Thursday, 26 March 2015

Wtewael exhibition in Utrecht

Pleasure and Piety: The art of Joachim Wtewael Centraal Museum Utrecht to 25 May (then to Washington DC and Houston)

These two small paintings on copper both show Vulcan catching his girl Venus in flagrante with Mars. They're both exquisite and explicit little masterpieces brimming with those wonderfully contorted mannerist figures that Joachim Wtewael famous for. But what a different mood he creates. In the first version, from the Mauritshuis, there's a sense of foreboding. Venus guiltily averts her gaze. Mars points an accusing finger, but his expression belies his anxiety. This is Serious Stuff indeed. The later version in the Getty is more warmly coloured, and terror gives way to glee. Mars slaps his face ('doh!'), Venus looks away wearily ('what a fine mess you've gotten us into'). Everyone else seems to be enjoying their embarrassment. It's wonderful to see these two pictures together in the first major exhibition of this fascinating artist. 

Joachim Wtewael was a big cheese in early seventeenth century Utrecht. He was a successful businessman and investor, and he was allied with the more conservative Calvinists. Imagine that - the more conservative Calvinists! But I think the Getty's Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan gives better insight into his outlook on life than his political alliances. Love and Lust is the exhibition's title in Dutch, and I like it better than Pleasure and Piety. Even in the religious pictures, I see lust more than piety.

Wtewael was also a success as an artist, though he didn't need the money and kept many of his own paintings. But after his death he fell from favour and he was little known. He became fashionable again in the 1980s and 1990s, when many of the pictures in this show were acquired by American museums. It was part of a general revival of interest in Northern mannerism, which had been neglected as either a footnote to Italian mannerism or a prologue to the Dutch golden age. The exhibition explains Wtewael mainly in a northern context, emphasising his learning from Prague court artist Bartholomeus Spranger and borrowing from prints by Hendrik Goltzius. But I wonder how much was taken more directly from the high renaissance, which he would have experienced on his travels in France and Italy. Dramatic poses and extreme foreshortening reveal ambition to incorporate the highest achievements of Renaissance art. It doesn't quite work; Wtewael doesn't have the solid grounding of the Italians, nor their knowledge of anatomy. Biceps twist like dough rather than flex as muscles, and all his figures seem to have the same oddly textured torsos.

I can understand why some people don't like him, but I love his crazy vision, those wonderfully contorted poses and choreographed masses of figures, the rich range of colouring from pastel shades to vibrant acidic contrasts depending on the mood. He had an instinct for drama, but also a great sense of fun.
Photo    Photo
He loved animals; cats and dogs abound. On the left is a delightful donkey from the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis, and right is a cat from Caritas, which is with Johnny van Haeften. He clearly lacked Leonardo's interest in precise observation of nature if he thought that's how cats drink, but this is very early for such characterful animals. Walt Disney avant la lettre.

Although he could paint for his own amusement, his pictures are really varied. I'd thought his good works were the early ones, but it's not as simple as that. Even the earliest pictures vary in quality. The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis hangs next to The Wedding of Cupid and Psyche. Both are from about the same date, and both are fine pictures, but the Peleus and Thetis is far superior. The portraits are competent but unexciting. The kitchen scenes are derivative, and The Fruit and Vegetable Seller (above) is particularly weak. I thought maybe a Peter Wtewael, or at any rate a collaboration. The background scene (detail above) is quite crudely painted, and far removed from Joachim's refinement. It's attributed in full in both the exhibition catalogue and Anne Lowenthal's catalogue raisonné; perhaps they assume the broad technique is because it was intended to be hung high as an overmantel, and perhaps they are right. The kitchen scenes aren't great, but they show that the frequent assertion that Wtewael didn't engage with naturalism isn't quite true.

I was glad to see the full range of Wtewael's work in this show. The extraordinary quality and inventiveness of his best pictures is all the more striking against his more routine and derivative works. The catalogue is excellent, with short but intelligent and informative essays, thorough catalogue entries and good reproductions. The catalogue speculates about the role of his studio in producing copies and variants, and I'd love to have seen some possible examples alongside authentic works to get a sense of the studio's operation. I'd like to have seen more of the drawings too; the selection in the show is meagre, which is especially disappointing after reading Stijn Alpers's great chapter in the catalogue, which suggests that a lot of the attributed works might be workshop replicas. It would have been good to see some of those comparisons for ourselves.

There will be more drawings and more paintings on the US leg of the show. Weirdly a third version of Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan will be in both US venues, but not in Utrecht - despite the fact that it currently hangs in Amsterdam. I don't know what they were thinking in disallowing us that comparison; maybe a misplaced concern for symmetry in the display? It surely can't be a conservation issue if it's able to travel to the US. But my more profound reservation about the Utrecht exhibition was the truly dreadful staging, which is possible the worst I've ever seen.
The lighting created shadows from the frames that obscured material parts of Wtewael's small pictures. In this on the figures point towards a head that can't be seen. This photograph actually lightens the obscured section, which is invisible in the exhibition.
Even my favourite, the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis was partly obscured. Here's a detail from the shadows, showing how much is hidden:
It amazes me that pictures can be sent across the globe so they can be seen together, only for the effect to be ruined by thoughtless presentation.
Another picture is spoiled by a big lump of dirt inside the glass vitrine. The thing that makes me really angry about details like this is not only that it so impinges on our ability to appreciate the art, but also that so many museums will strip a painting down and re-do it if there's so much as a speck of discoloured retouching. They'll restore at great cost and risk and often causing irreversible damage, all in the name of making the picture look better. But then they won't spend five minutes cleaning the glass in front of it.

I made a special daytrip to Utrecht to see this show, taking time off work to fly to Amsterdam and get the train to Utrecht. Not only that, I had to endure passport control at Standsted Airport (if you've been, you'll know what I'm talking about). All that to see this exhibition. And yet the organisers couldn't be bothered to take five minutes to clean the glass sufficiently for a key exhibit to be seen unobscured.


  1. Michael,do you know when and where that show will come to America?Last time we saw a show of Utrecht art was the Carravagisti of Utrecht,an uneven but still a great pleasure.
    Your remarks on paintings are penetrating,sensitive and at times shocking with common-sense,like the one about cat's way of drinking!! Thanks for your writing.

    1. Thank you! It will be at the National Gallery in Washington June 28 to October 4, and the MFA Houston November 1 to January 31 2016. I do hope you can get to one of them.

  2. Thanks .I am only about 4 hours from DC,so National Gallery is my choice. Looking again at my stash of Wtevael's reproductions I have to agree with your criticism of his anatomical awkwardness and even worse at times. To me it is the extreme theatricality that is hard to enjoy. It is more, much more than rhetorical, it is giving the scene an air of worst acting theater. Still- when he is good he it truly a giant.

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