In the absence of TEFAF this spring, we asked Nina Siegal to take us on a museum trip around Maastricht in the southeast of the Netherlands, where many Old Master collectors return to every March. The Amsterdam-based author writes fiction and essays on art, culture and society for The New York Times.
In 17th-century Europe, rumors circulated that Spanish baroque artists “used actual flesh ground into the pigments” to depict human skin in their portraiture, so realistic were their renderings, according to Anja Ševčík, head of the baroque department of the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud in Cologne. I love the titillating nature of this misconception — the art was so realistic that it conjured images of unnatural acts.
Under the Skin, the Wallraf’s current exhibition of a dozen exquisite works from the masters of the Spanish baroque, lingers on the multiple meanings of its title. To get “under the skin” — or “unter die haut” in German — means to touch someone in a deep emotional way, and paintings by Jusepe de Ribera, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and Francisco de Zurbarán, explore this viscerally. What better illustration than the Wallraf’s recently restored St. Paul the Hermit by Ribera (image above), which has elucidated not only the tender skin folds of the old man’s belly flesh, but the droplets of blood dripping down his arms?
This is one of the highlights of the spring art calendar in Europe, which features exhibitions that will give art lovers a look at some wonderful Old Master paintings and drawings, even as the TEFAF Maastricht fair is postponed due to safety concerns around COVID-19. As museums and galleries typically provide ample space for visitors to socially distance (along with many other safety measures that are in place), I’ve chosen a few exhibitions that are tantalizing enough to warrant renting a car for a short, art-fueled road-trip.
Aged well. Three centuries of drawings from the Kröller-Müller collection in Otterlo
Until March 20, 2022
Helene Kröller-Müller, the early 20th-century collector who established this eponymous destination museum at the center of the Dutch national forest, was best known for presciently collecting art by Impressionist and avant-garde painters, particularly early works by Vincent van Gogh, Fernand Léger and Piet Mondrian. But almost no one knows about her small trove of Old Master drawings from the 16th century to the early 19th century, many of which have never been exhibited publicly before. Curator Renske Cohen Tervaert and colleagues from the RKD – Netherlands Institute for Art History have brought them out of storage and presented them in a single exhibition, Aged Well, giving us a rare chance to glimpse these eclectic works.
“It will come as a surprise to many people, even specialists in this area, that we have these works in our collection,” Cohen Tervaert said. The show includes 100 drawings by 55 different artists, including several by 17th-century Dutch masters Jan van Goyen, Hendrick Goltzius, Gerard ter Borch II and Abraham Bloemaert. A church interior by Pieter Jansz Saenredam is perhaps the best known of the works, but there are also drawings by 19th-century artists, Italian and British artists. “There’s not much that holds these works together other than the eye of Helene Kröller-Müller,” said Cohen Tervaert. “But that’s part of what makes the show compelling — we get to see how her eye worked.”
Kröller-Müller collected Old Masters at the encouragement of her art advisor, Henk Bremmer, whose theory of art was “nearly spiritual,” according to Cohen Tervaert. “He was an advocate for the art from his own time, but he liked to make comparisons between that and art from the older periods,” she added. “He said it doesn’t really matter what period art came from, if it could evoke emotion, it was good art.”
A Different Light on Withoos – Three Generations Withoos
Until May 8, 2022
I love a multigenerational story: This one begins 350 years ago, when an artist named Mathias Withoos embarked on a monumental cityscape, View of Amersfoort (1671), which would turn out to be one of the largest landscape paintings produced in the 17th-century Dutch Republic. The oil painting holds pride of place in the Flehite Museum, a historical museum in the center of old city of Amersfoort. But it needed work, and has been undergoing restoration since last April. It is expected to be reinstalled in the galleries once again in February 2022 as part of the exhibition A Different Light on Withoos — Three Generations Withoos, which includes not only original paintings by the 17th-century artist (a pupil of Jacob van Campen), but also artworks made by four of his children, Johannes, Pieter, Alida and Frans, who he trained as painters. It also includes work by a much later descendant, the contemporary art photographer Hans Withoos, who reflects on his ancestral inheritance by creating photos that reference Mathias’s paintings.
Under the Skin: The Touching Naturalism of the Spanish Baroque
Until April 24, 2022
Ribera’s 1647 St. Paul the Hermit, which shows a nearly naked saint holding a skull seated amidst blackness, gazing out into deep space, is central to this small but potent exhibition of important works in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum’s Spanish Baroque collection. The Wallraf has supplemented its own trove of paintings with loans from the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville, the Gemäldegalerie Berlin and the Arp Museum Remagen for a show that explores the visceral fleshiness of Spanish baroque art: How does the skin reflect the soul, as it is exposed, brutalized, tortured and redeemed? This handful of works by Ribera, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Luca Giordano and Francisco de Zurbarán give us entree into a very tactile spirituality.
Back in Gotha! The Lost Masterpieces
Until August 21, 2022
In December 1979, the Ducal palace in Gotha, Germany was the site of the biggest art heist in East Germany. Thieves scaled the castle museum’s 33-foot wall, broke a window and stole five Dutch Old Master paintings: a Frans Hals portrait, a portrait of St. Catherine by Hans Holbein the Elder, a painting by Ferdinand Bol, a landscape from Jan Brueghel the Elder’s workshop and a copy of a self-portrait by Anthony van Dijk. Although East Germany’s Volkspolizei at first interrogated more than 1,000 people about the crime, they were unable to find any tangible leads for decades. It was only in 2018, when some anonymous “sellers” came forward, that Gotha’s mayor was able to negotiate the return of the art. The paintings were finally returned in 2020.
Now they’re on display once more in Back in Gotha! The Lost Masterpieces. The exhibition not only gives visitors a chance to see these extraordinary individual works for the first time since they were stolen, but allows them to learn the thrilling story of their robbery and recovery. The story is fascinating, but the paintings themselves are worth the excursion.
Anna Dorothea Therbusch: A Berlin Artist of the Enlightenment Period
Until April 10, 2022
Finally, women artists of the past are getting recognition that has been long overdue. Anna Dorothea Therbusch, one of the most important German portrait painters of the 18th century, is the focus of an exhibition in her former hometown of Berlin. The wife of an innkeeper and the mother of five children, Therbusch became a serious painter at the age of 40; in 1767, she was one of the few women to be accepted into the Parisian Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. In Berlin, she built her career painting portraits, and her images of figures such as Henriette Herz, Friedrich II and the doctor Christian Andreas Cothenius are quite stunning.
The Gemäldegalerie has gathered up nearly the entire inventory of Therbusch’s oeuvre from various state museums, including the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, to create this large-scale retrospective of her work in honor of the 300th anniversary of her birth. Its centerpiece is a seated self-portrait, from around 1782, in which the artist appears to be disrupted while reading a book, and gazes at the viewer through a very unusual monocle. The expression on her face seems to say: “You’re giving me attention at last!”.❖