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On the bookshelves of many different friends I’ve stayed with over this past year in Europe I’ve often encountered The Golden Age is in Us, taking it out to read a section or two, checking for an inscription from the giver or from the author himself.
In the opening pages of this perpetually entertaining and brilliantly observed masterpiece comes this entry for August 20, 1987—almost exactly 25 years ago—from Key West.
“There was a funeral in the graveyard across the street this morning; an old-fashioned black one, with a drummer out in front of the coffin. Thump thump thump. I find myself sketching out the music for my own funeral: the aria at the start of Cosi Fan Tutte, sung by the flirty girls.
“Leftists’ funerals can be a trial: too much sententious linking of the expired human with the forward, though mostly thwarted, march of history. Self-scripted weddings are a kindred problem, in that the effort of not going by the book lends an uncertain timbre to the proceedings. I remember one where the couple announced in a sort of descant how much they desired one another, while the guests all looked down at their shoes.
“Leftists tend to like cremations, which couch the phoenix theme in the secular context of efficient resource management, though there’s the old problem about what do with the ashes.”
Talk about immortality! This is a voice that jumps from the page into life.
The dust jacket of The Golden Age is in Us includes a reproduction of Pieter Bruegel’s The Land of Cockaigne, which I had the good luck finally to see in Munich last Fall. Standing in the venerable Pinakothek, I regarded the painting in light of Alex’s witty annotation—as a vision of a possible Golden Age.
Alex was indefatigable, hard at it until the end. So this is how I imagine him now: sacked out amongst his friends surrounded by pies and self-carving pigs. He has earned his place in the Land of Cockaigne.
The Simple Folk in the Shadows
Why did powerful princes and wealthy burgers have such affection for the work of Low Country genre painters of the 17th century, for depictions the poor and powerless at music, dancing, drinking, feasting, and whoring? By capturing the lowly in all their bawdiness did the rich seek to congratulate themselves for their own high moral standards, standards that were rewarded by God with material wealth that in turn allowed them to collect these scenes of farmstead dirt and depravity? Or did the robust market in these images reflect a nostalgia for a simple life of manual labor and lax morals in which the high collars and crimped faces of formal portraiture give way to roving hands and high-riding, amply-exposed bosoms? Probably both factors were in play, since idealization of the poor is merely the flip side of condemnation.
The question of how such scenes were viewed hangs over each of the nearly seventy paintings and graphic works gathered in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin in an exhibition dedicated to the Haarlem artist Cornelis Bega (1631/32-1664). It is the first exhibition dedicated to this gifted painter—an old master who died far too young.
Son of a successful goldsmith, Bega was the grandson of the important Haarlem mannerist painter, Cornelis van Haarlem who had gotten rich from his art. In contrast to his grandson, the elder Cornelis favored the idealized contorted human form, as in his Fall of the Titans now in Copenhagen. This riot of naked bodies foregoes fig leaves in favor of butterfliescovering penises but not the bulging buttocks that dominate the foreground of this symphony of damned flesh.
The grandson moved from the mythological and heroic to the contemporary and realistic. A trope in the commentary to the present exhibition is that Bega, although a man of means thanks to his grandfather, did not look down on his lowly subjects but painted them with compassion and truth—and with flawless draughtsmanship and command of the muted, smoky light of the pub and stable, the back alley and the procurer’s parlor.
Greeting the visitor to the basement exhibition space in the Gemäldegalerie is an unfinished oil sketch self-portrait on paper made around 1640 when the artist was eighteen or nineteen and just embarking on his independent career. He probably had just finished apprenticing with the well-known Haarlem genre painter Adrian van Ostade, whose own musical tavern scene from 1640 can be seen in the same museum’s ground floor where the large rooms are filled with natural light. On the floor below Bega’s paintings suffer from the dim lighting. It is a cruel, ironic fate for a Dutch painter, especially one working in small formats, to be condemned to the lower reaches of the building without the benefit of large windows on long summer days.
Set into the dark floorboards on both floors is a metal strip that marks out the nearest distance to the paintings allowed. I made two major foot faults within the first few minutes of my visit and set off the alarm once. Cautioned with sour vehemence by the guard, I dared not get too close for the rest of the afternoon, lest she confiscate my annual pass and then make me clean the toilets.
Only Bega’s face enjoys some of the light pouring down the stairwell from the day above. The artists regards himself—as painter—and now us with tremendous confidence, perhaps the right talent and wealth. The features are complete: a nose so broad and substantial it’s less a ski-jump than a runaway truck ramp; large gray-green eyes somehow dreamy and intense at the same time; chin-length hair spilling out from beneath the beginnings of a red hat never finished; and robust cheeks and full lips that his flesh-loving grandfather would have loved to have painted. This luminous visage is the only suggestion in the grandson’s oeuvre that he knew his forbear’s work. The glow of the skin and the finely observed traits seem even more vibrant because of the empty background. Instead of a sumptuous jacket and fine collar there is only neutral gray. The face is itself twice as big and three times as bright as the entire human figures seen in the rest of the exhibition’s paintings.
Alongside the self-portrait is an early painting of festive peasants crammed into a pub, dancing, fiddling, drinking and smoking. Most of the pictures in the Berlin exhibition remain in their original Dutch ebony frames, built of a series of simple geometric molding elements; but this painting was acquired in the 18th century by perhaps the greatest princely libertine of all time, August the Strong, the Saxon Elector and Polish King. Like all his pictures, this was one is framed in the elaborate gilded French style replete with monogram AR (Augustus Rex) at the bottom.
Though the dark tones of the pictures are served far better when properly framed in the more austere opulence of ebony, the contrast between August’s flashy frame and flagrant proclamation of ownership draws useful attention to the gap between the monarch on his throne and those figures stamping feet at bottom of the social barrel.
Directly across the hall facing this picture is a painting of peasants slaughtering a pig. The members of the family—wife, kids and father and sons are busy at their various tasks of cleaning the animal. Bega shows us mostly the backs of these workers bent over their jobs as a way of suggesting their exertion, the realness of their work. Next to a large cauldron, presumably filled with the pig blood, entrails are heaped on the hard farmyard earth. We are a long way from Bruegel’s self-serving swine.
Several other pictures present the somewhat less-crowded conviviality of rural folk in the tavern eager to forget their toils and be buoyed by song and especially drink. One way Bega shows the draining nature of labor is to paint a shoe into the dim foreground. A man—with pipe or mug, maybe groping a barmaid—sinks into his chair, so eager to release his battered feet, or at least one of them, from the grinding exertions of the day. Bega deploys the shoe trick in seven of the some thirty oil paintings in the exhibition.
As in so much Dutch painting of the period, music is a central theme. Besides the tavern fiddlers, there is a blind violin player accompanying another man who sings from a page of notes; Bega dramatizes the contrast between the faculties of eyesight and hearing by streaming light down not to aid the sighted man but to illuminate the blind one. In a nearby painting a shabby pub finds another violinist and a tipsy young woman being groped and goggled by a farmer eager to turn his attentions away from the fields and to the female on his lap.
In all these depictions of violins the left hand on the fingerboard grabs chords that make musical sense: this is just one of the telling details in these pictures that encourages the observer’s imagination to hear what is being played.
Another painting of two men at music encapsulates the strangely melancholic effect that music seems to elicit from pairs, as opposed to groups, of peasants. These men are intent on their task but seem hardly to find it uplifting or even enjoyable. Perhaps they’re buskers practicing for a gig—in other words, at work rather than recreation.
When music seems more a matter of leisure it abets seduction, or more accurately, the lustful intentions of men towards seemingly unwilling women who look towards the viewer with a mix of despair and resignation.
Somewhat higher on the social scale is a duet between a woman with a small lute again looking directly at the viewer and a man singing and playing the violin. In front of a backdrop of fine curtains in a room whose high ceilings contrast with the looming timbers of the tavern, the man lusts after his duet partner. Music is indeed the food of love. The neighboring picture, entitled the Piece of Music, features the only well-to-do-pair in the exhibition; once again the man reads from a sheet of music, but his sense of sight seems already to be straying towards the deep décolletage of the lutenist. In this way the picture allegorizes sight and sound, music and eros.
This lutenist, like the a lone cithern player painted by Bega—the cithern was a mandolin-like instrument especially popular among women in the 17th-century—seems almost as vulnerable as the prostitutes pictured in the same room of the exhibition. Across the classes, women’s fate seems an unhappy one: nowhere the smiling buxom maids of the most famous of the Haarlem painters, Frans Hals. Perhaps this female sadness was also attractive to Bega’s affluent clients as it reminded them that one of the safest ways to deal with sin was to paint it and and then isolate it in wide frames.
Several of these frames bear the small plates that list the painter and his dates, a practice favored by 19th– and early 20th-century collectors and museums. These plates all list the Bega’s lifespan as running from 1620 to 1664. But more recent biographical research reveals that he was born a dozen years later. He created all these brooding images from society’s margins in about thirteen years.
But the plague was on the move through Europe and it found Bega in 1664. He died on August 27th and his body was placed in the great church of St. Bavo in Haarlem in the same grave as his illustrious grandfather.