A return to Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna: Low Countries and Germany

We made our first visit to KHM at Easter and we managed but a fraction of the artworks (largely the Habsburg’s Italian collection). So we went back to see the work of some of my favourite 15th and 16th Century artists.

Let me start with Valckenborth whose series of scenes from the months of the year. Five are in Vienna. They are hung really badly (high), one has to take a photo to study them; but the snow on this one is almost 20th Century impressionism.

Talking of snow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder made his career out of depicting ordinary people in the landscape. His show scenes are always cold, but equally, there is always people enjoying themselves. Skating is a particular outdoor fun activity, but here there are also hunters. For some, I assume, that is worth getting out of bed for.

There are some 12 Bruegel the Elder’s paintings in this collection (more than a quarter of all those that survive in the world). All that I have seen in various museums are always a thrill. Though the subject matter of another winter scene, “The Massacre of the Innocents” is not a positive thrill. It recreates the biblical scene of Herod’s infanticide in the low country winter landscape.

Perhaps Bruegel’s most recognised painting is his depiction of the Tower of Babel (1563). What is remarkable about this picture is its encyclopaedic detail and depiction of considerable technical and craft skills. All made up of course.

This period is great if you like ghouls, demons, witches and hell. H Francken the Elder’s wonderful Hexenküchen (witch cooking) is a wonderful example of the genre. I particularly like the church in background as a reminder of some sort of duality. But the witches surely win? I am not quite sure what is going to happen to the naked individual on the far right, but I suspect it is not good.

Next up, Hell. I rather like David III. Ryckaert’s “Dulle Griet” (on a Raid before the Entrance to Hell). I have to say I am not quite sure what is going on but the thrashing woman seems to be managing the fantastical collection of ghouls. Difficult to know how long she was going to keep them off.

Here is another great depiction of Hell. This time from Herri me de Bles (somewhere around 1540). It is circular – maybe Hell is circular? – and the hellish colours are brilliant. It does not look so bad relative to other depictions. It is almost Boschian in the strange creatures that are there. Maybe it is some sort of subterranean eco-system? It is not the usual hellfire. Survivable, maybe?

Next up is Man at a Window by Samuel van Hoogstraten. Hoogstraten, apparently, specialised in trompe l’oeil – translated as “deceive the eye”. So we have a wonderfully painted window in a frame with a man’s head protruding from it. Forgive me, I am not entirely sure what the deception is in the literal reading. However, historically, Jews were not permitted to live in the Leopoldstadt district of Vienna in the 16th Century. The man depicted may well be Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller who achieved permission to live there. The picture has a symbolism associated with looking into the forbidden district?

This being a Low Countries collection there is Rembradt, one of his many self-portraits (I am sure the Habsburgs would have been delighted to have The Nightwatch instead). However, there is this fantastic Vermeer, The Art of Painting. The model is Clio, the muse of history, who inspires and proclaims the art of painting in the old Netherlands. These can be seen on the maps with the provinces prior to their division into North and South.

Left is a picture that looked familiar and indeed it was. This is the work of Hans III. Jordaens entitled the Cabinet of Curiosities. I always feel that I may be developing a bit of cultural capital if I can draw a comparison.

 

There are a couple of depictions of stag  hunts in the collection. Actually, they look more like massacres in terms of scale (Lucas Cranach the  Younger, Stag Hunt of Elector John Hendrick). These are all Court commissions. Frederick of Saxony himself can be seen on the far left with Emperor Charles V. But the scale of the endeavour is troubling.

 

So there we are wandering around and there is a Holbein! Holbein, of course, was Henry VIII’s court painter who famously got sent out to paint potential wives for the King. Sometimes too complementary for the king’s liking. This is his portrait of the elegant Jane Seymoor.

By contrast, Albrecht Dürer portrait of the semi-naked grinning mature woman was unlikely to charm a king. It is unclear what this picture is about as the woman grins with her bag of money. Maybe it is a picture of seduction or avarice. Maybe Dürer’s patron wanted to caricature his then wife, the wealthy Dorothea Landauer? I am a shade confused on this, but whatever the meaning, older people are always more interesting sitters.

One thing I  have learned to do is not to focus always on the central characters. As a form of communication, the whole canvass carries messages, some more interesting than others. For example, Bernaert van Orley’s Alterpiece of St Mattewand Thomas. St. Thomas is being martyred. This involves walking on hot coals, accepting a poisoned chalice and, of course, being thrown in an oven (left). I think I will stick to mortal being-hood.

Finally, a branch of feminism that I was not previously aware of. Otto van Veen’s Persian Women, depicts a scene from Plutarch’s Brave Women (new to me, I have to say). They revealed their nethers to shame the men from fleeing in the face of the enemy. I am not quite sure how that works, but apparently it was a great victory in the end.

 

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