition tucked away in the Tennant Gallery, featuring the works of Charles Tunnicliffe who through his etchings, wood engravings and watercolours captured the essence of British wildlife and the countryside in the first half of the 20th century. I was particularly struck by the Spotted Sow and the more restful and symmetrical Geese and Mallow. What I hadn’t appreciated is that Tunnicliffe illustrated a number of Ladybird books I adored as a child, including the wonderful What to Look At In Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, four books representing a time when we had four distinct seasons. Tunnicliffe also illustrated Henry Williamson’s Tarka The Otter, another childhood favourite, and a couple of series of cards that were contained in Brooke Bond tea packets and which I probably collected.

It must be an age thing but nostalgia gave me a spring in my step as I picked my way out of the RA which is beginning to resemble a building site as work continues on modifications to be completed in time to celebrate its 250th anniversary. The Tunnicliffe exhibition runs until 8th October and the Matisse until 12th November.

Hobby Of The Week

Every man should have a hobby but occasionally it can get out of hand as this story I stumbled across this week involving a now retired banker, Nick West, from Clevedon in North Somerset shows.

I have heard of tegestologists – collectors of beer mats – and labeorphilists – collectors of beer bottle labels – but West has gone one further – he has a collection of 9,000 beer cans. His interest was whetted in 1975 when his wife (stupidly) bought him a book on beer. Of course, collecting cans has its up-side as he had to consume the contents of each can before consigning them to the shelves.

So hooked did West become that he had to make several alterations to his house to accommodate his ever-growing collection. But following his and his wife’s retirement and a decision to downsize living accommodation, Nick has called time on his collection.

Shame really but I’m sure he will be open to offers!

If you are within striking distance of Shrewsbury, aged between 11 and 19 – oh, distant days – and want to get in touch with your artistic side, check out the Summer Artschool, run by that enterprising group, Participate Contemporary Artspace. It runs from July 31st until August 11th 2017 and successful participants will receive the Bronze Arts award which is recognised by colleges and universities. For more details http://mailchi.mp/291644f1df2d/participate-summer-artschool-creative-opportunity-for-11-19-year-olds

For the ardent horticulturalist, going away for a holiday during the peak growing season can create a bit of a dilemma. Fortunately, I had no such concerns and dunked my pumpkins in a shallow bowl of water whilst I enjoyed the sun in Costa Blanca. The plants survived their studied neglect and I have now been rewarded with a profusion of yellow flowers. All male at the moment but days of pumpkin sex won’t be too far away!

Visions Of Johanna

America after the Fall – Royal Academy

The other major exhibition at the Royal Academy in the first half of 2017 was, in many ways, a counterweight to the Russian Revolutionary art – Lenin makes an appearance in a painting by Louis Guglielmi – is an exploration of American art in the 1930s, the years of the Great Depression. A small exhibition, consisting of some forty-five paintings, it is comfortably housed in three rooms in the Sackler Wing. What it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality.

I managed to catch the exhibition on a boiling hot day, in those slack times at the RA when its existing shows are winding down and all its energies are concentrated on preparing for the Summer Exhibition. Despite the rather strange atmosphere, I thoroughly enjoyed the show. After all, it’s my kind of art – representational art, colourful and telling a story.

When someone mentions Thirties America to me, I immediately think of the dust bowl and the devastation that injudicious agricultural methods combined with soil erosion and winds caused in the mid-West. I found Alexandre Hogue’s Erosion 2  – Mother Earth Laid Bare hugely evocative with the plough in the foreground and the farm in the distance and in the centre bare, devastated earth moulded into a supine woman. Grant Wood’s earlier and more famous American Gothic, painted in 1930, which has never left North America before, picks up on the theme. We have a couple of elderly farmers standing in front of a rural church, anxiously staring out at us. There isn’t an ounce of flesh on them and the pitchfork, held like a trident, is both menacing and a sign that this is their only hope of salvation.

Wood was a bit of a find for me. I liked his rather grim portrayal of three daughters of the Revolution – no oil paintings, they – primly sipping a cup of tea in front of a picture of the founding fathers. His aerial view of Paul Revere’s ride to tell the news that the Brits was on their way was full of stylised energy.

Edward Hopper’s Gas shows a petrol station in the middle of nowhere. It is both a forlorn symbol of despair but also one of hope. Someone at some time must come down the road wanting to fill up. The show’s opener by Charles Green Shaw is astonishing. It is a painting of a city skyline with skyscrapers reduced to basic geometric form but almost god-like in the sky is an enormous packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum. Is this the deus ex machina which will lead America to salvation?

Inevitably, race makes an appearance. R W Johnson’s Street Life, Harlem shows a youthful black, urban couple, dressed to the nines. The colours are vivid and the shapes bold. Benton’s Cotton Pickers is more disturbing under closer scrutiny. In the foreground is an emaciated child and a bony woman offers succour to a man working on his knees. The American Hanging is more disturbing too, showing a noose, a group of Ku Klux Klan and a naked African-American woman in the foreground.

But it is not all doom and gloom. Life went on and there are pictures of people having fun and attending picture shows. Paul Cadmus’ The Fleet’s In is a riot of colour and louche behaviour. It caused such a stir when it was first shown that the Navy ordered its withdrawal.

A wonderful show without any makeweights and one worth braving the heat for.