Still Life with Crab – Story Behind the Image

Here’s a link to Open Doors Gallery’s online art ‘zine, this month featuring a short article I wrote about the impact of trade on Dutch culture and still life paintings. Scroll sideways to find the article, entitled Story Behind the Image. And, yes, I am aware that I have been completely upstaged by a piece about the penile proportions of classical statuary. Now why didn’t I think of that?

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Indian Tantric & Western Contemporary

This fascinating exhibition, a collaboration between Joost van den Bergh and Bartha Contemporary, is on view until 23 March. It juxtaposes Indian spiritual and ceremonial pieces with works by Western contemporary artists, drawing surprising connections between these distinct artistic traditions.Image

Tantraism is a far-reaching philosophy, and one that has had great impact upon the spiritual landscape of India, influencing the rituals and beliefs of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism among other religions. Proponents of tantra utilise mantras (spoken words and phrases) and yantras (instruments or symbolic diagrams) in their attempts to perceive the true reality. Many of the pieces on display here are yantras, which vary from complex pen-and-ink diagrams to small bronze plaques, all carefully ordered into symmetrical, geometric forms.

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These are objects intended to be intensely considered, objects which even offer to improve the viewer through close contemplation – aims shared by many contemporary works of art. Here, the inclusion of Winston Roeth’s Black / Green Square, 2004, emphasises the rewards of such sustained observation, as the iridescent green surface constantly shifts under our scrutiny, offering a new image with each fresh point-of-view. This mesmerising effect is achieved through countless layers of paint, applied free-hand with extraordinary accuracy, again evoking the prolonged concentration necessary for tantric practices.

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Such practices are intensely ritualistic, often requiring the same actions or words to be repeated with an almost obsessive devotion. These ideas of ritual and repetition are explored in the works of Stefana McClure, here represented with the 2008 piece, South Pacific: Closed captions to a film by J. Logan. One of a series of similar works, McClure has here created an image by tracing the subtitles and closed captions of a foreign language film onto a sheet of blue transfer paper. The resultant marks are entirely obscure, as the process of overlaying the different traced text has rendered the familiar letters unrecognisable, subverting their original function of clarification.

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Severed from their original context, many of the Indian tantric pieces themselves feel fairly obscure, as the Western contemporary viewer struggles to read their mystical signs and geometric symbols, or truly understand their ritual and spiritual functions. Such mystery and magic, however, is part of their charm, and certainly one reason why tantraism has so long fascinated the West – the other of course being its association with sexuality. Here, re-imagined as contemporary art objects in a gallery, these pieces have regained their place in a world of meditation and ritual, albeit of a very different kind.

Art Cabinet of Gustavus Adolphus

Whilst in Sweden I also managed to visit the art cabinet of Gustavus Adolphus, an incredible piece that has fascinated me for many years. Made in Augsburg, the cabinet was given as a gift to the Swedish King for liberating the town during the thirty years war, and it is now on view at Uppsala University. It is a monumental cabinet, filled with exotic objects, incorporating a music box, and surmounted by an extraordinary profusion of shells and a richly decorated seychelles nut. The base even hides a removable table, which can be used to view all of the items included within.

Normally the term ‘cabinet’ refers either to an item of furniture or a collection, but in this instance it encompasses both the elaborate container and the incredible objects within. It belongs to the tradition of the cabinet of curiosities, the princely collections of bizarre and marvellous objects compiled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These collections were understood as microcosms of the wider world, and they included both man-made and natural wonders, including many exotic items bought to Europe by the ever expanding trade networks. They embody the way in which knowledge was acquired and understood in the early modern period, as the juxtaposition of disparate objects invited infinite comparisons. Each item could then be categorised in terms of its similarities and differences with other items, and could be mapped accordingly in this complex web of knowledge.

Most cabinets of curiosities were compiled by wealthy and learned collectors, people who had the means and the interest needed to amass these wondrous items. This example is unusual as it was not put together by it’s future owner, Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, but by Phillip Hainhofer, an Augsburg merchant, shown on the wood inlay panel above inspecting one of his cabinets. Hainhofer was an extraordinary figure, who made a career out of collecting; he is known to have compiled many of these cabinets, although this is the only complete example extant today. His collections came housed in custom built cabinets, making full use of the highly skilled Augsburg craftsmen, renowned internationally for their cabinets.

Whilst perhaps not the most attractive piece of furniture, the Uppsala cabinet is a testament to the exceptional skills of these Augsburger artisans. The very fabric of the cabinet reflects the meeting of artificialia (craftsmanship) and naturalia (natural wonders) that encapsulates the ethos of these collections. It incorporates inlays of precious and exotic materials, artfully arranged into images of flowers and animals and also includes pieces of stone that have been overpainted with biblical scenes. Here, the artist has used the natural patterns in a slice of alabaster to represent tumultuous waves, as Moses closes the Red Sea, drowning the Pharaoh’s army.

The placement of Hainhofer’s collections inside actual cabinets (when many ‘cabinets of curiosities’ would have been housed in full sized rooms) placed a limitation on the size of the items included. For this reason, the cabinet contains many miniature items, including this pair of dolls and tiny bird house. These miniatures would have been a great novelty, and are now understood as a precursor to the elaborate Dutch cabinet houses and English dolls’ houses of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Explore the piece further on this website, where you can look through the different compartments of the cabinet (only available in Swedish).

Swedish Ceramic Stoves at Drottningholm

Sweden is as famous for it’s clever design as it’s inhospitable winter climate, so it comes as no surprise that the Swedes developed their own stylish solution to heating their homes effectively – the kakelugn, or ceramic stove. These stoves were developed in the mid eighteenth century by the inventor Carl Johan Cronstedt, who increased the heat output of the traditional wood burning stove eight fold through a system of winding flues.

The stoves were built of masonry and clad in ceramic tiles, which were not only attractive but also captured and retained the heat without becoming too hot to touch. The stoves went on to have great social and environmental impact, allowing people to heat their homes much more cheaply and reducing the decimation of ancient forests.

Carl Johan Cronstedt was a royal engineer, and oversaw many of the eighteenth century alterations at Drottningholm palace, where these stoves were photographed. Drottningholm is not the most appealing of royal palaces – the parts on view to the public are gloomy and overblown in equal measure, with lots of tromp l’oeil marble and dubious ceiling paintings. Among the heavy handed baroque interiors, the pretty blue-and-white stoves lend a sense of lightness, recalling a more informal (and more inviting) domestic space.

Asian Art Week – Ben Janssens

Also exhibiting in Asian Art Week is Ben Janssens, who has a wonderful selection of Chinese boxes on display. These include enamel, ivory tortoiseshell and hardwood examples, although the real highlight of the exhibition is the group of carved lacquer boxes. Carved lacquer dates back as far as the Tang dynasty (618-907) although it reached a peak during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1735-96), who was such a fan of the medium that he when he died he had his coffin decorated with it. Many of the pieces on show date from this period, including this exquisite example in double peach form.

Peaches are a symbol of longevity, also referred to here by the pine tree and the wan characters (swastikas) carved around the side of the box. Indeed, the piece is full of  symbolism, as the central motif of boys playing in a garden alludes to a desire for many sons. Chinese boxes are often decorated with such auspicious signs, suggesting that they were given as gifts, as they could be used to convey messages of harmony and goodwill. Here, this symbolism is coupled with a charming realism, as the boys to the right rush towards their playmate, one carrying his shoe, whilst their companion carries his peach branch in his mouth to make his climb easier. There is also a delightful play of texture across the surface of the box, as the craftsmen effectively contrasts areas of smooth, polished lacquer with extremely intricate carving.

Lacquer is a coloured varnish, and needs to be built up gradually with many thin layers. Each layer must be completely dry before the next can be applied, and it takes months to achieve a piece of lacquer thick enough to carve. This striking example extends this process, incorporating layers of green and ochre lacquer, which are revealed as the upper layer of red is cut away. The craftsmen have even included two layers of green, one beneath the top, red layer, and another beneath the ochre. This adds a dramatic sense of depth to the box, particularly where the red surface designs give way to the lower green layer, as can be seen in the central panel and in the lozenges displaying the attributes of the Eight Immortals. The depth of the cutting almost creates a sense that these red motifs are floating above the box, an apt effect for the banks of clouds and flying dragons.

Emperor Qianlong by Giuseppe Castiglione

Emperor Qianlong by Giuseppe Castiglione

A friend of mine just introduced me to these extraordinary paintings, by the Jesuit painter Giuseppe Castiglione, working in the Chinese court of Emperor Qianlong. Castiglione combines Chinese artistic tradition with European techniques, creating hybrid images that transcend cultural boundaries. With their flat, graphic areas, and Asian themes, they are firmly in the Chinese taste, although they use three dimensional modelling more in keeping with Western tradition. The resultant paintings look incredibly modern, and it seems almost unbelievable that they were painted in the first half of the eighteenth century.