Sunday, January 27, 2019

Art Eyewitness Book Review: A New Way of Seeing by Kelly Grovier

A New Way of Seeing: The History of Art in 57 Works 

by Kelly Grovier
 Thames & Hudson/$50/256 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Book titles proclaiming the word "new" make me a bit apprehensive. "A New History." "A New Biography." "A New Vision." A new this, a new that.

Most of the time, these "new" books have very little that is trail-blazing, novel or inventive about them. Most are like the leftovers from yesterday's dinner, warmed-up with a dash or pepper or curry to make them taste differently.

Kelly Grovier's  A New Way of Seeing: the History of Art in 57 Works is NOT a rehash of museum favorites. Many of the masterpieces under discussion are indeed works you've seen a hundred times before. Grovier, however, approaches each from an unusual, almost subversive vantage point.  A "new" view is what is promised in this book and that is what is delivered.

Grovier's fresh insights come by way of what he calls "eye-hooks."

These eye-hooks are not the metallic kind that you screw into window frames in order to hang Christmas lights. For Grovier, an eye-hook is a "single detail, quality or feature" of an art work which engages the perception of the viewer. Once "hooked," we are enabled to understand the artist's meaning and to come to terms with the "strangeness" of art.

Grovier emphasizes the "strangeness" of art, quoting the late Robert Hughes in his classic book, The Shock of the New. The word is well-chosen. Art really is strange when you come to think of it, splashes of pigment bound by linseed oil on a piece of canvas or wood. Yet, these marks on a flat surface can move us to tears (of joy or sadness) and propel our thoughts to higher realities. And it is the eye-hook which snags us and reels us in for a journey of heart, soul and mind.

This theory is verified by fifty-seven examples of eye-hooks in action. Some are obvious, some obscure. Let's test Grovier's "new" way of seeing by focusing on the eye-hooks of two masterpieces from the seventeenth century.
In Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, the lustrous ornament practically reaches out from the picture to grab our attention. It is a really big pearl, bigger in fact than first appears. Initially, we see only the glint of light on its surface. Our eyes have to adjust to appreciate its size. It's a whopper.

Johannes Vermeer, Detail of the earring in Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665

The pearl earring is so big that there should be at least a hint of a thread visible, showing how it dangles from the girl's ear lobe.  Yet, there is none to be seen. In Grovier's view, the earring "levitates," becoming a magical token or talisman of life's enduring mystery.

Put simply, Vermeer didn't paint a pearl. He told our brains to go and fetch one for ourselves. That kind of visual dictation has the effect of transforming the canvas into a kind of stenography where generic gestures and simple markings no longer aspire to mimic the way the physical world actually looks, but rather to tease the imagination into creating in the mind's eye a more vibrant image than any brush can forge.

If Vermeer's pearl earring is an obvious eye-hook, its counterpart in Las Meninas is almost impossible to guess. Put to the test, I would have picked a different eye-hook, the mirror which reflects the faces of the parents of the princess, King Phillip IV of Spain and Queen Mariana. The princess or infanta is being groomed in the image of royalty.

That may be a plausible theory, but the crafty Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) placed a different eye-hook smack in the center of his masterpiece. Hidden in plain sight is a red earthenware jug being offered to the five-year old Infanta, Margaret Theresa, by one of the maids-of-honor. The small jug was called a búcaro. Fragrant spices were mixed with the clay before the jug was placed in the kiln to be fired. Later, these spices would flavor the water poured into it.

Diego Velázquez, Detail of Las Meninas, 1656.

How can we be sure that the búcaro is indeed the "eye-hook" in Las Meninas? Grovier's sharp eye noticed that the tip of Velázquez' paintbrush bears a dab of the same reddish brown color as the jug. That leads us to a second question. Why all the fuss over a little earthenware jug?

In a brilliant piece of detective work, Grovier discovered that the búcaro figured in a bizarre social custom. Instead of merely sipping the scented water from the jug, Spanish women nibbled the rim of the fired clay. This act of geophagy or "earth eating" was said to lighten the complexion. Grovier takes a different tack, quoting the poet, Lope de Vega, as evidence that chewing on the búcaro and ingesting the clay produced a hallucinogenic, "floaty" feeling. 

Was Velázquez trying to replicate this mind-altering state with the composition of Las Meninas? Grovier thinks so:

Like a bottle containing a genie, the búcaro is the locus around which the hazy hubbub of Las Meninas spins - a woozying scene of making and unmaking, of reality and reflections, comings and goings, whispers and shadows.

From these quotes, Grovier's writing skill is evident. He is an accomplished poet, as well as an art historian and editor of a literary journal devoted to nineteenth century Romanticism. Grovier's survey of contemporary art, Art since 1989, for the Thames and Hudson's World of Art series, was very impressive, leading me to have high expectations for this new book. I was not disappointed.

As noted, Grovier selected art works for consideration which are familiar for the most part, occasionally a bit too familiar. Over-all, this was a sensible selection criteria, providing new insights on works of art we mistakenly assumed had been analysed to the point of redundancy. 

Detail from the relief, Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions, 645-635 BC

I was delighted to see how Grovier skewered the blood-thirsty lion killing of the Assyrians, c. 645 BC. His eye-hook is a bas relief which shows a servant opening a cage to release a lion to be slaughtered in safety. No need to risk the hazards of actually hunting lions in the desert when you can kill them in comfort! Thus, the pretensions of the high and mighty Assyrians were punctured by the artist, who was likely a slave or hostage, and the irony escaped them! 

The other eye-hooks are well-chosen, too, and Grovier generally proves his conclusions.

Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnières,1884

In the case of Georges Seurat's Bathers at Asnières,1884, by focusing on the factory smokestacks in the background, Grovier makes a very valid point about Impressionism. The more you study the paintings of the Impressionists or post-Impressionists, in the case of Seurat, the more you see smoke-belching railroad locomotives and industrial furnaces off in the distance.

Detail of Bathers at Asnières, 1884

Impressionism was art made in reaction to the Industrial Revolution. The bathers in Seurat's early masterpiece were mill hands, taking a Sunday dip in the river polluted by the factories where they worked the other six days of the week. 

Grovier's conclusions about the 230 ft. long embroidery depicting the Norman conquest of Anglo-Saxon England in 1066 are a matter of dispute. This could hardly be different as the Bayeux Tapestry is one of history's most mysterious works of art. 

Grovier follows the conventional script that William the Conqueror's half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, commissioned the vast medieval panorama. Odo took part in the Battle of Hastings, wielding a mace since clergymen were prohibited from using swords. The combative bishop appears riding a black stallion in the extreme right-hand of the scene from the Bayeux Tapestry below.

Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, c. 1077

More recent scholarship contends that Count Eustace II of Boulogne was the patron of the work. Eustace had quarreled with Odo, a most unpleasant man like his half-brother, after the conquest. The tapestry was intended both as a peace-offering and as a reminder of the crucial role which Eustace had played in the Norman invasion of England. If this theory is true, then the intended eye-hook would have been the very prominent depiction of Eustace astride his warhorse, riding alongside Duke William at Hastings.

Instead, Grovier selected as his eye-hook the scene of the death of England's King Harold during the battle. Clutching an arrow in his eye, Harold falls and Anglo-Saxon England falls with him. 

Detail of King Harold with an arrow in his eye, Bayeux Tapestry, c. 1077

Close scrutiny of the embroidery has convinced many scholars that the Bayeux Tapestry was made by English needle-women, who were renowned for their skill during the Middle Ages. Could it be that the nobility of Harold, as he dies defending his homeland, was a subtle tribute by these English women for their hero king? If so Count Eustace and Bishop Odo, like the Assyrians with the lion hunt bas relief, missed the point.

Kelly Grovier, however, never misses a beat in this compelling book. His scholarship is authoritative and the caliber of his writing is first rate. Most notably, A New Way of Seeing helps the reader do exactly what the title promises, while enabling us to understand how the artists felt, believed  and saw at the time when these mighty works of art were created.

J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

When we look at J.M.W. Turner's Rain, Steam, and Speed, we can grasp - without too much difficulty - the symbolical status of Turner's painting for the Industrial Revolution. Grovier's brilliant commentary on this iconic work enables us to appreciate how Turner, born in 1775, felt as the steam engine of change came rushing at him, full-blast.

Turrner placed a tiny, almost imperceptible, rabbit on the tracks, desperately racing for safety. With a couple of dabs of his paint brush, Turner illustrated the modern condition, a new way of looking at a world in constant flux. 

Detail of Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844

With his perceptive "eye-hooks" and poetic commentary, that is what Kelly Grovier does too.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved.

All images courtesy of Thames & Hudson. The picture of the opening of the lions' pen, 645-635 BC. from the relief, Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions, is courtesy of The British Museum's website.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring c. 1665. Oil on canvas: 44.5 x 39 cm (17 ½ x 15 ⅜ in.) Mauritshuis, The Hague

Book cover:   Courtesy Thames & Hudson

Detail of the earring in Girl with a Pearl Earring.  Mauritshuis, The Hague

Diego Velázquez, Detail of Las Meninas, 1656. Oil on canvas: 318 x 276 cm (125 ⅛ 108 5/8 in.) Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Detail of the opening of the lions' pen, 645-635 BC. From the relief, Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions. Courtesy of The British Museum, London

Georges Seurat, Bathers at Asnières, 1884. Oil on canvas: 201 x 300 cm (79 ⅛ x 118 ⅛ in.) National Gallery, London

Detail of the factory chimney in the background of Bathers at Asnières, 1884. National Gallery, London

Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, c. 1077 or after. Crewel embroidery on linen: total 50 x 100 cm (19 ⅝ x 275 ½ in.) Bayeux Museum, France

Detail of King Harold with an arrow in his eye, Bayeux Tapestry, c. 1077 or after.              Bayeux Museum, France

J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844, oil on canvas, 91 x 121.8 cm (35 ⅝ x 47 ⅞ in.) National Gallery, London

Detail showing the hare in Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844.      National Gallery, London

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Art Eyewitness Book Review: Bruegel The Master

Bruegel The Master
by Manfred Sellink, Ron Spronk, Sabine Pénot and Elke Oberthaler
Thames & Hudson /$60/305 pages

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a painter for "all seasons."  In the case of his six-part depiction of the changing cycle of the year, Bruegel created one of the great glories of Western art.  Five of these oil on panel paintings survive and were shown together in a magnificent exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna - just concluded.

This was truly a once-in-a lifetime exhibition, held four hundred fifty years after Bruegel's death. Less than fifty of his paintings are known to exist today. Bruegel painted on oak panel, a seemingly durable format, yet the ravages of time have proven stronger.  Consequently, the rarity of Bruegel's oil paintings makes loaning them an especially hazardous undertaking.

The  Kunsthistorisches Museum has twelve of the Flemish master's paintings in its collection, making it the natural site for an exhibit of Bruegel's work. 

Gallery view of the 2018-19 Bruegel exhibit at the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

The rest of Bruegel's masterpieces are scattered in European collections, save for three in the U.S. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's golden-hued Harvesters did not make the journey to Vienna. The Parable of the Sower, likewise, stayed home at the Timkin Museum in San Diego, California.

There is no substitute to seeing art work in the original, even with significant omissions in a special exhibition.  And the Kunsthistorisches exhibit was indeed a mighty endeavor, with forty of Bruegel's oil paintings, sixty drawings and eighty prints - the greatest number ever assembled.

As an added bonus, the Kunsthistorisches Museum curators displayed period artifacts seen in the paintings. In the photo below, we see a pair of dice, a trencher plate (made from crusty bread which was eaten after it was soaked with sauce from the meal) and a slotted spoon used in cooking fish and mussels during Lent. All appear in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent. Beyond is a wall-size reproduction of Carnival and Lent, providing an IMAX-like viewing experience of this fabled work of art.

Gallery view of the Bruegel exhibit at the Kunsthistoriches Museum, showing
 artifacts appearing in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent

What a show! But if - like me - you were not one of the fortunate art lovers able to journey to  Vienna, take heart. Thames and Hudson has just published a superb companion book to the exhibition.

Bruegel the Master is extraordinary in the quality of its text and illustrations. The fidelity of the large-format color reproductions to Bruegel's actual paintings is outstanding even by today's high standards. This Thames and Hudson volume ranks with The Prado Masterpieces as one of the outstanding art publishing ventures of recent years.

In some ways, close study of Bruegel's oil paintings and works on paper in a book like this is the best way to comprehend his images. This may sound like putting a brave face on missing the exhibition. However, the level of detail in Bruegel's work is so staggering that information "overload" quickly sets in, even when viewing a relatively uncluttered painting like the Met's Harvesters.

Bruegel was a storyteller of the first rank. He was also moralizer of almost prophetic stature. Bruegel's wondrous paintings are filled with incident and symbolism. It is virtually impossible, in one viewing, to fully comprehend the narrative sequence and allegorical sub-plot of one of his works, much less a gallery full of them. 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fight between Carnival and Lent, 1559

The Fight Between Carnival and Lent provides a particularly incisive look into Bruegel's enigmatic views on life and art. This incredible painting also underscores the rivalry of obvious versus hidden meaning which we find in almost every work by Bruegel.

Bruegel shows sensual delight in all its myriad forms on a collision course with religious devotion. From the left, revelers push a beer or wine cask, surmounted by Carnival, the Lord of Misrule, who brandishes a scepter on which cuts of meat and a boar's head are skewered. From the right, Lady Lent, with two scrawny fish on a baker's oven paddle, is followed by well-behaved children eating waffles and pious, soberly clad adults giving alms to the poor.

Everywhere we look on this crowed canvas are characters given over to folly or those trying to keep their feet on the "straight and narrow." But the key to this dizzying scene is smack in the center of the painting.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559 (Detail)

Here we see a couple, man and wife, with a "fool" or jester walking before them. Everyday folks, John and Jane Doe, they represent the viewer, you and me. The woman carries an unlit lamp, signifying ignorance. The man has a strange bulge under his woolen gown. This is believed to represent the "baggage" of self, what we would call ego today. Will they (we) follow the jester and join in the merry-making. Or will they cast away their baggage, light the lamp and follow the path to the church at right.

Bruegel does not provide an answer. That is for us to decide. Indeed, the ultimate message or moral of most of Bruegel's paintings is placed before the viewer, awaiting his or her judgement.  

If Bruegel was a one of the great creators of visual narrative, he was also a supreme master of irony. Nothing is exactly what it seems on the surface of his great works. In Hunters in the Snow, what appears to be a reassuring Winter homecoming scene packs a different, unsettling conclusion. The hunters have returned, safe on a snowy afternoon. In the distance, their friends and family enjoy ice skating or play "kolf," an early form of ice hockey. 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow, 1565

Look, however, at what the hunters have brought back - a dead fox. If that's the hunters' contribution to dinner, then there are going to be a lot of hungry townsfolk this evening! 

No self-respecting hunter would bother to bring a single fox carcass for the  stew pot, especially with a pack of hungry dogs. The fox carcass is a trophy, the "scalp" of a dead predator who will no longer raid the chicken coop. 

Hunters in the Snow depicts a world of unremitting toil where playtime is only possible off in the distance. The survival of the townsfolk depends upon the hunters' dedication. The woman bowed beneath on enormous bundle of kindling on the bridge in the lower, right-hand corner of the painting, plays her unsung role. And so too, do the toiling peasants, at left, who are preparing to slaughter a pig and then scald the bristles from the carcass.

All of this work is done in the bone-chilling cold of the Little Ice Age. Bruegel and the protagonists of Hunters in the Snow may not have been aware of the climate shift between 1300 to 1700 which significantly lowered the temperature in Europe. But no painter in all of history ever depicted the effect of winter weather on human beings more acutely than Bruegel.

Bruegel's life was tragically short life (1530?-1569). He made but one trip from his native Antwerp, a lengthy excursion to Italy, 1552 to 1554. But that trip was decisive, shaping  his vision of the world. The arduous journey and sojourn in Italy appeared and reappeared in the subject matter of his paintings. The memory of traversing the Gotthard Pass as he traveled home surely is reflected in his The Conversion of Saul, painted in 1567.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Conversion of Saul, 1567

The vertigo-inducing look at the stragglers climbing up the mountain path leads us to the sight of the sprawling, blue-clad figure of Saul (soon to be the Apostle Paul). Surrounded by a concerned group of fellow travelers, Saul has been thrown from the saddle of his horse by a vision from God. One of the most influential figures in world history, Saul/Paul looks like he just fell from a bar stool.

We behold this pivotal scene like the two cavaliers, one in black, the other in a golden riding tunic. These riders are observing a moment in time when the earth shifts its axis, although they - and we - would hardly guess it from the misadventure taking place in the mountain pass.

Bruegel, a savvy observer of human nature, was equally well-versed in ancient culture and the scientific study of the world about in him. In their commentary in Bruegel the Master, Sabine Penot and Elke Oberthaler write:

Bruegel thinks and acts as a painter in the humanist milieu. He inscribes his main work within a tradition of artistic engagement with the annual cycle that reaches back to antiquity. He consciously confronts the legacy of natural depiction, already considered to be the ultimate standard by ancient authors. Bruegel takes a stand compositionally and technically by starting from, yet surpassing,the landscape tradition,which was especially rich in the Netherlands.  

Bruegel's work was highly esteemed during his lifetime. The Hapsburg Dynasty favored his paintings and bought liberally. This is why there are so many of his paintings now in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum,Vienna's greatest art museum.

Life, however, was to play an ironical prank on Bruegel. Very little documentation of his life survives, leaving a lot of gaps in his life story. However, the Dutch artist and writer, Karel van Mander (1548-1606), wrote about Bruegel in his study of Northern European art called the Schilderboek, published in 1604. Without van Mander's biography of Bruegel, we would know little about him.

Karel van Mander's analysis of Bruegel's work emphasized the earthy humor and wry appraisal of humanity in many of his paintings. He also commented on Bruegel's apocalyptic paintings like The Triump of Death, filled with "weird scenes and drolleries."  

All of this was true, but van Mander's study of Bruegel left the impression that the Flemish master was something of a joker. Van Mander wrote:

Indeed, there are very few works from his hand that the beholder can look at seriously, without laughing. However stiff, serious, and morose, one may be, one cannot help laughing, or smiling.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Peasant Wedding, 1567

If we look at one of Bruegel's most famous paintings, we can see how van Mander reached that conclusion. We can also grasp how wide of the mark was this estimate.  
                                                                                                                                        Bruegel's The Peasant Wedding, 1567, is a joyous celebration life. We may smile at the over-sized beret on the child licking a bowl. Likewise, the look of anticipation on the bagpiper's face is priceless, as a tray of bowls of rijstpap or pudding, is brought in for the wedding guests to enjoy. 

Yet, when we look at the serene contentment on the bride's face, we don't feel like laughing. Sitting in front of the green cloth of honor, she is queen for this day, her day. There is food and drink aplenty on this happy occasion. Wars and rumors of wars, of the kind depicted in The Triumph of Death, will not cast a shadow on this wedding feast. 

Bruegel's The Peasant Wedding is a hymn to love and life. I wish I could have seen this wonderful painting at the Kunsthistorisches Museum exhibition. But such a transcendent work of art like this needs to be savored. It calls for our eyes to look at this painting - and Bruegel's other masterpieces - again and again, absorbing its message of humanity and hope.

Thanks to Thames and Hudson's Bruegel The Master, we can do that to our heart's content.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   ***
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria, and Thames and Hudson, Publishers.

Introductory Image:
Bruegel The Master, 2019 (cover) Image credit: Thames & Hudson 

Gallery view of the 2018-2019 Bruegel exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Photo courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Gallery view of the Bruegel exhibition, showing artifacts and utensils depicted in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559. Photo courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, 1530?-1569) The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559. Oil on wood panel: 118 cm × 164 cm (46 in × ​65 in). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Image appears in Bruegel The Master (Thames & Hudson), pp. 122-123.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Detail of The Fight Between Carnival and Lent, 1559. Courtesy of Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, 1530?-1569) Hunters in the Snow, 1565. Oil on wood panel: 117 cm × 162 cm (46 in × ​63 3⁄4 in). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Image appears in Bruegel The Master (Thames & Hudson), pp. 224-225.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, 1530?-1569) The Conversion of Saul, 1567. Oil on wood panel:  Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. 108 cm × 156.3 cm ( 42.5 in × 65.5 in). Image appears in Bruegel The Master (Thames & Hudson), pp. 246-247.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, 1530?-1569) The Peasant Wedding, 1567. Oil on wood panel: 114 cm × 164 cm (45 in × 65 in). Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Image appears in Bruegel The Master (Thames & Hudson), pp. 258-259.