Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Too Good for Puns

It would be far too easy, when setting out to write about Cologne, to make some pathetic joke about 4711 or Eau de. But I'm not going to, because I am too genuinely impressed to start taking the mickey.

What I am impressed by is the Wallraf Museum - or more particularly by its curators, most especially the people who write the information that goes up on its galleries' walls.

At last I have found a gallery where they actually tell you something that is helpful, something that gives you a genuine insight into what the artists who made the work on display were actually trying to do, something that helps you understand the perspective of the people who first stood in front of that work many centuries ago. At last I have found a gallery that provides a few keys to start unlocking the world of the past, helping you to look - if only fleetingly and dimly - through the eyes of the people of the time.

I may be exposing my startling ignorance - far from the first time, alas - but until I went into the Wallraf, I was unaware that there was more than a decorative reason for the golden backgrounds in medieval paintings. One of the wall captions brought me this revelation:

"A gilded background is commonly found in mediaeval panel paintings because it is seen as the embodiment of divine light."

I should have guessed, I suppose, but I am remarkably unimaginative. It was wonderful to look at pictures like this with a new understanding:

Simone Martini, Siena c.1284 - 1344 Avignon, Mary with the Child 1316-1317

Again, a floor above, in a gallery of paintings made some two hundred years later, I came across one of those paintings that have always somewhat baffled me - the ones that show a carcase hanging in an unknown room. The wise soul behind the scenes at the Wallraf understood my predicament. After all my years of wandering round galleries, brow furrowed, wondering why people long ago painted pictures of raw meat, enlightenment came at last:

"This gaping, eviscerated carcase of a sow is hanging from a beam in the hallway of a farmhouse. All the details of the creature's body, its skeleton, the muscles, the layers of fat and the sinews are brightly lit. The shudder we feel at the sight of the pig's opened body is enough to remind us of our own deaths. The warnings against immoderation are given here with none of the joys of a narrative accompaniment":

Joachim Beuckelaer, Antwerp c. 1533-1574, A Slaughtered Pig

I won't go on and on and on, although there was so much of interest - explanations of pictures that were really a kind of prototype of today's graphic novels:

Labelled "The Passion in Cinemascope" this is by a Master of the Passion who worked in Cologne between 1415 and 1440. The painting was made between 1430 and 1435 and is called the Passion of Christ in 31 Scenes. If you can persuade two friends to lay their Ipads side by side with yours, you might be able to get an idea of the thing as a whole

This is captioned, "Narrating with pictures, Cologne style (as opposed to Gangnam style?). It was made by an unknown Cologne artist between 1450 and 1460 and is a Devotional Picture with 12 scenes of the life of Christ

of how egg tempera was made; of the evolving approach to landscape and portraiture; of how painters developed luminous colour through layering coats of paints .....

I said I wouldn't go on but I can't resist quoting from one more wall board, this one more general in scope than those I've quoted up until now. It is an introduction to an entire room. In this text, the writer tries to help the visitor understand the approach to existence that was prevalent at the time the pieces on display were made. There were many equally instructive wallboards in other rooms, deomonstraing, I believe, the thought that the people at the Wallraf museum have given to what the institution is trying to do.

I applaud them and I wish other art galleries would follow their example. Unfortunately, in my experience most museum administrations provide either bare historical facts about a painter - dates, who he painted for, very little more - or very abstract comments about harmony of colour and composition that don't clarify much at all. Here is how they do it in Cologne. It works for me:

"Vision and Reality
In this gallery one can feel the enormous tension which accompanied people's lives during the late Middle Ages, an era of change.On the one side was the daily reality that surrounded them: human environments from the town and country crept into the altarpieces in the form of backgrounds. On the other side there was the prospect of life after death. This was linked with hopes of eternal life in Paradise, but also with fears of punishment in Hell's fire. The painters developed specific forms and ideas to depict these opposites. One ingenious Cologne painter "portrayed" the river and land sides of his home town on the front and rear sides of a panel. But for a visionary subject, the apparition of Mary and Jesus, that same artist used a number of large rounded forms. They are arranged rhythmically, or indeed almost musically in his composition. A comparison between this "Glorification of the Virgin" and the neighbouring paintings reveals that such large, rounded forms were in fact a highly popular means of depicting mysterious and mystical visions of the end of time. Unlike people today, history was not regarded in the Middle Ages as flowing ever onward. The understanding of history at that time was "teleological", which is to say directed towards a goal. The goal and simultaneously the end of history was the Last Judgement and the Apocalypse, the Resurrection of Humankind, and the descent of the New Jerusalem (Paradise) to Earth. This serves as the common denominator of the quite diverse paintings in this gallery":

To leaven all this dry stuff, here are a few pictures I thought were particularly charming - or, in the case of the last one, just very, very striking and somehow more modern than its time:

Somehow I didn't write down the details of this, but a great many nuns get massacred, St Ursula may be involved and it is all set beside the city of Cologne. I am especially fond of the fish - and the fisherman look a bit like something out of Tove Jansson's Who Will Comfort Toffle. The next few pictures are all of it. Again some friendly Ipads laid side by side may allow a full view of the entire thing

Look, look, there is Cologne cathedral - and, so remarkably, it is still there today

Perhaps I went overboard a bit with this picture (overboard, geddit? Yes, it's true, I can't really completely rid this blog of puns) but for some reason it appeals to me a lot and I've not seen anything quite like it

This was captioned, "And One More Spoonful for Daddy" & the text explained that every single object in it has a significance beyond the ordinary, (loaf of bread & jug of wine point towards Last Supper, etc). It is by Jacob Jansz who worked in Harlem between 1483 & 1509 & it is called The Holy Family at Table. It was painted between 1495 & 1500

 I was too hopelessly sloppy to note down who painted this lovely tryptych, but I like the animals and the background landscapes shown in the next few photographs of details of it

This is the Birth of Christ by Aert Claesz (Aertgen van Leyden) who lived in Leiden from 1498 to 1564 and painted this between 1525 and 1530. I find it fascinating - that great red figure with its back to us; and look at his(?) shoes

If you want to see more pictures, you can look at Swanning around, my tumblr account, or my Instagram, zedmkc - I will try to get round to putting more up there before too long. I only saw a small bit of the collection, so I will also add more to the tumblr next time I visit Cologne.

Oh crumbs, I almost forgot - the museum also contains possibly the ugliest thing ever produced in the Middle Ages, something they describe as a piece of Medieval multimedia - that is to say a painting with horrid ceramic heads sticking out of it. If you're going to the Wallraf with children, for goodness sake don't let them see it; it's the stuff of nightmares, it really is:

Made in Cologne between 1425 and 1435, but no-one is owing up to it, it is called Christ on the Cross between Mary and John


  1. Food for thought. Great to see you found some good museum information. Not to mention those amazing paintings. I love it when museums genuinely try & talk to visitors, helping us to 'get it'. Plus. it seems, you were allowed to take photos. Good all round.

    1. It is rare - we were at the Groeninge Museum in Bruges the day before yesterday and it was back to useless info again. Amazingly empty, considering it houses to of the great van Eyk works. People were waiting in two hour queues for a boat ride or a ride in a horsedrawn carriage but there only about 10 people in the museum.