Friday, June 13, 2014

Inherent in all works of art is the notion of inspiration. The ancient Greeks attributed this phenomenon to the muses. In Christianity, the divine presence of the Holy Spirit anoints the artist with a stroke of genius. The revelation that functions as the starting point for the artist permeates the work - laying dormant, waiting for modern eyes to give it new life.

In the cultural landscape of 17th century Europe, many artists sought to represent this divine inspiration quite literally. This period, which came to be known as the Baroque, is characterized by opulence and drama. Artwork was grandiose and direct, designed to inspire piety in peasants and aristocracy alike. The term baroque, meaning a large, irregularly-shaped pearl, was attributed to art of the 17th century by 18th century critics, who disparaged the movement as absurd and grotesque – an aberration, like an irregularly-shaped pearl.[i]

The Baroque era was also a period of significant scientific and philosophical discovery. Monumental advancements in optics and measurement provided artists with new tools to more accurately represent the human experience, while Rationalist thought inspired artists to question the nature of representation.[ii] As powerhouse artists like Caravaggio and Velasquez were using novel scientific discoveries to address massive ideas about human existence, individuals like Giovanni Baptista (Battista) Ferrari (1584-1655) took on smaller, more specified pursuits of equal significance.

In line with the fashions of the time, Ferrari’s interest in orangeries – a precursor to the greenhouse – led him to produce the first scholarly study of lemons, limes, and oranges. This four-part, illustrated book about citrus was accurate and all-inclusive, touching on everything from the taxonomy to the mythology of these exotic fruits. Ferrari is noted for his imaginative compositions[iii] and scientific accuracy, which he achieved through close observation of his subject matter, made possible by scientific and technological innovations of the time. In fact, his first work, De Florum Cultura (1633), a study of ornamental plants and horticulture, includes an illustration of the seeds and seed pods of the Chinese Rose – the first ever botanical illustration produced using a microscope.[iv] As Caravaggio’s works were thought grotesque in their starkness, Ferrari’s, too, are fundamentally baroque. Ferrari presents the citrus fruit as it exists in nature, authentic and imperfect.

Giovanni Baptista (Battista) Ferrari - copperplate engraving from Hesperides sive de Malorum Aureorum Cultura et Usu Libri Quatuor (Concerning the Cultivation and Uses of the Golden Apple in Four Volumes), 1646
Giovanni Baptista (Battista) Ferrari - copperplate engraving from Hesperides sive de Malorum Aureorum Cultura et Usu Libri Quatuor (Concerning the Cultivation and Uses of the Golden Apple in Four Volumes), 1646
Influenced by the work of Ferrari, the wealthy German silk merchant, Johann Christoph Volckamer (June 7, 1644 - August 26, 1720) sought to show off his own collection of exotic citrus through his book of engravings titled, Nürbergisches Hesperides. Volckamer’s book expresses the zeitgeist of Europe in the 17th century unambiguously.  In Nürbergisches Hesperides, grotesque citrus fruits float above charming views of the gardens and palaces of Germany, Austria, and Italy[v], showcasing the Baroque architecture of the period. Volckamer’s book addresses the relationship of objects to the space they inhabit, extending the “meaning” of the citrus fruits beyond the scientific. With no source information, a viewer looking at an engraving from Nürbergisches Hesperides could identify the locale and even hypothesize about the cultural significance of the citrus depicted. For instance, one could deduce from visual clues that citrus trees were a fashionable staple of European gardens during the Baroque period[vi], and furthermore, the more monstrous the fruit, better. Visual clues reveal meaning, yet the illustration is not overtly didactic. Volckamer dissolves traditional notions of perspective, as his citrus exists neither in the foreground or the background, but is collaged on top, creating an effect that brings to mind artwork produced three centuries later by the surrealists - in particular that of Belgian artist René Magritte (1898-1967).

Johann Christoph Volckamer - copperplate engraving from Nürnbergische Hesperides, oder gründliche Beschreibung der edlen Citronat-, Citronen- und Pomeranzen-Früchte, 1708
Johann Christoph Volckamer - copperplate engraving from Nürnbergische Hesperides, oder gründliche Beschreibung der edlen Citronat-, Citronen- und Pomeranzen-Früchte, 1708
Magritte, perversely inspired by works of the Rationalist order, utilized the aesthetics of a tradition he rejected to challenge the status quo, which he deemed oppressive. In his attempt to subvert the skeletal structure of bourgeois society, he scrambled the puzzle that Rationalist thinkers committed to solving. The aura of mystery that characterizes the Surrealist movement is achieved through Magritte’s application of symbolic non sequiturs. As Ferrari imparted the knowledge, this is an orange and these are its characteristics, Volckamer fine-tuned his achievements, adding the “where, when, and why” to his “who and what.” This empirical evidence functions as a point of departure for Magritte’s own artistic integrity as he attests of his realistic rendering of a pipe, this is not a pipe. Despite Magritte’s repudiation of history, glaring consistencies endure, including an interest in the identity of objects and a penchant for the grotesque. Magritte’s representations of the human body - distorted, amputated, veiled, and fused with other species, objects, and elements of setting – have a similar impact on the human psyche as Volckamer and Ferrari’s disfigured citrus fruits. Through imagery of the strange and unusual, our instinctive curiosity is peaked and our senses engaged, inviting us to meditate on the inspiration that motivated the work of art before our eyes.

René Magritte - La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images), 1928-29, oil on canvas
René Magritte - L'invention Collective (Collective Invention), 1935, oil on canvas

René Magritte -  Le Château des Pyrénées (The Castle of the Pyrenees), 1959, oil on canvas
René Magritte -  La Chambre d'Écoute (The Listening Room), 1952, oil on canvas
Here at Arader Galleries we have a fantastic selection of original, hand-colored engravings from the striking and historically significant works published by Volckamer and Ferrari. The plates were prepared by some of the most esteemed painters and draughtsmen of the Baroque era, including Paulus Decker, The Elder and Cornelis Bloemaert. Please contact Arader Galleries for further information.

[i] Camara, Esperança. “The Baroque: Art, Politics & Religion in 17th-century Europe.” Smarthistory at Khan Academy. Web. Accessed 4 June 2014.

[ii] Brown, Betty Ann. “Art & Mass Media: Second Edition Revised.” California State University, Northridge. 2005. Web. Accessed 4 June 2014.

[iii] DeLaurentis, Denise and Hollie Powers Holt. The Art of the Garden: Collecting Antique Botanical Prints. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2006. Print.

[iv] Erickson, Robert F. “Giovanni Battista Ferrari.” Rare Books from the MBG Library. Missouri Botanical Garden. Web. Accessed 4 June 2014.

[v] Blunt, Wilfrid. The Art of Botanical Illustration: An Illustrated History. New York: Dover, 1994. Print.

[vi] Kaden, Vera. The Illustration of Plants & Gardens: 1500-1850. England: Crown, 1982. Print. 

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