Bruges — “European Capital of Culture” — Celebrates Native Son Jan Van Eyck
by Jason Edward Kaufman
BRUGES, BELGIUM. With its well-maintained canals, cobblestone streets, and broad squares lined with ancient townhouses, storybook buildings, soaring church spires, and cool leafy parks, Bruges is one of the most picturesque towns in Europe, an eye-caressing medieval set-piece that draws busloads of tourists to its many charms, not the least of which is the gracious hospitality of the English-speaking natives. The museums and historic sites are superb and within a pleasant walk from one another, the food is elegant and delicious, and the hotels upscale and amazingly low-priced.
And if there is never a bad time to visit Bruges, this year there’s the added attraction of the town’s having been designated “Cultural Capital” of the European Union, sharing the honor with Spain’s comparably beautiful Salamanca. To celebrate, there is a festival of performances and art exhibitions, the centerpiece of which is an ambitious survey of paintings by the legendary Jan van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) and his Renaissance contemporaries.
“Jan van Eyck, Early Netherlandish Painting and Southern Europe,” which remains at the Groeninge Museum through the end of the month, gathers together about a third of the master’s surviving 20-odd paintings, and juxtaposes them with the work of both northern European followers and artists from Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy. The idea is to show that van Eyck’s innovative technique of oil painting influenced artists not just in the Netherlands, but from Iberia to the Adriatic.
The interplay of North and South is a fascinating theme in art history – not to mention an appropriate theme for the EU’s Capital of Culture. But as a visual exploration of the topic the exhibition falls a bit short, mainly because Bruges lacks the museum-world clout to borrow the valuable artworks crucial to do the subject justice.
There’s no Arnolfini Wedding from London’s National Gallery, no Rolin Madonna from the Louvre, no Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, arguably the most important Netherlandish painting in Italy. And of course the landmark Ghent Altarpiece hasn’t budged from its home in the neighboring town, fortunately a mere 20 minutes away. And there are only minor works by the Italian artists most influenced by the northern style — Antonello da Messina and Giovanni Bellini – and nothing at all by Mantegna, Piero de la Francesca, and others. (It should be noted that American museums have been extremely generous, contributing van Eyck’s Annunciation from the National Gallery in Washington and St. Jerome in his Study from the Detroit Institute of Arts, as well as many collateral works.)
No matter. Just forget the art historical premise and luxuriate in the 120 religious paintings and portraits on hand. There are outstanding works by van Eyck, Petrus Christus, Hans Memling, Roger van der Weyden, and Gerard David, and others by southern counterparts including Jean Fouquet, Pedro Berruguete, and Bartolome Bermejo.
The key piece is van Eyck’s Madonna of Canon van der Paele, a prize of the municipal museums of Bruges. The panel – which shows saints standing on either side of the virgin and child while the bespectacled patron kneels at their feet — is a tour-de- force of realism in which everything is scrutinized with the magnified precision of a miniaturist. With seamless veracity, van Eyck documents the way light plays over the surfaces of shiny armor, gold-embroidered fabric, facet-cut crystal, polished wood, and carved stone. The foreground carpet’s intricate pattern is rendered with mind-boggling accuracy right down to the pile’s wooly fibers splitting apart where they bend over a step.
The first rooms of the exhibition demonstrate just how revolutionary this vivid realism was in comparison with the decorative but often clumsy pictures of his immediate predecessors. The juxtapositions leave no doubt that if artists in the 1430s aspired to capture a convincing likeness of the world, van Eyck left the competition far behind.
In today’s media-saturated world we take photographic likeness for granted, but for an artist to have achieved this effect 600 years ago must have seemed like a magic. It still does. In fact, painter David Hockney recently advanced a theory that old masters like van Eyck simply couldn’t have made their hyper-real pictures without the aid of a projecting lens, mirror, or some other optical device. Critics say he’s just jealous of their superior skill, but standing in front of a van Eyck one gets Hockney’s point. No wonder artists throughout Europe sought to emulate his style.
According to legend, van Eyck’s phenomenal leap was made possible by his invention of oil painting. The transparency of oil enabled artists far more tonal nuance than the enamel-like egg tempera previously in use. But the truth is that artists had been using oil for centuries. Van Eyck was the first to master its possibilities.
During his time, no artist approached the degree of realism he brought to works like the St. Francis from Milan (a large version of the gem-like panel in the Philadelphia Museum of Art), the Virgin and Angel from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Madrid (painted to resemble marble sculptures in architectural niches), or empathetic portraits like the artist’s wife Margaret from Bruges and the Man in the Blue Chaperon from Bucharest, two highlights of the wonderful room of portraits that is among the high points of the exhibition.
Though van Eyck is rightfully revered today, a century ago he was relatively unknown. An archival exhibit next door in the Arenthuis presents photos, posters, letters, and plans of the 1902 exhibition that changed all that. A blockbuster in the modern sense of the word, with catalogues and conferences galore, the show brought to Bruges more than 400 works by the so-called Flemish Primitives and put van Eyck, van der Weyden, Memling, and company on the art historical map. (Interestingly, not one of the 154 lenders to the 1902 show was American.) Whereas the current exhibition subtly promotes pan-Europeanism, the earlier show sought to demonstrate the cultural unity of Belgium’s French and Flemish populations. Few visitors venture into the scholarly show, but expect crowds for van Eyck. Go late in the day when attendance has thinned out.
For further information on these and other events during Bruges’ year-long Cultural Capital festivities, visit www.brugge2002.be .
Jason Edward Kaufman is a New York-based writer on the arts whose work appears regularly in publications in the US and Europe.
This article appeared as “Show of Netherlandish art another charm of Brugge” [sic.] in The Washington Times, June 15, 2002, p. E4.