Third Workshop of the Materialized Identities Group, Basel, 27th–29th September 2017

Between the 27th and the 29th September 2017, the research group Materialized Identities met for a third joint workshop, this time in Basel, Switzerland. The workshop’s focus was twofold: firstly, the members shared and discussed publication drafts and research results. Secondly, the group visited the collections of a handful of museums in order to discuss a variety of artefacts together with experts. To this end, the programme started with a visit of the storage facilities of the Museum der Kulturen. The team of Alexander Brust, curator of the collections of the Americas, provided us access to their museum’s rich holdings (fig. 1). Above all, a Tupinambá feather cape was studied in detail. This artefact rates among the very rare pieces of the material heritage of this Brazilian indigenous culture. The group focused on studying the knotting techniques, feather arrangements, and questions regarding the dating of this artefact (fig. 2). In addition, the researchers discussed Peruvian featherwork excavated at burial sites.

Fig. 1: Alexander Brust presents Peruvian featherwork to the Materialized Identities group. © Stefan Hanß.

Fig. 2: Close-up study of feathers and knotting techniques of a Tupinambá feather cape. © Michèle Seehafer.

At the Kunstmuseum Basel, we had the great opportunity to discuss several paintings that are related to the project’s different materialities: gold, veils, and feathers. Dr Bodo Brinkmann, curator of Old Master Paintings, welcomed and guided us through a selection of the museum’s rich holdings. Dr Margret Ribbert and Dr Sabine Söll-Tauchert (Historisches Museum Basel) joined the group with their expertise in early modern arts and artefacts. A detailed discussion evolved around Hendrik Goltzius’ painting ‘Hermes presenting Pandora to King Epimetheus’ (1611, fig. 3). This particular painting forms a focal point of Christine Göttler’s project that “investigates the ways in which Netherlandish painters in the seventeenth century engaged with precious objects and costly materials.”[1] The painting, exceptional in a variety of points such as its size and the display of the artist’s virtuosity, was an intriguing starting point for the discussion of the relationship between art, alchemy, goldsmithery, and self-fashioning in the early seventeenth-century Netherlands. Art historians engaged with this puzzling painting several times. Peter Hecht, for instance, identified the subject as Mercury presenting Pandora to Epimetheus. Christine Göttler, however, recently suggested to understand the painting as an allegory of the arts that prominently points to Goltzius’ engagement with both the pictorial and alchemical arts. The group discussed the painting’s various hints at alchemy and gold. The figure of Mercury, the messenger of the gods and protector of mathematicians, alchemists, and rhetoricians, stands right beside the figure of Goltzius’ self-portrait hiding a caduceus. A second caduceus escaping from a miniature furnace held by a naked female figure is prominently visible in the foreground on the right part of the painting. Right to her feet, precious silver and gold objects are positioned nearby a broken glass alembic, which was used for alchemical distillations. Its white powder refers to the caput mortuum, a residue of alchemical distillation, that hints – alongside the colour pigments of the palette and the used colours of the painting – at the complex relationship between alchemy, gold, and painting. As put forward by Christine Göttler, the painting is too complex for a one-sided reading. She therefore suggests to conceptualize the painting as a riddle, which challenges its viewers with ongoing questions.[2]

Fig. 3: Hendrick Goltzius, Hermes presenting Pandora to King Epimetheus, 1611. Oil on canvas, 180 x 256.8 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Inv. 252. © Kunstmuseum Basel.

Further discussions evolved around the depiction of veils in sixteenth-century paintings such as the Portrait of a Lady (1590), painted by either an anonymous artist of the School of Fontainebleau or a German artist (fig. 4). Dr. Bodo Brinkmann explained how transparent textiles functioned as visual tools that addressed topics such as eroticism, chastity, and innocence. Such textiles allowed the representation of bodies that were both exposed and covered at the very same time. In combination with mirrors and jewellery, this textile’s gracile fabric also allured to the senses. The juxtaposition of innocence and sexual desire was also discussed for Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Lucretia (c. 1525). Exposed to the male gaze of desire and violence, Cranach’s depiction of the protagonist of this ancient story heavily relies on the usage of the veil. The textile foregrounds the body’s movement, a hint to despair and tragedy, as much as it allows the display of nakedness. A discussion evolved around early modern craftsmen’s (in)capability of producing such extremely fine veils, and how this relates with Cranach’s representation of the veil and the emotional universe of an early modern audience. The group also studied the depiction of feathers and glass in early modern paintings. The latter, for instance, often served to emphasize the artist’s virtuosity.

Fig. 4: Dr Bodo Brinkmann reflecting on the representation of transparent textiles in sixteenth-century paintings. © Stefan Hanß.

Fig. 5: A discussion of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Lucretia. © Stefan Hanß.

Dr Margret Ribbert and Dr Sabine Söll-Tauchert welcomed us to the fascinating cabinet collection of the Historisches Museum Basel. Many of this museum’s artefacts were part of famous Basel collections such as the cabinets of Basilius Amerbach, Remigius Faesch, and Felix Platter. The group’s discussions focused on early modern goldsmithery and the role of craftsmanship, ingenuity, materials, and values. The relationship between making and knowing was addressed whilst studying the globe goblet of Jakob Stampfer (c. 1550/52). The goblet, an object of high artistic quality, served a variety of functions: it was a drinking vessel, a rotating terrestrial and celestial globe, an armillary sphere, a sundial, and a calendar. The artistic engagement with different materials and techniques for the representation of spatial knowledge in general and the surfaces of the earth in particular attracted huge interest (fig. 6). The relation of science and artisanship as well as this object’s various forms of usage were discussed in detail.[3] Another object we focused on was the so-called ‘Werthemann’s Stag’, a drinking vessel showing the Goddess Diana riding a stag (Joachim Fries, Augsburg, c. 1610/15), which was lauded – like other drinking vessels – for its outstanding craftsmanship, precious materials, complex production techniques as well as its capability to entertain and amuse. A close examination of drinking vessels let us discuss the combination of different metalworking techniques and materials for the creation of shimmery and surface effects.[4] A variety of further objects such as boxwood, ivory, gold, and silver artefacts as well as pictorial albums were discussed in the museum’s study room (fig. 7). Anna Reimann also presented her research on the representation of textiles and a family’s memory in such early modern visual albums. Among the many studied artefacts was also a recently restored nautilus shell from the seventeenth century, which was compared to later adaptations. The experience of handling such objects, which rated among the most popular artefacts of early modern cabinets of curiosities, has proven to be a particularly useful tool to address and reconsider core questions discussed throughout the entire workshop: e.g. the object’s materiality and artisanship in relation to the history of the senses and topics like ingenuity, imitation, and emotions (fig. 8).

Fig. 6: Detail of the globe showing gilt landmasses and silver oceans. Jakob Stampfer, Globe Goblet, c. 1550/52, silver and gold plating, h. 38 cm, dm. 18 cm, Historisches Museum Basel, Basel, Inv. 1882.103.

© Stefan Hanß.

Figs. 7 and 8: Handling sessions of artefacts such as cutlery, record-books, jewellery, and a nautilus shell.

© Stefan Hanß and Michèle Seehafer.

[1] For a detailed discussion, see https://www.materializedidentities.com/gold.

[2] Christine Göttler, ‘Hendrick Goltzius, Allegorie der Künste, Kunstmuseum Basel’ in Kunst und Alchemie: Das Geheimnis der Verwandlung, ed. by Sven Dupré, Dedo von Kerssenbrock-Krosigk, and Beat Wismer, exh. cat., Stiftung Museum Kunstpalast (Düsseldorf and Munich: Hirmer, 2014), 143–45; Bodo Brinkmann, ‘14. Tiziano Vecellio Spanien eilt der Religion zu Hilfe und Hendrick Goltzius Allegorie mit Hermes, der Pandora dem König Epimetheus präsentiert’ in ¡Hola Prado! Zwei Sammlungen im Dialog, exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Basel (Basel and Petersberg: Michael Imhof, 2017), 90–4; Christine Göttler, ‘Showing by Hiding: Hendrick Goltzius’s Allegory of the (Alchemical) Arts in the Kunstmuseum Basel’ (forthcoming).

[3] Cf. Fritz Nagel, Der Globuspokal von Jakob Stampfer, Basler Kostbarkeiten 17 (Basel: Historisches Museum, 1996); Fritz Nagel, ‘Der Globuspokal’, in Die grosse Kunstkammer: Bürgerliche Sammler und Sammlungen in Basel (Basel: Merian, 2011), 194–98.

[4] Sabine Söll-Tauchert, ‘Trinkspiel Werthemannscher Hirsch’, in Die grosse Kunstkammer: Bürgerliche Sammler und Sammlungen in Basel (Basel: Merian, 2011), 283–85.

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