Time flies! I started in February with my internship at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht and I’m already halfway. Which is a good thing on the one hand, as I’m having a very good time at the museum and you know… time flies when you’re having fun. On the other hand I really need to get started on my internship report and my thesis is also coming around the corner.
The start of my interest in the old masters…
For now I thought I give you an update about one of the exhibitions we have at the museum right now: Pleasure & Piety. Actually, the exhibition is called Love & Lust in Dutch, but as the exhibition will travel to the United States and the conservators over there are a little bit prudish. Pleasure & Piety is the first monographic exhibition of the Utrecht artist Joachim Wtewael, who lived from 1566 – 1638. Wtewael is known for his mythological and religious masterpieces with an erotic connotation.
Five steps from noob to expert (sort of)!
To be honest, I’m not really into ‘old art’. Modern art, photography and interactivity is more my taste, so this was a whole new experience for me. And I have to say, if I was just visiting the museum I probably wouldn’t be that enthusiastic about it because this exhibition needs a lot of background knowledge which I didn’t have. As the marketing intern I obviously needed some more information to write interesting posts for our social media. After reading a lot and a tour guided by the conservator Liesbeth Helmus, I appreciate his work much more. If you are the same as me and not really into the old masters, you might want to give it a try. To help you, I made these five steps which will hopefully give you some more insights before (or after) visiting the exhibition. And who knows… maybe you’ll get bedazzled!
Step 1: Go back in time
The first thing you need to do is to realize that Wtewael was living a long time ago. Not Downton Abby time but I mean really, a long time ago. The world was looking quite different 500 years ago. It was the time of Shakespeare, the plague and the rise of the newspaper (which was only published once a week). There were no photocameras, copy machines and certainly no internet. The pieces Wtewael painted were really daring at the time. Of course if you look at them now they are quite soft, as we are exposed to nudity more often than we wish. During the 16th century no one painted erotic scenes like Wtewael did. They were so explicit, that some of his paintings have been censured, by cutting out the naked bodies and painted a blanket over them. So you can imagine… if you wanted to see a naked picture and you had a friend who owned a painting from Wtewael, you had to ask him if you could borrow the image.
Step 2: Getting to know the old masters means interpretation
Old paintings are nothing like contemporary art. Nowadays we are not used to really look closely at an artwork. We are exposed to so many pictures in one day that we rarely take the time to really breath, relax and take a look. What are these paintings actually saying? A lot, apparently. Wtewael is master in little ‘jokes’. For example, he has red paint on his brush. This does not seems to be randomly chosen but a reference to love, lust and Mars, the god he likes to paint. Obviously you never know this for sure but it’s also hard to ignore. For interpretation you need of course already the knowledge of step 1.
Step 3: Dive into the Greek Mythology and Religious stories
Joachim Wtewael painted a lot of paintings with religious and mythological subjects. In the 16th and 17th century these stories were widely known. Nowadays only a few people know the story of Andromeda and Perseus, Mars and Venus, Saint Sebastian, Peleus and Thetis. At least, they were quite new for me. Why, for example, did Wtewael painted the adultery of Venus and Mars so often? Probably because he liked Mars, who was the only god who had sex as himself, and with the person who wanted to have sex with him as well (unlike Jupiter and Apollo)! And it is unlikely that the Saint Sebastian Wtewael painted was made for a church, as he is depicted before he was killed, looking very handsome with his sixpack intact.
Step 4: Get your context
My dad and I were discussing why there are so many elderly people visiting the exhibition. We came to the conclusion that it is because young people don’t have enough context yet. These paintings need to be placed in context of other paintings of its time. My dad kept referring to the paintings of Rembrandt, but if you haven’t seen that much yet, it is just not that interesting. And to be honest, older people just have more context. So get your ass off that couch and obtain some context in other museums as well!
Step 5: Take a close look, a really close look at his work
The pieces Wtewael painted are incredibly small, with so much details. It is really astonishing how precise his work is. You’ll be amazed.
I hope these tips help you a little bit more while visiting the exhibition. You can always just go there and let the paintings speak for itself, but I’m always a fan of a little bit pre-research. And if you don’t have time to visit the exhibition, you can always look at Joachim Wtewael’s paintings on this pinterest board! I’m really curious to know which kind of art you like most and why. And what do you think about the erotic works of Joachim Wtewael?