Appetite: Surfeit and Wonder

By Loughery, John | The Hudson Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Appetite: Surfeit and Wonder


Loughery, John, The Hudson Review


IN AN INTERNET PRESS RELEASE for the 2002 exhibition of Flemish still-- life painting organized jointly by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the Kulturstiftung Ruhr in Essen, the show was billed as the first of its kind, a statement I initially found hard to credit. That it might be the largest survey of the field with 120 paintings on view was plausible, but it seemed farfetched that the international museum world had taken this long to bring together the floral masterpieces of Jan Brueghel, the sumptuous and morbid banquet remains of Jan Davidsz de Heem, the exacting miniatures of Jan van Kessel, and the clamorous small-scale works of Rubens. Well, as it turns out-yes. Dutch still-life exhibitions that included the great artists of Amsterdam and Leiden as well as those of Antwerp and Brussels have made the rounds, most recently in a show at the Cleveland Museum in 1999 and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1989. But "Das Flamische Stilleben," on view at the Palais Harrach in Vienna last summer, was the first exhibition to exclude the Dutch for the purposes of focusing on artists from what is today Belgium and was at the time (circa 1600) a sort of Southern Netherlands, a Catholic region that retained links to Habsburg Spain that their Protestant countrymen in the North fought long and hard to sever. With major loans from the Prado, the Hermitage, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, and museums through-- out Belgium, Germany, the United States, and Eastern Europe, the exhibition was a landmark display, the proverbial embarrassment of riches. And to some tastes, no doubt, just an embarrassment-indecorous, numbing, gauche, possibly a bit daffy.

The differences between such an exhibition and a more traditional survey that would include the classic Dutch still-life painters (e.g., W. C. Heda, Pieter Claesz, Willem van Aelst, Ambrosius Bosschaert) were immediately evident, and not only in the many pictures of garlands enveloping the Virgin and Child, iconography that would have been repellent in the Calvinist North. The whole sensibilty of the Flemish artists was more given to excess, to letting any normal restraints fall by the wayside as they explored how much they could pack into one barely unified image and how painstakingly yet intensely they could render it. If the Baroque in Italy meant Judith hacking away at Holofernes, inventive martyrdoms, and bizarre effects of light, in Flanders it could just as easily be evoked at the marketplace, at the dinner table, in a connoisseur's private gallery (or kunstkammer), or-why not?-in a vase. The presence of Rubens' Head of Medusa in one of the first galleries immediately struck me as more than a bit over the top. How pointlessly wide were the curators' notions of "still life" going to be? (The artist does provide a leafy branch or two in the foreground of this small-ish painting owned by the Kunsthistorisches, but for the most part we are looking at copulating snakes and scampering crabs, a nastily severed head, and lots of oozy blood.) By the end of my wanderings back and forth through the dark rooms of the Palais Harrach, Head of Medusa seemed right at home amid the tulips, the dinnerware, the sugar-coated almonds. I should have remembered that Rubens was hardly ever the odd-man-out. Indeed, every aspect of Flemish still-life painting is about being "over the top," about a visual spectacle that has only a tangential connection to Dutch realism and everything to do with artifice and glut-and the most expertly orchestrated glut, at that.

The flower paintings of Jan Brueghel are a good case in point. His assertive arrangements are among the glories of Western floral art, rich in color and flawlessly drawn, and this exhibition displayed several superb examples. But Monets or Fantin-Latours they are not. Brueghel still lifes operate out of a radically different context. Not only do they contain flowers that don't bloom at the same time and flowers from different regions that could not possibly have been brought together in one vase in 1607, but they invariably refuse to respect the space they occupy. …

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