Friday 1 August 2014

Jost Amman and the Wire Drawing Bench

You know when you're racing against the clock and you can see a deadline waving a chequered flag? Of course this is the time that I'm having some seriously interesting conversations with experts, as well as trying to piece together a totally wild iconographic programme. However I wanted to get this on here because it raises some points which I should probably investigate but I'm scared of venturing too far off the landscape point.

It's also entirely the work of one of the people who knows the bench best, Stephanie Deprouw. Although we have not yet met, we have had some wonderful exchanges, so any mistakes are mine, because of my terrible French.

The collaborative nature of the study carried out by the curators and specialists at the Musee de la Renaissance sparked an interesting theory regarding the designer of the marquetry decoration. Stephanie explains that time constraints within the museum’s bench project did not allow her to pursue it further. She hypothesises that the program was devised by Swiss-born artist engraver Jost Amman (1539-1591), in close collaboration with August. Although he is now known primarily as an illustrator, and his lively and detailed woodcuts in ‘The Book of Trades’ (1568) provide a valuable insight into various occupations in early modern Germany, he produced beautiful drawings and etchings, as well as designs for stained glass and ornamental metalwork.

She makes a number of valid points, providing examples of his more easily accessible drawings and comparing them with aspects of the bench. For instance, he had a characteristic way of portraying wildmen and landscapes. The stylistic similarities of the ‘Joust of the Patrician Sons’ from March 3rd 1561, compared with a detail of the central joust of the Luther and the Pope is striking. It is worth noting that although this comparative tournament is in colour, the bench’s version loses nothing in excitement and movement by being in natural wood hues. Given his experience with woodcut and in other monochrome media, this is a testament to Amman’s inventive artistic abilities, and would have recommended him to aristocratic clientele.

In addition to Deprouw’s examples, I would also include his exquisite drawing Germania Florescens (Prosperous Germany) (1586). In this image he captures the essence of what it was to be part of a prosperous and exciting ‘Germany’ in and around Nuremburg in the mid-late sixteenth century. He illustrates this idea with a complicated allegory, featuring scenes of mining, hunting and warfare, as well as shipping and trade, astronomy, painting, printing and building. All of these examples of prosperity were hugely important to the practical minded August, and as I’ve mentioned all reflected in his kunstkammer collection.

However the most compelling evidence she offers is the elaborate German cabinet in the Victoria & Albert Museum, c1600. Its external marquetry doors are based on Amman’s designs; therefore it would be logical to assume that if he successfully collaborated with a professional marqueteur/cabinet maker then, he would do it again. Experts agree that it was a professional cabinetmaker who skillfully constructed the jigsaw puzzle of the many different woods. As I’ve discovered from the literature, it takes time and skill to acquire the intimate knowledge of sourcing, preparing and cutting suitable raw materials for marquetry making. If it was the same person who collaborated with Amman, we know little about him beyond his undoubted craftsmanship. We have his monogram ‘AM’ and the self-portrait on the bench.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to develop this theory, as close work is needed to identify points of similarity between the doors of the cabinet and parts of the bench. It would perhaps involve scientific processes to investigate whether the wood, adhesive and varnish was from the same source as the bench. As Deprouw concludes, without monogrammed or signed source sketches, she has no definitive proof, and she suggests that archive research in the Kupfertichkabinett, Berlin will be required.

I'm now going from here to the hunting which is shown on the Germania florescens image, via stained glass, manuscripts, but, desperately clinging on to the concept of  landscape.

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