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

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Attachment and loss at Waterstones

Impressed by the quality of the materials, design and story I bought little B this children's book for Christmas at Waterstones. William Blake’s poem Eternity inspired the story about Fox who lives in the forest and looses his dear friend Star and it is Waterstones book of the year.

“He who binds to himself a joy 
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies 
Lives in eternity’s sun rise”
"I am all about the physical book" said Bickford-Smith. " We haven't released The Fox and the Star as an ebook because I dont think it would work -its all about the paper. I wanted to create something which harked back to the beautiful visual thinking of William Morris and William Blake, so that people would really appreciate the book as an object"   
                                                                                       Quoted from the Guardian online

15th Century Immigration Crisis

 The website 'England’s Immigrants 1330-1550' is described as 'a fully-searchable database containing over 64,000 names of people known to have migrated to England during the period of the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Death, the Wars of the Roses and the Reformation.'

It contains records of 1139 'Flemings' resident in England in this period, 34 of whom where from Bruges.
Part of a letter of denization
It is interesting to wonder what John Hughson (clearly an anglicised name) was escaping when he left Bruges. His occupation is described as a 'spicer' and his letters of denization, granting legal rights and protections, where made on 26th July 1475, ten years prior to the Battle of Bosworth which established the Tudor dynasty. Was it war, politics, religion or economics in the low countries that brought this skilled immigrant to England?  It is not recorded in which town or city he was resident or other details of his life. Was he married, did he have children or establish a business or trade in spices, did he prosper and integrate or meet with prejudice as a stranger ?

As as English immigrant in Bruges I feel a certain empathy for John Hughson and his ilk.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

New Year Renovations

Lancaster with a view of the castle and Lakeland fells
Spent Christmas with the family, young and old, in Heysham, Lancashire and Todmorden, West Yorkshire, amid scenes of flood devastation across the North of England in the most hard hit areas although luckily we escaped the worst of the weather without power cuts or water damage and Lancaster on the days I arrived and left was bathed in mild winter sunshine. At the labyrinthine second hand bookshop in Carnforth I bought and read 'Rats, Lice and History' by Hans Zinsser which gives an oblique historical perspective on diseases and how the lives of insects and men are inter-connected. From the point of view of 'kamma', or the ripening of volitional action into its corresponding fruit, this is something to consider perhaps every time a spider is trapped in the bathtub.

Swinside stone circle. late Neolithic
On an early morning walk around Heysham Head I found myself musing about the juncture of ancient and modern 'power lines'. Look south and there are the two nuclear power stations as controversial as the one at Windscale, now Sellafield, over the sands on the Cumbrian coast, which was the site of Britain's worst nuclear power accident involving a fire in 1957. Look north across the treacherous sands of Morecambe Bay and the recumbent form of Black Combe rises gently from the coast of the Irish Sea. Lying in its flank is Swinside or Sunkenkirk stone circle which the stone age people of The Barrows, for whom Heysham Head was an a burial ground, must have known about. Perhaps they looked from these coastal cliffs towards the mountains of the Lake District, connected by a network of similar stone circles, and felt the signification of these collective and ritual lines of energy and communication between people, times and places.  

The site has one of only three pre-Roman labyrinth carvings in Britain and Ireland, the ruins of the 8th century St Patrick's chapel, which local legend says he founded when he landed here, and 11th century rock cut tombs. Below this the small St. Peter's church dates from 14th century with pre-Norman conquest, Saxon and Viking remains, which include a rare hogback Viking tomb. Adding my regular comings and goings here to the many before me I am struck by the long memory of the stones.

St Peter's church in spring

  We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration

T S Elliot, The Four Quartets, Little Gidding. 

Returning laden with my mother's boiled fruit cake and supplies of Stilton cheese I spent the second week of the holiday working in Bruges with Patrick making a new kitchen step from the hall with terracotta tiles and lime plaster on brick and laying the kitchen and bathroom tiles. Before and after scenes reveal this is still a work in progress. 

Most exciting is the limecrete hall floor with its two breathable membranes and expanded clay ball layer and sand, lime and aggregate mix which has worked very well and is level, hard, dry and ready now for me to lay Patrick's reclaimed 17th/18th century handmade bricks in herringbone pattern before sanding and cleaning them and treating them with a mixture of linseed oil and turpentine. All the floor surfaces will have natural materials in subtle and restrained colours with different textures, patterns and rhythms transitioning through the old house to the new kitchen and integrating with the lime plastered walls

My efforts to speak the West Flanders version of Dutch is not very good and attempts at pronouncing schilt ende vriend (Shield and Friend) from the Bruges Matins, when the rebellious citizens used this phrase as a test to find all the Frenchmen in the city and kill them before the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302, comes out more like Scheel ende Vriend which means 'cross eyed friend'. I would have almost certainly been massacred, although being English might have saved me.

I am not sure what they would have thought in the 14th century about the Mexicans carved into the 'traditional' Flemish fireplace with its 19th century Dutch tiles, made and installed over a much older fireplace in the 1960s by the previous occupants.  Perhaps they would not have found them so strange, after all Bruges was probably one of the most international cities in Europe at the time. In 1520 Albrecht Durer saw Montezuma's treasures sent by Cortez from Mexico to the Queen of Spain on display in Brussels as part of the entourage of the Emperor Charles V and said this. 

All the days of my life I have seen nothing that has gladdened my heart so much as these things,  for I saw amongst them wonderful works of art, and I marvelled at the subtle ingenia of men in foreign lands, indeed, I cannot express all that I thought there.

A World History of Art.  Hugh Honour and John Fleming

I have finally found a place for the English 'Delft' tiles I made in Malta 20 years ago, after much trial and error, based on designs found in Jonathon Horn's 'English Tin-Glazed Tiles' and the techniques described in Daphne Carnegy's book, 'Tin Glazed Earthenware.'

The development, quality and character of European pottery without the influence of north African and far Eastern ceramics would have been much poorer. Arab technology in the tin-opacified white glazes and Chinese Ming dynasty blue and white porcelain designs fused with the European figurative tradition in Renaissance and Baroque pictorial and decorative schemes, creating in turn Majolica, Faenza and Deruta ceramics as well as Dutch Delftware tiles and the Portuguese Baroque azulejos as the influences spread from the Mediterranean into Northern Europe. 

Elsewhere in the house oak beam renovations with a simple galvanized steel extension are a prelude to the more extensive woodwork planned for the new and repaired floors, windows and doors.

Below are some photos of the various stages in stripping back pine paneling, scraping, cleaning and consolidating certain internal composite walls in living room and in particular around an oak beam embedded in masonry and anchored to the front and back wall before pointing, dubbing out, and plastering with first a scratch coat then floating coat of lime which in this case is the final coat. Evidently from the remaining oak lintels either an earlier door and/or windows have been later bricked up, and it took some significant effort to chip off the cement layer that was plastered over these bricks. 

Finally burning the recycled wooden pallets brought by P in the new wood-stove has kept the house warm and cheerful during work in a remarkably mild winter.  15 months since the start of the process it really feels as though it has reached half way and turned a corner although there is still much to do.