Who doesn’t love a great mystery? More important, who doesn’t love trying to solve one? This is precisely what Stephan Kemperdick and Jochen Sander have set out to do in the exhibition “Der Meister von Flémalle und Rogier van der Weyden” and its accompanying catalogue.
As clearly stated by the co-curators, the task at hand was to answer the following questions:
- Who was the so-called “Master of Flémalle?”
- What might his identity have been in relationship to any documented artist of the fifteenth century (e.g. Robert Campin of Tournai)?
- What role did Campin’s documented assistant Rogier van der Weyden play in the production of panel paintings attributed to the Flémalle-Campin group?
While these may appear to be fairly simple questions, this puzzle has vexed art historians for more than 150 years. It is still fiercely debated today.
As an exhibition, “Der Meister von Flémalle und Rogier van der Weyden” offered viewers an unprecedented opportunity to examine and compare directly more than 50 panels from the Flémalle-Campin-Daret-Van der Weyden circle. Many of these panels have never traveled before to an exhibition. Some, like Jacques Daret’s four surviving panels from the Arras Altarpiece of 1433-35, have been reunited for the first time in hundreds of years. Others, such as the Städel Museum’s jewel-like Medici Madonna, were cleaned and conserved in preparation for the exhibition tour. The Frankfurt installation focused on panels attributed to the “Master of Flémalle” (or Robert Campin), including the rarely lent Mérode Triptych. The Berlin installation turned the spotlight on panels attributed to Rogier van der Weyden, where his Miraflores Triptych was a star attraction. Paintings that were limited to a single venue are duly noted in the catalogue.
In the accompanying publication, Kemperdick and Sander share responsibility for the majority of the introductory essays. Sander deftly encapsulates the historical and political moment that gave rise to, and helped define, the ars nova. Kemperdick tackles the daunting task of summarizing the written sources, as well as reviewing the current state of knowledge regarding workshop methods in the fifteenth century. Additional contributions, on pre-Flémallesque paintings and problems of iconographic interpretation, are made by exhibition assistants Antje-Fee Köllermann (Netherlandish Painting before the Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden) and Bastian Eclercy (On Mousetraps and Firescreens: The Problem of “Disguised Symbolism” in Early Netherlandish Painting). Kemperdick and Sander join forces in their final Résumé to draw together a coherent picture of the problem, based on the evidence at hand. True to their stated intentions, the authors present their findings in an objective way, saving specific hypotheses of attribution for the catalogue entries.
As a supplement to the catalogue essays, Peter Klein provides an extensive report on dendrochronological data to support the proposed dating of several panels. In only a few cases, however, do the authors include the results of other technical methods such as infrared reflectography or X-radiography to address questions related to the construction, under-drawing, and under-painting of these panels. This is both regrettable and surprising, as these techniques have been widely accepted as essential tools of connoisseurship studies for more than forty years.
Catalogue entries are divided primarily between the two co-curators, with a few entries written by Köllermann. With the exception of the documented works of Jacques Daret and one other panel given here to him, the remaining attributions are divided between the “Master of Flémalle” and Rogier van der Weyden only, or, in some cases, assigned to the workshops of each. Here, the curators explain, the term “Master of Flémalle” is not intended to reflect the name of a real person, but only to a specific group of works in the “Flémalle Group” whose authorship is debated. It is significant to note that in no case is any panel attributed to Robert Campin. Like the introductory essays, catalogue entries are equally thorough in their detail and documentation, and while some of the attributions are quite ambitious, others are easier to accept.
Printed on deluxe paper, the 400+ page volume includes more that 200 illustrations, nearly all of which are reproduced in color. The quality of illustrations is consistently high throughout the volume, and the reader is frequently rewarded with breathtaking double-page enlargements of the minutest details. Allowing for individual stylistic variations of nine translators, the English text is generally lucid and agreeable. Footnotes for each essay and catalogue entry are extensive and detailed. A remarkably comprehensive bibliography provides the specialist scholar with seemingly endless opportunities for further research. As expected from a project led by this team of scholars, the publication represents the highest level of scholarly erudition. Throughout the volume, text, data, and documentary sources are presented in exhaustive detail, with careful attention given to cross-references within the text. Unfortunately, the volume lacks a glossary of technical terms, which would help to make it more fully accessible to the interested general reader.
While it is unlikely that the exhibition and its accompanying publication present the final solution to the Flémalle-Campin-Van der Weyden puzzle, The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden makes a significant contribution to our expanding knowledge base about these enigmatic masters and encourages a new appreciation for their surviving works. Above all, the project has given us the unprecedented opportunity to spend time comparing, absorbing, and appreciating some of the most beautiful panel paintings ever produced.
Nancy E. Zinn
The Walters Art Museum