Thursday, 17 December 2009

Jan van Hogspeuw finds Beauty

Adriaen Brouwer: Unpleasant Duties of a Father. Oil on panel. 20 x13 cm. Alte Meister Gallerie, Dresden, Germany.

In Larkin's poem, 'The Card Players', "Jan van Hogspeuw staggers to the door /and pisses at the dark". It is, he says at the end of the poem, "the secret bestial place".

The Flemish-born painter, Adriaen Brouwer (1605-1638), who worked mostly in Holland, was just thirty-two when he died and was buried in a common grave. He had been a pupil of Franz Hals. Most of his pictures are very small - though this is one of the smallest - and of this kind, that is to say low-life genre, showing peasants in rough inns, quarelling, fighting, belching, playing cards,tickling each other, reaching under skirts and into codpieces, gobbing, playing music, singing and bawling. It is generally assumed that he spent time in such inns. He certainly never made money. Nevertheless, his work was collected by his contemporaries, Rubens and Rembrandt, who appreciated the sheer beauty of his painting.

Beauty seems an odd word to use when it comes to subjects like his. There were many others working in the field. Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685) was a fellow student of Hals's. Jan Steen (1626-1679) was of the next generation. Before them all came Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569) who had painted peasants at weddings and peasants dancing: little squat people kissing, kicking up their heels like jolly asses. And Bosch who, when he was not painting demons, painted passing pedlars and country scenes.

That is the subject. The vision is not quite the same thing. One could call it realism as opposed to the idealism of the Italians, but it is too comical to be simply realistic. It is knowingly funny. But while Brueghel was the greatest and most comprehensive of these painters - one of the great painters of the world - Brouwer was, though minor by comparison, the more beautiful.

Why were the subjects funny? Why were they subjects at all? Why beautiful? Because in themselves they would not be thought beautiful, if by beauty we mean grace, proportion, and potential for heroic action or heroic languor.

The background to this is too well-known for me crudely to run through it, enough to say that with the advent of Protestantism and the disappearance of the noble patron and the wealthy ecclesiastical patron, the notion of idealised form began to vanish along with the subject of religion. The artist was out on the street, trying to sell his art on the market and in the shop. Artists began to specialise: some in landscape, some in seascape, some in interiors, some in townscapes, some in animals, some in still life and sub-groups of still-life, some in portraits or civic groups, and some in genre scenes, that is to say scenes of apparently ordinary people doing ordinary things. Rembrandt was the one great exception who did everything, even including religious scenes, beginning to define what a humane, Protestant sense of religion, so suspicious of image as idolatry, might find acceptable and inspiring: a new kind of image.

Genre was ordinary people doing ordinary things, except they weren't exactly ordinary. They were often divided according to class and arranged into narratives that illustrated, commented on, or referred to the wise saws and proverbs of the times, what one might call its developing, half-conscious ideology. Vermeer (one of the greatest of all painters anywhere and any time) and De Hooch, along with Metsu and others, specialised in in middle-class houses and events, though brothel scenes and love assignations were quite common among them. Some showed the servant class at their unreliable antics. And some, like Brouwer went to the bottom of the social scale.

It wasn't people at the bottom of the social scale who were his patrons, of course. They could not afford paintings. He was painting for the classes above, those who wanted to share a joke about those grubby peasants whose hovels they might have passed on journeys: the vulgar, the uncouth. The peasants were the joke. They were being patronised. What most clients wanted was the equivalent of those little iconic figures we even now find on the doors of public toilets in some places. Being plain if well-turned out burghers themselves, they simply wanted such things well done. The Lowlands for low humour, we grin. The mannekin pisses. You wouldn't get Michelangelo's or Donatello's David doing that.

Along with the mocking there was the notion of the body we all knew, doing all those things we know it did but did not think of as lovely. It was the peasant's body that could bear that burden. As for pissing, our servants will do that for us, as someone might - probably should - have said.

But Brouwers! He is the Watteau of the hovel, the barn and the dive. He is an exquisite painter. That won't be obvious from a reproduction but it needs stressing that that is precisely what he is. You have to see his work before you, exactly as you have to see Vermeer's. He paints the crude, the low joke, the paunch and the rags, so the paint itself is gorgeous. It is his compliment to the unidealised human form and the unidealised human sphere.

And more than that, he is extraordinarily tender. Not his subjects, no - it is he, his hand and his eye that are tender. The blue hat in the picture above, for example, is wonderful, a touch of genius. Normally you'd expect a colour to be picked up elsewhere else in a composition, to form a sort of rhyme or complement. Not here. Hardly at all. The soft violet-blue hat blossoms like, well, a violet. It is the poor man's flower. The bellowing face behind the father softens into the dark. The father wipes the baby's bottom slightly screwing up his face. It is not the subjects, to repeat, that are tender: it is Brouwer's treatment of them. And so small! So delicate, like a child's messy hand.

People are as they are: they do what they do. These are among the things they do. This may be how they (we) do it. We are not all beautiful. We are not all marble and silk and litheness and power. We are of this world too. The world recognizes a joke, it understands what it is to be a butt of jokes, to be, in effect, a baby's butt, a belly laugh for the superior. And this too belongs to the world, and it enters this tiny dark intimate space this way, delicate as Watteau, Jan van Hogspeuw and Dirk Dogstoerd and Old Prijck,on their way out to where, as Larkin writes, "the rain / Courses in cart-ruts down the deep mud lane", which is only the flipside of the Voyage to Cythera, to a different kind of music.


ps The image wasn't visible for some readers. Do let me know if you can't see this new version.


Nicole S said...

Belated thanks for yesterday's wonderful, extraordinarily leery and utterly hilarious song. As for today, I have no picture to look at. Perhaps it is my computer? I've enjoyed the text anyway.

George S said...

That's strange, Nicole. I can see the picture before me as I write...

I'll try to find another version of it.

George S said...

I've put up a different source. See if this is better.. Do let me know...

Nicole S said...

Yes that is better, thank you. Fancy that, a new man. I wonder how usual that was. And why the woman is shouting. The blue hat is indeed very fine, as is the soft baby flesh.

George S said...

Interesting title to the painting, Nicole. It says 'Duties' which implies an assumed habit, as well as a range of other obligations.

I suspect that terms like 'new man' have class origins. 'New man', in fact, feels rather Guardian to me. I never feel more middle class than when reading the Guardian, the self-anointed conscience of the enlightened middle class.

Márai, I suspect, would have been a Telegraph reader. How complicated class is in England!

Mark Granier said...

Thanks for this George. I don't know Brouwer's work. Beauty isn't an odd word at all, though I'd probably need to visit one of his actual paintings before I could fully appreciate the tenderness. I'd be very surprised if I came to consider Brouwer's works more beautiful than Bruegel's, but I am open to being surprised, or I like to believe I am.

Interesting what you say about the violet hat, the colour echoed in the background to the right of his shoulder. Interesting also how the two faces differ, not only in age and expression, but also, seemingly, in treatment, the old woman in the background more softened (as you say); in a narrowed depth of field.

The man's accurately rendered expression (I can almost smell the shit) seems quite modern to me, even contemporary. But the woman's open-mouthed, soft-skulled face reminds me a little of Bruegel's peasants, and far more so of Goya's (the shadow of Old Prijck).

Anyway, wishing you and yours a bestially peaceful Christmas.

George S said...

Thank you, Mark.

I think beauty may be the right word here, not because Brueghel isnt beautiful, but he is many other things too. Brouwer is of course far more limited, but the beauty has, I think, a greater poignancy precisely because of that.

Have a very good Christmas and New Year yourself!