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Monday, 27 February 2017

Dragons and the Magical Worldview of Pre-Modern Eastern Europe

I’m currently working with primary sources about a very special and very helpful kind of dragon. This kind of dragon is not the medieval monsters that we encounter in ‘Beowulf’ or the various versions of the Sigurd / Siegfried tale. Early modern German, Baltic and Slavic folklore knew spirits in the shape of flying fiery snakes called dragon (“Drache” in German or “Żmij” in Polish). In contrast to the monstrous dragons of medieval epics, they were small household spirits that acknowledged a magician as their master. The dragon allegedly flew into its master’s house and brought him money or goods that could be used directly or sold like grain or milk. All the goods the dragon allegedly brought to its master it had stolen from somebody else.

The dragon was the embodiment of transfer magic. This is why I am interested in dragons! We still know much too little about the economic aspects of magic. Studying witch trials that mention dragons could help us to gain a deeper understand of the magical worldview and the relevance of magic in pre-modern everyday life.

By combining historical and folkloristic sources we can identify that the belief in the dragon as a household spirit was well-known in a huge area roughly between what is today northern Bavaria and Latvia. There is perhaps a 'natural' explanation for the phenomena. A number of people claimed to have seen a dragon flying over the night sky like a ball of fire with a long fiery tail. Sightings of comets might have contributed to the belief in dragons.

But what is fascinating for me, is that most sources mentioning dragons are trial records from witch trials. They date from the 16th and 17th centuries. Interestingly, the dragons seem to play a more prominent part in the early trials of the 16th century. Owners of dragons were said to be in league with the devil; the dragon itself was – in accordance with the Biblical use of the word ‘dragon’ - identified as a demon. Owning a dragon was a common accusation brought against men and women suspected of witchcraft. In the Eastern parts of Germany the dragon features rather prominently in witch trials. In the West, it doesn’t seem to appear at all. Therefore, we may safely assume that the belief in the dragon as a household spirit originated in Eastern Europe, possibly in connection with the custom to keep snakes as pets.

It seems that the belief in dragons bringing money did not become extinct in the 18th century when the witch trials slowly petered out. We find numerous tales about such dragons in Silesian folk legends collected in the 19th century. Some time ago, I talked to a colleague who grew up in Lusatia (southeast of today’s Saxony), the home of the ethnic group of the Sorbs and a region where German and West Slavic culture mingle and thus create a unique and very colourful folklore. He told me that as a boy he still heard tales about the dragons.

Of course, people did not take them seriously anymore. Yet, if you wanted to denounce a neighbouring village as primitive and backward, you said:
The women there still have a dragon.
By Johannes Dillinger, Professor in History, among whose many research interests are the history of Witchcraft, Magic, and Folk Religion.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Arnolfini Gothic

One of America’s most famous residents has just arrived in Britain, happily unaccompanied by petitions for and against.  Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic has made a rare trip across the Atlantic to star in the Royal Academy’s much anticipated new show, ‘America after the Fall:Painting in the 1930s.’ 

Even if you’ve never seen the painting in its usual home in the Art Institute of Chicago you are likely to recognise it – Wood’s 1930 painting is perhaps the most reproduced of all American artworks, and certainly the most parodied, even making a guest appearance in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Just write American Gothic into your search engine to see the weird and wonderful variants that come up.

So what is it that makes American Gothic so compelling?  Not, I think, its execution; if I am remembering correctly from my student days in Chicago Wood’s neat but plain brushwork makes this one of the rare cases of a great artwork which is not much more impressive in the flesh than it is in reproduction. What makes American Gothic special is, rather, its combination of utterly lucid design and immensely striking subject matter, both qualities which work as well in reproduction as in the original. Wood’s picture is perfectly balanced, the care with which it is constructed epitomised by the alliterative echoes between the shapes of the pitchfork, the pattern on the man’s dungarees, the gothic window and the cactus on the porch.

And then there is the subject matter, so oddly fascinating that the image, once seen, is impossible to forget.  ‘Haunting’ and ‘uncanny’ are two of the words most often applied to American Gothic and uncanny is perhaps the one that fits it best – uncanny in Freud’s sense of something which is at once both utterly familiar and unfathomably strange. The couple seem so ordinary, so commonplace, and yet there is also something disturbing about them, about their long, pinched, expressionless faces, the hint of threat in the sharp tines of the fork, the overtones of religious repression lent by that improbable gothic window. The very title, American Gothic, suggests that dark themes of the sort explored in ‘gothick’ fiction might be lurking beneath the respectable facade.

Perhaps there is something else, too, which contributes to the uncanniness of the picture, something which might resonate with particular force for a British audience. It is well-known that Wood painted American Gothic shortly after a trip to Munich in which he became fascinated by fifteenth-century Flemish paintings. On his return to America he started to apply the precise brushwork, neat drawing and meticulous imitation of appearances he had seen in these works to his Iowan subjects. These traits are highly developed in American Gothic, and the word ‘gothic’ would itself have evoked the medieval world to which these Flemish painters were then thought to belong. Wood even borrowed actual compositions from his Flemish predecessors.  It is one of these borrowings, often noticed but insufficiently explored, which, I believe, helps to lend American Gothic its unique flavour.

I do not know whether Wood saw Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait in the National Gallery in London during his trips to Europe. However, he must surely have known the work in reproduction, and it seems to me highly likely that he conceived American Gothic as an updating not just of early Netherlandish art in general, but of the Arnolfini Portrait in particular.


Placed side-by-side, we might first be struck as much by the differences between the two paintings as by their similarities.  Wood’s couple are outside, they are bare-headed, and the man stands on the right. But the more we look the stronger the echoes become. In both cases the couples, symmetrically arranged, stand on either side of a glass artefact which seems to bear immense significance, the gothic window in American Gothic, the convex mirror in the Arnolfini Portrait. Mr Arnolfini’s raised right hand is echoed by the pitchfork in the male farmer’s hand, while the spikey verticality of the fork itself has its equivalent in the Arnolfini’s chandelier.  Meanwhile, the still-life detail of the oranges on the Arnolfini’s windowsill is situated in exactly the same place in the composition as the cactus on the porch in American Gothic.  In both pictures the man looks out at us while the woman looks more askance, and in both the woman wears a belted dress and has her hair tightly combed. In both pictures the man’s face is unusually long and lugubrious. It even seems possible to me that Wood chose his male model, actually his dentist, for his passing resemblance to Mr Arnofini.

Once we’ve got our eye in, even the deviations from the original start to seem like deliberate comments on the differences between modern Iowan farmers and fifteenth-century European merchants.  The plain clothes and simple surroundings of the Americans are in stark contrast to the sumptuous costumes and costly possessions flaunted by the Arnolfinis. The Protestantism of the former is asserted as strongly by the chapel-like window of their house as the Catholicism of the Arnolfinis is asserted by the rosary beads on their wall and the scenes of Christ’s Passion around their mirror.  And the sensuality of Mrs Arnolfini’s body (she looks pregnant but her shape was probably meant to indicate her youth and beauty) is so very much more pronounced than that of the flat-chested, strait-laced farmer’s wife.

These differences and similarities make me think that in American Gothic Grant Wood was attempting not so much to copy the Arnolfini Portrait as to make a modern version of it.  Is it mere coincidence that the titles of the two works (the Van Eyck was then as now known as the Arnolfini Portrait) contain the same pattern of syllables and start with the same letter?  As the two works are now situated just a short walk from each other in London, it will be fascinating to see if they are as similar as I think they might be.

By Dr Harry Mount, Programme Lead in the History of Art and History

Saturday, 18 February 2017

What's in a Bruegel? Not a 'H', according to Jonathan Jones

One of the things people often ask is ‘how exactly do you spell Bruegel: is it with the “h”? or without?’ Truth is, it’s both. Bruegel signed his name both ways, and, in his early career, there were other spellings besides those two main ones. In fact, if you wanted to be precise – and a bit of pedantry can go a long way – you could rephrase the simple question ‘is it spelled with the “h”? or without?’ as the much more cumbersome: ‘so is with the “h,” or without? but what about the “u”? should I include a diaeresis over the “u”? or is it a macron that I need?’ And, to be honest, it’s not just a matter of how it’s spelled, because there’s also the matter of how Bruegel styled his signature: is it lowercase, in italics? or is it uppercase, with all sorts of other idiosyncrasies thrown in for good measure (which letters should be given as a ligature, for instance?). For in the corpus of autograph paintings and drawings by Bruegel, all of these varieties and more are encountered: from ‘brūeghel,’ to ‘brueghel,’ to ‘BRVEGEL’. (This, by the way, is to say nothing about how people outside the Netherlands coped the artist’s name – to Italians, for instance, Bruegel’s Dutch name was not only a bit tricky to spell but also, I guess, difficult to pronounce, and so we find yet more variants: the Bolognese doctor Scipio Fabius, for instance, plumped, in 1561 and again in 1565, for ‘Petrus Bruochl’.)

What this all means, in reality, is that Pieter Bruegel willingly played around with how to spell his own name. In early works, from the 1550s, we find him using variants on the ‘brueghel’ type of signature (lowercase, in italics, often with the “h,” with all sorts of other variations); then, in about 1559, he decided to adopt, with greater consistency than before, the now more familiar form: ‘BRVEGEL’ (usually uppercase, sometimes with the “V” and “E” in ligature, and that pesky “h” now eliminated). Here’s how some of those signatures actually look in a few works by the artist (1. the 1556 drawing for the Big Fish Eat the Little Ones; 2. the 1559 Netherlandish Proverbs; 3. the 1559 drawing of Charity):

It’s stating the obvious, but what this shows us is that Bruegel couldn’t quite make up his mind when it came to spelling his name and signing his works. Up until about 1559, that is. For from that date, he went as ‘BRVEGEL’. And the reason for this change is a simple one: for ‘BRVEGEL’ has a more Latinate feel than the decidedly Dutch ‘brūeghel‘ and its variants. The signature change was, in other words, about cultivating a particular image: the Latinising, or “Latinisation,” of the name signalling the artist’s social, cultural and intellectual pretensions. (If proof is needed, we can just cast about almost at random in Bruegel’s milieu and find other examples of people doing exactly the same thing: ‘Domenicus Lampsonius,’ to take just one example from Bruegel’s extended circle, is a Latinised version of ‘Dominique Lampsone’.)

That to me seems to be the most plausible explanation of what’s going on here. But, whatever the historical realities are, the ‘is it with the “h” or without’ cliché provided a nice tagline in Jonathan Jones’s recent article in The Guardian on the, in my view ill-conceived, subject of which Brueg[h]el matters; or, put in another way that comes closer to what Jones actually thinks, which Brueg[h]el was any good?

His article was prompted by the upcoming opening at the Holburne Museum in Bath of a new exhibitionBruegel: Defining a Dynasty, which is the first exhibition ever mounted in the UK on the Brueg[h]el dynasty. I’ll be giving a lecture there in March, on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s (that’s the Bruegel-without-the-“h”’s) Blind Leading the Blind and its copies. Jones, though, doesn’t think that such an exhibition is worth having, for ‘the only Bruegel worth bothering with is the one whose name is spelled without the “h,” ‘ which is to say, Bruegel the Elder. The “other Brueghels,” namely Bruegel’s sons Pieter Brueghel (usually called Pieter the Younger, to distinguish him from the father) and Jan Brueghel (usually called Jan the Elder, or “Velvet Breughel,” to distinguish him from his own son, Jan Brueghel the Younger … ) are, in Jones’s view, second-rate painters, scarcely worthy of being the focus of an entire exhibition. He simply can’t see why ‘British museums and art dealers such as Christies, which staged a Brueghel show in 2014, [are] so obsessed with these lesser painters?,’ the “lesser painters” in question being the Brueghels with the “h”.

As we’ve now seen, it ain’t quite that simple: as I said a moment ago, a bit of pedantry goes a long way, so let’s just remember that the Elder Bruegel also had the “h”. But, the bigger point here concerns Jones’s idea that Bruegel the Elder’s children produced pictures that are inherently or automatically inferior to their faither’s: Bruegel’s genius produced masterpieces; the Brueghels’ servility produced copies, feeble pastiches, or else pretty inoffensive still lifes:

Bruegel without the “h,” Blind Leading the Blind, 1568; Capodimonte Museum, Naples

Brueghel with the “h,” Blind Leading the Blind

Jan Brueghel the Elder, Flowers in a Wooden Vessel, 1606/7; Kunsthistorisches, Vienna
This is the sort of thing you will have read years ago. And it was said especially often of Pieter Brueghel the Younger, who, in comparison to his brother Jan (whose originality has never really been questioned), has always tended to be thought of as being a totally uninventive, totally servile imitator and pasticheur of his father’s art. But is that really true? Consensus now is that it’s not: Brueghel with the “h” also produced pictures according to his own capacities of invention and artistry. And what he produced, apparently without recourse to an existing prototype by his father, is, in my view, not only good (whatever good means … ) but is also interesting for all sorts of reasons.

But, be that as it may, we can or should object, I think, to the snobbish dismissal of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s activities as a copyist. All the best artists copy and always have done, and might you not say that Brueghel the Younger’s commercial savvy is something to be applauded: clearly he identified a market demand for Bruegel’s and Bruegelian pictures, which he seized and capitalised on, and clearly made a living for himself. If that makes a man feeble … then …? What’s at stake here, I guess, is how you define greatness in an artist anyway. If absolute originality is the key criteria, then we’re always on shaky ground, because what even is artistic originality, exactly? How is originality defined? And how can we ever be sure that something is absolutely original in the strict sense? (Roland Barthes had thoughts on that matter, on the tyranny of the author-genius’s supposed originality; and even Michelangelo’s inventiveness is best understood as a process of assimilative emulation, according to which he took pre-existing artistic and literary ideas and then put them all together in inventive ways — so, is that originality?) Besides, why can’t commercial success be a marker of greatness? (The idea that art historians should only be interested in seeing greatness in art produced only by artists who take pride of place among the pantheon of artist geniuses died out, rightly, a long time ago … art history students are habitually taught nowadays to “difference the canon”.)

For me, the lives and works of the Brueghels with the “h” are just as interesting as the life and work of the Bruegel without the “h”. They might be interesting for different reasons; but different, surely, isn’t the same as being “less good than”.

By Dr Jamie Edwards, Lecturer in the History of Art who researches the art of Pieter Bruegel (c.1526-1569)

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Blown Away

Some artworks just blow you away. I encountered this one in the National Gallery’s Beyond Caravaggio exhibition. I knew it was that sort of painting as soon as I saw it, and as I progressed round the room, carefully leaving it till last, I couldn’t help sneaking peeps at it over my shoulder. Standing at last in front of it I was mesmerised – I must have stared at it for as long as I spent in the rest of the exhibition.

For the professional art historian moments like this grow increasingly rare. Only a certain number of works will have this effect, and as one grows older the chances of finding a new one are reduced. That Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ had such an effect on me is partially attributable to my unfamiliarity with the painting, recently rediscovered and now on loan to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. And that makes these moments all the more precious, these moments when one is taken back to those first electrifying encounters with art that inspired one to study art history in the first place.

At these moments, one’s pretentions to being a coolly objective historian, subordinating one’s own emotions in favour of rigorous analysis, are swept aside. But rather than fighting these feelings it’s worth indulging and analysing them, because they may give some insight both into the works themselves and the impact they had in the past.

So what was it that so grabbed me about The Taking of Christ? Well, most obviously the lighting, the dramatic contrast of light and shade for which Caravaggio is famous. It is this chiaroscuro which gives the figures such an astonishing three-dimensional presence and which accounts for the powerful impression the painting makes from a distance.

But there’s more to it than that. Closer up, I became increasingly drawn in by Caravaggio’s skills as a storyteller. For starters, the picture is composed the wrong way round. In western culture pictures tend to be composed with the light and movement coming from the left, probably because that’s the way round we read. In The Taking of Christ, however, the movement flows the other way: six figures move from right to left, and only one faces the other way. So counter-intuitive is this that when I first saw the picture reproduced in a newspaper I was convinced that it had been accidentally reversed. But this reversal is done for a reason – the one figure heading against the flow is Christ, and by placing him thus Caravaggio makes us feel the overwhelming power of the forces heading inexorably towards him.

And what forces! Two hefty armed men, their gleaming armour the hardest, clearest thing in the picture, stretch grasping metalled hands towards Christ’s frail body. Ahead of them is Judas, his wrinkled, ugly face in stark contrast to the handsome visage of Christ which he is leaning forward to kiss. Christ’s mouth is slightly puckered and a little open – is he mumbling words of forgiveness or allowing Judas to kiss him on the lips? There is a disturbing, almost subliminal eroticism about the picture, amplified by the voyeuristic stare of the lantern-bearer who stands behind the soldiers.

Caravaggio’s final stroke of genius is to place the head of St John so close to that of Christ, but behind him and facing the other way, that it seems as if we are looking at one man with two faces. And while the face of Christ is resigned, that of John is shrieking in horror, as if expressing Christ’s own inner thoughts or our own feelings at the tragedy about to strike.

As an art historian, how much should I attend to these very subjective responses to The Taking of Christ? Certainly we should be sceptical of assuming that a seventeenth-century observer would be struck by the painting in the same way. My ‘period eye’, the world of visual references I bring to the painting, is very different from that of a seventeenth-century Roman. I am, for example, aware that I am highly susceptible to paintings which convey space through a powerful contrast of light and shade, perhaps in part because this is something modern artists have decided we can do without.

But perhaps my exaggerated responses to chiaroscuro are not so very different from those of an observer from the seventeenth century, for whom it would have been as much a new technique as it is now a lost and forgotten one. And is it not possible that Caravaggio was deliberately using the narrative devices I have been discussing to ensure that his picture had the same devastating effect on its first viewers as it had on me? Seventeenth-century painters were working increasingly for the galleries of private collectors and they would have known that their works would have been hung alongside those of other artists. Caravaggio’s Taking of Christ was painted for just such a collector, Ciriaco Mattei, and it would not be surprising if he chose to compete with Mattei’s other artists by showing off the chiaroscuro and story-telling which he had lately used to such devastating effect in his painting of the Calling of St Matthew for the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.

As art historians we must be very careful how we use our intuitive personal reactions to works of art - all too often they can lead us into anachronisms and misunderstandings. But these perceptions can also open up areas of research and interpretation which might lead us to insights of genuine historical validity. To ignore them is, moreover, to ignore what brought us to the study of art in the first place, the sheer pleasure of looking at works of art.

Dr Harry Mount, Programme Lead in History of Art and History, and currently working on the controversial quality of minuteness in the visual arts in Britain between 1660 and 1830.