the front of the picture

Part eight of Nothing

KMS5

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.

dessert

Photo: Martin Hübscher Photography © 2014

And there is more vanity to come, in yet another post….

No room for another post

Part one of Nothing

trompe

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.

Trompe_l'oeil._Skab_fra_kunstnerens_atelier

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.

KMSst537

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….