Historians of Netherlandish Art mourns the death of the great scholar and connoisseur Arnout Balis. A beautiful memorial notice has been jointly posted by the Rubenianum, the Center Rubenianum, and the Rubens house, which you can find here.
Some reminiscences by members of HNA follow.
From Koenraad Jonckheere:
“I first heard about Arnout Balis while studying Art History at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in the late 1990’s. Guy Delmarcel, one of my professors at the time, lauded Arnout in one of his lessons on tapestry as an amazing scholar who had written a truly wonderful master’s thesis(1974) on De jachten van Maximiliaan, Bernard van Orley’s famous tapestry series. His praise of Arnout was such that I always remembered the name.
Now, some twenty years later, I know that Delmarcel’s esteem of Arnout’s qualities, was insufficient even to do justice to versatility of his scholarship. In my mind, Arnout has always been the tapestry specialist, but he was a world-renowned authority on Rubens, on stained glass windows, on connoisseurship, on art theory and so much more. He was an artist as well, a master of papier-maché. Arnout was the colleague you listened to, and kept on listening to, as he talked about tapestry, stained glass windows, connoisseurship, or any aspect of Peter Paul Rubens, his life-long project. Talking to Arnout was always a thrill: he habitually wore a couple of shirts, a bic ballpoint in his breast pocket, and scribbled away in his bloc-notebook, thinking and drawing and writing about what he saw. Big letters and explanatory schemes filled page after page, as he elucidated various topics, not least the complexities of Rubens’ notebook, or the problems of underdrawing, or the many other things about which he was so passionate about. He was a man of intelligence, sincerity, authenticity.
Last week, when I learned about Arnout’s untimely death, I went out to buy a bloc-notebook and a bic. I put them on my desk and thought about him. His publications are ranged across the bookshelves behind me, but what’s missing are his inspiring ideas, his original insights. The bloc-note sits blank as I mourn his loss.”
From Larry Silver:
“Arnout was a good friend as well as an esteemed colleague, and he had so much more to offer. I think first in terms of the Rubens volumes he selflessly and rigorously edited—and always improved—making these volumes the best that they could be. I also know how long he labored, as a perfectionist and tireless researcher, on the Rubens notebook publication. I very much hope that it can be published as a posthumous tribute (I am certain that it is in good shape among his papers, though I also know how much Arnout kept in his head).
When I met Arnout in Belgium, he showed me the best that Ghent had to offer, including a tiny chocolatier near his apartment that I could never have found alone. For many years he was almost impossible to reach from abroad; he did not keep a telephone at home, and he came very late to email. So I did not get to contact him as much as I would like. We always had wonderful conversations, often at favorite beer places in Brussels, Antwerp, or Ghent, and sometimes he would tease me about ideas he had about my Massys material, without telling me his secrets.
Arnout was also wonderful with his hands, making papier-maché objects; I still treasure one that he gave me as a caricature bust of Emperor Maximilian after my book on him came out. We stayed at each other’s homes and shared relaxed and friendly conversations about Flemish art but also about each other’s worlds. How I miss having those talks, far too few, now silenced.
I was also friends with Carl van de Velde, whom the Rubenianum has also lost, and I suppose that I am at an age where one can expect to lose colleagues and friends in our shared field. But this loss hurts the most, because it was personal, so premature, and so unexpected.”
From Kristin Belkin:
“When Arnout was at the IFA, which must have been in the later 1980s, he used to spend many weekends with us in New Jersey. He was very practical and helped Nick with putting up sheetrock in the 3rd-floor conversion and with applying special gold paint on our gilded mirrors and ceiling roses in the living rooms, which we still haven’t touched since then. In the evenings, however, we often played charades, especially when we had other guests, mostly art historians. The children must have been around 10/11 and were very much into charades. By the way, he had a great relationship with them, played piano with Anna, and was really interested in what they were doing.
Anyhow, after we had run out of the usual famous books, movies, or songs, Paul and Anna had the brilliant idea of going to my study to select art history titles. Arnout had the unfortunate luck to pull out of the hat John White’s Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space. I’ll never forget his extremely realistic performance of childbirth while moaning prostrate on the floor. It didn’t take the audience (mostly other art historians) long to guess the title, and he never had to act the “pictorial space” part. I am sure he would have managed that as well, however difficult.
We will all remember him so fondly and miss him so much.”