European artists of the past often depicted exotic animals in a way we now know to be wildly inaccurate. Since most would not have had the benefit of direct observation but were usually reliant only on a written description, accompanied by a sketchy illustration that may itself have been anatomically wide of the mark, this is far from surprising. Albrecht Dürer’s rhinoceros of 1515, depicting the creature as if its thick hide were a suit of armour, comes to mind – though the intricate woodcut Dürer made from this second-hand encounter also happens to be an incredible artistic achievement, and one which helped spread the German artist’s reputation far and wide.
But a lamb, surely, of which plenty could be found gambolling through the fields of medieval Europe, can’t have presented any such mysteries, especially for an artist as observant, as none had been before him, of the tiniest material detail as the 15th-Century Flemish artist Jan van Eyck.
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This is why the unveiling of a part of Van Eyck’s masterpiece, The Ghent Altarpiece, or as it’s also known, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, came as a shock to many. Having undergone years of painstaking restoration, ‘before and after’ images of the artist’s sacrificial lamb trended on social media, drawing the response that the big reveal was simply too freakishly weird-looking and might we please have the earlier one back.
Sixteenth-Century denizens of Ghent might have had similar thoughts, for it was then that Van Eyck’s ‘humanoid’ sheep, which appears on the lower central panel of the opened multi-panel (polyptych) altarpiece, was altered to look more sheep-like. The creature’s ears, which Van Eyck had positioned where human ears would be, were painted over and replaced by ears positioned higher up on its head. The creature’s gimlet eyes, which we now see staring back at us with an all-seeing intensity at the front of its head, were placed at the sides of its head, giving the lamb a naturally more ovine and passive appearance. (During an earlier restoration in the early 1950s, the lamb gained four ears, as some of this overpainting and varnish was removed). At the same time, the mouth and nostrils were also overpainted, leading to a visage that was far less defined than Van Eyck’s original, giving the impression, at least to contemporary eyes startled by the difference, of a comically pouty moue.
The monumental altarpiece, which was finished in 1432 and resides in Ghent’s St Bavo’s Cathedral (at that time the Chapel of St John the Baptist), for which it was originally painted, is yet to undergo its third phase of restoration. This will begin in 2021 and will focus on the upper inside panels. The altarpiece was traditionally opened out to reveal the spectacular vision of the enthroned deity (identified as either Christ or God the Father, more of which later) and the Lamb of God, whose holy blood spills out into a chalice, on feast days. The outside panels are those that are visible when the hinged altarpiece is closed – and it’s these which have just been restored.
Giorgio Vasari wrote in swooning terms that Van Eyck was the inventor of oil painting
The 12 outer panels, which are far more muted in colour than the richly pigmented imagery of the interior, describe the Annunciation. Prophets and sibyls, foretelling the coming of Christ, are situated above the two panels featuring, on the viewer’s far left, the Angel Gabriel, and, on the far right panel, the Virgin Mary, their robes extravagantly presented in slightly stylised, angular folds. The panels between them feature a view of Ghent seen through two Gothic windows and a still life – a tray, a jug and a towel – symbolic of the Virgin’s purity, while below, painted in the grey tones of a grisaille, are marble statues of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. Framing these statues on each side are the suppliant figures of Jodocus Vijd, the merchant and the Burgermeister (master of citizens) who commissioned the piece, and his wife Lysbette, both, in their richly coloured robes, offering a vivid contrast to the muted palette.
Temporarily separated, these newly restored outer panels will form the dramatic focus of an exhibition examining the genius of Van Eyck, opening this month at the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent. It will also bring together half of Van Eyck’s extant paintings, which total around 20, alongside paintings by Northern European contemporaries and later artists responding to the altarpiece. Later this year, the altarpiece will find its way back to its new purpose-built visitor centre at St Bavo’s Cathedral amid other celebrations marking this important conservation and restoration work.
Even during his lifetime Van Eyck was venerated for his astonishing innovations, so much so that the altarpiece itself can be seen in terms of a series of firsts. A century after the artist’s death, at the exact time the 16th-Century overpainters, the artists Lancelot Blondeel and Jan van Scorel, were busy ‘improving’ the details of his famous altarpiece, the Florentine painter and author of The Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari wrote in swooning terms that Van Eyck was the inventor of oil painting. This was in fact a myth that continued well into the 19th Century.
However, in an important sense, Van Eyck really is the father of oil painting. What he achieved with the medium – the extreme verisimilitude and exactitude of his execution, the fine, three-dimensional modelling, the subtle depiction of light and shadow, and the extreme realism of textures – set him apart from all predecessors. He tirelessly experimented with the medium, altering its chemical balance to achieve faster drying times, and this allowed him to build up layers of translucent paint in order to achieve all those delicate and nuanced effects.
Before Van Eyck, artists depicting areas of gold would typically use gold leaf, which appeared flat and decorative on the surface of the painting. But Van Eyck used pigments to depict gold and fine metal objects, with light glinting off their surfaces, just as they would appear to the observant eye. Before Leonardo da Vinci, Van Eyck really could claim to be the master of light; he was certainly known to have studied optics. What’s more, nothing like this could have been achieved with egg tempera, which was the medium of choice among artists before the Renaissance. In terms of achieving depth, atmospheric perspective, flesh tones and sophisticated modelling, the new medium was unsurpassed, and so was Van Eyck’s handling of it.
Before the current project, carried out by Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, 70% of the Ghent Altarpiece had been overpainted and varnished. Deep layers of varnish had yellowed over time, covering the subtleties of Van Eyck’s exquisite handiwork. In addition, there was centuries of grime, and minute flecks of paint were peeling off. What the revealed passages of the original show is that those overpainted areas almost completely flattened the modelling, for example on Jodocus Vijd’s clothes, and had removed much of the soft realisation of flesh and the highly realistic flesh tones.
Meanwhile, the varnish had obscured so many intricate details, such as the marble veins of the two outer panel sculptures, and most of the architectural details in the background. We now even find cobwebs – what astonishing detail, which until now had been completely hidden – on the wall behind Lysbette’s head.
This was the very first time nudes had appeared with pubic hair in art
What’s also very striking, and has thankfully never been obscured, is the individuality of expression and emotion betrayed by the singing angels on the inner section of the altarpiece. It is in stark contrast to the idealisation of medieval art, in which all heads look the same. Moreover, the realism in the rendering of the life-sized figures of Adam and Eve also marks a new ethos in religious painting. They are (very probably) the first painted nudes to appear in an altarpiece, and are so lifelike that one can almost imagine the couple stepping out of the frame. Indeed, Adam’s toes appear to protrude over the panel frame, and he’s positioned as if he’s about to step out, while Eve teeters more passively on the edge. So dedicated was Van Eyck to reality over simple idealisation that this was the very first time nudes had appeared with pubic hair in art.
So when Van Eyck painted his holy lamb, the symbol of Christ, he knew that he didn’t want just an ordinary lamb. It would have to arrest the viewer as an extraordinary presence. After all, Van Eyck was a master of marrying the material world with that of the sacred (also with the frankly unnerving), and this he achieved throughout the work, including in the lusciously idealised landscape the lamb inhabits and in which botanists have identified almost every plant and flower. And here’s another first: this is the first landscape in Northern European painting, or at least the first we know of.
The next phase of the restoration concentrates on the upper panels of the inner altarpiece, and here, directly above the unnerving mystic lamb, we find the majestic deity, who is both emulating the style of a Russian icon (Van Eyck is clearly inspired by Byzantine art here) and an emperor who is rendered in flesh but who still suggests omnipotence. In fact, the French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres based his great painting of the Emperor Napoleon on this panel.
But is it Christ or God the Father that Van Eyck has depicted? It is a question that’s exercised art historians, and there are those who argue that the ambiguity is deliberate. It would, in fact, be among the earliest representations of the New Testament God in painting, certainly in altarpiece painting (the painted altarpiece was relatively new in any case; they would typically have been carved). Here the figure holds an extraordinarily rendered rock crystal sceptre, the symbol of pure power, while a bejewelled crown lies at his feet. He is placed directly above the tiny sacrificial lamb, in a natural hierarchy. If it’s the son of God, we can say for certain that never before had Christ himself been depicted in such a resplendent, all-powerful manner.
Director of the Musea Brugge, Till-Holger Borchert, who sits on the scientific committee of the Van Eyck exhibition, has his own views, and it’s an explanation that adds further weight to what makes Van Eyck such a beguiling artist.
“My personal take on that is that Van Eyck is a master of ambivalence,” he tells BBC Culture. “I’ve studied his paintings for a very long time and what I find fascinating is that if you look for sureties, this is not your painter. This is an artist who offers endless opportunities of interpretation and I think the figure is almost ostentatiously ambivalent. In any case,” Borchert adds, “what could be more complicated to the human mind than the Holy Trinity in Catholic theology? Van Eyck suggests that complication in the painting.”
Who knows what the restoration of the figure will reveal. But one thing is guaranteed: this unprecedentedly ambitious and complex altarpiece will continue to surprise us for many more years.
Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution is at the Museum of Fine Art Ghent, 1 February to 30 April 2020.
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Surrey Art Gallery talks return with wildlife artist – Surrey Now Leader
Surrey Art Gallery Association resumes its monthly Thursday Artist Talk series Sept. 8 with wildlife artist Leo Recilla.
The free talk at the gallery (13750 – 88 Ave.), titled Simplicity Meets Complexity, will run from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
A freelance graphic designer by trade, Recilla said he is always ready to work with his hands – and away from a screen – creating artwork based on ideas he’s compiled through the years.
Using techniques adapted from his studies in graphic design, the artist delights in combining realistic details with simple abstract or geometric forms.
The illustrated talk will highlight Spirit Animals, his ongoing portrait series, depicting the intricate relationship between wild animals and humans.
“The main subjects of the portraits, each inspired by the wildlife of British Columbia, are hand-drawn in realism with a lot of detail and interlocked within simple abstract or geometric forms that represent man-made interactions,” he said.
For these works, his predominant media are graphite and charcoal – occasionally mixing in inks or acrylic paint sparingly, to accentuate specific areas and achieve an intended effect.
Born and raised in the Philippines, Recilla emigrated to Canada in 2003, settling in Burnaby, B.C., where he’s currently based.
Aside from art, he said, he strives to broaden his creative horizons by designing logos and branding for small to mid-size businesses, taking and self-developing film photography at home, and occasionally doing woodworking.
For more information on his work, visit leorecilla.com
For more information on the Surrey Art Gallery Association, visit sagabc.com
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Concordia's Art Volt Collection aims to help launch the careers of fine art grads — University Affairs – University Affairs
The initiative includes a ‘bootcamp’ in art marketing and sales skills.
A newly launched art collection aims to support graduating students and recent alumni of Concordia University’s faculty of fine arts as they launch their careers in the competitive commercial market, while simultaneously giving the general public an opportunity to buy or rent artworks.
The Art Volt Collection (AVC) is the latest initiative of Art Volt, a platform launched in March 2020 with a variety of programs helping to help Concordia’s fine arts alumni as they transition out of school.
The new collection features about 140 artworks from 25 artists working in a variety of media, including print, painting, photography, video, ceramics and textile installations. The collection officially launched with an event at Maison du Conseil des arts de Montréal on May 17.
“It’s very important for artists to have support in the years after they graduate,” said Camille Bédard, head of AVC. “The three to five years that follow graduation are the most critical ones, because this is when artists decide if they will continue or not in their artistic path. Art Volt is there, at this pivotal moment for them.”
The not-for-profit service is supported by the Peter N. Thomson Family Innovation Fund. In 2019, the Peter N. Thomson Family Trust gave a $5.6 million gift to Concordia’s faculty of fine arts. That donation supports three areas, including the innovation fund. Each year, the AVC will make a call for submissions to acquire new art, from artists who have graduated in the past five years. Graduating students and alumni submit their work to be reviewed by a professional jury, made up of faculty, artists and curators.
Twenty-five artists were selected for the first collection, a number that could grow in the future, Ms. Bédard said. The artists’ work is showcased online, providing exposure and connections to patrons interested in renting or buying pieces, and there’s are also plans for future in-person exhibitions.
Another major component of AVC is professional development. Prior to the collection’s launch, the first group of artists attended a day and a half of “bootcamp” training, covering topics including how to properly package artwork, price pieces, and how to write a bio and artistic statement. “All the workshops that we give at the bootcamp are skills that they don’t necessarily learn at school, but they need,” Ms. Bédard said.
That focus on professional development, alongside the jury process for selection, sets the collection apart from other university initiatives that rent or sell student art. “It’s really about supporting their careers as they enter their professional life. We’re covering a wide range of skills that are part of the artistic life, but that you don’t learn while you’re at school,” Ms. Bédard said. “Art Volt is somewhat of a transition between university and real life.”
One of the artists in the first collection is Alexey Lazarev, a Montreal-based multidisciplinary visual artist who graduated from Concordia in 2019. He first participated in the Art Volt platform’s workshops and presentations before successfully submitting his work to the collection. A few of his pieces sold at the launch event, and a few more have sold through the collection’s website.
“Participating in a program like this has helped me understand the realities of the business, what it takes to be an artist, and to have some sales and make some money. It’s also good for visibility and to make new connections,” Mr. Lazarev said. “I think more universities should do a program like this; it really adds value.”
While the program’s model is unique to Concordia, Ms. Bédard sees opportunity for other universities to adapt it to meet their own needs. “I would suggest thinking, what do your artists and students need, in terms of making it into the art world? What can you offer them to help them? Maybe it’s providing them with skills and certain tools, or maybe it’s exposure,” she said.
Already, the collection has helped showcase student artists to the broader university community by providing opportunities to buy or rent original art. “There are lots of offices in universities but there was previously no way to have artworks by students in those offices,” Ms. Bédard said. “With the collection, we’ll bring artworks of Concordia students into Concordia offices, instead of having just random artworks.”
Anyone can purchase or rent artwork from the collection, but first they have to become a member of the AVC. Annual memberships start at $25, and philanthropic donations of $250 or more include automatic membership in the collection, alongside other perks. Artists set their own prices for their pieces, and the AVC takes a 30 per cent commission on sales, which Ms. Bédard said is lower than the industry standard of 50 per cent.
Already, plans are underway to expand what is available through the AVC so that graduating students and alumni from all nine departments in Concordia’s faculty of fine arts are eligible for transitional support. Acquiring a theatre play is not the same as acquiring a painting, Ms. Bédard said, so the focus will be less on buying and selling and more on providing artists with increased visibility and connections in their fields.
One way to do that is through partnerships. For example, performances will take place this August and September featuring the work of Concordia students in dance, visual arts and theatre at Art POP, the visual arts segment of the POP Montreal International Music Festival.
“The collection has just started, and already there are so many more ideas that we have in mind to develop,” Ms. Bédard said. “Having access to that visibility and exposure is really key.”
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