Friday, 17 April 2009

Book Review: From Breughal to Rubens

Title: Bruegel to Rubens – Masters of Flemish Painting
Authors (Publisher): Desmond Shawe-Taylor and Jennifer Scott (Royal Collection Enterprises Ltd)
Synopsis: This is a superior paperback catalogue for the exhibition of the same name (Bruegel to Rubens - Masters of Flemish Painting). Functions effectively as a catalogue for the paintings in the exhibition. The text prefacing each section and providing context for this period of painting is dense and leans towards the academic rather than the accessible.
Suitable for: People interested in learning more about a great period in Flemish painting.
  • timeline order reveals the progression and developments over time and as a result of events
  • essays provide a lot of information about the period
  • each painting in the exhibition has at least a double page spread with a colour image and text explanation
  • Includes 156 colour illustrations, 8 maps and a timeline.
  • good production values
  • a unique publication priced at £12.95 - representing good value for money
Think Again?
  • the sections would benefit from an overview of key figures, events and important facts about the period as it relates to art and artists. This is a confusing time in history and there needs to be a simple version.
  • historical timeline lacks any reference to major paintings and major partists
  • appears to lean towards having an academic bias rather than being accessible
Summary: This book is a unique publication containing only pictures from the Royal Collection. It will be of interest to anybody wanting to find out more about Flemish painting without

This review accompanies the Exhibition review: From Bruegel to Rubens - Masters of Flemish Painting over on Making A Mark.

This is how the Royal Collection website describes the book

Accompanies the exhibition opening at The Queen’s Gallery, The Palace of Holyroodhouse in September 2007 and at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace in October 2008.

It is said that much of the greatest art is produced during periods of strife. In the mid-16th century, the Netherlands – the United Provinces in the north (modern Holland) and the Spanish-ruled south (modern Belgium) – was the most sophisticated society in Europe, but its learning and luxury industries were all but annihilated by the so-called Dutch Revolt and by the Eighty Years War that followed (1568-1648). Two-thirds of the works discussed here were painted during this turbulent period, including Pieter Bruegel’s Massacre of the Innocents of 1567. Other highlights include works by his son Jan Brueghel, while the Twelve Year’s Truce (1609-21) is celebrated by a group of landscapes (including three by Rubens) depicting the blessings of peace and the fertility of the region.

During the Renaissance the Low Countries attained a flawless technique of painting and the highest standards of craftsmanship. This tradition survived during even the worst years of the war. Everyone is familiar with the Golden Age of Dutch Art; this is an opportunity to explore its no less glorious Flemish counterpart.

The Royal Collection - Bruegel to Rubens – Masters of Flemish Painting (catalogue)

Each of the paintings in the exhibition receives a double page spread in the catalogue. A reproduction of the painting is on one page with the text accompanying it on the facing page.

While using the catalogue in the exhibition I found it very easy to use in relation to specific paintings. There is also a pleasing hierarchy between the detailed label next to each painting with the summary overview, the verbal explanation for certain paintings on the audio guide and the more detailed entry in the catalogue. They were all linked but different.

The text explains about artist and painting which means that we get an appropriate amount of background information about the lesser known artists who can often get less attention in some catalogues.

Important pieces have more space devoted to them and sections of paintings are also 'exploded' out of the image so that we can see the level of detail and quality of the finish at a macro level or understand the nature of what has happened to the painting - as with the amendments made to the Massacre of the Innocents by Pieter Bruegel to eliminate the pictures of the children.

Unlike the organisation of the display in the exhibition, this catalogue organises the paintings on display into a timeline with five sections:
Each of the sections opens with an essay about what was happening during the period - with images of maps and key individuals as appropriate. Whether reading these in the exhibition or afterwards, I'd have really liked to see a summary somewhere which provided a bullet point overview of the key points relating to each period. As it is, one has to sit down and read each section in detail to arrive at the key points - which I'm afraid I don't tend to do in exhibitions!

There's a timeline of people and events at the end of the catalogue. This provides a summary overview of the historical context for the paintings in terms of major and relevant historical events and who was ruling the House of Habsburg and the Holy Roman Empire as well as Spain, the Netherlands, the Dutch Republic and England. However what it does not do is link the rulers and events to the major pieces of art in the exhibition and the Flemish artists. I think that was a mistake since the purpose of a timeline in a catalogue like this is to provide context for the artist and the art!

This review has been based on using the catalogue in the exhibition and a review again when I got it home. I'll update this book review once I've finished reading all the text explaining the history of context as well as the art.

Note re. Authors:
  • Desmond Shawe-Taylor is Surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures and was formerly Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery.
  • Jennifer Scott is Loans Officer and Assistant Curator (Paintings), worked at National Museums Liverpool and the National Gallery and joined the Royal Collection in 2004. She lectures regularly on paintings in the Royal Collection.

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