Art critic Waldemar Januszczak explores the Baroque tradition. He follows Baroque to its dark heart in Spain, focusing on the route of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
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SOLEMN GREGORIAN CHANTING
In the last film, we were over here in Italy, watching the birth of the
Baroque, and we ended up in Naples, down here.
Naples was a Spanish colony, and that means the next stage
of our journey is over here, in Spain.
Oh, my God.
One of the chief reasons why the Baroque was as successful
as it was - why it became the first global art movement -
was because it was so damned adaptable.
The Baroque spread across Europe
like a wildfire,
and everywhere it went, it adopted
the local tastes and customs and sneakily made itself at home.
But, when it got here,
to Spain, it didn't have that much adapting to do -
the Spanish were already fiercely Catholic, they liked drama, emotion,
passion, darkness - they were, if you like, instinctively Baroque,
so the Baroque's task here in Spain wasn't really a case of adaptation.
It was more like pouring petrol on a large bonfire.
The Spanish Baroque
was hard core, the most fiercely Catholic the Baroque became.
Some of its sights will turn your stomach and appall you,
but the Baroque was a war remember - a battle for your heart deliberately
started by the Counter-Reformation, and, in times of war,anything goes.
This is the longest pilgrim trail in Spain -
the southern route to Santiago De Compostela.
It's called the Via de la Plata, the Silver Road.
And I'm going to be walking some of it for you, because
it takes you past so many key Baroque sites.
But the first stop I want to make
is that lovely tower shimmering on the horizon.
Seville - the start of the Via de la Plata.
This is a cultural hotspot if ever there was one,
the old Jewish quarter in Seville.
Can you feel the cultural potency bubbling up in this place?
This is where Rossini's famous opera
The Barber of Seville is set, and also Mozart's Marriage Of Figaro.
A bit further out is the Baroque tobacco factory,
in which that dangerous beauty Carmen worked in Bizet's opera.
What a grand building for a tobacco factory -
what a perfect building for an opera.
And all this is pertinent because remember, opera
is a Baroque invention, and fusing the arts together like this, music
and theatre, dance and spectacle, is a very Baroque thing to do.
But that's not why I've brought you here - I wanted to show you
where Diego Velazquez was born, in that modest house over there
in Seville's Jewish quarter in 1599.
Velazquez, Spain's greatest Baroque artist, would later pass himself off
as a man of aristocratic bearing.
What a haughty presence
he affected in his own art. Official painter to the Spanish king,
the dark dignitary, the maestro, with the perfect moustache.
But some energetic researchers have recently been digging up Velazquez's
past and it's been discovered that he was in fact of Jewish origin.
His family on his father's side were Portuguese Jews,
who'd converted to Christianity -
what they call around here, Conversos.
So, Velazquez, the son of a Converso, could almost be called
the first Jewish artist.
The first important paintings that Velazquez produced
weren't portrayals of kings, or Venuses, or popes,
but humble and very realistic depictions of ordinary life.
They were called bodegones, after
the Spanish word bodegon, which means a tavern or eating house.
The young Velazquez painted a clutch of these bodegones.
They are brilliant things - so atmospheric and tactile.
You can hear the eggs sizzling,
you can smell the garlic being crushed.
The Baroque's fascination with low life, bars, taverns,
kitchens, amounted to an obsession, and it shouldn't really surprise us.
Remember, one of the chief aims of the Counter-Reformation
was to address the hearts and the minds of ordinary people,
so art was encouraged to talk their language, and to set its action
in their spaces.
The bodegones have a deeper meaning.
Realism for realism's sake was never Velazquez's only ambition.
He was much too Baroque for that.
Realism's job in his art is to hook you and pull you in closer,
until you're close enough to see the painting's real meaning.
Look into the background of the great kitchen scene in the House Of
Martha And Mary, and you will see that Jesus got here before you.
According to the Bible, Jesus came to visit the two sisters Martha and
Mary and while Martha busied herself in the kitchen, Mary sat at Jesus's
feet and listened to his word.
When Martha complained that her sister wasn't helping out,
Jesus stopped her.
Mary, he replied, has chosen to listen,
and in the end, listening to the word
is more important than preparing the dinner.
It's that Baroque message again -
life is short, reality is an illusion,
and only the word of God lasts forever.
Velazquez was so strikingly talented that when he was 23, he was summoned
to Madrid by the king himself, Philip IV, and told to paint
the Royal portrait.
So, he left Seville and never really came back.
But his new employers were about to discover a splendid Baroque rule.
You can take a genius out of the bodega, yes,
but you can't take the bodega out of the genius.
The Spanish kings, the dreaded Hapsburgs,
were a spectacularly awful bunch -
dim witted, arrogant, pious, deformed,
but God, in his wisdom, saw something
he liked about them, and gave them most of the known world to rule,
a gigantic international empire of three billion acres, spreading
from Italy to the Netherlands, from Africa to the Americas.
But to rule, you need rulers, and that's where it had got tricky.
Their problem was the usual royal problem of inbreeding.
To keep the money and the titles in the family, the Hapsburgs had spent
too many generations
marrying amongst themselves - cousins, uncles, nephews, nieces.
Even as great a portraitist as Velazquez had trouble telling apart
the Hapsburg princesses.
This one is Philip IV's wife as well as his niece.
She was going to marry his son,
but the son died young so she married the dad instead.
This one is Philip's daughter.
oh, I give up, you need a degree in forensics to tell them apart.
The most obvious physical deformity was their lower lip -
the infamous "Hapsburg lip", which stuck out an angle like that.
A genetic condition called mandibular prognathism -
they almost all had it. And that's why that old wives' tale does
the rounds about why the Spanish lisp -
it's because none of their Royals
could actually say gracias, they could only say grathias.
But even royal inbreeding as scary as this can occasionally throw up
an interesting variation,
and Philip IV, who was king here in Spain for the key Baroque years -
1621 to 1665 - was a serious and thoughtful monarch.
44 years he ruled, but it is said that in all that time he only
laughed at court on three occasions.
Philip had the lip and that pushed in Hapsburg face, as concave as a
Baroque church facade, but he liked the arts and was sensitive to them.
Like all the Hapsburgs, Philip IV didn't do much that was right,
but in choosing Velazquez as his court painter,
he can at least be credited with one remarkable decision.
Velazquez brought us closer to the
Spanish kings than any audience had previously been to its royals,
and from this close up, you get to see - surprise, surprise -
that they're just like the rest of us - flawed,
When the time came to paint his most ambitious offering
in the field of royal portraiture,
Velazquez adopted the usual Baroque strategy of going big.
But everything else he tried here was new and revolutionary
and it lifted the genre to its greatest heights.
Las Meninas, the Maids...
Set inside the Royal palace, it's a group shot of the Royal court.
Many people will tell you it's the greatest Baroque painting
of them all.
It was painted in 1656, near the end of Velazquez's life.
The reason why this picture confuses people so much, I think, is because
there is such a huge cast list involved.
When you first look at it, you think, oh, what's going on? Who are
all these people? So, as a helpful guide to Las Meninas, I'm going to
introduce them all to you.
The key figures, of course, are Velazquez himself, on the left,
he's painting away.
In the middle the Infanta Margarita, she's the five-year-old daughter of
the Spanish king, Philip IV, and his wife - Princess Mariana of Austria.
They are in the picture too - reflected at the back, in the
mirror at the back of the studio.
Now, everybody else who looks after the little princess
is also in the foreground.
These are her two dwarfs on the right.
Female dwarf from Germany, Maria -Barbola, famous dwarf at the court.
Italian dwarf on the right, putting a foot on the princess's great, big
dog, the Royal mastiff, playfully giving it a kick in the back.
And behind the princess, you see the two shadowy figures.
The woman on the left, she's the princess's chaperone and
the figure on the right, that's the princess's bodyguard.
So, right at the front of the picture you've got all the people
who look after the princess, the princess herself and Velazquez
painting busily away.
Velazquez shows himself looking like a member of the Royal household -
look how haughtily he stands, with that excellent moustache.
And he's at work on this huge canvas on the left.
What is he actually painting?
I think that only makes sense when
you work out what's actually going on in this picture.
The King and the Queen are actually standing out here,
where the audience is now, looking at the picture afresh.
So, Velazquez is painting the King and the Queen, who are standing over
here, and the King and the Queen can see themselves in the mirror,
perhaps to check how they look.
But also, because of this beautiful game of psychological
trickery that's going on here, they seem to be looking out at
us at the same time.
But, what is this picture really about? Who is the focus of
all this action, all this psychological toing and froing?
It has to be the Infanta herself,
this sweet little princess, right at the middle of the picture.
Because the Hapsburgs have this terrible history of inbreeding,
they had nothing but bad luck in the production of children
and although Philip and Mariana had five babies,
at the time this picture was painted,
only one of them was alive - the Infanta Margarita.
The Princess, with her blonde hair and gorgeous, white silk dress
is like an angel of deliverance at the centre of this black and doomy
and intense and psychologically- troubling group portrait.
She represents all their hopes for the future.
There were only two possible sources of a commission in Baroque Spain.
You either worked for the kings or you worked for the monks.
The Hapsburgs had Baroquely discovered the power of art
but the real rulers of Spain had always known it.
I'm afraid I've got some bad news for you.
If you want to understand
the Spanish Baroque reasonably well, better than all those around you,
you need to brush up on your religious orders.
I know it's not very 21st century, but if you can't tell the difference
between the Franciscans and the Dominicans or the Mercedarians and
then so much of what's going on
in so many amazing Spanish Baroque paintings will go over your head.
Why, for instance, is he upside down?
And why is he writing on himself in blood?
Why are they nodding off?
Why is he staring so darkly at that?
To help you out, I've prepared a handy pilgrim's guide
to the Spanish religious orders - you'll thank me for this.
This one here,
he's a Franciscan - brown robes, knotted cord for a belt, Franciscan.
Sometimes the clothes get more ragged and patched, but they
are still Franciscans.
He, on the other hand, is a Dominican -
black cowl, white robe, Dominican.
Quite often seen in the Americas converting the Indians, or sometimes
whipping off their robes and flagellating themselves, Dominicans.
The ones in the black robes are Benedictines - remember,
black robes, Benedictines.
They don't appear in art as often as the others -
they are the moody, silent ones.
So, did you get all that?
Franciscans - brown, Dominicans - black and white,
Benedictines - all black.
Now, you're ready for the Spanish Baroque.
Now, you're ready for Francisco de Zurbaran - Spain's spookiest
He was born here, in Fuente de Cantos, the fifth stop
on the Via de la Plata,
so his understandings were small-town understandings,
and his rhythms were the rhythms of the pilgrimage.
These days, Zurbaran is reasonably well known,
but at the start of the 20th century he was completely obscure.
In fact, most Spanish art, apart from Velazquez,
was under explored and under valued.
I think it was so dark, so strange, so Catholic, that we just didn't get
it, and, in particular, we didn't get Zurbaran.
Bizarre, let's face it - bizarre and unsettling images,
The Zurbaran family house, on the main square, in Fuente de Cantos.
Quite a posh house now, it must have been
really posh in the 17th century.
Zurbaran's father was a prosperous textile merchant from the north,
Basque country, who moved down here because southern Spain, particularly
Andalucia, was experiencing this boom in new religious building and
there was so much money here for the priests and their new outfits.
So there was a lot of work for the Zurburans.
Many years later, Francisco de Zurburan painted
a mysterious series of Christian martyrs -
beautiful, female martyrs, all of whom were dressed in modern clothes.
They were some of the most beautifully-painted
and exciting clothes in 17th-century Baroque art.
People said that Zurbaran was using
his father's textiles in these paintings, advertising them,
using these Christian martyrs just to show off
what his dad had for sale.
Zurbaran's main employers were the Spanish religious orders -
the Mercedarians, the Carthusians, the Benedictines, the Dominicans
and the Franciscans.
One day, Pope Nicholas V visited Assisi - he wanted to see the crypt
where St Francis was buried.
At five in the morning, he went down into the crypt with a band of monks
and all they had with them was torches and as the torchlight spread
around the dark crypt, suddenly they saw St Francis
standing there, 200 years after his death, still as fresh as
if he'd just stepped out of a bath.
Untouched, unblemished as if time hadn't touched him.
Zurbaran went on to do many other
things, but monks were his speciality.
Monks were where his genius was best expressed.
And it's not just the vividness with which he illustrated their
uncanny stories, but that sense you get with him - that Zurbaran's monks
are so convincingly full of God, full of worship, full of thought.
No painter has painted human belief as convincingly as this.
The Baroque pilgrim, trudging dutifully the 600 miles from Seville
to Santiago de Compostela, would have had regular encounters
with the Spanish Baroque.
Waiting for them at the end of the trudge,
there's an eye-catching eruption of Baroque architecture.
You know, Chaucer's Wife Of Bath came on the pilgrimage to Santiago.
It's been the most famous pilgrimage route in Europe for a thousand years
but it was the Baroque era that shaped the town itself
and gave Santiago de Compostela its memorable and exciting look.
The Cathedral here, to which thousands of busy pilgrims scuttle
daily, is a Baroque wedding cake in the Churrigueresque style,
which, as far as I can tell, consists chiefly of adding
things to places when there isn't really room for them.
But somewhere within this crazily, writhing, sculpture-encrusted,
fantasy facade, methinks me sees the remnants of Spain's Islamic past.
Inside the great pilgrimage church at Santiago,
the Baroque's love of glitter has been spectacularly unleashed.
Guilt may have driven the Spanish Baroque,
but gold was what paid for it.
The stupendous wealth of the American colonies was flooding into
Spain and then into the pockets of the Catholic church, who spent it,
as the Catholic church so often did - on art.
You know, there's never been an art movement as adept as the Baroque was
at absorbing local influences - taking them all in, regurgitating
them, and then spitting them
out at the other end as something that looks unmistakeably Baroque.
You can't imagine this building
in Italy, or France, or, perish the thought, England.
It's obviously from around here, but with all that
thrusting and swirling and movement, it's just as obviously Baroque.
There is one huge slab of the world where you can easily imagine this.
When I say the Baroque was the first truly international art movement,
I mean truly international.
The Churrigueresque style may not have travelled to Italy or France
but it travelled all right, to the far, far corners of the
Spanish Empire, where it ended up in some very remote places.
Wherever the monks went, the Baroque went,
and it ended up as the house style of the whole of Latin America.
But not all of the Baroque's travels were quite so exotic...
How the Spanish kings came to own Belgium is a dark, political story,
involving so many battles and so much constant religious conflict
that we would be here for as long as the 100 Years War
trying to understand it fully.
Let's just say they were here and they shouldn't have been.
In any case, what interests us is the art that came out of the
Spanish Netherlands and for that, you need a strong stomach.
The Spanish were here for nearly 200 years, but you'd hardly know it,
there's so little sign of them left.
A few plaques, some statues and this
magnificent Baroque square in the centre of Brussels, the Grote Markt.
It's as action-packed a square as the Baroque ever produced,
with its ring of spiky and busy Baroque buildings.
The Grote Markt is a 50 course banquet of architecture,
in which all the courses are served up at once.
Superb building at the end - House of the Fox -
that used to be the headquarters of the Haberdashers' Guild.
Next to it the Guild of the Boatmen, their centre was in the House of the
Horn, see the big gold horn there.
The most interesting for us is the one at the end, see there -
that used to be the headquarters of the Bakers' Guild.
It's now a pub called the King Of Spain and
right on top, a statue of Charles II.
Even by the standards of the Hapsburgs, Charles was a terrible
advertisement for royalty.
All those generations of Hapsburg
inbreeding had turned him into an imbecile.
The only surviving son of Philip IV,
he couldn't walk or talk until he was seven,
and an aging nurse breastfed him until he reached puberty.
Too weak to survive an education, he grew up illiterate and squalid,
so they made him King of the Netherlands
and named this pub after him.
It was a monumental clash of cultures - the Spanish, with their
black, intense, morbid gloominess and the fun-loving Flemish,
with their naughty, juicy, fleshy lust for life, were
never going to see eye to eye, but somehow the coming together of these
two momentous opposites squeezed so much monumental art into the world.
I probably don't need to tell you who the best-known representative
was of the Flemish tendency,
his notoriety goes before him.
He's one of those artists who seems to have nothing
much to say to the modern world...
..so our times have taken a dislike to him.
But not me. I've got all the time in the world for Peter Paul Rubens.
Rubens shouldn't be out of fashion.
An artist as great as him should never be out of fashion.
This was one of the towering geniuses of art -
a serial achiever on so many Baroque fronts.
For instance, he designed that...
..and this tower here.
And he painted that.
But he was notorious, of course, for his love of fat women.
The adjective "Rubenesque"
has entered our language to describe the Dawn French type,
the big 'un,
the size 16-er,
and there's no point denying Rubens liked...the fuller figure.
Rubens's art bulges at the seams
with a huge tonnage of happy wobbling cellulite.
The bigger woman rang his bell and squeezed his pips,
but he wasn't alone in that - that's how the Flemish like their women.
Rubens's career coincided neatly with that rare thing in Flanders -
some decent Spanish leadership.
In fact, there were two governors overseeing the Spanish Netherlands
in tandem, the conjoined, married pair of Archdukes -
Albert and Isabella ruled here from 1598 to 1621.
She was Philip II's daughter, he was the same king's nephew, so
they were actually Hapsburg cousins and should never have married.
But when Philip II made them the joint governors of the Spanish
Netherlands, Albert and Isabella
surprised everyone by being rather good at ruling the Belgians.
Their arrival put a stop, temporarily at least, to the
constant round of Flemish warfare
and it was in this period of peace and prosperity
that Rubens began to operate.
Rubens, interestingly, had been born a Protestant.
His father was a Flemish convert to Calvinism.
But when the father died, the family converted back to Catholicism
and you'd never guess,
from Rubens's Catholic handiwork,
that he'd ever been away from the faith.
This stupendous master class in Baroque movement and emotion,
The Descent From The Cross in Antwerp Cathedral, is Rubens's
greatest moment as a creator of thunderous religious theatre.
If this doesn't move you,
you've got no soul.
The young Rubens
unleashed sex and violence on us too, in this scary Baroque manner.
It is hard to believe what's going on here.
My God, will you look at that?
But let's not be hypocritical about these dark and tremendous
action pictures -
judging by the stuff that pours out of our cinemas today, a taste
for this has always been in us.
Rubens was merely early in admitting it.
If you know Rubens
only for his naked orgies and his show off mythologies, you might be
surprised to discover that he had a quiet side, a lovely, gentle aspect.
Rubens couldn't stop painting.
He was a tap that couldn't be turned off.
It was habitual for him, a necessity.
So when the King of Spain wasn't commissioning him,
Rubens painted something much closer to hand instead -
his family. Just for himself - just for the pleasure of it.
His first wife, the charismatic and eager-eyed Isabella Brandt,
had died tragically young, in 1626.
Rubens was devastated.
He had put so much love into painting the two of them
sitting there in their Sunday best,
two cooing lovebirds in a bower.
But it was his second wife, Helene Fourment, who played
the largest part in his art.
He married her when he was 53 - she was only 16.
She's that fleshy, blonde nude
who appears in so many of his mythologies.
The best model ever, for the Rubens girl.
You can definitely tell from his art how much he wanted her.
The many portrayals of Helene Fourment sizzle with lust -
the joyous lust of a 53-year-old man who's hit lucky
with a beautiful 16-year-old girl.
It doesn't sound good, I grant you,
but he loved her and he wanted her, and it shows.
Never before in art have we been granted
this much access to the private life of a celebrity artist.
400 years before Hello magazine, Rubens had already realised
that the world was now fascinated by everything he did.
That's how ahead of the times he was - that's how Baroque he was.
Rubens spoke six languages fluently and he moved easily among Kings
and Popes - he was the consummate schmoozer. So, in 1629,
the Spanish King sent him to England to schmooze Charles I,
which Rubens successfully did.
So Charles knighted him, and the University of Cambridge made Sir
Peter Paul Rubens a Master of Arts.
Soon enough, the Baroque
would follow Rubens to England, but first, there were still lands
to conquer closer to home, just a border away to the north.
Welcome to Holland - the wettest stage in the Baroque's great journey
from Rome to London, from St Peter's to St Paul's.
So far in this series, we've been investigating the Catholics -
they invented the Baroque.
It was their movement, their mindset,
it reflected their passions, their hopes, their fears.
But, as any mother will tell you, babies don't always grow up
as you expect them to, and that was definitely true of the Baroque.
By the time it got here, to Holland, it was much too big and boisterous
an art movement to be controlled by one religion or one mindset.
Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about the Baroque
is how brilliantly, how confidently and inventively
it switched its allegiance from the Catholics to the Protestants.
The greatest Dutch painter of them all - Rembrandt -
was a classic Baroque hero - intense, dramatic and ambiguous.
Rembrandt was born a Protestant
here in Leiden, a fierce Calvinist stronghold on the edge of Holland,
but to make it, he had to leave Leiden and move here, to Amsterdam,
where he turned very Baroque,
and quickly made his mark.
All that's actually happening in Rembrandt's tumultuous Night Watch
is that a company of home guards, a Dutch Dad's Army, is setting out
on its daily march around the town.
But the sense of occasion here, the emotion, the movement, the drama
is so big and so Baroque, you would think they were off
to save the world.
Leiden may have been a Calvinist stronghold, but Rembrandt's mother
actually came from an old, Catholic family and to my eyes, he inherited
a Popish intensity from her, a Catholic fretfulness
and sweatiness that gives all of his art its biblical air.
Rembrandt couldn't keep out of his own art - this intense little
man from Leiden took such a shine to his own face, he kept painting it
and repainting it more often than any artist had ever done before him.
In 1635, he showed himself flushed with Amsterdam success,
celebrating his early good times with his beloved wife, Saskia.
But even here, there's doubt in the air.
Rembrandt's self portraits lead you on a merry goose chase
as they peep in and out of his soul.
I'm particularly fond of this mysterious bit of method acting
painted near the end of his life - a self portrait with circles.
Why is he standing there with two
big circles painted on the wall behind him?
There have been lots of interpretations,
but the one that convinces me involves an old story that was told
about Phidias, the greatest painter of classical times.
Phidias was famous for being able to draw a perfect circle freehand
without a compass, and Rembrandt, in his ageing Self Portrait
With Circles, is surely saying, "I can do that too."
But he's not saying it with great conviction, is he? Because there's
always so much doubt in Rembrandt.
So much hesitation -
a sadness that draws you towards his irresistible vulnerability
like a magnet.
And this realisation - that the problems of an artist,
his insecurities and inner life, were worthy of a picture,
was one of the Baroque's most brilliant insights.
It was the first art movement to realise that people are as
interested in weakness as they are in strength,
that doubts are as compelling as achievements,
and that the real hero is sometimes the underdog.
Protestant Holland put the ordinary doubts of ordinary people
at the centre of art.
You didn't have to be a pope or a king or a mythological hero
to deserve your place in art -
everybody deserved their place in art.
You see that chap up there - second from the left at the top - right at
the back of this busy, crowd scene -
do you know who that is?
He's a personal hero of mine - one of the great geniuses of the Dutch
Baroque, an artist blessed with some of the fastest hands in art.
That...is Frans Hals.
Frans Hals is perhaps best known for painting this smirking chappy, known
to us all as The Laughing Cavalier.
In fact, he isn't laughing and he isn't a cavalier.
He's an unknown Dutch bravo, exuding such excellent nonchalance.
These chaps here were all members of another of these
Dad's Army brigades - a squad of amateur soldiers from Haarlem,
called the Civic Guard of St George.
In theory, they were there to protect the city in times of war,
in practice, they met a few times a month and socialised energetically.
This is their end of term photograph in which everyone in the class
poses for a picture.
These things are really tricky to paint.
With a king or a pope, you just put
them in the centre of the picture, and that's that, but the Protestant
democratisation of art caused all sorts of compositional problems.
Here you have 15 people, all of whom have paid to appear in this picture,
all of whom expect to be seen properly.
Hals was a genius at getting that right.
Look how skilfully he arranges
them around the table, turning this way and that.
A couple at the front, some at the back.
It's a magnificent piece of human orchestration
and it creates that restless sense of movement, of the action
swirling about the picture that is so quintessentially Baroque.
And there's something else, something even more Baroque
than all this restlessness.
These men are meant to be soldiers,
but you never see them fighting.
They are meant to be civic heroes, but there's no aggression
in their eyes.
The St George Civic Guard - of which Hals himself was a member -
is instead always shown banqueting and chatting and bonding.
That's because these showy banqueting scenes are actually
subtle pieces of Baroque propaganda for peace.
Holland had seen so many wars and squabbles and wished
so desperately for them to end, but instead of coming out with that
in some aggressive, propagandist way,
Hals implies it subtly, sneakily, Baroquely.
God's great bounty should not be squandered on war and conflict.
This subliminal moralising became the chief obsession
of the Dutch Baroque.
You can't trust any of this art to mean what it seems to mean...
..Especially not when it's been painted by that elusive Dutch genius
who smuggled the most subtle subliminal messages
into his pictures -
Jan Vermeer of Delft.
I'm like everyone else - I love Vermeer, those frugal and
tearful women of his, lost in their own thoughts, trying to read a love
letter as the weak light of Delft struggles through their window.
They claw at my masculine attention, I can't resist them.
But Vermeer is as much of a moralist as the rest of them.
His beautiful and thoughtful women,
dreaming of their loved ones, strumming their guitars,
tinkling at their virginals,
demand that you note their fragility and breakability
as they offer themselves up so sadly for your inspection.
These are moods so delicate that the lightest knock
would shatter them like crystal.
A climatic nuance, a shadow, a touch, a gesture...
..The final meaning of life is conveyed in such subtle ways.
In the end,
what's being understood here is the fragility of life itself,
the vulnerability of beauty, the shortness of youth.
And the fact that some, or even most, of Vermeer's girls with
pearl earrings were probably the painter's own daughters
add so much poignancy to his message and personalises it so Baroquely.
These are not
theoretical understandings that are being passed on to us here,
these are understandings born of fatherhood and observation.
Vermeer himself was a thoroughly obscure figure, completely forgotten
for 300 years before the 19th century rediscovered him.
But this lack of reliable fame
seems somehow to supplement the meaning of his pictures.
Here today, gone tomorrow - that's the artist's life for you.
The golden age of Dutch art spewed out so many fascinating painters
and I'd be happy to spend many months here remembering them for you
but staying put is not Baroque behaviour.
This series, I promised to take you from St Peter's,
over here, to St Paul's, over there,
and that means we've got some water to cross.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Three-part series exploring the Baroque tradition in many of its key locations. Starting in Italy and following the spread of the wildfire across Europe and beyond, art critic Waldemar Januszczak takes us on a tour of the best examples of Baroque to be found, and tells the best stories behind those works.
He follows Baroque to its dark heart in Spain, focusing on the route of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and featuring star painters Velasquez, Caravaggio and Zurburan. He then carries on through Belgium and Holland to discover such celebrities as Rubens and Vermeer.