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.

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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).

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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.

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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

No room for another post

Part one of Nothing

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Cornelius Gijsbrechts (c. 1630 – c. 1683) Trompe l’oeil of a Letter Wall,
oil on canvas, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent. Image: WGA
Letter walls, or pin boards, were popular during the age of cabinets of curiosities. This Vanitas painting by a master of illusionism alludes to the pointlessness of writing, and ultimately of the painting itself, from the briefest letter to the most elaborately printed book, all of them posted here, along with the tools we use to scratch our individual marks on time.

ALL IS VANITY, INCLUDING BLOGGING

Gijsbrechts was a Flemish artist who specialised in Vanitas, a deceptively bleak spiritual outlook dominant in northern European art of the seventeenth century about the worthlessness of all human endeavour. Accomplished still-life artists were able to earn a living through a genre which made rich Protestants feel better about their rampant materialism, so they could carry on buying stuff, and paying for art and literature, with a clear conscience.

It was also an enjoyable and sophisticated visual game, stuffed with intellectual allusions to flatter high-brow patrons, and, whenever artists deployed illusionist perspective, enough tricks of the eye to beguile everybody.

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Gijsbrechts A Cabinet in the Artist’s Studio, 1670-71.
Image: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
One of the more conventionally cluttered of Gijsbrechts’ Vanitas paintings is still studio-bound, a painting about painting itself, and the painter, rather than morality; it is art for art’s sake, and a self-portrait.

At the same time as reflecting that they were justified by Faith alone, the patrons could show off all their acquisitions, the luxurious furnishings, the architectural garden features, the exotic flowers and fruit, a token rotting one, of course, their hunting trophies, and all their books, their pictures, their musical and scientific instruments, everything which makes life bearable and beautiful, none of which cannot save any of us, a point often rubbed in by a skull knocking about, to put the fear of God into you.

Baroque Yoricks proliferated like zombies and skeleton armies in the post-apocalyptic, internet-free visions of our own culture.

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Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’oeil with Studio Wall and Vanitas Still Life, 1668.
Image: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
While deceiving us like a magician with the illusion we are looking at three-dimensional objects, the artist has taken the opportunity to do some very realistic self-advertizing by adding his address details to his name on the piece of paper tucked into the bottom of the frame.

All is vanity, including blogging, but occasionally we are dazzled into believing otherwise. During the course of picture research for this blog, I came across a website and art collection new to me, of the great national gallery of Denmark, proving that the journey is often more rewarding than the destination.

No visit, real or virtual, to SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, is in vain. Please go!

This journey into Nothing will be continued….