For various reasons it's much harder at the moment for me to go to exhibitions than it used to be, but I did pop down yesterday to the National Gallery to see Bellotto: The Königstein Views Reunited. These five views (two of them in my photograph above) were painted in 1756-8 when Bellotto was court painter to August III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. I last mentioned Bellotto back in 2007 after I had seen the recently restored Bellotto room of the Royal Palace in Warsaw. I would love one day to visit Königstein which looks still looks spectacular in photographs. The fortress was still being used as a prison until 1922 and among its famous inmates was Frank Wedekind, author of the Lulu plays, who got into trouble for some satirical verses. Here are a few observations on the five views from left to right as they appear in the exhibition:
The Fortress of Königstein: Courtyard with the Brunnenhaus
One of two views inside the fortress. Its rows of railings, windows and chimneys drawing your attention to the painting's lines of perspective. As you get closer your attention is drawn to the figures of guards and gardeners and you begin to wonder about individuals like a beggar leaning against a wall and a man walking along in traditional Polish costume. The light picks out peeling walls, blossoms in the garden and a dog's upturned face.
The Fortress of Königstein from the North
The first of three broader landscape views, with the castle lit more brightly than the forerground and tiny soldiers visible on its ramparts. The ground sloping up to the castle is interesting in itself, with holes worn into the bare sandstone. Again the figures in the scene suggest unknowable stories - a tired looking herdsman, a coach and horses heading off into the distance...
The Fortress of Königstein from the North-West
Here there is a second mountain, the Lilienstein, repeating the shape of the castle. In the distance a dark rain cloud casts shadows on the plain. The foreground is spotlit like a stage, although the pastoral figures arranged on it seem rather contrived. On the slope below the fortress there is a kind of doorway - the entrance to an underground dungeon.
The Fortress of Königstein from the South-West
This one has a diagonal composition (see photo, right) and the massive sandstone castle wall resembles an impregnable cliff. By this time I was starting to get a feel for the geography of the place, spotting towers from the other paintings and orientating myself imaginatively through the given directions.
The Fortress of Königstein: Courtyard with the Magdalenenburg
The final view includes a building that was apparently home to a 60,000 gallon cask of wine! The figures dotted around range from two gentleman and a lady apparently admiring a carved doorway to some washerwomen laying out laundry. The stained, cracked walls are beautifully painted and the whole scene takes place under a cool blue sky that made me long to be far away from rainy London.
Bernardo Bellotto, The Fortress of Königstein: Courtyard with the Magdalenenburg, 1756-8
Back in July Jonathan Jones in The Guardian gave this little exhibition a five star review. He claims Bellotto is a 'forgotten artist' and that the Seven Years' War in which he got caught up is a 'little known conflict'... Nevertheless he does make a good point about the atmosphere of these works which I'll quote:
A delicate white kiosk balances on a cliff edge among green trees, suggesting this has become a pleasure park, but near it is a much older tower from days of feudal war. The fortress appears daunting from certain angles, oddly elegant from others. Which is the real mood: coffee and Handel concerts – or defensive might? The works have an aura of decay that might suggest Dracula’s castle, if there wasn’t so much life here. It looks as if the entire Dresden court are whiling away their time in the castle precincts, waiting for the Prussians to come.
Laura Cumming's review is more informative and I'll conclude with a quote from her about the way these scenes mix landscape with human interest.
Wandering through these scenes, the eye is taken dramatically into a doorway, up to a balcony strewn with washing, or down to the facade of a church and then back out through the landscape to a dark and distant quietude beyond – a faraway land, unknown and stirring, where hermits might be found in caves, or Nosferatu in a haunted castle. ... Trysts succeed and fail; pot plants slowly decline on high windowsills. Carts bring food effortfully up to the fortress. But down below, where we are, at eye level, the rural world continues through the seasons as if the big people had nothing to do with them. And in some profound sense this was true.