STILL LIFE WITH A BRIDLE

“The Orpheus of the still life.  He was surrounded by an aura of mystery, and legends circulated about what took place in his atelier, tales about supernatural forces he brought into his work.  Probably Torrentius thought a certain dose of charlatanism did not harm art (differing here from his modest guild brothers of the Fraternity of Saint Luke), but on the contrary helped it.  For example, he used to say he did not in fact paint but only placed paints on the floor next to his canvases; under the influence of musical sounds they arranged themselves in colourful harmonies.  But is not art, every art, a kind of alchemical transmutation?  From pigments dissolved in oil arise flowers, towns, bays of the ocean and views of paradise truer than the real ones.”[i]

 

bridle
Jan van de Velde
“Johannes van der Beeck, aka Torrentius”
1628
Engraving
21.6 cm x 16.6 cm
Rijksmuseum
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

It is an entire book written as an ekphrastic exercise.  The author, Zbigniew Herbert, takes various elements from the Golden Age of Dutch painting and life and weaves a series of stories and essays around these themes.  In this particular example, an art historian is doing research on a surprising painting that he has just encountered in a museum, by an artist he has never heard of.  The “Still Life with a Bridle” by Johannes van der Beeck, also know as Torrentius, is equally as enigmatic as its maker.  It clearly shows the artist’s hand at rendering a variety of materials and subjects:  reading from right to left across the center of the painting we have a ceramic jug, a glass cruet, and a pewter pitcher, clearly illustrating the artist’s ability to handle a variety of surfaces in both light and shadow.

 

bridle-2
Johannes van der Beeck, aka Torrentius
“Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle”
(DETAIL)

Herbert, even in the description of this still life, finds an underlying structure forming both horizontals and verticals, as well as hidden imagery, a mysterious note placed at the bottom of the composition and then the dark, almost hidden bridle directly above at the top.  And, as an historian, he warns himself of the dangers of speculation and reading into the meaning of this mysterious painting.  In the process of deciphering the verse written on the note anchoring the composition, Herbert observes:  “Gnomic poems, particularly those that are esoteric texts, should be explained rather than translated word by word.  One should approach them by degrees of meaning, carefully and on tiptoes, because literalness renders their meaning shallow and frightens away mystery.”[ii]

 

bridle-3
Johannes van der Beeck, aka Torrentius
“Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle”
1614
1’ 8” x 1’ 8”
Oil on wooden panel
Rijksmuseum
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Bret Waller, the Director Emeritus of the Indianapolis Museum of Art used to always start his talks to my classes with the explanation that:  “All works of art contain within themselves the definition of what they are about and how they were made.”[iii]  And then of course, he would go through the elements of the piece that we were standing in front of and explicate exactly that.  I have always tried to keep this lesson in mind, as both an artist and educator.

My reading over the last year, in both Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Sbigniew Herbert, has led to several new definitions and functions regarding the ekphrastic tradition.  Contained within the descriptions of certain works of visual art are not merely observations but also insights; not just formal analyses but also lyrical and metaphorical underpinnings.

Lessing does this by first arguing one side of the history and in the next chapter, arguing the exact opposite side in both dating and aesthetic problems.  Until more scientific dating can occur, we will be left with only a range of styles:  early or late, Greek or Roman, etc.  Herbert is aware of this dilemma as well, and even quotes the great French poet:  “Paul Valery warned:  ‘We should apologize that we dare to speak about painting.’  I was always aware of committing a tactless act.”[iv]

“I know well, too well, all the agonies and vain effort of what is called description, and also the audacity of translating the wonderful language of painting into the language—as voluminous, as receptive as hell—in which court verdicts and love novels are written.  I don’t even know very well what inclines me to undertake these efforts.  I would like to believe that it is my impervious ideal that requires me to pay it clumsy homages.”[v]

bridle-4
Johannes van der Beeck, aka Torrentius
“Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle”
(DETAIL)

“Freedom – so many treatises were written about it that it became a pale, abstract concept.  But for the Dutch it was something as simple as breathing, looking and touching objects.  It did not need to be defined or beautified.  This is why there is no division in their art between what is great and small, what is important and unimportant, elevated and ordinary.  They painted apples and the portraits of fabric shopkeepers, pewter plates and tulips, with such patience and such love that the images of other worlds and noisy tales about earthly triumphs fade in comparison.”[vi]

 


[i] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; Notting Hill Editions; London, United Kingdom; 2012; p. 100.

[ii] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 127.

[iii] This observation is taken from my own notebooks and recollections of several public and private discussions with Mr. Bret Waller, Director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art from 1990-2001.

[iv] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 123.

[v] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 122.

[vi] Herbert, Zbigniew; Still Life With A Bridle; p. 150.

THE DISASTERS OF WAR

war1
Francisco Goya
“Not in this case, Plate #36, The Disasters of War”
c. 1812/1815, published 1863
Etching, aquatint and drypoint
140 x 190 mm
The Art Institute of Chicago

“One cannot look at this.
This is bad.
This is how it happened.
This always happens.
There is no one to help them.
With or without reason.
He defends himself well.
He deserved it.
Bury them and keep quiet.
There was nothing to be done and he died.
What madness!
This is too much!
Why?
Nobody knows why.
Not in this case either.
This is worse.
Barbarians!
This is the absolute worst!
It will be the same.
All this and more.
The same thing elsewhere.
Perhaps they are of another breed.
I saw it.
And this too.
Truth has died.
This is the truth.”[i]

In one of her late series of essays, Susan Sontag created a literary collage of sorts. The title of this piece is “Looking at the Unbearable” and is inspired by Goya’s series of “The Disasters of War.” In fact, it is a very straightforward listing of several titles of Goya’s prints as they were later annotated in pencil beneath each print!

Goya was inspired to work in this direction by the earlier artist Jacques Callot whose “Miseries and Misfortunes of War” was published in 1633 as a response to the French invasion of Lorraine during the Thirty Years War. From 1808 to 1814 it was the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, witnessed by Goya, that lead to “The Disasters of War.” Although separated by over 200 years, these two bodies of work, taken together, comprise some of the most powerful statements ever made against war. What does that mean for us now?

war2
Jacques Callot
“The Hanging: Number 11, The Miseries of War”
1631, published in 1633
Etching
8.1 x 18.6 cm.
Collection: The Art Gallery of New South Wales

Instant justice on the battlefield, or revenge and vigilante justice in small town America seemed to take no heed of past history and warnings. In Marion, Indiana for example, on 7 August 1930 the photographer Lawrence Beitler came upon a scene that just had to be documented. A mob of citizens had broken into the local jail and took two African American prisoners, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, out into the night, where they were lynched. This particular photograph became a symbol of the ongoing racial war and tensions within our country. Thousands of copies of it, both as post cards and posters were printed over the following few days and weeks.

war3
Lawrence Henry Beitler
“Marion Lynching”
1930
B&W Photograph
Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, Indiana

In 1937, Abel Meeropol saw a copy of this photograph and was inspired to write the poem “Bitter Fruit” along with the music that later became a labor/civil rights anthem titled “Strange Fruit.” Since then it has been recorded many times up to the present day, but the 1939 version by Billie Holiday became a classic.

One contemporary artist and musician in the greater Boston area, James Reitzas, found a way to voice this through sculpture. Using very simple materials, rope and sand and burlap, he fashioned units of human size and proportion and literally hung them from local trees. Mimicking and referring back to Billie Holiday’s signature song “Strange Fruit” and Callot’s and Goya’s prints, these pieces show the metaphorical power of materials. They also echo many of the songs written at the time in order to give voice to both the civil rights and anti-war movements: the early Bob Dylan masterpiece “Desolation Row” contains an opening line that was directly inspired from Beitler’s photograph.

“They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row.”[ii]

war4
James Reitzas
“Strange Fruit”
2000
Rope, sand and body bags
(Installation dimensions variable)
Boston, Massachusetts

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”[iii]

 


[i] Sontag, Susan; Regarding the Pain of Others; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2003; pp. 44-47.

[ii] Dylan, Bob; “Desolation Row,” Writings and Drawings; Alfred A. Knopf, Borzoi Books; New York, New York; 1973; pp. 193-195.

[iii] Holiday, Billie; “Strange Fruit” The Centennial Collection; audio recording B00S7E1V7W; Sony Legacy; New York, New York; 2015.