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.

GijsbrechtsTrompe_l'oeilviolin art

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

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.

kms3076

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

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….

Pets, Familiars and Excuses

Part three of Nothing

That damned monkey has led me somewhere I swore I would not go……

NPG 4519; Prince Rupert, Count Palatine attributed to Gerrit van Honthorst

The best-known portrait of the young and dashing Prince Rupert, Count Palatinate (1619 – 16800 by Honthorst, oil on panel, feigned oval, circa 1641-1642. Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London

For the first two years of the Civil War Rupert’s success as a cavalry leader deploying shock tactics dominated the fighting. He seemed to be invincible. The Parliamentarian propagandists instilled the idea into their supporters that his pet monkey was a disguised witch who had sex with the prince, and, along with his other familiar in the shape of a huge white dog, gave the Cavaliers victory through sorcery.

Prince_Rupert_-_1st_English_Civil_War

Parliamentary propaganda depicted Prince Rupert’s poodle Boye as his familiar, an agent of black magic. The Roundhead troops who killed the beautiful animal at Marston Moor believed they were destroying the source of Royalist luck, and in particular, the power of the hated foreign general. Woodcut, illustrating a pamphlet called The Cruel Practices of Prince Rupert, 1643. Image: Wikipedia

It was preposterous, hardly anybody believed in witchcraft in normal times during the 17th century, but the 1640s were not normal. It was, after all, the age of Matthew Hopkins, self-appointed Witchfinder-General, exploiting the public’s paranoid fears during a terrifyingly violent and unstable period, when everyday life and relationships had broken down.

Rupert’s personality and appearance made him easy for both sides to demonize to their advantage. He was young and arrogant, tall and handsome, talented and, most significantly, foreign, all of which made him obnoxious to a lot of people, Royalist and Parliamentarian, and inspiring to his own men.

It was well known that he had a diabolical temper: his brothers and sisters called him Rupert the Devil.

It was true that the dog, Boye, was a beloved companion, but not for sexual purposes. He was not the source of a prince’s superpowers, nor even a trained dog of war, just the most famously tragic hunting poodle in history, who was always tied up at the Royalist camp before one of Rupert’s battles.

On only one occasion, Boye escaped his leash, or, terrible to contemplate, Rupert or his servants had forgotten to tie him up, and he instinctively sprang forward with glee, as any dog would, to follow his master.

But when Rupert rode off, it wasn’t to a hunt, it was straight into battle. Boye was killed instantly by enemy fire and hacked to bits in an atrocity fomented by human ignorance and prejudice.

KMS3065

Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’oeil with Christian V of Denmark’s Equipment for Riding to Hounds, 1671. The artist’s power of illusion is applied to the leisure pursuits of the powerful. With thanks yet again to: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen for the free use of this image of a painting from their collection.

The “Wrong but Wromantic” Royalist cause was lost, not because a spell was broken, but because of the superiority of Cromwellian strategy, tactics and discipline, and the political and military ineptitude of the king, who didn’t take Rupert’s pragmatic advice the following year, 1645, to start peace negotiations before his position got worse.

(The quote, for anyone neither British nor of a certain age, is from a comic work of genius published in 1930, called 1066 and All That, one of the most truthful books in the spirit of history ever written.)

Credulity and coincidence often make history and still inform election choices in modern democracies. Just because there isn’t an official Witchfinder-General today, doesn’t mean to say there aren’t a lot of them about under different titles. We’re all frightened of one thing or another, all willing to believe in something, even if we call it nothing.

Marston Moor was Rupert’s first and worst defeat as a general and a rite of passage into accountability and remorse. He had suffered before, and been held, aged nineteen, as a prisoner of war in Europe for three years, but after Marston Moor he was never quite the same. All is vanity.

A note for purists of military history and Rupertists: he always maintained that he was misled by ambiguous written instructions from Charles I to seek battle at Marston Moor, a strategically disastrous decision which lost the north of England to Parliament. The letter survives in evidence.

Rupert was a strange (and terribly attractive) mixture of arrogance and fidelity; he had the fatal flaw of many other proud and intelligent Germans of obedience to authority.

And Rupert, the professional European soldier, should never have been so reckless to take his dogs on campaign in England, certainly not without locking up, poor Boye during a battle; civil wars are always fought with savage bitterness outside the rules of engagement of other conflicts.

Maybe he had started believing his own publicity; he was only twenty-four.

A 6’4″ German prince who last breathed in 1682 – a whisker and a whisper ago – has rudely attacked my train of thought – it must be love that makes me tarry –

the journey into Nothing will be continued when I’ve found that monkey….

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….