In the summer of 2016 I travelled with my family through the Italy from east (Le Marche) to west (Umbria). On that particular trip I preferred the company of my small sketchbook, (Hahnemühle, not Moleskine), to my camera, which only sporadically left its bag. In Le Marche we rented a wonderful historic water-mill. The villages and ‘frazione’ – small communities consisting of only a few houses – were exquisitely authentic. Only a week after we spent a wonderful week there, the area was hit by a devastating earthquake.
In Umbria tourism and recent economic prosperity has left its mark, resulting in a style of building that appeals to a certain category of people with money to spend on real estate, but a taste that was mainly formed by Italian popular TV. Expensive, no doubt, but cheap and tacky. Luckily enough there are plenty of small towns and villages that are relatively unaffected by Berlusconi-induced tastelessness. Civita di Bagnoregio is one of these very pleasant places. The small town, perched on a high rock is well-known and loved by tourists, and a visit is certainly rewarding.
From the terrace of the house we rented in the volcanic valley not far from Civita, I could see the old town, high on its weathered volcanic rock. Inspired by that enchanting view I filled my sketchbook, not by copying what I saw, but by drawing from my imagination, inspired by what I had seen moments before; sometimes floating into near abstraction, sometimes staying closer to reality.
Together these images evolved into a number of juxtaposed sketches which form the point of departure for a series of oil paintings. These are only loosely based on the reality on the ground. With the components of these sketches, supplemented by mental images of colour and atmosphere, and influenced by my background as art-historian with a predeliction for medieval and early renaissance art. The murals of Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena are among my all-time favorite works of art. Size, perspective and technical perfection are still less important than atmosphere, meaning and symbolism. In my own work the same apparent disregard for linear perspective is a recurring feature.
But in colouring and style I always draw from another rich source, which is my love for the masters of the European comic strips, or ‘bande dessinée’, in particular André Franquin, his fellow artist Jidéhem, and Edgar Pierre Jacobs.
Somewhere in between, between the serious art of Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the tongue-in-cheek virtuosity of André Franquin is another one of my heroes, Jean-Michel Folon, another Belgian artist. His simple, but evocative lines, shapes and colours, never fail to move me.
Therefore my works can never be regarded as ‘serious’. Although deep down, they are, very serious. But that is for another post.
All images are copyright by me. If you would like to use them, or want to have better copies, please contact me by leaving a comment.
This illustration, or rather impression, is created with black ink from Liquitex and watercolour on smooth all-purpose art paper (Paint-On by Clairefontaine, 250 gsm).
It was done fairly quickly and loosely to match the style of the educational website in which it appears. I always use Rembrandt watercolour paint by Royal Talens. Rembrandt watercolour has a wide range of vibrant, very high quality, and lightfast, colours. There are of course other very good brands, but I have decided to be chauvinistic, and loyally stick with this high-quality Dutch brand.
I was somehow struck by the location, the colours, the strong horizontals, and the abandoned functionalism of the place. Aquasanta Terme (Le Marche, Italy) is an old town with a thermal spa situated in a deep valley. Sulfuric sources stream through the station and end up in the river that meanders through the canyon. The swimming pool is at the higher end of the town, and is accompanied by a slightly dystopian parking area.
Although the thermal spa is still in use, it has abandoned area’s too. Squeezed against the rock, this old building.
Today I would like to share some images taken from two large books that belonged to my great-aunt. To say she was an eccentric lady is an understatement. Life-long spinster, smoking like a chimney, a voice like a drill-sergeant, she travelled the world in cargo-ships, found these books who-knows-where and shipped them to her gloomy apartment in The Hague. When I was still a child I tried to escape from the intense and smokey family gatherings in her boudoir by sitting in a corner of the room and slowly turning the large pages, pretending to be completely absorbed by the content.
The room was filled to the brim with ominous cabinets, large and extremely dangerous furniture, and frightening paintings of big nude women that seemed to want to jump off the wall. The experience was suffocating, to say the least. As these gatherings were traditionally held on January 1st, the weather was invariably gloomy and the world was shrouded in the deepest darkness. As I sat in that distant corner my rib-cage hurt, and I thought I would not live to the end of the dreadful evening. It was probably just a mixture of growing pains and melancholy. It was the sixties and all adults continuously drank and smoked cigarettes.
My great-aunt noticed my interest in the engravings (I did not know what they were then), and declared with a loud booming hoarse voice: “Aha! The lad likes the books. He likes art. So when I’m dead, he will have them.” Well … she eventually died. But the bequest seemed to be forgotten by everyone, except my cousin, who kept the books safe for years, and then decided it was time to hand them over, also because he needed the living space they claimed, living in a large city. Battered and damaged from the outside, the engravings are still in very good condition. I have stored them away from my house in a safe place and sometimes take them home to take a few pictures. Engravings like these are not en vogue so selling them is not an option. The volumes are so heavy that handling the books is almost impossible. It’s the story behind them that gives them value, to me. If I snif these pages I still notice a whiff of stale smoke, wine and gin.
Reproducing images and art in the era before photography, digital photography, scanners, Facebook and Flickr was a painfully slow affair, if you wanted to do it right. When I was an art history student I became fascinated by the concept of ‘reproduction graphic’. A phenomenon that flourished in the 19th century. Suppose you had a swiftly brushed painting of a vase with flowers, and you wanted to reproduce it, for a book, or as a separate print. You would bring it to a graphic artist who would painstakingly copy the work in steel. These steel engravings look superficially similar to engravings on copper, or etches, but they are quite different. It reminded me of something, but the books were deeply buried in my subconscious.
The lines are incredibly regular, and thin. Every nuance is being rendered by the artist. A bohemian swirly flower vase would take the painter less time to produce than this graphical craftsman to reproduce. If you look at these engravings, at first you might be put off by a certain ‘mechanical stiffness’, but upon closer inspection you cannot but marvel at the incredible skill. These people were human scanners. This portrait of a painting in the Royal Collection Osbourne proves that the freshness of the original can be transferred in a work of great clarity.
It’s not comparable to artist’s engravings, like Rembrandt’s drypoint engravings, or his etchings, or other free artistic creations. Their job was not to be original, but to be faithful and translate a work of art into an entirely different medium. In this respect these people deserve our respect.
These are some images from the two enormous ornate volumes of steel engravings, commissioned by the firm P. & D. Colnaghi Co. between 1854 and 1860, which I used to escape from the dreadful New Years parties at my great-aunts place. The descriptions accompanying the engravings are written by Samuel Carter Hall (1800 – 1889). The full title of the work is:
“The Royal Gallery of Art,
Ancient and Modern
engravings from the private collections of
Her Majesty The Queen and
His Royal Highness Prince Albert
and the art heirlooms of The Crown,
at Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, and Osborne”
The book-block (i.e. the paper part inside) measures 66,5 x 49 cm, the cover of course is somewhat taller and wider (68 x 50 cm). So they are quite big … and very heavy.
The engravings were made, and sold in a series, by subscription. The original size (“quarto grand eagle”) was used to create these big volumes. After approximately 400 impressions the steel plates were cut down, and another run was produced, to be published in the Art-Journal.
The author of the descriptions S. C. Hall, was, according to the online sources I found, rather a contentious figure. Trained as a lawyer, he somehow ended up as a publisher / art journalist. Creating series like this was the only way to show the private collection of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to a wider audience. A number of engravers has been admitted to the palaces where the royal art collection has been kept for a number of years. Photography already existed of course, but was still in the stages of its development where extended series of copies were not possible. Steel engravings were the visual medium that accompanied the printing press in the 19th century, and beyond.
Due to the subjects, and the way they are rendered, these engravings now have a distinct old-fashionedness about them. They don’t fetch high prices at online auctions, and they linger in the display windows of antiquarian bookshops.
But look at the details. And be cautious, because you might develop an appetite for these neglected works of graphic art.
Looking at the details you also recognise the presence of mechanical tools used to cover larger areas with tonal values. If you compare the engraving with the original, you see that it isn’t a mechanical reproduction but an interpretation.
We are blessed now with an unprecedented access to the royal collections thanks to the website of the Royal Collection Trust. The description of the painting on this website learns us that the engraving was executed by Joseph Alfred Annedouche. Queen Victoria wrote in her journal on May 17th 1844: “Albert has bought 3 beautiful pictures from Mrs Nicholls’s collection (…) and I have bought a lovely child’s head by Greuze.” Somehow the child in the engraving is more childlike and innocent than the original. And there is another striking difference. The girl in the engraving is looking straight at the spectator while the girl in the painting seems to look just past you, as if someone was standing behind the artist. The engraver did not pick up on this characteristic feature of the painting. It’s remarkable that the title of the reproduction does not match the title of the original. Where the original is catalogued as “Head of a girl”, which is quite matter-of-fact, and places it in genre-painting, the title of the reproduction “Childhood” suggests that it’s allegoric.
The engraver of this elegant portrait of Lady Constance Leveson-Gower (1834-1880), later Duchess of Westminster by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805 – 1873), had a similar approach. The eyes are vivid and clear. And the reflection of the light is more prominent than in the original portrait. He did a splendid job in rendering the details like the flowers in the hair. It’s delightful to study the lines, building up the portrait, in detail. You can find more about the original on the website of the Royal Collection Trust
Queen Victoria wrote about this portrait: “‘Constance’s Picture has enchanted us; it is exquisite & I am delighted to possess this Portrait of your beautiful Child. (…)”. Franz Xaver Winterhalter was a well-know portrait painter who made his living by painting portraits of the haute bourgeoisie and royalty. If you enter his name in the search box of the Royal Collection Trust’s website you will discover many works by him. I must admit that I never heard of him before.
We see everything in retrospect, but this painting was relatively new when the crew hired by Hall started copying the paintings. The selection of reproduced paintings included both Old Masters and contemporary art.
These engravings, although not original works of art, just have a charm, and a life of their own.
That’s it, for now. I will come back here and post some follow-up information and new images soon.
A short visit to the German town of Cloppenburg (Niedersachsen / Lower Saxony) and the quite interesting Museumsdorf (museum village) this past week, coincided with the first pleasant day of this year’s spring. The spring sun flooded the place with remarkably clear and warm light, gaining strength during the afternoon, but not enough to drown everything in stark contrasts. Yet it kept the temperature high enough to take off one’s coat. Nice.
The open air museum is mainly devoted to a historically faithful representation of life and work in the German countryside. The buildings are not reconstructions, but, according to the information provided on small text-shields, rebuilt originals that haven been moved from elsewhere. It’s mostly farms, but there are also other buildings, like a bakery, a church, a small school, a pottery and some other auxiliary buildings. The village has three historical windmills of different types.
Leisurely strolling trough the buildings and along the paths one can take in the past and occasionally discover something or learn something new. The museum village is not overly educational, but, when you want to dive deeper into the material and immaterial heritage of the region, there is plenty of information available.
I liked the casual look of the whole ‘ensemble’, as if the people had left their places, but could return soon. Still, something was missing. Although it is called ‘village’, it does’t have all the elements that make a village tick, it is a rather large cluster of farms really, houses that would normally probably be more distant from each other. But there is still enough room there to fill in the blanks.
On several occasions I took my camera out, but only to make a few quick snapshots; I’d left the tripod in the car. The light and the geometry were the elements that struck me most. Golden light penetrated the often somber buildings, while squared windows and squared ‘Fachwerk’ (half-timbered construction) dominated the architecture. Nice elements for a thematic approach.
The first image is taken from a very formal, or rich farmhouse, that now serves as a permanent exhibition area. It shows the half-timbered school, and elements of a formal garden. The different glass-panes give a checkered window on the past.
The second photograph is a reference to our own good old Dutch masters, especially Vermeer, who had the uncanny ability to light a scene as if there were a real source of light inside the painting.
The third image is a large room, darkened by an open fireplace, lit by the afternoon sun.
The image below struck me as being exceptionally poetic. I don’t know why.
More rectangles than in a Mondrian painting
Many doorways have ornamental, symbolic, or heraldic elements.
The smithy, interestingly cluttered, and therefore very picturesque. Which also gives us a nice insight in the display principles that are at the basis of this museum.
If you’re passing this part of Germany you should give it a try. There’s a lot of parking space, and with nice weather it’s an afternoon well spent.
In the process of a long, cumbersome and boring process of arranging, rearranging, organising and safely storing all photographs a few black and whites caught my eyes. All greying has been done in Adobe Lightroom CC 2014, which has some useful black & white presets.
The entry to the tropical conservatory (serre chaude) is a real beauty, as is the building itself. Wonderful cast iron spiral staircases lead up to a circular iron walkway. Climbing also means a significant rise in temperature and humidity, so glasses and lenses will steam up as one rises.
I imagine that this is an Aloe Vera, but I’m no botanist, so it could be anything. Fact is that the combination with classically shaped vase is wonderful.
Seeing these cruise ships in the distance gives a strange sense of symmetry, although there is none. And also a sense of rythm and tension.
Well … this is a great area. Hopefully the new bridge won’t spoil it by allowing the area to be flooded with loutish tourists coming from Nyhavn.
Some days ago I was invited to give a guest lecture to students studying for an international cultural heritage masters degree. It was a nice to be addressing a group of attentive people again. The subject, ‘Authenticity in the Digital Age’, gave me enough leeway to make a broad movement from a philosophical point of view to a very down to earth practical approach. The relationship between physical artefacts and their digital representations, and the often emotional attachments that we have for physical artefacts that are close to the source of their creation, like first editions, signed copies, drawings, was one of the main strands of the lecture.
On my way back home I was thinking about digital born material, the immaterial cultural heritage of the near future. By its very nature it can never acquire the patina of ink stains, the grime of being picked up and put down, the scribbles and markings of a finished page that goes through the editing process. It is forever pristine, until it fades away with the obsolescence of its technological environment.
Back home I looked at the H0 models that my dad created approximately 45 years ago for his train-set, now abandoned and put away in cardboard boxes. Hundreds of lengths of rail, curves, switches, magnetic sensors, innumerable wound ends of electrical wires, and many plastic houses, and other props. I kept some of them in view. The nice thing about them is the complete absence of any economic value, or collector’s interest. They’re not pristine, but were handled many times, maltreated, broken, and repaired. They collected dust and grease, attracted nicotine and were battered by discarded tools.
The landscape these objects occupied was in perpetual development, it was never finished. When the first track, built in the basement, with hills, tunnels, and a real waterfall, was nearly ready, we moved. Then there was the second project, a large platform that covered a whole spare-room, and that could be hoisted to the ceiling because it was suspended. You had to position yourself in the center of the room when the landscape came down. A square hole in the center contained all the controls. The track had several levels and was immensely complex. Far too complex. Everything was controlled by electromagnetic switches that my dad created himself by winding copper spools. The central switch was an iron nail, embedded in a rectangular piece of red plastic. When a train passed a, self-made, sensor, the electromagnet-switch was activated and somewhere a railway point was changed. He spent weeks turning the copper spools and building the switches. Then he created hundreds of signal lights by painting the ink-tubes of empty ballpoint pens, mounting them with a small top piece with two tiny lights and a backplate which he cut from small sheets of metal. It was fascinating.
As soon as the project was finished, he dissembled the whole thing and kept everything, including the trains, in boxes. I suppose the journey was more valuable than the destination. The boxes are now in my care. I cleaned and re-packed everything and kept a few items in view, worthless and priceless.