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Selling Exhibitions

Abstraction of Narrative: Old Masters Through the Lens of Contemporary Art

By Katie Alice Fitz Gerald
Old Master works and contemporary art have an inextricable relationship, and their interaction provides an ongoing discussion in terms of building collections and creating stories. It is precisely when we reflect on earlier periods with fresh eyes, new ideologies, philosophies and considerations, that we allow these pieces to have a place in contemporary discourse.

S otheby’s A Brush with Italy selling exhibition brings to Hong Kong a selection of Italian art from the Renaissance to the 19th century. In looking at this collection of Old Masters we bear witness not only to external landscapes and cityscapes of the past, but also to the sensibilities of the creators and patrons. They let us into their world of idealism, class, sexuality and urgency which are qualities that continue to agitate and inspire artists today.

In recent years, art galleries and museums have fostered such discussions on contemporary links to the past. For example, the Metropolitan Museum has, since 2015, begun an online series in which current artists choose works from the historical collection and discuss what the work means to them, how it’s altered their perceptions and influenced their own practice. To view Old Master paintings in this context collapses chronology and geography, and approaches the work with a more thematic or abstract perspective. Old Master paintings seen through the lens of modern and contemporary art can transform meaning for the viewer. This shift in perspective and colour relationships create new ways of viewing. This abstraction of narrative can transcend into experience.

The figurative composition and narratives of Western mythology and religion often found in Old Master paintings, occasionally cloud more abstract qualities in the works such as scale and use of light and space. These are facets which have continued to influence artists. Mark Rothko, for example, found the sensitivity in the gradients of colour and light in Old Master paintings, highly influential. These qualities are clear to see in Venice, View of the Molo Looking West Towards La Salute by 19th century Italian painter Ippolito Caffi. The blue light emanating from the shadowed full moon graduates across the canvas, and the light dispersion, which highlights the nightlife and architecture of Venice, is so powerful that it almost becomes the subject of the work. The night-time scene offers the viewer calmness and serenity, and yet the painting exudes intrigue and intensity. These elements can be directly related to Rothko’s works, where stillness, achieved through minimal composition and flatness, is offset by the pulsating drama created by colour relationships and graded light.

To take this into the realm of contemporary art, we only have to look at the work of James Turrell to see how light and colour really have become subject and medium. The scale of Italian Renaissance frescoes combined with the effervescence of light and colour found in 19th century works such as that of Caffi’s, finds a new voice in the all-encompassing light installation.

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left to right: John Currin, THE PENITENT , 2004, Estimate: HK$8,000,000 — 12,000,000. Placido Costanzi, The Triumph of Saint Peter over Paganism.

The traditions of the Renaissance figures with their accentuated physiques and contorted muscularity also find partners in contemporary artists. The vitality in John Currin’s portraits and subjects have often drawn comparison with Old Masters. In 2011 the Frans Hals Museum in The Netherlands exhibited his works next to those of Dutch master, Cornelius Van Haarlem. Heightened physicality matched with subtlety of brushstroke is exemplified in this exhibition in The Triumph of Saint Peter over Paganism by Placido Costanzi. Each character within the scene helps drive through the gravitas of narrative with the significant gestures and poses they adopt. Whilst Costanzi is a classical painter in period, his work references earlier 16th and 17th century artists in the muscular and sinewy figures. In Costanzi’s work there is a vividness, not just in figurative composition but in colour and texture created through shadowing. Currin has also adopted these stylistic qualities and traditions of composition in the scenes he depicts and renews them with characters found in contemporary life.

However, we must not overlook the quieter more contemplative pieces which also find connections with contemporary art. Photographer Erin O’Keefe, who toys with spatial perception and colour relationships in her own practice, attributes these aspects in her work to her fascination with the misreading of space and unresolved perspective found in Old Master paintings. The depictions of three famed Roman monuments in Giacomo van Lint’s pair of works are perfect examples of this. Whilst these works present a ‘reality’ of these ancient monuments, the two paintings coexist by mirroring shape and composition. When viewed under these terms we can start to extract the starkness between the shapes derived from constructed and empty architectural space, and how the act of painting these structures both flattens and alters perspective much like O’Keefe does in her own practice.

To look at Old Master paintings in isolation of their time and place is to misunderstand the gravitas they bring to visual art. The groundbreaking techniques of these works did so much to enhance the viewing of these pieces and played a pivotal role in elevating artists as cultural taster-makers. Without these earlier innovations, artists would not have continued to be the pioneers of visual experience that they are today.

Upcoming Events

Old Masters / A Brush with Italy Selling Exhibition

Saturday 5 October
11am Gallery Walk and Expert Voices

2pm A taste of Italy (Wine & Art)
A tasting of a selection of premium Tuscan wines in the context of our selling exhibition of Old Masters: A Brush with Italy

Sunday 6 October
11am Gallery Walk and Expert Voices

3pm Gallery Walk and Expert Voices

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