Friday, December 05, 2014

Wall of Treasures

Frans Francken II, Preziosenwand (Wall of Treasures), 1636


A whole book could be devoted to the history of landscape paintings within paintings (not a potential best seller perhaps, but I'd read it).  The art collection genre might be a place to begin - rooms crowded with paintings, not just on the walls but propped up on the floor and furniture.  The rocky mountain scene above is one of six different landscapes in the Wall of Treasures, first painted around 1610 by Frans Francken who 'may be considered the father of the genre' (Vlieghe, Flemish Art and Architecture 1585-1700).  Within a few decades, artists like Gonzales Coques and Gaspar Jacob van Opstal were doing art collection scenes whose miniature works of art were painted in by the actual artists who had created the full scale originals.  Thus the depiction of a collection was itself a collection of art works.  It makes you wonder whether any artists thought of including the gallery painting itself, anticipating its own arrival into the collection, to create a mise en abyme in which  landscape paintings would be repeated on a smaller and smaller scale ad infinitum. 

Gonzales Coques, Picture Gallery, 1671


What you are looking at here is the reproduction of a photograph of a painting of a painting of a landscape. And that last term might be broken down still further, since at this date a painting of a landscape was not really a painting of a landscape, but an imaginary construct based on observation of actual places and scenes from other paintings.  Just to the right of Francken's Wall of Treasures a 'real' tree can be glimpsed through a window, in what at first looks like a separate room until you realise it is presumably the reflection in a mirror, so that even within the world of the painting we are again only seeing the image of nature.  Galleries often have no windows, for practical reasons of course but aesthetic ones too - actual views might distract us from those the artists have projected onto rectangles of canvas.  Willem van Haecht's The Picture Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest (1628) depicts a high ceilinged room full of art and a group of connoisseurs intent on studying it, but you feel that one or two will eventually tire of this close study and wander over to the tall window visible on one side to gaze out instead on the distant green parkland.  

Jan Vermeer, The Guitar Player, 1672

Willem Pieterszoon Buytewech's The Merry Company, 1622-4

Of course landscape paintings were collected on a more modest scale throughout Europe and are a natural component of interior scenes by artists like Pieter de Hooch, Dirck Hals, Gillis van Tilborch and David Teniers.  They can be found in some famous Vermeers: The Glass of Wine, The Love Letter and The Concert, where there is both a landscape painting on the wall and a landscape painting on the inside cover of the harpsichord.  One that is especially familiar to me from visits to Kenwood House at Hampstead Heath is The Guitar Player (above) - a simple view of a tree that could be a snapshot of the heath that surrounds the house.  The tree's foliage resembles the girl's hair, a kind of compositional echo you often find in these paintings.  Another example (above) is the lacy clouds and plume-like trees in Willem Pieterszoon Buytewech's The Merry Company.  And here is Amy Powell's description of another Merry Company, painted by Pieter Codde (c. 1633):
'Lit from the upper left and painted mostly in white, grey, and sandy flesh tones, the musicians lean and look in various different directions, the men’s hats ending in sharp little points. Lit from the upper left and painted in the same sandy colours, the decaying vegetation in the landscape likewise leans in various different directions and ends in sharp little points, as if the landscape painting had somehow magically adapted itself to the attitudes of its viewers. Thin on iconography (a brewing storm at most), the landscape would have little to recommend itself as a moralising allegory if not for its funny way of resembling the merry company of musicians, who are of course happily oblivious to their inevitable disappearance.'
In this Oxford Art Journal article, Powell notes that paintings in Dutch interiors are often dark or indistinct, subordinate to the surrounding furniture.  She draws a modern parallel with Alan McCollum's Surrogate Paintings (blank images hung in groups) and his Perpetual Photos - blurry blow ups of paintings glimpsed in black and white TV movies. To these I would add the Polish artist RafaƂ Bujnowski's Framed painting (Whistler), 2002-3, which is a version of the painting hanging beside Whistler's mother repainted 'life size' so that it looks like a radically abstract landscape.  (Of course I'm conscious in writing this that I am only actually seeing it reproduced here on my screen, at a scale smaller than Whistler's).  In an earlier post here I mentioned Gerhard Richter's Details, extreme close-ups of paint that 'appear like fictitious landscapes.'  If you were to enlarge a landscape painting-within-a-painting sufficiently you would reach a scale where a new view seems to emerge in the patterns of its pigments.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler, Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1871


No comments: