Thursday, January 16, 2014

An Exhibition Of Dutch Genre Paintings On Loan From The Mauritshuis.

Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds, c. 1670 - 75.

I recently went to the Frick's exhibition of Dutch Golden Age paintings, on loan from the Mauritshuis. It is small, only fifteen paintings, but absolutely fabulous----really gorgeous!  Unfortunately it closes in a couple of days, so you'll have to run if you want to catch it!  The Frick has given Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) the place of honor in the show, making it clear that it is meant to be the star attraction.  But while it is undeniably beautiful, I don't think it is the most interesting aspect of the exhibition.   Rather, I think the show in its entirety provides a compelling, insightful and fun look at the seventeenth century Dutch mindset.  It offers a representative sampling of Dutch genre painting.  The subject matter includes still lifes, landscapes, domestic scenes and portraits that, by and large, depict the everyday life of ordinary middle class folk, in marked contrast to much of what was being produced elsewhere in Europe at the time.  It is the seeming ordinariness of the images that makes Dutch art of this period seem so relatable:  That is its special appeal!
Gerard ter Borch, Woman Writing a Letter,
c. 1655.

The seventeenth century was the era of Baroque painting in Europe; while it is largely identified with Catholicism and a Counter-Reformation movement, some of the characteristics that typified Baroque art, such as exaggerated contrasts of light and shadow and saturated color, are present in the works of artists such as  Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer----all represented in this show.  But supernatural, mythological elements that typified much Baroque art are markedly absent from the Dutch Golden Age.  The main reason being that Dutch Calvinism did not allow religious art in churches.  As a consequence, the Dutch artists by and large eschewed religious subject matter in favor of landscapes, still lifes, domestic scenes and other things drawn from everyday, secular experience.  (There are two exceptions represented here, Simeon's Song of Praise and Susanna, both painted by Rembrandt----one of the few Dutch artists of the era to paint biblical scenes.)  Ruisdael's landscape (shown above) is representative of the secular strain:  The workers in his fields are barely visible, they have been reduced to mere specks; there are no larger-than-life entities astride his land, no angels in his skies.  While the clouds that dominate his landscapes may be more evocative than scientifically accurate, they are, nevertheless, just natural formations devoid of supernatural elements.  His is a vision shared by such seventeenth century thinkers as Newton:  In the newly discovered infiniteness of the universe, humans have been reduced to insignificance.

When I think of Dutch seventeenth century painting, what comes to mind foremost are detailed scenes of domestic life----the sort Vermeer is famous for.  Unfortunately, the only Vermeer included in the show is the portrait, Girl with a Pearl Earring.  However,  several Vermeer's from the Frick's permanent collection, which I think are more representative of his oeuvre and Dutch genre painting in general, are on display elsewhere in the museum.
Jan Steen, As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young, c. 1665.

In this show the domestic scenes are by Gerard ter Borch (Woman Writing a Letter, above), Jan Steen (Girl Eating Oysters, c. 1658, and As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young, left) and Nicholas Maes, (The Old Lacemaker, c. 1655).  These genre painters depicted scenes of everyday life and ordinary people with a detailed realism representative of traditions passed down from earlier Netherlandish painters such as Pieter Bruegel.  And, apparently, they shared the earlier artists' love of proverbs too!  Indeed a certain Calvinist puritanism seems to have been common in the Dutch Golden Age.  While Jan Steen's paintings appear at first blush to be more or less straightforward depictions of daily life, they are thought not to show real people. Instead, they are thought to be populated with stock characters such as one would find in a theatre troupe (apparently, Steen had an uncle who belonged to such).  Steen's scenes are arranged in a stagey manner to deliver the pictorial equivalent of declamations against bad behavior.  But, while his paintings are moralistic, the admonitions are leavened with humor; in fact his paintings are rather fun.  Colorful, and even chaotic,  they  portray various manner of bad behavior with only subtle hints to suggest a moral.  Everyone in Steen's As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young looks to be having quite the jolly old time.  It is ostensibly a family celebration, but the proverbial warning of the title appears on the pages the old woman holds, alerting the viewer that this is a lesson!  More subtly, a parrot and a pipe are meant to suggest symbolically that adults' bad example is imitated by their young.  The use of symbols to convey moralistic or proverbial messages seems to have been popular with the seventeenth century Dutch; they appear in other works in the show as well.
Pieter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life, 1630.

Domestic scenes weren't the only venues for Dutch moralizing, as Pieter Claesz's still life, Vanitas (1630) makes clear.  The painting is meant as an allegory.  Vanitas is Latin for vanity, and vanitas images are meant as admonishments against attachment to material goods.  The human skull is a reminder of mortality and the time piece, overturned goblet and frayed folios show the impermanence and, therefore, worthlessness of earthly goods.  I know, the painting may sound unbearably grim, but everything is so beautifully done, that the painting seems to embrace the very attachments it is warning against!

While it was apparently important to Dutch artists of the era, to provide moral instruction, they manage to delight the senses as well.  Indeed, the images are so beautifully realized that it is easy enough to miss  the sermon. And, while this show is small, it manages to give a concise synopsis of what the Dutch Golden Age is all about, making for an educational as well as fun view!

Unfortunately, the show ends this Sunday, January 19th.  The Frick is located, 1 East 70th Street, New York, NY  10021.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Magritte Exhibition At MoMA.

The False Mirror, 1929.

Wow!  "The Mystery of the Ordinary," the Magritte show at the Museum of Modern Art, is really something else!  I was blown away!  The exhibition is huge, featuring some eighty paintings, collages and other items.  And, the focus is on the major ideas and themes that animated Magritte's surrealism such as:  Displacement and isolation; the inadequacy of language to accurately represent things; the opposition between perceptions of what is rational and individual psychological experience; and the difference between the illusionism of traditional painting and physical reality. The show deals with the period between 1926 and 1938, when he produced his most important and memorable surrealist works.  I left the exhibition with a new appreciation for Magritte.  I think it's easy to view his art as gimmicky however, given the picture puzzle aspect of much of it; but that is way too facile; although, many of the visual games he plays have a certain adolescent appeal.  (If you saw his paintings when you were a teen, you might remember thinking:  "How cool!"  Or something along those lines.)
The Treachery of Images, 1929.

As this show makes plain, Magritte was more interested in ideas----in making a statement----than in making attractive or decorative paintings.  He wanted his art to challenge conventional perceptions, to make the viewer reconsider their perception of what is rational.  And, while surrealism was very much a product of 1920's-30's Europe, Magritte's art still seems pertinent.  Today television and the internet can make the distinction between reality or not seem rather amorphous at times.  Also, the sense of disquiet and dread that many of his paintings convey still seem to resonate, although the underlying causes are different then they were in pre-war Europe, of course.  Today it is rapidly changing technology, as well as economic instability, that create a sense of unease and uncertainty.  Art movements of a more recent vintage such as pop and conceptual art show the influence of Surrealism; but hey, maybe it's time for a neo-surrealist movement!
The Secret Player, 1027.

Surrealism challenged rationalism and social constraints.  And, Magritte posed that challenge through the illogic of his images:  Objects appear decontextualized, or dream-like, people have inexplicable doubles.  Many of his paintings feature a curtain on each side, as if drawn back for a big reveal of sorts. The effect is----contradictorily----to suggest that a hidden truth is being exposed or that the composition is a conjuror's illusion.  In "The Secret Player" he uses such a device, there a curtain has been pulled back to expose a scene that defies explanation; it has all the logic of a waking dream.  A man and a double of the man play some undefined game in a make-believe forrest of balusters, while a woman in a corset wearing a surgical mask appears from behind a cabinet door.  What does it all mean?  Who knows?  And, although there is nothing particularly dynamic about the way Magritte painted "The Secret Player," The mysteriousness of the scene is undeniably intriguing.

Surrealism had its antecedents in the nineteenth century Romantic and Symbolist movements.  It not only shared an opposition to rationalism with those movements, but like the earlier artists, the surrealists conceived of, and presented reality as basically a mental projection; however, the individual, as conceived by Magritte, seem to have considerably less control over his/her life.  Magritte presents individuals as largely spectators to the drama of life, rather than as primary actors.  He conveys that through recurring motifs, such as:   doppelganger-like doubles;  dream-like imagery; and the use of stage-like curtains pulled back to bracket his compositions.
Not to be Reproduced, 1937.

Some of his double images convey a sort of out-of-body experience, too.  As if the individual is watching their own life unfold at a remove.  That is the sense I get, anyway, from "Not to be Reproduced," Magritte's "portrait" of art collector Edward James.  I love this painting!  Because of the literal manner in which details are painted, it takes a moment to realize that the imagery makes no sense.  That the secondary figure is not a mirror reflection of the foreground figure, but a slightly diminutive double.  And, yet the secondary book cover is indeed a mirror reflection of the one in the foreground.  So, what is happening here?  As with "The Secret Player" and other Magritte's, "Not to be Reproduced" defies rational explanation.  But one thing that is certain is that the universe represented here does not conform to the laws of physics, or logic!

There are a number of Magritte's word paintings in the show too.  Including, what is probably his most famous one:  "The Treachery of Images," which has the image of a pipe with "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" (this is not a pipe) written beneath.  As many have already observed, Magritte is making the point that a painted representation of something is not the thing itself.  "The Treachery of Images" deals with the dichotomy between reality and pictorial representation----between reality and illusionism.   However, most of his word paintings are even more concerned with the difference between linguistic representations and their real life objects.  "The Interpretation of Dreams," 1936 is more typical of his word paintings.   In it, four objects are pictured with written captions, but the words and images don't match.  I suppose the point is that words aren't adequate substitutes for real things any more than visual images are.  I have to admit I'm not a big fan of text in paintings, in Magritte's or anyone else's either.  I think a painting should make its statement visually.  Relying on text to get a message across always seems like a copout to me.
The Threshold of Liberty, 1936.

The show includes some of Magritte's collages, which are of interest only because many of his paintings, such as "The Threshold of Liberty," have a collage-like sensibility.  It looks as if collage may have been the original inspiration for some of his recurring themes such as isolation, displacement and decontextualization.  In "The Threshold," and other paintings, Magritte juxtaposes unrelated images to create an imaginary interior space:  A female torso is adjacent to wood paneling, which is adjacent to jingle bells, which are next to marble paneling, which is on top of lattice work, and so on.  The seeming randomness of the selection of images has a mimetic aspect.  It suggests a process of mental association, in which the connection between things isn't always rational----or obvious.  And, seeing Magritte's collages in the show, was a bit like peeking behind the curtains at his thought process!  Indeed, the comprehensiveness of the show made it possible to gain insight into the development and expansion of all the themes that play a salient part in Magritte's oeuvre.

The Magritte exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art is exhilarating and inspirational!  Many of the works on display grapple with ideas about art that concern artists of all eras:  In particular the difference between illusionism and reality----between the two-dimensionality of a canvas and perspectival illusion.  But, while Magritte's paintings certainly transcend their time, I don't think they could have been produced in any other period or place than 1920's-30's Europe.  His surrealism betrays the widespread interest and cultural influence Freudian psychology had during the era; although, Magritte insisted that his paintings weren't open to psychological interpretation.

The Magritte show is at the Museum of Modern Art until January 12.  11 West 53rd Street, New York, NY  10019.