This week saw the North American premiere of the 9-part television series ‘Civilisations’: a sort of 21st-century global update of Sir Kenneth Clark’s famous program ‘Civilisation’ from 1969, detailing the history of western art (but which did not, however, prevent Sir Kenneth from being swiftly defeated by Jack Bodell on ‘Boxing Tonight’, as depicted in this Monty Python sketch). To accompany the programme, BBC posted this article featuring Schama-ful remarks by one of the hosts, art historian Simon Schama, on five masterpieces of European art, including four from the early modern period. Schama begins with Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez’s enigmatic 1656 painting of the Spanish royal family full of complex forms of visual representation. As he puts it, ‘I don’t think anyone has yet quite got to the bottom of’ its ‘ultimate meaning’. Indeed, not only is no-one quite sure what the sitters are looking at, not to mention what the figure of Velázquez (embedded in the picture) is painting as well as what the distant reflection of the king and queen means, but so-called art critics have failed to observe the painted-over doodle of a final queue of Spanish soldiers climbing into a large bronze donkey (which ended ‘La Rojan’ war against the Portu-Greeks), also known as the Last Men in Ass.
The second painting is Rembrandt van Rijn’s striking group portrait of 1642 which came to be known as The Night Watch (pictured above). Schama is not exaggerating when he describes it as ‘propulsive, it moves through that frame into our own space’: seeing the original at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (on a blissfully crowd-free day), I thought I was encountering a form of ‘Time Lord art’ (see the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who), i.e., a 3D moment-in-time caught on canvas. Schama rightly comments on its cinematic quality, as a motion picture with its own soundtrack: ‘Everything is exploding, a gun is being fired, a drum is being beaten, a dog is barking.’ He characterises The Night Watch as a representation of a peculiarly Dutch republican form of liberty: ‘a perfect miracle of dynamism and discipline together….a painting about freedom with order’. Far less radical and rather more offensive, however, is Rembrandt’s forgotten monster-piece depicting a group of unclean military noblemen taking a bath in full view of the public, The Knight Wash, which might be described as ‘a painting about freedom with odour’.
Schama also ‘highlights’ his favourite Caravaggio, The Madonna of Loreto from 1604-5. He lauds its irreverent, fleshly depictions of Virgin and baby Christ, whom he describes as ‘a bonny bambino overfed on milk and pasta’. Schama might also have discussed Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro, the interplay of light and dark which in this painting illuminates the divine pasta-fed belly while keeping the feet of the Virgin Mary in shadow, hence the alternative title The Madonna of Low-ray-toe.
Rather more ‘elevated’ is Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s ceiling fresco at the residence of the Prince-Bishops of Würzburg, Bavaria. Schama takes a ‘shine’ to Tiepolo’s massive Baroque ‘vision of Apollo the Sun God illuminating the four continents of the world’: it is the largest such fresco ‘in the world…you can walk around this space and it is a world in motion. It’s almost as though he anticipates movie directors in his insistence that everything floats, everything is elastic.’ Little does Schama know that Tiepolo in fact worked for the movies, given his commission for the smutty Seth Rogen animated feature The Sausage Party. Tiepolo’s movie fresco, considered a ‘Baroque Bar-b-que’ mashed-erpiece but omitted from the final cut, depicts thousands of Bavarian sausages piled high up to the heavens topped by A-pollo (Italian god of the sun and chicken wieners), also known as the ‘Hot Dog God’, and can be found on the ceiling-casing of the ‘Würst-berg’ residence.
In sum, it’s too bad that the BBC didn’t consult me on this TV show; I would certainly have brought its elevated tone down to the depths, as I would’ve been happy to serve as the programme’s ‘pun-dit’.
‘Til next week,
Director, Early Modern Studies Program