Shakespeare, Sonnet 18 Written between 1593 and 1601, published in 1609.
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. The girl smiles sweetly, and lowers her eyes modestly. She is 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.
Jean-Frédéric Bazille, The Terrace at Méric (Oleander) 1867 Oil on canvas, Art Museum, Cincinnati. Image source: WGA
QUOTES FROM WRITER NOËLLE MACKAY:
I like being invisible. I reject the meek life of a wannabee. I don’t want to spend a life in waiting for a dish that might never come, or that I’ll have to send back when it’s served cold.
I’d rather be a successful fraud than a failed tryer. Chameleons are the best of nature’s artists. If people don’t understand or like what you’re saying, change colour to communicate the same thing.
Anna Ancher Sunlight in the Blue Room. Helga Ancher Knitting in her Grandmother’s Room 1891
Oil on canvas, Skagens Museum, Skagen. Image: WGA
As I write to please myself by following trains of thought to their derailment, reaching success station was never likely. After so long in the sidings, I started missing other people, even the voice saying “Eh? What did you say?” or “That’s stupid”.
I don’t think effort and/or self-belief are substitutes for talent and finishing skills. If something’s not working, shut it down. A hundred new beginnings are worth more than one bad ending.
Ramon Casas i Carbó Laziness 1898-1900 Oil on canvas, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona.
Rosalind was joking when she said good wine needs no bush. If truth is essential to good (as distinct from popular) writing, the possibility of being neither good nor popular should not be discounted.
Writers, artists, and actors have a professional duty to hold the mirror up to nature, not to reflect ourselves fumbling to hold the mirror up in the right position, in the right light, on the right day.
Degas Madame Jeantaud in the Mirror 1875 Oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image: WGA
The selfie is the death mask of self-criticism.
While we were mesmerized by our own reflections, we slipped into akrasia. We have lost self-command and feel justified by proof of existence alone.
I work in anti-social media.
Vilhelm Hammershøi Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor, 1901.
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 six of Nothing
Prince Rupert’s monkey was not supernatural, as the enemy claimed, but when it wasn’t being amusing, it must have been offensively annoying to its own side. There is no record (as far as I know) of what happened to the monkey, whether it survived the first civil war to go on Rupert’s further adventures as a soldier in Europe and pirate of the Caribbean, or if it died of natural causes in England.
Rupert didn’t become a pirate for fun – Royalist fortunes were at their lowest point in the early 1650s when England was doing very well as a republic for the only time in history – so far – and his exiled cousin, Charles II, was desperately short of money.
Rupert lost something far more precious than the booty he gained on the expedition: Moritz, his closest brother and best friend, his second-in-command and comrade-in-arms was drowned. “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”
Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’Oeil with Trumpet, Celestial Globe and Proclamation by Frederik III of Denmark, 1670, oil on canvas. Collection and image: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
The symbols of temporal political power and global commerce are piled up like forgotten booty, or modern window display of a luxury boutique for people who have everything, in front of Gijbrechts’ usual background of plain wood.
Rupert’s personality and exploits swept him away from historic battlefields into Stuart myth, biography, novels, and most dubiously of all, blogs, which, while romanticising him, have detracted from his tangible achievements.
There are two Ruperts, a figment of other people’s imagination, an object of desire or envy, and a real man who, when he settled in his adopted country of England after the Restoration, contributed in a very realistic, practical way to British artistic and scientific progress and overseas commercial exploration.
He is the sardonic action hero with brains and, when he was young, beauty, the darkly brooding antithesis to Rochester’s merry lord of misrule. Continue reading
Part five of Nothing
An older, grumpier, sadder Rupert, showing all the signs of disillusionment with the world of vanities.
Portrait by Lely, 1660 -70, oil on canvas. Collection: Yale Center for British Art. Image: Wikipedia
At last, Rupert was able to enjoy a peaceful retirement at Windsor Castle, mainly occupied in his scientific and artistic experiments. These were not mere hobbies of a retired man of action, or the pastimes of a dilettante royal; he had the enquiring mind of a true intellectual and practical grasp of advanced technology.
He was far more than a militarist who sought violent means to solve complex problems; he sought mathematical solutions, too.
He was an active member of the Royal Society, the oldest existing academy of science in the world, and a talented draughtsman and etcher who promoted mezzotint engraving.
He also happened to be one of the four best tennis players in England. He was an instinctively stylish dresser, he – but this was meant to be a short post, and already it is overstuffed with words, a chattering monkey’s post.
Rochester’s generation of dissolute courtiers, born during or after the Civil War, and gossipy professional bureaucrats like Samuel Pepys, thought Rupert was a crusty old joke and laughed at him behind his back. They were too scared to do so in his face. He thought they were idiots and didn’t hide it. Continue reading
Part two of Nothing
When Lord Rochester, the Restoration satirist, poet, libertine, courtier, and acting coach, wanted to make a visual satire on human vanity and transience, he avoided the 17th century’s skull cliché by being portrayed with a monkey offering him a page torn from a book, the descendant of the million virtual monkeys typing out Shakespeare’s plays.
Jacob Huysmans, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647 – 1680), oil on canvas. Private collection. Image: WGA Rochester, the most glamorous, and lighthearted, of obscene immoralists, collaborated with the Roman Catholic Flemish painter Jacob Huysmans to produce an iconic image mocking the ignorance and pretentiousness of mankind.
He isn’t patronising the monkey; he rated animal instinct higher than human nature, including his own, and his specific targets were the ruling class of which he was a member by birth, and everyone who presumed to exert power over other people, by force or by creed.
Like the other great privileged literary rebel, Byron, he inherited titles, property and a Cavalier heritage without any money, the lifeblood of power in society.
Rochester’s father was a hard-drinking, Anglo-Irish Cavalier officer, of the clubbable “Laughing” kind, committed to upholding monarchy, “his mother a strict Puritan; out of their union, the great disbeliever was born.
Rochester’s portrait also happens to be one of the most seductive images of male beauty, enhanced by androgynous Restoration fashion, which has glamourized the popular perception of libertines and nihilism ever since. We’d all be enrolling in metaphysics classes if the lecherous lecturer looked like that.
We might even dare go into the darkness some of us fear, to read erotic fiction and obscene verse, because Rochester makes sex feel like love.
Like the actor who played the rake-hell Willmore, based on Rochester, in a revival of Aphra Behn’s The Rover in the 1690s, “he made vice so alluring” to even the virtuous Queen Mary II.
Even the most sincere of critics of human nature cannot shake off his own self-consciousness. By showing himself in a portrait as a freethinker crowning, or more likely decrowning, a monkey, he was declaring how much more hip he was than everyone else at court and in the country.
He was right, of course – he’s a sex symbol who still makes hearts throb faster today, a prototype Romantic, by turns lyrical or obscene, depending on his hangover; one of the great tortured, self-destructive, witty, bisexual, substance-abusing, rocking and rolling anti-heroes who lived in the moment because time before and after is a fantasy, a trick of the mind’s eye, a waste of living.
Monkeys were popular pets among 17th century cosmopolitan aristocrats with brains and attitude – Charles I’s nephew, Prince Rupert, had kept one during the Civil War a generation earlier, “a malignant she-monkey” which the Roundheads made crude allegations about.
When their propagandists alleged she was a witch in disguise with whom the German prince was having sex, they were serving the public an inflammatory potion of minor royalty, xenophobia, superstition, and prurience –
That monkey won’t stop jumping about – it’s run away with the theme of this post – I can’t catch it – where has it gone?
The journey into Nothing will be continued….