Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
13 October 2012–10 February 2013
by JULIE BECKERS
Indeed, the skill with which Jan Van Eyck portrays the everyday object is remarkable. He brings life and light to precious jewels, tiled floors, flowers and fabrics, employing the brilliance of oil technique in his painting. It is unimaginable to speak ill of the Flemish artist. In fact, by the 16th century, the Ghent Altarpiece, begun by his brother Hubert and completed by Jan himself, was already credited as being “the finest painting in Christendom”.2 This season, curators Friso Lammertse and Stephan Kemperdick honoured Van Eyck and his circle with the display of some 90 masterpieces from the Low Countries, highlighting important cultural and political centres such as Paris and Bruges.
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, owner of one of the greatest collections of paintings and drawings in the world, certainly provided itself with a challenge. The pieces brought together here, produced in a vast range of media, are, each, fragile and scarce. Due to the ravages of the Reformation only a small amount of the visual culture of the Low Countries is retrievable. The visitor is therefore in luck to see these works united here.
The core of the exhibition is made up of panel paintings, five of which were painted by Van Eyck himself and can be found, together with two rarely shown miniatures, in a circular construction at the epicentre of the show. Surrounding this globular edifice, other artists, some Van Eyck’s contemporaries, others his followers and 16th–century copyists, are on display in several smaller open spaces with subheadings such as Portraits, Paris or Burgundy. The whole space therefore resembles an enormous rectangle with a circle in the middle, completely conceived in the colour grey, which in my opinion, is uninviting for the beholder of Late Medieval visual culture as often pieces originating during this period could be seen in opulently decorated churches or, in some cases, private homes of the social and political elite – hardly a “plain” grey surrounding.
Although it is impossible for museums to recreate a certain zeitgeist, exhibitions such as the grand Da Vinci display at the National Gallery in London last year do show that a sense of historical contextualisation is possible within a contemporary design. Although the intention of the design team was to create a space in which every piece stands out and where the many visitors, that indeed were present, would have enough space to observe the displays, I feel this task could have been dealt with more effectively. The small spaces, perhaps conceived out of a need to compartmentalise themes that would otherwise go missing in the large grey room, get extremely crowded very quickly. Therefore there is very little space in which to view the exhibits properly and the quality of the lighting, especially to examine the delicate miniatures, is not optimal. Recent exhibitions such as Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, held at the British Library, prove that even the most fragile of media can be adequately lit to optimise viewers’ experience.3
However, what it lacks in appearance is impressively made up for by both the actual content of the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue. The standard of works selected is high and an indulgence for the admirer of Late Medieval culture. It should furthermore be stressed that this period signified a boom in the level, range and scale of artistic production and the number of active artists who worked with both innovative technique and media.4
After an informative film introducing Van Eyck and his circle, the visitor encounters a number of pieces produced before Van Eyck’s time. The first are some high quality Madonna and Child narratives, key to the devotions and period eye of the medieval observer. My attention however was guided towards the unusual Madonna of the Mantle (c1410-20). The painting, as the catalogue explains, beautifully illustrates the ideal of medieval society; the Madonna covering faithful citizens with her enormous mantle hence protecting them from harm. This painting is unusual, as the Virgin’s two stepsisters, Mary Salome and Mary Cleopas, hold up the mantle.5 This canvas suitably connects the modern viewer to a society that functioned rather differently on a social, political and theological level than ours.
The small, beautiful Triptych of the Man of Sorrows (c1400), probably found in the Abbey of Chocques in France, is displayed here to highlight the remarkable skill of the Parisian goldsmiths around 1400. Three different enamelling techniques were used during the production of this triptych, emphasizing the complicated process of manufacture. The en ronde bosse technique by which enamel is joined to a 3D object was specifically developed and perfected in France and popular with the nobility.
Another striking piece is The Little Garden of Paradise (c1410/1420), painted on oak by an artist from the Upper Rhineland during the early decades of the 15th century. The walled garden symbolically represents Mary’s virginity and although the technique and development of perspective still leaves a lot to be desired, the details delivered within the intimate setting of the garden provide the observer with a treasure of iconographical pondering. The different varieties of plants and flowers remind us of the later work Van Eyck would display – one of the key examples of flower details by Van Eyck here in Rotterdam is the Washington Annunciation panel. The heavenly garden also contains less obviously theological motifs such as two small dragonflies in the well, birds freely flying around tempted by the edge of the wall and the more secular festive elements such as wine and fruit referring to courtly activities, not to mention the tempting but forbidden apple.
Some high quality drawings, such as the Portrait of Jacqueline of Bavaria (c1450-60), once attributed to Van Eyck because of its close resemblance to the portrait of Margaret Van Eyck by the hand of the painter (now in Bruges, Groeninge Museum), are on display to highlight the influence Van Eyck took from contemporaries to apply to his own pieces.
The visitor then finally, with some anticipation, reaches the circular area at the centre of the exhibition. The first circle, as Dante would put it, introduces the five panel paintings by Van Eyck. Originally on the market as a work by Rogier van der Weyden, The Crucifixion, painted around 1430, is an intense emotional display of grief and disbelief. Indeed it reminds us of van der Weyden’s grieving Madonna in his provocative Descent from the Cross at the Prado (c1435). The Crucifixion was however attributed to Van Eyck immediately after its acquisition and forms a wonderful example here of a traditional narrative depiction with three figures.6
The recently restored Three Martyrs at the Tomb (c1430-35), probably by Van Eyck, the often shown unfinished Antwerp St. Barbara (1437) and the Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy (c1435-40) each display Van Eyck’s skill to work in a variety of media but also to depict entirely different subject matter.
The showstopper however has to be TheAnnunciation (c1430-35), once perhaps the left wing of a triptych. It is here Van Eyck is at his best. The detail on the cloak of Gabriel, who, with a soft smile, conveys the glorious message to the Virgin, at which he points with a delicately lifted finger, displays the quality of the painter’s abilities. The wings of the angel remind us of Fra Angelico’s work at San Marco in Florence and a more complex theological scheme enfolds in the Romanesque architecture which alludes to the era of the Old Testament; the glass windows which depict God flanked by Moses, scenes of the Old Testament which can be made out between the Signs of the Zodiac on the tiled floors, the three glass windows which refer to the Trinity and the lilies to the virginal purity of the Madonna.7
The second circle contains the beautiful, yet poorly lit, Turin-Milan Hours, once part of the most extensive – originally 700 hundred pages of text from a missal and book of hours – and sophisticated manuscripts of the Late Middle Ages. The manuscripts on display here that are to be considered, unusually, the work of Van Eyck, are Birth of John the Baptist and The Office of the Dead. The fine detail depicted corresponds to Van Eyck’s style in panel painting and gives the viewer the opportunity to examine an exciting medium not often reconciled with the Flemish master.
Upon exiting the circle, the exhibition continues displaying later 16th-century copies of lost masterpieces of the Low Countries. This is an interesting idea as it allows the visitor to reflect both on how later artists honoured an earlier tradition and how they often retrieved lost narratives, hence making them still accessible, in high quality copies. One excellent example of this tradition is Courtly Feast of around 1550 based on an original of 1430-31.
The curatorial team at Boijmans Van Beuningen have pulled off a fine show with The Road to Van Eyck. With the 90 pieces presented there is plenty to enjoy and the display is worth a visit to Rotterdam. It is an important exhibition that brings together an astonishing collection of masterpieces that may never again find each others company in one combined effort. The only disappointing aspect is that the package comes in grey.
2. Ibid, p. 11; Antonio de Beatis declared it the finest painting in 1517, an ode to it was composed by poet Lucas de Heere and it was the only work outside Italy to be specifically mentioned by Giorgio Vasari in 1568.
3. For more information on the design of the exhibition in Rotterdam see the press review for the architectural firm Doepel Strijkers. For the exhibition on the work by da Vinci see the website of the National Gallery under previous exhibitions. For the exhibition in the British Library and what they had on offer see the website of the British Library under previous exhibitions.