Him Indoors and I are partial to the Flemish Primitives (and indeed to the Flemish in general), so the opportunity of the current exhibition in Ghent, ‘Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution’, offering ‘the largest Jan van Eyck exhibition ever’ and containing ten of his twenty-odd works known to survive, was not to be missed, but time/work constraints meant that we had to fit it into a short jaunt at an unpromising time of the year, weatherwise. So, with fingers crossed, we set off on Thursday to Ghent (Gand, Gent, Gaunt – John of Gaunt was born in St Bavo’s abbey; scurrilous rumour had it that his father was a local butcher rather than Edward III), via Eurostar to Brussels.
We have (sort of) been to Ghent twice before: I have hazy memories of parking near the Gravensteen for a comfort break for the (small) children on what must have been a journey from Brussels to Bruges years ago; and more recently we again stopped at Ghent in mid-journey precisely to see the Van Eyck altarpiece, which is the focus of the current show.
The long-term project of conservation of the altarpiece (usefully explained in a small display outside the chapel in St Bavo’s cathedral in which it is currently kept: the building of a new visitor to centre due to open in October has led to the discovery of a large ossuary against the cathedral wall) led not only to a startling new (old) brightness and clarity in the colours, but to some remarkable changes of feeling or emphasis, of which the most notable is the expression on the face of the Lamb; a former passive resignation has been replaced by a challenging gaze out at the viewer.
And, unsurprisingly, the conservation work has revealed a great deal about van Eyck’s working techniques which bears on the study of his other known oil paintings and drawings (there is even a page in a book of hours tentatively ascribed to him), including a theory that the altarpiece itself is not (as has always been assumed) begun as a joint work with his brother Hubert and completed by Jan alone after Hubert’s death, but is entirely Jan’s handiwork.
The exhibition is organised thematically, and comparison with what was happening elsewhere in Europe in van Eyck’s day, especially in Italy, is fascinating. Among the Annunciation scenes on show was our own dear Fitzwilliam‘s Domenico Veneziano,
and it was wonderful to see in the flesh, as it were, the sublime Washington Annunciation, with its glorious angel – and, as so often, a completely different size from what I had assumed from reproductions.
A diptych version in grisaille, loaned from Madrid, shows yet another treatment of this theme:
The curators agree that the myth that van Eyck invented oil painting single-handed is indeed a myth: but they include two rather nice bits of later wishful thinking. In one scene, Antonella da Messina (dressed as a flashy Italian) is brought into van Eyck’s studio to learn from the master, and in another, Dürer (with very big hair) stands gazing in amazement at the altarpiece – both portrayals from nineteenth-century Belgian artists whose names I failed to note. (Photography is forbidden inside the exhibition because of the huge number of loans, so I couldn’t employ my usual trick of snapping the labels.)
Talking of Dürer, one room contained a number of ‘Veronica’ pictures: the devotional portraits of Christ’s face which were so popular during the Renaissance, both Northern and Southern. One by Petrus Christus, van Eyck’s most important follower, had later had the famous ‘AD’ monogram scratched into the paint at the top left in a hopeful sort of way…
Another fascinating opportunity was to compare the two versions of ‘St Francis Receiving the Stigmata’, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Galleria Sabauda in Turin, respectively. For the very little that it is worth, I prefer the Philadelphia version, for the handling of the light – though both confirmed my view, previously based on reproductions, that the position of the saint’s legs is very unconvincing. (I also learned that both versions were probably once owned by the Adornes family of Bruges.)
And I have to agree, now that Him Indoors has pointed it out, that there is a great disproportion between the size of his wife Margareta’s head and shoulders and her lower body …
The subtitle ‘The Optical Revolution’ is to do with van Eyck’s apparent instinctive grasp of perspective, though his could be multiple, in contrast to that of the Italian masters who worked out a single vanishing point by geometric means – but I get very bad flashbacks if people talk about geometry, so I’m not very sure what this all means.
Among the van Eycks not present are ‘The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele’ at the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, and the so-called ‘Arnolfini Marriage Portrait’ from the National Gallery, London.
But they are compensated for by the ability to get really close to some of the altarpiece panels and the drawings, and for all sorts of ancillary oddities, such as the copy of the entire altarpiece commissioned by Philip II of Spain from the Mechelen artist Michiel Coxie (1499–1592), and destined for his own chapel in Madrid (it’s now in Brussels). (By the way, you can find here a fairly up-to-date account of the altarpiece’s vicissitudes over time, including its plundering by Napoleon (naturally) and the theft of one panel which is still missing after over eighty years.)
So, I would recommend that you go, if you can, but if you do, book! Weekends are already full for the foreseeable future, and the people of Ghent are becoming aggrieved that they can’t get tickets, especially after a review in the Flemish Het Nieuwsblad: ‘This exhibition should not be missed by any Belgian’. (There was a similar problem a few years ago at den Bosch…)
And allow at least two hours, probably longer – even with timed tickets, the crowding is quite severe, and yesterday everyone’s progress was delayed by a group tour of French-speakers who huddled around all the ‘big hits’, listening to their guide through their headphones. And get an audioguide: I don’t usually like them, but I needed one yesterday as one room is dedicated to a soundless and unsubtitled video about the altarpiece. And make sure you look at the amazing craftsmanship of the tapestry in the first room. And the catalogue looks superb (there is an English version) but it is heavier than I can lift in my current state of wonky-armed-ness and is also rather pricey (hardback only at the moment). And the MSK’s permanent collection looks rather wonderful too, only we didn’t have time …
We managed a quick glimpse of the Botanic Garden, St Bavo’s (rather marred by massive and noisy preparations (not musical, alas!) for a concert), and a walk along the river Lei past the old merchant houses, reminiscent of a bigger and rather less well preserved Brugge.
There was a nice little almshouse/hospital, the only one surviving in Ghent, and we went into the old butcher’s market hall, now a restaurant and delicatessen, where I had a very large piece of cinnamon cheesecake (an Aalst speciality, it seems).
Then it was back on the trains, with the determination to return to our very nice B&B in warmer weather and for a longer period – not least because we didn’t have the chance (cheesecake aside) to do the local food and drink the sort of justice we would have liked. But I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to see this exhibition, which will certainly not recur in my lifetime!
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