A sigh of relief when I discovered that the usual home of this art collection is closed for the next few years for restoration and that not all the paintings have been re-homed in the Theatermuseum. Phew! I went on an hour-long guided tour and my German overheated. There are a few never-to-be-filled holes in what I heard, but it was interesting nonetheless.
The focus was on the Bosch triptych. Even allowing for changed beliefs, it’s a hard painting to view. The heavenly bits are so anodyne and take up so little of the surface, whereas the sins batter your eyes and imagination. Individually, the images of, say, the drunkard on his back swallowing a never-ending stream of a highly questionable liquid are clever, but the cumulative effect is repulsive. So much venality, deformity and suffering flesh before you. Which, I guess, is the religious, didactic point . . . but, from a modern perspective, I shrink from a worldview that can dream up so many horrors.
There was a Titian (Tarquin and Lucretia) painted when he was in his eighties. Yes, the paint had a life of its own, but the characters’ limbs looked odd and I wondered if arthritis and failing eyesight had played their part. The Rembrandt, on the other hand, was painted while he was still a young man and – like the young Titian’s – his brushstrokes were immaculate. There’s perhaps not a great deal you can do with a commissioned portrait of someone in a black dress (and for 30 seconds I knew the German for ‘ruff’), but Rembrandt has her leaning slightly on the chair as if she is about to get up. It gives a sense of movement to an otherwise static pose.
Speaking of brushstrokes, there were a few Rubens, including yet another rape scene, this time with snowballing putti. It’s fairly hideous, even by Rubens’s standards (no, I’m not a fan), but the colour and the paintwork . . . simply astonishing.
I stared hard at a couple of paintings by Cranach to compare the qualities of oil and tempera (he used both). I thought that the painting below is just as “educational” – and no less chilling – than Bosch’s, but it’s not as revolting to look at. It’s about eternal human unpleasantness rather than supernatural punishment; the looks on both their faces! It’s quite clear what each is thinking of.