Friday, 11 May 2012

Art – with a capital A

One of the joys of visiting new places is the chance to visit museums and see art you’ve never seen before – or at least not outside the pages of a book.

Brugge was never going to be an exception to that after I’d read about the city’s Groeningemuseum. Small perhaps, but holding a very important collection of paintings by some of the Flemish Primitives, it went straight onto the list of ‘absolutely must visit’.

From a personal perspective, it’s an interest that goes back to my teens, when I was studying for an art A level.

At the time, we lived miles from any major galleries or museums, and I don’t recall ever visiting anywhere on holiday that was any better blessed.

Like music, art was a love that developed independently of my home life. My parents had accepted, since childhood, that I was good at drawing. So when teachers at my first grammar school asserted that I had the ability to go on and make art a career, they seemed entirely accepting of that.

I should point out that the path laid down for me was not really Art with a capital A – the bohemian, shivering-in-a-garret and painting naked people while swilling absinthe sort of thing.

It was always going to be rendered at least vaguely respectable by the insertion of commerce into the equation. In other words, I was being set on a path to becoming a graphic artist.

Much as I loved drawing, by the time we arrived at the point of laying down the academic foundations for my career, I had concluded that graphic art was not for me.

I felt, with a predictably overstated sense of teenage melodrama, that I the soul of a fine artist but none of the ability to do more than copy faithfully what was directly in front of me.

Yet a capacity that I derided in myself (and at one stage, several of my still life drawings hung around the school) was central to why I fell in love with Jan van Eyck (c1395-c1441) the moment we were introduced to The Arnolfini Wedding.

It was, I rapidly surmised, medieval super-realism.

Until a couple of years ago, I’d seen precious little by the Flemish Primitives apart from that particularly famous work of van Eyck’s, which hangs in London’s National gallery, and which I’ve visited more than once.

But then, wandering around the less popular parts of the Louvre one day – in other words, the galleries furthest removed physically from some painting of a woman by some Italian dauber – I found myself gazing at van Eyck’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (1435), along with works by the likes of Hans Memling (1430-1494), a German who moved to Flanders, and Rogier van der Weyden (1399-1464), whose names I’d last been aware of in those art history classes.

So the Groeningemuseum was always going to be a treat.

And indeed, there were three paintings by van Eyck, who had lived and worked in Brugge (and has a square named after him there, with a statue in it. And a Jan van Eyck cafe).

His Portrait of Christ (1440) struck me as strikingly reminiscent of German painter Albrecht Dürer’s Christ-like self portrait of 1500 – a harbinger of Lutheran ideas of a personal Christ, perhaps?

Van Eyck's messiah is no blond, blue-eyed character. German painter Lucas Cranach the Elder pictured Christ with dark hair in his 1510 painting, Christ Crowned with Thorns. Similarly, the crucifixion element of German artist Matthais Grünewald's 1515 Isenheim alterpiece does not depict a blond Jesus.

The image that has become so dominant in Western representations of Jesus seems to have emerged later.

But back to van Eyck. The portrait of his wife, Margareta van Eyck (1439), is wonderful, as is the far larger Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1436), which also includes a St George figure, thus allowing van Eyck to show off just how well he could paint metal.

So you have a mix of the secular and the religious – and, of course, the place where those meet when living, wealthy patrons want themselves painted into religious scenes.

There are two really important things about van Eyck and all the Flemish Primitives: first, they revolutionised painting by adding oil instead of egg yolk to their colours.

The results have retained a fabulous vibrancy and depth of colour.

And second, their ability to capture the detail of rich, complex textures, particularly on fabric, was just stunning. You know what fabrics are velvet, for instance, because you can see that it’s velvet. You could almost expect that, were you to touch the painting, it would feel like velvet too.

All of which is why the term ‘primitives’ in this case seems utterly absurd.

The Memling and van der Weyden paintings that hang in the Groeningemuseum are also magnificent.

In terms of the former, I was particularly taken by his sepia-toned doors to the Triptych of the Family Moreel (1484), including one of St George slaying the dragon (left).

Death of the Virgin (c1472-80) by Hugo van der Goes (c1440-1482) was also worth seeing.

A subject that was popular at one time, it went out of fashion as the doctrine of the assumption took hold. The last major Catholic depiction of Mary's death was by Caravaggio in 1606.

And there is no shortage of representations of a rather different religious scene.

The most extraordinary must be The Last Judgment (1450-1516) by Hieronymous Bosch (c1450-1516) – the first time I’ve seen a Bosch in ‘the flesh’, so to speak.

And it’s far smaller than you expect it to be, given the amount of detail that he packed in.

Fascinatingly, there are Bosch-like figures and ideas in the 1555 Last Judgment by Jan Provoost (1462-1929) – no cribbing, obviously – which also shows the Pope as one of those on the way to hell (left).

That, together with the 1551 Last Judgment by Pieter Pourbus (1523–1584), used to hang in the Brugge Stadhuis, where it was intended to inspire those making and deploying law to do so well.

And what’s also clear in both these paintings is how ordinary people are portrayed much more naturalistically than the religious figures; you go from looking at the highly stylised to the recognisably real.

There are moments of humour too – albeit unintended. The Master of the Darmstadt Passion, whose Christ Carrying the Cross and Crucifixion was painted in 1450, may have been fortunate in his anonymity.

Frankly, his thief walking to execution is rolling his eyes in such a way that it brings to mind Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the character wondering whether his brother will arrive in time to get him down from the cross this time around.

It doesn’t half make you realise the quality of some of the other artists there.

And that, in a sort of how-do-you-measure-happiness way, it’s good to see some rather poorer art as well, so you don’t start needing to worry that your judgment is shot the moment merely by the simple act of walking through a gallery door.

• In a sort of alphabetical blogging triptych, the B and C of Belgian art forms will follow in the coming days: beer and chocolate.

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