A second volume to the catalogue appears as:
Maximiliaan P. J. Martens, ed., Bruges et la Renaissance. De Memling à Pourbus: Notices [Cat. Exh.] Ghent: Ludion/Flammarion Stichting Kunstboek, 1998. 255 pp, ISBN 90-5544-237-2; also published in Dutch.
Like the coda to a particularly memorable piece of music, south Netherlandish art of the sixteenth century is often described in terms of what it reiterates and looks back to, more than for the qualities it demonstrates in its own right. Bruges, home to such fifteenth-century masters as Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus and Hans Memling, suffers disproportionately from this tendency. Even Gerard David, of whose 40 or so active years 23 were spent in the 1500s, more often gets fit into ‘early’ Netherlandish surveys than ‘later’ ones. It is extremely welcome, valuable and timely, then, that we now have Bruges and the Renaissance: Memling to Pourbus to serve as a basis for future study of this under-appreciated, and often misrepresented period. At the same time, the catalogue effectively points us toward a number of interesting issues, and their accompanying difficulties, that students and scholars will hopefully address in future years.
Published separately in Dutch, French, German and English, this is the first part of a two-volume catalogue issued on the occasion of ‘From Hans Memling to Pieter Pourbus’, an exhibition held jointly at two Bruges venues, the St. John’s Hospital and the Groeningemuseum, during summer/fall 1998. Both volumes are edited by Maximiliaan Martens. In addition to captioned illustrations of the exhibited works, most of them full-page and in colour, this volume contains six introductory essays on different aspects of sixteenth-century Bruges and its art, as well as biographical sketches of the main artists involved and four brief essays on prints, books, sculpture and tapestry, each accompanied by illustrations of the corresponding objects exhibited in the show. A second volume, published in Dutch and French only, contains all catalogue entries, accompanied by thumbnail black-and-white illustrations of the corresponding works, as well as larger comparative and technical illustrations. The two volumes, each with self-contained bibliographies, can function independently, addressing the interests of different readers. But they work most effectively together, as a traditional catalogue. Printing the volumes separately was the result of financial constraints brought on by the unforeseen scope and size of the show (together the catalogues weigh in at almost 600 pages). While this divided format provides certain advantages to those with focused inquiries, both volumes are necessary for anyone wishing to have in front of them colour illustrations of the exhibited works and comparative illustrations while reading the catalogue entries, or for anyone interested in taking in the whole scope of the show. While this review discusses several of the catalogue entries, most of the remarks here will focus on volume one and the broader issues the organizers of the exhibition chose to address.
Reflecting what could be called a general trend in northern European exhibitions, if not exhibitions in general, the catalogue adopts an interdisciplinary approach. Conceived by Martens and Paul Huvenne, both of whom contribute introductory essays, the catalogue draws on the expertise of art historians, curators, archivists, historians, librarians and conservators to draw a broad picture of what Bruges was like in the sixteenth century, and why its art looked the way it did. The six essays, taking up 50 pages of the 319-page volume, move us in three stages from a historiographic analysis of Bruges’ artistic legacy to discussions of the city’s social, economic, religious, and political setting during the sixteenth century, and finally to an extended investigation into the character and legacy of the art itself. As such, they work best when they are read in sequence, each building on the ideas addressed in the previous essay. Till-Holger Borchert discusses the historiography of Early Netherlandish painting, Bruges’ legacy in particular, in ‘The Discovery of Bruges Painting’. Borchert is particularly sensitive to the cultural and national politics that went into determining the course of Netherlandish art history, tracing the contributions made by Belgian, Dutch, English, French, German and Italian art historians and archivists between the mid-sixteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, when Bruges painting became the centrepiece of Belgium’s reclaimed artistic heritage. The author draws well-reasoned attention to the motivations behind each stage in this reclamation process, concluding with a brief discussion of the 1902 Flemish Primitives exhibition, held in Bruges together with a ‘congress’ of art historians and archaeologists. This landmark show, which highlighted the role of fifteenth-century painting to the exclusion of almost all else, is in many ways the model which the 1998 exhibition both commemorates and defines itself against. For it is this exclusionary role in the field of northern Renaissance art that ‘From Memling to Pourbus’, or ‘Beyond Memling’, as it otherwise might have been called, tries to dispel or at least richly amend.
Paul Huvenne’s ‘Bruges: a Solid Image’ is the first of three essays that together reassess the commonly held view of sixteenth-century Bruges as a cultural backwater that fell completely off the map after Spain silted its beloved Zwin river at the end of the previous century. Questioning the very basis for this image, Huvenne reminds us that Bruges was greatly admired in the post-David era, especially for its physical and cultural charms. Though Antwerp did indeed siphon away an increasing degree of the region’s commercial activity, Bruges maintained a strong international reputation, attracting foreign visitors who played a prominent role in generating and spreading its fame. The essay, in fact, sketches an image far better than the ‘solid’ one suggested by its ill-advised translated title. Through florid descriptions and an array of topographical prints and painted or drawn maps, Bruges was frequently cast as the ‘ideal city’, a place whose supreme attributes resulted from a combination of inspired design and hard work. Huvenne’s useful, succinct discussion invites us to adopt a more historically accurate perspective in looking at the works illustrated in the catalogue, though the reader is left to consider certain unexplored but tantalizing possible connections between the historical image of Bruges and its artistic legacy. Should the impressive sixteenth-century maps of Bruges, for instance, be considered a form of municipal propaganda and, if so, how did contemporary viewers interpret their message? Does the city’s status as the ‘Athens of the North’ reflect in any concrete way the use, described by Martens in his essay, of classical motifs in paintings of the period?
In the essay by Wim Blockmans, ‘Fondans en melancolie de povreté: Living and Working in Bruges (1482-1584)’, we are introduced to the economic and political situation in the city. Blockmans focuses on the ambitious public works initiated around the port and the steady ‘smaller scale’ production of the city’s craftsmen to show that period conditions were far better than have generally been assumed, especially by art historians. Though acknowledging the clear drop in commercial activity in Bruges after 1480, the author demonstrates that most financial institutions of the mid sixteenth century operated at a level roughly consistent with the standards set a century earlier. He further points out that craftsmen’s wages were still the highest in the region. The event that served as a turning point in the city’s fortunes was the Triumphal Entry of Archduke Charles, the future Charles V, on April 18, 1515. The citizens of Bruges used it in a clear-minded and politically savvy way to announce a dramatic turn in their fortunes. This essay helpfully encourages art historians to avoid easy economic explanations in accounting for Bruges’ changing artistic fortunes after its early flowering in the fifteenth century.
We are invited to consider alternative factors in ‘Culture and Mentality’ by Noël Geirnaert and Ludo Vandamme, who draw a vivid portrait of Bruges’ cultural, religious and intellectual atmosphere during the period. In discussing Gerard David’s Justice of Cambyses, they suggest that the decade that elapsed between the first record of the commission (late 1480s) and the actual date of at least one of the panels (1498) reflects the municipal government’s change in outlook as it increasingly came to accept imperial rule. This culminated, of course, in the spectacular Entry of Charles V less than two decades later. Geirnaert and Vandamme could have made mention here of the two-part study of David’s justice panels published in Simiolus in 1995 by Hugo van der Velden, whose interpretation neatly dovetails with their own. The authors richly evoke the humanist leanings of Bruges and its citizens, relating the excitement over new subjects in art to the intellectual spirit of the day. They also make interesting observations about the desire for the Arcadian life in Bruges, coinciding as it did with the city’s decline as a trading centre. Finally, a good case is made for the role that Protestantism and interest in religious reform had in changing patterns of artistic patronage. By evoking the lively debates of the period, Geirnaert and Vandamme give life to the cultural atmosphere of the city, which emerges as a vibrant and up-to-date centre of intellec-tual and political thought.
Martens’s contribution, ‘The Dialogue between Artistic Tradition and Renewal’, is the centrepiece of the catalogue, not simply because it is the one essay to focus on the art works in the exhibition but also because it handily refers to issues discussed by the previous authors, demonstrating just how Bruges’ cultural milieu affected and was reflected by artistic practice. Drawing on the economic, intellectual, and religious developments described by Blockmans, Geirnaert and Vandamme, Martens traces the changing trends in artistic production, both thematic and technical, over the course of a century, from Hans Memling’s work in the 1470s to Pieter Pourbus’s in the 1580s. Martens opens with a discussion of Pourbus’s early Triptych with the Baptism of Christ (illustrated in black & white and unfortunately not included in the exhibition because it hangs in an unknown Barcelona collection), described as an ‘homage’ to Memling and Gerard David that conflates images from those two masters into a new, monumental conception. The ‘newness’ here, Martens convincingly argues, has less to do with physical scale and format than with a full integration of classical motifs and a humanist aesthetic, hallmarks of the Renaissance style. It is one of the main goals and achievements of this essay to refute, in the author’s words, “earlier views that the introduction of the Renaissance in the Low Countries merely entailed a meaningless adaptation of Italianizing forms and motifs (p. 48).” By the middle of the sixteenth century, the antique style had become not only a vehicle through which Bruges paid tribute to its Habsburg sovereigns but, as in the case of the Lancelot Blondeel-design-ed fireplace in the Palace of the Brugse Vrije (Franc of Bruges) and Pourbus’s Last Judgement (cat. 95) for the same council chamber, an identifying feature of the city’s administration.
Martens draws on his rich knowledge of Bruges’ private and public institutions in the fifteenth century to make cogent comparisons with the situation in the sixteenth. Guilds, corporations, and fraternities continued to commission works commemorating their patron saints and heroes. The legal proceedings initiated by the goldsmiths against Adriaen Isenbrandt, who had unsatisfactorily followed the guild’s commission to copy an old banner and add ‘antique’ decorations, reflect the tensions that developed between artistic tradition and innovation, as well as how conscientiously professional organizations met the challenge to update their public image. The author emphasizes the role tradition played in determining the iconography, compositions and topographical motifs of painted family altars, small-scale portraits and illuminated manuscripts, suggesting that a different, perhaps slightly more old-fashioned taste governed private art commissions. This is followed by a consideration of collecting and display habits among Bruges’ sixteenth-century elite. We learn about the impressive artistic holdings and domestic layout of an upper-class home in 1548, recorded in an unpublished inventory discovered by Geirnaert and sensitively discussed here by Martens. Whether typical for the period or not, this account provides a usefully concrete image of the type of splendour alluded to in contemporary descriptions.
Martens addresses the design, production and distribution of art in the second half of his essay. In comparison with the situation in fifteenth-century Bruges, foreign patronage became less prominent, though the Spanish community seems to have provided some relief for the declining market. We should be cautious, however, of using earlier models to judge the situation in the sixteenth century. As the author demonstrates, new market forces made speculative production and organized workshop production more influential factors in this era. An instructive review of the 1519-20 dispute between Ambrosius Benson and Gerard David over working materials highlights the importance of workshop models. It further underscores how artists had to stray from traditional practice and adapt to contemporary circumstance to be successful. The underlying message of Martens’s essay, convincingly argued, I think, is that these new standards generated a contemporary style as recognizable and perhaps as admired by buyers and patrons as the works produced in Bruges by Jan van Eyck and his contemporaries a century earlier.
In the final essay of the catalogue, ‘The Diaspora of the Bruges Renaissance’, Dominique Marechal briefly reviews some of the evidence pertaining to native artists who went on to practice in foreign centres. The question of whether an identifiably Bruges ‘style’ can be traced in their work is left open for readers to consider as they peruse the illustrated catalogue of works that follows. The majority of the 251 catalogued works are paintings and drawings (153, or roughly 60%), though the curators have balanced the offerings with books (50 entries), prints (21 entries), sculpture (19 entries), and tapestries (8 entries), a well-chosen, if not historically representative sampling of the highest level of artistic production in Bruges from the beginning of the fourth quarter of the fifteenth century to the beginning of the fourth quarter of the sixteenth. Almost all of the paintings, drawings, sculptures and tapestries are illustrated in full-page colour. Prints and books, though illustrated on a smaller scale and mostly in black and white, are still conveniently viewed. The quality of the illustrations is almost uniformly high and the clearly printed captions, featuring artist, title, date, medium, measurement and collection information, make the catalogue easy to use. The majority of the paintings and drawings are attributed to twenty known artists (including the Master of the Holy Blood); nine are attributed to ‘Anonymous Masters’, almost half of these maps of Bruges and environs (pp. 253-59). Of the four short essays on different artistic media, Ludo Vandamme’s on ‘Books’ is particularly useful and well conceived, offering the reader all the necessary background information with which to appreciated the offerings in the catalogue.
The catalogue entries in volume two are a little more uneven, drawing as they do on the various interests and strengths of nineteen different authors. In general, they provide the reader with clear, sometimes very detailed discussions of the works, as well as up-to-date bibliography and technical information, some of it recorded here for the first time. The exhibition prompted the first study of the underdrawings of the paintings of Lancelot Blondeel (1498-1561), who emerges as one of the most surprising and interesting artists of the show, demonstrating a technical, almost academic mastery in certain underdrawn passages while making extensive use of model drawings and pouncing in others. The most enigmatic artist of the exhibition is Adriaen Isenbrant (c.1480-1551), whose numerous attributed works display heterogeneous styles and dramatic variances in quality. Though the exhibition and catalogue fall short of sorting these differences out, they do allow scholars to approach the artist’s oeuvre in a more enlightened way, encouraging us to take into account the various workshop practices and methods of production cultivated by the sixteenth-century Bruges artists.
It was one of the benefits of the 1998 exhibition and great achievements of the exhibition curators _ Hilde Lobelle-Caluwé, the exhibition coordinator, in particular _ that it brought together works rarely seen and compared by specialists in the field. As in the case of Pourbus’s Triptych, the catalogue will hopefully help in bringing known but untraceable works from the period to light. By representing the highest quality of artistic production in sixteenth-century Bruges and studying it in a multi-faceted and independent way _ not as an extension of fifteenth-century developments _ Bruges and the Renaissance opens up encouraging avenues of inquiry for future students and scholars to follow (some of these are already emerging as the references Martens makes to masters theses underway at Groningen and other universities make clear). The conclusions drawn by Jean Wilson in her bookPainting in Bruges at the Close of the Middle Ages, which was published in 1998, too late for the exhibition’s authors to address, generally confirm the information contained here. Together they argue for a more richly nuanced approach to sixteenth-century Bruges than has previously been undertaken. It is perhaps the most impressive and admirable accomplishment of this catalogue that it clearly and sensitively points us in the direction of the knowledge we should hope to acquire in the future.