The Courtauld Gallery Archive

Wings and Wheels by Evie Mc

You never know quite what to expect when a box of old engravings is brought down from the prints department for digitisation – that’s what makes it so interesting. The prints can depict anything from bland pastoral scenes to salacious classical carry-ons or gory biblical fire-and-brimstoning; all in a day’s work.

This print above turned up at the last session I volunteered at – the wheels with eyes, disembodied hand and hovering winged multi-headed creatures seemed odd, to say the least, so I thought I’d try and find out a bit more about it all.

The type below the print is a biblical quote from Isiah 6, a chapter which has “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (all quotes will be from the King James Bible) and describes “seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.”
Isaiah 6:6 then has one of the sepaphims flying and having a live coal in his hand, which “he laid it upon my mouth”. The picture seems to have a scroll rather than a coal being put near a mouth, but the description of the seraphims seemed to possibly identify what the creatures were. But there was no mention of wheels bedecked with eyes.

The top of the frame also has a biblical quote, but this one is Ezekiel 1, so off I went there and it was much more promising.

Ezekiel has four living creatures with “the likeness of a man. 1:5 And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. 1:6 As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle. 1:10”

This seemed more like it, especially as these creatures have wheels complete with eyes beside them:

“behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures. 1:15 As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four. 1:18 And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. 1:19″

Ezekiel 10 appears to have the same creatures, with four faces, wings, wheels within wheels, and an even more generous allocation of eyes:

“And as for their appearances, they four had one likeness, as if a wheel had been in the midst of a wheel. 10:10 And their whole body, and their backs, and their hands, and their wings, and the wheels, were full of eyes round about, even the wheels that they four had. 10:12″

Ezekiel then says “and I knew that they were the cherubims. 10:20″

So these seem to me more likely to be Cherubim rather than Isiah’s Seraphim. Cherubim is the plural of Cherub, which are not at all the chubby babies wafting about on mini clouds (these are putti) but are instead some sort of heavenly creatures which occupy the second highest sphere in the Christian angelic hierarchy (Seraphim are in the first). Cherub means ‘to be near’ or ‘near ones’ so they are close to God and seem to have a sort of servant/ bodyguard function.

Incidentally, it was from Ezekiel’s description of the four faces, the ox, the man, the lion and the eagle, that the symbols for the four evangelists were later adopted.

That seemed to solve some of the mystery of the fantastical subject matter, so I figured it was worth finding out a bit more about the print and the artist. Below the frame, in small writing are two names, one on the left one on the right. Usually, the name on the left is the original artist’s and that on the right is the engraver or craftsman who printed the image and that seems to be the case here.

On the left, it says ‘B. Picart. del’. The ‘del.’ means ‘drawn by’, so Bernard Picart is the artist who did the original drawing.

On the right, it says ‘Phil. Andr. Kilian, Sc. A.V.’ The Sc. denotes ‘engraved by’, so Philipp Andrew Kilian is the engraver. A. V. stands for Augusta Vindelicorum, which means it was published in Augsburg Germany. (Isn’t the internet only marvelous!)

Picart (b.1673) was an engraver and artist who worked on a lot of book and biblical illustrations. He is known chiefly for his 1723 tome The ceremonies and religious customs of the various nations of the known world. This was a widely distributed, early enlightenment encyclopaedia of religious life which aimed to describe the origins beliefs and rites of the religions of the then known world. It has been described as “a milestone in information gathering”, and even as “the book that changed Europe”. Here are some examples of his work.

Picart, Bernard. The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Several Known Nations of the World, London: Charles du Bosc, 1731-1739

Picart, Bernard. ‘Puzza, or the “the Chinese Cybele,” sitting on a lotus flower’; from The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World; Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. 

Kilian, b. 1714 was one of a famous family of Augsburg engravers, and he did, amongst other things, 130 engravings for some monumental collection of illustrated Bible stories. So my assumption is that Picard did an engraving or drawing of this Cherubim scene, and then later, Kilian copied it or did his version of it for another publication. I haven’t however been able to find our image in online collections of Kilian’s biblical illustrations.

Doing a bit of research on this has been interesting – typing such word combinations as ‘eyes, wheels and winged creatures’ into Google leads you down some very weird and wonderful paths indeed; I have to admit to spending far more time than I should have with shimmering auras, vibrating orbs and whispering angels. I also found a somewhat less than convincing explanation of Ezekiel 10 in a book that billed itself as ‘possibly the most extensive literary work scrutinizing extra-terrestrial intervention and biblical scripture ever compiled’, which went into astonishing detail regarding the interior furnishing of the Cherubim spacecraft. Belief can be an odd thing.

Mind you, we came across the print on the day of hurricane Ophelia, when the sky above the Courtauld was an unearthly yellow and people were standing in the strangely still courtyard, quietly staring up as if waiting for something to appear – spaceships, disembodied hands, even churning ‘dreadful’ wheels with staring eyes perhaps.

Evie Mc.

Stewart Cliff on Soutine’s Portraits exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery

An urgent, restless group of portraits by Chaïm Soutine comprises the show entitled Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys. Painted in what seems like a flurry of activity, the paint still feels fresh: Soutine paints quickly wet into wet. Against the grain of conventional portraits, Soutine’s sitters were largely unknown, the make-shift titles were added by academics or dealers for practicality. Soutine doesn’t look to preserve a collective impression of a sitter, suggesting they are a vehicle for something more intangible. It is easy to set the scene, models in their uniform would sit for Soutine after their day’s work, brooding with a sense of resignation that is echoed in the way they are melded to the surface by the furious brushwork. Often their shoulders are bowed as the background encroaches, blurring where the paint meets the figure, and giving an overall sense of flatness. With the space collapsing, the weight of brushwork on the drapery and uniforms lends a further sense of claustrophobia, it is hard to imagine the sitters being able to breathe under the weight of their clothing.

Yet, despite the foreboding, the colours and nervous energy of the brushwork give a real sense of life to the portraits. Flesh tones feel tenderly observed and there is a sense of fidelity to the colours Soutine picks out of the surroundings: the yellows and turquoises coming from the whites of the chefs’ uniforms add a uniqueness to the vision. For something painted in such a blurry hurry these paintings are incredibly seductive to look at, we are constantly shifting our gaze from one passage to another; a splash of thinned paint forms some fidgety hands before moving up the furrows of a well-worn smock, and then a jab of the brush forms three opalescent teeth in a mouth, until eventually we are able to take in the painting in as a whole again.

Soutine, Chaim (1894-1943). The Little Pastry Cook; Le petit patissier. c.1927. Christie’s Images.

Surveying the exhibition, I think less about the painters who were Soutine’s contemporaries and instead more of the photographers of his time, especially August Sander, the German documentary photographer who would have worked at around the same time as Soutine. In his series, People of the 20th Century, Sander photographed the working population of the country, from bricklayers to musicians and estate agents all with great faithfulness. Sander often photographed his subjects with the accouterments of their trade, much the same way as Soutine depicts his subjects in their uniform. It is also striking how Soutine uses quite conventional poses such as the full-length portrait in The Little Pastry Cook: with his hands planted firmly on his hips, the subject feels peculiarly photographic. But there is also something more psychologically puncturing about Soutine’s paintings that directs me to think of August Sanders photography, Roland Barthes wrote in his book camera lucida “What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred.” With his subjects posing resolutely with the tools of their trade, Sander seems to take such a specific slice of time it is almost as if he is pointing out that this might be how things are now but they will change. With a different medium and means, Soutine achieves a feeling very similar. Perhaps when we look at a painting, especially a portrait, we should get an impression of studious monumentality, it was traditionally the way monarchs would publicise their image to a nation. Yet, in Soutine’s portraits, faces often feel crestfallen and expressions are indistinct at best, the very antithesis of monumental. It is as if they are sliding off the canvas or slipping back to the anonymity of the city. All we are left with is the knowledge that the sitter sat for the artist at some point, but is now long lost to the past.

Soutine, Chaim (1894-1943). The Little Pastry Cook from Cagnes; Le patissier de Cagnes. c.1922-1923. Christie’s Images.

Pertinently, many of the surrounding paintings in the Courtauld are made by Soutine’s peers and contemporaries who were active in Europe at that time. They envisaged a world emboldened by clean graphic sensibilities, synthesised colour, and sometimes wild abandon. The modernity Soutine presents is one of squalid torment and rather than Europe it would be America that would hail Soutine. Alfred J. Barnes, an American collector, would purchase 60 paintings in one go liberating Soutine from the grinding poverty he had been captured in for much of his life.

In his seminal book, Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas writes of the grand European modernist Le Corbusier’s disgust at visiting New York, where the skyscrapers are too small, there is not enough light streaming into the buildings, and the roads aren’t wide enough. But Koolhaas’ proposition of modernism doesn’t have to be the rational utopian dream Le Corbusier desired, it could be the perverse, decadent vision of Salvador Dalí as well. Perhaps there is something Dali-esque in Soutine’s paintings; a wilful vision in which we are submitted to the artist’s innermost visions and feelings. America would be the heralding of Soutine, and you can largely see his legacy through American art from De Kooning and the abstract expressionists to Philip Guston and later painters such as Alice Neel and Cy Twombly.

– Stewart Cliff

Soutine, Chaim(1894-1943). Head Waiter. c.1927. Private Collection, Berlin.