Western artistic virtuosity
At the beginning of the 17th century, at a time when the Netherlands was one of the epicentres of western artistic virtuosity, a group of Dutch painters had the bright idea to embark upon an initiatory journey to Rome. There, they were stopped in their tracks when they saw the paintings of Caravaggio and his numerous followers. A handful of them, when they returned to Utrecht, were very influenced in their practice by the Italian master. They are known as the Caravaggisti (or Caravagesques).
They mainly produced portraits and genre scenes with a characteristic style foregrounding virtuosic representation that plays with chiaroscuro. Today it’s also Utrecht, home to the Centraal Museum, where you have to go to see the leading painters of this genre. But the institution is undergoing renovations until the summer. In the meantime, the director Bart Rutten is staging an original exhibition in the available space which places these maestros of Caravaggism, taken from the permanent collections, in dialogue with video art.
The video works all come from the largest collection of this discipline in the world, belonging to Pamela and Richard Kramlich from San Francisco, which they started in 1995. The couple pushed this passion to the extent that they had their house constructed in the Napa Valley region by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron specially to display these works, which number around 400.
Tennis match through time
The Utrecht exhibition, christened “Double Act”, which primarily features big names from these two sides of art history, is not a direct dialogue between the eras but instead more closely resembles a sort of tennis match through time. “It was important to prove that these artworks which deal with the future can be favourably brought into contact with those from the past,” observes Pamela Kramlich. “Regardless of the era, human beings repeat themselves in their tensions and anxiety.”
Wildfires and Bill Viola
She alludes for example to the wildfires that have recently wreaked havoc across California. This is a subject that has been symbolically addressed by the American art star Bill Viola (born in 1951) in “The Crossing” from 1996, depicting a man caught in a fire on one side and submerged in water on the other. Nearby there is a painting on display by Paulus Moreelse (1571-1636) made around 1634, “The Punishment of Prometheus”, which depicts the stealer of fire from Greek mythology in the throes of suffering.
Domination of the southern hemisphere
The Irish artist Richard Mosse (born in 1980) used an infrared camera to film the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013. The colours, which are particularly beautiful, contrast with the dramatic context of the installation over multiples screens. They respond to the marvellous painting by Ambrosius Bosschaert de Jonge (1609-1645), a still life animated by two spectacular parrots. A museum note states: “these birds can be considered proof of the first colonial exportations: a manifestation of the domination of the southern hemisphere.”
Bruce Nauman and Steve McQueen
The visit continues with the great American performer Bruce Nauman (born in 1941) who in a historic film from 1990, a self-portrait, filled a room with his voice saying “Ok Ok Ok” over and over again (See here the report about the Bill Viola show in Venice). This is placed alongside portraits of ancient philosophers painted by Hendrick ter Bruegghen (1588-1629). In a striking video by the English filmmaker and artist Steve McQueen (born in 1969), “Just Above My Head”, the artist is unable to see his own image, which is placed not far from the depiction of an unusual horse which stands out due to its white coat.
These confrontations, which force a sideways shift in looking at contemporary art, allow us to discover other aspects of current creation.
Until 15 January, Centraal Museum, Utrecht. https://www.centraalmuseum.nl/nl
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