Andrew Lambirth

Erotic review

First, a note about naming. The artist here presented as Jan Gossaert (c.1478–1532) was formerly known as Jan Mabuse, so designated after the Walloon town he came from — Maubeuge in Hainaut.

Erotic review
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First, a note about naming. The artist here presented as Jan Gossaert (c.1478–1532) was formerly known as Jan Mabuse, so designated after the Walloon town he came from — Maubeuge in Hainaut.

First, a note about naming. The artist here presented as Jan Gossaert (c.1478–1532) was formerly known as Jan Mabuse, so designated after the Walloon town he came from — Maubeuge in Hainaut. The Americans, meanwhile, miss out the e and spell his name Gossart, which makes the poor fellow sound even more like an underwear firm, though the word is itself more attractive-looking than its variant. So if you were wondering where this newly minted artist had sprung from, the likelihood is he was flying under different colours the last time you saw him.

The National Gallery has one of the best collections of his work in the world, but there hasn’t been an exhibition devoted to him for more than 45 years. How does this show, organised by the Metropolitan Museum in New York in collaboration with the NG, shape up as an introduction to a (largely) unfamiliar artist?

Don’t expect half-a-dozen galleries filled with Gossaerts in the NG’s dungeons off Trafalgar Square. This is a show of Gossaert in context, which means lots of work by his friends and rivals. In the middle of the first room is a late-15th- or early-16th-century bronze of the famous antique figure known as the Spinario, or ‘Boy with a thorn’. Gossaert made a rather lewd drawing of this sculpture, viewed from below and thus focusing on the nude boy’s genitals, rather than his wounded foot. This evocative crotch shot demonstrates two things: Gossaert’s presence in Rome, and his interest in sensuality. He was one of the first Northern artists to visit Rome to study the Antique at first hand, enabled to do so by the patronage of Philip of Burgundy with whom he travelled. Was the emphasis in Gossaert’s art on the body (as opposed to the spirit) a result of Philip’s taste? Or did the piquant sexuality come naturally to him?

Also in this first room are intricate pen-and-ink drawings which show a fascination for architecture, and a skill in the use of white highlighting. (See Gossaert’s drawing of the Holy Family with Saint Catherine and Another Female Saint.) These offer a very different side to the artist, and are drawn out with sober, precise strokes, almost reminiscent of engravings (though the Spinario subject — who actually looks like a real boy, not a sculpture — is also fastidiously hatched). Here, too, are paintings by contemporaries such as Quinten Massys and Pieter van Coninxloo, and a lovely little study of a sparrowhawk by Jacopo de’ Barbari. In the second room, the comparative material continues, but focuses more closely on how we should look at Gossaert.

Perhaps the underwear connotations have subtly influenced the curators of this exhibition, for their chief concern seems to be to demonstrate how sexy Gossaert could be. Thus we are shown two fabulous drawings of Eve by Dürer, as well as his celebrated engraving of Adam and Eve, to compare with several Gossaerts of the same subject.

I have to admit I was more thrilled by the Dürers than by any of the Gossaerts, yet we are encouraged to note Gossaert’s ‘unusually erotic’ interpretation of the theme. This despite the fact that his most famous version of a nude and amorous couple, ‘Neptune and Amphitrite’ (in the Staatliche, Berlin), is not included in this exhibition. A damaging omission, as it can claim to be the first example of the classicising nude in Netherlandish painting, and one of Gossaert’s most acclaimed works.

The drawings are more enticing than the paintings. One of them, heightened with white-on-grey paper, borrowed from Chatsworth, depicts Eve with hair flowing down to her feet, with an exhausted and perhaps post-coitally triste Adam draped around her — no coy distance between them here. Another, on loan from the Albertina in Vienna, depicts the couple about to kiss, with legs entwined. I don’t find either erotic, but they are rather splendid and engaging drawings.

The large painting of Adam and Eve, on loan from Her Majesty the Queen, is reliably fleshy and pleasingly informal, with a deceptively docile-looking Eve, though Adam — who seems already to have eaten of the apple — looks suitably apprehensive. Carnal, perhaps, and certainly admonitory, but not what I would call erotic. Among the other paintings here are the familiar ‘Adoration of the Kings’ (note the architectural setting), a remarkable grisaille double panel, ‘St Jerome Penitent’, once the outside shutters of an altarpiece, and an amazing drawing of a reliquary in brown ink. ‘Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane’, a strange night scene with eerie lighting effects from a bright quarter-moon, adds another strand to the complex make-up of this artist.

Room 3 concentrates on the erotic nude, in case we hadn’t yet got the message. The sensual delights include a charming brown-ink drawing ‘A Woman’s Bath’, depicting eight naked ladies with great affection and directness. Next to it is Venus looking at herself, not with becoming modesty. Gossaert is good at women, and this exhibition is strong in drawings: notice the four roundels heightened with white on dark paper — the best perhaps is ‘A Woman and her Handmaid’. There are other good things here such as the rather fine ‘Hercules and Deianeira’, but let’s cut to the main room, gallery 4, to find the other important aspect of Gossaert’s work — his portraiture.

The trio on the end wall, ‘Henry III of Nassau-Breda’, ‘Jan Jacobsz Snoek’ and ‘Francisco de los Cobos y Molina’, give a very adequate impression of the finely detailed work that was Gossaert’s hallmark. ‘A Man Holding a Glove’ seems to me to be more penetrating in terms of characterisation, while on the opposite wall ‘An Elderly Couple’ demonstrates that age doesn’t always come easily, nor is it welcome. (Note the haze of grey-white stubble around the man’s tightly clenched jaw.) This is an impressive room of people. Gossaert is good at stuffs: notice the cloth of gold skull cap, and the gold damask doublet under the slate-blue cloak in ‘Portrait of a Gentleman’ (from Antwerp), who looks a cool, rather supercilious customer.

There are two more galleries — one of devotional subjects, including a lascivious-looking Mary Magdalene embracing a great ointment jar, the other of Virgin and Child pictures. There is quite a range of mood and emotional intensity here, and some seem to be more about display and the intricacies of the setting than any sacred content.

The National Gallery has not published a catalogue for this exhibition. There’s a paperback available, called Van Eyck to Gossaert: Towards a Northern Renaissance (£14.99), which has a wider remit and only seven Gossaerts illustrated, or the American catalogue (the show opened last year in New York), which is a vast, sumptuous doorstep costing £60, subtitled ‘The Complete Works’. There’s a pun in there but, however profane, Gossaert remains a pivotal figure in Netherlandish art between Van Eyck and Rubens. Worth a detour.