Saturday, December 7, 2013

Early instruments in still life at the Israel Museum

Photo; The Israeli Museum
On visiting the Israel Museum on December 3rd 2013 to view four new exhibitions opening that day, we walked into the gallery housing COLLECTING DUST in Contemporary Israeli Art, in  which fifteen artists are exhibiting items that transform dust into contemporary works that explore temporality, memory and Israel’s environmental landscape. However, on entering the gallery, a very different item met our eyes: a work of oil on canvas “Still Life with Musical Instruments and Books”, painted by Bartolomeo Bettera.

Bartolomeo Bettera was born in Bergamo, Italy in 1639, where he was a student and then producer in the studio of the priest and painter Evaristo Baschenis. Baschenis (1617-1677) painted a few religious subjects, but, being also a musician with an impressive collection of instruments and scores, his works concentrated on the painting of poised and polished still lifes of musical instruments. They carry an air of silence and the instruments lie on a table, covered with a layer of dust. So Baschenis’ main claim to fame was that he established the subgenre of still-life paintings of musical instruments, the instruments appearing almost three-dimensional. Bettera followed this teacher’s style faithfully, in the tradition of Caravaggio. In fact, so strong was his teacher’s influence that there is some doubt as to which of the two painted “A Girl with a Still Life”, in which a girl stands behind a table covered with a dark cloth, on which we see musical scores, a violin and bow and a magnificent bass recorder with one key, with possibly two more recorders leaning on the folds of a tasseled drape.

Following Baschenis’ death, Bettera moved to Milan, where he remained till his death, some time after 1687. In his still lifes, the instruments depicted would have been played by chamber ensembles that performed for guests in private homes. The instruments are rich in symbolism; the lute, for example, was used to accompany amorous songs. In “Still Life with Instruments and Books”, the two lutes are dusty and abandoned. One is placed on a virginal; a viol, at the back, is leaning on the virginal. The lush table cloth has a silky glow. Each instrument appears illuminated. Guiding us around the exhibition, art curator Mira Lapidot remarked that it had been important to inform the museum cleaner that the dust on this exquisite still life was part of the painting!

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