Mabuse. I repeat: Mabuse. That is what I have always called the mysterious Netherlandish old master who is the subject of a fresh examination by the National Gallery. When I studied him at university — an exciting experience, because he was such a madcap and individualistic painter — he was known as Mabuse, after Maubeuge, the town in Hainaut where he was born circa 1478. Yet the National is calling him Jan Gossaert, even though the Metropolitan Museum, in New York, where this show began its travels, refers to him as Jan Gossart. Gossart is also the name used in London on the unusually large exhibition catalogue, inside which I read that he was also known as Jennyn van Hennegouwe; Janin de Waele; Joannes Malbodius; Jenni Gossart; and Little Jan. That is a lot of names for a shortish artistic career. Clearly, the figure we are dealing with here is an unclear one.
And so it proves. Mabuse, or Jan Gossart, or Jan Gossaert (I’m going to use Gossart from now on, as that is what he actually signed himself: the extra “e” was not introduced until the 19th century), was a particularly slippery presence in early Netherlandish art. And this vigorous show, which I enjoyed immensely, does not manage to make him feel any less slippery.
He seems to have trained in Antwerp in about 1495-1505, then pops up quickly in the court of Philip of Burgundy, a wayward royal opportunist who managed to become both Bishop of Utrecht and Admiral of the Netherlands. As a bishop or as an admiral, Philip seems not to have achieved anything of lasting value, but in the arts he was enlightened, supporting Erasmus as well as Gossart. Most impactfully, in 1509, he took Gossart with him to Italy, exposing this fidgety Netherlandish talent to a sizeable drenching of the Italian Renaissance.
Michelangelo was actually painting the Sistine ceiling when Philip’s party reached Rome. They were welcomed by Julius II, the dreaded Warrior Pope. So they could hardly have arrived in the Eternal City at a more plangent cultural moment. And, as the exhibition ahead tries continuously to make obvious, the impact of this voyage on Gossart was momentous and career-shaping.
He returned to the Netherlands as the first artist from his region to have encountered the Italian Renaissance head-on. All this is made clearer in words than it is in art, because Gossart’s earliest creative efforts are so difficult to spy. A set of frustratingly hazy drawings (done with faded ink on dark blue paper) seems to show the architecture of Italy fusing with the pointy gothic of the Netherlands to form fantastical hybrids of dense, cross-temporal encrustation. Architectural details are behaving like barnacles. A classical medallion might be appended to a spiky gothic spire. The calm repose of a classical statue turns into something snakish and writhing. Mabuse (I know, I know, it’s just that there is something so onomatopoeically appropriate about the name) was a strange enough artist to be guilty, occasionally, of proto-surrealism.
The obsessive business of his backgrounds is typical, as is the sense of deformation and strain. His art almost always features a dramatic collision: between northern ways and southern, gothic and Renaissance, truth and fantasy, guilt and pleasure. The show itself seems a trifle unsure where to proceed, and jumps skittishly between chronology and theme for all of its length. Having introduced us to Gossart’s early Italian wanderings, it plunges next into his lifelong fascination with Adam and Eve. With fascinating results. Sinfulness in paradise was one of the painter’s defining obsessions. (Or, perhaps, the obsession of his conflicted patron, Philip of Burgundy, admiral and bishop?) Gossart certainly brought something sweaty, sensual, prickly to Adam and Eve’s party. In his mildly demented hands, Eve becomes a twisty, deceitful presence, with something of the naked snake about her — notably in the large and magnificent masterpiece lent to the National Gallery by Her Majesty the Queen — whereas Adam is always jumpy, the kind of disquieted nude who looks naked without his clothes on. It’s such edgy and brilliant art, so furtive and guilty in its moods, that even the wonkiness of Gossart’s anatomies seems to intensify its effect, not diminish it.
The backgrounds, meanwhile, are always fascinating: animal-free, in the main, with writhing trees, swirling mountain ranges and bizarre architectural detailing creating a paradise that feels anything but perfect or relaxing. Gossart, you sense, vaguely, is a man of snakes, not of angels. Almost as bizarrely, the show’s organisers seem to have convinced themselves that these dark, erotically charged views of paradise, and the twisty Venuses and naked Graces who follow them, can be understood as a celebration of sensuality rather than a condemnation of it. Gothic porn!
Philip of Burgundy is presented as a closet sensualist who may have commissioned Gossart to make bedroom art for his private delectation. The suggestion is even advanced that a twistily sexy Venus and Cupid, with stern Latin warnings about the dangers of sensuality inscribed onto their frame, might have been enjoyed both ways by Philip: with and without the frame; with and without the warning. Poppycock! Only someone with no feeling whatsoever for the textures of Catholicism could have made this absurd suggestion. Of course this is art that was meant to be seen with its warnings in place. Gossart’s religious art, particularly his views of paradise, is as great as it is precisely because it sweats and pulses with such strident Catholic neurosis about the commitment of sexual sin, its role in our expulsion from paradise and the eternal timescale of the downfall of man.
In fact, there is not a painting at this event, not even among the superior row of portraits occupying the big room at the heart of it, that does not throb with Catholic guilt, terror and fearfulness at the implications of the original sin. It’s what makes Mabuse Mabuse. (Aaah, sorry again!) Even his famous Nativity scene, the Adoration of the Kings, from the National’s collection — you’ve probably sent it as a Christmas card: I do, every year — feels tenser and more riven with doubt than Christmas births usually do.
The portraits, meanwhile, are awesome. So inventive. So strange. So urgent. His sitters, mostly anonymous men of the court, fidget rather than pose, as if they too are unsure which is their best side. Often, he has them emerging from a convincing painted frame, a frame within a frame, to imply a miraculous transformation from paint to flesh. The National Gallery will get no argument from me on its claim that Gossart was one of the greatest of all Renaissance portraitists. The show ends on another of his favourite themes, the Madonna and child, in which he generally finds some startling sensuality in his Holy Virgins and some startling muscularity in his baby Jesuses. So it’s invention all the way on this fascinating journey.