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