The Treasures of Kenwood House and local collectors fill the upper galleries of the SAM. La Skibska has made repeat visits and now offers this lyrical reflection on the art of seeing art—of making a museum trip a truly special occasion—and the art itself, accompanied by some contemporary still lifes of her own.
The SAM in Seattle—I prefer to go there with my friend, with whom I share:
an equal passion for art and admiration of elegant interiors
a love of photography and lavender (the darkest variety from one of the local lavender farms on Whidbey Island)
a delight in the local Penn Cove claims in white wine and glass of champagne on a Sunday morning
an appreciation of the complementary view of the volcanic Mt. Baker, snow-capped year-round and here admired from the hospitable lawn on Whidbey
We are fascinated with modern Scandinavian design, the Royal Copenhagen, Georg Arthur Jensen’s work. Fragrances and good books unify us as well.
We travel—not together, but extensively. We journey together only metaphorically—through ages and darkened museum’s rooms.
We regularly make art escapades to the SAM to visit the exhibitions and afterwards dissect them, immersed in the nearby and tastefully designed restaurant before a splendid view of the sound. I would say that the view is a big competitor to our reflections. Quite frequently, the skies and the water get our attention, but not in an antagonistic way. The natural beauty triggers and makes unavoidable certain comparisons. It becomes a necessary part of the conversation.
Water, water everywhere
The cold and rarely peaceful waters of the Netherlands in Northern Europe may remind one of Puget Sound. The sun shines over them frequently, piercing through semi-transparent clouds and imitating a pearl presented on the half-shell. We relish it. The skies get even more dramatic in the late autumn and winter time. Here, one might forget at which sky one is looking—that of the Netherlands or its paintings or the Northwest.
The beauty of the Northwest and its colors’ resemblance to an open oyster also bring my friend and me together. We like the weather and the color of the skies and the natural mystery and the natural wonders of this part of the world—so no complaints over the weather. We have only admiration that makes our expectation bigger for more of the natural phenomena, that caresses our eyes and nourishes our souls with beauty.
Sometimes, sitting at the restaurant we witness something that one could call the battles of the chthonic deities over the sound—when dark clouds chased by the strong wind come from the West, threading the discreetly shining, late winter sun with a sudden shower. Usually, the grand drama of surges of uneven grayness and density come out of the skies and roll over the sound, covering the horizon and smearing contours of the buildings—and then is soon over. A staccato washed away by a short and intense rain from a hellishly dark cloud. All comes back to normal, to the sun- and salt-bleached color of the sky and the sunny and playful reflections on the surface of the water.
Another delight to our eyes is to observe the shortness of a winter day. The sun leaves the stage casting some last strikes of acrid, pale yellow beams and semi-transparent white shadows. The darkness rises from the ground devouring more and more of the view. The darkness penetrates the architecture, into the warm interior of the restaurant, making the little flickering flames of candles on our table gradually more visible.
Daze upon days
It is so hard to digest the entire exhibition at once. (I have gone six times now.) That first day, we sat over a glass of carefully selected wine (an Italian pinot of the color of light hay, matching the color of the day so well) adding up our museum post-visit impressions. We decided that we were going to revisit Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough and the others. Thus the thrill of excitement to visit the museum comes again. I like museums. I treat them with a similar respectful attention as Holly Golightly treated Tiffany’s. (Our attire is as a matter of fact unwritten, but a well-cultivated tradition. We dress a notch higher as if to express our appreciation and our devotion to art. Perhaps it is vanity, but how pleasant.)
Our first visit of the current exhibition of Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London and its local supplement European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle was barely an introduction—more a reconnaissance to see what the exhibition holds for us. Instantly, I got the impression that I must refresh my knowledge to keep up with the event.
My conclusion was simple: The Lord Iveagh must have brewed delicious beer in great quantity. Otherwise he would not have been able to build such an impressive collection.
(Was it a faux pas or a big faux pas to not drink any Guinness before reveling in his passion?)
Golden Age, Cold Waters
My favorite part of the exhibition are the paintings from the period of time known as the Dutch Golden Age. The painted water open the exhibition—water which travels in waves from one side to the other in the gilded and richly decorated frames, carrying proudly the ships and their precious cargo. The water emphasizes and reflects the architecture of Dordrecht. Looking at a peaceful maritime painting by Aelbert Cuyp, it is hard to imagine that in 1421 the water inundated the town and one could only see the tower and water…and even more water. It was said that throughout its history, Holland lost more people to floods than to all its wars. True or exaggerated, the balance sheet is grim.
Troubled water, still water, turquoise water, shallow, frozen water—it is everywhere, in harbors, in canals (outside of the dry safety of the Museum, as well). On the frozen surface of canals, there are figures of ice skaters created by the master of the apotheosis of ice, Isaac van Ostade (“View of a Canal in Winter”). His “dancers” young and old are dancing a pre-winter dance on the brownish-pinkish surface of ice. The red dot of the red hat of the boy in the lower right corner of the composition guides the eyes of the viewer further into the frozen time, the wintry landscape. The elements of reality, the steeple of a church are looming on the left side of the misty horizon, and on the right side, quite clearly visible, there is—I would call it—a Honey Bucket on stilts, contemporary to Ostade’s time. Courage was needed to use it…
Expect a Crowd
The second room of the exhibition is filled with people. Next to the door there is a portrait of Franz Hals’ friend, Pieter van der Broecke. In a jaunty pose, the elegantly dressed man with a quadrupled golden chain and splendid laces looked at us slyly with his alive eyes as we asked him how was the session with Hals, the painter. “Did it end with one glass of wine—or begin with one? You seem so relaxed.”
A understandable and happy smile as an answer.
“Perhaps two of them, then,” I continued, and his smile became broader and happier. What did he want to tell us? That he treated life well and it did the same for him? If so, he belongs to a small group of fortunate individuals.
On one of the walls of the room, the Catholic queen of Protestant England, Henrietta Maria (painted by Anthony van Dyck) is standing, silent and motionless. She is not fond of the situation, it seems, with her portrait hung beside two of les peasants. Perhaps the company has not been selected carefully enough. How could one juxtapose the great kingdom with the miniature Netherlandish republic? About what could she converse with a couple busy peasants?
She is standing there somewhere behind herself, distant and lonely. She is comforted neither by her elegant (undoubtedly designer) attire nor her jewelry. On the other hand, it is hard to be surprised seeing her royal lack of enthusiasm. Her tumultuous life was meandering dangerously at that time. Silence and peace were privileges that followed her only on canvases, executed by some highly talented hands.
the aging man with some brushes and a palette and mild and widely opened eyes fixed inside of his soul, a bit above the visitors heads. He must have been seen by many visitors. How many? I would like to ask him who impressed him the most and why.
He executed his self-portrait so well that to pose any question seems so natural. One would like to strike up a conversation with the Master. The subject of the imaginary conversation would have been—the magic of his art.
The great artist is standing (in his studio—I guess, for that would be the place where I would feel the most comfortable to paint myself), looking at us with ease and distance which usually comes from experience. His comfort is almost infectious. The crowd can’t disturb his internal silence and his external peace. One can only envy, observing the Master’s mastery.
As he painted himself he was not in the best financial situation. He was not the youngest man either, but he knew something about himself and our human condition—some kind of secret knowledge. Something that brings one strength and certainty…
The future back then was as unpredictable as it is now, but he is not afraid of it. He is nurtured in the inmost of his soul by a luminous secret, standing before us with lightness, promising wordlessly to share the mystery of life and art with everyone who is eager to learn.
I was captivated by his wise and tolerant eyes. Were they like that in reality? Perhaps I only saw them as I wanted to see them…
Whatever it was, Rembrandt’s self-portrait has exerted an impression over me in a new way.
I can’t tell when I saw Rembrandt’s work the first time. I can only point vaguely toward my childhood. One of my early memories about Rembrandt was a black and white, pre-war postcard with the “Deposition from the Cross.” I do not know how that postcard came to my collection, but I still remember the silent drama of the worn, monochrome photo. It belonged to my collection of postcards kept in a shoe box. I do not even know what happened to that box and my collection. The photo disappeared from my life, but not Rembrandt. I have seen him here and there, at the most famous art museums around the world—the giant, the master, the obvious.
But the current exhibition has revealed to me Rembrandt’s face anew, and not only through his self-portrait but also and especially through a series of small prints. They have been elegantly presented in an adjacent room.
I went through that room many times, for I like prints to a frenzy. I still think that I need to make another trip to the museum just to spend some time exclusively with the prints. This time I shall be equipped with a good magnifying glass. It is needed in order to taste all the delicious details.
Rembrandt’s warmth and his deep humanism and his benevolent attitude towards his fellow man have always been obvious to me. A print with two beggars, male and female, facing each other got my special attention (“The beggar man and the beggar woman conversing”). I stopped in front of that scene, thinking it a rendezvous of the beggars’ love. I think it is the right place to mention that the little Republic had founded poorhouses for children and old people, which led to a social system without equal in the world.
That thought made me feel some warm movements in my chest. I was mesmerized by the couple and the poverty of their sweet secret. They have been presented with cordial warmth and royal dignity. Their conversation is calm. I imagine—perhaps unnecessarily—that they lowered their voices almost to whisper some precious words of care. That little print becomes a grand reason to revisit the exhibition as well.
Among the others, there is a print depicting the Good Samaritan. The subject itself is highly didactic and well known. In a biblical parable of selfless charity, a Samaritan helped a traveler who had been attacked by robbers, stripped and beaten. The Samaritan helped the victim onto his own horse, took him to an inn and paid for his lodging. The print shows the arrival to the inn and…a squatting dog—a rather earthy detail that Rembrandt did not hesitate to insert into a solemn religious image. For me the story was told with compassion and empathy, and yet with a good sense of humor. The depiction is so alive and colorful that my reaction was an instant desire to sing (out loud) an obscure folk song that I have heard: “My dog has fleas” in a thick Appalachian accent. Those who want to smile warmly over the parable, I am directing straight to the source.
Another print that drew a smile was “St. Jerome Beside a Pollard Willow”—a work executed with crisp elegance, at once silent and eloquent. The story is simple: The saint located on the right side of the print is diligently translating—I guess—the Aramaic Bible into Greek. In the middle of the print, a gnarled willow tree stands calmly. The lion, the saint’s steadfast companion, waits nearby, lying behind the willow tree (because it has the time). The big cat is sticking his round head from the left side of the tree, fully aware of his historical and artistic role in bringing balance to the composition of the print. Silence and peace envelope these beautiful moments. One almost can hear the noise of Jerome’s pen moving through the yellowish kilometers of parchment.
My admiration for beautiful old and new objects is almost proverbial. I like to see, to photograph, to use, to posses, to paint, to share objects with my fellow men—at least with those who appreciate objects as much as I do. Hence, I like still-life paintings from the Netherlands. The everyday objects have been transformed under the skillful hands of artist into anthems of veneration for objects. The emotional attachment to objects was so great that pictures and portraits of them were commissioned as if to confirm their existence and prolong their lives. In an atmosphere of peace, the small Netherlands, with a population of barely two million, became a colonial empire, a flourishing, powerful country and political organism strong enough to defy powers like France, England and Spain. In the seventeenth century, while Europe was torn by religious wars, the Netherlands was an unusual, universally admired asylum of freedom, tolerance and prosperity. Paintings and the veneration of objects reflect that situation of freedom and prosperity so well.
The leftovers of a breakfast are titled “Still Life with a Tankard, a Plate of Oysters and Glasses on a Table,” painted by Willem Claesz Heda. The title is long and it describes quite well what is happening on the almost monochromatic surface of the canvas. (Monochromatic paintings were fashionable in Haarlem in seventeenth century).
I wish I could meet the person of taste and sophistication who had feasted on the immaculately white silk tablecloth. It covers a part of the table with the silver-white light. The light shines on the folds of the fabric, lying gently on the surface of the silver-grey tankard and a tilted silver bowl. The fallen glass lazily reflects the light, which also bestows a silky touch to the halved oyster shells. However, the scattered here-and-there hazelnut shells seems to absorb, not reflect the light. The person or the people who feasted here remain invisible, but all the objects that they touched just a moment ago tell the story about their passion for beauty and life and…also bear a warning of its brevity.
In the Netherlands when Calvinists’ restraint coexisted with conspicuous consumption, artists tried to have it both ways by embedding moralizing messages about the brevity of life within gorgeous displays.
Flowers, before and after their time and ours
A sinister memento—vanitas vanitum at omnia vanitas—hangs forever over the splendidly depicted specimen of flora: bouquets of painted tulips, narcissi and roses as well. But at first glance the viewer’s eye enjoys their shapes and their colors. It seems that they can almost produce the fragrance.
The thought about the flowers fragile beauty and their short lives comes, fortunately, later.
Somehow William Wordsworth’s poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (beautifully interpreted in an American film directed by Elia Kazan, “Splendor in a Grass”) came to my mind as I was admiring one of the flowery paintings.
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind…
May it be so.
(I have tried to do some justice to these works with my words. I certainly could not reproduce them on my own, nor could I expect anyone to see their true beauty diminished on the screen. I thus decided to illustrate this essay with my photographs of still lifes in the silver-grey of our clime, coeval to us:
Seattle, AD 2013)
The exhibitions Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London and European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle will be on display at Seattle Art Museum through May 19.