22 Feb 2013

Nostalgia vs Melancholy, Funerary Art

Will we enter the new era of Nostalgia? Or, perhaps another period of it, or maybe we have never been without it? Are we amidst such period?

In 2008 Vienna Museum featured hugely successful showcase of Vanitas in art. What would I give for the catalogue of it....

Favourite symbols beaming from the canvases
asking the question of Essential Melancholy:
In ictu oculi ("In the blink of an eye") a vanitas by Juan de Valdés Leal

Ubi sunt? 

¿Qué se fizo el rey don Juan?

Los infantes de Aragón
¿qué se fizieron?

¿Qué fue de tanto galán,

qué fue de tanta invención
como trujeron?

What became of King Don Juan?
The Princes of Aragon,
What became of all of them?
What of so much handsome nobility?

This canción relies on the motives of things of this world that are gone by, hence letting us that we may be next in line....

That's just what this is - Where are the flowers gone, from 1961.

The Spaniards made the genre and the motives of Melancholy and Nostalgia and functionally distilled symbolism of vanitas so attractively convincing in the ear of Baroque that it proliferated along the sphere of the Habsburg-related political and cultural influence that it flourished abundantly in the Northern Europe.

File:Coffin portrait of Stanisław Woysza.jpgIn countries such as Poland the style sounded along philosophical prepositions of Sarmatism and led to the development of highly regional genres such as Polish Sarmatian style of portraiture. The subjects were usually portrayed very formally and represented semi-frontally, with vanitas symbols dutifully embedded into the paintings and animating it into a kind of mystery play of decipherment.
The rigid portrait style later stripped of the adorning symbols and visual clues became an ultimate Memento Mori and became a genre on itself known as the funerary portraiture.
Portraits, usually created posthumously were created on metal or wood and attached to the coffin or a catafalque as part of the Castrum doloris (a castel of Grief) in the Theatrum funebris.

In the Western Northern Europe, in the Netherlands, the still life, one of the favourite genre of Vanitas in painting continued its Spanish traditions with painters such as Pieter Claesz, Willem Claeszoon Heda and his school. The paintings continued to influence the sense of mystical, unsettled, the dark.
It also, quite characteristically, literally flourished with the specific sub-genre with  flowers as the main subject of still-life paintings, that were not just a mere botanical showcasing but carried serious layers of symbolism, manifested by the flowers providence, as well as its various stages of either vitality of weathering, hence bringing up the passage of time, or Tempus fugit.

C.H. Vroom, source Wikipedia

The mode of nostalgia had subtly emerged in Netherlands on the airy canvases of particularly Protestant painters: Cornelis Hendriksz Vroom, Salomon Ruisdael and mysterious landscapes of his nephew, Jacob Isaakshoon van Ruisdael*.

Jan Vermeer, source Wikipedia

It is especially scenes such as the vast skies and expanses of water of Vermeer’s View of Delft of the View of Harleem by Ruisdael that sublimated the tone of nostalgia at its utmost levels of quietude and peacefulness. The subject matter of those landscapes often included the images of the sea or river fearers, the fisher people, inherently suggestive of solitude, hardship or longing made some of the paintings much less desirable as a wealthy Dutch home décor item.

This particular style with its naturalism and distinct notions such as solitude, loneliness, vastness, were later continued by the Romantics, especially in the North, with particular light in the Baltic region.
This nostalgia, however, has nothing to do with melancholy.

Ruysdael, View of Haarlem, ca 1670; source Wikipedia

It almost denies the traits of melancholy. Nostalgia is always in danger of becoming a kitsch, while melancholia never strays in the direction of the familiar.

Ruysdael, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds
ca 1665; source: ww.wga.h

* All mentions of Ruisdael I would like to dedicate to my Mother.
She is a great one for absorbing and contemplating art and literature.
There were paintings by Ruisdael in the National Museum in Poznan, where she has been taking me since I was so young that I had to look up to the paintings.
The vastness and expanse of the views, the airy breathy atmosphere obviously made an impression on  the kid. Once important "Old Masters" by Eugène Fromentin was always at her reach.

Fromentin, maintained that "art is the expression of the invisible by means of the visible".
She has given me this book in the mid-1990ies.
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