Tag Archives: Museo del Prado

Pestilence in Palermo – Van Dyck in Sicily

15 Feb

As many of you will know, I’m somewhat geographically challenged.  When I was studying, I found a quick and easy way from home to the Strand.  As a result, when I drive around London (and I mean anywhere in London), I operate rather like a homing pigeon.  I can get to pretty much anywhere as long as I plan my route around the Strand.  So you can imagine my delight when the online route planner advised me to go exactly that way to get to the Dulwich Picture Gallery on Tuesday morning.  And better than that, the route then continued past VAULT.  I couldn’t stay away even for a day.

I got to Dulwich without any real mishaps and managed to park outside the Picture Gallery.  What a relaxing way to travel – well, apart from the traffic, speed cameras and red lights but that’s all par for the course.  At least I had heating the whole way!

Anyway, the reason for my visit to the other side of London was the opening of Dulwich’s new Van Dyck exhibition which focuses on the year and a half he spent in Sicily.  The exhibition brings together all 16 of the works believed to have been executed during his stay in Palermo.  Normally, when we think of Van Dyck we think of Charles I or the Swagger portraits and, until now, very little study has been devoted to this earlier period.

Van Dyck exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Own photograph.

The key point to be aware of here is that Van Dyck only spent a short amount of time in Sicily and his paintings were quite time-consuming enterprises.  I warn you of this because I was initially surprised by the size of the show – half the normal amount of rooms used for Dulwich’s temporary exhibitions.  Admittedly, the three rooms used here are beautifully curated with deep purple and dark grey walls.  Although compact, it’s full of personality –the exuberance of Van Dyck, Dulwich and the curator, Xavier Salomon.  It’s a dramatic exhibition.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, Prince of Oneglia, 1624.  Courtesy of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Hearing Xavier give his exhibition tour took me back to my days at The Courtauld when he taught a survey course in my 1st year.  Until 1999 it had been thought that Van Dyck only spent four months in Palermo but recent discoveries, made possible by the Sicilian state archives, have been able to prove the full time frame using legal documents, invoices and papers regarding commissions.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, St Rosalie in Glory, 1624. Courtesy of The Menil Collection, Houston and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Here, we are told the story of how Van Dyck arrived in Palermo in 1624 expecting to complete a commission to paint Viceroy Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy and head home.  But, things didn’t go quite to plan.  In May 1624, a ship from Tunis arrived at the busy port of Palermo carrying with it bubonic plague which, by December that year, had killed off most of the population.  Surrounded by death, catastrophe and disaster, Van Dyck had little choice but to prolong his stay and, amidst this panic, he set up studio, establishing a practice and producing a variety of works for local clients – many of which are thought to remain undiscovered.  Towards the end of summer, the bones of Saint Rosalia were discovered in a nearby cave and carried in procession through the city; after which the plague ceased and Saint Rosalia was declared Palermo’s protector.  In the final room, the exhibition brings together Van Dyck’s images of the patron saint.

The painting loaned from the Prado is the smallest of all his images of her and is particularly moving.  Although this is compositionally similar to the others, Van Dyck painted Rosalia in many different guises.  In this devotional image, she looks up to heaven while an angel offers her a crown of roses.  In her left hand she holds a skull, referencing the recent mortalities of the plague and the iconography of hermit saints, while her right clutches her breast and heart.  These paintings were made as forms of prayer and to give thanks to God and Rosalia for their benevolence which ended the city’s suffering (better late than never – Van Dyck himself must have been grateful for his survival).

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Saint Rosalia, c. 1625. Courtesy of Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

The painting of the Viceroy is one of the highlights of the permanent collection here.  It is incredibly rare for the armour seen in the painting to have survived in such good condition and it is an interesting juxtaposition and point of comparison to see them side-by-side.  Armour was a very valuable possession (described by Xavier as the Porsche or Ferrari of the day) and, ironically, at the time, would have been worth more than any of the paintings now on show here.  But this image is a definitive one showing the viceroy majestically armoured and prepared against his enemies.  Sadly, shortly after the painting was finished and by July of that year, he too had been lost to the plague after leaving the confines of his palace to access the situation and inspect the city.

Maestro del Castello de Tre Torri, Armour of Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, c. 1606. Courtesy of Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Room two focuses on two large devotional works, that were most probably painted for the aristocracy of the island, as well as two highly emotive portraits of Sofonisba Anguissola.  A fragment of a larger portrait that has been cut down on all sides, Sofonisba Anguissola (1624) is touching evidence of the young artist’s encounter with an aged celebrity painter.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Sofonisba Anguissola, 1624.  Courtesy of the Sackville Collection, Knole and Matthew Hollow Photography and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

This is a historical exhibition, using a limited number of paintings to elucidate a period of history.  The self-portrait of Van Dyck seen at the start is not actually from the period in Palermo (but through x-rays we actually know that he did paint a self-portrait under one of the paintings of Rosalia).  He’s dressed as an aristocrat – a young Flemish dandy arriving in Palermo.  He was dressed in rich attire and used to the company of noblemen.  He knew he was something special – a point that we see emphatically by looking at this exhibition.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Self-Portrait, 1620-21. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

In contrast to the Picasso exhibition, I wish this show had been bigger.  But, no more works remain so that is hardly the fault of Dulwich or the curators and, in a way, it is refreshing to see such dedicated focus and concentration.  They haven’t tried to pad it out. This is a tight-knit, story-board exhibition.

Alongside this, the Picture Gallery are showing Ragamala Painting from India to highlight the work of Tilly Kettle, a relatively unknown artist from their permanent collections.  This is not so much a curated exhibition but a collection of 24 rarely seen objects.  A ragmala is a set of miniature paintings depicting various musical modes of Indian music.  Each painting is accompanied by a brief caption or poem, most frequently focused around love.  These were tactile objects for private consumption and were never intended to be seen on display.  Magnifying glasses have been provided to allow you to get up close and personal with the miniatures.  I didn’t really have the time to inspect these properly as I had spent a considerable time in the Van Dyck exhibition and I needed to head back to meetings, over Waterloo Bridge of course – where else?

Bhairava Raga, Pahari, Nurpur, c.1690. Courtesy of the Claudio Moscatelli Collection and Matthew Hollow Photography and via www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Ragmala Paintings from India: Poetry, Passion, Song and Van Dyck in Sicily: Painting and the Plague are both at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 27th May 2012, www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.

Advertisements

Fond Memories of The Courtauld: The Spanish Line

28 Dec

The Spanish Line explores the diversity of the Spanish drawings in The Courtauld’s own collections, spanning from the Renaissance to Modern periods – although the majority of works date from the 17th century.  This exhibition allows the wonderful Prints and Drawings department to unleash some of its magic and display a mere fraction of their 3,000 strong collection.

With approximately 100 works on paper, The Courtauld holds one of the most important collections of Spanish drawings, outside Spain.  This is the first exhibition in London to focus on the tradition of Spanish draughtsmanship and marks the culmination of a major, four-year, research project; one of its aims is to highlight how Spanish artists drew inspiration from the Dutch and Flemish schools – their work and ideas having been transmitted through the study of prints, as can now be seen, in part, by the bold graphic lines of the drawings.  That this exhibition has been managed by a drawings’ curator is instantly apparent – the works are well-lit and well-hung and provisions have been made to allow us to see the recto and verso of some sheets.

The Spanish Line at The Courtauld. Own photograph.

An exhibition of Spanish drawings has to include the extraordinary drawings of Jusepe de Ribera – although I will not go into detail about his work here, the subtlety of his line illustrates his exemplary skill.  The exhibition is broadly chronological with many highlights including Juan de Juanes’s Saint Stephen taken to his martyrdom, produced in preparation for an altarpiece, now housed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, that is celebrated as one of the early masterpieces of Spanish art.

Jusepe de Ribera, Man tied to a tree and a figure resting, 17th century. Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk

In fact, every drawing is notable.  The Nine Worthies of Antiquity and Modern Worthies (c.1683-85), attributed to Matias de Torres, is a sheet of small drawings, probably intended as models for educational playing cards, displaying illustrious ancient and biblical heroes alongside modern worthies.   The detail is gorgeous and figures include Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar with moderns such as the Emperors Charles V and Leopold I.

Another work that really stood out was Antonio del Castillo y Saavedra’s Four studies of the head of a young man (c. 1645-55). I love studying studies and researching the unknown, looking at the purpose of a drawing – more of that later though.  This work demonstrates the artist’s great skill with pen and ink.  Symmetrically arranged in two rows, the heads leave space for the artist’s monogram, AC, at the centre – an unusual inclusion in a preparatory sketch.  It, therefore, seems likely that the sheet may have served either as a model for studio assistants or as a design for a pattern book.

Antonio del Castillo y Saavedra, Four studies of the head of a young man, c. 1645-55. Image via www.criticscircle.org.uk

Tucked away on one of the far walls, quite separate from the other works is Study of a left hand (c. 1685-1800).  I couldn’t help but stop to reminisce.  Early on in my Masters at The Courtauld, sitting in the Prints and Drawings room, we were presented with folded up pieces of paper that we each had to pick from a hat (or some such).  They were ‘mystery’ works and at the time I thought I pulled the short straw – a study of a hand by John Vanderbank.  At first, I was rather horrified and, by the end of my essay, I never wanted to see a Vanderbank sketch again.  Strangely, now I can’t walk past a study of a hand without fond memories resurfacing – isn’t it funny how things turn out?

John Vanderbank, Study of a Man’s Hand, c.1727-39 (?). Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk

The hand has always been given primary importance in preparatory studies, such as Albrecht Dűrer’s Study of Praying Hands (1508), and Leonardo da Vinci’s A Study of a Woman’s Hands (1490) and its gestures can lead to the understanding of a finished work.  The anatomical construction of the hand makes it the most pliable part of the body, able to contort around any object; its complexity allows the artist great dexterity and innovation in its depictions.  Considered by artists as particularly demanding to render, the convention of drawing hands is long established.  My hand – Vanderbank’s Study of a Man’s Hand also, of course, from The Courtauld’s own collections – appeared to be a preparatory sketch for a painting.  I was able to establish it was an elegant hand (seen through the unblemished skin and the choice of costume), the drawing of which broadly conformed to a conventional pattern of using chalk on coloured paper for preparatory studies: initially a method championed by Sir Anthony Van Dyck and mediated through intervening generations.  Through the positioning of ‘my’ hand, I was able to ascertain that the study may have been for either John Michael Rysbrack (c. 1728), or A Youth of the Lee Family, Probably William Lee of Totteridge Park (1738) but the highly conventional pose did make it difficult to link it to any one painting.  I could get carried away quite easily here but I think enough is enough…

Albrecht Dűrer, Study of Praying Hands, 1508. Image via www.wga.hu

The hand is far more important than you may originally realise and there were even books written on the language of the hand and how gesture can be used to communicate and show intention.  The preparatory drawing of body parts was not an innovative practice and follows a well-established lineage of portraiture and gesture, which conveyed the social and aesthetic values of the time.  Portrait drawing, the importance of which is stressed in artists’ manuals, encompasses many different categories including drawings for the sitter’s retention and studies executed from life, used to help complete the finished portrait.  These preparatory works were conventional forms of studio practice. This Spanish hand, in black and white chalk on faded grey blue paper, reaches towards the viewer in a startlingly direct manner.  It appears to have been drawn as part of an exercise in foreshortening and the careful modelling is typical of academic studies.  It is unclear whether a live model was used or whether the drawing was made from a plaster cast but the sheet is certainly an example of early academic practice in Spain, which began informally in Seville in the 1660s.

Study of a left hand, c.1685-1800. Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk

Possibly the most famous Spanish draughtsman is Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes whose work stands out for its energy and freedom of execution.  Goya pushed the conventional boundaries of drawing, experimenting with stain drawings where he rubbed and brushed ink onto the paper leaving different textures and marks.  In fact, only one Goya is included in the exhibition alongside, a Eugenio Lucas y Padilla (c. 1845-60), a Baldemiro Galofre y Ximenez (c. 1880-90) and two Pablo Picasso’s.  Picasso’s Pigs (1906) was made when he spent a summer in Gosol with Gertrude Stein.  It was the year they first met and they quickly formed a strong friendship.  As one of the most regarded female writers of her time, Stein saw herself as an equal rather than a patron although she already owned a number of Picasso’s works in her collection.  This charming drawing was almost certainly Picasso’s gift to Stein who ‘was always fond of pigs’.  His command of line is effortless.  Pigs is delightful and shows Picasso’s skill – he has made something so simple, wonderful to behold.

Pablo Picasso, Pigs, 1906. Image via www.artandarchitecture.org.uk

The Courtauld’s last exhibition had nearly 100,000 visitors in three months and it seems this show is also doing well.  The Courtauld is obviously right not to underestimate the public, as so many other galleries do, and deserves praise for providing us with such specialised exhibitions.  As the lift was out of order (something I became used to at the Institute), I had to totter back down the uneven spiral stairs, watching my step and trying not to make too dramatic an exit.

The Spanish Line:  Drawings from Ribera to Picasso is at The Courtauld Gallery until 15th January 2012, www.courtauld.ac.uk.

%d bloggers like this: