Carthusian Context: Does An Upcoming Art Exhibition Get It Right?

Something which I often comment on in these pages is how many of the Old Master paintings which we see in museums or study in books or via online images are presented to us out of context. We don’t get a sense of their scale, placement, or use in the areas where they were originally intended to be used. An upcoming exhibition at The Frick promises a rather unique presentation, for those who want to experience something approaching what was originally intended for the art on display, but I’m not entirely sure it will be without its problems, when it comes to understanding the Catholic context for these pieces.

“The Charterhouse of Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus and Jan Vos”, which will open at The Frick in September of next year, will reunite two religious paintings commissioned by Jan Vos (died 1462), who served as Prior of the Charterhouse of Genadendal near Bruges, in modern-day Belgium, for about a decade beginning in 1481. A Charterhouse, for those unfamiliar with this term, is a monastery of monks in the Carthusian Order. The most famous Charterhouse in the world is the Grande Chartreuse, located in the mountains north of Grenoble, France. It is perhaps best known for the Chartreuse liquors produced there, as well as for it being the subject of the 2005 German documentary film, “Die große Stille” (rendered in English as “Into Great Silence”) – which, if you have not seen, should immediately go into your watching queue.

The older of the two paintings, known as “The Madonna of Jan Vos”, was painted sometime between 1441-43, and is one of the last works by the great Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck (1390-1442); it was likely left unfinished at his death, and completed by his assistants. The panel was originally displayed in a public area of the Charterhouse, perhaps in one of the side chapels of the monastic church, but today it is part of the permanent collection at The Frick. It features all the hallmarks of Van Eyck’s work, from the intricate geometry of the tile floors and embroidered canopy, to the sparkling jewels on the crowns and on the borders of garments, to the lushness of the countryside and intricacies of the townscape seen through the arcade in the background.

Frick

The Van Eyck is being joined by a second painting commissioned by Jan Vos during his time as Prior, the so-called “Exeter Madonna” (1450) which is now in the collection of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. This piece is by another great Flemish artist, Petrus Christus (c. 1410-1476), and as you can clearly see, Christus was obviously shown the Van Eyck painting by Vos, and asked to create a somewhat simpler variation on it. While not as ornate as the Van Eyck piece, because it was created for Vos’ personal use rather than public display, it has its own charm, particularly in the brightness of its tone and the rather inviting way in which the pavilion opens up to the blue sky of midday.

Berlin

According to The Art Newspaper, the Frick is taking the unusual step of placing both paintings in a small space, described as being about the size of a monastic cell, “to evoke a bit of these former ways of interaction [with works] and hopefully make people engage with the art of this period in a new way.” This will certainly bring the visitor into a far more proximate relationship with these two panels than would normally happen in a large gallery space. Other pieces in the exhibition will similarly reflect up-close-and-personal devotional practices of the Carthusians at the time of Vos,

While all of this seems a good idea, I do wonder if there’s a slight problem with the placement of the “Madonna of Jan Vos” in particularly. I’m not well-versed enough in the history of these paintings to suggest otherwise, but I would note that most art historians believe that this picture was executed to assist the faithful in their devotional and penitential practices, “and that forty days of indulgence was granted for reciting the Ave Maria and the Pater Noster to the image.” In Catholic practice therefore, a work such as this would usually be placed in a more public space, rather than inside an individual cell. Veneration by the faithful would become rather too crowded if everyone had to climb into a room designed for the use of a single individual. Thus, while the “Exeter Madonna” would be more at home inside a gallery space the size of a monastic cell, the “Madonna of Jan Vos” does not belong in one.

Be that as it may, while there is a long time to wait just yet, this show promises to be a wonderfully immersive experience for those interested not only in Flemish art of the High Middle Ages, but also in the devotional life of Carthusian Spirituality.

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Thought-Pourri: Lost And Found Edition

Thanks to travel, Thanksgiving, and a trip to the dentist, I’ve not had the chance to post recently, so let’s get back into the swing of things with the weekly roundup of some news from the art and design world.

Lost: Marketing Michelangelo

In what seems something of an unusual decision, an Italian civil court has ruled that a tour guide operator must immediately cease and desist using images of Michelangelo’s “David” to advertise its tours of the Accademia in Florence, where the monumental statue is housed. While the motive for the lawsuit, which was brought by the museum, appears to have centered around the inflated pricing of the tour company (entrance to the museum normally costs around $9.50 while the company charges over $53), it has implications for other Italian cultural institutions as well. “The director of the Uffizi gallery,” The Guardian notes, “which brims with renaissance masterpieces, said it was preparing similar claims.” Will this mean a corresponding decline in the use of unlicensed images of the David and other works of Italian art for things such as fridge magnets?

David

Lost: Departing Dalí (?)

Catalan Surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) is primarily known for his bizarre paintings, but he made a number of bizarre objects, as well, including a telephone shaped like a lobster, and a sofa shaped like the lips of American actress and entertainer Mae West (1893-1980). The sofa was originally commissioned by British art collector Edward James (1907-1984) for his country house, which was filled with Surrealist art and furnishings. The first of the two owned by James went under the hammer at Christie’s London on December 15th, 2016; Christie’s sold the second in February of this year. The British government has just stepped in and placed a temporary export ban on the second couch, to allow time for funds to be raised in order for the piece to remain in the UK. As there are several of these by Dalí in existence, and this particular one was slightly altered by James to fit in his house, I’m not sure that it will attract a great deal of public support, but stay tuned.

MaeWest

Found: Missing Magritte

Speaking of Surrealism, regular readers will recall that, about a year ago, I reported that art restorers had discovered a missing piece of a painting called “The Enchanted Pose” (1927), by the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte (1898-1967). The large canvas had vanished in the early 1930’s, when the artist asked the gallery that had been displaying it to return the picture to him. Over the past decade or so, researchers were surprised to discover that at some point Magritte chopped up the painting, and used the resulting, smaller-sized canvases for subsequent works, all painted in about 1935-36: “The Portrait”, now in the MoMA collection, “The Red Model” in Stockholm’s Modern Art Museum, and “The Human Condition”, at the Norwich Castle Museum. Now, Art Daily reports that the final piece of the puzzle was just discovered in the Magritte Museum in Brussels, beneath a painting titled “God Is Not A Saint”.

EnchantedPose

Found: Murillo Masterpiece

A last-minute addition to The Frick exhibition on the portraiture of Spanish Old Master painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), which I mentioned a few weeks ago, is a rediscovered portrait by the great Spanish Baroque artist. Previously dismissed as a copy of a lost work, the portrait of writer and aristocrat Don Diego Ortiz de Zúñiga was examined up close by Spanish art expert Benito Navarrete Prieto, from Murillo’s hometown of Seville, and determined to be the real thing – and not before time, either. Navarrete Prieto made the discovery just three days before The Frick exhibition opened, and the museum was able to accommodate the loan from Penrhyn Castle in Wales, where the painting has been hanging for over a century. Previously for the show. I suspect the exhibition catalogue is going to have to be rewritten, as this is a major find when it comes to Murillo’s body of work, given the rarity of the artist’s portraits, and the exceptional quality of this piece.

Murillo

The Courtier In The Federalist: How To Enjoy Art In An Age Of Selfies

Since I’m now *officially* The Federalist’s art critic – or that’s what my byline over there says, anyway – here’s a link to my latest for said publication, about how the phenomenon of selfie-taking has been affecting the art world. Special thanks to my editor, Joy Pullman, who is always extremely generous with me when it comes to the rather excessive length of my articles. If you’d like to comment on the piece, please consider doing so over on The Federalist website rather than here (although your comments are always welcome here, as well.)

Federalist