415 Some stray observations

A sequence of fortunate circumstances put Schwartz and his Loekie into one artistically rich environment after another.Sheer non-committal enjoyment, giving birth to reactions he does not have to defend in the court of art-historical responsibility.

In one week in March, from the 7th to the 14th, I lavished in a surfeit of delectable art. In Utrecht on the 7th Loekie and I enjoyed a late afternoon at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, at the exhibition on the Bentvueghels (Band of Birds), a pack of northern European guys, mainly artists, who ganged together in Rome in the seventeenth century, infesting the neighborhood south of the Piazza del Popolo with their raucous presence. There were no conditions for membership and no formal structure, only a willingness to stand your band brothers – a minimum of seven for initiation – to drinks and to abide by a multitude of invented traditions, starting with accepting a name they gave you to replace your own. They were a bunch of living memes who also made irresistible art.

Along with picturesque views, often with Roman antiquities, and village feasts, they also cultivated lowlife specialties, like bar scenes and brothels. They made gleeful and provocative fun of the artistic establishment, with its adherence to classical forms and Catholic correctness. Annoyingly for the township and the Academy whose rules they brushed off, the Bentveughels had no board that could be called to account, only bibulous get-togethers, most regularly in the Mausoleum of Santa Constanza, with ad hoc masters of ceremonies.

Willem Doudijns (or maybe not), The initiation of a new member in the Bentvueghels, ca. 1660
Oil on canvas, 95.5 x 134 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (SK-A-4672)

Their depictions of themselves are full of in-jokes, symbols, spoofs, mystifications, playacting, dressing up, literary references and foolishness. Going through the exhibition, curated by Liesbeth Helmus, is a delight.

Unknown draftsman, Detail of a portrait of five Bentvueghels, showing Wouter van der Gouw alias Almanack (Wouter Pietersz Crabeth II) and Tyman van den Emster alias Botterkull (Timan Craft), ca. 1623
Red and black chalk, annotations in brown ink, 28.2 x 42.6 cm
Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (MB 292 (PK))

It also invites you to participate. So when seeing this early drawing of Bentvueghel doings, I convinced myself that the draftsman, relying on his imperfect visual memory of the most famous detail in the Sistine Chapel, was comparing Timan Craft, one of the Founders, with the wine flask in his hand, to God, and Wouter Pietersz Crabeth, raising his glass, to Adam.

Prove me wrong!

The catalogue is a highly readable and richly documented new standard text, which however suffers from two unforced and egregious production errors. It is printed on matt stock, so the illustrations are flat and fuzzy, and it is stiffly glue-bound, so you can only read it by holding it open with two hands. No Bentvueghel would have approved.

Two days later we were in Maastricht for TEFAF (The European Fine Art Fair, which we have attended since its start in 1988), an overwhelming event where we never even thought of looking at everything.

Jan van Staveren (1613-69), Pair of tronies of young men of African descent in oriental costume, ca. 1640-43
Both oil on panel (oval), 15.5 x 12 cm
Offered by Haboldt & Co, purchased by the Fenix Museum, Rotterdam

Had I known about these panels, I would have tried to get them for the exhibition of which I was guest curator, Rembrandt’s orient: west meets east in Dutch art of the seventeenth century (2020-21). But they were unpublished, in a private collection, and were now on view for the first time. Bob Haboldt has an enviable knack for making discoveries of interesting paintings.

[29 March: In response to Shelley Perlove’s request to see the backgrounds, which are indeed interesting, I am posting larger images of the paintings below. If you click on them, you can enlarge them to full size and even larger. These are my own photos, taken with a Google Pixel 6 Pro smartphone, with the camera of which I am very pleased.]

Jan Adriaensz van Staveren, Tronie of an old man in a turban, ca. early 1640s
Oil on panel (oval), 25.5 x 20 cm

The funny TEFAF thing about them is that around the corner, at a stand that doesn’t put its name, which I neglected to note, on its labels, another newly discovered van Staveren, in the same mold, was presented. The big difference is that the smaller pair of tronies have young Black models, making them so much more desirable today than the gnarly old gringo in the other painting.

The most astonishing object I saw starts like this. An example of highly accomplished Arabic calligraphy. Now look at the entire field of which this is the lower left corner:

By way of caption, here is the entry on the piece in the catalogue of the dealer offering it, Clavreuil:

This I found not only a virtuoso scribal performance, but also a moving testimonial to whoever ordered it. A pious, wealthy Muslim, perhaps not all that learned, who was seized by the desire to take in the entire Qur’an all at once.

Park Sukwon (b. 1942, South Korea)
Accumulation 2307, 2023
Han-ji cutting
130.3 x 162.2 cm
Seoul, Gana Art Gallery

Walking away from the Clavreuil stand in a daze, I started seeing things that demonstrate a comparable, totalizing design urge, making me wonder whether there is a class of such objects with different groundings. In the Qur’an this is faith; what is it for Park Sukwon, who calls his work Accumulation – number 2307, no less,

Pierrette Bloch (1928-2017), Untitled, 2012
Pastel on paper, 75 x 145 cm
St. Moritz, Galerie Karsten Greve

or Pierrette Bloch, who gives her work no title?

From Maastricht, via Rubens’s astonishing castle in Elewijt, we drove to Antwerp, for the 24th congress of CODART, at the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (KMSKA), recently reopened after a renovation lasting ten years.

Peter Paul Rubens, Christ showing the wound on his left hand to three apostles (The Rockox triptych), 1613-15
Oil on panel, 145 x 235 cm
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (307-311)


Perhaps with the hands of the Bentvueghels still in mind, in the Rubens Hall of the KMSKA I was struck by the hands in the triptych ordered by Nicolaas Rockox as an epitaph for the grave where he and his wife Adriana Perez were to be buried, in the Minderbroederskerk. The exceptional concentration on Christ’s one hand wound remains an object of scholarly speculation, but it begs attention for the hands of everyone else. While the figures in the triptych look intently at each other, at the wound, or at us, the donors also perform gestures of faith – hand on heart, finger in a holy book, counting a rosary. This emphasis seems to say that seeing is not enough – effective faith demands manual, hands-on action as well.

Anthony van Dyck, The Crucifixion (“De lanssteek”)
Oil on panel, 429.6 x 310 cm
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (297)

As always, I could not not look at the Hebrew in another painting in the hall, the titulus on a Crucifixion that the museum curators now give to “Anthony van Dyck in the studio of Peter Paul Rubens.” It was a donation by Nicolaas Rockox and Adriana Perez to the same Franciscan church of the Minderbroeders where they were to be buried beneath the painting of Christ’s hand wound. In this painting he is being pierced in his chest. Beneath Nicolaas’s coat of arms was a Latin distich identifying Rubens as the painter, and below Adriana’s the verse “Whether it’s the hand of the artist that you see or the heart of the donor, it could not come from a more noble spirit.” Who’s right – the donors or the curators? What are the Rockoxes and Rubens (even if via van Dyck) saying about those wounds?

The Hebrew – in this case Aramaic – has an internal contradiction. The wording, with vocalization, is correct (except for the lamed having been turned into an oversized yud) and must have been provided to the artist by a knowledgeable Hebraist. (To my annoyed astonishment, the Plantin Polyglot Bible is nowhere to be found online. I would expect the inscription there to be like this one.) But the definition of the letters in paint is sloppy. Wouldn’t you expect the artist to have invited one of Plantin’s proofreaders over for a drink and a look? A matter for further consideration.

Amazingly and unexpectedly, I found myself seated under that very painting, with the Rockox epitaph off the far end of the table, at the CODART congress dinner laid out for us with unsurpassable graciousness by the museum.

Wishing you all weeks like that every once in a while. They go a long way.

© Gary Schwartz 2023. Published on the Schwartzlist on 26 March 2023

The elections in the Netherlands for the twelve provincial governments and twenty-one water boards have once again gone rogue. In the Dutch system of arm’s-length representation, the members of the Senate, the upper chamber of Parliament, are chosen not by popular vote, but by the provincial governments, giving these elections national importance. Four years ago, the upshot was a disaster that has not yet been acknowledged as such. In most provinces, most votes went to Forum voor Democratie, the party of Thierry Baudet, a weirdo crypto-Fascist who calls Vladimir Putin his great hero and seems to be taking money from Russia. His Senate faction began to self-destruct at the getgo, so that of the twelve seats it won in 2019, it  has kept only one. This has been a relief to the powers that be, but what it boils down to is that the choice of the electorate counts for nothing.

On March 15th something similar happened. A start-up party that did not exist four years ago, the Boeren Burger Beweging (BBB; Farmer-Burger-Movement) captured more votes than any other in all twelve provinces and in thirteen of the water boards, which seems never to have happened before. This movement is basically a one-issue party – slow down climate transition to give farmers breathing space – that has cleverly harvested the grievance vote of non-farmers. (Faith in the Dutch government has shrunk to near invisibility. Everyone has a grievance.) The cleverness was provided by an advertising agency with an account said to be paid for by big Dutch agri-business. The farmers you see on tv are the ones with small family farms, many of whom are indeed at their wit’s end. But they are not the ones who have turned the Netherlands into the second largest exporter of agricultural products in the world, after the VS.

I might be wrong, but the BBB looks to me more like a lobby than a political party. It is in keeping with this theory that after the election, the reasonable-sounding powerhouse of a woman who runs it, named Caroline van der Plas, immediately began dictating terms to the prime minister. Although she is the holder of only the one seat in Parliament the party won two years ago, she is now insisting that the government, which has committed to more resolute climate and nature action, revamp its policies.

To my mind, this development is made possible by basic deficiencies in the representativeness of Dutch politics, in which no one gets to vote for an office-holder accountable to him or her. More on this another time, perhaps. In the meanwhile, the governability of the country is going into even freer fall than it already was, with the last formation of a cabinet having lasted 299 days. People here are not worrying about this as much as they should.

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4 thoughts on “415 Some stray observations”

  1. The Dutch artists in Rome were not the first to mock Michelangelo and his Creation of Adam in particular. Caravaggio had fun with his “Amor Victorious” who outdid even Michelangelo’s Ignudi for pederasty. And his “Calling of Matthew” seems to have reversed the Creation of Adam with Christ’s arm extended languorously like Adams. Michelangelo started the game by poking fun at himself and at serious art with all the sexual jokes in the Sistine Ceiling including fellatio interruptus in “The Fall,” a homoerotic Pieta in the Deluge, goat fellatio in the “Sacrifice of Noah,” anal sex in the “Drunkenness of Noah” and the offering of anal sex in the upper left of Jeremiah (visible in Ghisi’s engraving but cropped out of most art book close-ups of that prophet). The Divine Michelangelo would be in jail today for his rape drawings and poems sent to his new love object, a fifteen year old aristocratic boy.

    Gary is right that seeing only gets you so far, even in the world of art. Although touch was usually ranked at the bottom of the hierarchy of the senses with sight on top, there is a Christian tradition placing touch – or rather – inner touch – at the top. Faith comes not from things seen as Paul reminds us. The fictitious Saint Longinus was famous in the later Middle Ages for his blindness which was healed only after he stabbed Christ when blood from the Sacred Heart dripped down the lance onto his hands and from there, to his eyes. Longinus is clearly SEEING without any help from Christ in Rubens’ painting, as is Mary Magdalen. Counter-Reformation piety requires empirical piety and “seeing is believing”. Exhibit A is Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas which Rubens presumably saw before the Rockox Triptych. Ironically it was a Calvinist Baroque artist, Rembrandt who revived and reinterpreted the late medieval Catholic theme of blind faith in the later state of the “Three Crosses” (where Longinus neither stabs nor looks), in the 1654 “Presentation in the Temple” where Simeon CLOSES his eyes and uses his hands to see (as he does in the late painting in Stockholm). Inner touch is also central to other late Rembrandts including the “Jewish Bride,” the Braunschweig “Family Group,” and the Hermitage Prodigal where the father touches and heals, his eyes closed to the outer world.

  2. Thanks Gary for making known Jan van Staveren’s tronies of young men of African descent in oriental costume, ca. 1640-43. I would love to see what is going on in the backgrounds.

    Great Newsletter, as always.

    1. Thanks, Shelley, for the compliment and the request. See above for images on which you can click twice to get a good view of the suggestive doings in the backgrounds but suggestive of what?

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