The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

It is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other, some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together works across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure was covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the classic locus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of subjects like Christ being scourged or crucified and a number of Last Judgments with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The fall of the damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the way the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to eat and torture. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was an established intellectual school by the early 1500s.

Initially it focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of classical mythology. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or tried to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. This little drawing is among the most ravishing works int he exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ don’t appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, whereas some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of bare human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

However, blunt Anglo-Saxon words like ‘sex’ are, apparently, banned. If you are an art scholar you are only allowed to use the word ‘desire’ (and preferably ‘same-sex desire’ because that is the only permissible form of male sexuality, since it is not targeted at women but at other men).

Straightforward male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Any way in which a man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but absolutely all of them are banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history.

I don’t even really disagree with them as ideas, it’s just the sheer tedium of having them crop up in every art exhibition, and above all, the way the repetitive use of a handful of ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters of the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich lover? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and the show-off depiction oft he red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made as copies of newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and often rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artist’s workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion of Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy, in this case of a man’s shoulder.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated.

The founding motif in this subject is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with the spear, and there is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. Not the blood streaming from his multiple wounds, but the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on sex and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s sexuality and/or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives. The universal artspeak use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and the whippings which I had, by this stage, seen and were crystallised by this image, which prompted me to disagree with the curators’ interpretations

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the way the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned even into this unlikely context.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

This is, in my opinion, to be so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one, is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed.

Number two, the nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. In fact the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is is just a cooked animal or something worse? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of closing down investigation and analysis in a welter of tired clichés, rather than furthering it.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them is a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Northern painter Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons and accurate musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – for me – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming… I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity – they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography – the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross echoed in the almost-nudity of countless saints who are depicted being tortured to death.

They discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (presumably beloved by the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches supposedly exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story or key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity or incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age, or celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400-1530.

The reverse: the exhibition suggests that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and meanings which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their patrons and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • One of the medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress to reveal her thighs.
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between nudity and various forms of dress and bodily covering pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and the notion that this era saw the Rise of the Daring Naughty Naked Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world of genuine delicacy and innocence. Surprisingly, maybe, this late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition, by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, surprisingly, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way he shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in the books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists workshops, the kind of thing you find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker.

I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919 – 1933 @ Tate Modern

This exhibition opened last summer and was timed to coincide with the centenary of the end of the Great War (November 1918) and to complement the Aftermath: Art in the Wake of World War One exhibition at Tate Britain.

It consists of five rooms at Tate Modern which are hung with a glorious selection of the grotesque, horrifying, deformed and satirical images created by German artists during the hectic years of the Weimar Republic, which rose from the ashes of Germany’s defeat in the Great War, staggered through a series of crises (including when the French reoccupied the Rhineland industrial region in 1923 in response to Germany falling behind in its reparations, leading to complete economic collapse and the famous hyper-inflation when people carried vast piles of banknotes around in wheelbarrows), was stabilised by American loans in 1924, and then enjoyed five years of relative prosperity until the Wall Street crash of 1929 ushered in three years of mounting unemployment and street violence, which eventually helped bring Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party to power in January 1933, and fifteen years of hectic experimentation in all the arts ground to a halt.

The exhibition consists of around seventy paintings, drawings and prints, plus some books of contemporary photography. The core of the exhibition consists of pieces on loan from the George Economou Collection, a weird and wonderful cross-section of art from the period, some of which have never been seen in the UK before.

Moon Women (1930) by Otto Rudolf Schatz © Tate

The exhibition has many surprises. For sure there are the images of crippled beggars in the street and pig-faced rich people in restaurants – images made familiar by the savage satire of Otto Dix (1891-1969) and George Grosz (1893-1959). And there are paintings of cabaret clubs and performers, including the obligatory transexuals, cross-dressers, lesbians and other ‘transgressive’ types so beloved of art curators (a display case features a photo of ‘the Chinese female impersonator Mei Lanfang dressed as a Chinese goddess… alongside American Barbette.’)

But a lot less expected was the room devoted to religious painting in the Weimar Republic, which showed half a dozen big paintings by artists who struggled to express Christian iconography for a modern, dislocated age.

And the biggest room of all contains quite a few utterly ‘straight’ portraits of respectable looking people with all their clothes on done in a modern realistic style, alongside equally realistic depictions of houses and streetscapes.

The Great War

The First World War changed everything. In Germany, the intense spirituality of pre-war Expressionism no longer seem relevant and painting moved towards realism of various types. This tendency towards realism, sometimes tinged with other elements – namely the grotesque and the satirical – prompted the art critic Franz Roh (1890-1965) to coin the expression ‘Magical Realism’ in 1925.

Magical Realism

Roh identified two distinct approaches in contemporary German art. On the one hand were ‘classical’ artists inclined towards recording everyday life through precise observation. An example is the painting of the acrobat Schulz by Albert Birkle (1900-1986). It epitomises several elements of magical realism, namely the almost caricature-like focus on clarity of line and definition, the realist interest in surface details, but also the underlying sense of the weird or strange (apparently, Schulz was famous for being able to pull all kinds of funny faces).

The Acrobat Schulz V (1921) by Albert Birkle. The George Economou Collection © DACS London, 2018

Roh distinguished the ‘classicists’ from another group he called the ‘verists’, who employed distorted and sometimes grotesque versions of representational art to address all kinds of social inequality and injustice.

Other critics were later to use the phrase New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) to refer to the same broad trend towards an underlying figurativeness.

Classicists and Verists

The exhibition gives plenty of examples of the striking contrast between the smooth, finished realism of the ‘classicists’ and the scratchy, harsh caricatures of the ‘verists’.

The first room is dominated by a series of drawings by the arch-satirists George Grosz and Otto Dix, the most vivid of which is the hectic red of Suicide, featuring the obligatory half-dressed prostitute and her despicable bourgeois client looking out onto a twisted, angular street where the eye is drawn to the figure sprawled in the centre (is it a blind person who has tripped over, or been run over?) so that it’s easy to miss the body hanging from a street lamp on the left which, presumably, gives the work its title.

You can, perhaps, detect from the painting that Grosz had had a complete nervous breakdown as a result of his experiences on the Western Front.

Suicide (1916) by George Grosz © Tate

Room one – The Circus

For some reason the circus attracted a variety of artists, maybe because it was an arena of fantasy and imagination, maybe because the performers were, by their nature, physically fit specimens (compared to the streets full of blind, halt, lame beggars maimed by the war), maybe because of its innocent fun.

Not that there’s anything innocent or fun about the ten or so Otto Dix prints on the subject on show here, with their rich array of distortions, contortion, crudeness and people who are half-performer, half-beast.

Lion-Tamer (1922) by Otto Dix © Victoria and Albert Museum

Room two – From the visible to the invisible

This phrase, ‘from the visible to the invisible’, is taken from a letter in which the artist Max Beckmann (1884-1950) expressed his wish to depict the ‘idea’ which is hiding behind ‘reality’.

This sounds surprisingly like the kind of wishy-washy thing the Expressionists wrote about in 1905 or 1910, and the room contains some enormous garish oil paintings, one by Harry Heinrich Deierling which caught my eye. This is not at all what you associate with Weimar, cabaret and decadence. This work seemed to me to hark back more to Franz Marc and the bold, bright simplifications of Der Blaue Reiter school. And its rural setting brings out, by contrast, just how urban nearly all the other works on display are.

The Gardener (1920) by Harry Heinrich Deierling © Tate

A bit more like the Weimar culture satire and suicide which we’re familiar with was a work like The Artist with Two Hanged Women by Rudolf Schlichter (1890-1955), a half-finished drawing in watercolour and graphite depicting, well, two hanged women. Note how the most care and attention has been lavished on the dead women’s lace-up boots. Ah, leather – fetishism – death.

The Artist with Two Hanged Women (1924) by Rudolf Schlichter © Tate

Indeed dead women, and killing women, was a major theme of Weimar artists, so much so that it acquired a name of its own, Lustmord or sex murder.

The wall label points out that anti-hero of Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz has just been released from prison after murdering a prostitute. The heroine of G. W. Pabst’s black-and-white silent movie Pandora’s Box ends up being murdered (by Jack the Ripper). But you don’t need to go to other media to find stories of femicide. The art of the verists – the brutal satirists – is full of it.

Lustmord (1922) by Otto Dix © Tate

The label suggests that all these images of women raped, stabbed and eviscerated were a reaction to ‘the emancipation of women’ which took place after the war.

This seems to me an altogether too shallow interpretation, as if these images were polite petitions or editorials in a conservative newspaper. Whereas they seem to me more like the most violent, disgusting images the artists could find to express their despair at the complete and utter collapse of all humane and civilised values brought about by the war.

The way women are bought, fucked and then brutally stabbed to death, their bodies ripped open in image after image, seems to me a deliberate spitting in the face of everything genteel, restrained and civilised about the Victorian and Edwardian society which had led an entire generation of young men into the holocaust of the trenches. Above all these images are angry, burning with anger, and I don’t think it’s at women getting the vote, I think it’s at the entire fabric of so-called civilised society which had been exposed as a brutal sham.

Room three – On the street and in the studio

The hyper-inflation crisis of 1923 was stabilised by the implementation of the Dawes Plan in 1924, under which America lent Germany the money which it then paid to France as reparations for the cost of the war. For the next five years Germany enjoyed a golden period of relative prosperity, becoming widely known for its liberal (sexual) values and artistic creativity, not only in art but also photography, design and architecture (the Bauhaus).

The exhibition features a couple of display cases which show picture annuals from the time, such as Das Deutsches Lichtbild. The photo album was a popular format which collected together wonderful examples of the new, avant-garde, constructivist-style b&w photos of the time into a lavish and collectible book format.

And – despite pictures Deierling’s Gardener – it was an overwhelmingly urban culture. Berlin’s population doubled between 1910 and 1920, the bustling streets of four million people juxtaposing well-heeled bourgeoisie and legless beggars, perfumed aristocrats and raddled whores.

But alongside the famously scabrous images of satirists like Grosz and Dix, plenty of artists were attracted by the new look and feel of densely populated streets, and this room contains quite a few depictions of towns and cities, in a range of styles, from visionary to strictly realistic.

And of course there was always money to be made supplying the comfortably off with flattering portraits, and this room contains a selection of surprisingly staid and traditional portraits.

Portrait of a Lady on the Pont des Arts (1935) by Werner Schramm © Tate

This is the kind of thing Roh had in mind when he wrote about the ‘classicists’, highlighting the tendency among many painters of the time towards minute attention to detail, and the complete, smooth finishing of the oil.

Room four – the cabaret

Early 20th century cabaret was quite unlike the music halls which had dominated popular entertainment at the end of the 19th. Music hall catered to a large working class audience, emphasising spectacle and massed ranks of dancers or loud popular comedians. Cabaret, by contrast, took place in much smaller venues, often catering to expensive or elite audiences, providing knowingly ‘sophisticated’ performers designed to tickle the taste buds of their well-heeled clientele. The entertainment was more intimate, direct and often intellectual, mixing smart cocktail songs with deliberately ‘decadent’ displays of semi-naked women or cross-dressing men.

In fact there are, ironically, no paintings of an actual cabaret in the cabaret room, which seems a bit odd. The nearest thing we get is a big painting of the recently deceased Eric Satie (d.1925) in what might be a nightclub.

Erik Satie – The Prelude (1925) by Prosper de Troyer © Tate

There are the picture books I mentioned above, featuring some famous cross-dressers of the time. And – what caught my eye most – a series of large cartoony illustrations of 1. two painted ladies 2. a woman at a shooting stall of a fair offering a gun to a customer 3. and a group of bored women standing in the doorway of a brothel.

These latter are the best things in the room and one of the highlights of the entire exhibition. Even though I recently read several books about Weimar art, I had never heard of Jeanne Mammen. Born in 1890, ‘her work is associated with the New Objectivity and Symbolism movements. She is best known for her depictions of strong, sensual women and Berlin city life.’ (Wikipedia) During the 1920s she contributed to fashion magazines and satirical journals and the wall label claims that:

Her observations of Berlin and its female inhabitants differ significantly from her male contemporaries. Her images give visual expression to female desire and to women’s experiences of city life.

Maybe. What I immediately responded to was the crispness and clarity of her cartoon style, closely related to George Grosz in its expressive use of line but nonetheless immediately distinctive. A quick surf of the internet shows that the three works on display here don’t really convey the distinctiveness of her feminine perspective as much as the wall label claims. I’m going to have to find out much more about her. She’s great.

At the Shooting Gallery (1929) by Jeanne Mammen. The George Economou Collection © DACS London, 2018

Room five – faith and magic

In some ways it’s surprising that Christianity survived the First World War at all, until you grasp that its main purpose is to help people make sense of and survive tragedies and disasters. Once, years ago, I made a television programme about belief and atheism. One of the main themes which emerged was that all the atheists who poured scorn on religious belief had led charmed, middle-class lives which gave them the unconscious confidence that they could abolish the monarchy, have a revolution and ban Christianity because they knew that nothing much would change in their confident, affluent, well-educated lives.

Whereas the Christians I spoke to had almost all undergone real suffering – one whose mother had been raped by her step-father, another who had lost a brother to cancer – one way or anoyther they had had to cope with real pain in their lives. And their Christian faith wasn’t destroyed by these experiences; it was made stronger. Or (to be cynical) their need for faith had been made stronger.

The highlights of this final room were two sets of large religious paintings by Albert Birkle and Herbert Gurschener.

From 1918 to 1919 there was an exhibition of Matthias Grunwald’s Isenheim altarpiece (1512) in Munich and this inspired Albert Birkle to tackle this most-traditional of Western subjects, but filtered through the harsh, cartoon-like grotesqueness of a Weimar sensibility. He was only 21 when he painted his version of the crucifixion and still fresh from the horrors of the Western Front. Is there actually any redemption at all going on in this picture, or is it just a scene of grotesque torture? You decide.

The Crucifixion (1921) by Albert Birkle © Tate

Herbert Gurschener (1901-75) took his inspiration from the Italian Renaissance in paintings like the Triumph of Death, Lazarus (The Workers) and Annuciation. His Annunciation contains all the traditional traditional religious symbolism, down to the stalk of white lilies, along with a form of post-Renaissance perspective. And yet is very obviously refracted through an entirely 20th century sensibility.

The Annunciation (1930) by Herbert Gurschner © Tate

Thoughts

There is more variety in this exhibition than I’ve indicated. There are many more ‘traditional’ portraits in all of the rooms, plus a variety of townscapes which vary from grim depictions of urban slums brooding beneath factory chimneys to genuinely magical, fantasy-like depictions of brightly coloured fairy streets.

There is more strangeness and quirkiness than I’d expected, more little gems which are not easy to categorise but which hold the eye. It’s worth registering the loud, crude angry satire of Grosz and Dix, but then going back round to appreciate the subtler virtues of many of the quieter pictures, as well as the inclusions of works by ‘outriders’ like Chagall and de Chirico who were neither German nor painting during the post-war period. Little gems and surprises.

And the whole thing is FREE. Go see it before it closes in July.

Full list of paintings

This is a list of most of the paintings in the exhibition, though I don’t think it’s quite complete. Anyway, I give it here in case you want to look up more examples of each artist’s works.

Introduction

  • Marc Chagall, The Green Donkey, 1911
  • Giorgio de Chirico, The Duo, 1914
  • Otto Dix, Portrait of Bruno Alexander Roscher, 1915
  • George Grosz, Suicide, 1916
  • Heinrich Maria Davringhausen, The Poet Däubler, 1917
  • Carlo Mense, Self Portrait, 1918
  • Heinrich Campendonk, The Rider II, 1919
  • Henry Heinrich Dierling, The Gardner, 1920
  • Max Beckman, Frau Ullstein (Portrait of a Woman), 1920
  • Otto Dix Beautiful Mally! 1920
  • Otto Dix Circus Scene (Riding Act) 1920
  • Otto Dix Zirkus, 1922
  • Otto Dix Performers 1922
  • Paul Klee They’re Biting 1920, Comedy 1921
  • Albert Birkle The Acrobat Schulz V, 1921
  • George Grosz Drawing for ‘The Mirror of the Bourgeoisie’ 1925
  • George Grosz Self-Portrait with Model in the Studio 1930-7
  • George Grosz A Married Couple 1930

From the visible to the invisible

  • Otto Dix Butcher Shop 1920
  • Otto Dix Billiard Players 1920
  • Otto Dix Sailor and Girl 1920
  • Otto Dix Lust Murderer 1920
  • Otto Dix Lust Murderer 1922
  • Rudolf Schlichter The Artist with Two Hanged Women 1924
  • Christian Schad Prof Holzmeister 1926

The Street and the Studio

  • Richard Biringer, Krupp Works, Engers am Rheim, 1925
  • Albert Birkle, Passou, 1925
  • Rudolf Dischinger, Backyard Balcony, 1935
  • Conrad Felix Műller, Portrait of Ernst Buchholz, 1921
  • Conrad Felix Műller, The Beggar of Prachatice, 1924
  • Carl Grossberg, Rokin Street, Amsterdam, 1925
  • Hans Grundig, Girl with Pink Hat, 1925
  • Herbert Gurschner, Japanese Lady, 1932
  • Herbert Gurschner, Bean Ingram, 1928
  • Karl Otto Hy, Anna, 1932
  • August Heitmüller, Self-Portrait, 1926
  • Alexander Kanoldt, Monstery Chapel of Säben, 1920
  • Josef Mangold, Flower Still Life with Playing Card, undated
  • Nicolai Wassilief, Interior, 1923
  • Carlo Mense, Portrait of Don Domenico, 1924
  • Richard Müller, At the Studio, 1926
  • Franz Radziwill, Conversation about a Paragraph, 1929
  • Otto Rudolf Schatz, Moon Women, 1930
  • Rudolf Schlichter, Lady with Red Scarf, 1933
  • Marie-Louise von Motesicky, Portrait of a Russian Student, 1927
  • Josef Scharl, Conference/The Group, 1927
  • Werner Schramm, Portrait of a Lady in front of the Pont des Artes, 1930

The Cabaret

  • Josef Ebertz, Dancer (Beatrice Mariagraete), 1923
  • Otto Griebel, Two Women, 1924
  • Prosper de Troyer, Eric Satie (The Prelude), 1925
  • Sergius Pauser, Self-Portrait with Mask, 1926
  • Jeanne Mammen, Boring Dolls, 1927
  • Jeanne Mammen, At the Shooting Gallery, 1929
  • Jeanne Mammen, Brüderstrasse (Free Room), 1930
  • Max Beckmann, Anni (Girl with Fan), 1942

Faith

  • Albert Birkle, Crucifixion, 1921
  • Albert Birkle, The Hermit, 1921
  • Herbert Gurschener, the Triumph of Death, 1927
  • Herbert Gurschener, Lazarus (The Workers), 1928
  • Herbert Gurschener, Annuciation, 1929-30

Curators

  • Matthew Gale, Head of Displays
  • Katy Wan, Assistant Curator

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Mantegna and Bellini @ the National Gallery

This is a rich, complex and demanding exhibition in all kinds of ways. For a start it was packed out. I took the ticket lady’s advice to go see the 18-minute long film introduction to the show, off in the auditorium to one side of the Sainsbury Gallery, but this meant I didn’t enter the exhibition proper till 10.30, by which time it was so packed that it was difficult to move around and you had to queue to see many of the paintings.

Secondly, it requires you to listen to a daunting amount of art history and scholarship. The art history is central for this is an exhibition which traces the development of the two painters, pointing out with minute attention to detail their differing interests, styles, areas of expertise and actual careers i.e. the cities they lived in, the courtly patrons they worked for, and so on.

In addition there are quite a few paintings and drawings whose accreditation has until recently, or is still, disputed i.e. you are looking at works which may or may not be by either Mantegna or Bellini, and find yourself listening to learned arguments about who, when and why this or that drawing or painting was made.

Biographies

Giovanni Bellini (1435?–1516) and Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) were two of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance.

In the 1440s the Bellini family ran the most established and successful artistic workshop in Venice. It was overseen by Giovanni’s father, Jacopo Bellini, one of the greatest artistic inventors of his day, pioneering new visual and intellectual ideas in his influential drawing books.

So Giovanni Bellini was born into what was in effect artistic royalty, and given every possibly chance of a good start in his career. By contrast, Andrea Mantegna was born the son of a humble carpenter, and was an entirely self-made man. Born near Padua his prodigious talent brought him into the workshop of Francesco Squarcione – who in fact adopted him as his own son – and inspired in him a lifelong love of the art and architecture of the antique world.

News of the up-and-coming prodigy reached Jacopo Bellini, who made the entirely practical business move of marrying his daughter Nicolosia to the budding genius in 1453. Bellini and Mantegna were now brothers-in-law, and spent the rest of their lives in contact, in artistic rivalry, borrowing ideas, themes and details from each other’s works right to the end of their lives.

For a decade or so they worked in close physical proximity and the exhibition pairs their paintings on the same subjects, showing how they exchanged motifs and techniques – ways of handling figures, animals, elements of landscape – until, in 1460, Mantegna left to spend the rest of his life working for the Gonzaga family which ruled Mantua.

Two styles

Throughout its six rooms the exhibition brings together major works by both artists, from Britain and abroad, paintings as well as rare sketches and drawings and sculptures and friezes – which allow you to trace a) their similarities and differences b) their individual evolutions c) their lasting influence on later art.

You can get a quick understanding of the two approaches by comparing two depictions of Christ’s agony in the garden. Apparently the notion of depicting Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane waiting, while the apostles slept, for Judas to come and betray him, probably derived from the inventive drawing books of Jacopo Bellini, but it is fascinating to have the two artists’ treatments of the identical subject hanging side by side and the audio-commentary gives a detailed comparison.

The Agony in the Garden (about 1455–6) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

The Agony in the Garden (about 1455–6) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

In Mantegna’s version you notice:

  • the architectural feel of the composition, with very detailed rocks creating a claustrophobic, full feel to the composition and tightly framing the sleeping apostles
  • the foreshortening of the body of the sleeping apostle – Mantegna was one of the first artists in the West to systematically experiment with painting foreshortened figures in perspective: he was so proud of this that he signed the painting in the rocks directly above the sleepers
  • the tightness of the way the road curves from the sleepers round the rocks to the crowd of soldiers and citizens being led by Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus
  • the architectural details of the city of Jerusalem in the background which, when you look closely, has been done with great precision, including a campanile and a copy of the Roman Colosseum
  • there are some rabbits in the road next to one of the apostle’s feet; there are lots of rabbits in Mantegna’s works

No contrast with Bellini’s treatment of the same subject.

The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini (about 1458-60) Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

The Agony in the Garden by Giovanni Bellini (about 1458-60) Egg tempera on panel © The National Gallery, London

Whereas Mantegna’s is packed and stacked with lines and planes – of the busy terraces of rocks and road and distant buildings – Bellini’s composition is much more open, and the central slope Christ is praying on is surprisingly bland and smooth. The audio-commentary points out that Bellini had a go at a Mantegna-style foreshortened figure in the centre, but hasn’t brought it off as well as the Paduan.

Instead, the audio-commentary points to the clouds. They are a surprisingly realistic depiction of the pinkness of dawn, drawing on contemporary Flemish landscape painting. The clouds are not just part of the background as in the Mantegna, but carefully crafted in order to create an atmosphere. Same with the city on the hill to the left. If you look closely (and the joy of visiting exhibitions is that you can look really closely at all these wonderful paintings) you see that the buildings lack detail (windows or doors) and are soft and hazy – much as you would actually see buildings in the far distance in sunny Italy.

This comparison brings out the way that Mantegna is interested in architectural detail and framing, of not only buildings but of people. His works have great clarity and are often full of learned details – he is an intellectual painter – but can also feel harsh and forbidding.

By comparison all Bellini’s works have a softness about them. Whereas Mantegna is interested in line and content, Bellini is interested in tone and atmosphere.

Mantegna = compositional innovation
Bellini = atmospheric, natural landscapes

Mantegna versus Bellini

By and large, whenever I saw a painting from a distance, before I could read the label, I could tell the two artists apart: Bellini’s always have soft outlines, Mantegna’s always have much more defined, sometimes almost cartoon-clear outlines.

By and large I much preferred the Mantegna. Wherever possible the exhibition places paintings on similar subjects by the pair together, so you can compare and contrast, for example their contemporaneous depictions of Saint Jerome in the Desert. Mantegna’s Jerome is set among characteristically lined, striated, and precise rock and is packed with detail – Bellini’s image is much sparer and softer and the composition is emptier, less busy, more atmospheric.

Really looking at these, again, I think I prefer the Mantegna because it is more medieval: he is interested in the saint’s flat-brimmed red hat, in his wooden sandals, in the wooden rack hanging from nails in his cave, in the owl – presumably signifying wisdom – perching at the top of the cave, and so on. I find these details interesting, diverting, charming – and so find the Bellini empty and bland and so you are left solely to concentrate on the bad draughtsmanship of both man and lion.

Similarly, there are direct comparisons between their treatments of Christ’s descent into hell, and the presentation of the infant Christ at the Temple.

Here’s an early Mantegna which shows his love of classical architecture and the way he uses it to frame his compositions. You can look at this painting for quite a long time, enjoying the use of the pillar and broken arch to support the punctured saint. The detailing of the frieze on the stonework is exquisite, as it is in the rubble at his feet or the faces in the broken frieze behind him. The more you look, the more breath-taking the detail becomes. And that’s before you begin to investigate the background, where you can see the three archers who have just done Sebastian to death, strolling casually along the road to the left on their way back to the city across the river, which is itself painted in tiny finicky detail. But it’s the architectural solidity of the composition which is dominant.

Saint Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna (about 1459–60) Egg tempera on poplar © Gemäldegalerie, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Saint Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna (about 1459–60) Egg tempera on poplar © Gemäldegalerie, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The future of painting

I preferred Mantegna all the way through until we came to the last few rooms. Here, suddenly, Bellini metamorphosed into the Future of Painting and Mantegna suddenly looked old and wooden. Suddenly Bellini was making paintings of Greek mythical subjects which had a softness and haziness, a kind of sweetness about them, which looks like Titian, which looks forward to the next hundred years.

In my ignorance, when I saw this across a crowded room, I thought the bucolic setting and very bright colours meant it was by Poussin. It is in fact still a Bellini, but worlds away from the stilted drawing of Jerome. That was 1460. Now it is nearly fifty years later and Bellini has made extraordinary strides in the art of composition and colouring. Instead of an empty desert he gives us a lazy relaxed pagan landscape in which a whole host of Greek mythical characters are lounging and flirting.

The Feast of the Gods (1514–29) Giovanni Bellini, with later additions by Dosso Dossi and Titian. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The Feast of the Gods (1514–29) Giovanni Bellini, with later additions by Dosso Dossi and Titian. Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

The commentary tells us that Titian (1488-1576) was much influenced by Bellini whose workshop he trained in from 1507, and that Titian almost certainly ‘refined’ and ‘improved’ this work by Bellini. You can feel one master handing on the baton to Titian, who will have a transformative effect on Western art. Suddenly, in late Bellini, you feel like you are confronting the future of Western art.

On the opposite wall of this, the fourth and largest room in the exhibition, are hanging three enormous, absolutely huge (2.66 x 2.78 m) paintings depicting the Triumph of Caesar. Mantegna originally created nine of these monster paintings between 1484 and 1492 for the Gonzaga Ducal Palace in Mantua. Acknowledged from the time of Mantegna as his greatest masterpiece, they remain the most complete pictorial representation of a Roman triumph ever attempted.

The Triumphs of Caesar IV: The Vase-Bearers (mid-1480s – before 1506) by Andrea Mantegna. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The Triumphs of Caesar IV: The Vase-Bearers (mid-1480s – before 1506) by Andrea Mantegna. Egg tempera on canvas.  Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

The structured nature of the composition is awesome. You can feel the intelligence and care which has gone into positioning every element, and Mantegna’s unparalleled knowledge of every element of classical life, which he had spent a lifetime studying.

Still, placed next to the Bellini gods, it feels stagey, and it feels dated. In them Mantegan reaches a kind of peak of magnificence of the architectural composition which he pioneered, and this kind of grand historical painting will go on to be perfected by artists like Veronese. But a glance at the softer, subtler shapes of the Bellini feast tells you that it is his style which will go on to dominate future art.

To see what I mean compare these portraits from the final room of the exhibition. Here is Mantegna demonstrating, as throughout his career, an interest in line and composition. Note the amazing detail on the fabric of the Madonna, and the gauntly ‘realistic’ expressions of the faces of her parents.

The Holy Family by Andrea Mantegna (about 1490–1500) © bpk / Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / Elke Estel / Hans-Peter Klut

The Holy Family by Andrea Mantegna (about 1490–1500) © bpk / Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden / Elke Estel / Hans-Peter Klut

Now compare with a Virgin and child (with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene thrown in for good measure) by Bellini.

The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene (about 1490) by Giovanni Bellini © Su concessione del Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo, Museo Nazionale delle Gallerie dell'Accademia di Venezia

The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene (about 1490) by Giovanni Bellini © Museo Nazionale delle Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia

This reproduction doesn’t do it any justice. In the flesh this is a quite hauntingly, atmospheric painting. The way the softly painted women emerge from the Stygian background is quite magical.

The commentary emphasises that Mantegna’s portraits were often painted with egg tempera or using glue, a technique which resulted in an often dull matt finish, a finish which brought out the line and composition he considered so important.

By sharp contrast, by his later years, Bellini has mastered the use of oil paint to create works of tremendous atmosphere and depth. Although the figures in this painting are not exactly naturalistic, the use of oil joins them together with a real psychological power. Plus Bellini has become a real master of painting details in oil. I marvelled at the exquisite detailing of the pearls and jewels lining the cloaks of Catherine and the Magdalene. This reproduction doesn’t begin to convey what an intense and powerful painting this is in the flesh.

Bellini wins

If this was a football match I’d have said Mantegna was leading 1-0 until the 89th minute and then Bellini stole up and won it with a late equaliser and a winning goal in extra time.

All the way through I had preferred Mantegna’s statuesque line figures and his use of classical architecture and symbolism to adorn paintings historical and mythological. Then, in the last couple of rooms, in  his full maturity, Bellini seems to soar to an entirely new place in terms of technique.

Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini (about 1501-2) Oil on poplar © The National Gallery, London

Doge Leonardo Loredan by Giovanni Bellini (about 1501-2) Oil on poplar © The National Gallery, London

This reproduction also doesn’t do justice to the original. You could stand for hours just marvelling in Bellini’s use of oil paint in this large portrait, especially in the unbelievable detailing of the Doge’s gown.

The commentary makes the subtle point that the left side of his mouth, in sunlight, is firm and set, whereas the right side, in relative shade, bears the hint of a smile. This can be taken as an allegory of the character required to be leader of a city, a mixture of light (justice) with shade (forgiveness and humour).

In these last few works you can see why the curators claims that without these works imbued with their creativity and innovation, Renaissance art by the likes of Titian, Correggio, and Veronese, would not exist as it does today.

There is much, much more to see at this terrific exhibition, much which repays really intense historical, scholarly, intellectual and aesthetic engagement. It’s an effort, but the rewards are tremendous.

Room by room

One – Beginnings

Introduces the cultural environments of the two cities that shaped Mantegna and Bellini – Padua and Venice. Shows how the tastes of dominant patrons and their working environments (including the family-run workshop) played a role in the development of the artists. Highlight: ‘The Jacopo Bellini album’ on loan from the British Museum (which has lent 18 works to the exhibition). Jacopo’s sketchbook is a key starting point for ‘Mantegna and Bellini.’

Room two – Explorations

Examines the mutual impact of each artist on the other during the years of their closest creative exchange, around the time of the marriage that made them brothers-in-law. A number of juxtapositions compare and contrast their approach to near identical compositions e.g. ‘The Descent into Limbo’ and ‘The Crucifixion’.

Room Three – Pietà

Focuses on the origins and development of a distinctive new type of image in Christian art, the Dead Christ supported by Angels. Works include sculptural reliefs (such as Mantegna’s ‘Grablegung Christ’) as well as works on paper (Mantegna’s Pietà, 1456–9) and Bellini’s tempera on panel ‘Pietà’ from the Uffizi Gallery.

Room Four – Landscape

Explores the enormous importance of Bellini’s particular contribution to the history of art – the depiction of beautifully observed landscape, natural light, and atmosphere as a key element of the composition and meaning of religious works, including Bellini’s ‘Resurrection of Christ’

Highlight: first chance to see the newly restored National Gallery work, ‘The Assassination of Saint Peter Martyr’ (about 1507).

A number of pairings will reveal the differences in approach to landscape between the two artists – and also reveal the ways in which Bellini’s exceptional talent had a lasting effect on Mantegna (such as in his astonishingly accurate view of Mantua in his ‘Death of the Virgin’, 1462).

Room five – Devotional Paintings and Portraits

A focused insight into a particular contribution to Italian Renaissance art – the development of the ‘sacra conversazione’ in which the seated Virgin and Child appear in the company of saints (‘in conversation’) as if occupying the same space and breathing the same air.

Mantegna’s ‘Holy Family’ (1495-1500) and ‘Madonna and Child’ (1455–60) will be placed next to Bellini’s ‘Madonna and Child with two Saints’ and ‘The Virgin and Child’ (about 1475).

Room six – Antiquity

Features some of the largest and most spectacular loans, which showcase Mantegna’s particular brilliance in the use of antique models and subjects to drive innovation in his art.

Highlight: three of his great ‘Triumphs of Caesar’ (The Bearers of Standards and ‘Siege Equipment’, ‘The Vase-Bearers’, and ‘The Elephants’, c.1484–92) , monumental tempera on canvas works measuring almost three metres square, lent by Her Majesty The Queen.

Contrasted with these will be sculptural monochromes by Bellini, including ‘An Episode from the Life of Publius Cornelius Scipio’ (about 1506) and ‘Two men in antique dress’, along with one of his final paintings, ‘The Drunkenness of Noah’ (about 1515).

In case you need any more persuading, Dr Caroline Campbell, Director of Collections and Research at the National Gallery and curator of ‘Mantegna and Bellini’, says:

Exhibitions focusing on 15th-century art are rare as the works involved are often fragile and so cannot travel very often – therefore ‘Mantegna and Bellini’ really is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore the relationship and work of these two artists who played such a pivotal role in the history of art.

Curator’s introduction


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The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis (1981)

Science fiction is a pessimistic medium… Most of it is about things going wrong. (Amis in his preface)

Amis

Kingsley Amis was a grumpy old bugger. This judgement is based not only on reading his articles and reviews when he was still alive (he died in 1995), but having read and reviewed all twenty of his novels for this blog.

Amis was deliberately middle-brow and flexible. He wrote a James Bond novel (under the pseudonym Robert Markham), a lot of light poetry, reviews and articles, as well as several odd science fiction novels.

In fact he was a science fiction hound, a real addict, and tells us that he leaped at the chance to deliver a series of lectures on the subject at Princeton University in 1959. These were then published as a book purporting to review the history and state of science fiction as it had led up to the state of the genre in 1960, garishly titled New Maps of Hell.

Twenty years after New Maps of Hell, in 1981, Amis was asked to make a selection of favourite science fiction short stories and to write an introduction. Hence this book.

Amis’s introduction

With typical glumness, Amis reckons science fiction has had its glory days and is in decline. He judges this decline to have started at more or less the moment he delivered those lectures, back at the start of the 1960s. He describes how, in the 1940s and 1950s, science fiction belonged to ‘an embattled few’ – hard-core fans who read everything they could get their hands on, despite the sniggers of their parents or teachers. A bit like the ‘hot jazz’ which he and his buddy Philip Larkin liked listening to, while their mothers and girlfriends told them they really ought to be listening to Haydn.

But all this changed in the 1960s. Up till then Amis and other fans had called it SF. During the 60s it became rebranded as ‘sci-fi’, symptomatic of the way it got infected with all the other radical experiments of the decade.

Suddenly there was ‘experimental’ and ‘avant-garde’ ‘sci-fi’, as there was free poetry, rock music, women’s lib and hosts of other innovations which Mr Grumpy objects to. The first two university courses on science fiction were opened in 1961, and Amis thinks that as soon as you start teaching literature or film, you kill its originality.

Only twelve years separate the hilariously kitsch Forbidden Planet (1956) from the slick and sophisticated 2001: A Space Odyssey (released in 1968, and which Amis found repellently self-indulgent) but they inhabit different cultural universes.

The New Wave

The young writers with their trendy experimental approaches to science fiction who came in with the 1960s, became known as the New Wave. Fans argue to this day about when New Wave started, but most agree a tipping point was when Michael Moorcock became editor of New Worlds magazine in 1964, and Moorcock, along with J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss, were the prime movers of British New Wave. All three moved away from ‘hard’ science fiction stories about space ships and robots and aliens, showing more interest in literary effects and psychology, often in a very garish late-60s, tricksy sort of way.

Planetary exploration

Another problem which the SF writers of the 1960s faced was that a lot of science fiction came true. In the 1960s men actually started rocketing into space and in 1969 walked on the moon, thus killing all kinds of fantasies with their dull discovery that space was empty and bathed in fatal radiation, while the moon is just a dusty rock. So no fantastic civilisations and weird Selenites after all. In the story Sister Planet in this collection, Poul Anderson imagines Venus to consist of one huge, planet-wide ocean teeming with intelligent life, where men can stride around requiring only respirators to breathe. But when information started to come back from the Mariner series of probes, the first of which flew by in 1962, and the Venera 7 probe which actually landed on the surface in 1970, Venus turned out to be a waterless rock where the atmospheric pressure on the surface is 92 times that of earth, and the temperature is 462 C.

Fiction becomes fact

Meanwhile, in terms of terrestrial gadgets and inventions – the kind of mind-liberating technological innovations which festoon H.G. Wells’s fantastic prophecies – well, jet planes came in, along with intercontinental travel and it turned out to be glamorous but in a, well, yawn, touristy kind of way. Everyone got coloured televisions, but these weren’t used for announcements by the World State or amazing educational programmes; they were used to sell soap powder and bubble gum. Satellites were launched and people were amazed by the first live global broadcasts, but none of this led mankind onto some higher level of culture and civilisation, as so many thousands of sci-fi stories had predicted. Now we have digital communication with anyone on the planet, but the biggest content area on the internet is pornography, closely followed by cats who look like Hitler.

To sum up: a lot of what had seemed like exciting technical predictions in the 1940s had turned into commonplaces by the 1960s. As Amis pithily puts it, ‘Terra incognita was turning into real estate.’

So you can see why the New Wave wanted to take a new approach and look for the weird and alien here on earth, particularly Ballard. By the mid-70s the New Wave was itself declared to be over (about the same time that post-war Serialism in classical music breathed its last gasp), at the same time that a lot of the political and cultural impedimenta of the post-war years ran out of steam. As I view it, this led to a decade of doldrums (the 1970s), and then the appearance, during the 1980s, of bright new commercial styles, Post-modernism in art and literature and architecture, the importation of Magical Realism in fiction, and a new era of sci-fi blockbusters in cinema, the rise of computer aided animation which has transformed the look and feel of films, and to an explosion of all kinds of genres and cross-fertilisations in writing.

Specific examples

But to Amis back in 1980, he says science fiction suffers from ‘gross commercialism’, and uses the Terra incognita argument to explain why many even of the New Wave writers had dried up or gone into alternative forms – Arthur C. Clarke ceasing to write novels, Aldiss writing histories of the genre, and Ballard turning out never to have really been a sci-fi writer, more a writer about modern psychosis who started out by using sci-fi tropes, before moving on.

All this goes to explain why the stories Amis selected for this collection are all from the 1950s (1948 to 1962, to be exact) – from the decade when sci-fi writers had racked up a tradition of sorts to build on, had achieved a mature treatment of recognised tropes – but before those tropes were burned out from over-use and the 1960s ruined everything with its silly experimentalism. You can strongly disagree with this view, but at least it’s a clear defined view, put forward with evidence and arguments.

The short stories

He Walked Around the Horses by H. Beam Piper (1948) (American)

It is 1809. A series of letters from officials in Imperial Austria tell the tale of Benjamin Bathurst, who claims to be a British government envoy who, we slowly realise, has somehow got transported from out 1809 to a parallel history in which the Americans lost the war of independence, there was no French Revolution, no Napoleon, no wars raging across Europe, and so Herr Bathurst is regarded as a lunatic.

The Xi Effect by Philip Latham (1950) (Pseudonym used for his sf by American astronomer Robert Shirley Richardson)

Physicists Stoddard and Arnold discover that radiation above a certain frequency is no longer being detected. Radio stations are becoming unavailable. They measure the eclipse of one of Jupiter’s moons as happening absurdly nearby. Suddenly they think of Friedmann and his theory of the Xi Effect, namely that space isn’t continuous but made up of ‘clots’, clots which can be disrupted by bigger-scale events. Stoddard and Arnold and then everyone else learns that the world and the solar system are shrinking. Since everything is staying in proportion relative to everything else you’d have thought that wouldn’t be a problem except that the one thing which can’t shrink is electro-magnetic radiation. In other words, the world is getting too small for light to travel in it. One by one all the colours disappear, and then everyone is left in universal blackness.

The Quest for Saint Aquin by Anthony Boucher (1951) (American)

After a nuclear apocalypse a ‘monk’ is sent by ‘the pope’ to find the body of a supposed saint in the hills outside San Francisco.

It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby (1953) (American)

Genuinely upsetting story in which a child with telepathy and unlimited powers is born and, while still young, either destroys the world or transports his small town into some void wherein the remaining inhabitants must think nothing but positive thoughts – repeating to themselves ‘it is a good world’ for fear that the little monster – Anthony – will detect negative thoughts and turn them into something unspeakable.

The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke (1953) (English)

A computer company supplies its latest model to a Tibetan lamasery whose abbot tells the chief exec that they will use it to work through every permutation of names for God. They have a belief that, once all the names of God have been expressed, the need for a planet and humanity will cease and the universe will move on to the next stage.

Months later, the two bored technicians tasked with overseeing the installation and running of the machine are relieved to be making their way to the little Tibetan airport to return Stateside when the computer reaches the end of its run and… the world comes to an end.

Specialist by Robert Sheckley (1953) (American)

Interesting description of a galactic spaceship made up of living parts which all perform specialist functions e.g. Walls, Eye, Tracker, Feeder. When their ‘Pusher’ dies in an accident they trawl nearby planetary systems for a new one and, of course, come to earth, where they kidnap a guy who is out camping under the stars, and induct him into the galactic code of co-operation.

Student Body by F. L. Wallace (1953) (American)

Colonists arrive on a new planet where the Chief Exec is keen to get biologist Dano Marin to manage infestations of mice and rats which attack the crops and stores. Slowly Marin realises they are dealing with a species which can mutate at need, almost instantly, in order to survive and which will always manage to evolve into shapes which can elude them. Worse, he realises it will have stowed away on the earlier reconnaisance ships and have made its way back to earth.

The Game of Rat and Dragon by Cordwainer Smith (1954) (pen-name of American author Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger)

Deep space travel reveals vicious entities which attack man’s ships, which get nicknamed ‘dragons’. The only way to kill them is with light bombs which disintegrate their bodies, but it all happens so fast that only the handful of humans who have telepathic powers can manage to be plugged into the ‘pin sets’ which detect the dragons; and the whole effort went up a notch when it was discovered that some cats can be in telepathic unison with the humans, and have even faster reflexes.

The Tunnel under the World by Frederik Pohl (1955) (American)

Maybe the best story, relatively long and persuasive i.e. you get totally drawn into it.

Guy Burckhardt wakes up on June 15 from a nightmare of an explosion, then goes about his humdrum life in the small town American town of Tylerton, dominated by its state-of-the-art chemical works which is run mostly by the recorded brainwaves of technicians. A new guy in the office shops tries to hustle him a new brand of cigarettes. Later a lorry stops in the street and blares out ads for Feckles Fridges. A flustered man named Swanson accosts him on the street then runs away.

Then he wakes up on June 15 from a nightmare, and goes about his day. New cigarettes, lorry ads, flustered Swanson. That night the fuse blows and, rooting around in the cellar, he discovers that behind the brick walls is metal. And under the floor. The reader begins to wonder if he is in some kind of alien prison. He is down there when overcome by sleep.

Next morning he wakes up remembering everything from the day before except that… his wife thinks it is June 15, the radio says it is June 15, the newspaper says it is June 15. On the street Swanson finds him and, discovering that Burckhardt is confused, takes him through shops and into a cinema, all the time telling him that ‘they’ will be after him. they exit the auditorium, Swanson takes him through corridors, into the manager’s office, then opens a closet door into… a vast steel tunnel stretching in both directions.

Swanson thinks it must be Martians? Is it aliens? Or the Chinese who everyone in the 1950s were so terrified of? Read it yourself.

A Work of Art by James Blish (1956) (American)

Richard Strauss is brought back to life 200 years in the future. He immediately wants to carry on composing and Blish gives a very good analysis of the composer’s music, its characteristics, what he looks for in a libretto and so on and the whole process of composing a new opera.

But at its premiere, the applause is not for the composer, but for Dr Kris, the mind sculptor who has, in fact, used all the traits of the composer to create him and impose him on the mind of a perfectly ordinary unmusical man, Jerom Bosch. At a click of Kris’s fingers, Bosch will revert to his normal workaday self.

The Country of the Kind by Damon Knight (1956) (American)

A rare thing, a first person narrator. In a perfect society of the future (after ‘the Interregnum’) he has been born a brute and a sadist, capable of killing and injuring and defacing while all around him are placid and calm and sensitive. We see, from his point of view, how intolerable and anguished his existence is, forced to live among ‘the dulls’.

Sister Planet by Poul Anderson (1959) (American)

This is a long, involving and bitingly pessimistic story. A small colony of scientists is established on a platform floating on Venus’s endless stormy ocean. They have made contact with ‘cetoids’, dolphin-like creatures and some kind of exchange goes on i.e. the humans leave paintings, sound recordings and so on which the cetoids take off in their mouths, and the cetoids return with various objects, including rare and precious ‘firestones’. These are so precious that ferrying them back to earth and selling them has so far funded the scientific research.

In among their practical duties, the half dozen or so scientists on the outstation chat about how overcrowded and polluted and violent earth is becoming. The main figure among them, Nat Hawthorne is particularly sensitive and close to the cetoids. One day he is astonished when the most friendly of them, who he’s named Oscar, nudges at his feet (on the pontoon which stretches out from the base, where they distribute goodies to the cetoids and receive the jewels in return, level with the ocean and often slopped over by waves) indicating he wants to give him a ride.

Hawthorne puts on breathing apparatus and Oscar takes him deep under the sea to show him a vast coral cathedral which appears to have been shaped, or grown, by the cetoids. there is no doubt that they are ‘intelligent’.

Back in the crew quarters of the colony, he is about to tell everyone about his encounter, when the quiet, intense Dutch scientist Wim Dykstra bursts in to make a major announcement. He has been analysing Venus’s core and has realised that it is on the unstable edge of making a quantum leap upwards in size. If it did that, it would project magma up through the sea creating continents and the presence of rocks would absorb carbon dioxide from the (currently toxic) atmosphere. In other words it could be ‘terraformed’, made fit for human inhabitation – an overflow for what has become a poisoned earth.

it is then that Hawthorne tells the roomful of colonists about his discovery, that the cetoids are undeniably intelligent and creative. At which point there is an earnest discussion about man’s right to colonise new planets, even at the expense of the natives – all of which made me think of contemporary, 2018, discussions about colonialism and racial oppression etc. Reluctantly Dykstra agrees to suppress his work in order to let the cetoids live.

But Hawthorne is gripped by a kind of panic fear. Sooner or later more scientists will come to Venus. They will repeat his experiments. Sooner or later humans will realise they can transform Venus for their own use. Tortured by this knowledge, Hawthorne blows up and sinks the research station, flees in a mini submarine and, when the cetoids come to investigate, slaughters them with a laser machine gun. Then submerges to go and blow up their beautiful coral cathedrals. Before calling the ferry ship which is in orbit down to pick him up. He will claim the cetoids blew up the centre despite his attempts to stop them.

His aim is to demonstrate to earth that Venus is a violent environment which cannot be colonised. And to show the cetoids that humans are murdering barbarians who cannot be trusted.

To save the cetoids – he has to destroy them and their cultural achievements.

The Voices of Time by J. G. Ballard (1960) (English)

A classic expression of Ballard’s interest in entropy and decline. Among the empty swimming pools of some desert American town, scientists go about their work in alienated isolation from each other. A plague of narcolepsy has attacked humanity. More and more people are falling asleep never to waken, the central figure, Powers, keeps a diary of the way he, too, is falling asleep earlier and earlier, his days are getting shorter and shorter. In what time he has left he conducts obscure experiments on plants and animals which seem to mutate at an accelerated rate if exposed to near fatal doses of radiation. He has a typically distant, autistic ‘relationship’ with a patient whose brain he operated on and who now is collecting the last works of art, books and so on by famous artists, writers and such. And has discovered that astronomical research centres have come across series of numbers being sent from apparently different locations around the universe, all of which are running down, like countdowns.

The Machine that Won the War by Isaac Asimov (1961) (American)

A short and characteristically tricksy Asimov story. It is the end of the war against the Denebians. Everyone credits victory to the vast supercomputer, the Multivac, which processed all the information and provided pinpoint accurate decisions about the war.

Executive Director of the Solar Federation, Lamar Swift, has gathered the key men in the team who ran Multivac to celebrate, namely Henderson and Jablonksy. But as both hold their champagne glasses, one by one they reveal that the data they received was never good enough, the sources around the solar system and beyond were too scattered, information came in too slowly… and that the head of the team processing it never trusted them, and so falsified many of the figures.

But instead of being shocked, Swift smile and says, he thought as much. He made all the key decisions which won the war by using a much older technology. And he takes out a coin, flips it with his thumb, covers it as it lands in his palms, and asks: ‘Gentlemen – heads or tails?’

Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut (1961) (American)

A short glib story set in 2018 when everyone is equal because everyone is handicapped by the Handicapper General. Fast athletic people are weighed down by weights. Tall people forced to stoop. Beautiful people wear face masks. Clever people have earpieces fitted which emit piercing noises every 30 seconds. Thus everyone is reduced to the same level, and is equal. Anyone tampering with any of this equality equipment is arrested and imprisoned.

George and Hazel Bergeron’s son, Harrison, was born unusually tall and handsome. He was immediately locked up. The trigger for this short story is George and Hazel settling down to watch TV (George’s thought processes continually interrupted by the screeches in his ear, to prevent him being too clever) and hearing on the news that their son has escaped from prison.

Then he bursts into the TV studio and throws off his restraints, the handicap harness which weighs him down, the rubber mask which makes him ugly – to reveal that he is a tall god. He declares to the watching audience that he is the Emperor, who must be obeyed.

He had interrupted a live broadcast of a ballet and now he asks who among the ballerinas wants to be his wife. One comes forward, throws off her face mask and feet cripplers to reveal that she is beautiful and elegant. Together they start dancing a beautiful ballet of freedom.

At which point the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, bursts into the studio and machine guns both of them dead. The TV goes black. Loud sounds burst in George’s ear. He goes to get a beer from the fridge. Loud sounds interrupt him on the way back. By the time he’s back on the sofa he has a sense that something sad happened on the TV but neither he nor his wife can remember what.

The Streets of Ashkelon by Harry Harrison (1962) (American)

Trader John Garth is happy living alone on Wesker’s World, dealing with the slow but logical alien inhabitants, the Wesker amphibians, who have learned to speak English.

One day a fellow trader stops by (his spaceship causing hundreds of square metres of devastation) to drop off a priest. Garth tries to prevent him landing, then is very rude to him. To his horror, the slow logical Wesker creatures are awestruck by the priest and the stories he has to tell about God their father and how they are saved. Garth is a typical trader, rough and ready, a hard drinker, but he has been honest with the Wesker creatures and told them as much about the universe and earth as he thought wise.

One day Garth is called along to a meeting the Weskers are having with the priest. In their slow logical way they have come to the conclusion that the priest needs to prove his religion. The Bible – which he has given them to study – brims over with examples of miracles which God was happy to perform to prove his existence. Surely he will perform at least one miracle to convert an entire new planet and save an entire species.

Suddenly Garth sees where this is heading and leaps up to try and bundle the priest out of the meeting hall but he is himself overwhelmed by the Wesker creatures and tied up, from which powerless state he has to watch the creatures overcome the priest and very methodically nail him up to a cross, just like the pictures in the Bible he had given them, the Weskers expecting him to be resurrected.

But of course he isn’t. Days later, still tied up and in a pitch black lumber room, Garth finds the most sympathetic of the Weskers undoing his ropes and telling him to flee in his space ship. Having failed with the priest the Weskers have decided to experiment with him next.

The Wesker asks: ‘He will rise again won’t he?’ ‘No,’ replies Wesker. ‘Then we will not be saved and not be made pure?’ asks the Wesker. ‘You were pure’, Garth sadly replies. ‘You were pure, but now…’ ‘We are murderers,’ replies the Wesker.

Old Hundredth by Brian Aldiss (1963) (English)

This is the most poetic of the stories, Aldiss deliberately using onomatopeia and rhyme in his prose, as well as rich verbal pictures, to convey a dreamlike scenario.

In the far distant future the Moon has left the earth and earth and Venus orbit each other. Humans have long ago left the planet which is now populated by a mix of of animals and ”Impures’, intelligent creatures created by human experimenters on Venus.

Dandi Lashadusa is a giant sloth who traipses round the desert world seeking out musicolumns, insubstantial pillars into which the last people converted themselves, and which become audible music when life forms come close enough to them.

She is guided and advised by a mentor who she is telepathically in touch with, who is slowly revealed to be a dolphin living in a coral cell.


Almost all the stories – 14 out of 17 – are by Americans, the other three by Brits i.e. all very anglophone i.e. wasn’t there any Russian, French, German etc sci-fi during the period? Even in translation?

That’s probably something which came in to rejuvenate the genre after Amis’s day, particularly stories from Russia and the Eastern bloc.

The pros and cons of science fiction

Is Amis right when he says: ‘Science fiction is a pessimistic medium… Most of it is about things going wrong’? Well, on the evidence here, Yes. The Xi Effect, Sister Planet, The Streets of Ashkelon, Student Body and, especially It’s a Good Life, which I found very disturbing – they are extremely negative and pessimistic. But then gloomy Amis chose them. Is the genre as a whole pessimistic? Well… I’d make a case that most of literature is pessimistic. I’m looking at F. Scott Fitzgerald books next to Flaubert’s on my shelves. Not many happy endings there.

Maybe you could argue that there is a kind of ‘global conceit’ about science fiction. In ‘ordinary’ novels one or two people may die; in a science fiction story it is likely to be a whole world, as the world comes to an end in the Clarke story, or man corrupts an entire species as in the Harry Harrison.

Science fiction may be more apocalyptically pessimistic than other types of fiction. This is one of its appeals to the adolescent mind – the sheer sense of scale and the world-ending nihilism. But is at the same time one of the reasons it used to be looked down on. As a flight from the trickier complexities of real human relations in the here and now, the kind of thing supposedly tackled by ‘proper’ fiction.

But all this is to overlook the positive, uplifting and inspiring aspect of science fiction, the teenage sense of exuberance and escape and release conveyed by some of the stories. The sense of the genuinely fantastical and imaginative, that life is stranger and richer and weirder than non-sci-fi readers can ever realise.

A feeling conveniently expressed in one of the stories here:

As a boy he had loved to read tales of time travel and flights to other planets, and the feeling that something transcendent was lurking around the corner had never entirely left him. (The Xi Effect, p.65)


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 – The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

The Art of the Northern Renaissance by Craig Harbison (1995)

The period covered is 1400 to 1600.

‘Northern’ means north-west of the Alps, excluding Eastern Europe which had its own development, and Spain, ditto. So it includes the many different little German medieval states, France, but especially the northern part of the Duchy of Burgundy (modern-day Netherlands and Belgium). In these rich northern cities the wealth from the wool and textile trade created patrons who wanted paintings of themselves, decorations for their houses, but especially grand altarpieces for the big churches they built.

The Renaissance in Italy was closely linked to a rebirth of interest in classical statuary, architecture and literature, examples of which lay all around its Italian artists. This revival of learning led to new experiments in building in the pure classical style, to the introduction of mathematically precise perspective in painting, along with unprecedented anatomical accuracy in the human form. The paintings, like the architecture, were big, grand, monumental. At its peak, think of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Many Renaissance paintings are vast and use classical architectural features to emphasise their monumentality and to bring out the artist’s clever knowledge of perspective. I often find this art sterile.

By contrast, northern art is more continuous with the medieval art which preceded it. Curly Gothic architecture continues to provide its frame of reference and design. The figures often still have the elongated, willowy S-shape of medieval statuary rather than the new, muscular bodies being pioneered in Italy by the likes of Michelangelo et al. Harbison says that northern art of the 15th century is in many ways a transfer of late-medieval innovations in manuscript illustration to the public spaces of altarpieces, painted boards and frescos.

What I love northern art for is:

  1. its more flattened, less perspective-obsessed images allow for the surface of the work to be covered by gorgeous decorative schemes, particularly sumptuous fabrics and carpets
  2. it is always teeming with life – there are always tiny figures in the distance riding into a wood or firing a crossbow – every time you look you notice something else
  3. the faces – the people in northern art have much more rugged individuality than in Italian art – another way of saying this is that they are often plain and sometimes positively ugly in a way few Renaissance portraits are

As an example of gorgeousness of decorative design, I suggest Virgin among virgins in the rose garden by the unknown artist known from one of his other works as the Master of the St Lucy Legend.

There’s perspective of a sort, in that the wooden pergola covered with climbing roses creates a proscenium arch through which we can see an idealised version of the city of Bruges in the middle distance. But the overall affect of the foreground is more flat than in an Italian work. This brings out the wonderful detail of every leaf and petal of the dense rose hedge behind the characters; and emphasises the decorative layout of those figures, two on either side of the Virgin and in similar poses but with enough variation to please the eye. It allows the eye to rest on the sumptuous gold dress of St Ursula sitting left and contrast it with the plain white dress of St Cecilia sitting right. As to my ‘teeming with life’ point, I love the tiny figures of the two horse riders departing the city in the distance. In this work, I admit, the faces lack the individuality I mentioned, but I like this kind of demure medieval oval facial style.

Harbison contrasts this northern work with a contemporary Italian work, Madonna and child with saints by Domenico Veneziano (c.1445)

For me, all the human figures are dwarfed and subordinated to the ruthless application of the new knowledge of mathematical perspective. I find all those interlocking pillars and arches exhausting. And, ironically, somehow for me this does not give the image the desired depth of field but makes it appear flat and cluttered. The orange trees peeping up over the back wall don’t make up for the clinical sterility of the architectural setting. And although the human figures are obviously individualised and their clothes, the folds of their cloaks and gowns, are done with fine accuracy, these aren’t enough to overcome what I see as the overall flat, arid, washed-out and sterile effect.

As Harbison puts it:

In place of the clear, open, even and often symmetrical Italian representation, northerners envisioned subtly modulated, veiling and revealing light effects, intriguing nooks and crannies, enclosed worlds of privacy and preciousness. (p.35)

As an exemplar of this Harbison gives Rogier van der Weyden’s wonderful three-part St John Altarpiece (1450-60).

The dominant feature in all three scenes in this altarpiece is obviously the Gothic arch. (These repay study by themselves, with a different set of saints and small scenes depicted on each of the three arches.) The three main scenes depict, from left to right, the presentation of the newborn John the Baptist to his father; John the Baptist baptising Jesus; and then John’s head being chopped off and given to Salome.

The figures are given quite a lot of individuation, especially the balding executioner with his stockings half fallen down which gives a bizarrely homely touch. But the foreground scenes are really only part of the composition. Equal emphasis is given to the detailed backgrounds of all three. Perspective is used, but not ruthlessly – with enough poetic license to allow the backgrounds to be raised, tilted upwards, so we can see and savour them better.

In the left panel St Elizabeth being tucked into bed (a typically homely northern detail) is good, but better is the deep landscape behind Jesus in the central panel, with its church perched on cliffs on the right in the middle distance and city on a cliff in the remote distance left. But best of all is the right-hand panel, where our eye is drawn by the steps and tiled floors of King Herod’s palace, complete with a lounger staring out a window, a bored dog lying near the table where courtiers appear to be feasting.

And, as always, at the very bottom, in the corners, the humble, everyday, weedy flowers of northern Europe which I love so much.

The St John Altarpiece is a prime example of the richness of detail which characterises northern art and makes it – to me – so much more enjoyable, homely, decorative and domestic – funny, even, with its wealth of humanist touches.

The Art of the Northern Renaissance

The book is divided into four parts addressing different topics:

  1. Realism
  2. Physical production & original location
  3. Religious behaviour and ideals
  4. Italy and the North.

Within these there are 35 separate sections addressing issues like ‘artist and patron’, ‘manuscript illumination’, ‘the production of a panel painting’, ‘the pilgrimage’, ‘landscape imagery’, ‘the naked body’, and so on. From these sections we we learn lots of detail about specific areas of medieval life and their depiction, but nothing which affects the basic thesis that at the core of northern art is, as Harbison puts it, ‘a love of detailed description’.

It is as if one is always catching sight of something out of the corner of the eye. The ideal is not simple harmony but complex polyphony. (p.39)

Northern art is fragmentary, interested in detail. Italian art is more unified, classical and spare. Take this masterpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

For a start it was a north European convention to depict the Deposition within an architectural frame (cf. The descent from the cross by the Master of the Bartholomew altarpiece) which gives it a kind of continuity with the Gothic architecture of the church where it is located.

I love everything about this painting, the cleverness with which ten human figures are composed so as to make a polyphony without excessive artifice; the colour of the clothes e.g. the olive green and high cord of the woman holding the fainting Mary, the sumptuous fur-lined cloak of the rich burgher (Nicodemus) on the right. Harbison points out the detail of Christ’s pierced bloody hand hanging parallel to the Virgin’s long white hand, providing a powerful and moving real and symbolic contrast.

And, as always, I love the flowers in the foreground – is that yarrow at bottom left and herb bennet at bottom right? Harbison gives a detailed analysis of another northern masterpiece:

The detail of daily life, the sense of real people in an actual community, is what I love about this art: the unashamed flat-faced ugliness of the three shepherds, the (married?) couple standing by the gate in the background beside the shepherds; the wrinkled face and hands of old Joseph praying on the left.

As always, flowers in the foreground, here the highly symbolic lilies and irises (symbolising the passion), columbine (representing the Holy Spirit) and three small dark red carnations symbolising the nails of the cross.

Harbison makes the interesting point that the shadows of the two vases fall sharply to the right as if the floor of the stable (incongruously tiled) is almost flat; whereas, somehow behind the sheaf of wheat the floor suddenly tips upwards, presenting a much more flattened surface than strict perspective would suggest – which is then ‘decorated’ with the various figures. There are perspective points in it, but the painting ignores a strict rule of perspective in order to create a more effective, colourful and ‘rhythmic’ composition.

Top artists of the northern renaissance

If I summarised every one of Harbison’s analyses this post would be as long as the book. Instead here’s a quick overview of the key players and some major works:

Early Netherlands masters

The weird

From the generation following the deaths of these early fathers of Netherlands painting comes the one-off genius of Hieronymus Bosch.

  • Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450 – 1516) The religious triptych was the most common format of painting in this period, and Bosch produced at least sixteen, of which eight are fully intact, and another five in fragments. The most famous is the weird and wonderful Garden of earthly delights. No one has adequately explained where his bizarre fantasies came from.

The Germans

I find the Germans a lot less pleasing than the Flemish or French painters of this period. They lack grace and delicacy. Their depictions of the human body, especially of the crucified Christ, seem to me unnecessarily brutal. Albrecht Dürer is meant to be the great genius but I like hardly anything that he did.

After the Reformation

The Reformation forms a watershed halfway through the period 1400 to 1600, usually dated with great specificness to 31 October 1517, when the monk Martin Luther sent 95 theses systematically attacking Roman Catholic theology to his superior, the archbishop of Mainz. His arguments became a rallying cry and focus of decades of growing discontent with the corruption and over-complex theology of the Catholic church. His ideas spread quickly and were taken up by other theologians, who were often protected by German princes who had their own secular reasons for rejecting Papal authority, until it had become an unstoppable theological and social movement.

In artistic terms the Reformation’s rejection of the grandeur of Roman Catholic theology and the authority of the super-rich Papacy played to the strengths of the northern artists, who already produced an art often characterised by its relative smallness and intimacy.

Harbison very usefully brings out the fact that fifteenth century art was so dominated by images of the Madonna seated holding the Christ child because such a static image encouraged silent devotion and meditation – in contrast with the more dynamic and emotionally upsetting images of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

He points out how the corruption of the official church had already alienated many Christians from public worship and created through the 15th century a cult of private devotion. It was onto this fertile ground that the anti-establishment teachings of Luther and his followers fell, and proved so fruitful.

Thus Reformation theology tended to foreground personal piety, meditation and reflection – moving away from bravura displays of big ostentatious public ritual. And so while the Counter-Reformation in Italy (the theological and artistic reaction against the northern Reformation) was marked by the increasing ornateness and vast, heavy, luxury of the Baroque in art and architecture, in northern Europe – although Christian subjects continued as ever – there was also a growth in depictions of ‘ordinary life’, in domestic portraits and still lifes.

It was during the post-Reformation 16th century that landscapes and still lifes came into existence as genres in their own right.

Quentin Matsys

A figure who straddles the pre- and post-Reformation era is Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) (also spelt Massys) founder of the Antwerp school of painting. His mature work dates from the period of the High Renaissance (1490s to 1527) but is the extreme opposite of the vast panoramas of human history being painted in the Vatican (the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Stanza). Instead, Massys typifies for me the virtues of northern painting, with its small-scale atmosphere of domesticity, its focus on real, living people – not the Prophets and Philosophers of Michelangelo and Raphael – and its portraits not of heroic archetypes, but of plain ordinary and, sometimes, ugly people.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

This increasing valuing of secular life is one way of explaining the rise of the genre of ‘peasant paintings’, which was, apparently, more or less founded by the teeming peasant panoramas of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Hans Holbein the younger

The northern Reformation was suspicious of religious imagery. In many places it was stripped out of churches and burned; in others merely covered up. Certainly the market for grand altarpieces collapsed, and the period saw a rise in other more specialised subjects. Critics from centuries later define these as genre paintings.

Portraits also became more secular and more frequent, a trend which produced one of the most wonderful portraitists of all time, Hans Holbein the Younger.

Technique

Harbison explains a lot about the technicality of northern Renaissance painting. Some of the most notable learnings for me were:

Panel painting Almost all northern renaissance artworks were painted on wooden panels, ‘panel paintings’ as they’re called. It wasn’t until the 17th century that prepared canvas became the surface of choice for artists. Some works were painted on linen but almost all of these have been lost. A small number were painted directly onto metal and some onto slate.

The rise of oil painting Most 15th century paintings were made with tempera. Tempera, also known as egg tempera, is a permanent, fast-drying painting medium consisting of coloured pigments mixed with a water-soluble binder medium, usually egg yolk. Tempera also refers to the paintings done in this medium. But as the 1400s progressed, northern artists experimented with using oil as the binding material – first mixing colour pigment with oil then applying it to prepared surfaces.

Most of these new ‘oil’ paintings were built up from multiple layers. This required paintings to be put to one side for weeks at a time to fully dry before the next level could be done – a repetitive process which explains the incredibly deep, rich and luminous colours you see in these works.

Most Renaissance sources credited the northern European painters of the 15th century, and Jan van Eyck in particular, with the ‘invention’ of painting with oil media on wood panel supports (‘support’ is the technical term for the underlying backing of a painting). There is ongoing debate about where precisely it originated but it was definitely a northern invention which headed south into Italy.

Destruction and loss

The vast majority of European art has been lost.

  • Much of it was created for ephemeral purposes in the first place – for ceremonies, processions, pageants or plays – and thrown away once the occasion had passed.
  • Thus, much effort and creativity was expended painting on fabrics, such as linen or flags, on backdrops and sets and panels, which have rotted and disappeared.
  • Huge numbers of paintings in the churches of northern Europe were lost forever when they were painted over with whitewash during the Reformation. Outbreaks of popular or state-sanctioned iconoclasm also saw the systematic destruction of statues, wooden tracery and decorative features – all defaced or thrown out and burned in the decades after 1520.
  • Successive wars wreaked local havoc, destroying in particular castles which would have held collections of art sponsored by rich aristocrats. As an example, only ten paintings and thirty-five drawings survive of the entire life’s work of Matthias Grünewald – ‘many others were lost at sea in the Baltic on their way to Sweden as war booty’.
  • The destruction of the Great War – epitomised by the German army’s deliberate burning of the manuscript library at Louvain – was essentially localised to north-west Europe.
  • But the destruction of the second World War ranged all across Europe, deep into Russia and involved the destruction of countless churches, galleries, museums, libraries, stately homes, castles and chateaux where art works could be stored. Dresden. Hamburg. Monte Cassino. The loss was immense.

It’s always worth remembering that the comfortable lives we live now actually take place amid the ruins of an almost incomprehensibly destructive series of wars, religious spasms and conflagrations, and that the art we view in the hushed environments of art galleries is not an accurate reflection of what was painted and created in Europe, but are the scattered remnants and lucky survivors from a continent of incessant destruction and artistic holocaust.

Related links

Where to see some

You can see some masterpieces from this period for free in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery (in London):

You can see the fabulous Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in room 1 of the Courtauld Gallery, off the Strand, which currently costs £7 admission price, but is worth it for the stunning collection of masterpieces from these medieval pieces through the French post-Impressionists.

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