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.
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 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.
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
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.
Gijsbrechts, 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.
Edward Collier, Trompe l’oeil with writing materials, ca. 1702, oil on canvas. Victoria and Albert Museum.
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.
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.
Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’oeil, Reverse of a Framed Painting, 1668 -72, oil on canvas Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen. Image: Wikipedia
Part eight of Nothing
Is this a photograph of an easel and canvasses arranged for a trendy shop window display? Or you might see it on the cover of one of those aspirational free lifestyle mags published by estate agents, showing off the latest interior design features to fill those awkward corners of a penthouse with river view.
We know it’s staged – no real painter’s easel ever looks like that – but it is a reproduction of a real three-dimensional, isn’t it?
It is the three-hundred and forty year old optical illusion proving that human life is transient and meaningless, but art is not:
Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts Cut-Out Trompe l’Oeil Easel with Fruit Piece oil on canvas 1670-1672.
Image: SMK – Statens Museum, Copenhagen..
Is this why all of us, even if we can’t draw or paint or write much more than a list of tags, are so desperate to leave our mark? Because we can’t bear being meaningless? Even if we can’t find a market for it? Even if we’re vanity publishing?
Posting on our online pin boards is another opiate for existential angst, supplying illusions ad infinitum. We think it keeps us sane, even while we drive everyone else mad. All is vanity.
Our response to the portrait of Lord Rochester holding a laurel crown over a monkey is dictated by the subject matter, because the charisma of the wild glamour boy poet, and the daring symbolism, which was the patron’s idea, not the artist’s, are more striking than Huysman’s execution, gorgeous though the baroque reds and ochres are.
Most Vanitas painting, of everyday objects, just stuff lying around, succeeded in glorifying itself as much as the customer’s lifestyle choices.
It was bravura advertizing of the painter’s technique and ingenuity, especially in conveying perspective, and of the power of art, in which the painting triumphed over the concept, the artist over the patron, however rich or royal; as an exercise in humility it defeated its own object. It is utterly vain. It’s not even transient.
The strict moral message is usually, thank God, almost completely submerged in wonderfully extravagant decorative effects, like theatre design.
The seventeenth century was as fluent in theatrical metaphor as we are in digital media and the manipulated image. Vanitas, which at first glance is the least dramatic of historic painting, with none of the stories to tell of landscape and portraits, is all about theatrical illusion.
Gijsbrechts created his delectable fruit-piece for the Danish king’s cabinet of curiosities. It was plainly described in the inventory from 1674 as: “A stand with painter’s paraphernalia painted on perspective.” (SMK website, which is superb.)
Even without tricks of perspective, the most mundane looking Baroque still life is set-dressing of a drama or satirical comedy, an illustration to a Shakespearean soliloquy about the futility of life, in which the cloud capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, all our invented consolations dissolve; or it simply looks good enough to eat.
Photo: Martin Hübscher Photography © 2014
And there is more vanity to come, in yet another post….
Part seven of Nothing
Modern animal experts do not recommend anyone, even warrior princes or prankster poets, keeping monkeys or any other wild animals as pets and the RSPCA wants a ban. They are messy, destructive, predatory – they’ll bite a human and eat any smaller pet mammals or birds left unprotected – and they never stop chattering – rather as Lord Rochester’s seems to be doing in the picture that started this diversion on the journey into Nothing:
Lord Rochester with monkey by Huysmans
Rochester was thirty-three when he died in 1680, burnt out by sex and alcohol, pranks and humanity. His wife, Elizabeth Malet, whom he had tried to abduct when she was the richest and most eligible heiress in the north of England, and to whom he was conspicuously unfaithful, died a year later, leaving their four young children in the care of their grandmother. All is vanity.
Matthias Withoos, Landscape with a graveyard by night, oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Reims. Image: WGA
“And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death.” (Shakespeare, Macbeth) Withoos was active in the second half of the 17th century, and in this atmospheric painting prefigures Romantic Gothicism and our own obsession with twilight.
And yet – the most poetic of brutal realists and his wife had written a book of poetry together. Their minds met on equal terms. She had a wit of her own, and answered him back. Anyone who has spied on their marriage by reading their private letters has the impression that they understood and esteemed one another.
In a long tradition of creative men who have acted on their desires and looked deeply into their souls, Rochester led a double life. He was Ernest in town, where “a sweet soft Page of [his could] do the Trick worth Forty wenches”, and Jack in the country, where he loved his wife.
As for the monkey, Rochester’s symbol of human vanity was recently reincarnated as Mally, Justin Bieber’s capuchin accessory, infamously abandoned in Germany after quarantine.
The journey into Nothing is not over…
Part four of Nothing
Rupert learned his lesson from the death of Boye, and never took a domesticated animal on campaign again, but once he moved back to England after the Restoration of the monarchy, there was always a dog waiting for him at home.
Like many of his family he genuinely loved animals – his mother, Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, was said by her youngest daughter to prefer her dogs and monkeys to her children. His cousin, Charles II, was hardly ever seen without his troop of pretty, spoilt spaniels, the only breed of dogs to have been royal permission to go to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, and that, along with Nell Gwynn and her oranges, is still the popular image of the king we have today.
In late middle-age, even Prince Rupert was disarmed by an actress, the glamorous, dark-haired Margaret Hughes. They met in Tunbridge Wells, where fashionable society avoided smelly, plaguey London during the summer, which was more of a hot dating spot then than now.
Margaret Hughes (c 1630 – 1719), one of the first, if not the first, woman to appear professionally on the English stage after the Restoration, as Desdemona in the King’s Company production of Othello in December, 1660, in a portrait by Lely, c. 1670, with fashionable accessory of adoring spaniel. She became Rupert’s mistress after 1668, and continued her acting career spasmodically, in the lucky position of being able to choose her parts.
Peg Hughes was very extravagant, and in later life had a gambling addiction; she cost Rupert a lot of money to keep in a grand house bought specially for her. She insisted on her right to continue acting, and he let her – after all, he knew what being driven by professional commitment was like, and he had more in common with a self-made woman than the pampered women of his own class. Continue reading