The exhibition ‘Jan van Eyck, Early Netherlandish Painting and the European South, 1430-1530,’ held at the Groeningemuseum in Bruges from March 15 until June 2002, celebrated ‘Bruges 2002 – Cultural Capital of Europe’ by updating the famous ‘Flemish Primitives’ exhibition of 1902. That show first brought early Netherlandish painting to the attention of the wide public and spurred the development of the scholarly field dedicated to this period of art history. The 1902 exhibition was deeply nationalistic. Among its major themes was the independence of Flemish artistic achievement from that of Italy. This year’s exhibition – a product of new European unity – stressed the interaction of Netherlandish painting with the Mediterranean world. One might say that in a way it, too, was nationalistic, as it aimed to demonstrate how Netherlandish painting permeated and influenced Southern Europe. This time, however, the argument was amply supported by a century of research.
The real glory of The Age of Van Eyck 1430-1530 volume is the collection of high quality color photographs of objects assembled for the exhibition – 131 paintings from all over the world, a stupendous achievement – and comparative material. The exhibition presented an admirable balance between familiar pieces and such rarely glimpsed gems as Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man in a Blue Chaperon (Muzeul National de Artá al Romániei, Bucharest), which graces the cover of the book. Part of the volume is devoted to the catalogue. Although the exhibited paintings are reproduced on a tiny scale, they appear in larger format elsewhere in the book. Individual catalogue entries are apt and informative, as well as analytical. They provide just the right amount and kind of information on each piece. The bibliography is up to date and very useful.
The larger part of the volume, however, comprises essays on different aspects of the diffusion of early Netherlandish painting across Southern Europe. As the curator, Till-Holger Borchert, states in the Preface, the show sought to explore how dynastic relations in fifteenth-century Europe influenced the international dissemination of Flemish art; how quickly and in what way early Netherlandish painters exerted influence on French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian artists;gand how Jan van Eyck affected painting in Southern Europe. As the editor of this volume, Borchert doubtless wished for the widest and most thorough coverage of these themes, and therefore assigned topics to a large group of scholars. Unfortunately, since factual information about Netherlandish paintings and painters abroad is circumscribed, the essays rehearse the same data, with the result that much of the text is repetitive and not particularly illuminating.
Borchert’s introduction is the most interesting contribution. He re-examines the issue of Jan van Eyck’s workshop, and suggests that works previously deemed early creations by Jan or his brother Hubert were actually produced by Jan’s assistants after his death, using workshop models. Borchert ponders whether these assistants subsequently moved to Italy and Spain and were responsible for disseminating Eyckean style there. His subsequent essay, ‘The Mobility of Artists,’ dovetails with his remarks on these migrating assistants and highlights the significance of journeymen in spreading artistic styles abroad as they moved about in search of work.
Other contributors treat the diffusion of early Netherlandish paintings region by region. Margaret L. Koster reviews this phenomenon in Florence, Elena Parma surveys it in Genoa, and Mauro Lucco glances at Milan, Ferrara, and Urbino. Andreas Beyer stresses the role of René d’Anjou in the establishment of taste for Netherlandish works in Naples. Joaquín Yarza Luaces examines Netherlandish paintings and their emulation in the Kingdom of Aragon. Pilar Silva Maroto emphasizes the complexity of artistic currents in the Kingdom of Castile and the misleading nature of the term ‘Hispano-Flemish’ in relation to Castilian painting. José Luís Porfírio gives a measured overview of the brief and isolated flowering of Netherlandish-style painting in Portugal.
Perhaps the most thoughtful of these geographic essays is the discussion of France by Philippe Lorentz, who begins by recalling the nationalistic assertions of Henri Bouchot, the leading voice of the ‘French Primitives’ exhibition held in Paris in 1904 in the aftermath of and in response to the 1902 Bruges show. Bouchot asserted that Flemish painters were in fact Frenchmen because they lived in the French territory. Lorentz analyzes the problem of assigning ‘nationality’ to artists who lived in the frontier County of Flanders, and addresses the fluidity of culture in this area. He notes that painters who worked in the towns poised between France and Flanders, such as Tournai, were trained in the same tradition and continued to exchange ideas through frequent migration.
The essays on the influence of Netherlandish portraiture and landscape on Southern European art repeat familiar facts. Jaques Paviot’s text on Burgundy and the South throws together information on Burgundian court and ceremonial, chivalric literature and southern rulers who bought Flemish arts. Dagmar Eichberger’s discussion of the Habsburg use of Burgundian heritage is a more coherent and intelligent summary. In general, it seems the authors rehashed their research without sufficient coordination of their topics with other contributors or an effort to engage the paintings illustrating their essays and comprising the show.
It would have been much better, in my opinion, for Borchert to commission fewer essays that addressed the relationships between given regions or phenomena and Netherlandish art, thereby exploring the issues raised by the exhibition in greater depth and avoiding undue repetition. After a hundred years of research, it would have been nice to see new ideas and more profound analyses of European cultural exchanges, and less enumeration of examples as the leading mode of discussion. It is also not clear why only the Mediterranean reception of Netherlandish painting was treated, and not that in Germany, England, or the Hansa towns. Nor was there any mention of the contribution of scientific analysis – a vital branch of early Netherlandish painting studies – to our understanding of this material. As beautiful as this volume looks, it seems a bit of a lost opportunity to walk away from this magnificent exhibition with such a limited publication.
Santa Monica, CA