unday at the Jan Lievens: A Dutch Master Rediscovered
exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum
with Erynn was rather spectacular. It wasn't that either of us found him or even his period or style to be a new top-flight favourite, but simply that Erynn turned out to be a fabulous museum partner: that is, we moved at about the same speed through the exhibit and the conversation was just the right mix of really paying attention to the art and then tying it back to Everything Else. My theory is that you tend to have Fast Museum People who want to zoom through everything, eyeball it, and just get a sense of the whole, and that you have Slow Museum People, who want to look at everything, read the captions, stop and think about it as you go along, and even double back for second looks and comparisons. I knew that I was the latter, and that when I've been with the former that they find Slow Museum People to be excruciating. Erynn turned out to have pretty much the same pace and have as much to say, which makes for good company in something like this.
We headed down to the Museum in the early afternoon as she kept me alternately laughing and cringing with the story of her telling off Persistent Drunk Guy when she was out dancing the night before with friends, which, I suppose, sounded extra horrific to me just because guys generally don't have to deal with that kind of being hit-on. We stashed our coats and such in the locker room and took a few minutes to start merging into the crowd at the exhibition, with me probably being too worried about watching out whether she was going to be Fast Museum Person and get impatient with me. Once that became a non-issue, we found ourselves just getting into the paintings themselves, although I took a minute to enthuse when she mentioned that she would be taking an Art History course next semester.
I mentioned both about how much that study had added to my own work, and also speculated that that more specific familiarity with the sweep of art history would give her a different eye behind the camera, empowering her in being attentive to aspects of people that you just cannot see unless you're more sensitive to how other people, elsewhere and elsewhen, have pictured people.
There seemed to be a mix of roughly chronological and thematic organizations to the whole exhibit, and it was some of his youthful stuff that got us first talking a little more intensely, where there was a bit of bawdy or moral themes. Allegory of the Five Senses
got us picking up where our conversation had ended last week, on just starting to notice the different concepts of beauty in different cultures or times. Although the comments by the picture noted that this was a common motif for a moral lesson about indulging the senses, this particular painting didn't seem to be engaging in quite so stark or obvious a moralizing task. Similarly, Youth Embracing A Young Woman
, with Lievens's young painter friend Rembrandt apparently acting as the male model for the work, also presented us with a similar picture of beauty and here, also, without any overt moral statement in the text. In fact, I thought there was a real tenderness in the Young Woman's hand-holding with the Youth that didn't make the picture necessarily seem one about the temptations of 17th century Dutch clubbing. We were also struck by how un-youthful these "youths" seemed to us, and that got us murmuring back and forth a bit about what might have been considered youth at the time, in contrast to our own time and culture's tendency to try to perpetuate youth, both for something useful like extended educational opportunities, but also for less attractive reasons, like the inevitably-doomed-to-fail cult of youth we have today.
Up until that point, it had been more the technical stuff that had been grabbing our attention: the way he captured like on metal, gems or buttons, or on the brocade of a rich piece of clothing, or perhaps the authentically diaphanous look to a woman's headscarf. We both got taken right back into that sort of thing and away from the question of youth or beauty by a large Still Life With Books
that we both found oddly electrifying, with the both of us staring at the same corner and commenting on the same details: the light on the winecup, on the golden paten holding the bread, with its eucharistic themes. This was one of several Lievens paintings in the show that had formerly been attributed to Rembrandt, and it was strangely compelling for such an ordinary subject.
This was the best scan of the painting that I could find online, but most of these copies of the paintings don't do the delicate and precise uses of colour justice at all. In fact, in reading an Amazon review of the show's catalogue
, that was one reviewer's complaint about the text: that the quality of the shots left much to be desired. This is particularly unfortunate in a show whose principle task is supposed to be the revival of the reputation of a painter who was unfairly diminished next to that of his friend and collaborator, Rembrandt. So we stood there peering at the detail work on this particular painting for a bit, while I kept an eye out for the attendants, who were awfully skittish about anyone who was getting too close to the paintings.
Another painting that caused us to pause and talk for a time was Samson and Delilah
, which was near another Old Testament femme fatale
in a painting of Bathsheba Receiving David's Letter
, and which brought us back to the cultural concept of beauty. Too look at a 17th Century blonde, Dutch Bathsheba, well-fed and well-off in the vision of that culture was to reimagine the story in a way that I never had. This got us talking a bit, too, about re-conceiving the stories of the Bible in your own ethnic and cultural vision. You sometimes hear people giving paintings like this a lot of flack nowadays, reading back 20th century racism into older art at the sight of a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus, while at the same time glowing with approval should they observe a red-cloaked Masai warrior Jesus. The first is racism, the second, cultural appropriation. I find this more than a bit irritating in that it's simply bad history to export more recent history and to superimpose it upon the past, although I would be the first one to raise an eyebrow at that blonde, blue-eyed Jesus in a piece of art from our post-20th Century context. Now, particularly with contemporary concern to portray Jesus's historical and Jewish context accurately, and in light of Modern racism, such a European cultural appropriation of the Incarnation just simply has too many political hurdles to overcome, and would likely lose whatever honest artistic attempt might be being made into suspicion. So to look at this 17th Century Dutch appropriation and adaptation of an Old Testament story, innocent of at least our later Modern issues, was a bit of a mind-stretching moment. Erynn got to talking here about working on both sides of the camera, both in trying to take advantage of certain particular characteristics in someone, and having capitalized on her own look, which has been taken for virtually everything on the planet. I finally conceded some of the last, not having seen earlier how she could be taken to be Asian, for example, but seeing how, in presentation or context, she really had a distinct ability to look like our whole world. In light of Rembrandt posing for a number of paintings thus far, we got to talking about how a conscientious model can really be a collaborative artist working with a painter or a photographer, although she admitted that that was probably a minority concept among models in our contemporary modeling industry. I hadn't really thought of it in that way before. Knowing my own experiences in the recording studio, and what a creative process making a recording of a song is, and how it's an experience shared with the writer, the band, and
the engineers and even the crew, gave me a window into imagining how much of the art we were surrounded by – and all the rest I'd ever seen – might have a creative part of so many other people's stories, beyond whoever's name was on the work.
We stepped into the next room and I was flabbergasted. This section was devoted to portraiture, and I could scarcely believe that these pieces were done by the same man whose work I had been examining up to this point. As we went on, we found in the commentary that this was something that had been noted about Lievens's work, and maybe even been a complaint: that there did not seem to be one particular style that was his. Instead, he adopted a variety of styles, depending upon his intent. The living realism of his portraits took me by surprise.
As we looked at these, Erynn and I talked some of the differences between "raw" photography and the ability to "Photoshop" pictures, debating quietly which of these two that the art of painting was more like, even with the obvious and more Photoshop-like control that a painter exercises over the execution of their image. Nevertheless, despite that control, there was still the need in painting to "capture" the person, to somehow bring together that combination of technique and vision that in some way makes the difference between a great portrait and just an ordinary picture of someone. She was just as much at a loss to try to explain that difference as I was, though I certainly can tell when I've captured something of that sort: more rare, precise and exciting as it is.
The next section of the exhibition had more pictures of a sacred or moral sort, illustrative instead of portraiture. Nothing here much grabbed my attention or imagination. The Lamentation of Christ
was more interesting to me in simply layout and execution than really grabbing me for its ability to capture the mood after the crucifixion of Jesus. It nowhere near affected me as much as Michelangelo's Florentine Pietà
that I saw with Erik in Florence in 2006
, or as much as Michelangelo's St. Peter's Pietà
Somewhat more interesting was Lievens's Christ on the Cross
, painted, if I recall correctly, in competition with a similar piece by Rembrandt for a commission. Erynn picked up on something Lievens was doing with the light in this piece that I hadn't noticed, drawing my attention to the light in the upper left of the painting. She speculated on this for a moment before asking me what I thought it might mean. Once she got my attention on it, I thought that it was more likely that this was a fairly standard convention for such a scene – that this was Lievens's attempt at symbolizing the presence of God The Father in the crucifixion: a light "from above" that was mirrored by the light around Jesus's head, as sort of a more naturalistic "halo" in the scene, where this light in both locations indicated the shared divinity of Father and Son. I compared it to that striking shot in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ
where, after Jesus's death, the camera suddenly shifts to an angle unprecedented and surprising in the film, that "God's eye" view looking downward upon the scene of the crucifixion, where a first drop of rain falls, tear-like, from that viewpoint onto the scene below.
With this painting, as with many others throughout the exhibition, there was next to the Lievens piece a small print of a similar Rembrandt piece, often done in competition with one another over commissions, or simply just riffing off of one another's ideas. Unlike this Lievens crucifixion scene, where Jesus has already died and been stabbed in the side, Rembrandt's painting shows Jesus still with his eyes open, and his face animated by the pains of the Passion. Erynn put her finger on a commonality running through all these comparisons which I hadn't noticed: the Rembrandt pieces were all more animated. Their emotions and actions were all more overt, which might be a better way of saying what she was noticing than just to call them more "animated." Once they were placed side-by-side, she consistently found the Rembrandts less appealing because of their comparative lack of subtlety. There was a greater sense of "playing to the crowd" in them, of a drama slipping toward melodrama, and I found myself agreeing with her. I made the comparison to the difference between Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings
and Tolkien's novel itself (which, to my dismay, she had never read). Wherever Tolkien is subtle and builds tension or meaning slowly or delicately, Jackson is content to shout BOO! Some of those adaptation decisions might have to do with the limits and pacing of film compared to that of a novel, but oftentimes it's just a cheapening. I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to say that Rembrandt was consciously "pandering to the crowd," but once Erynn made her case, it became harder not to make such comparisons in favour of Lievens as we went along.
A little later we found ourselves sitting for some time in front of the nearly eight-foot high canvas of The Sacrifice of Issac
. I think that this was another fairly recent discovery or identification as Lievens's work. I believe it sold in 1996 for just under $22,000, so it is strange to think of an Old Master that I could have conceivably purchased, though I have to wonder how I would arrange my living room around it had I done so. This small copy of the painting is the only online image that I could find that reasonably came close to the colours as we saw them sitting there, and to the crispness of the image. Larger images online were strangely dull, amounting to a horrible distortion of the painting. The first thing that we found ourselves commenting upon or drawn to was simply the colour of Abraham's robe: a rich burgundy that we both found attractive.
I razzed her briefly when she asked for a reminder of the story – "That was in one of the first lessons in my class!" – forgetting, for the moment, that that was true of my Intro course and not of the Theology Through The Centuries course she took with me last spring. Mercifully, however, she didn't pick up on that, either, as I moved on to the story itself, or otherwise I would have been very thoroughly double-razzed in retaliation. But once I refreshed her memory about the story of the so-called sacrifice of Isaac, since it never actually happened, we spun off from the story itself, getting all intertextual. I talked about the symmetry that Christians get from the story, of how Abraham's faith and willingness to even offer on the Mountains of Moriah his only son to the mysterious God who spoke to him would be answered in turn by God's offering of Jesus for humanity on those same mountains centuries later when the city of Jerusalem now occupied them. I also mentioned the seeming barbarousness of the Jewish story, of how that had been highlighted for me when I was an undergraduate, reading a short story included with Goodbye, Columbus
in a collection by Phillip Roth, and the impact this vision of Abraham through secularizing Jewish-American eyes had on me, in the way that it brought to the fore the need to read the biblical text with sympathetic, historically-informed eyes, and not to subject it to my own contemporary prejudices. We stared into the painting, finding ourselves taken with the sharp, dynamic character of his face, and the surprising – virtually unprecedented, from what we had seen – splash of colour in this one, with rare blues as part of a rainbow sunset or sunrise on the horizon in the background, wondering if this could be an allusion to the covenant with Noah. Again we looked at a print of a parallel Rembrandt text, and Erynn firmed up her thesis in comparing the two.
We began to speed up a bit toward the end. My Mom and aunts and uncle had warned me the night before that the exhibition was a long one, and it was even longer than I had thought from looking ahead, as there was more rooms to it than I had been able to see from earlier vantage points. As we got toward the end, I asked her what had been the piece that had stood out or grabbed her the most. She got a thoughtful, weighing sort of look on her face and lead me back through the exhibit, musing on The Sacrifice of Isaac
and Samson and Delilah
briefly, but pretty quickly settling on, and leading me straight to the Still Life With Books
. I was surprised, in seeing that her choice was such a technical-seeming one, while we were mostly surrounded by narrative and portraiture, but I certainly sympathized insofar as something in the work had leapt out at me, too. Naturally, she turned the question or challenge right back at me, as I knew she would, though I slightly dreaded it, because I wasn't sure how I was going to answer.
As I said, I too had loved something about the Still Life With Books
, but I went back deeper into the show, eyeballing some of the portraits, and thinking through a few of the ones we had especially talked about, but I settled on The Penitent Magdalene
as my choice, though in way I'm
not even sure if I chose correctly. But that one had had us stop for a while, as I was so struck by such a different take on Magdalene. With the long history of how Mary Magdalene had been conflated with other figures in the New Testament, particularly the unnamed penitent woman who anointed Jesus or the woman caught in adultery, Magdalene has gained an importance in the history of Christian art – and presumably in Christian devotion – that is quite distinct from her historical significance. I mentioned this to Erynn when we had originally looked at the painting, for which I could only find this tiny copy online, and spoke of the way she is usually portrayed in art, with something of the flamboyance of one flaunting her beauty, so as to identify the character with this conflated/fictional past. Oftentimes she's stunning (as she is in The Lamentation of Christ
, which we saw just a little farther on, presuming that the dazzling blonde woman is supposed to be her), and I first brought up Gibson's The Passion of the Christ
in this context, with its full use of this tradition of so treating Mary Magdalene, with Monica Bellucci cast in the role. What so struck me here was to see such a different version of this Magdalene: elderly, weathered, worn and poor – a sort of vision of her as one living a monastic discipline in later life. Here she is, as an image, unaffected and lacking the usual accoutrements of the temptress, utterly human, with a life no visibly different than anyone else's, other than that which we know to be hers by virtue of her story. It was a new vision of her, making me look at the story – both historical and otherwise – with new eyes and imagination, and that, I figured, made it in some ways the work that had hit me the hardest. It might be technically or visually one of the more unremarkable, but it certainly grabbed me as an exercise of the painter's spiritual imagination.
One thing we noticed in the last few rooms, even though we were moving at a faster pace was this portrait, identified as another self-portrait of Lievens, but here showing him in his 40s, less fleshy and youthful than the striking self-portrait that, in my set of portraits above, is the middle one in the bottom row of three, in glowing browns. Here is where Erynn and I made our significant contribution to art history, should anyone ever know of it: comparing this self-portrait to the one above (which we had in the brochures in our hands), we noticed that in this mid-life self-portrait, not only has Lievens lost some of the youthful roundness to his face, but he has also lost the deep brown of his eyes in his 20s, as in this portrait they were now a deep blue. So, the experts may have identified these two paintings as self-portraits by the painter, but Erynn and I spotted this oddity, exchanged a wry glance, and quietly concluded that something in that story has got to give.
We headed out the door as they were shutting the place down, laughing about some story one of us had told the other, and decided as we crossed the footbridge over to Wisconsin Avenue to go ahead and grab dinner. I made a few suggestions, and she opted for Hotel Metro
, seeming to be most intrigued by my enthusiastic descriptions of the apple pie and cinnamon ice cream dessert I favour there, though neither of us ended up opting for that. I had never seen the place so quiet as it was, though I was usually there when there was a lot of resting there by the clubbing crowd on late nights and not at a little after 5pm on a Sunday. She grabbed some kind of gumbo they were offering with alligator, apparently, and slipped me a bite of that so that I could add another strange and odd item on my list of things eaten. I settled into a pork tenderloin, and took my time through that, declining dessert while she grabbed their tiramisu.
And so we just had a lot of random dinner conversation, starting with the discovery that she had no idea where we were. I have pretty much concluded that there's two kinds of people: people who get directions and always know where they are, and people who do not. My Mom is the former, and my Dad the latter, and mercifully I inherited my Mom's talent here. Erynn was the other sort, and so I was amazed by the fact that she was completely lost after we had walked all of one block of north of Wisconsin Avenue, which is the straight drag directly from campus to the Art Museum. That got us talking about personality traits, I think, about things like Meiers-Briggs exams in the such, and we discovered when she was talking about how much she had enjoyed some down time when her roommates were out of the apartment that we were both extroverts who needed a lot of time to themselves, and how it had been a bit of a surprise to even discover that that was a category that made sense. I had always thought of myself as an introvert until I first took the MB for a class and had my results explained to me. Her upcoming competition at the Duke Invitational got us talking about a variety of schools and the huge choice of picking just one: I think Duke had been one of the schools that had sent her recruitment letters for undergrad – along with Harvard, Notre Dame and other impressive names – and I talked about how I'd almost gone to Duke for my Master's, and then opted for Notre Dame, and why I wish she could have experienced what makes ND distinct, although I had to say I was happy to have met her at Marquette. It's utterly unpredictable, the chain of consequences, of meetings and friendships and opportunities that come from picking one school instead of another. And it's really almost beside the point to worry about that decision in that all of those particulars are utterly beyond our foresight and calculation. My sibs wouldn't have met their spouses had they not gone to the University of Illinois, either meeting there like Leslie and Jim, or having their lives start on a particular course, like Joe then meeting Daniele. All the kids – their sheer existence and chance for it – are consequent to that. So that sort of conversation is always a bit head-spinning. But that was the kind of thing that made the whole afternoon fun: the combination in conversation of her offering comments that completely made sense for her to say, from what I knew of her, and the completely surprising insights that took me unprepared and made me look at the art, or at a story, differently than I would have on my own. Good times.