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Travelogue F48

November 4, 2015

From there, I crossed the canonical divide between medieval’s 15th century end and modern’s 16th birth and found myself among the Flemish and their 16th and 17th century Golden Age. I looked on Bruegel the Younger’s 1620 Return from the Inn, rife with sexual stand-ins, erect sword, pierced bole, but also Hackaert’s 1670 Departure for the Hunt with Falcons, its birch stands filtering the morning light which fell dappled upon trunk and ground. From there it was not far to Schalcken’s masterful treatment of dim light, again evident in Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist: the gleam of silk, shadows deepening her servant’s face, candlelight the only source of illumination for a scene fitting the dead of night.

My circuit brought me next to the museum’s 17th century still lifes, a genre I could not look upon without recalling a French art history teacher’s questioning his class as to the precise meaning of “still” and whether it connoted a “still alive” subject or merely one which failed to move. Among their number in this museum, I counted Linard’s 1640 Nature morte aux coquillages et au corail, where I found in the coral all the esteem in which wondercabinet-makers had held it. For it bore a passing resemblance, perhaps in virtue of its smoothness, to the blood vessels surfacing in the dawning age of dissection. To this collectors had likewise joined its more obscure properties, such as fending off the evil eye. Certainly with any examination of the sort, there came the danger of anachronistic projection or even the subjective. So, tempted though I was, I did my best to meet the evocative, even provocative, slit of a conch and the play of light and shadow therein with a fair and measured eye.

Van Roestraten’s Still Life with Candle similarly drew my attention, replete as it was with memento mori of a more subtle kind: extinguished candle, open watch, book open on the cycles of the moon, all suggesting time’s passing no matter the fineries and glint. In addition, Roestraten’s had seen fit to render his own image in a hanging metal sphere wherein he appeared at work and distorted, after van Eyck. On its surface, I could pick out an array of luminous points captured from the depicted workshop table and doubled in the sphere’s gleam. Somewhere behind or before that array, a window lit the scene from behind, and I marveled at the play of light and reflection in yet another world-in-itself.

Peschier’s Vanité chose instead to show existence’s precariousness in the form of a skull, an extinguished lantern with steel masking plates, creased and crumpled letters, a dogeared notebook, unused quills, and, at the center of it all, an inked landscape collapsing in on itself or under the strain of gravity due to its position. In it, I made out a man on the bank of a river out of the midst of which now jutted a pond bridge at a thirty degree angle, due to the lay of the paper. The bridge again settled on dry land at its other end, but the paper’s orientation gave me to think on the existence of some mad fall through life at the end of which the person could do little but slough off, in the form of inked landscapes, those scenes from daily life.

With this I had come to the end of the section dedicated to still lifes and had resolved to move on when I discovered off to one side Beth Lipman’s 2005 still life composition Tea Table II. Though still referencing the works of the Haarlem school, its luminous quality owed not to artful dabs of white but, instead, to the material from which she had worked: glass. Touched in places with enamel, the glass gave shape to goblets, wine glasses, bowls complete with glass fruit, as well as to an assortment of snifters, drams and teaware. The artist had even thought to render the tablecloth in glass.

The wares had piled up, tilted from the general crowding, and their exact delineation proved impossible with the play of light in and on the glass. There, the light carried out its work of refracting, doubling and distortion. A further sense of movement and urgency was lent to the composition by the presence of a glass thrown from the crowd either under outer pressure or inner and lying in pieces upon the display floor.

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