by Roderick Conway Morris

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Koninklijk Museum, Antwerp
Spring, View of Dilbeek by Jan Brusselsmans

The North-South Connection

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 24 May 1997


Italy and the Low Countries gave rise to the two great schools of Renaissance art. Donatello in the south, for example, was active at the same time as Jan van Eyck across the Alps, and Giovanni Bellini was contemporary with Hieronymous Bosch.

Van Eyck, along with his brother, Hubert, were for a long time credited with the invention of oil painting, and Italian artists avidly studied the work of their Flemish and Netherlandish counterparts. At one point Venice even enacted laws to restrict the import of northern works for fear they would damage the sales of locally painted products. Some of the northern artists traveled to Italy and the cross-fertilization of the two traditions lasted into the era of Peter Paul Rubens and beyond.

A permanent legacy of this extended and fruitful exchange is the presence of some superlative Dutch and Flemish Old Master paintings in churches and collections in Genoa, Venice, Rome, Naples and elsewhere.

Since the 18th century the link has been all but broken - with rare exceptions, such as the case of Giorgio de Chirico's direct influence on Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux - and few modern works from the Low Countries have been shown in Italy.

The exhibition of 220 works by 89 artists, at Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal, in 'Flemish and Dutch Painting: From Van Gogh, Ensor, Magritte, Mondrian to Contemporary Artists' (until July 13) is therefore something of an event. The joint curators, Rudi Fuchs of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and Jan Hoet of the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst in Ghent, set out to demonstrate that Dutch and Flemish painting are markedly different and that even the most modem works often refer back to earlier artists within these distinctive traditions in ways that are not always immediately obvious.

Emblematic of this proposed divergence is the pairing at the start of the show of two small 16th-century pieces: 'Portrait of a Young Scholar' by the Dutch artist Jan van Scorel and 'Sodom and Gomorrah Burning' by his near-contemporary Joachim Patinir. These paintings broadly illustrate what Fuchs identifies in an essay in the exhibition catalogue as the more febrile, fantastic tendencies of Flemish art as against 'the tranquil sobriety and clear vision' that 'pervade van Scorel's portrait' and characterize Dutch art in general.

Thereafter, the show is arranged more or less chronologically from the late 19th century to the present day, mixing the works of Dutch and Flemish artists, and punctuated here and there by works from earlier epochs.

It is interesting to be reminded in Hoet's catalogue essay that 'you will not find a single van Gogh in a Belgian museum.' The artist is represented here by nearly a dozen well-chosen canvases emphasizing the variety of his oeuvre, and he emerges effortlessly as the supreme genius of the entire period covered.

James Ensor (1860-1949), a Belgian whose father was English, is represented here by nearly two dozen works. Though a considerable painter, he suffers from being so closely juxtaposed with van Gogh, making Ensor's style appear dated in comparison.

However, several other artists, lesser known or virtually unknown outside their own countries, present themselves as deserving of attention, including the Impressionist painter Jacob Smits, the Expressionists Constant Permeke and Gustave de Smet, the Symbolist Jan Toorop and, later in the show, his daughter, Charley Toorop, a Realist and portraitist.

Belgium's dense population and uncontrolled dormitory-town sprawl has made it, in the uncharitable description of one architect, 'beyond dispute the ugliest country in the world.' This did not prevent Jean Brusselmans (1885-1955) from conveying a hidden beauty in everyday landscapes and interiors that to the casual observer might seem devoid of artistic potential. With a deliberately restricted range of colors, Brusselmans paints unmistakably Belgian scenes that are both startling in their honesty and brilliantly capture the almost hyperrealistic solidity buildings and objects can take on in certain light in the flatlands of the north.

The artist achieved no success until he was about 60, by which time his already abrasive and cantankerous character had been exacerbated by disappointment and the struggle to survive, which left him with few friends and has even militated against the spread of his posthumous reputation. But his large oils 'Spring, View of Dilbeck' and his 'Woman in a Kitchen' reveal him to have been an accomplished and original talent.

One of the final components of the show is a series of the intriguing, recent 'Windows' by the Dutch artist Jan Dibbets. Presented side by side with a panel by Pieter Saenredam (1597- 1665), the Haarlem specialist in painting views of church interiors, the paintings show that Dibbets - who has described Saenredam as 'a 17th-ceritury Mondrian' - has consciously drawn direct inspiration.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024