A remarkable collection emerges from obscurity
THESE two superlative but relatively unfamiliar pictures are from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, a treasury that is now becoming known to the general public, and from which some 50 paintings were recently on display at the Royal Academy in London. The majolica jug, resting on an Oriental carpet, and holding blue and white flowers is by Hans Memling (circa 1433-94); the ``Portrait of a Man'' (who seems to be recently engaged, judging by the ring he holds) is by Francesco del Cossa (1436-78). We are particularly impressed here with the way the young man's hand seems to be coming right out of the frame, across which falls the shadow of his sleeve. Behind him is a fantastic rocky landscape that one longs to explore.
The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection is remarkable, aside from its intrinsic nature, because it was assembled in only about 60 years, and yet has become one of the finest private collections in the world - possibly the finest, other than those owned by royal families, which come under a different category.
August Thyssen (1842-1926), the grandfather of the present head of the family, had only a moderate interest in art, being absorbed in amassing his vast iron and steel fortune. A powerful German industrialist, he is best known for the support he gave the Kaiser. His son Heinrich (1875-1947), a banker and financier, held a PhD from London University and was an ardent collector.
Leaving Germany, the second baron went to Hungary, became a citizen, and altered his name to include that of his Hungarian wife, remaining there for a number of years. This episode can be dated by the fact that he was obliged to flee the country of his adoption with the arrival of Bela Kun and the communists; pulling up stakes, he went to the Netherlands where the present head of the family, his son Hans Heinrich, was born in 1922.
From the collecting point of view, the '20s and '30s were important years for Baron Heinrich Thyssen; he bought largely and with great discrimination, housing his treasures in the Villa Favorita, which he bought from Prince Frederick Leopold of Prussia in 1932. This house on the shores of Lake Lugano remains the stronghold of the family's possessions, though many pictures now hang in other homes they own, or are in storage or in exhibitions.
Showing these masterpieces to the public is a relatively new development; during the post-World War I years and the depression, it was possible to acquire many pictures, but not politic to let it be widely known that an ex-German family was making such purchases - most people were scarcely aware of this burgeoning collection.
This policy has changed, since the present head of the family, the heir Hans Heinrich, has no such reluctance. He has always been intensely interested in these possessions, doing all he could to reassemble his father's collection (which had been divided among his children), and increasing it by purchases.
Eclectic in his tastes, he is fond of modern painting, sculpture, and objets d'art as well as pictures, and there is considerable speculation afoot as to what will eventually become of these wonders when he leaves the scene. Rumor has it that the J. Paul Getty Museum in California is interested in the collection, but the Swiss do not want to lose so valuable a tourist attraction.
The display at the Royal Academy was precisely what the name implies - Old Master Paintings - extending from the beginning of the 14th to the early 19th century, and including Renaissance portraits, other Renaissance pictures, Dutch, early German and Italian paintings, a Caneletto (Warwick Castle), two Watteaus, two El Grecos, a Boucher, a Tiepolo, two Goyas, a Ruisdael - a wonderful feast for the beholder (this list is not at all complete).
The interest, even excitement, the show engendered was enhanced by the fact that though most of the painters were well known, these particular paintings were usually being seen for the first time by those who thronged the rooms.
Hans Memling (variously reported as having been born in M"amlingen as his name implies, or in Selingenstadt near Frankfurt am Main), is considered either Flemish or German, though the fact that he is called Hans and not Jan underscores his Teutonic origin.
Called ``the Fra Angelico of the North,'' his work is greatly loved. Though he painted in Cologne, Brussels, and Valenciennes, he is always associated with the wonderful little city of Bruges, as was Jan van Eyck. After his initial wanderings, Memling lived there in a handsome house, in comfort and style, having married a rich wife - later on he became wealthy in his own right through painting and teaching. His pictures, though not at all mystical, are chiefly of religious subjects, and he did many portraits.
His work is elegant and delicate, tinged with melancholy. Within their rather limited compass his pictures are quite perfect, though they tend to become almost standardized after his own manner.
This is apparent in his portraits, which represent the sitter as having a long straight nose under a high forehead, with beautifully curved lips over a small chin. The eyes are occasionally strangely almond-shaped, and there is about them a rather vague, detached air - they appear highly bred, and to some, snobbish.
The majolica jug on the geometric carpet, which is thrown over a table in the northern custom, holds flowers that have symbolic meanings: the white lilies, purity; the blue iris, the Queen of Heaven; and the dark columbine the Holy Spirit (from ``columba,'' or dove).
The painting formed part of a triptych - or possibly a diptych. On the other side is a splendid portrait of a young man, the donor, his hands raised in prayer, wearing an elaborately fastened tunic, the face conforming to type, the dark hair curling. If it was a triptych, the other section would have held his wife, but she has not been found.
The brushwork on the petals and leaves, the realism of the bright carpet, the handling of light and shade, combine to make this a perfectly graceful and exact picture.
Aside from its beauty and charm, this little painting has other notable points of interest: its floral theme, and the carpet itself. Wilfred Blunt's ``The Art of Botanical Illustration'' calls this Memling ``the earliest known flower-piece of the Dutch type,'' meaning by this that the entire theme of the work (and it was not part of an herbal or book of that sort) was the bouquet - it was not presented as part of a background or d'ecor.
As to the carpet, the design of the medallion is so characteristic of the artist that it is known among carpet experts as ``the Memling gul'' - it is one of those rugs that are oriented to the name of the man who painted them - it is also less precisely referred to as the ``Memling carpet.''
In del Cossa's ``Portrait of a Man,'' the illusion of three dimensions - caused by the hand resting on the parapet - follows the Mantegna influence that was so pervasive in northern Italy, in which the frame seems to conspire with the perspective.
Other Mantegna traits are evident in the sculpted nature of the young man's form, the classicism of the figure, and the rocky background. Del Cossa was himself from Ferrara, and his work is allied to that of his own region in its boldness and strength.
Cristoforo del Cossa, his father, illuminated carvings and statues, assisted by his gifted son, but the latter left Ferrara (perhaps dissatisfied with the pay he received) and went to Bologna, where he worked for the rest of his life. Before this, it is said that Rogier van der Weyden visited Ferrara, and that the local artists were quick to assimilate many aspects of his vision - notably a Flemish ``sadness and dryness''; one could attribute these qualities to the subject of this portrait.
In the first part of the 15th century it was fashionable to paint a portrait in profile against a plain background; afterward the style changed, as we see here, where the young man looks at us full face with a direct gaze, looking into our own eyes. His face is strongly modeled, the tempera is of a brownish tinge, characteristic of his work, the space strikingly handled, the subject so close, the miniature background so distant. Del Cossa's rocks were famous, table-shaped, riddled with grottoes, overhanging, fabulous.
It is a truly magnificent picture, to which one can turn with deep interest and pleasure, time and again, and which helps to illuminate the 15th century in Italy for us.