Thursday, 30 August 2012

Johannes Vermeer, The Procuress (1656)

The painting, The Procuress (1656), has long been suspected to be atypical of Johannes Vermeer’s painterly style and characteristics: the airiness the painter often favoured gives way to a more limited space and its light treatment, except a more prominent one on the carpet, is confusedly rudimentary, as if the whole canvas was emerging from a film of smoke and sands. Depicted here a brothel scene, but any feelings of seediness or raucousness are diluted, presumably for the sake of decency, which is an undercurrent flows beneath Vermeer’s oeuvre, attests to the Dutch master’s contemporary role as an unsung genius.

What is peculiar about this painting is the man on the left, long rumoured to be the self-portrait of the painter, who is seen staring casually into the viewers. The glance is a conspiratorial one, seemingly in complicity with the beholders. This imposed intimacy generates an unnerving effect; unconsciously the viewers do find themselves return the uncanny glance, in hope of plumbing any illicit secrets. Conspiratorial glances are not too rarely found in paintings. In Edouard Manet’s ubiquitous Luncheon on the Grass (1862-3), the nude model turns her gaze boldly to the front, assuming admirable confidence and ease when mingling with two well-attired gentlemen. What abhorred the viewers of the 19th century was not the subject of nudity, but the juxtaposition of formality and facetiousness, and moreover, the unflappable gaze that speaks of her liberation from the fetters of social protocols, and her assertion as a woman with independence: she who makes her own choices; she who is unafraid of parading her womanly attributes.

The conspiratorial glances sometimes question us, of the things that we are squeamish to face, and the answers we dread to give. A murkier instance can be seen in Hieronymus Bosch’s Haywain Triptych (1500-2). On its right panel, where all human sins run amok, stands a bull in the midst of the hellish commotion. Despite the hectoring of the infernal beings the bull halts before the gate to Hell, hesitant to be led to its final damnation and instead, prefers to let its emotion flow. It is especially an agony when amid a crowd of senseless violence and vices an innocent and sentient being still subsists. The pitiable creature turns its gaze at us, its meekness still fills its eyes, seemingly to implore our sympathy and mercy. This is the moment when all words muted on our mouths.

Eyes can disclose unwittingly the secrets that are best to be hidden, but they can also be observant, furtively and steadily discovering the secrets of others. Therefore my eyes instinctively dwell on the second man from left in our painting. Something about the couple on his right obviously interests the man. A smile of wiles and malice plays upon his mouth, and our eyes, despite how keenly and closely we scrutinize the painting we fail to tease out the possible hidden agenda of the smiling man and what is actually happening in this painting.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Frans Hals, Buffoon Playing a Lute

Very rarely are Frans Hals’ people appeared without cheerful countenances or unpretentious smirks. Happiness reigns Hals’ portraits of people of his time, the aristocracies and the peasants alike. It therefore came not as a surprise if music should be served as an instrument for the paintings’ permeation of felicity. The buffoon in the picture has himself dressed to the festivity, gleefully plucking away the lute, glances sideward as if to engage the attention of the apple of his eye, whom the music is dedicated to. What makes his music tangibly and palpably felt is the tresses of his hair, which scamper about joyfully in midair.


From centuries on painters have tried to materialize the infectiousness of music among the listeners. Or the essence of music could be rendered with ingenious exactitude, as seen in Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (1432), in which some art historians alleged to identify the precise notes of the music solely through close study of the angels’ humming mouth. In most cases, the aim is more or less achieved when the painting succeeds in suggesting the elements or moods of music. The music in our painting is not one for a raucous affair, but appealing to a knot of selective listeners. This private pleasure, permissible only to a few, is also manifested through Edouard Manet’s Spanish Singer (1860). Posing against a dark background, the Spaniard plays solitarily to himself, with merely the enveloping darkness and empty tankards for company. But the singer is not unheard. Thanks to Manet’s dexterous treatment of light, which comes from four winds and fixates on the singer, and makes him the lodestar of the stage. His figure is also enlivened by the juxtaposition of complementary colours, and also his silhouette, looming just beneath his tilted feet. Manet’s music is something more profound; something that invites contemplation.


Back to our painting. For a long time I had pondered the possibility that it was not sheer happiness that Hals was trying to capture. On hindsight the smiles of his people almost seemed satirical, or feigned, as if the sitters were ordered to pull on various comic expressions. What contributed to my notion was also the often garish colours applied to the features, which made the panoply of faces not always delightful sights to behold. But Hals prevented any unpleasantness of his portraits by doing his colours in visibly loose brushstrokes, as if the paintings were all following the rhythms of some unknown melodies, and the painter, basked in the beautiful symphony when completing his masterpieces.


Frans Hals’ people are like clowns, the professional ones who are playing the roles exactly as they are assigned to be emulating. Any attempt to scrutinize them psychologically is difficult, and almost impossible. Hals’ people are impervious to any apparent emotions, and always smiling their masks are untearable. But the mood and feeling is in the atmosphere, as in Buffoon Playing a Lute (1623-4), the sound of music is realized. Anyone unimaginative who is still unable to conjure up the substance of music should eschew Matisse’s Music (1910), which makes the spirit of music an even more abstract and ungraspable entity.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Gustav Klimt, Judith I

The story of Judith beheading Holofernes reveals more violence than female heroism. Paintings or sculptures often depict Judith carrying triumphantly the head of her victim, in a fashion of the notorious Salome. Or she can also be seen stepping suavely on Holofernes’ head, like that in Giorgione’s, in which the heroine leaves her majestic beauty and elegance untarnished even when carrying out the bloodiest business. The pervasive serenity of Giorgione’s painting only augments the lurking horror.


Gustav Klimt whips up a different degree of horror in his depiction of the tale- the kind of horror that, at the sight of the painting the viewers blush. Or they might constantly dither between evading their furtive glance and transfixing boldly their eyes on every telling detail. In Judith I (1901), Klimt introduces a rare sentiment- that of an unreserved sexuality, which contradicts brazenly how Judith was originally portrayed- a widow with unquestionable virtue. Klimt’s Judith is modernized as a high-class prostitute, luxuriously adorned with gold, parting her dress like drawing up curtains- most probably a suggestive gesture of inviting in her guests. The viewers can only get a blurry, partial view of Holofernes’ head, squeezing into one nook of the canvas in shadow. Instead, the head of the heroine is in focus, emphasized especially by her bobbed hair. And with her chin slightly up, her sultrily squinted eyes collide with ours.


Judith’s facial expressions suggest ecstasy- before love or after love, and also in pain, as that feeling is often inextricable with ultimate excitement. But rarely is this ecstasy accompanied with murderous act, at least not so without hints of malice or wiles. Those eyes can seem conspiratorial, yet they dwell upon sexual enticement. And so thus the head of Holofernes suddenly becomes a mere appendage of the murderess, like a handbag she never leaves without.


I was thinking about Edvard Munch’s Madonna (1894) when I first saw Klimt’s Judith. It is the selfsame absorption in intoxicated passion- but Munch’s Madonna reaches its apotheosis; her lucidity and consciousness at great risk of dissolving along with the approaching whirl, soon to be abandoned. What both painters also share is their blatant bastardization of subject matters that are best to be treated with undiluted reverence and exactitude. The concurrence of sexuality and sin in Klimt’s Judith, and the rush of intoxication and love when overcome with elevated holiness in Munch’s Madonna. Those contrasting emotions can meld together in the blink of an eye. It is the marriage of Hell and Heaven.


What Klimt contributed to other successive art movements, as represented with our painting, was the realistic delineation of human nature, the delving-into of the complexity of one’s psyche. Klimt’s paintings are a display of various performances of human emotions, the maddening theatre that inclines to put on plays that confront our innocent sights, but manage to ingrain in our memories evermore.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Caspar Wolf, Devil’s Bridge in the Schoellenen (1777)

Swiss painter Caspar Wolf was known primarily for his landscape paintings, those with the Alps to be precise. Wolf’s imagery of glaciers, waterfalls, caves or creeks are epic, and so much so that with the aid of the grey tone of colourisation in his paintings, those natural formations seem cold and impervious- a lurking hostility that welcomes not the viewers’ ready absorption. One can imagine standing before a grand painting by Wolf and not awed by its overwhelming magnificence but woefully dwarfed by its monstrosity.

Seen here the 1777 painting titled, Devil’s Bridge in the Schoellenen. A precipitous bridge straddles between the gorges, which magnitude dominates the majority of the canvas, and reduces the sky to merely a conical view. A rumbling stream of water races to its still pool, and the boisterous spirit within, reluctant to be transmuted abruptly to insipid sedateness, bubbles still white and frothy. I am immediately reminded of the great Flemish landscape painter, Joachim Patinir, who was famed for turning landscape, the usually bit-role in the theatre of allegorical paintings, into a singular genre. Take for example Patinir’s Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, which particularly shares a slight resemblance to our painting, the figures are as well minimized by the unpleasantly barren rocks and the picturesque landscape that stretches afar.

But Wolf’s landscape certainly provides a more unnerving view. The travellers, possibly trudging up to the summit, and down through all the creaks and crevices untrammelled, suddenly encounter this bridge, which, thanks to the white vapour of the waterfall, is made only dimly visible. One can almost feel the palpitation of the travellers’, when the deafening din of the rushing water only contributes to their growingly fainter hearts. Finally, an audacious one takes a tentative step on the wobbly-looking bridge, and nimbly he crosses to the safe side all in one breathe. Triumphantly the victor raises his horse and beckons his companions to come trotting through.

For me the painting is an embodiment of courage, a whipping-up of the collective morale, and a shaft of hopeful light through the heavily encompassing mist of desolation and danger. It is also a pictorial evidence of the underestimated power of men, which is often preternaturally augmented when facing their toughest moment.

But here I raise my question, why are landscape paintings invariably one of the most undervalued amongst the others? The old maxim proves right, that nature is the best teacher. Stories and lessons abound in nature. It is when witnessing nature’s ingenious creations before the artist’s hungry eyes that his work breeds the richest fruit. But is it not weird that although nature guarantees the grandest, when enslaved and imprisoned by the artist the viewers are then granted the private view of nature- curiously, in its patronizingly blinkered vision.