These are not the kind of cartoons you find in your local newspaper. Unless it was printed in around 1550. And was the size of your garage.
No, the Vermeyen cartoons are actually paintings that served as life-sized, 1-to-1 templates for weavers when creating tapestries. And not just any tapestries, but a series of 12 giant tapestries commemorating Charles V’s Tunis campaign of 1535.
Think of the collection as an oversized 16th century photo album, heavily photoshopped to impress visitors.
The Tunis campaign was necessary because the city had fallen to Barbarossa in 1534 and now served as a handy raiding base for Ottoman ships. This didn’t go down well with the Habsburg Emperor Charles V, who was also effectively King of Spain at the time.
Arms, armour and paintbrushes
On board the invasion fleet was what you might call an early war photographer – painter Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen – with instructions from the Emperor to record its (hopefully triumphant) mission.
A few years after the event, which was indeed a military and propaganda triumph for Charles, Vermeyen received the commission to produce the huge cartoons. Ten of them you can see on the second floor of the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
There’s plenty of accompanying information in English (also on the audio guide), and the cartoons are certainly worth a closer look (literally and figuratively). I was going to give them a miss, but my wife persuaded me otherwise – and I’m glad she did.
The cartoons, which Vermeyen completed in collaboration with other artists, tell the story of the campaign in graphic detail.
Some of the battle scenes bear comparison with modern 18-rated video games – headless bodies spouting blood, gore-covered swords and similar. But there are sweet touches too, like the artist picturing himself serenely drawing away in his notebook in the chaos of war.
This special exhibition – also including armour and weapons of the time – was supposed to end in September 2015, but was still there when I visited in early 2016 (lucky for us). Catch it while you can…
(Photo credit: © HappyAlex / Fotolia)