On a recent visit to the Groeninge Museum in Bruges, I found myself most fascinated of all by the sub-plot to be found running beneath a collection of art that spans a broad history of Flemish painting from van Eyck to early twentieth century Expressionists.
Perhaps because so much of this wasn’t really ‘my kind of art’, my eye wandered off on a trip behind the scenes, on a trail of snails on walls and other creatures peeking from the sidelines, of symbols, domestic comedies and antics in trees.
Facial expressions often spoke a thousand words – such as the softly-honest gaze of a girl tucked beneath the arm of her stiffly-poised mother, whose own turned-away gaze suggests that her own perspective has become somewhat more jaded with the passage of time. Or another, posed with father and sister (left – click to zoom), trussed up in marriage-ready clothes that seem altogether too prim, too tight, too pristine and constraining for the little girl still shining behind those eyes, trying so hard to be the woman she is now expected to be.
I also found the painter in me was held most riveted by the peripheral details such as reflections in domestic objects or details on clothing. The perfectly executed embroidery on this chiffon sleeve and another lace detail close by had me standing there for far longer than almost anything I saw that morning, learning my painter’s technique; then the sheen on this pot – depicted in pastels, did the same. Its quite incredible how the conundrum of ‘how’ to achieve an effect, to the artist, can be solved in almost an instant when confronted with the close-up brushstrokes of another who is master at it; a reminder of how useful it can be to visit art galleries, and to keep visiting them as regular practice.
And everywhere in those backgrounds and sub-plots it was dogs dogs dogs – testament to the fact that, whilst fashion and preoccupations may have altered beyond recognition, man’s best friend really hasn’t and that, even several hundred years ago, he was just as likely to sit with his gaze fixedly set upon the food on the table as my own four-legged back home.
This startlingly red-headed Judas (right) piqued my curiosity in a way that another Judas, tripped upon the next day in one of Bruges’ churches, developed further in my mind as I had noticed, but not really given much attention to, this presumed characteristic of Judas so often depicted in early works of art. An artistic device apparently used to make Judas stand out from the other disciples and also, I read, to enhance the matter of him ‘seeming untrustworthy’, I couldn’t help pondering the damage this had done to the way redheads have been perceived and treated over the years and, yes, there is indeed a long cultural history of this stigma having ‘stuck’; even Shakespeare referred to red hair as ‘Judas colour’ (oh the power of art). Interesting, then, to turn a corner and find Gustave Van De Woestijne’s incredible ‘Last Supper’, painted in 1927, in which Jesus, Judas and at least one other disciple are depicted as sporting red hair, which marks an interesting turn-table (and something redressed? did the artist have a point to make?) when it comes to that old, worn-out device. His impressive body of work is certainly described as being made up of some ‘daring contradictions’ (and, as an artist who often dealt with the themes of loneliness and marginalisation, he certainly knew what those things felt like). Through the art of a hundred years ago, it seems, an old stuck idea and a whole cultural belief system was finally challenged – bravo. It seems, the rooms of the Groeninge and the juxtaposition of two paintings had unwittingly walked me through a much broader story of humanity and brought me to its reconciliation.
So much detail and colour, so much ‘happening’ in all this art yet my favourite piece – or at least, the one I would have taken home – was ‘Night in Venice’ by William Degouve de Nuncques, a study that was so dark and indistinct (hardly any more to reveal than this photograph shows) and yet it was unmistakably Venice from even twenty paces away. So little assertion of colour and form to capture something so instantly recognisable, right down to the very atmosphere of the place; the dark, dank mystery and something unforgettable about how the buildings shine through the murk – now that takes some painting!
In the final gallery space, Henri Victor Wolvens’ huge painting of a beach caught my eye and had me mostly fascinated by the brushwork and how his use of paint, often scraped back and revealing canvas texture (click to enlarge), had achieved the effect of distant figures on the sands. It was only later that I drew the connection with another work of art that I had had my nose closely pressed against that very morning, in another gallery in Bruges, where a painting by Ronald Dupont, also of a beach, had held me fixed to the spot for a very long time scrutinising the artist’s technique in more than a little bit of awe (if you click the image, right, this will take you to the gallery website for a close-up; photographic from afar, Dupont’s brushstrokes are far from pristine up close). By coincidence, it seems, two beaches teeming with as many subplots as there are people, and with at least half a century between them, had caught my eye that morning. The staggering evolution in technique, without slipping back into the pristine, somewhat wooden compositions and brushstrokes of old, rings out between them and excites me as a painter with places still ‘to go’ in my own painting journey. This feels like good evidence of the continuity of the painting tradition and with every sign that it still has (many) places to travel, is far from ‘dead’ as a medium (as some people still try to insist), even while the preoccupations have changed – almost – beyond recognition.
For more on Gustave Van De Woestijne, this is an article about a retrospective of his work. Did he have red hair? Hard to tell from his photograph but not hard to imagine. Another blacklisted ‘character’ often depicted as having red hair was, of course, Mary Magdalene – though by the time the PreRaphaelites had ‘done their thing’ by making this hair colour synonymous with all that was romantic, this feature only contributed to all the mystery and magic associated with her – another table turned.
For examples of work by Ronald Dupont, follow the link to his website – in Bruges, it seems, I discovered a contemporary painter who truly inspires and excites me and I will be following his work!