Last Wednesday I took an excursion to Oxford to enjoy the galleries. I spent about 90 minutes in Christchurch Picture Gallery, which I haven’t visited for about a year.
|The quad at Christchurch College, Oxford.|
They make these Oxford colleges so impenetrable. Mind your manners dear boy, and don’t tread on the grass in the quad lest you incur the opprobrium of academe. I haven’t been for some time so I’d forgotten that there are different gates for the public, like the equivalent of second class stamps, second class on trains etc. However once you get through the checkpoints and into the gallery, you’ll find it’s well worth it. For the princely sum of £3, you’re admitted into a treasure chamber of early Italian renaissance and the baroque.
Christ Church Picture Gallery came into being when General John Guise left his collection of over 200 paintings and over 2,000 drawings to his old college. The drawings are the most renowned, and it must be amazing being a curator there. I’ve been in the print room a few times to look at Poussin and other seventeenth-century sheets. These days there’s so much distraction, crowds, noise, that it’s difficult to find a space for contemplating pictures and drawings, but I found it here as I was the only visitor to the gallery. The Oxford galleries are good for meditations on art as they’re not crowded, and they’re ideal for either concentrated looking or just drifting off into reverie in front of the pictures; though inevitably the art historian in my brain won’t stand for me daydreaming in front of pictures. He reminds me of all the lectures I’ve sat through, seminars I’ve conducted and books I’ve read, dredging it all up from the depths. Here are comments on two famous masterpieces by baroque artists at Christchurch. Blame the art historian in my head if it gets too pedantic.
Anthony Van Dyck, The Continence of Scipio, early 1620s.
|Anthony van Dyck, The Continence of Scipio, Christchurch Picture Gallery, c. 1620-1, oil on canvas, 183 x 232.5 cm.|
This is the story of Scipio Africanus, who after the siege of New Carthage in Hispania, returned a captured beautiful woman to her fiancé Allucius, along with the money offered by her parents to ransom her. What strikes you first about this painting are its colours. There’s the fluttering crimson cloak of Scipio, edged with gold, a truly regal ensemble.Allucius is dressed in a cool blue while the woman that Scipio is returning to him is dressed in a richly resplendent gold gown. The painter has gone for modesty in this woman and failed miserably; she seems too haughty to my eye.
|Nicolas Poussin, The Continence of Scipio, Pushkin Museum, Moscow, c. 1640, oil on canvas, 114.5 x 163.5 cm. |
I shouldn’t do this but if you compare her to the same character in Poussin’s version, the French artist shows a very demure young woman whose whole bearing is of graceful shyness, almost a Vestal Virgin. Van Dyck’s treatment is more baroque in the sense of theatricality, even verging on comedy with the parents of the young woman. Her mother is a Leonardoesque crone, with a grotesque smile, eager to reclaim the money that they were going to give Scipio. The old man’s head seems to be edging past his daughter’s which is jarring to the eye. The most fascinating detail for me is the father’s hand which seems to possess a life of its own; the fingers resemble tendrils rather than real digits. It was one of Van Dyck’s first court pictures in England, and you can see it’s a transitional work. He may have his own take on Venetian art, but he’s still using the language of Rubens, especially in the stocky man carrying the ornate receptacle; this figure conforms to Rubens’s Herculean type, derived from the Farnese Hercules. This is not so much a composition as an assemblage of motifs; Van Dyck was still learning his craft, but he was working to a specific brief. I seem to recall that this picture has lots of connections with the Arundel/Buckingham circle, so it’s steeped in allusive detail such as the gorgon-headed relief on the lower right (the viewer’s L)which is bound up with the rivalries and politics of the courtiers of James I, who might actually be represented in the figure of Scipio himself. That would explain the rolling English countryside beyond this “political epithalamium”, which is about as far from war torn New Carthage as you can get.
Annibale Carracci, The Butcher’s Shop, 1580s.
|Annibale Carracci, The Butcher’s Shop, Christchurch Picture Gallery, 1580s oil on canvas, 185 x 266 cm.|
Ah yes, one of the most famous paintings in the gallery. The colours are more muted here; they almost approach the monochromatic. Here we see 6 figures within a butcher’s shop in late-sixteenth-century Bologna, but I’m almost tempted to say 8 and count the two carcases which are large as the humans. There is meat in abundance here, a vegetarian’s nightmare. Unlike say Rembrandt’s Dead Ox, I don’t see anything heroic here, just the daily grisly business of cutting up meat, weighing it and preparing it for market. That last idea is conveyed by the smaller slices of meat in the box or tray at the rear; they almost seem as they’re being presented to the viewer for their inspection. This makes of the viewer a consumer rather than a connoisseur of realist, genre paintings which this is supposed to be. If we’re to believe certain Carracci scholars though, this is an elaborate allegory on the art theory of the Carracci academy. As Carl Goldstein remarks, most scholars have been reluctant to view this painting as “a glimpse into a butcher’s stall in sixteenth-century Bologna.” Some have seen it as an “allegorical puzzle, connected with the program of natural realism” drawn up in the Carracci studio. Far from the Christchurch picture being an example of naturalism, it has to be seen as artificial; why else does it have quotations from other celebrated works like Noah’s family in Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling as well as Raphael’s Sacrifice of Noah, itself borrowing from Michelangelo.
Annibale Carracci, A Man Weighing Meat, Royal Collection, Windsor, 1582-3, red chalk on beige paper.
The butcher on the left (viewer’s R) hanging a carcass with difficulty, supposedly comes from Michelangelo’s Crucifixion of St Peter, according to Goldstein. The same figure was also connected with the action of raising the cross, as well as handling the figure of Christ in the descent from the cross. Only one of the four butchers is unconnected with a renaissance source; this is the man in the white apron weighing meat, which Annibale studied and drew from a live model. In this drawing the features of the butcher are younger than the one in the final painting. It’s also interesting to see Annibale’s study of an arm on the same sheet, exactly as it would appear in the final version. The scales that have been studied carefully are actually stadera, on which the meat is hung in such a way that the counterweight (romano) running the length of the horizontal pole, registers the weight.
Does it contain hidden erudition, or is it just a slice of life (ha ha) recorded in downtown Bologna. According to a recent reading, the allegorical interpretation has been set aside- and the “Butcher’s Shop” is now seen as a realistic representation of the butcher’s trade in sixteenth-century Bologna. It’s funny how the pendulum of art history interpretation swings. For myself I always regarded it as genre, a window on the trades and professions of early modern Italy. There’s nothing “allegorical” about the joints of beef on the tray, though you really have to see the painting itself to see their resemblance to real meat. No reproductions can do justice to the beef, which when viewed in actuality, looks solid and good enough to eat.