• The Cello in Art (14) – Edwin Holgate

While writing my preceding post on Canadian artists, I read through my copy of The McMichael Canadian Art Collection (1989) and chanced upon this painting.  The Cellist (1923) is by Edwin Holgate (1892-1977).  Holgate became associated with the landscape-oriented Group of Seven after its heyday and is primarily known for his portraits.  Not perhaps one of the more extrovert examples of the cello in art in these occasional postings, but I like its strong lines and colour palette.  Holgate also brings a physical intensity and an almost 3-D realism to his study of a cellist engrossed in her playing.

• The Cello in Art (13) – Rippingille

On my recent visit to Bristol, I popped into the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.  It’s a spacious building, though not overly large, yet it manages to encompass the natural sciences and world cultures as well as a selection of art forms across the centuries.  Today it’s best known perhaps for letting Banksy loose on its exhibition spaces in 2009, and right there in the entrance hall is a stone carving of an angel with an upturned can of red paint on its head.  Upstairs, there are some fine examples of British painting and sculpture across the centuries, and, small though it is, the selection of works by Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon, Howard Hodgkin, Richard Long and others works well as a taster.

I knew nothing about the Bristol School of Artists, which has a gallery more or less to itself.  Having seen the exhibition of work by The Glasgow Boys at the Royal Academy last year and the excellent play The Pitmen Painters a few years ago and last year’s superlative ITV documentary about the Ashington Group in Northumberland, I was curious to see what the much earlier group in Bristol was about.  It appears to have been a loose association of artists, amateurs as well as professionals, who liked nothing better than to go out of an evening on sketching parties to local beauty spots like the Avon Gorge.  Its heyday was in the 1810s and 1820s, and its chief luminaries were genre and landscape painters such as Edward Bird (1772-1819), Francis Danby (1793-1861) and Edward Villiers Rippingille (1789-1859).

I was particularly drawn to this small oil painting by Rippingille, mainly because it offered a new image to add to my occasional posts on ‘The Cello in Art’ (see below).  This portrait (c.1829) is of a well-to-do young man, dressed ‘to the nines’.  He was John Whitmore Isaac from Worcester (1808-84), so he was then about 21.  Isaac is holding the instrument naturally, which suggests that he may well have been a cellist himself.  His bow-hold is not on the ‘frog’ but further along the stick, which recalls the practices of the 18th century, as demonstrated in a portrait of the composer and cellist Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805).

Yet Isaac’s bow is a modern one, so no doubt he changed his bow-hold at some point to that which had become standard during his own lifetime.  A bound volume of music by Haydn is on the music stand, with what look like loose sheets protruding.  If this was a real volume in Isaac’s possession, what music did it contain?  String quartets?  Trios?  Keyboard sonatas?

There the story might have ended – a delightful and unassuming portrait of a youthful West Country gentleman and cellist – had I not perused the search engines a little further.

John Whitmore Isaac’s name subsequently came up as a one-time owner of one of the most famous Stradivari cellos, the ‘Mara’ cello of 1711.  Isaac bought it, however, at a much later date than that of his portrait above – 1860 – and the ‘Mara’ stayed in his  family for over 25 years.  Did Isaac play Haydn quartets on it too, I wonder?  The ‘Mara’ then seems to have languished away from the concert platform until it came into the possession of Anthony Pini in 1950 and then into the hands of Amedeo Baldovino in 1954.  Baldovino almost lost the instrument when the ship in which he was travelling was sunk in the River Plate in 1963.  Unsurprisingly, the cello suffered severe water damage.  It was repaired for £1000 by the firm of W. E. Hill, which had owned the instrument from time to time since buying it off the Isaac family.  The ‘Mara’ is now owned by Heinrich Schiff, who bought it in 1996.

As a further footnote, connected to my study of Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto, which Schiff first played in 1972 and recorded in 1986, it is clear that there is no link here either with the ‘Mara’.  Instead, it is likely that Schiff recorded the Lutosławski on an earlier Stradivari (‘St Senoch, Murray’, 1698), which he owned between 1981 and 1995.

• The Cello in Art (12) – Courbet

In his many self-portraits, Gustave Courbet (1819-77) gives himself the air of a wild man.  They vibrate with a visceral energy that reminds me of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610).  But I would rather trust Caravaggio than Courbet with the faithful representation of musicians and how musical instruments are held or played.

These two youthful self-portraits – above, The Cellist (1848), now in the National Museum in Stockholm, and, below, the earlier The Violoncellist (1847), now in the Portland Art Museum – are fascinating for a number of reasons.

Courbet wasn’t musical and didn’t play any instrument.  He’s also playing left-handed, which is very rare.  There’s no evidence that he was left-handed as a painter.  Was he looking in a mirror?

The way in which Courbet is ‘playing’ the cello is a joke.  For starters, he’s wearing it far too off-the-shoulder, like a louche model giving the come-on.  In fact, while his left arm gives the impression of playing, his right hand is doing nothing, just resting on the neck where it meets the body of the instrument.  His extremely long fingers, vividly painted, are in no position to stop a string for the bow to resonate.  So it’s merely a painterly pose, with no genuine attempt to portray the act of cello playing.  Commentators have remarked that the bow is a metaphor for his paint brush.  If so, then we might equally see the position of his right hand as if holding his painter’s palette.

That’s all fine and dandy, but to suggest that these paintings are a metaphor for the act of painting ignores the fact that the musical side of the equation is inadequate, not to say unreal.  Does that not have an impact on the other side of the equation, implying that his art is sloppily thought through?  That clearly is absurd.  But anyone with a knowledge of music and its performance is bound to be puzzled and dismayed by Courbet’s cavalier attitude to musical practicality or accuracy.  He might just as well have painted himself with a brush and palette, and have done with it, because the musical parallels are so deficient.  The modern equivalent is the miming on film and TV which purports to show a singer or player in the act of genuine performance when this is patently not the case.  Non-musicians often aren’t in the least bothered by such fakery, not understanding or caring how musical performance works.  Courbet shared this attitude.  Realism had its limits.

There is, however, a uniquely strange aspect to one of these self-portraits.  The earlier one, immediately above, has been vandalised.  This remains one of the most extraordinary acts in the history of pre-twentieth-century art.  For reasons which remain a mystery, Courbet cut out the blank top right quarter of the picture and substituted a new piece of canvas with an image of multiple layers of printed music on a stand.  The music is irrelevant to the main image, however, except as a prop on the side, because Courbet’s eyes are totally fixed on the viewer (or on himself, the poser/poseur, in the mirror).

If it wasn’t apparent at first glance, it quickly transpires that the musical deficiencies of this pair of paintings, and the cut-and-paste of the Portland version, are irrelevant.  Courbet has set out to disturb and disquiet, ensuring that the only reality is his own ego: that face and those hands.  Nothing else matters, as if provocatively suggesting that the viewer can get lost (or any one of numerous other rude rejoinders) if he or she doesn’t like it.  Yet we come back for more.  That’s the power of his personality.

• The Cello in Art (10) – Otto Piltz

Here’s an artist completely new to me.  Otto Piltz (1846-1910) was born in Thüringen in central Germany and lived at various times in Weimar and Munich.  Some of his work is rather sentimental in tone and subject matter, but he was evidently interested in musical topics.  He spent time during 1888-98 at his sister’s house in Sömmerda in rural Thüringen where there was a music school.  Some of his depictions of the students rehearsing in attics and quiet corners – familiar to anyone who’s been at a full-time or summer music school! – are reproduced below.  There’s also a painting of a church choir rehearsal.

Quintet is the best-known of these works, although it currently languishes in the vaults of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.  Dated between 1888 and the early 1890s, it has various titles, including Quintette der Gehilfen des Stadtpfiefers (there is a trombone hanging on the rear wall).  The poor domestic interior is typical of such group pictures and belongs to the same European genre that gave rise to the much more visceral The Potato Eaters, which Van Gogh painted a few years earlier.

In Piltz’s painting, the five young musicians are gathered in time-honoured fashion around a table on which lie their individual parts (some propped up).  They seem fairly well dressed.  The near violinist (who perhaps looks older than the others) is sitting on a slatted wooden bench and there is a bed behind the cellist.  The lamp is not lit, so they are reliant on the dim light coming from the deeply recessed window.  It’s not a standard string quintet line-up (usually 2 violins, 2 violas and cello or 2 violins, viola and 2 cellos).  The presence of the double-bass implies activities connected with civic occasions rather than concert repertoire.  It’s not possible to be certain if there are 3 violins or 2 violins and viola because of the gloom.  The players, however, look rather content.  They certainly look more lively, musically, than the cellists in the near-contemporaneous pictures by Eakins and Hammershoi that I posted 11 days ago.

• The Cello in Art (9) – Doisneau and Baquet/2

This was the first of Robert Doisneau’s photographs of Baquet that I ever saw.  I bought it in a wonderful postcard shop in Tribeca, New York, some time in the 1980s.  It still makes me smile!

Baquet was a remarkably versatile man.  Here’s a 21” clip from a French newsreel of 1946.  Paris was in deep snow and Baquet – an Olympic skier – took advantage.  There are scenes of Paris streets and a view including Montmartre’s famous Moulin de la Galette (painted by many French artists and van Gogh).  The newsreel finishes with Baquet skiing the broad steps in front of Sacré-Coeur and straight down a much narrower flight.

I’ve just come across another historic clip, but one which is viewable only on a French site (ina.fr).  Click on the thumbnail image below.  It’s a recording from what seems to be a French TV variety show and was broadcast by RTF on 12 May 1958.  It’s a 6’ sketch called Le Quatuor, which comprises four cellists (not the standard quartet line-up), with the three on the left playing straight men to Baquet’s clowning.  Doisneau’s image above reappears halfway through Baquet’s routine.  It may seem a bit dated now, but his comedic imagination is sharply honed, as is his command of the cello.  He really could play!

• The Cello in Art (8) – Doisneau and Baquet/1

After posting yesterday’s exuberant image, I recalled the work of the great French photographer Robert Doisneau (1912-94), one of whose close friends was the cellist, actor, singer, comedian – and alpinist, Maurice Baquet (1911-2005).  Together they created a body of photographic images that are unrivalled for their whimsical take on life and performance.

To mark the centenary of their births this year and next, here’s one of my favourites, Les attentions courtesies (c.1942-48).  There’s something touchingly chivalrous, if irrelevant in Baquet’s action: he gets wet for the sake of his cello, which is perfectly dry anyway (that is, if it is inside).  It could be a still from a French film.

Can anyone identify the location?

• The Cello in Art (7) – … and a J.N.D.

OK, I know that stretching exercises before breakfast are a good thing, but this is a bit extreme.  I have no idea who this is, or whether he’s even a cellist, but he’s a welcome tonic after the po-faced players of yesterday.  A jolly nude dude, no less.

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