A Monstrous Post about “Beautiful Monsters” at the Art Gallery of Alberta

These notes derive from my second visit to Beautiful Monsters/Beautés monstrueuses in the Ernest E. Poole Gallery at the Art Gallery of Alberta on Wednesday, October 17, 2012.  Most of what I note is my immediate response to each piece.  Sometimes it is the quality of the printing, sometimes the skill evinced by the engraving, etching or woodcutting, and only rarely the monstrousness of these beauties.  Usually I stood in awe.  On one or two occasions I was indifferent to a piece.  To be honest, while I understand the unifying theme of the show, I found far more beauty here than I did monstrosity — except after an oddly behaved visitor arrived.  Much seemed very familiar, but no less beautiful for that.  Certainly most of the pictures contain what would be termed monsters and seen as unfamiliar by many today, but for a viewer weaned on Dante, Mystery Plays, Milton and Science Fiction, or one with a tiny bit of knowldge of the history of Art, most of these images will seem like old friends.  I’m glad of the inclusion of depictions of war horses, but it seems a bit of shoe-horning to fit them in with monsters.

As the National Gallery has chosen to assemble only a small “List of Works” pamphlet rather than a full catalogue of the exhibit, I’ve provided links to online images of almost all of the works, many from the National Gallery’s web page.

I began my quiet afternoon visit by turning to the right as I entered the gallery to the two scenes from “The Harrowing of Hell” by Albrecht Dürer, a theme very familiar to my Mediaevalist side (sadly, toward the end of my visit an oddly behaved visitor made things very harrowing and Hellish).  In one print Adam and Eve are led out through the shattered Gates of Hell.  In the other Christ is leaning down to raise up the virtuous pagans.

Next is Dürer’s engraving of “The Knight, Death, and the Devil” a brilliant example of everything that is good about Dürer.  Amazing detail marked out with clear, confident economy of line. Notice the apparent velocity of the dog running below the horse’s hooves. And notice the background city/castle on the hill, misty with atmospheric perspective.

In “St. George on Foot”  Dürer makes good use of negative space in the infinite ocean behind George.

“Beast with Lamb’s Horns”  This woodcut illustrates The Book of Revelation.  The detail again is stunning and the boldness of the thicker lines gives a wholly different effect from the engravings.

“Samson Rending the Lion”  So many twentieth Century book illustrators went to school on Dürer!

“The Whore of Babylon” Again the Jabberwock of Revelation.

And now we depart from Dürer for a bit with “Inferno” by an unknown Italian.  This engraving lacks the elegance of Dürer.  It is very busy, reflecting the original fresco in Pisa which was heavily damaged by fire during World War II.

Jean Duvet’s “St. Michael Overwhelming the Dragon”  is sadly dark almost to muddiness.

“Envidia (Envy)” by Master L.D. reminds me of the illustrations by Harold Jones in a family favourite book of nursery rhymes called Lavender’s Blue by Kathleen Lines. There is something very distinctive about this piece.

Jacques Callot “Temptation of St. Anthony”
Oh, my! This is what the exhibition is about! Bosch, jabberwock, a stunning, flatulent etching!

“Descent into Hell”  School of Andrea Mantegna
Engraving but with boldness of a woodcut.  Quite tremendous with at least one bold perspective piece in the creature on the upper right.  Human face outline in the cracks in the Arch of Hell’s Gate.

“The Calumny of Apelles” c. 1496 Girolamo Mocetto
This engraving is of particular interest to me due to my own little connection to the great Ancient Greek painter Apelles.  The Calumny Apelles painted has not survived, but it was carefully described by Lucian and many artists have followed that description attempting to reproduce something like Apelles work.  Botticelli’s is perhaps the finest example.  As a footnote, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus also derives from a lost painting by Apelles, and so also distantly does a line in the film Picnic at Hanging Rock.  Apelles’ Calumny was an allegory, not a representation of any actual event.  The figures represent philosophical/psychological concepts such as suspicion, ignorance, innocence, penitence, truth, etc. The seated man with the ass ears — an allusion to Midas —  represents judgment.

Quite typical architectural perspective background with contrasting flat tableau of figures. The Judge of course has ass’s ears, as does Invidia (I don’t know why: there’s no mention of that in Lucian’s description).
Interesting the way three of the captions are worked into the architecture. Very different from Botticelli, but somehow reminiscent.

Antonio Fantuzi  “A Battle”
a little mushy and lazy in execution.  Far less skilled than some. faded ink, sadly.

Giovanni Jacopo Caraglio “Battle Scene”
shows much more skill than Fantuzi’s

Lucas Cranach the elder “4th Tournament”
is a tour de force wood cut.  So busy! So full! Yet so light and bright. Marvellous pyramidal composition.

Master M.Z. “The Tournament”
Much more medieval in figure, clumsy perspective and awkward figures.

Raffaello Schiaminossi’s “Caligula”
is disturbing in almost every way, from the jutting chin to the grotesquely populated helmet.

It was while looking at “Caligula” that I first noticed the oddly behaved visitor.  The Art Gallery of Alberta is usually a fairly calm and quiet place.  People certainly seem comfortable to have conversations, but generally voices are kept low and it’s possible to concentrate on the art without distraction.  But as I looked at this strange portrait of the third Emperor I couldn’t help but notice the expostulations coming from a gentleman who had come into the gallery.  He seemed to be stopping in front of each print for a moment and then shouting “I can’t believe it!” or “Oh, my God!”, or “How could anyone do something like that!” and so on.  Loudly. Very loudly.  Honestly, I’m not sure whether I was shocked more by the rude inconsideration or the apparently proud ignorance of late Renaissance art.

Jonas Suyderhoef’s “Portrait of Hendrick Golzius”
Certainly not idealized. Even the framing putos are flaccidly chubby and mealy.

The three miniatures:

Albrecht Altdorfer’s “Two Satyrs Fighting for a Nymph” ,
Hans Sebald Beham’s “Hercules Fighting against the Centaurs” , and
the anonymous Italian “Homage to Venus”
are charming gems despite the violence of two.

“St. Anthony Meeting the Satyr” by Herman Van Swanevelt
Hovers somewhere between Poussin and the Hudson River School.  Did Pauline Baynes think of this piece when Mr. Tumnus and Lucy met?

Charles Le Brun’s “Four Times of Day” Four pieces:

Dawn, Noon, Evening, and Night:  seems to leap off the pages. An economy of line which is simply stunning. Absolutely nothing extraneous.
engraving’s elegance with the bold character of a woodcut.

Agostino Musi’s “Procession of Silenus”  is largely a sculptural frieze on paper. The statue of Priapus (herm) on the horizon is a nice touch.

Philippe Galle’s “Triumph of Time”  is a very nice adaptation of Bruegel the Elder.

Giulio Bonasone’s “Pan and a Nymph with a Cornucopia, Standing by a Herm”
Sculptural. Not a wholly successful Composition.

Back to Dürer with “Hercules at the Crossroads”.  Marvellous confidence, strong pyramid composition. Beautifully detailed background and atmospheric perspective !!

Benedetto Montagna (not to be confused with Andrea Mantegna) “Woman and Satyr with Two Cupids”
Quite clumsy.

Giorgio Ghisi “The Judgement of Paris”
Marvellous, busy spiralling composition. such a metallic look!! Very mannered but very satisfying.

Dürer’s “Abduction of Proserpina on a Unicorn” 1516
A little less certainty in design and execution but so clearly Dürer.

Ludolf Backhuysen’s “Neptune and Amphitrite Drawn by a Sea Horse and a Unicorn” (Can’t find an online image) shows great confidence of line but seems to have suffered in the printing looking both blotchy and thin.

Hendrick Goltzius “Neptune and Amphitrite”  on the other hand:  High Mannerism in the figures, but somehow very charming in the faces and Neptune’s hand on her waist.

Giulio Carpioni’s “Water”
is a little muddied in the printing but nice work of line, composition, and figures.

Andrea Mantegna’s “Battle of the Sea Gods (left side)”  is quite exquisite.  Quite the skill.

Jacques Callot’s “Siren Between Two Ships”
What a heavenly piece!
Rocks in lower right and ship about to sail off the right edge, out of range, fading with atmospheric perspective. Other ship sailing in from the left.
Siren oddly blowing a shell-horn rather than singing.  All beautifully executed on a piece about three inches by 2.5!
Unlike Callot’s other piece in the show, the “Temptation of Anthony”, which was an epic of piled on detail, the “Siren” is minimalist, a startling economy of marks on the paper, a stunning, lyric piece.

Israhel van Meckenem (the younger)’s “St. Christopher”  is a beautiful piece, a beautiful composition, a fluid “S” linking Christopher, Christ, and the hermit on the shore.  Lovely homely details of fish, plants, birds, rocks and a ship.

Hans Holbein (The Younger) “Title-page Border with Saints Peter and Paul and the Symbols of the Four Evangelists”
A lovely title page. Very nice. But the text doesn’t strike me as Luther’s New Testament as the tag suggests.

Hieronymus Hopfer “Charles V, German Emperor”
is just scary, although nicely executed.

Carlo Cesi “Hercules Driving Out the Harpies”
A marvellous reproduction of  a fresco by Pietro Da Cortona in Pallazzo Barbarini

Nicolo Boldrini (after Titian) “The Laocoon Group as Monkeys”
WTF?! Interesting, but a little clumsy of line.  I’m sure Titian’s is better.

Two Medallions by Theodor de Bry, “Caritas”  and “Folly”  are exquisite little things.   Circular pieces with portrait in centre and frieze on black background around circumference forming ground for figures.

Hans Sebald Beham “Ornament with Two Genii Riding on Two Chimeras”  beautiful symmetrical composition left Genius facing us Right facing away as though it were a sculpture in the round.

Lucas van Leyden “Ornamental Panel with Two Sirens”
Beautiful sinuous piece!! Unfortunately, it was while I was admiring this piece that the oddly behaved visitor actually pushed his shoulder in front of me, almost shoving me, stuck his head up close to the picture and said loudly, apparently to me “What are those?! Have you ever seen anything like this!? I haven’t! Oh my goodness! What are those — oh, are those their heads!”

I shifted along to “A Cavalry Battle” by Hanns Lautensack
Well done but a little static, like they are posing (albeit with huge horses posing on top of some of the men).

Hendric Goltzius “Fighting Horses”  is a marvellous reproduction of what must be a marvellous study by Van der Straet.

As a bit of a footnote, I find the contrast between the English title, Beautiful Monsters, and the French title, Beautés monstrueuses (Monstrous Beauties) to nicely sum up a major tension in the show. Thank you, National Gallery of Canada, for such a richly poetic use of Canada’s two official languages!

Beautiful Monsters: Beasts and Fantastic Creatures in Early European Prints/Beautés monstrueuses: Bêtes et créatures fantastiques dans l’estampe européenne ancienne runs at the Art Gallery of Alberta until March 10, 2013.

Try to avoid the beautifully monstrous shouting man.

Update, September 20, 2013:

Beautiful Monsters comes next year to the Kamloops Art Gallery  in January and The Rooms in St. John’s, Newfoundland in September.  Rupert Thomson’s Secrecy would be a fine literary accompaniment to the show.

3 comments on “A Monstrous Post about “Beautiful Monsters” at the Art Gallery of Alberta

  1. barnswell says:

    I like Durer as well.

    I wouldn’t call ‘Ornamental Panel with two Sirens’ beautiful. First word that springs to mind for me is ‘grotesque’..not meant entirely negatively but still the thing slightly turns my stomach. Good art can do that.

    (As for that person’s behaviour. I’d find it hard not to resort to some uncivilised behaviour myself, in response.)

    Thanks for this. Enjoyable.

  2. […] have been a great literary accompaniment to the National Gallery of Canada‘s touring show, Beautiful Monsters  recently at the Art Gallery of Alberta and presently at The Rooms in St. John’s, […]

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