I confess that I hadn’t heard of the Dutchman Carel Willink, and I owe my exposure to him to ace film critic, acquaintance of Russ Meyer, and all round arts maven, Anne Billson (whose extensive film database is a very witty and stimulating bargain on Amazon),
But if you like Giorgio de Chirico, Rene Magritte, Lawrence Alma-Tadema or Paul Delvaux, then you’ll like Willink. Technically very gifted and versatile – his portraiture is outstanding – he had the ability to produce startlingly evocative dreamscapes like the one in this post. The elegaic mood and unspoken history in them remind me of neighbouring Belgian Fernand Khnopff, albeit the style is very different. Khnopff was inspired by the unique gloomy atmosphere of Bruges (which is still there, despite the tourism), and his literary parallel is with fellow Belgian Georges Rodenbach, whose beautiful (and readable) Bruges-la-Morte is effectively a symbolist novel. In Willink’s work symbolism mingles with surrealism, classical landscape and technical precision. It’s an interesting observation that notwithstanding the Greek de Chirico, all this is very Nordeuropa, in a line that stems from the fantasy and improbable landscapes of Bosch, Bruegel and particularly Patinir, the most obscure of these three giants.
Nash is primarily famous for his brutal war art, such as The Menin Road, strangely elegant though that painting is. He was actually out there in Ypres, amidst the bombs, mud and carnage, ending up with an official war artist role. He became disillusioned quickly: “It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.”
He died in 1946. After WW1 he got into illustrating, often with a surreal, abstract or expressionist edge, and painted plenty of rural scenes, of which this is one. In WW2 he was back as an official artist for a while, and all of his work is of great quality. As you can see, Shell liked it so much (they commissioned it) that they continued to use it for a funky travel advert 37 years later. Anyway, the great man is currently the beneficiary of Tate Britain exhibition.
When you’ve built the tallest medieval fortified structure in Europe, for its time, you would expect it to tower over the landscape and the trees. The Chateau de Vincennes does exactly that in the last of the twelve month cycle. It’s still there today, though without the many smaller towers you see in the painting (and in the model below).
The chateau took a battering over the centuries, and housed a community of English nuns and the imprisoned Marquis de Sade, though not at the same time. It was further damaged by a rentamob once the French Revolution was well underway. The Duc de Berry’s interest in it is that he was born in the chateau, 676 years ago last week.
Vincennes was a heavily forested area near Paris – now part of the Parisian urban sprawl – and as you might expect, there was a lot of hunting, in this case a wild boar hunt, with dogs, a potentially risky business. Oddly enough, still no snow, that seemed to wait till after Christmas in medieval France, judging by the Tres Riches Heures. By this point in the series – about 1440 – the duke was dead, the Limbourg brothers were dead, and the probable artist was the Master of Shadows, which is a cool name, in real life Barthélemy d’Eyck, which is still not bad.
Considering what a unique, populous and proud city Barcelona is, and by extension the rest of Catalunya/Catalonia, it’s a bit odd that its artistic heritage is primarily in its buildings, a bit in its literature, and very little really of fame in the visual arts. It’s not like Paris, Rome, Berlin or any of the other competition. It doesn’t come close to Madrid in that respect, as the obvious rival conurbation.
Rumbustious Aussie art critic Robert Hughes‘ excellent homage to Barcelona – 500+ pages of discursive history and opinion – makes this point well (Hughes’ own potted history of the place is here). Relatively few tourists flock to the externally impressive Palau Nacional for its contents, which are “the country’s (but mainly Catalunya’s) art history from early medieval times to the mid-20th century”, which sounds great but there’s an emphasis on ‘specialist’ stuff such as early Spanish Romanesque. That sounds harsh on the Catalans, but it’s not the mighty Prado.
Hughes however specifies a few works, and one caught my eye. Here’s his description of Modest Urgell’s El toc d’oracio:
Which may sound a bit sentimental or cheesy, but I think it’s superb. Including the bat.
So many pigs. I think there’s at least 18, and unusually for Les Tres Riches Heures, the only building is a small nondescript generic castle. The peasant in the foreground is dislodging acorns by throwing his stick at them – a technique still employed by conker hunters to this day. Apparently a pig can scoff 10kg of acorns a day. Over to a fascinating jamon iberico website:
Many centuries ago, the rulers of western Spain decreed that each town and village should maintain pastures studded with oak trees, called the dehesa, for the long term stability of the region. This forest/pasture continues to serve many purposes. The holm and cork oaks provided firewood for the people, shade for the plants and livestock, cork products, and acorns (bellota) during fall and winter. During the spring and summer cattle and sheep graze the fields. During the fall and winter, when the acorns are falling from the trees, the pigs are released to fatten up. This ancient human-maintained ecosystem survives intact to this day.
It’s generally held that the painter of this one is Jean Colombe, not the Limbourg Brothers, and it’s certainly less exquisitely crafted, though still terrific. The landscape seen through the trees is an early example of the classic ‘blue landscape‘ later reaching its apogee with the enigmatic and wonderful Joachim Patinir.
When visiting the splendid museums and galleries of New York, it becomes pretty obvious that we much of what has been casually labelled ‘modern’ art – such as in the hugely popular MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, of course) and the Whitney – is in fact not very modern at all. Iconic he may be, but the somewhat limited Warhol’s screenprints have the air of musty history about them. Edward Hopper is great, but he’s redolent of the era when my dad was still at school. Picasso too, even the wackily named Futurists, much as I like them, are from more than 100 years ago. There are lots of similar examples.
Go to the Guggenheim, and if you’re unlucky, you’ll find that the best thing on display is the enduring brilliance of the building itself, given the vagaries of contemporary art. Getting an exhibition in the Guggenheim is a meal ticket for any artist, but perhaps only 50% on a good day is actually any good (I know it’s subjective, and that’s my take on it). What it is though, is modern. Even the crap stuff usually has a freshness that has its own beguilement.
Which brings me to Beethoven.
Stravinsky – referring to a specific piece, the Grosse Fugue for string quartet, op 133 – famously described his work as ‘contemporary forever’. That work was described by an 1826 critic as “incomprehensible, like Chinese” and “a confusion of Babel”, and I would add that it is indeed an ear splitting gem of furious dissonance and angst – which sounds rather 21st century as a description , I suppose. It was written in 1825. If you’re a piano geek, you may know that the biggest, most brutal, most intense and most impenetrable of all the 32 piano sonatas is the Hammerklavier, from 1818. It has a lot in common with the quartet 7 years later. The Hammerklavier is opus 106. I have heard probably 30 or more different versions of it over the last three decades, and I still haven’t fully fathomed it. Far from it (this marvellous review is very insightful). Like the Grosse Fuge, it is absolutely, resolutely contemporary. It knocks modern classical piano compositions out of the park. It is more far reaching or ‘daring’ than any 20th or 21st century piece.
Which is why I was intrigued to find opus 107, an obvious next step that I’d never really considered before. It couldn’t have a more twee 19th century title: Ten National Airs with Variations for Flute and Piano, the national airs being folk songs from Scotland, Ukraine, Austria, Ireland and Wales. Beethoven sanctioned a piano solo version, sacrificing the flute. My copy is played by the slightly maverick Finn, Olli Mustonen. He always seems to apply great dexterity and precision, but with a slightly spiky quality. You can hear the spaces between the notes. A lot of the critics don’t like this applied to Beethoven, but given the points I’ve made about Beethoven being anything but trapped in the 19th century style, I reckon it works. The spaces around the musical line remind me a bit of the Second Viennese School, though Beethoven is reliably tonal. In any event, hear how he takes likeable jaunty folk tunes and turns them inside out. It’s far from the Hammerklavier (though it’s nearly the same length at 41 minutes) and the Grosse Fuge, but it’s still, well, contemporary. See what you think.
October’s a busy month: ploughing (weighed down with a rock), sowing the next crop, archery, bird scaring, various people messing around by the river. They’re ploughing and sowing round here too, at the moment, in my corner of Nordeuropa.
The obvious unseasonal element in the picture though, is a huge badass castle, only this one wasn’t owned by Jean de Berry. It’s the original Louvre Palace in Paris, which did indeed stand where the current building stands, and it’s a remarkably accurate representation. Visitors to the lowest floor of the current Louvre might recognise the enormous rounded bases of the towers, which have been well preserved. The palace was built by Charles V, who happened to be Jean de Berry’s big brother, so it’s still a family affair. Amusingly, he was known as Charles the Wise, whose enemy in life was Charles the Bad, and who was succeeded as king by his son, Charles the Mad. We should bring back these handy adjectives for our own royals (Charles the Twit?).
Often there is a parallel between what the Limbourgs are depicting in their monthly cycle and what goes on in the countryside of my part of northern Europe. Not this month, due to our dearth of viniculture (actually there is a tiny bit). As always with Jean de Berry, he’s happy to show the rhythm of the seasons but what he really seems to like is showing off his real estate. In this case the Château de Saumur, which is satisyingly still with us.
Saumur is a big wine growing area on the Loire. The chateau sits more above the town the in the painting, but it depends a bit on the angle from which you’re viewing it. The building is remarkably unchanged, really
This is one painting in the series where the historians are pretty sure that given the stylistic differences, the upper two thirds was a Limbourg job, while the bottom third was completed much later by Colombe. It fits, to my untrained eye. Art historian François Cali described this scene as “These extravagant towers are a dream landscape with constellations of canopies, pinnacles, gables and arrows, with their crockets fluttering against the light”, but as you can see from the above picture, the painting is hardly exaggerated, the architects for Henry II of England and Philip II of France who owned the building in the decades preceding the painting weren’t hanging back. It was actually begun more than 400 years earlier – built to last.
The painting has two nice further details: bottom left is an exhausted looking pregnant lady, and in the middle foreground is possibly the first depiction of that well known artistic motif, the ‘builder’s bum’.
If Jean de Berry was lounging around the Hôtel de Nesle in Paris, and fancied a spot of falconry, then it would have been an 11 hour walk, according to Google Maps, or probably a 5-6 hour trip on a horse or in a carriage, to get to his Chateau d’Etampes, featured in August in the Tres Riches Heures. This was quite a building for its day, TE Lawrence was a visitor who (on this excellent website) is quoted as calling it “perhaps the most astonishing production of the late twelfth century”. It had all sorts of defensive innovations and was well built, so its central keep is still standing, if a bit worn. It got hammered in the Hundred Years War, as did much of northern France.
I’m not aware that falconry is really a seasonal pursuit. These days in the UK it’s claimed to be a winter sport for reasons that aren’t clear to me, but there’s the Duc de Berry at it in high summer, and its ancestral home is mainly in the decidedly non-seasonal Middle East. More conventionally, there’s a hot sweaty harvest going on in the background, which brings to mind a drowsily persuasive masterpiece by Bruegel in his own series of seasonal paintings, The Corn Harvest
In a way, the Limbourg’s painting gets August right: no-one wants to work too hard, just the essentials, lots of lazing around (see the swimmers), and a general air of self indulgence before the weather begins to turn.
In some ways Jean, Duc de Berry was the Donald Trump of his day. Wealth (much of it inherited), a degree of egotism, political influence and houses – plenty of palatial homes that he couldn’t possibly get much use from. Previous posts (eg 1, 2, 3) have outlined some pretty impressive domiciles, some of which are still standing, sort of. Hot running water 700 years ago is the equivalent of a helipad on the roof. Possibly.
July is no different, except the Chateau du Clain at Poitiers hasn’t survived at all. The image of it in the July panel is the best we’ve got. The triangular plan with round corner towers was an established ‘defensive’ style, with in this case what might be a lake serving as a moat. Poitiers is not far from Paris, but travel was a bit trickier then. Jean de Berry moving from enormous chateau to enormous chateau on horseback, with his court retinue, around north west France is roughly equivalent to Trump zooming around the Eastern Seaboard in his private jet. The distances weren’t great but the journeys must have been arduous.
The yellow markers in this image (borrowed from an excellent post on Les Tres Riches Heures) correspond to the Limbourgs’ depictions of Jean de Berry’s estates.
The main interest otherwise is the usual agricultural stuff – in this case sheep shearing and harvesting hay, laboriously with sickles, not scythes (try it some time).