11 April 2013

Some Carvings by Grinling Gibbons and Tilman Riemenschneider

Once, not that long ago, when i was old enough to have known better, my singing teacher was attempting to illustrate a point by referring to the voices of great singers of the past.

"When Jussi Bjorling sang, he..." began my teacher.

"Who?" I said.

He paused, and had a confused expression on his face.  "What did you say?" he asked, perplexed.

He could not believe that I had never heard of Jussi Bjorling before.  He immediately interrupted the lesson, went to his cd collection, and began playing for me many of Bjorling's songs for me, apparently to help me get over the grave defect of not know who Jussi Bjorling was.  My reaction upon hearing his golden tone was pure pleasure, and as I listened my thoughts moved from "So that's Jussi Bjorling," to "Why haven't I heard of this man before?"

It seems strange that an artist like Bjorling could reach the absolute pinnacle of his art form, and yet be largely forgotten and his name unknown to most save for a few aficionados and students of the art.  But it happens, and not merely in the field of music, but in all the arts as well,

I was reminded of this point recently when I picked up a book by David Esterley called The Lost Carving.  The book details how a particular carving by English master carver Grinling Gibbons was lost in a fire at Hampton Court, and Esterley was selected as the man to replace it.  My reaction to first hearing the name of Gibbons was exactly the same as when I heard the name of Bjorling: Who?  But, once I began to look into the work of Gibbons, I asked myself the question: Why have I never heard of this man before?

If, as is often said, artists live on in their works, then this is Grinling Gibbons.

This was one of his early carvings.  According to Esterley, Gibbons had hoped to get some commissions and patronage by using this piece as a demonstration of his skill.   Unfortunately, he was carving just after the English Civil War and Interregnum, and this sort of work was too Catholic for the time.  He dropped this style, and began carving virtuoso architectural ornaments. Like this.

And this.

And this, the choir stalls of St Paul's Cathedral, London.

The man was not merely an absolute master of the craft, he pushed his craft into new territory and directions, pushing his wood (limewood) and his tools to their limits.  And yet, I had never heard his name,  and I suspect few outside a limited circle have.

It is unfair, I suppose, that this is the fate of most woodcarvers.  They are among the most obscure of artists.  I could easily name dozens of composers and painters across the centuries.  I could name almost as many sculptors in bronze and stone, from Phidias,  Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus to Bernini, Michelangelo, to Rodin and even a few purveyors of the hideous modern and postmodern.  But I know of very few names of carvers in wood.  The only other master carver of the past whose name comes to mind is Tilman Riemenschneider, and I had the same reaction to his work as I did to Gibbons:  Why have I never hear of this man before?

Here's some Riemenschneider, just for reference.

His work, like that of Gibbons, display an absolute mastery of his craft, his tools, his medium.  So I again ask the question:  Why are their names not common?  Why did it take so long before I ever heard of these men?  Have you heard of these men before?

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