Every first Wednesday of the month, 1-5pm, the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique - Brussels are free! So this being the last first Wednesday of the month for which I'll be in Brussels for the time being, and with a meeting cancelled that I've had every other Wednesday afternoon, I finally took the chance to visit it. There are 2 permanent sections: Art Ancien (15th-18th C) and Art Moderne (19th-20th).
It was far too much to take in, and my head is hurting from trying. I had a team meeting this evening and my head was too full of art to make other conversation at the dinner table!
Most of the pieces were of artists from the Low Countries, so it gave quite an interesting glimpse into the culture's history here. And it has to be said that the Low Countries have turned out some fine artists! Of course once a Belgian becomes famous he becomes known as French, but anyway...
Most of the Art Ancien really did my head in (the descriptive prose of a cultured art critic here!) - it was oppressively full of hundreds of representations of 'La Vièrge et l'enfant', only interrupted by panels of various RC saints being martyred or looking on at... la vièrge et l'enfant. Occasional vividly coloured scenes of angels and martyrs fighting hideous demons also featured, as did passion scenes after a while - but the Vièrge et l'enfant definitely dominated! I found it so distressing that it completely distracted me from admiring/contemplating/analysing most of them as pieces of artwork. The only vièrge et l'enfant I liked was a very simple one of Mary feeding Jesus porridge, very unadorned - the only religious references being the Book of Hours and some bread. Most of them depicted Mary in such style as you'd imagine 'the Queen of Heaven' to be, wearing the dress of a courtly 16th century lady in rich colours and fabrics. Quite a few bizarrely had the baby lying on the ground naked in order to be admired by shepherds/magi/others - what kind of mother would leave her baby on the ground naked in the middle of a circle of admirers?! Wierd. I had naïvely thought that older art was somewhat more realistic than modern - but I'd never looked much at 15th - 18th century religious works. Then of course there were the various ascensions, with the mythological ascention of Mary featuring more than the ascension of Jesus, I'm pretty sure. The most famous Belgian painters from this period have to be the Brueghels - The Fall of Icarus was interesting (if only as a Greek myth respite from Roman Catholic myth), but the Fall of the Rebel angels is gruesome - messes with your head. The rebel angels appear to be changing into demons as they fall: but the demons are strange and horrible animals!
These galleries of 15th-18th century paintings really brought home to me Belgian's Roman heritage - oppressively so. If this represents what they think Christianity is about, no wonder, humanly speaking, that today's Belgium is so secular and dismissive of Christianity.
That said, I noted a few artists whose work was striking, even through the Roman culture - obviously Rubens was amazing (17th century), but also Jan Sanders van Hemessen and Michel Coxcie did some I liked, art-wise. Cornelis Bisschop's 'La lecture' of an elderly lady poring over a book in a dark room was wonderful - I suppose I've been brought up loving old ladies and books, but I fell in love with it! The composition of light was marvellous. I must go back to the museum shop and pick up a postcard.
In the 19th century, I found a gallery full of landscapes which (pleb that I am?) made me wish that I'd gone quicker through the Flemish primitives sooner to give me more time to stand gazing at these. Dubois, Lamorinière and Hippolyte Boulenger - I loved their landscapes (realism style I think?), and then Vogels moving into impressionist subjectivism, playing with light, is marvellous. Heymans, developing this style, was a bit too light though. Degroux's social realism was good, and although there was only one example of an Artan it made me wish there was a room-full - he concentrated on painting the North Sea: and gazing at it gave me exactly that salty wind and wild excitement feel of it when it's rough! As for Emile Claus's 'Cows Crossing', it's immense both in size and in just how real it is - I almost found myself doublechecking that the cows' hides were painted, not real leather! The riverwater is marvellously captured and the light... apparently he used to go down to the spot every day to see the light and atmosphere again - and he spent 12 years on it! Now he was a real painter of light - knocks Kinsade out of the water into another continent. Magritte has to be noted for brilliance (L'empire des lumières) and for brilliant craziness in others... I couldn't quite believe that the few Magrittes were by the same man! But I can't stand Dali. Just can't stand him: gives me the shivers to look at one. James Ensor had some 'nice' realistic ones I liked and some... strange ones. I've not got adventurous taste!
I got a bit confused by the meanderings of the museum (3 bits of building interconnected, one of which has floors -8 to -4 and another a couple of unnumbered floors... I think +2 to +4 were closed - renovations) but I possibly missed some of the 20th century work. I was feeling rather swamped though after 3 hours so I was following exit signs rather than searching for more!
It really is amazing what can be done with dyes, oil and so on mixed, plus some human skill and imagination. There was a blue silk painted which looked like I could reach out, pick it up and try it on. Praise God for his own creativity, beauty and order. Praise him for giving people the gift of art when he made us in his image! I pray that he would continue to raise up artists who would seek to glorify him in their art.
- New book out by Ryken, 'Art for God's sake' - waiting for it to hit the UK in a few weeks.