Tuesday, 26 February 2013

A weekend in Vienna Part II: The Academy of Fine Arts

Picture: Platzpirsch.at
The Picture Gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna is just around the corner from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, but few make the trip.  The gallery is on the top floor, above the Academy of Fine Arts, through grand but dilapidated corridors and past grotty student noticeboards.  The approach reminds me of the Brera in Milan.  The picture gallery itself is narrow and the lighting isn't great, with hanging space carved out with partitions.  But what treasures within!  Famous things include the great Bosch triptych of the Last Judgment, a celebrated Rembrandt Portrait of a Lady, Van Dyck's Self Portrait Aged 16 (on loan to the Prado Young Van Dyck exhibition at the moment) and some excellent Rubens. 
Picture: wga.hu
The Rembrandt (above) is disappointing because it's so damaged.  Even in reproductions you can see that the hands are worn, but the ruff is also largely illegible and the inimitable details around the eyes are blunted.  It still creates a great impression by virtue of the dynamic pose, and the face still dazzles at a distance.  Up close, it lacks the finesse of better preserved works like the wonderful Aeltje Uylenburgh of the same period (in the Otterloo collection; I saw it on loan to the Rembrandt's Women exhibition in Edinburgh, and again at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts).  The Vienna painting is probably the best Rembrandt that I haven't seen before - on my only previous visit to the Academy Gallery the Dutch pictures were in store because they were refurbishing the building.

The Dutch still lifes were really excellent, and appeared to have escaped the ravages of the restorers who wrecked the Rembrandt.  Jan van der Heyden is celebrated for his meticulous townscapes, but he is represented here by a rare still life.  I've seen other still lifes of his in the Thyssen in Madrid and the Norton Simon in Pasadena, and I recall both as being in poor condition.  This one is very well preserved, and gave me a completely different view of van der Heyden's considerable talents as a still life painter.  There are two fine still lifes by Rachel Ruysch, the larger of which is one of the best flower pieces I've ever seen - she could paint even better than George Baselitz.  There is also a very large and luxurious still life by Heem and a good Aelst.

The rich collection of Rubens is strong in oil sketches including the justly famous Judgment of Paris.  Among the finished works, The Three Graces (above) is listed as Rubens, but it's obvious that only the figures are his, the landscape and still life elements probably by Jan Brueghel.  It's a felicitous collaboration where the different styles give a sense of separation between the figures and the background that adds something to the composition, creating a sense of artifice that suits the subject.
 
A special treat for me was the profusion of Ruisdael, one of my very favourite Dutch artists.  A number of these were on loan from a private collection (together with a large Allaert van Everdingen), including a splendid small seascape in especially good condition.  The sky has suffered, as usual with Dutch landscapes, but the choppy sea is strikingly fresh. 

The Botticelli tondo of the Madonna and Child with Two Angels didn't impress me.  It is hung high up, and glazed with poor-quality glass with distracting reflections.  There is more of a continuum of quality in Botticelli's studio than in many other renaissance collaborators, from the consistently sublime quality of, say, the Mystic Nativity, down to some frankly dreadful daubs that still have good evidence of originating in his studio.  This one seemed more studio than Botticelli, from what I could make out - an effective and surely autograph composition derived from the Magnificat, but prosaic execution with heavy-handed outlines and a poor sense of volume, particularly in the recession of the faces.

Dieric Bouts Coronation of the Virgin is an interesting picture.  My first thought was that it was closer to Gerard David - certainly it's much 'sweeter' than one usually finds in Bouts.  But on closer inspection, those toothy angels are too robust for David, and there are plenty of Boutsian touches in the detail.  It's an early work, but impressive and beautiful.
 
I have a soft spot for Giovanni di Paolo, a relatively minor Sienese artist whose workshop eschewed grand fresco cycles, but painted polyptychs prolifically. His predellas are scattered far and wide, with many in American museums. The greatest concentrations are probably in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena, and the Met in New York, particularly from the Lehman bequest. There are some in English museums, and I've just discovered from the marvellous Public Catalogue Foundation that there's one that I haven't seen, which is in Rochdale. I don't think there have been any recent studies of his work, although John Pope-Hennessy wrote about him. A catalogue raisonné would be much appreciated if anyone can spare a decade or so. 

Giovanni di Paolo's The Miracle of St Nicholas of Tolentino in the Academy Gallery shows a laughable failure to understand perspective.  He's clearly tried - you can see the incised perspective lines - but multiple vanishing points make you feel seasick looking at it.  It's one of his less successful pictures, but still charming.
 
I've resisted adding comment on the Bosch because it is so famous and so widely written about, but its fame is deserved.  It was the second time I'd seen it, and it still overwhelms; seeing the original is always a fresh experience that makes you forget how often you've seen it reproduced.  It's a brilliant, fascinating, compelling picture that is worth a trip to Vienna on its own.
 
This was one of my most enjoyable museum visits.  I spent about four hours, which was enough to get a good look at the highlights but still hanker to return.  There is a handful of great masterpieces that would grace the walls of even the greatest museums, but there are also plenty of lesser pictures that are still full of interest and all the more sparkling for their unfamiliarity. 

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