Thursday, August 29, 2013

Robert Hooke's Flea

Image of a flea from Robert Hooke's Micrographia, published in 1665 
under the aegis of the Royal Society, London

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Exploring Works on Display: A Culture of the Copy

Anonymous, (Dutch, after Paulus Moreelse), Shepherdess, late 16th - mid 17th Century. photo: John Tamblyn

The theme of the shepherdess was popular in 17th-century Dutch art and it was not unusual for fashionable young women to have their likenesses rendered as such. The origins of the theme can be traced back to antiquity where it appeared as a leitmotif in poetry dealing with pastoral subject matter. Among the more successful Dutch painters to have portrayed sitters as shepherdesses was Paulus Moreelse, a highly successful artist from Utrecht. 

The McMaster Museum painting, which was formerly attributed to Moreelse, is almost certainly a copy by a follower or imitator of the distinguished artist, whose technical facility exceeded the hand represented in this exhibition. Such copies point to the demand for subjects of this type and, with equal importance, the value accorded to imitation itself. The market for prints, which had expanded considerably during the Renaissance, had helped to visually disseminate the compositions, subject matter and even styles of leading artists throughout Europe.* With this distribution of visual information came a demand for copies of prized or significant works otherwise previously available only to the nobility or those fortunate enough to travel to distant cities to see works in situ. As the picture shown here indicates, the culture of the copy was not limited to printed material. Painted or sculpted works in the style of a celebrated artist could also be valued by those with the means to afford an imitation. 

* Consider, for instance, Albrecht Durer's print of The Sea Monster, featured in this exhibition.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Exploring Works on Display: Small Wonders

Precious (red) coral, Sardinia, undated, private collection, photo: Greg Davies

Precious (red) coral, such as the piece displayed in this exhibition, was considered a natural curiosity in the age of the Baroque and it was often displayed in the ‘wonder cabinets’ (wunderkammern) of collectors. According to myth precious coral was said to have grown from the blood of Medusa when Perseus set her severed head by a shoreline. As the blood trickled to the seaweed growing at the water's edge the plants were transformed into red coral, thus becoming 'stone'.

Natural wonders were identified as clever ‘jokes of nature’ (lusus naturae) by the Roman historian Pliny. During the 17th century artists would often attempt to rival nature’s ingenuity. Nautilus shells, narwhal tusks and other wonders could be transformed into elaborate cups and decorative objects through the artistry of the goldsmith and jeweler, resulting in works made even more marvelous by human invention.1

1Jan Vermeyen’s Narwalhornbecher in the collections of the Kunstkammer Wien (1600-1605, Inv. No.: KK_1113, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) is an excellent example of the rather more rare narwhal horn cup. 

Exploring Works on Display: The Sea Monster

Albrecht Dürer, The Sea Monster  / Das Meerwunder, engraving, c. 1498 - 1500. photo: John Tamblyn

Albrecht Dürer's imaginative engraving of a sea monster abducting a beautiful woman belongs to the period of the High Renaissance rather than the Baroque. However the artist's fame ensured that his extraordinary prints remained collectible works well into the 17th and 18th centuries. 

The Sea Monster remains among his more enigmatic images. In the foreground the artist draws a contrast between beauty (represented by the female nude) and monstrosity (represented by the sea creature proper). The subject has been variously identified by scholars without any general consensus as to its precise meaning. Stories of beautiful women being pursued or abducted by sea monsters had been popular since antiquity and possible connections between this image and the tales of Glaucus and Scylla or Poseidon's pursuit of Amymone have been drawn. Yet the elaborate headdress worn by the female figure, which closely resembles the fashion of Milanese noblewomen in Dürer's time, has led to alternative interpretations which link the subject to popular northern Italian stories of abductions.

While the eroticism of the nude figure may be highlighted in the image the bizzarre monstrosity cannot go unnoticed. Dürer's attention to detail betrays a fascination with curious natural forms which was underscored by the artist's own collecting habits. At the Dürer House in Nuremburg, Germany, remnants of a 'cabinet of wonders' (wunderkammer) can still be seen today. Amongst the varous curiosities Dürer sent back to Germany, while travelling through Europe, were "animal horns, fish fins, a piece of coral and a weapon from Calicut."*

* A. Hyatt Mayor, Prints & People: A Social History of Printed Pictures, (New York: 1972), p. 48.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

About the Exhibition

Worldly Possessions: Visualizing Ownership in the Age of the Baroque

McMaster Museum of Art, August 27, 2013 – January 25, 2014

Unknown (Flemish, 17th century), after Alexander Adriaenssen (1587 - 1661), Still Life with Oysters, c. 1630s, oil on panel, 39.3 x 44.5 cm, Gift of Herman Levy Esq., O.B.E.. photo: John Tamblyn

In the year 1600 Queen Elizabeth 1 granted a Royal Charter to the East India Company, thereby according the newly-established corporation a trade monopoly within all the lands situated between the Straits of Magellan and the Cape of Good Hope.1 The States-General of the Netherlands soon followed in 1602 by granting a twenty-one year trade monopoly to the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC). Nineteen years later a second corporation, the Dutch West India Company (WIC), was granted a similar charter to control trade in the Caribbean, Brazil and North America. The formation of these early multinationals, and the extraordinary powers accorded them by their respective states ensured tremendous profits for shareholders and associated merchants alike. Not surprisingly other European nations, including France, Denmark, Portugal and Sweden, quickly moved to establish public corporations of their own in the hope of increasing their fortunes by seizure of the global trade routes.

Just as the seventeenth century saw the rise of the first multinationals so too did it witness the rapid growth of a modern European art market driven by demands for specialized subject matter. A new and prosperous class of merchants, humanists and artists added to their growing collections of precious, worldly commodities visual depictions of the land and sea, domestic and social scenes, portraits, still-life images, biblical subjects and historical narratives. These early modern collections were inspired by curiosity, aesthetic interest and a passion for material consumption. Yet their appreciation was as much about drawing meaning from objects and works of art in accordance with the intellectual and moral imperatives of the day. In the rarefied environs of the Baroque collection a picture such as the Still Life with Oysters (Unknown, oil on panel, c. 1630s, shown above) could be seen as a depiction of a sumptuous meal and a moralizing commentary on desire or indulgence, reminding the viewer of the importance of moderation. The exquisite optical illusion of the picture would have signified the triumph of art over nature, the latter having been made subordinate to the superior hand of the artist. Both pleasurable and didactic, a picture of this order could validate the very idea of ownership by offering itself as a necessary aid to the intellectual and moral betterment of the self.

This exhibition invites the contemporary viewer to look at a range of material from the collections of the McMaster Museum of Art in the context of broader European concerns about possession and ownership in the 17th and 18th centuries. As colonial expansion increased the riches introduced to European societies of the Baroque, so too did it open moral dilemmas about conquest, subordination and acquisition. Collections provided a means of creating artificial justification for the driving forces of colonialism and corporate globalization by making possession an ostensible necessity.

Greg Davies

1. The EIC was originally chartered as the Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies.