Author Archives: jamieedwards756

Congratulations Emily Robins!

Melbourne 2

Since 2010, The University of Birmingham and The University of Melbourne have been offering the International Museum and Collections Award, a unique exchange program where successful students are offered the opportunity to engage with and work in the museums and cultural collections of the partner institution. Our Undergraduate Emily Robins applied this year, and following a successful interview, has won a place on the scheme and will be off to spend the Summer working in Melbourne!

Huge congratulations to Emily from all of your peers and staff in the Department. We’re not jealous at all…:

Melbourne

Emily has agreed to write reports for us about her experiences whilst in Australia–so watch this space.

 

 

BOSCH AT THE PRADO

JAMIE EDWARDS

MADRID

Outside

I’m just back from a scorching (and I mean scorching!) hot Madrid, where I went to see the Prado’s new exhibition celebrating the 500th anniversary of the death of Hieronymus Bosch: Bosch. The 5th Centenary Exhibition. It’s on until 11.9.2016, so you have plenty of time to see it. And all told, I think that you should–I am glad I came and the exhibition was good. It brings together a diverse collection of works by Bosch and others, active in his milieu and workshop, from collections all over the world, from Lisbon to London, Valencia to Venice via Vienna, which complement the permanent holding of the Prado that houses the largest collection of Boschs anywhere in the world.

Bosco, entrance
I’ll get the moaning out of the way first, though. And the first major gripe concerns the crowds. As always with a “blockbuster” such as this one, there were simply far too many people crammed into the exhibition rooms (which aren’t exactly huge) and there was, as a result, lots of elbowing people out of the way to actually see anything. The exhibition promised to be remarkable, and in some ways it was. But my enjoyment of it–even as a committed Boschiophile–was certainly mired by the number of people crammed in. Entrance to this show is by timed slot (a fairly common strategy now) but I think they should also have capped the visitors for each slot at a much lower limit. Seriously, Prado: this was not enjoyable.

The kind of behaviour on display amongst people in the crowds was also baffling, as well as irritating. There were so many people planted firmly right in front of each of Bosch’s large triptychs, wielding odd little magnifying glasses, zooming in on individual bits of the picture. The irony, of course, is that nobody in Bosch’s day looked at his pictures in this way, which is to say with the aid of magnification instruments. I couldn’t help wonder: what do people actually gain from doing this? Or, perhaps better, what do they think they gain from it? For those with impaired vision, I do of course see the value of such aids… but it can’t be the case that every single person using these things in that room yesterday morning had severely depleted vision. So what was going on? An equally large amount of people usually spent about 5 or so minutes hogging precious space in front of the pictures reading the free little brochure that was picked up at the entrance to the show. Now, I get that people want to know “stuff”, including “facts”, about what they’re looking it (especially when they’ve paid to look at it). But this was frustrating because often these people took only a cursory glance at the picture in question after reading the brochure, before moving on to the next. Why, then, spend 10 mins hogging the space and obscuring the view of someone else, who perhaps wants to look first and read later. The same goes for those damn audio guides!

A particular low point of visiting the exhibition was being told off by a cantankerous fellow visitor (coincidentally, one holding a brochure, headset and magnifying glass…) for standing too close to the pictures: “If you stand back”, she said, “more of us can see the picture”. Well, sorry, but this misses the point entirely. I went to the Prado to look at these pictures closely. And, as I said to my partner (who courageously braved the crowds with me!), by getting up close, pondering over the individual parts of the picture, and discussing them, we were responding to Bosch’s paintings exactly as he would’ve intended, and as viewers in the late 15th and earlier 16th centuries would’ve done. Point is, I guess, that if more people put down the brochure, the headset and magnifying glass (sigh) and pondered the pictures up close for a few minutes and then moved on, the whole experience would’ve been less irritating.

Epiphany

Image: Prado

Garden 1

Image: Prado

Garden 2

Image: Prado

Also baffling to us was the cavalier disinterest that many of the visitors had in some of the more interesting aspects of the exhibition. One of the nicest design features in this exhibition are the little “islands” they have created for displaying Bosch’s large triptychs such as the Epiphany, Haywain and, of course, the Garden of Earthly Delights (which you can make out in the above pictures). This is so that you can see what’s painted on the exteriors of the wings: either beautiful, and carefully executed grisailles, or a wayfarer etc. Yet nobody else except for us seemed to be taking advantage of this display. I, in fact, spent longer looking at the frankly stunning grisaille on the back of Bosch’s Epiphany triptych depicting the Mass of S Gregory–shown below–than I spent looking at the interior, because to catch a glimpse of the latter meant negotiating a semi-frenzied mob, whereas we enjoyed an unobstructed view of the back (and, let’s be honest, these paintings are immensely interesting and exceptionally beautiful!) Similarly, nobody else really bothered to look at Bosch’s exceptional–not to mention rare–drawings that are dotted about the place, including the famous Tree Man; ditto the virtuoso carvings by Adriaen can Wesel, which formed part of a carved altarpiece commissioned in 1475 by the Brotherhood of Our Lady, to which Bosch belonged, for their chapel inside S John’s church (this is to say that these are carvings that Bosch definitely will have known well); ditto a c.1600 manuscript copy of Felipe de Guevara’s Comentario de la pintura y pintores antiguos, which, written about 1560, contains one of the earliest ever critical appraisals of Bosch and his art, in which de Guevara raises some very interesting observations about Bosch’s decorum, naturalism and (most pertinently, given recent controversies ignited by the Bosch Research and Conservation Project) the number of imitations and pastiches of Bosch’s works doing the rounds already by 1560, not to mentioned outright knock-offs; and ditto the so-called Master of Princely Portraits’ Portrait of Engelbrecht II Nassau, of about 1475, which depicts the person who, in all likelihood, commissioned the Garden from Bosch… I could go on, but won’t. Point is, there was lots to see in this show–and I enjoyed seeing all these things–but lots of other people crammed in weren’t looking.

Bosch, Epiphany triptych (closed); Prado, Madrid

Bosch, Epiphany triptych (closed); Prado, Madrid

That was a fairly big moan and I am sorry to go on at length, but I hope it conveys some of the more frustrating aspects of visiting this exhibition. But, putting all that to one side and reflecting on it a bit more in retrospect, the exhibition was a little basic but good (by monographic exhibition standards anyway, and overlooking, for now (!), some of the unanswered questions and reservations I have). They’ve clearly spent a bit of money on it, it flows well, looks attractive and they’ve considered the likes of me, who want to see, say, the backs of the wings properly. Overall,  it’s good.

The show is organised thematically rather than chronologically. As the little leaflet conceded, we can hardly ever agree amongst ourselves on the chronology of Bosch’s oeuvre–though, for my money, good attempts have been made to do just that–so to even attempt a chronological hang would’ve been sort of futile. A chronological hang will also have disrupted the suspense-building that comes from having (predictably but not wrongly) the Garden of Earthly Delights as its crescendo. Had the curators adopted a chronological hang, this couldn’t have happened, since the Garden would have featured nearer the start, given that even the Prado now admits that the Garden is an early work, not a late one (they now think the Garden was made in the mid-1490s; myself and others think 1480s). It addresses seven main themes: “Bosch and ’s-Hertogenbosch”; “The Childhood and Ministry of Christ”; “The Saints”; “From Paradise to Hell”; “The Garden of Earthly Delights”; “The World and Men: Mortal Sins and non-religious works”; and “The Passion of Christ”.

“Bosch and ’s-Hertogenbosch” locates visitors in the city where Bosch lived and worked throughout his life, from which Bosch took his chosen name that he used to sign his works (his actual name was Jheronimus van Acken; “Hieronymus Bosch” was thus a bit of an advert, his signature functioning to say: “this is by Jerome from ‘s-Hertogenbosch, if you want a painting such as this, come visit me there”). This section includes van Wesel’s carvings; a c.1530 view of the mark’t at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where Bosch lived from 1462 (we know which house was Bosch’s and can see it in the painting); the portrait of Bosch from Lampsonius’s Pictorum aliquot Germaniae Inferioris Effigies, published in 1572 in Antwerp by Volcxken Diericx, the widow of Hieronymus Cock (it was a shame that Diericx’s role in bringing this publication to fruition was not made more explicit, with only Cock himself being explicitly named as publisher in the exhibition’s bumf… recognition of successful women in art history still clearly has a way to go); and three engravings by Bosch’s direct contemporary in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the architect and engraver Alart du Hameel. This section also boasted the triptych showing the Ecce Homo, produced in Bosch’s studio in around 1500. This work is exceptional. For one its predella has survived, which is quite unusual for Bosch and shows the instruments of the Passion. And secondly, the donors depicted on the wings have actually been convincingly identified as Peter van Os (municipal secretary of s’-Hertogenbosch and fellow sworn brother of Bosch’s in the Brotherhood of Our Lady) and his wife Henricxken van Langel, who died early in 1501 (possibly from complications arising during childbirth; note the swaddled baby at the feet of Henricxken on the right wing). The Ecce Homo is thus a rare instance in Bosch’s oeuvre for which we can identify a patron. A rather odd inclusion in this section, given its localised remit, is the manuscript copy of du Guevara’s Comentario… , which, though I was happy to see it, didn’t really fit in with the aim of locating Bosch and his art in the artistic and social ferment of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.

Workshop of Bosch, Ecce Homo triptych with donors; c.1500, Boston.

Workshop of Bosch, Ecce Homo triptych with donors; c.1500, Boston.

“The Childhood and Ministry of Christ” takes as its focus the Prado’s Epiphany triptych. This work–genuinely one of Bosch’s most complex, not to mention most beautiful–is set in some kind of artistic context alongside the: c.1475 Adoration from New York (a work that was once believed to be autograph, then fell from favour, but has risen again recently and is proclaimed here as being genuine on the basis of new technical examination); another Adoration from Philadelphia (traditionally associated with Bosch and his workshop); a drawing showing the Wedding Feast at Cana by a follower of Bosch (which relates to a bunch of paintings of the Ecce Homo, none of which were exhibited, that are believed to be copies after a lost prototype by Bosch); and du Hameel’s engraving of Thistle Leaves from about 1490, which relates to the African Magi in the Epiphany, whose fabulous costume features a similar thistle design on the shoulder and collar. It was great to be able to see these works collected together and to compare them, which really drives home the immense quality of the Epiphany triptych.

But, having seen them all alongside one another, I do struggle to see how the Philadelphia Adoration can seriously be counted among Bosch’s autograph works. The former, which is here dated to 1495-1516, is supposed to be contemporary with or painted after the Epiphany triptych but I just don’t see how somebody responsible for the Epiphany can have turned out at the same time the Philadelphia Adoration, which is altogether much cruder and less impressive. Admittedly some workshop involvement is here acknowledged. And sure, the painted surface of the Philadelphia picture has suffered extensive wear from cleaning, which has perhaps eradicated some of its original subtlety and its maker’s skill. But it is nevertheless perhaps telling that the Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) has revised the date of the Philadelphia painting to 1495-1520, which possibly takes us beyond Bosch’s death, thus admitting the possibility that it is a solely workshop production (or even the work of a follower, imitator or pasticheur). The catalogue rejects the BRCP’s finding: “no explanation for the latter end of the range [i.e. 1520] is given”; yet the catalogue is similarly guilty, in which the BRCP’s suggestion is offhandedly dismissed without further qualification.

“The Saints” section–very large in scope–includes what must figure as being amongst Bosch’s most fantastical pictures: no fewer than three renditions of the Temptation of S Anthony (Lisbon and two from the Prado), as well as the fragment of Anthony’s Temptation from Kansas, only this year authenticated as an autograph fragment. Also here are: the Saint Wilgefortis (?) Triptych from Venice; the Job Triptych from Bruges (the latter by a follower), the Saint John the Baptist from the Museo Lázaro Galdiano in Madrid and Saint John the Evangelist from Berlin, the Ghent Saint Jerome, Rotterdam Saint Christopher, and drawings by a follower of Beggars and Cripples. 

Bosch (?), Temptation of S Anthony; Prado Museum

Bosch (?), Temptation of S Anthony; 1495-1520 (?) Prado Museum

This section and the exhibition’s pronouncements on attributions again betray the fraught relationship between the Prado and the BRCP. Let’s take  just one example: the Prado’s Temptation of St Anthony (above)Regular readers will remember that the Antony is one of two loans that the Prado withdrew at the eleventh hour from the Bosch exhibition held earlier this year at the Noordbrabants Museum in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Problem is, the BRCP has rejected the attribution of this picture to Bosch. It believes it was done by a follower, in the 1530s or 40s. Others have previously chimed in to this effect: Fischer in 2013 called it a workshop production, executed in Bosch’s lifetime; the 2001 Rotterdam exhibition ascribed it to Bosch or follower (and, as Vermet told me, the Prado threatened withdrawal of the loan then, too, if its status was undermined); and as far back as 1987, Marijnissen put a big ? over the Anthony. The catalogue and show maintain the attribution to Bosch, and previously the Prado has dismissed objections to Bosch’s authorship on the grounds of unfair connoisseurial subjectivity; the catalogue upholds this view, stating that no “technical or stylistic evidence [supports] these conclusions”, and it also places emphasis on the fact that dendrochronological analysis has shown that the panel on which it is painted could have been used from 1464, within Bosch’s lifetime. The catalogue then launches into an extensive formal and technical analysis of the painting which, for them, all points to Bosch’s authorship (including panel prep. and the execution of underdrawings). For me, I’m not sure–on some scores, it’s a bit like splitting hairs. But for what it’s worth, I did think that the picture looked a bit “flat” when I saw it. I am also troubled by the catalogue’s emphasis on the dating of the wood and the way it manipulates this evidence to support its own ends. The catalogue finds it unlikely that a panel would have sat in storage for some 70, even 80, years before it was worked on, which is precisely what the BRCP’s conclusions presuppose as being a routine occurrence. Yet, the Prado’s own dating of the picture, to 1510-15 (the last half-decade of Bosch’s life), similarly assumes that panels did sit in storage for ages, just for a shorter period of time (about 5o years). I can’t get my head around this: I don’t see how you can criticise the BRCP for believing that panels lay around unused for 80 years but at the same time state that this panel did indeed go unused for 50.

Bosch, Crucified female st (image: http://boschproject.org/)

Bosch, Crucified female st (image: http://boschproject.org/)

Sticking with this section of the exhibition for a moment, I was also struck by the Prado’s decision that the woman being crucified in the Venice triptych is S Wilgefortis. The identification of this figure is by no means certain and has been hotly debated: Julia? Liberata? Eulalia? Wilgefortis? I haven’t yet been able to get to the bottom of why we suddenly apparently know that it is Wilgefortis (the BRCP also plump for this identification; and, to be fair, other arguments have been proffered in favour of is). The catalogue itself is evasive on the issue, if not confused: it mentions the Julia identification, which relates to the question of whether Bosch visited Italy, since Julia’s cult flowered in Brescia; it mentions the troubling fact that the saint in Bosch’s painting doesn’t appear to have a beard, which is one of Wilgefortis’s main attributes; it adds to the mix by raising Silver’s interesting proposal that it is Eulalia, a patron saint of Barcelona, adding that the donors on the wings were ‘notables of that city’ (which confuses me because I’ve always been led to believe that the obscured donor portraits are of Italians?). What appears to have swung it is Zanetti’s testimony of 1771, which describes the triptych, seen in the Doge’s Palace, as a “saint, male or female, on the cross”. The catalogue extrapolates from this that the saint must at one point have donned a beard–why else would Zanetti have been confused about the saint’s sex? But I’m still baffled: when and why did the beard go? No trace of it has been found (as the catalogue admits). One resolution it does tentatively offer, however, is that Bosch himself removed the beard, so as “not to offend” the taste of an Italian audience; but this is hardly satisfactory, since why would Italian clients want a depiction of an obscure saint (Wilgefortis was practically unknown south of the Alps), and, moreover, a representation of an obscure “Northern saint” that has been divested of its main identifying attribute. This still doesn’t quite make sense to me–it didn’t make sense when I last saw the triptych in Venice, and it still doesn’t now.

Bosch, Haywain, after 1500, oil on panel, Prado, Madrid

Bosch, Haywain; after 1500, Prado, Madrid

“From Paradise to Hell” really focusses on the Haywain triptych, which is positioned in close proximity to the so-called Visions of Hereafter panels from Venice and the Last Judgment from Bruges. It’s a natural grouping: the Hereafter panels present two opposing spiritual ends, election (the Ascent and Eden) and damnation (Fall of the Damned and Hell), the latter of which plays out in the Last Judgment, both of which complement the essential eschatological message espoused by Bosch in the Haywain, which is that in Eden (left wing) Original Sin was introduced into the world; the central panel shows the outcome of this, a world overrun by gluttony and selfishness in which everybody snatches what they can from the enormous stack of hay (the proverbial basis is: “The world is like a haywain, and each man takes what he can”); while Hell, on the right, shows the inevitable consequence of all this–eternal damnation. The Haywain is both staggeringly beautiful in execution and wickedly, subversively satirical in its message–note that even nuns and a fat monk are complicit in the vast cavalcade of irreverence that trundles across the central panel.

“The Garden of Earthly Delights” is an unabashed celebration of Bosch’s largest and most visually spectacular surviving work. Ample space is provided both in front of and behind the triptych, which is raised on an island in the middle of a large room. Displayed alongside it on the walls are reproductions of infra-red reflectographs and X-radiographs, which reveal to the visitor the changes that Bosch made during the execution of the Garden. Also displayed here is the famous Tree-Man drawing (relating to the enigmatic figure in the Hell wing of the Garden), the Master of Princely Portraits’ Portrait of Engelbrecht II of Nassau, most likely the patron of the Garden, as well as The Book of Hours of Engelbert of Nassau by the Vienna Master of Mary of Burgundy and the manuscript of the Vision of Tundale by Simon Marmion. This section speaks for itself; the design of the room bestowing grandeur on the Garden that befits its status as Bosch’s most iconic work. Happily for me, but somewhat inexplicably, fewer people seemed to want to linger in front of this work than they did some of Bosch’s others, so I got to walk straight up to it and enjoy it. It really is a staggeringly inventive work that testifies to Bosch’s abundant imagination. Its message is–like the later Haywain–conventionally eschatological but it is told in daring ways. It’s easy to imagine the kind of joy that this picture brought to an art-lover and bibliophile such as Engelbrecht, and likeminded friends assembled in front of it in his Brussels palace. Surely it functioned there as a visually captivating “conversation piece”, in the literal sense of that term, in which Bosch provides a frankly gluttonous amount of food for thought.

I was also pleased to see that the Prado now not only endorses the suggestion that Engelbrecht was the work’s patron but also concedes that this must have bearing on the triptych’s date, which must have been executed before 1504 (the year of Engelbrechts’s death). On both scores, the Prado unfortunately lagged behind. Experts, namely, Vermet, have been arguing that the Garden is early and most probably commissioned by Engebrecht for some time. (As an aside, but an important one nonetheless, the catalogue rather unfairly, in my view, glosses over the careful scholarship done in this regard. It, for example, summarily dismisses Vermet’s arguments (plural) in this respect, citing instead only the 2001 exhibition catalogue, co-edited by Vermet, and accusing him of having no evidence to support a date in the 1480s, which is patently and misleadingly untrue… as anybody familiar with the literature will know. Once more, this brings into sharp focus the sometimes rather nasty nature of the “politics of art”.)

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, Prado, ,Madrid

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights; 1480s (?) Prado, Madrid

The highlight of “The World and Men: Mortal Sins and non-religious works” is the grouping of Bosch’s Pedlar (Rotterdam), Ship of Fools (Paris), Allegory of Intemperance (more familiarly Gluttony, New Haven) and the Death of Miser (Washington), which originally were all part of a triptych that has since been dismembered. The central panel is lost: we have no idea what its subject was or the fate that befell it (though the drastic, heavy-handed dismemberment might suggest that the central panel was already in ruinous condition–a fire?). The Pedlar, Ship of Fools, Allegory of Intemperance, and the Death of Miser constituted the wings of the triptych. The two wings were detached and sliced down the middle, to separate the interior sides from the exterior. The two halves making up the Pedlar (originally the backs of the wings–that the Pedlar was the closed view is suggested strongly by its semi-grisaille colour) were then fixed together and sawn into an octagonal shape to make the picture now seen in Rotterdam. What was originally the interior left wing was then spliced horizontally to create two separate paintings (the Ship of Fools and Allegory of Intemperance), while the Miser remained pretty much as it was. Given that these fragments are now widely dispersed, I had never seen them alongside one another until now. Thinking about their themes standing in front of them all, I had the chance to think a bit harder about the likely subject of the non-extant central panel which must, in a similar vein to the Haywain, have focussed on unbridled human sin and folly (precisely the themes announced in the wings; while the pedlar, originally seen on the outside, reminded the viewer of their status as a pilgrim, who must negotiate the vicissitudes of human life–thus the interior functioned as exempla contraria).

Also here, in the “World and Men”, is the so-called tabletop showing the Seven Deadly Sins and Four Last Things, which, especially since the BRCP’s findings came out, is another “controversial” work. The Prado ascribe it without reservation to Bosch’s hand; the BRCP, following other, earlier arguments, reject such an attribution. Either way, it is a very interesting picture and its quite fun here to be able to walk around the tabletop to view each of Bosch’s representations of the Deadly Sins, in ways that Phillip II must have been prone to doing in his private apartment at El Escorial, where it was from 1574 until Phillip’s death.

1e372902-285c-453e-a567-601599ce7e7a

Bosch or follower (?), Seven Deadly Sins and Four Last Things; Prado, Madrid

“The Passion of Christ” does what it says on the tin. A range of works are on show here, from the London Christ Mocked (assuredly by Bosch and one of his more austere and restrained works but, for me, one of his most moving) to the Passion Triptych from Valencia, made by a follower of Bosch’s (possibly in his workshop), for the wife of Henry III of Nassau, who inherited the Garden from his uncle, Engelbrecht. Also here was the Entombment of Christ drawing from the BM, which is hesitatingly associated to Bosch’s hand here (though compelling evidence suggests it was not done by Bosch, and years ago, in fact, the then keeper of Netherlandish drawings and prints at the BM, An van Camp, told me in no uncertain terms that the drawing is by a follower).

Overall this exhibition is worth seeing–it is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so many works by Bosch and his contemporaries in a single place. It is a visually stunning romp through Bosch’s art and Bosch’s world–the exhibition’s design certainly, for my money, does justice to the quality of the works involved. The partner objected to the lighting, which here and there is a bit severe. (The glare on the reverse of the S John on Patmos picture, for example, did make it very hard indeed to see the beautifully executed and subtle little monsters lurking about in the very dark background surrounding the grisaille Passion tondo.)

The shop has a veritable cornucopia of the usual tat, from pencils to iPhone cases, as well as the now seemingly-customary high-end items including rather pricey silk scarves (does anybody actually buy these?!?). I was obviously only really tempted by the catalogue, available in English or Spanish, edited by the exhibition’s curator Pilar Silva Maroto (400 pages, paperback, €35). This richly-illustrated catalogue boasts a number of essays that shed further light on Bosch and his art, with individual entries on each object included in the show.

The show runs until 11.9.2016. General admission is €16; concessions priced at €8.

Bosch at the Prado continued (if you understand Spanish)

JAMIE EDWARDS

The Prado have just released another video ahead of the opening of their new Bosch exhibition: Bosch. The 5th Centenary Exhibition (31.05.2016 – 11.09.2016).It’s presented by Pilar Silva, who is head of the Prado’s collection of flemish painting before 1600, and who has had the lovely job (gripes over the findings of the BRCP notwithstanding) of curating the Bosch exhibition.

To say that my Spanish is rusty is putting it generously. But unless I’m totally wrong, and if I am, sorry, I think that Silva mentions in the video that the Garden of Earthly Delights was probably commissioned by Engelbrecht II of Nassau. If this is indeed what she says (?!), it heralds an interesting shift in the accepted view.

Most scholars have up to now tended to view the Garden as a mature work by Bosch (usually 1510 or thereabouts; certainly post-1500). The earliest documented reference to the triptych comes from 1517, when it was seen by Antonio de Beatis in Henry III of Nassau’s Brussels Palace. Since this became known, it always been used as evidence to support the view that the Garden is late, since it has often been assumed that Henry commissioned the triptych from Bosch. Underlying all this, of course, has always been the idea that Bosch’s most visually spectacular work must have been the product of his fully-formed genius. Silva’s reference to Engelbrecht in the above video, though, signals serious interest in an alternative point of view.

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, Prado, ,Madrid

Hieronymus Bosch, Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480s, Prado, Madrid

I’ve always believed that the Garden is an early work; Bernard Vermet has convincingly, in my view, championed just this. It is based on style (I, for example, don’t see how the Garden can seriously be thought of as a mature work when you put it next to the Haywain, which certainly is). The surprisingly early dating of the planks of wood from which the triptych is made–surprising, that is, to proponents of a late date for the Garden– fully supports an earlier dating: the tree concerned was felled in the 1460s, meaning that the panels could have been assembled and painted on, say, during the 1480s, which seems to be the most likely date for the picture’s execution. And if you believe this, that the picture could have been made as early as the 1480s (and note at the start of the Prado’s video that the dating has indeed been pushed back as far as 1490), then you have to look elsewhere for possible patrons. And it turns out that you needn’t look far: Engelbrecht II of Nassau was Henry III’s uncle, and when Engelbrecht died his estate fell into the hands of Henry. Engelbrecht could therefore have been the patron of Bosch’s Garden, who, it turns out, had the opportunity to commission the work from Bosch in 1481, when he stayed in Bosch’s hometown of ‘s-Hertogenbosch to attended a meeting of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

It’ll be interesting to read more about this when I get my hands on the literature…

Should also say–I am going to Madrid in a fortnight’s time, and will do a write up of the show. So watch this space.

Bosch, Bosch, Bosch

JAMIE EDWARDS

In a few days’ time, the exhibition Jheronimus Bosch – Visions of a genius will close the Noordbrabants Museum, ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Most of the works are then being shipped to Madrid, where, on the 31st May, another Bosch exhibition will open at The Prado: Bosch. The 5th Centenary Exhibition (31.05.2016 – 11.09.2016). The trailer (which has a curious voiceover) is here:

Regular readers will remember that the Prado and Noordbrabants museum have come to blows this year (the 5th centenary year of Bosch’s death), mainly over the Bosch Research & Conservation Project’s findings. The findings call for the “downgrading” of several works previously thought to be by Bosch that are held by the Prado. This led, at the eleventh hour, to the Prado’s decision to withdraw the Cure of Folly and St Anthony from the show in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Those works will now be included in the Prado’s own exhibition, which will also include the monumental (so-called) Garden of Earthly Delights (1480s) that the Prado owns (and obviously didn’t lend to the Nordbrabants Museum).

Turner and his Fighting Temeraire make the new twenty quid note

JAMIE EDWARDS

New 20£

The Bank of England have revealed the design of its new £20 note (above), which will begin circulating in 2020. It features Turner’s 1799 Self-Portrait (now in the Tate Britain) and his almost ubiquitously familiar painting The Fighting Temeraire, of 1839 (NG, London; below). Also featuring on the note will be Turner’s famous quote ‘Light is therefore colour’, a phrase first uttered by Turner in an 1818 lecture delivered at the RA.

Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839; NG London

Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839; NG London

The new design is the result of a landmark public vote, the first time that the public was invited to nominate candidates to feature on a new note. The bank ended-up with a list featuring some 29,000 nominees, 590 of which were artists. From these, a shortlist was drawn up: Turner, Charlie Chaplin, Barbara Hepworth, William Hogarth, and designer Josiah Wedgwood, and eventually Turner won.

This story has been the subject of some controversy. Rightly, it was pointed out that women are conspicuous only by their relative absence from the new batch of notes–by 2020, the £5, £20 and £50 notes will feature portraits of notable blokes, whereas only one woman (besides HMQ Elizabeth II, obviously) has got a look in: Jane Austen, who will feature on the £10 note from 2017. Caroline Criado-Perez, head of the campaign for more women to appear on banknotes, was rightly, I think, miffed that only one woman made it on to the Bank’s list of five notable historical figures for inclusion on the new notes, quipping that “I guess the Bank of England thinks one woman out of five historical figures ticks off their gender quota.” The Bank’s governor, Mark Carney, meanwhile, has admitted that although diversity was a consideration in the decision nevertheless conceded that “further progress” could be made in this regard.

I DO think, though, that we should acknowledge the Bank’s efforts to increase transparency and independence by involving the public in a vote (even if the final decision was made by a board headed by the Bank’s deputy governor, other high-fliers and some specially drafted in “advisors” etc.). I do also think–laying the gender inequality aside, if such a thing can ever be done–that Turner makes for a very appropriate choice. Turner is, after all, without doubt one of the preeminent and most important figures in British art history.

Theory no. 37,987,869*: the Mona Lisa really shows Leonardo’s gay lover

JAMIE EDWARDS

Mona Lisa

The Telegraph reports today the latest Mona Lisa theory.** Silvano Vincenti–the art detective, who has spent the last few years digging around in the ground beneath S Ursula’s convent in Florence looking for Lisa del Giocondo’s (née Gherardini) remains–has finally “come up with an answer to a question that has divided scholars for years – who was the Mona Lisa based on?”. Vincenti says that we’ve all been wrong for years, and that the Mona Lisa is actually not, strictly speaking, a portrait of Lisa at all. It’s really a portrait of Leonardo’s live-in assisatnt, and conjectured lover, Salai. Partly based on examinations of infra-red images, Vincenti says that the “androgynous” Mona Lisa is a fusion of Lisa’s face with the best bits of Salai; he says that the forehead, nose and that smile, are all Salai’s features. Underlying all this is the speculation that Leonardo and Salai were gay lovers–hence Vincenti’s comparison between the face of the Mona Lisa with the face of the Incarnate Angel, here reckoned to be a portrait of sorts of Salai, and notable because the angel has a stonking erection. Reading between the lines, the Mona Lisa thus goes from idealised portrait of a Florentine merchant’s wife, to a secret homage to Salai, Leonardo’s gay lover.

Leonardo, Angel Incarnate, Private Collection

Leonardo, Angel Incarnate, Private Collection

Frankly, Vincenti should’ve known better. The basic premise that the identification of the portrait’s sitter is ‘a question that has divided scholars for years’ is a false one. No scholar–or else, no serious one–actually doubts whether the portrait is a picture of Lisa, however idealised or imaginative it may, in many respects, be.

At any rate, it is frankly misleading to claim that even if Leonardo found Salai attractive, and even if he had, somewhere in his mind, Salai’s features when producing his pictures, that those pictures must then be understood as pictorial manifestations of Leonardo and Salai’s gay romance. This is a misunderstanding of the artistic process, what it entails and how it works. It’s also a rather naïve take on sexuality in the Early Modern period, during which relationships between older men and young boys would never have been understood according to a modern taxonomy of sexuality (gay, homosexual etc.). To say the Mona Lisa is actually about gay love, articulated in those terms, is simply anachronistic.

This latest theory is therefore a kind of dramatising and skewing of the known facts that gives rise, in this case, to a view not dissimilar to the wholly problematic interpretations of Michelangelo and Tomasso dei Cavalieri’s relationship and the works of art, poetry etc. that they exchanged.

Anyway, as Prof. Martin Kemp has been saying for years–and this is repeated in The Telegraph‘s article–we don’t actually know what Salai looked like. Vasari’s written description of him is generic, to say the least, and conforms to a standard type: “he was pretty and had curly hair”, basically. So any attempt to spot Salai’s features in Leonardo’s work is a lost cause from the off, and any results are wholly conjectural.

Thus Kemp’s view: “This is a mish-mash of known things, semi-known things and complete fantasy…”.

To put that another way, this is Dan Brown stuff.

 

* This is, by the way, the second time Vincenti has peddled this “theory”. This is just a re-hashing. In 2011, he said the same.

** do wish people would stop referring to Leonardo as “da Vinci”.

Silly but funny? will.i.am at The Louvre

JAMIE EDWARDS

Rembrandt.i.am

Stumbled across this on t’internet and I’m conflicted. Is it brilliant? Is it terrible? Or just plain weird? I won’t know, maybe it’s all those things. I’ve gotta say that will.i.am’s face super-imposed on the Old Masters is quite funny, but the new captions on the frames are better: “Rembrandt.i.am”! Even funnier still is the moment Scherzinger begins warbling as the Mona Lisa. 

 

New Caravaggio found in attic?

JAMIE EDWARDS

BBC reports that a new Caravaggio might just have been discovered in the attic of a house in Toulouse. The picture, showing Judith Beheading Holofernes, came to light two years ago (on the occasion of trying to mend a leaking roof apparently). It subsequently fell into the hands of Eric Turquin (pictured below alongside the painting in question), who now suspects that the painting is another autograph version of Caravaggio’s famous Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598/99; Palazzo Barberini, Rome).

The French Government has placed a 30-month export bar on the picture. In the meantime, analysts at The Louvre are working on ascertaining an attribution; should they authenticate it as a genuine Caravaggio, the French Government will have first dibs on acquiring it.

Caravaggio, Rome

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598/99; Palazzo Barberini, Rome)

New Caravaggio? AFP:Getty Images

New Caravaggio? AFP:Getty Images

I’m no Caravaggio expert, but when you put reproductions of the “new” Caravaggio next to the version in Rome, the former doesn’t seem “right”–the composition’s a bit clumsy; the flesh colours a bit stark; the curtains behind, a tad sharp and staccato. These comments come, of course, with the important caveat that they are being offered about a pretty bad reproduction of a painting that is supposed to have spent its recent history under a leaky roof, so caution is needed. However, the fact that Caravaggio courted such a huge following, the so-called Caravaggisti, seems to me to be clearly relevant and imposes yet another reason to be cautious about making excited pronouncements about this discovery. I’m sure that The Louvre will be able to shed some light when their investigations begin to yield answers.

 

One week to go: Flatpack Film Festival

OLIVER STEVENSON (Finalist; Student Ambassador for Flatpack)

FFFX_hires_widescreen-centred_ten_WEB

At the end of April (19th-24th), Birmingham will be taken over by Flatpack Film Festival for the tenth time. From its beginnings in a Digbeth pub and a Balsall Heath attic, Flatpack has grown and spread, and has become, over the course of a decade, an important week in Birmingham’s cultural calendar. Flatpack 10 will include shorts, documentaries, parties, installations, workshops, exhibitions and new features in venues all over the city from Brummie classics, such as the BMAG and The Electric Cinema to Centrala in Minerva Works and, for the last three days of the festival, in Action Space. “What is Action Space?” I hear you cry, well Action Space is new. An inflatable venue that will be right outside Birmingham Council House. It has to be seen to be believed.

I was lucky enough last year to go to some of the Flatpack 9 events, including a screening of the fantastic Sex & Broadcasting, a documentary about the independent, freeform radio station WFMU run out of Jersey City (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, I urge you to look it up). Though my personal highlight was a dinner party, but no usual dinner party. The installation The Dog House at Stryx, in Minerva Works, was what the festival described as ‘a dinner with a difference’. It involved being sat at a table with four others, all of us donning Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles, in order to experience a Danish family’s dinner time and all the dramas that ensue during. Before you sat down you had no idea what to expect or which character you’d be–I went with my girlfriend and she ended up being my boyfriend in the film. Each pair of goggles showed the film from a different character’s perspective so you end up discussing what you, and the others, saw. It was a truly unique and unreal experience that aimed to show the future of cinema (though by the time this kind of cinema becomes all the rage I’m hoping that the technology has evolved to make you feel less motion sick).

The Doghouse Installation1

The Dog House at Stryx; Minerva Works

Flatpack is a truly wonderful festival that brings so much to Birmingham. Though The Doghouse isn’t running this year, there is so much more to get involved with and have a try at. Go and see a film at The Electric Cinema (I am thinking of going and seeing the brilliantly named Chuck Norris Vs. Communism); go and see incredible light-paintings by the Japanese artists Tochka at the Ikon (which conveniently would also mean you get to see their Dan Flavin exhibition); explore the demonic presence in Birmingham with local historian Ben Waddington at Satan’s Birmingham; or join in with the lunar lunacy at the free Full Moon Party on the Friday of the festival (it’s free!).

Flatpack is definitely something that is worth getting involved in, and none of the events take place more than half an hour away from campus. The full programme is hereso don’t just take my word for it, go and book something and escape from the harsh realities of exams and deadlines just before the new term starts. It might just change your life.

Restoring Joachim Wtewael at the NG

JAMIE EDWARDS

Another excellent video by the National Gallery here, about the marvellous Jill Dunkerton’s work to restore their Raising of Lazrus (about 1605) by Joachim Wtewael. As Dunkerton explains, the picture was a right old mess just a few years ago, and this video charts her painstaking work to bring it back to something like its original glory.

Fascinating stuff, and another good example of how important conscientious conservation is for the preservation of important works of art for future generations to enjoy.

PS sorry about the lack of action recently (writing, writing, writing!). Many new posts coming next week!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 462 other followers

%d bloggers like this: