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Wolfe von Lenkiewicz The School of Night

Wolfe von Lenkiewicz, The School of Night, 2013, oil on canvas, 207 cm x 209.5 cm

The School of Night by Wolfe von Lenkiewicz forms part of the group show ‘Viewing Room’ exhibited at the Crypt, One Marylebone Road, London, from the 15th to the 20th of October during Frieze 2013. It builds on the artist’s previous coalescences of disparate imagery; from contemporary to historic; the high art of the Renaissance to icons of popular culture. Lenkiewicz’s ‘post-historic’ practice carefully examines the question of what constitutes an original work of art. By borrowing from existing visual culture and creating a system of deconstructing the linearity of historical perspective he challenges our notions of past and present to delineate a space that lies outside of history. Rather than relegating a painting to a time period, recent paintings by von Lenkiewicz can be viewed more accurately as a form of hybrid, a fulcrum between ages. There is a scholarly tendency to want to categorise and insert artworks

Above Left: Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, 207 cm x 209.5 cm, National Gallery, London Above Right: Wolfe von Lenkiewicz, The School of Night, 2013, oil on canvas, 207 cm x 209.5 cm

into particular “-isms” and overlooking the organic history of art, the way in which various styles overlap and intertwine. By employing a high level of craftsmanship with unprecedented minute detail and the use of Old Master techniques, including grisaille, the artist is attempting to exploit the true capabilities of oil painting. The intricate iconography in the painting obscures its hidden secrets in plain sight for determined viewers to find, if they know how to look. Underlying the School of Night painting is a complex narrative incorporating philosophical and literary references. A process of excavating the various layers of references and iconography is necessary before linking together the individual pieces into a constellation. The result is a visual feast, a galaxy of painterly special effects that at once dazzle to enchant the eye and provoke the mind, to provide much viewing interest. The title, School of Night derives from a passage in Act IV, scene III of William Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost, in which King of Navarre says,”Black is the badge of hell / The hue of dungeons and the school of night”. It was also a modern name that centred around Sir Walter Raleigh and was once referred to in 1592 as the ‘School of Atheism’. Believed by some scholars to be a group of Free-Thinkers who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, it included Marlowe, Thomas Hariot and the “Wizard Earl”, Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland. These men were avid in the pursuit of knowledge and were known to study science, philosophy and religion in a time where Atheism was considered treason and another word for anarchy. School of Night is a reimagined work that refers to Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors (1533) on show at the National Gallery in London. This painting memorialises two wealthy, educated young men, Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to the left and bishop

of Lavaur to the right. The double portrait contains a still-life with a central display of luxury objects that include items for the study of astronomy and a celestial globe used to identify constellations. On the lower shelf a lute and a case of flutes are depicted to symbolise harmony although a broken string and a missing flute hints at a world of chaos and division. There is an arithmetic book to the left and an open Psalm book by Luther to the right. Inlaid pieces of

Detail of Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. On this upper shelf between the two ambassadors sit various instruments for measuring dates and time, including an astronomical globe, a cylindrical calendar, two quadrants, a sun clock, and a torquetum. All the instruments in this paradoxical picture show imprecise times..

Detail of Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533. The Lower shelf between the two ambassadors shows a terrestrial globe, a lute with a broken string, a Lutheran hymn book, an arithmetic book which lies open on a division page, dividers, and a bag of wooden flutes one of which juts out from the rest.

Above Left: Holbein the Younger, Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (Anne Lovell?), 1528 Above Right: Holbein the Younger, Queen Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan, 1538

coloured stones make up the floor in what is known as ‘Cosmati work’ – the circular patterns representing heaven and earth. The painting represents two powerful Renaissance men depicted as central to the universe. At first sight the re-envisioned School of Night appears to us as a familiar one however it is soon apparent that several subtle yet seismic shifts have occurred: the first aspect to arrest the viewer’s eye is that the men have been replaced with the opposite gender. To the right of the painting is Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (Anne Lovell?) painted in 1528 and the second portrait to the left is that of Queen Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan (1538). The two portraits seamlessly conflate with that of The Ambassadors. In Lenkiewicz’s version the emerald green colour of the damask curtains has been changed to a more complimentary teal hue befitting its female portraits. The curtains have been dramatically drawn aside to reveal a clandestine moonlit landscape with the mysterious

Outer Panels of The Wilton Diptych, c. 1395–1399, a tempera picture on two folding panels showing Edward the Confessor’s mythical arms and Richard II’s white hart badge..

presence of a dominating new female cast. Furthermore, this is an allegory that presents the world as a stage and alludes to lines from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest – thus blurring the notions of fact and fiction. The painting reflects an opposition of viewing taking for its starting point Holbein’s own contradictory oppositions that he purposefully adopted during the Reformation and at a time of deep political and religious unrest. We see this conjecture by the way in which Holbein challenges the Renaissance perspective by breaking the picture plane with the appearance of a distorted anamorphic skull. The opposition between the scientific way in which Holbein is viewing the world is here being undermined. It is not only the presence of the skull which is discomforting, it is also incurred by the way it is breaking the rules of perspective. Von Lenkiewicz mirrors this opposition by disrupting the narrative rather than breaking the rules of Renaissance picture making. In the recontextualised work the main rupture we encounter is that the painting is no longer male. Through his intervention a displacement occurs in which the paintings that exist in the National Gallery collapse spatially into one another. The paintings have in effect cross-pollinated with the painting The Ambassadors. Imbued with new and obscure meaning,

Paolo Uccello, St. George and the Dragon, about 1397 - 1475, oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London

the School of Night now embodies a presence of the Divine Feminine. It is redolent with feminine iconography: the full moon; the dead finch (feeds on seeds of thorns and thistles associated with the crown of thorns, the passion and redemption); the restrained pose and dress code adopted by both women, significantly the pious position of the hands and white gloves in the figure of Queen Christina; patriarchal notions about female purity, sacrifice and chastity prevail and is also embodied by the chained white hart. The presence of Man being at the centre of the universe has also been displaced by the presence and power of the animals in the recomposed painting. The appearance of a white stag, a monkey, a finch and a squirrel, re-introduces the philosophy and belief of Medieval times. The notion that animals have mythos ran counter to the ideas of the Renaissance. A bestiary was a collection of pagan stories, each based on a certain description of animals, plants and stones The stories presented early Christian allegories for moral and religious instruction and admonition. Superstition, the belief in mythology and magic, the search for the Philosopher’s Stone, sorcery and witchcraft persisted throughout the Tudor age, culminating in the powerful reign of Elizabeth I whose presence is prefigured in this painting. A white hart wearing a crown can be found in the foreground of the School of Night. Originally adorning the back of a 14th century altar-

Detail from The Unicorn Tapestries also known as The Cluny Tapestries, ca 1500

piece in Westminster Abbey, the Wilton diptych from the Sainsbury wing of the National gallery is one of Britain’s most mysterious artworks. Its meaning and origin dates back to the reign of Richard II who attributed occult power to the white hart. His obsession with purity left traces in the satirical portraits of the vernacular literature written during his reign (1377-99), including some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and in the 16th century in Shakespeare’s Richard II, which portrays a monarch familiar with alchemy. The hart, chained and bound to its crown symbolised Richard’s suffering and self-sacrifice. Its power was harnessed to serve mankind, becoming in its earthly incarnation a symbol of Christ. The new pairing of the noblewomen with the white hart also draws comparison to Paolo Uccello’s St. George and the Dragon (1470), with the beast sublimated by the princess using her belt as a leash. In Arthurian legend, as stated in ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ (1136), the nation was born when the red Celtic dragon defeated the white Saxon dragon, reflected in the domination of the white flag by the red cross of St George. The sublimation of the white stag is depicted again in the Medieval Unicorn Tapestries also known as the Cluny Tapestries (ca 1500). Allegorically its imprisonment within an enclosure signified the taming of its fierce nature by a maiden, just as Christ surrendered his divine nature and became human by means of the Virgin Mary.

In his own time Holbein can be said to have been equally imprisoned, in a sense, by his scientific view of the universe as seen in his mathematical depiction of the lute in The Ambassadors – the broken string denoting discord between the two paintings. Holbein signed the painting in the form of a skull - Holbein – meaning ‘hollow bones’ as a reminder of death - and warning against faith in worldly achievement and wealth. It is a typical example of what we might today call an “inside joke”, obvious to contemporary viewers but like a foreign language to a twenty-first century audience. Part of the pleasure and wonder of a great painting is in deciphering its mystery, its elusive qualities that timelessly haunt and intrigue us. Essay by Lisa K. Samoto. © 2013

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Wolfe von Lenkiewicz | The School of Night