LA FRANCE EN 1500

This is the title of an extraordinary temporary exhibition in the Grand Palais. The works have been collected from all over the world, and include paintings, sculptures, enamels, and many illuminated books. At the same time the Cluny Museum is also hosting a temporary exhibition of middle age paintings and sculptures from the Slovac Republic. The Middle (dark?) Ages have always fascinated me, but you have to come to Europe to be able to see it, and I am extremely thankful to have seen these two exhibitions.
The many exhibitions on photography on at the moment had me already thinking of John Berger’s book “Ways of Seeing”, when it struck me how appropriate it also is, when looking at Medieval art. Meaning, for the Middle-age man/woman art was a spiritual experience, and people judged a painting according to the artist’s ability to portray this spiritual dimension. There were codes, and the people who were mostly illiterate, knew them, but in time they have been forgotten. Most of the Medieval works of art were re-evalued and “re-discovered” by the 18th Century scholars, who put their own interpretations into the works – a good example is the 6 panels of the “Lady with the Unicorn” in the Cluny, which was understood to have been about a moral lesson of the 6 senses, but many new interpretations are being made.
The most surprising find, for me was the paintings done by Jean Hey in the Grand Palais. He was formally only known as the “Master of Moulins” where his works were first found. Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside the exhibition, but I found some online, and took some from the catalog, which shows his technique in more detail. His work marks the official end to the Middle Ages in France, at least, and speaking only for myself, I think his work has the best of both the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. His portraits have a distinctly “northern” character, with the soft, diffused light, and reveal an almost psychological knowledge of his sitter. They are real people, not idealized. One can easily see that he “draws” with his paintbrush, not the rubbed-in washy look of chiaroscuro that Renaissance painters are known for.
At the Cluny, the temporary exhibit was displayed in the newly renovated Roman Baths that are part of the medieval home of the Cluny abbots, the first time I have been able to see them. They were all executed as church decorations, altar-pieces, etc. The Christ-figure is over 3 metres tall, but has none of the imposing grandeur of a Bernini, only a quiet presence that is, to me, more impressive. I could take (no flash) a nice photo of two faces, part of a larger piece that clearly shows the beautiful modeling of the wooden sculpture. They are part of a Nativity set in rural scene with ordinary farmers, sheep on a hillside and a small town right on the top end of the sculpture.
This brings me to another gripe. The idea of the Renaissance as the “re-birth” a new beginning, was introduced by Vasari, an Italian writer who wrote about the lives of Italian artists, and of course elaborated on their magnificence. His works were re-read in the 18th century when Europeans started making their “Grand Tours” of Italy. The works of the Renaissance artists were, in the words of the director of the Cluny Museum: “intoxicating and seductive”. The only real “beginning” was the printing press, and that was a Northern European invention. It was in the content of their painting that the Italians wrought to most havoc. Gone the quiet pastoral scenes, they were too boorish, enter mythical hero’s, imaginative Greek architecture, Rich patrons. Enter the “Grand Master” who puts his signature on his work, gone the humble artist-worker who had to be many things at once – paint, stained glass, architecture, party-planner, you name it he had to be it, but anonymously. To me there is an honesty to their work that i find very appealing
One of the reasons, I think, that art from the Middle Ages is enjoying new success, is that our contemporary art works display so many of the same characteristics – linear perspective is not important anymore, neither a central focal point, art has become more spiritual, in the sense that it demands of the viewer to contemplate, think about what the work of art is all about, its about living IN the world, not idealizing or moralizing.

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