The Brussels Museum of Fine Arts Revisited

“It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to ‘sea’ as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ‘ship’” (1)

< now please replace ‘sea’ and ‘ship’ by ‘ art museums’(2)>

Yeah, “whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth”, I take to an art museum. So on that particularly damned “damp, drizzly” Saturday morning in August, without much ado I quietly cycled to the Brussels Royal Museum of Fine Arts, mounted its wide stairs flanked by pompous pillars, drew my wrinkled museum pass and discreetly mixed in with scattered groups of visitors.

The Brussels Royal Museum of Fine Arts is obviously not the Louvre and I still remember overhearing, oh over 10 years ago, the disparaging remarks made by some Dutch tourists, who chiefly found fault with the museum’s outdated set-up, reminiscent of “former eastern bloc poverty ”, its last refurbishing dating from the 70s or so. Since then, however, the Brussels museum people (despite meagre funding) did catch up on trendy museum marketing principles: renovating parts of the building, adding a stylish ‘brasserie’ and an up-to-date bookshop , reshuffling the collections and dedicating a whole museum-within-a-museum to the crowd-attracting Magritte.
But I myself, of course, go on cherishing the museum’s vestiges of obsoleteness wherever I can still spot them (those 70s false ceilings, those worn carpets, the fake wood panelling, ...). It’s especially the inadvertent overlap of ill-matched successive styles that does me in: 20th century shabbiness combined with the lingering bourgeois grandeur of a 19th century museum.

And on a sombre rainy day, when the lights in the museum are up, and when through the windows you can catch glimpses of shadowy people struggling with umbrellas, on such a day it is not hard to imagine the bustling bourgeois city Brussels still was in the 1930s.
Neither is it hard to imagine W.H. Auden wandering about in these museum rooms on a December day in 1938, brooding about the human position of suffering while standing in front of Breughel’s Icarus (3) , “how everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster”. Today, handy signs direct you to the popular room with the Bruegel paintings. And though the Icarus painting is in fact no longer considered an authentic Bruegel, many visitors still pause in front of it, some of them perhaps reading an Auden sentence quoted in their guide, others searching for Icarus’ tiny “white legs disappearing into the green water” (they are so tiny & tucked away in a corner of the painting, these floundering legs, that you could easily miss them).

There were a lot of Italian visitors last Saturday, flocking together in the rooms with the Flemish Primitives (where they can see, amongst others, two heart rending, pathetic pietas by Van Der Weyden ; an Annunciation by the elusive Master of Flémalle, set in a claustrophobic but enchantingly domestic room ; Dierik Bout’s harsh rendering of a cruel scene of justice ; an oddly still pieta by Petrus Christus, with those figures in frozen postures of grief, standing somewhat forlornly in a vast landscape ; and of course the smooth devotion of Memling’s portraits.

Do Italian art lovers nowadays still admire these Flemish paintings as they reportedly did in the 15th century? According to my friend J. (writer & art historian, carrying a Belgian passport ill matched with his rather Southern ‘elective affinities’ honed during long stays in Italy) Italians are mostly bemused now by the Flemish primitives, struggling with what they see as stiffness and lack of fluidity & volume, failing to fully grasp the sensuality of the typical early Netherlandish sense of atmosphere and of titillating texture.
Be that as it may, my fellow Italian visitors that Saturday were looking intently and slowly, earnestly consulting their guidebooks, whispering appreciatively to each other.

As to me, I got fascinated that day by the quite distinct sensibilities of two Madonna paintings done by Quinten Metsys (1466-1529). Quinten Metsys... ! (4) At times perhaps the most Italian of early Netherlandish painters...
In any case a painter who, without renouncing the Flemish heritage, in some of his paintings fully seems to master the Italian renaissance lessons of well modelled volumes and pleasing compositions. He’s also a painter with a finely honed sensitivity, able to render compassuinately a wide range of emotions, without veering into the somewhat pedant and contorted mannerism of slightly later Netherlandish generations of painters.

Take these two Madonna’s for instance, each appealing to our sensibilities in such a different way. There is that majestic Madonna, seated on an elaborate gothic throne, with the regally draped folds of her robe filling almost the entire picture plane (though in the back, at both sides, you do get a peak at the world outside) . Her expression is serious & sad, (though there’ s a tad of sulkiness too, perhaps in keeping with the slightly aloof appearance of a rich, beautiful girl?). She ‘s absorbed in her reading, no doubt taking in ominous tidings – the little Jesus sitting on her lap is reading too, it seems (or is he just watching the pictures? ) – with a concentrated & knowing look far beyond his age. And yet, it’s such a touchingly small child too, with those little hands, so cute in his white shirt, ah and with a little foot peeping out of the folds of his mother’s stately dress.

And then there’s that other Madonna-painting, so soft and immediately pleasing in both colours and subject , with that warm & intimate rapport between mother & son, with so joyous and domestic a scene (including the humble bread & apple, the homely knife on a plain table cloth).
Two Madonna’s by the same painter, what could be potentially more boring ... and yet (for those who want to see) each painting presents us with a wholly distinct palette of human feeling & sensibility.

How many people have already stood in front of these Madonna’s, rapt with delighted attention ... ? How many meditating faithful Christians? How many agnostic art lovers? (um, & how many bored tourists or students?) How many generations of frivolous dilettantes, earnest connoisseurs and erudite art historians?
In any case, Max J. Friedländer (5) - one of the most insightful and intuitive art historians/connoisseurs I have come across in my, admittedly limited, readings – must have looked quite intently at many of Metsys’ Madonna’s. Leaving us with precise, evocative descriptions, precious crystals of human perceptiveness that manage to capture in a few laconic phrases the full, complex richness of the many sensitivities at play in these paintings.

And isn’t that why we look at paintings : because they are testimonials of human experience which spectators throughout the ages can share and relive, because they offer a “concentrated timelessness”(6) in an otherwise constantly changing and even threatening world.
And isn’t that what is so appealing about these ancient art museums – that the sheer richness of their art collections is proof of a "lasting collective human obsession” (paraphrasing again Leen Huet)(6) .
Thus art museums offer at least some sort of reassurance for the transient & isolated individuals we otherwise are - and some sort of escape too, from our own duller selves, whenever “we grow grim about the mouth” .

neatly numbered (though quite lopsided) notes & quotes
(1) Herman Melville Moby Dick
(2) (taking personal note of the fact that dear C. would of course much rather keep the quote as such, duly salvaging all ships and seas)
W.H. Auden “Musée des Beaux Arts”

(4) Quinten Metsys (a.ka. Quentin Matsys or Quentin Massys) In fact I don’t quite understand why Metsys (who showed such individuality and mastery in a wide range of genres, from realistic caricatures over moving Madonna’s to religious altarpieces and humanist portraits)is not more widely acclaimed. Why for instance was Mabuse (Jan Gossaert/Gennnin Gossart) recently entitled to a major London ‘solo’-exhibition, and not Metsys? + taking note (4) as an opportunity to apologize for the drab quality of the pics (of the 2 clandestinely taken pictures on the spot and of the rather disappointing reproductions found on the web)
(5) Max J. Friedländer Early Netherlandish Painting Volume VII Quentin Massys - some of my favourite Friedländer quotes about various Metsys madonnas:
“the emotional pitch lacks the depth and gravity that give weight to the Brussels panels. The Virgin’s head is rather doll-like – smug and aloof. The child is amiable and insignificant. The whole painting is innocuous and festive, but without the imprint of sorrow that none of Quentin’s other Madonna’s altogether lack”
“[...] the Virgin’s expression is grave, noble and sorrowful, but here it is a bit more sullen and homespun, not quite so proud and a trifle weary. The child, covered to the toes in a long white shift, perches in somewhat uncertain posture on the mother’s arm, an expression of almost animal-like gravity on his face.”
“The intimacy of the kiss is at odds with any air of solemnity, as are the still life details, the delicacies shown on the table in the foreground in orderly array and painstaking, almost over realistic technique.”
And yet another one: “Mother and child move in triumphant freedom, in the spirit of the renaissance.”
And, finally, a quote to confound those who might think Matsys or Friedländer are only about cloyingly sentimental Madonna’s (the following quote refers to Metsys’ Antwerp Altarpiece of the Lamentation) :
“The master eagerly seizes upon opportunities to bemuse the viewer with a show of splendour and a depiction of orgiastic cruelty. The lofty sorrow and many-voiced harmony of lamentation in the centre panel are framed on either side by evil instinct.”
a passage from Leen Huet’s novel “Eenoog”, describing a visit to the Uffizi - “op een plek als deze zou het verleidelijk zijn om schilderijen beter gezelschap te vinden dan mensen. […] Het gaat om hun tijdloosheid, hun concentratie. Achter een paar kleurvakken zit de ervaring van een heel leven. Ervaring die ik lees. En ik ben niet de enige die er zo over denkt, alleen een langdurige collectieve obsessie kan tot dit soort overvloedig gevulde ruimtes leiden” -
a hesitant, unauthorized translation : “in a place such as this it would be tempting to prefer the company of paintings to that of human beings […]. It’s about their timelessness, their concentration. Behind a few coloured planes there is the experience of a whole life. An experience I am reading. And I am not the only one who thinks about it like that, only a lasting collective obsession can produce lavishly filled rooms such as these”

The sumptuous villa of an industrial tycoon, politics of oppression, veiled women, International Gothic and the spiritual quiet of a Sacra Conversazione.

(or: from hybrid reality to universal intuitions )

A disabused post modern discourse?

Is not reality a dirty tale of dominance, full of selfish sound & fury? And is not so-called high or universal art merely an expression of the dominant (obviously) base desires of the dominant class of the dominant continent?

Take that beautiful art deco villa: just the spoiled son of a Belgian 19th C industrial tycoon throwing his inherited money at a lavish art deco villa, sumptuously decorated with the most expensive materials. And that oriental flavour? Well, Mr Tycoon Senior did not only exploit European natural and human resources but also tramped about in Cairo, and indulged in an exotic fascination for the Orient.

Well, at least that sumptuous villa is now being recycled as a “Center of art and dialogue between the cultures of the East and the West”. And all that splendor now houses a politically aware exhibit about “Rituals, wigs, scarves, make-up and so many other constraints determining the life of women for Centuries, between concealment, unveiling and revealing”.

The imposed (!) modesty of the Virgin? The imposed (!) modesty of the veiled Arabic woman? Or the imposed (?) immodesty of Eve, of sensually made up pin ups. Sigh - the inescapable politics of sexual dominance and male projections about how women should dress : never clothed enough (when modesty is required) – never naked enough (when sexual desires have to be aroused). Those naked women on Renaissance paintings: mere porn for rich patrons .
Yah, obviously, whether you’re Darwinian, or Freudian, or Marxist – you have learned that all art can be deconstructed to become a dirty tale of selfish genes, repressed (or expressed? umm...) sexuality, capitalist dominance. We’re all just selfish individuals confined to our contingent provincial conditions. Da. There.

Redeemed by ‘ordinary poetics’

But however true the above disabused discourse may be - yes, Tiziano’s Venus of Orbino is a pin-up , for those who want to see her like that – those who have an “'oculus impudicus' qui ravale l’émotion artistique à la concupiscence” (Jean Claude Bologne ). So, however distressingly true the above may be, ‘disinterested’ poetry and a universal lyrical sensitivity do exist (yes, non-sexually inspired enchantment with the poetic and aesthetic sensitivity of Tizian’s Venus is possible ) – or, at least, there are still enough of us believing in it.

And therefore, wandering about that art deco villa, I can be enchanted by the space and the rhythms of the rooms, by the pure sensuousness of the materials. And I’m moved, deeply moved by the
magic worked by Maimouna Guerresi
: the poignancy and stillness of those white, spectral , hieratic figures ... Levitating? Striding?

What do they remind me of? Definitely not of submissiveness. Of the oriental mystery of veiled women, then? Yes perhaps, but not as a matter of exotics, but rather like the mystery and stillness of a meditating Madonna - the “quiet spirituality of a "sacra conversatione”, done by Bellini for instance, whose Madonnas have that same aura of non-sentimental but deeply moving, contemplative concentration. “ quies - a spiritual reconciliation, idyllic or ascetic retreat into solitude”. Yes, I’m reminded of Bellini, whose pictures achieve that rare intuitive unity of poetry & metaphorical & religious meaning, not requiring analytical erudition to understand their significance.

And that levitating figure? The mystical ecstasy of a Saint? Bernini’s baroque imagination? Saint Theresa?

And those striding figures, with the elegantly dignified folds of those draperies, is there not a visual resonance with the
elongated sinuosity of the gothic international style ...

And so I wonder & ponder ... exulting in intuitive associations. Irrelevant projections? Merely revealing my own hybrid set of accidental cultural references, my own pathetic longing for some universal beauty and meaning? Well, not entirely irrelevant ..., not merely strictly personal intuitions it seems. Later on, when doing some web research on Maïmouna Guerresi, I’m delighted to find these echoes in her own artistic statement :

“As with many ancient icons, my figures in hieratic poses recall images of the Virgin, but also celebrate contemporary cultures and religions that have kept their traditions alive. This gives rise to a new and hybrid iconography [...] My work is part of a [...] transcultural expression’, where the elements of formal beauty combine with ancient African symbolic forms. I present a hybrid reality, consisting of eastern and western cultural references, in which ordinary poetics reach beyond what is represented to unite with a universal condition of beauty, mysticism and sensitivity. This kind of intuition is common to all peoples of the world” .

Post Scriptum, 6 months later
(But I am having doubts now about these "spectral, hieratical figures" - it's their "faceless-ness" which makes me feel uneasy. Because, what's an individual without the expressiveness of her/his face? What's an individual without eyes?)