Monday, January 26, 2015

Get There While You Can

El Greco, View of Toledo
Greco-Spanish, 1597-1599
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
About two months ago I wrote an article outlining the amazing array of offerings in the museums of New York City available between the beginning of November and the end of January.  The distractions of two bouts of bronchitis and the flurry of activity surrounding Christmas and New Year, plus my concentration on researching and writing my still unfinished articles about the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary meant that I didn’t take the time to properly review and recommend any of those exhibitions.  

This is unfortunate, especially in the case of the recently closed exhibition of the paintings and tapestries of Pieter Coecke van Aelst.  That was a simply spectacular show, which ended with a weekend devoted to a scholarly symposium on Coecke and his period, part of which I attended. 

El Greco, St. Luke
Greco-Spanish, ca. 1600-1605
New York, Hispanic Society of America

However, several of the exhibitions are still open, at least through next Sunday, February 1, and two in particular are not to be missed if possible.

The Met will close two important exhibitions on February 1.  
El Greco, Holy Family
Greco-Spanish, ca. 1585
New York, Hispanic Society of America

The first is a lovely little show of the El Grecos in the Met’s own collection, including the two usually seen only in the Lehman wing, reminding us once again of the depth of the Met's holdings.  These are supplemented by several paintings from the little known collections of the Hispanic Society of America, which is located in a corner of Manhattan (at Broadway and 155th Street) not usually visited by tourists and seldom even by New Yorkers.   Indeed, I myself visited it for the first time only two years ago. 

The paintings from the Hispanic Society make a welcome addition to round out the Met’s familiar holdings.  They include a lovely Holy Family, featuring a very substantial Baby Jesus, a sensitive St. Luke and a Penitent St. Jerome which provides a nice pendant to the Met’s St. Jerome as a Cardinal from the Lehman Collection. 
El Greco, Penitent St. Jerome
Greco-Spanish, c. 1600
New York, Hispanic Society of America
El Greco, St. Jerome
Greco-Spanish, 1600-1614
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lehman Collection

But, the star among the Hispanic Society pictures, as far as I am concerned, is a beautiful head of St. Francis of Assisi.

El Greco, St. Francis of Assisi
Greco-Spanish, ca. 1590
New York, Hispanic Society of America
As the Met notes, the St. Francis head has been cut from a much larger canvas, one of the myriad paintings of St. Francis that came from the studio of the master.  But the head itself is so beautifully painted that it is probably from the hand of El Greco himself.  And, happily, it does not really suffer from its cut out state.  Instead, the profile view, seen against a black background produces almost the effect of a sculptural profile bust.  The effect is startling and very impressive.  The reproduction at left does not do it justice.   You should see it if you can.

It should also be noted that the Frick is also running a small complementary exhibition of its own three El Greco paintings.  This will also close on February 1. 

Bartholomeus Spranger, Self-Portrait
Belgian, c.1585
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
The second exhibition that warrants viewing at the Met called Bartholomeus Spranger:  Splendor and Eroticism in Imperial Prague.  

Like Coecke van Aelst, Spranger was an artist from a period of time and an area of Europe little known to American museum goers -- the later Northern Renaissance and Mannerist periods.  In the last ten years the Met has presented three shows devoted to the work of artists from this time and place.  The first, in the autumn of 2010, was of the work of Jan Gossart (sometimes known as Mabuse).  The second and third are the two recent/current exhibitions of Coecke van Aelst and Spranger.

All three men originated in the Belgian town of Antwerp, but had their success in other locations and under the patronage of members of the Burgundian Hapsburg royal family.  All three were extremely important in blending the art of the earlier Northern Renaissance artists, with their near miraculous oil painting techniques, and the classical art of the Italian Renaissance during that interesting and still not quite understood period known as Mannerism, with its exaggerated forms and complicated compositions.  All three started out as painters, but created some of their most interesting and important work as designs for tapestries, stained glass,  gold work, engravings and other "minor arts" to be executed by others. 
Bartholomeus Spranger, Lamentation of the Dead Christ
Belgian, c. 1576
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsgemaeldiesammlungen

Of the three, Spranger is the youngest.  Spranger received his initial training in Antwerp, then went on to work in Italy at Parma as an assistant to the painter Bernardino Gatti and, most importantly, in Rome where he worked with the artist Giulio Clovio in service to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese and to Pope Pius V.  After the death of Pope Pius he moved on to the service of the Emperor Maximilian II at Vienna (from 1575) and then to the service of Rudolf II at Prague, beginning in 1580.

Bartholomeus Spranger, Odysseus and Circe
Belgian, ca. 1580-1582
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Bartholomeus Spranger, God the Father
with The Holy Spirit and Angels
Belgian, ca. 1582
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

He remained in Prague for most of the rest of his life, dying there in 1611.

All these movements and parts of his life are displayed in the three rooms of the exhibition, including a modern interpretation of what a portion of the Kunstkammer of Rudolf II might have resembled: combining paintings, drawings, prints, animal skeletons (on loan from the American Museum of Natural History across Central Park), ivory carvings and other curiosities into one grand display.

Partial view of the Met's installation reproducing the
Kunstkammer of Rudolf II
The large painting is Spranger's Jupiter and Antiope
of about 1596 from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

Like Arcimboldo, about whom I have written previously, Spranger’s paintings easily fit right into this type of display. 
Bartholomeus Spranger, Allegory of Fame
Belgian, 1592
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
This allegory refers to the hoped for victory
of Rudolf II over an invading Turkish army.
In reality, Rudolf suffered a defeat.

Like his fellow Mannerists Spranger’s oeuvre mixes Christian religious scenes with allegories and with stories of the doings of the pagan gods of antiquity, depending on the taste and requirements of the patron for whom he worked.

Hendrick Goltzius after Bartholomeus Spranger, Feast of the Gods at the Marriage of Cupid and Psyche
Belgian, 1587
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Arts
This engraving, following a drawing by Spranger in the Albertina Museum in Vienna, made Spranger famous throughout late 16th century Europe.  The original drawing  is displayed alongside the Met's own copy of the print (seen here).

Bartholomeus Spranger, Adoration of the Kings
Belgian, ca. 1595
London, National Gallery
Bartholomeus Spranger, Vanitas
Belgian, ca. 1600
Krakow, Wawel Castle

Many of the objects in the exhibition come from the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Albertina in Vienna and from other collections in Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Poland and Liechtenstein. For this reason alone the show is worth seeing and even more rewarding when seen as part of the wider European phenomenon of Mannerism that is represented by Spranger, Coecke van Aelst and Gossart in the north, by the artists of the School of Fontainebleau in France, El Greco in Spain and the Italian Mannerists like Rosso, Pontormo, Parmigianino, Giulio Romano, Vasari and others in Italy.

Bartholomeus Spranger, Noli Me Tangere
Belgian, ca. 1590-1600
Bucharest, National Museum of Art of Romania
Bartholomeus Spranger, Angelica and Medoro
Belgian, ca. 1600
Munich, Alte Pinakothek

Bartholomeus Spranger, Venus at the Forge of Vulcan
Belgian, ca. 1610
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
So, if you can make it this week, get there while you can (but stay safe during the impending snow storm and wait till the end of the week, if possible).

© M. Duffy, 2015

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