Stumbling upon “Raiders of the Lost Ark” during late night channel surfing is a discovery serendipitous enough to actually put up with the commercial interruptions. The heart of many an 80’s baby can imbibe in that warm, fuzzy, pajama feeling patented by the Lucas/Spielberg dream team of yesteryear.
A recent viewing however did not produce nostalgic comfort so much as a recent flashback to an epic masterpiece by the 16th century Flemish painter Jan Gossart, whose work is now on view in a much due retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In one scene, Indiana Jones’ oft jubilant colleague Sallah (see image #19) suddenly turns ominous, concerned over the fire and brimstone soon to be unleashed upon unearthing the mysterious Ark of the Covenant. In his words: “It is something that man was not meant to disturb. Death has always surrounded it. It is not of this earth.”
Transgressions towards Gossart’s “Malvagna Triptych,” (see image #1) are likely to be along more benign lines, as taking a picture of it won’t incur the wrath of God, so much as the stern admonishment of the Met’s security guards. Yet there’s no doubt that this thing has an aura about it that is anything but worldly.
Jpegs do not do this work justice. You really need to see it in person to experience the deftness needed for the freakishly intricate gold cornice and haunting faces of the flanking angels-almost speaking to you while frozen in an epic biblical moment. It’s a feeling both astonishing and bewildering.
It’s also worth noting that like “Raiders..” the ingenuity of the “Malvagna Triptych” was also a noted collaboration, completed by Gossart and Gerard David, both then heavyweights of Renaissance painting in Bruges, in a practice that was fairly common for the time. How amazingly well do the styles of both painters synthesize with one another? This has to be the penultimate duet of the era, second only to the “Ghent Altarpiece” (which was a prospective collaboration between Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert, see image #17) for its transfixing power of piety.
Interestingly enough, “Stealing the Lamb”- a new study of the work’s tumultuous history by writer Noah Charney, provides recourse for art imitating life, when considering the aforementioned adventures of Dr. Jones and his perpetual nemesis, the Third Reich. Charney explores how Hitler was taken by its occult allure, confiscating the altarpiece when he conquered Belgium, and storing it in a secret salt mine along with a slew of other priceless artworks that he planned to exhibit in kulturhaupstadt (a “citywide supermuseum”) in his birthplace of Linz, Austria.
“Obsessed with exacting vengeance for Germany’s losses in World War I, Hitler was quick to go after the work when he came to power in 1933. But while avenging the Treaty of Versailles was one motivation, Charney posits that another, impossibly far-fetched consideration may have been driving the führer: the notion that the altarpiece contained a secret treasure map that could lead him to the Arma Christi, the various tools used in the Passion of the Christ, including the Holy Grail.”
Van Eyck’s groundbreaking influence was not lost on the Gossart show, where we learn of him as providing a stylistic blueprint for him and the rest of his Bruges contemporaries. In some cases, it’s literal-the Dora Pamphilj diptych (see image #5) was a faithful copy of Van Eyck’s “Madonna in a Church” (see image #10),while the video below finds the artist implementing elements of the “Ghent Altarpiece” into “The Deesis” (see image #18)
Gossart may have been leaning hard on Van Eyck, yet one can also associate works like “The Deesis” and the “Malvagna Triptych” , with the spiritual function of other classic tabernacles like Matthias Grünewald’s “Isenheim Altarpiece” (see image #16).
This piece was originally installed in the hospital of a monastery for those suffering from acute skin diseases; a decaying Christ serving as an empathetic confirmation of their suffering and reminder that paradise could soon be theirs.
The conditions for the most heathen of hungover Manhattanites might not be as drastic, but a visit to the Malvagna over the next few Sunday mornings is sure to provide an uplifting remedy for the holiday excess of the previous evening.
Credit the painter Joe Coleman, whose modern reworkings of the Northern Renaissance school pay respect to such numinous qualities, whilst transforming it into an archetype for his own unsettling visions. Invoking such a hallowed tradition is beginning to become tricky, yet “Auto-Portrait,” an exhibition of new work currently in its final days at the Dickinson gallery in New York, finds the fine balance between reckless appropriation and feckless appreciation.
If one has just visited the Gossart show and found themselves floating after the intimate eloquence of diminutive panel paintings like Van Eyck’s “Madonna and Child at the Fountain,” (see image #8) Coleman’s descendants “”What God Hath Join Together,” and the triple-entrendred “Pandora’s Box” (see image #12) are jarring to say the least.“The Child I Never Had,” an apparition of his aborted daughter in a state of apocalyptic dread could be tagged as taking advantage of this religious template, lending a weighted sense of gospel to credit the ramblings of a self-absorbed imagination.
Stick around however, and you begin to see the gracefulness that has gone into rendering such revolting scenes. Seeing beauty in the ugly and disastrous isn’t that new. It’s also something Coleman has been doing throughout his career, most markedly in his performance-based work, which as Artnet’s Carlo McCormick explains:
“ included such tropes as covering his body with explosives and setting them off, biting the heads off of live rats and throwing their bodies at the audience, and punctuating his rants with a loaded gun, was too radical for the avant-garde, as his comics were too nasty for the underground, his band too rude for Punk and his paintings too grizzly for the down and dirty East Village art scene where he first began showing them and just too damn crazy for the outsider art world where he subsequently found a temporary home.”
Yet in his paintings, we see that this isn’t so much about artistic shock and awe, so much as it is about honest self-acceptance. Coleman, doesn’t seem to try to be convince us of anything, so much as come to terms with the hellish spectrum of his imagination, and share it with the world. For such an unrestricted temperament, there’s a mature sense to how measured his process is, which at times includes painting with a single-haired brush. In details from a work like “The Victory of Hell’ (not on view in this show, video below) we see him channeling the spirits of Bosch and Brueghel, where the sum of a work can be admired just as much as its parts. This is a guy with a lot to say about his life and the world around it, and has gone about organizing it to share with us in the most beautiful way possible.