No Bed for the Cat


Peter Paul Rubens, Annunciation, c. 1628 Oil on canvas, Rubens House, Antwerp.
Image: WGA

It is the same astonishing moment as a thousand times before and after – the same winged and muscular messenger, with the same soft feminine face, the same long golden hair, wearing a yellow tunic, accompanied by a dove and flying babies, interrupting a girl reading while a cat sleeps in the corner – but in a different place, light years away.

This is no baby shower, like the time before. This time the stranger does not bring the pure white flowers of virginity to present to the girl from a deferential distance. There are already flowers in a bulbous glass vase on a round table, red and pink roses unfurling petals the colour of flesh, a red tulip like a licking tongue. The dive-bombing cherubs are about to pelt garlands of more roses, a lover’s gift, on the girl’s head.

It’s not the same girl, or she has changed. She reads the same book, but she is not self-composed like the girl kneeling in a room in Urbino, over twenty years earlier. There is no view of a white castle, the room is dark and the floor is made of wooden nailed planks.

There is no sign of the patriarchal puppeteer in the sky. There is no formality, no inhibition, only the visitor’s knowing smile as he alights, his left hand almost close enough to touch her, and her gasp of expectation. Even the watching cherubs are louche.

This time she is aroused by the visitor’s physical presence and does not attempt to hide her feelings. Illuminated by a beam of light, she rises to meet his passion with her own, her lips parted and her uplifted eyes rolling in trance-like ecstasy. Her longing is mixed with reproach. She is worried about consequences.

She is Psyche in love with Eros, who has flown in through her open window. He is beautiful and persuasive. His power will change her life.

She is not sure she wants him yet.

(Keats, Ode to Psyche, 1819)

It’s not the same cat, either. This one is a tabby, coiled tight in its own sensual world, indifferent to human desires, lying on the hard wooden floor beside a work basket because the girl has forgotten to make a cushioned bed for its sleep.

 

Advertisements

The Cat’s Dream

Federico Fiori Barocci, Annunciation
1592-96 Oil on canvas, Santa Maria degli Angeli, Perugia. Image: WGA

A cat sleeps on a cushion in the corner of a room while a fourteen year-old virgin receives her pregnancy results from a beautiful, transgender visitor, who presents Madonna lilies as a baby shower gift. She smiles sweetly, and lowers her eyes modestly, grateful but not surprised. She accepts the news in the composed manner of a young prima donna receiving the bouquet that her talent deserves.

The visitor has only just arrived, interrupting the girl reading a small, pocket-sized book, which she lays aside instantly, without closing the pages or rising to her feet. The girl reads a lot. She has few possessions apart from her expensively bound books. She reveres their contents, kneeling while she reads. Her room is sparsely furnished, functional; only the voluptuous folds of the dark red drape loosely knotted over the window relieve the cell-like austerity. She cares about the cat’s comfort as much as her own. She has hung her hat and shawl neatly on a hook. The polished stone tiled floor is clean.

Nothing else is normal, and yet the scene is familiar. The visitor, who kneels before the girl as if she is a queen, has wings, and is accompanied by two over-excited flying babies, clapping their hands and gurgling with joy on either side of a hovering dove. The window drape looks like a stage curtain, framing a view of a white turreted castle on a hill, guarding a city beyond, a landscape in fairyland.

Strangest of all, the ceiling has been removed from the room. The billowing curtain blends into clouds that separate to allow a gigantic elderly man with a long beard to peer down out of a hole in the sky. Golden light radiates behind him, crowded with faces of more chubby babies, made of the Sun, all pressing closer and closer to the girl in the room. He holds his hands palms down over the girl like a puppeteer pulling invisible strings.

The cat sleeps.

Uncovered: The Spy Who Lost Her Clothes

A dress recovered from a 400 year old shipwreck reveals secrets of the Stuart court on the eve of the Civil War. (Source: The Guardian)

IsaacOliverunknownwomaninmasquecostume1609Unknown woman in masque costume, miniature by Isaac Oliver, 1609. Image: Wikipedia
In the Masque of Queens, everybody finds out that they are taking part in an illusion, and carry on regardless. They are all lying by the end.
Say to the court, it glows
And shines like rotten wood
(From ‘The Lie’, attributed to Sir Walter Ralegh)

A Story of Guile at the Stuart Court

Anne of Denmark
Betrayed Queen No 1: Anne of Denmark, wife of James VI of Scotland and I of England, by Paul van Somer, 1617. Image: Wikipedia.
She is shown wearing a fashionable riding habit, accompanied by her greyhounds, standing in front of Oatlands Palace, for which she had ordered Inigo Jones to build a new ornamental gateway. Jones’ beautiful Queen’s House at Greenwich was built for her, but was uncompleted at the time she died in 1619.

Anne was a cultured woman in a difficult marriage to a gay, frequently drunk, pedant. She enjoyed hunting and dancing. Her patronage of the arts, especially court masque and neoclassical architecture, added lustre and prestige to the disreputable, faction-ridden Jacobean court that lurched from plot to counter-plot while James deluded himself that a king with bishops could keep the balance of power.

She was lucky that Inigo Jones, an architect and designer of genius, was at hand to make her dream houses real and make theatre sets like dreams. She suffered depression and bad health for the last seven years of her life after the catacylismic death of her eldest son, Prince Henry in 1612.

OberonbyJones

Design for a masque costume for Prince Henry in Oberon, the Faery Prince, 1611, by Inigo Jones.
Lost Prince: one of the might-have-beens of history, Charles I’s elder brother, the precocious, athletic and staunchly Protestant, Henry Frederick Stuart, who died of typhoid aged eighteen. Among other manly virtues, he understood the propaganda value of masque.

Anne might have been a secret Catholic, like her grandson Charles II (the most disillusioned and guileful of all the Stuarts and their courtiers) at a time when the political majority supported a Protestant succession to protect vested interests in the name of national security.

One of the ladies-in-waiting who accompanied the queen from Scotland to England in 1603, was Jean Ker, Countess of Roxburghe who became a spy for the Spanish government. Anne knew she could not be trusted, and managed to dismiss her in 1617.

HenriettaMariaofFrance

Betrayed Queen No 2: Henrietta Maria of France, wife and “Dear Heart” of Charles I, who was lucky enough to be painted by Van Dyck, the greatest propagandist the British Royal Family have ever had.
Oil painting, c. 1636 – 38. Image: Wikipedia

Van Dyck in his portraits and Inigo Jones in his theatrical designs transformed Henrietta Maria into a fairy tale queen of sweet dignity peeping out from billowing clouds of coloured silk.

Henrietta Maria, like her mother-in-law and husband, had a genuine enthusiasm for the arts. Like Anne, she enjoyed performing an active part in court masques.

Unlike Anne, she was also politically active and one of her husbands’s most influential advisers. He became increasingly dependent on her after the death of the Duke of Buckingham. Her devout Roman Catholicism aroused suspicion and unpopularity in the country during rising tensions between King and Parliament.

In February, 1642, she travelled to the Netherlands, ostensibly to reunite her nine year old daughter Mary with the princess’s husband, the Prince of Orange, when some of the ships in her fleet were wrecked by storms off the Dutch coast, and her ladies in waiting lost their wardrobes in the North Sea.

Of far more concern to the queen, the crown jewels and plate, which she had brought with her in the hope of selling to raise money for the royalist cause, were safe and dry.

Prominent in the royal entourage was Princess Mary’s governess, the Countess of Roxburghe.

Roxburghe-1st-Countess-of
Betrayer: Jean Ker, Countess of Roxburghe, (c 1585 – 1643) lady-in-waiting to Queens Anne and Henrietta Maria successively, governess to three of the royal children, and spy for the Spanish government. Image: Adel in Nederland.

The activities of the dark lady were well known to the Jacobean and Caroline courts, where everyone was so used to spies, as one of the collateral evils hedging the king, that they just played along, feeding information when it suited them.

Lady Roxburghe had lost her position as Mistress of the Robes at Anne of Denmark’s court but was brought back into favour by Charles I, who appointed her governess to Princess Mary in 1631, and consequently to two of his younger children, a sign of his strong sympathy towards the Catholic faith.

She accompanied the princess to Holland in February 1642. Her luxurious silk dress was one of the losses in the shipwreck of the royal fleet off the Dutch island of Texel.

Kept close to the heart of the royal family as she was, it is hard to know who was spying on whom.

In the Masque of Queens, everybody finds out eventually that they are taking part in an illusion.

Anthonis_van_Dyck William and Maryjpg

Dynastic Pawns: Princess Mary, eldest daughter of Charles I, and her husband Willem II, Prince of Orange, in one of Van Dyck’s most poignant portraits, painted in 1641 when the children (she was nine; he was fifteen) were formally married in London.
Image: Wikipedia

Thirty-six years later, during the Restoration, their only child, Willem III of Orange, married his cousin Mary Stuart, and they eventually succeeded to the English throne in the Protestant coup d’etat of 1688 as William III and Mary II.

The Stuart Masque was over. Continue reading

Self-promotion of a nakedly political kind

“Context is everything.”
(Peter Drucker, business management consultant, social ecologist and “the man who invented management” in the modern era of complexity, according to Business Week of which I’m not a regular reader.)

This blog advocates frivolity, and revels in images, especially of dead queens, at the same time it sniffs at celebrity photos, selfies and Hello! wedding photos.

So here it presents, in full consciousness of double standards, a stupendous piece of self-advertizing by a grandiose, self-made English politician, and patron of the arts, who hired one of the most gifted court propagandists of any age, Van Dyck, to sell his materially advantageous marriage to a higher-born aristocrat, the daughter of an earl, as a divine union featuring groom and bride half-naked, flaunting everything except their genitalia.

villiers

Anthony van Dyck Sir George Villiers and Lady Katherine Manners as Adonis and Venus c. 1620. Oil on canvas Private collection. Image WGA

The curly-haired hunk was the King’s favourite (a multi-nuanced term in this case because the king, a neurotic intellectual who’d had a seriously dysfunctional childhood, was gay and vulnerable to handsome, unscrupulous young men who played him along in exchange for office and titles), and chief minister, George Villiers, later created Duke of Buckingham.

He was the most powerful man in the kingdom during two reigns until his assassination eight years after this portrait was painted, and was later immortalized as a guest star of The Three Musketeers.

In real life, James’ son, Charles I, was as emotionally and politically dependent on Buckingham as his father had been. Intuitively serving two masters in different ways, Buckingham was their homme fatale, fulfilling their personal needs while alienating the nations they governed, a gorgeous psychological prop and political liability.

Portrayed in Van Dyck’s allegory when he was twenty-eight, he plays his amorous part to perfection, enjoying the adoration of his hound and his blue drapery being wafted by zephyrs while he ogles his prey, but Lady Katherine looks coy, even startled, about her classical role, as if she’d rather be fully dressed at a jolly lunch party than sporting with pagan gods, all for the sake of her husband proving to the world that she wasn’t his beard.

Facing the world (3) through Acedia

 “The blues are brewin” (sung by Billie Holiday)

Acedia is a form of depression that was identified by theologians of the early Christian Church with sloth, a spiritual fatigue caused by too much time to brood and day-dream, especially in monasteries and convents, where self-discipline and self-motivation were essential for mental health.

At least one blogger is feeling the same symptoms today.

In the early 5th century, the ascetic and mystic John Cassian described acedia as “weariness or distress of the heart…akin to dejection”. Some of his suggested cures were manual work, sympathizing and caring for other people with loving kindness, taking plenty of exercise.

Later, in secular society, the same feelings of boredom and hopelessness were caused by the dull repetition of tasks at work or at home, whichever you were chained to, and by excessive pleasures and luxury of choice among the leisured classes.

More recently, acedia has been linked to the rise of consumerism in the 20th century. I’d add the Lottery, and the misuse of the word “aspiration” to dress up acquisitiveness in angel’s clothing. Modern shopping for stuff isn’t quite what the socialist arts leaders had in mind when they called for cultural beauty to be accessible and affordable to all of us.

Acedia is a sickly leveller, affecting rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots.

Continue reading

Nothing, or the Magic Pin Board

Part ten of Nothing

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.” Shakespeare (Hamlet)

The most personal of Gijsbrechts’ deceptions casually pins down all art, and individual identity, as a coat of arms on a plain wooden board. A musical instrument, the tools of his own craft of painting, even himself, in a miniature self-portrait, are stuck there, a declaration of THIS IS ME, all in vain, until somebody three and a half centuries later looks at them.

GijsbrechtsTrompe_l'oeilviolin art

Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’oeil with violin, painters implements and self-portrait, oil on canvas, 1675,
Royal Castle, Warsaw. Image: Wikipedia

We should be so lucky, to create anything so well-made that it lasts beyond a moment on the web. Most of it is worthless, read or not. Words, words, words as a fictional Danish prince said in around 1602.

There is nothing deep here, on this blog, only a brazen attempt to create the illusion. I don’t know much about Nihilism and Existentialism, and can seldom untangle a metaphysical conceit, but, as I like the sound of the words, I’m content to use them as labels for states of mind, alluding to concepts without fully understanding them, just like a monkey would, and now with WP technology I can tag them, separating them with commas, meaninglessly. “Words are wise men’s counters….but they are the money of fools” (Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651).

I blog profitlessly, in every sense.  I shouldn’t be here at all; I should be out, trying to earn a living, not flirting with dead men and downloading old pictures. “Vanity of vanities! all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, King James Bible version, 1611).

wood

wood by Martin Hübscher Photography  © August 2014

Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts began his adventure in still-life and trompe l’oeil in Antwerp, then found customers in the German cities of Regensburg and Hamburg, before he was appointed court painter in Copenhagen where he decorated the King’s Kunstkammer, one of the greatest of all European cabinets of curiosities, with his illusions of illusions; no job or position ever lasted, he always moved on, itinerant artist in search of the same theme, first to Stockholm, and then back to Germany, to Breslau, now the Polish city of Wroclaw, and then, almost full circle, he returned to Flanders, ending up in Bruges. On the way, he broke the fourth wall.

kms3076

Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’Oeil. A Cabinet of Curiosities with an Ivory Tankard, 1670
Image: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Gijsbrechts painted a series of representations of cabinets of curiosities, with closed or half open doors revealing the eclectic objects inside, for the Perspective Chamber of the real cabinet of curiosities of the Danish kings, a sort of site-specific art installation, except none of the objects were real.

Visitors to the Chamber were unwittingly entering a stage-set. In one of the paintings, they were given a glimpse back-stage. The door opens on to nothing, Lord Rochester’s “Great Negative”, the beginning and end of everything, into which all our words and illusions must “undistinguished fall”, where the cosmos itself started and will end.

That is the rational end, but for most of us it is not the end of illusion. We are unable or unwilling to grasp finality in our minds. When we look at the picture, we are tempted to jump into the grey empty space on another adventure of the imagination, through a portal to another world.

Gijsbrechts’ tricks with our eyes were intended to entertain, no more, but few things, let alone people, turn out exactly as intended. Some of us spending too much time looking at his painted half open-doors, might find, like Keats looking at the Grecian Urn, an art form “dost tease us out of thought”. Is it something, or nothing?

Unable to encompass the magnitude, or the littleness, of what art and history is telling me, bemused by all their illusions, this blogger is like one of those people described by Hobbes in Leviathan as “birds that entering by the chimney, and finding themselves enclosed in a chamber, flutter at the false light of a glass window, for want of wit to consider which way they came in.”

It’s been a long train of thought that’s led me here, and, look, guess what, at the last post, all those words, all those pictures of dead princes and poets, their monkeys and dogs, all those letter racks and skulls and fruit pieces, they’ve all been in vain, and I’ve blogged my way to dusty

NOTHING

the back of the picture

Part nine of Nothing

Gijsbrechts was deliberately more frugal in his imagery than most Vanitas painters, so though he produced the staple props of floral, fruity sumptuousness, lobsters and lemons, dead ducks and game, melodramatic skulls and overwrought tankards, in deceptively three-dimensional form, he preferred to concentrate on his bits of paper stuffed into strapped letter boards. A diversion for the spectator merges into metaphysical reflection.

KMS3059Gijsbrechts, Board Partition with Letter Rack and Music Book, 1668. Image: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. The seal of the artist’s patron, King Frederik III of Denmark, dangles above the music book on the left.

It became a popular theme for other trompe l’oeil artists in northern Europe, most notably the Dutch born and trained Edward Collier who had a successful career in London from 1693 – 1706. Sometimes topical political messages were included amongst the letters, pamphlets and royal proclamations.

Collier commemorated the accession of Queen Anne in 1702, not with a portrait of the woman, but with a collage of documents associated with the event and the Stuart line of succession, symbolized by the seal of her grandfather, Charles I, instantly recognizable in profile by his beard, who had been executed over 50 years earlier. Anne was the last of her family to reign. Dynasties are as transient as everything else.

collierEdward Collier, Trompe l’oeil with writing materials, ca. 1702, oil on canvas. Victoria and Albert Museum.
Image: Wikipedia

Like some photo-journalism today, particularly at Election time, Collier’s patriotic letter rack is more interesting for its omissions than inclusions. The legitimacy of Anne’s right to succeed is implied by her descent from her grandfather, not her father, also a crowned king with absolutist ambitions, who had been kicked off the throne and out of the country in a coup d’etat fourteen years earlier which saved England, but not Scotland and Ireland, from renewed civil war. To please his patrons of the new political Establishment, Collier erased James II and his son from history.

Vanitas painting, like much of 17th century literature and philosophy, is veined with the dread of civil war, the condition Hobbes decried as having “no place for industry”, no agriculture, no trade imports, no communication with the rest of the world “no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death…” (Leviathan).

This is why Vanitas celebrates the prosaic commodities of peace; people with memories or imagination knew their value. Neither the objects nor their owners last, but the impulse to have them is carried on through generations.

Nothing is what it seems – or Nothing is not what it seems.

The trompe l’oeil artist was meeting a demand to both reassure and beguile his patrons, to trick their eyes without disturbing their minds. He could have chosen glamorous symbols of wealth. He chose everyday, random clutter, and transformed the ordinary into a permanent monument to ephemera.

paperwork

Martin Hübscher, Paperwork, photograph by Martin Hübscher Photography © September 2014.
A random street scene observed, not posed, by a contemporary German-born photographer from Hamburg living in England.

Gijsbrechts experimented with modern graphic minimalism. He explored the liminal space between reality and illusion which preoccupies many artists today. He went behind the picture, beyond conventional religious morality to the other dominant philosophy of the late Baroque, nihilism, and beyond 17th century Vanitas to 20th century Existentialism, to the back of a framed canvas, a picture in search of a painter.

Trompel'oeil

Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’oeil, Reverse of a Framed Painting, 1668 -72, oil on canvas Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. Image: Wikipedia