Archive for Metropolitan Museum of Art

Venetian Red Bookshelf: Headlong

Posted in Book Review, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2011 by Liz Hager

Venetian Red Bookshelf is a monthly feature, which highlights books of interest from our bookshelves and studio worktables.

By LIZ HAGER
© Liz Hager, 2013. All Rights Reserved

There are some paintings in the history of art that break free, just as some human beings do, from the confines of the particular little world into which they were born. They leave home—they escape from the tradition in which they were formed, and which seem at first to give them significance. They step out of their own time and place, and find some kind of universal and enduring fame. They become part of the common currency of names and images and stories that a whole culture takes for granted.   —Michael Frayn, Headlong, p. 53

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Harvesters, 1565
Oil on wood, 45 7/8 x 62 7/8 inches
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Who says art history has to be boring?

I recently reread Michael Frayn’s contribution to the artwork in fiction genre, Headlong (1999), curious to revisit what I had remembered as a thoroughly engaging tale of the easily distracted and ethically challenged philosopher, who convinces himself that he has discovered a “lost” Bruegel.  I’m happy to report that the novel is every bit as fun the second time around.

Headlong pits the distinctly unheroic Martin Clay against his aristocratic neighbor. Residing temporarily in the country to work on a long-delayed book, Clay and his wife are invited to dine with Tony Churt, the penurious squire next door. In the process of opining on a few of Churt’s Baroque paintings, Clay views a grimy canvas stored behind the breakfast room firescreen of the tattered estate.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Haymaking, 1565
Oil on wood, 28 x 39 inches
(National Gallery, Prague)

It’s a thrilling moment. Readers familiar with Bruegel especially will appreciate Clay’s description—

The high air is still cold, but as you move down into the valley the chill dies away. The colors change, from cool brilliant greens to deeper and deeper blues. The season seems to shift in front of you from April into May as you travel south into the eye of the sun. Among the trees just below me is a group of clumsy figures, some of them breaking branches of white blossom from the trees, some caught awkwardly in the middle of a heavy clumping dance. A bagpiper sits on a stump; you can almost hear the harsh pentatonic drone. People are dancing because it’s spring again and they’re alive to see it.  (Headlong p.39)

Though an admitted hack when it comes to art history, Clay nonetheless pompously declares (to himself and to us, though not to the picture’s owner): “I recognize it instantly.” In the next second, he qualifies: “I say I recognize it. I’ve never seen it before. I’ve never seen even a description of it. No description of it, so far as I know, has ever been given. No one knows for sure who, if anyone apart from the artist himself, has ever seen it.” (Headlong p.40)

One minute Clay acknowledges that he is “way out of his period with this one” and in the next he manages (in flowery abandon) to persuade himself of the painting’s authenticity:  “Already, even as I look at it in those first few instants, what I’m contemplating is not the picture but my accumulated recollection of it. . . All the same I know. It’s a friend, No, it’s the long-lost brother of a friend. A long-mourned child walking back into our lives the way the dead do in our dreams.” (Headlong p.40)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Return of the Herd, 1565
Oil on wood, 26 in × 62½ in
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Delusions of grandeur sweep over Clay. He imagines himself as the cultural commando who will rescue this public treasure from private obscurity. Fame and fortune are not far behind in his thoughts.

I feel a flash of pure savagery. I’m going to have his property off him. He can’t make good his claim to it. It’s written in a language he can’t read, because the only language he can read in his necessity is money. If he knew what it was, he’d hold the world to ransom. And if the ransom wasn’t forthcoming, he’d sell it to any money that presented itself—to a Swiss bank, an American investment trust, a Japanese gangster. It would vanish even deeper into the darkness, even further from the light of common day. . .

. . . So I’m going to have it off him. I’m not going to do it by deceit. I’m not going to stoop to the kind of methods he might use himself. I’m going to do it by boldness and skill, in full accordance with the rules of war. —Headlong, p. 44-45

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Gloomy Day, 1565
Oil on wood, 46½ in × 64⅛ inches
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

With the stage thus set, the remaining 290-odd pages present a pyrotechnic extravaganza of storytelling. The elaborate scheme Clay conceives unfolds.  Though a reader will realize early on (spoiler alert!) that this scheme can only end in failure, he or she will be gripped by the twists and turns of the plot until the denouement.

Success of Clay’s scheme depends on authentication of the painting. Equal in skill to the plot manouevering is the deftness with which Clay/Frayn, though painstaking research, fashions a highly readable and engaging tour through the critical canon on Bruegel’s life and works (and politics), 16th-century Nederlandish art, and the Spanish subjugation of their Dutch and Flemish lands.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Hunters in the Snow (Return of the Hunters), 1565
Oil on wood,
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

Turns out, the canvas of Headlong is based on a real painting, one missing from Bruegel’s only surviving cycle of paintings, commonly known as The Seasons. The six paintings of the cycle were completed in 1565 for a wealthy Antwerp merchant,  Niclaes Jongelinck.  By 1659, the set had been broken up and one was already missing. Five in the set survive —e.g. Gloomy Day, Return of the Herd, Hunters in the Snow, Haymaking, and The Harvesters.

The novel closes with an astute observation that could well apply to scores of other works of art:

And what happened to the pictures themselves, those six historyless panels painted as the torrents of history swept around the studio door in 1565? They were swept headlong into the current like everything else, and tumbled into the world’s changing politics. —Headlong p. 305

The Rabbit Hole

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Wine of St. Martin’s Day, ca. 1565
Glue-sized tempera on linen, 148 x 270.5 cm
(Museo Nacional del Prado)

Simultaneously with my plunge into Frayn’s fictitious world The New York Times published “When Overlooked Art Turns Celebrity,” Michael Kimmelman’s musings on the very real The Wine of St. Martin’s Day, the new-attributed Bruegel rescued last Fall by the Prado from the “proverbial dark corner” of an ancient family’s collection in Córdoba.

Ian Buchanan—“The Collection of Niclaes Jongelinck: The Months by Pieter Bruegel”

W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” (“About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters. . .”)

A short list of art and artists in fiction: Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth; Irving Stone’s Lust for Life and  The Agony and the Ecstasy; Tracy Chavalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring; and (gasp) Dan Stone’s The Da Vinci Code.

Maira Kalman: Everyday Illuminations

Posted in Christine Cariati, Contemporary Art, Design, Drawing, Female Artists, Fine & Decorative Arts, Illustration, Painting with tags , , , , , on July 13, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

My dream is to walk around the world. A smallish backpack, all essentials neatly in place. A camera. A notebook. A traveling paint set. A hat. Good shoes. A nice pleated (green?) skirt for the occasional seaside hotel afternoon dance.

I don’t want to trudge up insane mountains or through war-torn lands.
Just a nice stroll through hill and dale.

But now I walk everywhere in the city. Any city. You see everything you need to
see for a lifetime. Every emotion. Every condition. Every fashion. Every glory.
—Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman, The Inauguration. At Last.
from And the Pursuit of Happiness Blog, New York Times
January 29, 2009

Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)” is currently on view at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Maira Kalman is an award-winning illustrator, designer and author who is perhaps best-known for her New Yorker covers, children’s books and illustrated And the Pursuit of Happiness Blog for the New York Times. She also created an illustrated edition of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style in 2005. In Various Illuminations,” we get a glimpse of Kalman’s other pursuits—including photography, textile design, embroidery and set design.

Maira Kalman, Self-portrait with Pete, 2004-5
Gouache on paper, 16″ x 15″

Kalman has lived in New York since the age of 4, when she moved with her family from Tel Aviv. In New York and on her travels, she walks everywhere, taking photographs and turning many of them into small gouache paintings. Kalman has an engaging narrative style—her stories immediately grab you and draw you in. Her sense of color is exhilarating. Kalman’s work is joyful, sad, humorous and witty—and her objects and people seem to embody a touching faith that the world around them, in spite of all the lurking chaos and danger, will ultimately protect them. She brings your attention to ordinary objects—tea cups, cakes, sofas—in a way that illuminates their essence.

Kalman’s interiors and portraits bring to mind the work of another favorite artist of mine, Florine Stettheimer. Like Stettheimer, Kalman infuses her portraits with the emotional and intellectual energy of the sitter—the flattened, vividly-colored surfaces come alive with cherished objects and artifacts that define the sitter’s interests and personality.

Maira Kalman, Kitty Carlisle Hart

Maira Kalman, Marie Antoinette

Maira Kalman, Emily Dickinson

Kalman wrote an entertaining illustrated essay (see below) about the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Mad About the Metropolitan, for the May-June 2008 issue of Departures Magazine.


What I’ve always admired most about Kalman’s work is her humanity—she manages to portray vulnerability and bravery in equal measure. Her work is completely free of irony and cynicism—she delights in the ordinary, finds the charm in everyday objects and has a boundless enthusiasm for looking at things and turning them into art—an impulse that is nicely summed up in the quote below:

I was out walking the dear dog and I saw 500 things that made me want to make art.

Kalman’s show is at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco through October 26, 2010.

Wider Connections
Maira Kalman, The Principles of Uncertainty
Maira Kalman, Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)

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