Sunday, January 10, 2016

Making Connections at The Groeninge

Still-life with Snail Shells and Feather.
 On Saturday working in the house on various walls and floors to either build or consolidate and work up the various surfaces of wood, lime, ceramic tiles and paint seems like a process of creating a harder and relatively more permanent outer shell around a softer and more transient body, and like a snail or seashell, inhabiting it for a while before this aggregate of form, feeling, perception, volition and consciousness which is called 'I' dissolves and gives way to others that will occupy its place inside the abandoned 'shell', rather like a succession of hermit crabs. 

On Sunday morning after breakfast I visited the Groeninge Museum. Edmund van Hove was 62 years old when he died the year before the outbreak of the first world war which was to have such a devastating impact in Flanders. Born in 1851 he was 28 when he painted this self portrait which features in a small exhibition 'Mythische Primitieven' about the romantic rediscovery of early Flemish painters in Bruges, especially Hans Memling and Jan van Eyck, as part of the 19th century Gothic revival.

Edmund van Hove. Self-Portrait 1879
'The Saint Virgin Inspiring the Arts'
In the exhibition was another painting by Van Hove, a rather sickly sentimental pastel toned homage to the Mary as 'The Saint Virgin Inspiring the Arts' The figure of Mary with the Christ Child is seated on a raised throne in the middle of the painting like Van Eyck's famous 'Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele' and countless other 'sacra conversazione' compositions. In this pyramidal arrangement she appears to be receiving in the foreground the female personifications of architecture, sculpture, painting and music, identifiable from their iconographic attributes. In the background beyond the room we see portraits of famous artists from the past including the poet Dante, and the artists Raphael and Michelangelo, amongst others, and behind them in the far distance views of Rome and Bruges. Although there was clearly a tradition of Mary inspiring artists, (I am thinking of Rogier Van de Weyden's painting of St Luke making a portrait of the Virgin Mary in the same museum), Van Hove's painting feels very much like a reworking of a theme that would perhaps have been be more usually presented, in a less Catholic context, with a classical Greaco-Roman mythological and iconographic scheme.

Reconstruction of the west pediment of the Parthenon according to drawing by K. Schwerzek.
Athena Parthenos was both a virgin and warrior, for instance, and apart from being the patroness of the city named after her, was also the goddess of wisdom, courage, justice, civilization, inspiration and arts and crafts.

This frieze on the facade of the Greek temple like Royal Exchange in London shows the central crowned figure of 'commerce', like a goddess, surrounded by the city officials and various traders of different nationalities, religions and cultures from around the globe. The appropriation of already appropriated forms.
The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele

Seated in front of Van Eyck's great painting of the Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele it seemed to me that this illusionistic 'tour de force' was and is as much about the nature of artistic creativity as human fertility and divine inspiration. Just as in St. John's Gospel, 'the word is made flesh' 'et verbum caro factum est' through the incarnation, so the artist also creates a visually coherent world of convincing space and form from light and colour in the material of pigment and oil and the 'miracle' of human artistry, paying homage meanwhile to a world of parallel arts and crafts which include architecture, stone carving, ceramics, glass, metalwork and jewelry was well as sumptuous textiles, particularly silk and gold embroidered damasks that appear to reflect a shimmering light more convincingly than real gold - which  Van Eyck never actually used in his paintings.  

'Making Connections' featured the extraordinary sequences of small oil paintings of  Robert Devriendt whose obsessive detail and vibrant and sometimes lurid colour had a hyper-realism that harked back to the early Flemish masters like Memling and Van Eyck who were the first to exploit this medium's full potential for realism. Devriendt's small paintings looks like film stills from a contemporary detective TV series in which sexual politics, involving games of power and money, lead to exploitation, violence and revenge. In this morally ambivalent world of melodrama and ironic humour with its cinematic feel and sense of suspense that reminded me of Edward Hopper, the sensual and static quality of oil paint on canvas holds us in a meditative freeze frame instance that lasts long enough for us to see the perhaps deeper themes of nature reclaiming lives played out with stilettos and kalashnikovs in luxury vehicles, underground car parks, designer villas, and remote woods where unsolved crimes are committed and unfulfilled desires are quenched in sudden violent deaths and consumed by fire and earth. There is just enough missing from the implied narrative to suggest different possible interpretations for the viewer whose imagination can fill in various possible scenarios and outcomes into the missing links depending on what they bring to the process themselves.

Robert Devriendt, A Voyeur’s Devotion, 2012 (Sequence of 4 paintings) Oil on canvas — one piece

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