ART FOR THOUGHT: "THE TOWER OF BABEL" BY ABEL GRIMMER | LOUVRE ABU DHABI

By Maha Alsharif

08/10/2018

Abel Grimmer, "The Tower of Babel", 1595, Oil on Wood, 71.8 x 92.4 cm. Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Louvre Abu Dhabi opened its doors to the public around the same time last year. Since the announcement of its establishment, the museum was immediately recognised to be an international cultural icon, but more so a beacon for the region as it is one of the first institution to house a global collection of original artefacts, antiquities, and artworks that record the history of the world and humanity. Organised in thematic order, the twelve main galleries present ideas shared among cultures and civilisations that reveal connections throughout humanity. There is a wide selection of works worth studying, and one in particular caught our attention: “The Tower of Babel” by Flemish painter, Abel Grimmer (1570 - 1620).

 

Biblical stories and mythologies continue to be a popular subject among artists and literaries. They’re sense of morality and interpretation however, are often reflective of current times and experiences.

History

The 1595 oil painting shows a panoramic scene of a busy day around the Tower of Babel. The tower, which vanishes into the clouds, was constructed to ‘reach the heavens’. As described in Genisis 11:1-9, it is the story of people who migrated from the East and settled on a plain in Shinar (believed to be Babylon in ancient Mesopotamia), once monolingual and unified, the king ordered to build a city and a magnificent tower - made of man-made bricks and mortar rather than natural stone and tar - that would signify their achievements and prevent them from ever scattering. However, it was God’s will that they disperse, explore and fill the earth. God then confounded their speech so they could not understand one another, communicate, or effectively complete the construction of the tower. Consequently they were forced to leave and travel in all directions.

 

This work is an example of the stylistic shift towards Naturalism in Flemish painting. A period where early Netherlandish painting had become rigid with formalism, while lesser known artists, coined by German art historian Max Jakob Friedländer “Antwerp Mannerists”, enriched and diffused traditional models by incorporating Italian architectural forms and complex comparisons. Grimmer’s use of natural and primary colours is complimented by simplification and systemisation of the miniature figures and the landscape. Through his minimalist approach, the figures are faceless yet their position within the landscape provides each an identity, as well as an idea of the society as a whole.

Bruegel the Elder, "The Tower of Babel", 1563, Oil on Wood, 155 x 114 cm. From the Collection of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna.

Inspiration & Interpretation

Grimmer made several versions of The Tower of Babel, all with slight variations, like a change in season or phase of construction. The concept, nonetheless was directly inspired from the 1563 painting “The Tower of Babel” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525 - 1569). Bruegel’s painting inspired many other Flemish painters, including Lucas van Vakckenborch, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Hendrick van Cleve III, and Roelant Savery. The resemblance between Grimmer and Bruegel's work is evident in the composition, miniature precision, and architectural reference to the Colosseum - a symbol to sixteenth century observers of the decay of imperial Rome. While other artists chose an angular base, the majority including Grimmer followed Bruegel in basing the entire construction on a spiral.

 

Grimmer’s painting can also be seen as a comment on the turbulent times in which he was living. The time when the Spanish Netherlands had been engaged for a quarter of a century in the struggle to breakaway Protestant provinces in the north, disrupting Antwerp’s trade. The story of the Tower of Babel, where a world speaking one language is suddenly riven with the incomprehension of many different languages, parallel in the sixteenth century, with nations dividing into Catholic and Protestant as debate raged over the interpretation of the Word of God.

Installation view: Ai Weiwei, “Fountain of Light”, 2016, Steel & Glass Crystals. Louvre Abu Dhabi.

"Model of Pamiatnik III Internatsionala (Monument to the Third International)", constructed by Tevel’ Shapiro, Sofia Dymshits-Tolstaia, Iosif Meerzon, and Pavel Vinogradov under Tatlin’s direction (1920; reconstructed 1979). Courtesy CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, N.Y.

Contemporary Twist

 

“Fountain of Light” by pioneer Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei (b. 1957) is exhibited in the final gallery of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s permanent collection. The structure, that is made of clean twisted steel and covered in 32,400 glass crystals, takes the form of a chandelier. The spiral tower shape draws an immediate connection to Flemish painters’ depictions of The Tower of Babel, and its story is not far off.

 

This work was adapted for the museum from the artist’s “Work in Progress (Fountain of Light)” that was originally commissioned and exhibited at Tate Liverpool in 2007. The structure is inspired by the design of Soviet painter and architect Vladimir Tatlin for Monument to the Third International (1919), a never built iron glass-clad monumental tower that was conceptualised following the First World War and the Russian Revolution. The tower was intended to make a statement and reflect society’s new ideals, so it would be one-third taller than the Eiffel Tower, would be abstract, void of any figurative imagery, and would be a symbol of the modern Constructivists’ Utopia. Ai Weiwei’s revival of the structure can be seen as a symbol of the radical change that is taking place in his home country; in addition to the discrepancy in contemporary Chinese values, as such, the steel structure and historical reference speak to the Chinese Communist Party, while the glistening crystals allude to the opulent taste of the elite.

The story holds many connotations around humility and ambition; ignorance and enlightenment; and mankind and the universe. It is about the continuing conflict between the innate characteristics of the human condition against forces of nature, that through twists and turns seek to recreate balance and an enigmatic order.

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