Magazine article The Spectator

Erotic Review

Magazine article The Spectator

Erotic Review

Article excerpt

Jan Gossaert's Renaissance

National Gallery, until 30 May

First, a note about naming. The artist here presented as Jan Gossaert (c.1478-1532) was formerly known as Jan Mabuse, so designated after the Walloon town he came from - Maubeuge in Hainaut. The Americans, meanwhile, miss out the e and spell his name Gossart, which makes the poor fellow sound even more like an underwear firm, though the word is itself more attractive-looking than its variant. So if you were wondering where this newly minted artist had sprung from, the likelihood is he was flying under different colours the last time you saw him.

The National Gallery has one of the best collections of his work in the world, but there hasn't been an exhibition devoted to him for more than 45 years. How does this show, organised by the Metropolitan Museum in New York in collaboration with the NG, shape up as an introduction to a (largely) unfamiliar artist?

Don't expect half-a-dozen galleries filled with Gossaerts in the NG's dungeons off Trafalgar Square. This is a show of Gossaert in context, which means lots of work by his friends and rivals. In the middle of the first room is a late-15th- or early-16thcentury bronze of the famous antique figure known as the Spinario, or 'Boy with a thorn'. Gossaert made a rather lewd drawing of this sculpture, viewed from below and thus focusing on the nude boy's genitals, rather than his wounded foot. This evocative crotch shot demonstrates two things: Gossaert's presence in Rome, and his interest in sensuality. He was one of the first Northern artists to visit Rome to study the Antique at first hand, enabled to do so by the patronage of Philip of Burgundy with whom he travelled. Was the emphasis in Gossaert's art on the body (as opposed to the spirit) a result of Philip's taste? Or did the piquant sexuality come naturally to him?

Also in this first room are intricate pen and-ink drawings which show a fascination for architecture, and a skill in the use of white highlighting. (See Gossaert's drawing of the Holy Family with Saint Catherine and Another Female Saint. ) These offer a very different side to the artist, and are drawn out with sober, precise strokes, almost reminiscent of engravings (though the Spinario subject - who actually looks like a real boy, not a sculpture - is also fastidiously hatched).

Here, too, are paintings by contemporaries such as Quinten Massys and Pieter van Coninxloo, and a lovely little study of a sparrowhawk by Jacopo de' Barbari. In the second room, the comparative material continues, but focuses more closely on how we should look at Gossaert.

Perhaps the underwear connotations have subtly influenced the curators of this exhibition, for their chief concern seems to be to demonstrate how sexy Gossaert could be. Thus we are shown two fabulous drawings of Eve by Durer, as well as his celebrated engraving of Adam and Eve, to compare with several Gossaerts of the same subject.

I have to admit I was more thrilled by the Durers than by any of the Gossaerts, yet we are encouraged to note Gossaert's 'unusually erotic' interpretation of the theme. This despite the fact that his most famous version of a nude and amorous couple, 'Neptune and Amphitrite' (in the Staatliche, Berlin), is not included in this exhibition. A damaging omission, as it can claim to be the first example of the classicising nude in Netherlandish painting, and one of Gossaert's most acclaimed works.

The drawings are more enticing than the paintings. …

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