Intimate Illusions

Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance exhibition at The National Gallery, London (until 30 May 2011) is a must see for devotees of the Northern Renaissance as well as 3D spacial illusion. Through realism and visual metaphor, the intimate portraits in particular come to life, 500 years after their creation.  The exhibition begins with an introduction to the context.  Jan Gossaert (Flemish ca. 1478-1532)  worked for various royal personalities in the Court of Burgundy, Brussels, at the turn of the 16th century. Philip of Burgundy took Gossaert on a diplomatic journey to Italy in 1508, where he became one of the first Northern artists to see and incorporate aspects of the Italian Renaissance including classical architecture and mythology.

The Three Children of Christian II of Denmark

The Three Children of Christian II of Denmark, Jan Gossaert, 1526. Oil on panel. Possibly acquired by Henry VIII. The Royal Collection © 2008, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

In this Italian cross fertilisation, he retained the Northern love of illusion, blurring the edges of what is a painting and what is our own physical reality.  The portrait room is well worth a separate visit, just to spend time with these individuals from the past, who come alive across a 500 year time lapse.  The Three Children of Christian II of Denmark, 1526 is a particularly haunting example.  Their mother had died the same year of the portrait, and they are in the clothing of mourning (it appears).  Their grief travels across a thin membrane of time which has been pierced by Gossaert. I share for a moment their space and their experience…and wonder if Gossaert were offering me fruit from their hands as a reminder of my own ephemeral state.  He pushes them into my space through realist attention to detail, especially texture, as well as his technique of placing them in front of an ‘inner frame’ in the painting.  This has the effect of feeling like they are in front of the painting, and the table they place their hands on is shared between us.  Gossaert uses this technique repeatedly in various guises, and the exhibition is an opportunity to contemplate this preoccupation.

The last room of the exhibition, showing small scale sacred works, reminds me that in Gossaert’s time, portraits were not only painted for posterity.  They were also painted as personal devotional aids. Portraits were often set in a folding diptych or triptych with a sacred scene between man and wife or adjacent to a single person. These portable wooden panels were meant to live in a domestic setting and help the donors imagine their communion with sacred beings.  They helped bring the sacred world closer, again using the techniques of spacial illusion and realism to achieve this.   The exhibition offers a possible reconstruction of one such devotional triptych – sensationally bringing together the outer panels now permanently in Brussels and the central devotional image now in Norfolk Virginia.  This panel has unfortunately been cropped in the past.  The wife, who is speculated to have died before completing this triptych, and Mary are seen to occupy the same room, joined across the panels, possibly signifying her position in heaven.  Meanwhile her husband is in a similar but separate room in the earthly realm it is thought. This for me represents a very private use of illusion in the early Renaissance, a unique window into a very personal imagined space.

Gossaert triptych reconstruction

Jan Gossart, Portraits of Two Donors, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels and Virgin and Child, Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia, both Oil on oak panel ca. 1528–30. (This is my own reconstruction and is not accurately scaled.)

The 21st century’s latest equivalent, the Nintendo 3DS, promises 3D games on the go. It’s folding, not unlike a Renaissance diptych, and when opened, promises my very own personal world of adventure and amusement. It fits in a handbag, so literally at any moment there is a fun fix at the ready. This device offers a true 3D visual – with characters bursting through the surface of the screen and into the very air I’m breathing, without the need for glasses. It creates an excitement that this is not just a game, it’s a living fantasy. The time travel element, so moving in Gossaerts portraits, is also present in the form of Samurai Warriors® Chronicles. Unlike a painting, the imagery moves, and I can project myself into this motion along with my friends with the ‘StreetPass’ function.

Samurai Warriors® Chronicles

Samurai Warriors® Chronicles, a Nintendo 3DS game

Perfect. Well except that I don’t appear to be the target audience of the Nintendo 3DS…I’d prefer to quietly reflect on 500 years of human mortality than slay several hundred warriors per hour, although I do like the fact that this particular game is in Japanese with subtitles for a sense of authenticity. On the surface the nintendogs™ + cats looks more my thing, and is very cute, but my three dimensional cats lounging about my living room are a lot more engaging. Will I ever be the target audience for Nintendo 3DS? I guess that’s a topic for another day.  Meanwhile, I’m planning a real life pilgrimage to Antwerp, where Gossaert became a member of the painters’ guild in 1503.


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