The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw 1939–45 by Władysław Szpilman

Władysław Szpilman was born to Jewish parents in 1911 in Warsaw. When Nazi Germany invaded Poland 28 years later, in August 1939, Szpilman was already an accomplished classical pianist who worked giving live recitals on Warsaw Radio, as well as writing his own compositions.

This memoir was written immediately after the war, in 1945, and describes in mostly flat factual prose Szpilman’s terrible experiences of those years: the German siege of Warsaw, the long occupation, the creation of the Jewish ghetto, the two years he spent in it, how he escaped the deportation of most of the ghetto Jews to death camps, how he went into hiding and survived the terrible month of the ill-fated Warsaw Uprising, and his eventual freedom once the Germans had been driven out of the city by the advancing Red Army.

It moves very fast. Each of these periods is covered in just a few pages, the entire text is barely 180 pages long. He picks out telltale moments, sights he saw, atrocities he witnessed, just enough to paint a scene, to shock you, then moves on.

Szpilman was not a writer by profession or temperament. This is all to the good because it means his account is not weighed down by flowery descriptions or weighty socio-philosophical speculations. He just tells what he saw. If there’s one literary aspect or technique it is the note of bitter irony or sarcasm which regularly surfaces, often when he’s talking about the ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’ of the bestial Germans, their mind-boggling cruelty and sadism, the rubber truncheons the SS lash out with which have razor blades at the end, the  bullwhips with ball bearings embedded in the leather (p.118) or the pervert who made anyone who misbehaved bend over, put their head between his thighs which he proceeded to crush as best he could while whipping their arse, till they fainted with pain (p.121).

The false hopes

It is upsetting to read the false hopes the Warsaw rumour mill generated as the Germans crossed the border into Poland, fought their way towards Warsaw, then besieged the city – early rumours that the Germans were being held and turned back, they were badly equipped, didn’t have enough fuel, later rumours that the French had even now attacked Germany, breached the Siegfried Line, the British were bombing Hamburg, the Americans would come to their aid any day now (p.38). Of course none of this happened. The Poles were utterly on their own.

The siege of Warsaw

A friend is sitting next to him in the bedroom of an apartment is killed by a shell splinter which comes through the window (p.40). He watches a horse and cart driven by an old working class man plod down a street during shelling, the driver pauses at a junction pondering which way to go, sets off down Zelazna Street, seconds later there’s a whizz, a dazzling burst of light, the explosion and when Szpilman can see and focus again, nothing but fragments of wood and red matter splattered all over the street (p.40). Bodies everywhere, a distressing number decapitated. Then it got worse.

Humiliating the Jews

Once the Germans had taken the city and established control, the slow encroachment on human rights. The Jews are made to wear armbands, forbidden from having savings over a minimal amount, all the rest must be deposited in accounts whose details were shared with the authorities. Random Jews are stopped and beaten in the street, or abducted in cars to be taken and beaten at police stations. Szpilman conveys what conventional history, concerned with statistics and ideology, often doesn’t: how Nazism, fascism generally, is a charter for bullies, the crude, bully-boy reality on the streets of drunk German soldiers enjoying their power to stop any Jews they want to, push then up against a wall, terrorise them, slap them, spit in their faces. If they put up a fight pull a gun and force them to their knees. Make them beg for their lives.

This happened to Szpilman. He, his father and brother were late returning from a friend’s apartment, broke the curfew and were caught by a German patrol in Zielmna Street, who pushed them up against a wall. Suddenly Szpilman heard weeping and realised it was his father on his knees begging for his sons’ lives. The German bullyboy asked them what they did for a living and when Szpilman replies ‘musicians’, the German lets them go, yelling after them they’re lucky that he is a musician too (p.53). Othertimes bored Germans might shoot begging Jews on the spot. The utter collapse of civilised behaviour, morality or ‘standards’.

Life of a sort continues. Szpilman earns money for his entire family (mum, dad, brother, two sisters) by playing piano in bars. Spring 1940 comes but no help from Poland’s ‘allies’. Instead in May the Germans suddenly invade Holland, Belgium and then attack France. Once again hopeful rumours spread of the Germans being held and turned back. One day Szpilman is about to begin a recital for friends when his sister runs in holding a newspaper carrying the massive headline PARIS FALLS! He lays his head on the piano and, for the first time his self-control snaps and he burst into tears (p.57).

The ghetto

In September 1940 the first transports carry some Jewish men off for labour camps. Others are deported to Germany as forced labour. Acquaintances are abducted in the street. In September signs go up indicating which streets would become part of the special Jewish quarter (the Germans ‘are too cultured and magnanimous a race’ to use the word ‘ghetto’, p.58). The walls are built. All the Jews of Warsaw are crammed into it – there is fierce competition for living space, legally or illegally acquired – and the gates close on 15 November 1940.

At its height as many as 460,000 Jews were imprisoned there,[6] in an area of 3.4 km2 (1.3 sq mi), with an average of 9.2 persons per room, barely subsisting on meager food rations. (Wikipedia)

Szpilman lived in the Warsaw Ghetto from November 1940 to July 1942 scraping a living playing piano at the handful of bars and restaurants which still managed to operate for the ghetto’s small circle of intelligentsia or better off, such as the Sztuka.

What he found hardest was the nightmare feeling of being shut in, trapped, when – just beyond the walls – the life of the city was going on as usual, ‘ordinary’ people were going to work, then afterwards to bars and cafés or for excursions into the countryside. But not for those in the ghetto. It was the psychological effects Szpilman found hardest.

Compared to the time that followed, these were years of relative calm, but they changed our lives into an endless nightmare, since we felt with our entire being that something dreadful would happen at any moment. (p.64)

Szpilman describes the stink and filth created by cramming hundreds of thousands of people into old, decaying, totally inadequate accommodation; the pathetic street markets and haggling about wretched damaged goods, which degenerated quickly into hordes of beggars clutching at the clothes of anyone decently dressed; the grey police vans taking suspects to Gestapo headquarters to have bones broken, kidneys ruptured, fingernails pulled out. With laconic bitterness, Szpilman describes this as ‘people hunting’, the Germans’ favourite sport.

He remembers the secret socialist organiser he met, confident Jehuda Zyskind who had a secret radio, assembled news reports smuggled in from outside, invited Szpilman round for an ever-cheerful briefing about the news… right up to the day he was caught red-handed by the Gestapo, with political reports all over the table, and was shot dead on the spot, along with his wife and all his children, ‘even little Symche, aged three’ (p.70). God, as Ian Kershaw repeatedly emphasises, Nazi rule represented the utter collapse of civilisation into inhuman barbarism, an unlimited charter for bullies, sadists and psychopaths.

Rumours

continue to circulate, wild conflicting rumours, about some Jews being sent to camps, wild rumours about Jews being gassed, more probable ones about the creation of a set number of ghettos in the major cities. Reading this, you realise – with a shock in my case – what it would really really be like to be very intelligent but to have no news whatever about anything that is going on: to be utterly deprived of every source of information, and so forced back into a teeming world of rumour and speculation.

Even official Nazi edicts didn’t necessarily mean anything, the Jews were initially terrified of them, for example the one forbidding the sale or purchase of bread under pain of death, and only slowly discovered lots of them were meaningless or never observed. While at the same time, anybody could be abducted off the street – ‘people hunting’ – for no reason or just shot out of hand.

He tells the story of the leading non-Jewish surgeon, Dr Raszeja, a leading specialist and university professor, who was called on to perform a difficult operation on the ghetto. German police headquarters had given him permission, he had a pass, he was allowed in, he was in the middle of the operation, when the SS burst into the flat where the operation was being performed, shot the patient on the table, then shot the professor and everyone else present (p.88).

Later, when he’s given work on one of the gangs demolishing the ghetto wall, as the vast majority of the 400,000-plus Jews are sent by train to a death camp (Treblinka), life and death continue to be as random. One day at the checkpoint out of the square where they’d been working a bored SS officer divided the work squad up, half to the left, half to the right. All those on the left had to life face down then the officer walked among them shooting them dead with his revolver. Then he let the ones to the right which, obviously included the narrator, continue on their way (p.114).

It was the psychotic irrationality of it all.

Survival

Szpilman survives, by a string of chances and accidents, the biggest of which is when he is rounded up with his family and sent to the vast open yard by the railway station, the Umschlagplatz, where they wait all day with no food or water in the blistering heat along with 8,000 other Jews, old and young, men and women, for the cattle train to arrive. As it does and the crowd surges forward, Szpilman and hid family among them, a hand grabs him from behind and pulls him out of the line, in fact jerks him through the line of Jewish police who are corralling everyone towards the trucks. A voice hisses, ‘Save yourself’ and he sees his father, looking round, make eye contact, try to smile and wave, and then he runs runs across the yard, through the now-open gates, back into the streets of the ghetto slips into a work squad being marched somewhere, goes on, makes his escape, is spotted by a distant relative, now a Jewish policeman working for the Germans, who pulls him aside and puts him up for the night.

Next day he goes to see the son of the new chairman of the Jewish Council (the previous chairman having committed suicide when he learned about the cattle trucks and death camps). This worthy gets Szpilman a job on a labour squad supposedly demolishing the ghetto walls. Rich people walk by, normal people, Aryans who stop and stare at the funny ‘Jews’. Some musician friends spot him, give him money. He buys black market food to take back into the ghetto proper and sell at a profit.

He’s moved through a series of other labouring jobs, turning into a clumsy useless hid carrier and mortar mixer on a succession of building projects where the Polish workers he works with, to some extent protect him. Just as winter 1942 is coming on, Szpilman twists his ankle carrying a load and is transferred to the stores which probably saved him from losing his fingers to frostbite.

Rumours circulate of another round of deportations but now some of the Jews inside the ghetto, considered vital to building and other work, start smuggling weapons in from the outside. Szpilman is leaving in a group to work when he hears shooting break out behind him. He and the other workers are housed by the Germans in temporary housing. Five days later, when they’re allowed to return they find widespread destruction and dead bodies but, surprisingly, the apartment he shares with a handful of others is in one piece and his few measly possessions.

A handsome young Jew, Majorek, had been allowed to go out to buy food for the inmates, and become a go-between with the broader Jewish resistance. Szpilman asks him to pass word to a couple he knew from the radio, and makes a simple escape plan. One evening at 5pm, as an SS officer arrives to inspect the stores, he takes advantage of the confusion among the German guards, slips out the building, takes off his Jewish armband, and walks through the gate into the city, where he rendezvous with his friend, who leads him hurriedly through the darkened streets, to his and his wife’s flat.

Szpilman is then passed on through a series of safe houses, though things remain dicey. The Germans are planning a census of the city which will involve the inspection of every single home. The friend whose flat he’s ended up in brings him news of the Allied victories in North Africa. Then news of the progress of the Warsaw Uprising, the refusal of the last Jews left in it to go quietly and their insistence on fighting the vastly better armed Germans to the death (19 April to 16 May 1943). Szpilman hears the rifle and artillery fire, sees smoke rising over the city for weeks, but plays no role at all, he is in hiding.

He is moved to another flat by the network of Polish Underground operatives but left in the care of one Szałas who, it turns out, take all his belongings, swearing to exchange them for food, and also cadges contributions from all Szpilman’s musical friends, but keeps the money for himself and only shows up once a fortnight or so with a handful of beans and oatmeal. Slowly Szpilman starves, eventually too get off his couch and comes down with jaundice. It is only the wife of one of his earlier protectors, Helena Lewicka, dropping by for a cup of tea and a catch-up who discovers him at deaths door and so hurries out and back with food.

All through the end of 1943 and spring of 1944 all houses are being watched, the Germans are instituting surprise searches, executing people in the street. Szpilman is moved to the last of his safe flats, in Aleja Niepodleglosci, a neighbourhood full of German administrative buildings and a German hospital. Nonetheless he experiences numerous false alarms as strangers hammer on the door or, on one occasion, a burglar tries to break in.

As 1944 progresses, the Germans’ military setbacks become more apparent. The catastrophic defeat at Stalingrad in February 1943 had been the turn of the tide, and slowly the Red Army advances. In September 1943 Italy surrendered. In June 1944 Helena visits him in the flat to tell him news has come through that the Allies have landed in Normandy.

The Warsaw Rising

1 August – 2 October 1944, a rising by the Polish underground resistance to liberate Warsaw from German occupation. The uprising was timed to coincide with the retreat of the German forces from Poland ahead of the Soviet advance but the Red Army, notoriously, stopped at the city’s outskirts and refused to help. Stalin was quite happy to watch the cream of the Polish resistance being exterminated. the Germans were doing his work for him. Their liquidation would make it easier for Stalin to impose his home-grown communist Polish administration in its place. And so the fighting lasted 63 days, street to street, house to house before the uprising was eventually, finally crushed.

16,000 members of the Polish resistance were killed and about 6,000 badly wounded in the actual fighting, but as many as 200,000 Polish civilians died afterwards, mostly from mass executions. During the fighting approximately 25% of Warsaw’s buildings were destroyed. Following the surrender of Polish forces, German troops systematically levelled another 35% of the city block by block. Added to the damage suffered in the 1939 invasion and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in all over 85% of the city was destroyed by January 1945 when the Germans finally withdrew.

Szpilman gives us a kind of worm’s eye view of all this, trapped in the third floor flat of a friend, padlocked from the outside so as to keep the neighbours under the impression it is empty. Periodically Helena Lewicka’s woman friend appears with provisions. Otherwise he is completely trapped, has to remain silent and figure out what is going on from the street outside, namely some young men arrive with guns, fire at the German hospital, are fought off and then for day after day, all is mystery and confusion, people running up or down the street, lorries of soldiers pulling up and running into nearby buildings, the continual echo of gunfire around the city.

On 12 August Germans megaphone the inhabitants of his building to leave it, a tank fires a few shells into it, troops come running up the stairs, Szpilman grabs the stash of sleeping pills and opium he’s been given to deal with the after-effects of his jaundice (gall bladder problems), planning to swallow it all as the Germans smash down the door of the apartment. But thinks better of it, slips out the door and up the ladder into the attic space, kicks the ladder away. But the soldiers don’t make it up that far, not least because the ground floor is now on fire (p.155). Szpilman drops down from the attic and goes back into the flat but the fire isn’t dying down, it is raging up the stairwell and the smoke is becoming choking. So after five years of surviving in the ghetto, eluding the death camp transports, and hiding in a succession of safe houses, this is how he’s going to die – burned to death. He takes all the sleeping pills and passes out on the sofa.

He awakes. He is alive. The pills weren’t that strong but he is weak and the flat is full of smoke. He opens the red hot doorhandle, jumps over the bloated carbonised corpse on the next landing down and stumbles through the smoke and flames to the ground floor and outside. He hides amid foliage against a wall and hears Germans on the other side.

Clearly the house is about to collapse at any moment. On the other side of Aleja Niepodleglosci is the huge, half-completed hospital which will have stores of some kind. He crawls across the wide avenue, between the corpses, freezing every time Germans go by. Once inside the hospital he searches high and low but can find no food anywhere for days and days, getting weaker, he makes a hideaway in a lumber room and is terrified when the Germans come and search the hospital several times.

Finally he goes back to his burned-out building where he discovers some bathtubs full of rancid water and a few rusks in a half burned larder. Several times Ukrainian soldiers, even more brutal and sadistic than the Germans, search and ransack the building, Szpilman hiding in the burned-out attic. Later he watches the broad avenue lined with Germans as the escort demoralised civilians, marching them out of the city. The guards pull random men out of the bedraggled marchers and shoot them on the spot. Drop by drop Szpilman watches the city’s population leak away.

Autumn comes on, day after day goes by. Looters come into the abandoned city, one even begins climbing the stairs of  Szpilman’s house till  Szpilman roars out in German, terrifying the scrounger away. One day he sees a German patrol capture some looters, question them, put four up against a wall and execute them there and then, tell the others to dig graves, bury them, get out, never come back.

Worse is to come. He bumps into a German soldier in his ruined house but manages to bribe his way out of it by offering a half bottle of spirits he has found. The soldier is back in ten minutes with an NCO but Szpilman climbs up onto the tiles of the roof. The Germans search, fail to find him and leave. Szpilman takes to hiding out on the roof during the day and going down at night to hunt for food. But one day bullets fly overhead. Soldiers on the roof of the hospital opposite are shooting at him (p.172). He climbs in off the roof, scarpers down the stairs, out a back way, along a deserted street and into another ruined building.

There’s another encounter when he sees a crew of Poles walking down the street and rushes out to talk to someone, to hear someone’s voice, but realises something is wrong. He makes his excuses and deliberately lets them see him going into a completely different house. Sure enough 15 minutes later their leader is back with German soldiers who search the fake house and all its neighbours but don’t find him (p.175).

Finally, a few days later, he is foraging in one of the rooms of the ‘new’ house when he hears a German voice addressing him. Weak and at the end of his rope, Szpilman slumps down and gives up. But, to his amazement, the German is sympathetic. He asks what Szpilman does and when he replies ‘pianist takes him through the wrecked rooms to a music room with a piano and asks him to play. Szpilman plays Chopin’s Nocturne in C sharp minor and that is the title of the 18th and final chapter in the book.

To his amazement the officer warns him that the Warsaw fortress unit is about to move into the building. He helps him find a much better hiding place in a kind of loft hidden above the attic and returns a few days later with a package containing bread and jam, undreamed of luxuries for Szpilman (p.179).

The German tells him the Red Army is on the other side of the Vistula and order, orders him to hold out. He explains his shame at being German. He is, Szpilman writes, the only human being Szpilman met wearing a German uniform. Szpilman is trapped in his loft as the building really is taken over by an administrative unit of the army but he stays safe in his hidey hole. On 12 December the officer slips up to the attic to see him for the last time and tells him the Red Army is at the gates, the Germans are pulling out. They shake hands. On impulse Szpilman tells him his name and to get in touch if he ever needs him (p.181).

The Germans do indeed pull out. Szpilman is left in the empty unheated house in the depth of a Polish winter. He has to thaw ice against his body to get drinking water. Rats run over his face at night. He is lonelier that Robinson Crusoe, the sole inhabitant of an abandoned city.

Then he hears voices, women’s voices! He rushes downstairs and a terrified woman shouts ‘German’ and soldiers turn and fire a machine gun burst at him. Of course, he’s wearing the German greatcoat the German gave him! He throws it off and yells in Polish that he’s Polish. Eventually they believe him, take him to a hospital. Wash. Rest. Food. Above all – freedom from fear.

Two weeks later he is strong enough to go for a walk and explore the incomprehensible ruins of Warsaw, once one of the most elegant and well-off cities of Europe, a city of one and a half million people, now a vast panorama of snow-covered ruins.


In this 1998 edition there are three addenda to the main, original text, which all shed a lot more light on the German officer who appeared right at the end of the story and probably saved Szpilman’s life.

Postscript

Just two weeks later Szpilman is visited by a colleague from Polish Radio, Zygmunt Lednicki. Immediately after the war ended Lednicki had made his way back to his home town, Warsaw, on foot (there was no transport of any kind. En route he passed a camp full of German prisoners of war, behind a barbed wire fence patrolled by Red Army guards. Lednicki couldn’t resist going over and shouting at the Germans, pointing out that they claimed to be a nation of culture and yet they had ruined Poland and ruined him, a musician, taking away his violin and destroying his livelihood. A feverish German officer pushes through the crowd at the wire and asks Lednicki if he knows a pianist named Szpilman. Yes, replies Lednicki. ‘I looked after him, I saved him’, says the German, ‘Please get him to come and rescue me from this hellhole’.

But by the time Lednicki meets Szpilman and tells him this story it is too late. They travel back to the POW camp but it has gone, its new whereabouts a military secret. Szpilman had deliberately never asked the German officer his name in case he was caught and gave it away under torture, so now he doesn’t know how to track him down, and so it remained a regret for several years, until…

Afterword by Wolf Biermann

The 1998 German edition contained an afterword by Wolf Bierman. According to a brief biographical note Bierman is ‘one of Germany’s best-known poets, song-writers and essayists’. He was born in Hamburg, his father was a shipworker, a communist and a Jew who was murdered in Auschwitz. After the war Bierman headed East, deliberately wanting to live in the new communist regime, but he became critical of it, the regime banned his works in 1965, and in 1975 expelled him to the West.

The point of this afterword is for Bierman to tell us more about the German officer, a lot more. A series of accidents led to him being identified as Captain Wilm Hosenfeld. We learn that he served in the First World War and then worked as a teacher. His grown-up children testify to his way with kids. But Biermann adduces testimony from other eye-witnesses including several other adult Polish Jews who Biermann saved from certain death. It builds up into an impressive testimonial.

Not only this, but it was discovered that Hosenfeld was still alive and in a prisoner of war camp in Russia for seven years after the war. His wife was receiving letters from him, in one of which he lists the Poles and Jews he saved in Poland and included Szpilman on the list. Hosenfeld’s wife contacted Szpilman. Szpilman went to meet her in Germany, then returned to Poland and lobbied the head of the Polish security service, ‘a bastard’, who went off and carried out further investigations before summoning Szpilman to tell him said there was little he could do. If Hosenfeld had been in Poland, fine, but he is now in the Soviet Union, in the gulag system somewhere, and so…

So his family continue to get scattered news about him and then, seven years after the end of the war, learn that Hosenfeld died of injuries and beatings in a Soviet gulag.

Part of a memoir by Wilm Hosenfeld

Before the end of the war Hosenfeld had sent his wife two secret diaries in which he recorded his private thoughts, which were contemptuous and dismissive of the entire National Socialist regime. This edition contains 15 pages of these diary entries.

Conclusion

On the whole, I wish none of these appendices were in the book. They very considerably interfere with its original narrative arc, which hurtles with ever-growing speed and tension towards the bleak final vision of recovered Szpilman staggering through the ruins of his home town – and with its purity of tone. It is a straightforward factual account of what one man saw and experienced.

Then you turn a page and suddenly it turns into an Amnesty International appeal for the release of a Soviet prisoner, something completely different, a different subject (Stalinist terror, the gulags) from a different era (the Cold War), and the record of another man’s life and opinions.

Its worst impact is to undermine or dilute the burning anger, the horror and the disgust which I think any normal reader is very, very justified feeling against the Germans as a people and a nation.

The movie

As you might know, the book was made into a major motion picture, The Pianist, released in 2002, produced and directed by Roman Polanski, with a script by Ronald Harwood, and starring Adrien Brody.

It won a whole slew of awards, including the Palme d’Or at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, Oscars for Best Director (Polanski), Best Adapted Screenplay (Harwood), and Best Actor (Brody), the 2003 BAFTAs for Best Film and Best Direction, and seven French Césars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It is an awesome, harrowing film, which rearranges and simplifies some of the sequences, but for the most part is accurate in events and certainly in spirit to Szpilman’s terrifying account.

Credit

The book has a slightly tangled history. It was first published in Polish in 1946 as Śmierć Miasta. Pamiętniki Władysława Szpilmana 1939–1945 (Death of a City: Memoirs of Władysław Szpilman 1939–1945), edited by Jerzy Waldorff, a Polish music critic and friend of Szpilman’s, but this text was quickly quashed by the Soviet-controlled authorities.

Over 40 years later, a German translation by Karin Wolff appeared in 1998, Das wunderbare Überleben: Warschauer Erinnerungen (The Miraculous Survival: Warsaw Memories). The following year this his German version appeared in an English translation by Anthea Bell, titled The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939–45.

All references are to the 2002 Phoenix paperback version of the Bell translation.


Holocaust reviews

Rogier van der Weyden by Stephan Kemperdick (2013)

‘The most influential painter of the 15th century’ (p.6)

The Northern Renaissance

When I went around the Renaissance wing at the National Gallery in London I found myself drawn again and again to works by the Netherlands and Flemish masters from the so-called ‘Northern Renaissance’ – in particular, Robert Campin (A man and a woman, 1430), Jan van Eyck (The Arnolfini portrait, 1434) and Rogier van der Weyden (The Magdalen Reading, before 1438). There’s something magical about the 1430s and 1440s…

For in 1400 Netherlandish art still shared the late medieval International Style, but in the first third of that century a new school of art arose, led by van Eyck and van der Weyden, which introduced:

  • light and shade used to give people and objects three-dimensionality
  • individualised modelling of faces
  • realistically depicted interiors
  • extensive landscapes in the background extending into the distance

Campin is a shadowy figure, whose name appears in the documentary record and who, only after a lot of research, has been identified by modern scholars with the master of Flemelle. Van Eyck made the sensible career move of signing all his paintings, thus guaranteeing his identity as their creator.

So for centuries after their deaths Van Eyck was seen as the founding father, and many paintings now attributed to others were credited to him. Only in recent generations have Campin and van der Weyden emerged as credible artists in their own right. For both we are only certain of a relatively small number of core works which can definitely be attributed to them – followed by a larger number of works which may be by them or from their workshops – and then an outer nimbus of works which may be by followers, or not connected at all. All these decisions are liable to potentially endless scholarly debate.

Despite controversy at the edges, the core assertion is secure – that these three artists were responsible for introducing a revolutionary new spirit of realism into northern painting, an approach which went on to flower in the next generation of Netherlandish painters – notably Hans Memling (b.1440) and Hugo van der Goes (b.1440).

Given the longevity of Van Eyck’s authentication and fame it’s no surprise that there are scores of books about him. There don’t appear to be any in print about the shadowy figure of Campin, and only one I could find about van der Weyden.

The book

The book is 140 pages long, printed on glossy paper which brings out the best in the 130 or so glorious full-colour images. There are also ten or so black-and-white reproductions of cartoons and sketches, along with a one-page chronology of Rogier and a handy three-page glossary of terms.

The text goes chronologically through what is known of Rogier’s career, with a final chapter on his reputation and influence. But this narrative is interrupted by 2- or 3-page ‘insets’ on related topics e.g. a useful background on the kingdom of Burgundy, one on how an artist’s workshop of the time functioned, on contemporary manuscript illumination and tapestries, and so on.

It was written and published in German and was translated by Anthea Bell OBE, a prolific translator from French and German who is probably most famous for her translation of the 35 Asterix books.

Rogier van der Weyden

Rogier was born in 1399 or 1400 in French-speaking Tournai in northern France. From 1427 to 1432 there is documentary evidence that he worked as an apprentice in the workshop of master painter Robert Campin. Having ‘graduated’, Rogier moved to Brussels, where he lived and worked till the end of his life in 1464. There are enough scattered mentions of him in old records to be able to sketch out his life story: the birth of a son in 1437; the purchase of a house in 1444; an Italian writer records seeing the Deposition in Ferrara in 1449; the philosopher Nicolas of Cusa mentions seeing Rogier’s (now lost) Scenes of Justice in Brussels and calls him ‘the greatest of painters; the Italian humanist Bartolomeo Fazio mentions that Rogier travelled to Rome in the Jubilee year of 1450; there’s records of a legal dispute with the Italian painter Zanetto Bugatto in 1461; in 1462 he becomes a member of a religious order in Brussels, and lends money to a local monastery; and we know that he died on 18 June 1464 and is buried in the church of St Gudule.

More biographical information than for many medieval figures, and enough to begin to sketch out a chronology of his works. We know that he was prosperous (from his donations to religious houses), eminent (the dispute with Bugatto was settled by the Dauphin i.e. heir apparent to the throne of France, no less), and famous – a number of Italian historians refer to him, works were commissioned from him by the Medici family, and by the king of Spain.

The Deposition

The earliest work we can definitely identify is also his greatest, his most copied and most influential – the Deposition or Descent from the cross.

The Descent from the Cross (or Deposition of Christ) by Rogier van der Weyden created (c. 1435)

The Descent from the Cross (or Deposition of Christ) by Rogier van der Weyden created (c. 1435)

The ten figures are placed in a shallow box as of a niche in a church. The background is covered with gold leaf. It is a masterpiece because of the flow or rhythm of the composition, with the two groups of three one either side of the cross, subtly reflecting each other, for the way the Virgin Mary’s swooning body echoes Christ’s body – and for the stunning detail of their hands, almost touching, hers white and pure, his hideously mutilated. For the sumptuous detail of the clothes, for example the gorgeous pattern of gold brocade on Nicodemus’s fur-lined gown and – my personal favourite, the high, tight belt around the vertically ribbed green dress of Mary Salome (if that’s who she is). It’s hard to see in this reproduction but the tears were important and influential, capturing the real grief of the mourners. The combination of the strange Gothic box setting, the foreshortening of the space and the gorgeousness of detail set it apart from Italian renaissance painting.

Scholarly tone

As you read on, you realise this is quite a scholarly work, which goes into considerable detailed discussion of every aspect of Rogier’s work, including a comprehensive review of the evidence for and against the attribution of each of the 70 or so works it discusses. Since none of these attributions are straightforward, and often involve assessing the reliability of 18th or 19th century copies of archives which were themselves written a century after the events they record and which frequently contain palpable errors of chronology, names and attributions – well, it means the text can get quite heavy-going.

Kemperdick also explains modern scientific methods which are applied to medieval paintings, namely:

  • dendrochronology – since almost all these works were painted on wood (almost always oak wood, generally imported from the Baltic) it is possible to date individual works by counting the number of annual growth rings on the planks – although it turns out to be a little more complicated than that.
  • infrared reflectography – this process pings infrared rays through the work and records the images which bounce back. These black and white images allow scholars (and us, since Kemperdick includes reflectographs of some of the key paintings) to see the underdrawings for each piece, and – if you’re lucky – also to show how the artist changes and adapts the composition during its creation.

The techniques are interesting but the results are of limited interest (e.g. at some point the forefinger of John the Baptist was changed from pointing to heaven to pointing towards the Christ child; there was originally going to be a wall at the back of the Miraflores Tryptich – but it was changed to open landscape in the final version). In fact the results of both these techniques don’t really add anything to our appreciation of the work; they are used mostly to add into the extraordinarily dense web of discussion of the relative styles, attribution, provenance, dating and possible authorship of the rather confusing array of works by Rogier, his workshop, or by other contemporary and generally anonymous artists. As the text progresses this involves increasing numbers of comparisons between details of different pictures. (The angular folds of the Virgin in figure 53 are reminiscent of the so-and-so altarpiece in figure 11, but the change in hand position suggests the influence of the later work shown in figure 85, although recent dendrochronology evidence pushes both of them back before the latest possible date of composition as suggested by the 18th century copy of the original archive record of the commission of the painting from the Monastery of such and such. And so on.)

Stunning pictures

For students and fellow scholars this is important stuff, but as an amateur fan I found myself drifting away from the text to just luxuriate in the wonderful images on display, flicking over the pages to discover another treasure to absorb yourself in. And not necessarily sticking to Rogier, though he is the subject of the book; there are plenty of works by other contemporaries, reproduced here in excellent high quality colour illustrations.

For example, I find the painting of St Veronica displaying the veil on which Christ’s face was miraculously imprinted – nowadays attributed to Robert Campin – frankly astonishing. The characterisation of the face and the gorgeous orange background bring early John Everett Millais to mind (for example, the famous Lorenzo and Isabella of 1849). It is hard to believe it is from the early 15th century, 400 years earlier.

Saint Veronica Displaying the Sudarium (c.1430) by Robert Campin

Saint Veronica Displaying the Sudarium (c.1430) by Robert Campin

Van der Weyden’s largest work is the Beaune Altarpiece, which shows a vivid and striking depiction of the Last Judgement.

The Wikipedia article gives a comprehensive account of the altarpiece’s genesis and meaning – and is a good example of the way these artefacts are not just works of art but important exemplars of social history. For me the two most striking elements are the oval-faced archangel St Michael balancing the scales of Justice directly under the Judging Christ.

Jesus Christ and the Archangel Michael in judgement by Rogier van der Weyden

Jesus Christ and the Archangel Michael in judgement by Rogier van der Weyden

But also the amazing spectacle of the buried dead burrowing themselves up out of the ground like worms. Normally in Day of Judgement scenes we see coffins opening; but here the dead are like moles erupting directly out of the soil. For me medieval and northern art often has this weird, unexpected, half-mad quality – think of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516). Similarly, the really horrified look of the naked people being dragged (by their hair in one case) down into the burning pits of hell.

Learnings

  • Archivolt -the moulding or band around the inside of an arch. In many of the altarpieces the figures are framed by a Gothic arch and inside the archivolt are depicted scenes from the life of Christ which relate to the scene depicted in the main image.
  • Dendrochronology
  • Infrared reflectology
  • Most of the Netherlands was, at this period, part of the Duchy of Burgundy, and the Duke of Burgundy who ruled during this period was Duke Philip the Good, who had a long reign from 1419 to 1467. He commissioned altarpieces, portraits and illuminated manuscripts from Rogier and his workshop.
  • Grisaille – a painting executed entirely in shades of grey or another neutral colour, such as brown. Mostly used to duplicate the effect of sculpture e.g. the statues in the bottom two central panels of van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (when closed) or this image of St Lawrence, on the reverse side of a full-colour portrait of Jean de Froimont.
  • Halos – towards the end of the book I noticed that all the holy figures in contemporary Italian paintings have big round solid halos, which emphasise the hieratic staginess of the figures e.g. The Entombment of Christ by Fra Angelico (c. 1440), whereas there are few if any haloes in the northern paintings and then they are either transparent or bursts of golden rays, for example it’s quite hard to see the golden rays emanating from the head of the Virgin at the centre of the St Columba Altarpiece (c.1455).
  • Medieval painters whose names we don’t know are often named ‘the master of x’ where x is a particular work with a distinctive style. For centuries scholars referred to ‘the master of Flémalle’ after three painted panels, now in Frankfurt, said to have come from a monastery in Flémalle. Controversy has raged for over a century as to whether the master of Flémalle is one and the same as the Robert Campin who we know ran a workshop in Tournai, modern Belgium. Nowadays most scholars think they are one and the same.
  • Tears – there is evidence that Italian nobles, who commissioned works from Rogier, particularly valued the realism of the tears he gave to Christ’s followers:
  • Tryptich (i.e. three-part) altars fold out. The two side wings are hinged so the tryptich can be ‘closed’ or ‘opened’ to reveal the gorgeous colours of the interior. They were usually closed and only opened on special Holy Days. The outside of the closeable doors were also painted – but generally in drabber colours – and often with portraits of the donors who commissioned the work. For example, the relatively drab but beautifully modelled exterior of the Beaune Altarpiece features portraits of Nicolas Rolin, the powerful Chancellor to Philip the Good, and his wife. Roline was in fact portrayed several times by both Rogier and Jan van Eyck. A tough and powerful man, and van Eyck captures that wonderfully.

In later generations Rogier was venerated for the delicacy and artfulness of his compositions, along with the ability to convey the intense emotion and anguish of the characters in the Passion (all those weeping Marys). But I love the beauty, the calmness, the delicacy, and the quiet intimacy of the best of his portraits. Nearly 600 years later his people still live and breathe.

Portrait of a young woman (c.1435) by Rogier van der Weyden

Portrait of a young woman (c.1435) by Rogier van der Weyden

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