Monday, October 28, 2013

Framing time and space in Flanders and Italy

Revisited recently 'Het Lamb God' in Gent's St Bavo's Cathedral, the largest and most famous polyptych of the early Northern Renaissance by the brothers Jan and Hubert Van Eyck who are credited with inventing oil painting. But it is the less well known works of the Flemish masters, encountered yesterday at 'The Heritage of Rogier van de Weyden' exhibition in Brussels that enchant with their quirky observations of daily life framed by the carved stone or wooden lintels of windows and doors.  
An expressive face and the gesture of hands, a richly brocaded floral pattern on the fabric of an elaborate costume or the glint of shiny metal armour or gemstones on the hilt of a sword; the details of flowers, plants and trees carefully observed in a rocky landscape, or distant mountains or the towers and spires of a town on the horizon. There is often humour and whimsy; a small lap dog staring out at the viewer, a butterfly, toad or composite monstrous creatures, demons or dragons, there is even an oversized fly (actual size for the viewer) in perfect trompe l' oeil on the white silk dress of the woman in the far left hand corner of the central panel of the "Triptych of the Miracles of Christ", painted between 1491-1995,  which came all the way from Australia for the exhibition.    
Clearly the artists while commissioned to represent these stories felt no compunction to keep to the letter of the biblical text but creatively interpreted the stories in an imaginative contemporary context, packing them with the kind of ostentatious show of painted wealth and status that a courtly patron, often also suitably represented with their own heavenly patrons, might desire and own in actuality. Here sacred and secular worlds neatly dovetail into and legitimise each other, church and court in collusion to present an image of the ideal world in a theologically ordered cosmos, and supporting the artists and artisans who supplied the goods in their various crafts and guilds including the miracle of painting itself - with its very own patron St Luke. 
St. Luke Painting the Virgin. Studio of Dieric Bouts 1415 (Haarlem) -1475 (Leuven)

What is striking is how the conventions of the picture frame itself, often an elaborate architectural structure like a triptych with folding panels opening like a window or door to reveal further frames within frames, is an integral part of the whole conceit. Sometimes the side of a room or building is removed, like in a doll's house to reveal the interior spaces and further views are then framed through painted windows and doors. The picture itself is like the side of a box which has been taken off to reveal the space within through the illusions of perspective and the play of light on various forms in chiaroscuro.  Often different times and spaces are framed to create episodes in a narrative sequence that runs through the picture, with the same central characters in recognisable dress  occurring in various tableaux at each stage in the story like a repeating musical or visual motif in a pattern. This kaleidoscopic vision is unified into the present moment by the viewer whose eye unfolds the narrative, simultaneously reading and experiencing both the internal logic of the picture and the subjective pleasure of pure visual sensation.  
Painting is like a door in a wall which opens to reveal a Hortus Conclusus, a secret garden to delight the senses and engage the mind, a quiet retreat for contemplation and reflection. The silent world of these jewel like paintings is both magic and real, highly decorated and ornate with an intense feeling for texture, pattern and surface rendered with loving detail and often all the dramatic tension, moral certitude and gory realism of a murder mystery, the iconographic clues to which can be read in the attributes, gestures and faces of the main protagonists for the amateur sleuth and art historian  
At 'The Academia' in Venice in Marco Basaiti's 'Agony in the Garden', originally painted for The Church of San Giobbe, the picture frame itself integrates with the architecture of the loggia forming one side of the four arched rib vaulted section  under which St Francis and the other saints look towards the garden which lies outside the opposite arch and beyond the tiled floor. Here the disciples, in the middle ground, are asleep below a small hill on which Christ is seen kneeling in prayer whilst in the distance descending the path from a hill top town the solders who will arrest him are heading towards the scene.  This is the calm before the storm - the moment of optimal dramatic tension to which the saints in the loggia direct our attention as though to a framed picture which is in the same 'real' space they  inhabit - all they need to do is walk through the arch to be in the garden  
Marco Basaiti  'Agony in the Garden'  
The story unfolds in time and space within each frame, the spatial illusion unfolding with the scientific logic of perspective from the background of the picture through the middle ground towards the foreground and ultimately outside the frame to the viewer in the actual world of the immediate present.  Painting becomes an intersection through which one can travel backwards and forwards in time and space, both real and imaginary. Mundane and supra-mundane, relative and absolute time and space converge in an elaborate and sophisticated visual play of pictorial composition. The picture is a continuing event in which each viewer is an active participant in the process of both un-folding and 'in-folding its meaning and context.

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