Summer excursions to Antwerp and Norfolk richly repay the effort. In the cathedral of Antwerp and the country house of Robert Walpole, exhibition curators have done their best to put back in their place paintings long removed from their homes.
With the potent presence of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in its streets and monuments, Antwerp always brings you back in time. On my virtual list of cities that once were the greatest in the world, Antwerp occupies a shared position with Madrid for the third quarter of the sixteenth century. The rulers of those cities and their realms who looked at the maps and globes that were being produced for them will not have seen worthy rivals for their economic, commercial and military might anywhere on the newly spheroid planet. For Antwerp, add the element of artistic prominence, which continued to operate down through the lifetime of Peter Paul Rubens, 1577 to 1640. Among the buildings that still emanate a surpassing historical thrill are the cathedral (1352-1521), the town hall (1561-64), the church of Carolus Borromeus (1615-21) and more subtly the interior of the Sint Jacobskerk (1491-1656).
Visiting the city on a rainy day in June, Loekie and I enjoyed an impressive enhancement of the historical environment in two locations, the cathedral and the mansion of the burgomaster and art collector Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640). Rockox’s house in the Keizerstraat was bought in 1970 by the KBC Bank, which maintains it as a museum dedicated to the contribution of burghers to the artistic and collecting environment of Antwerp. This is a very worthwhile aim; the art life of the city from the early seventeenth century became increasingly dependent on wealthy enthusiasts. This is an interesting point for the study of Dutch art well. The hoariest cliché in Dutch art history is that after the Northern Netherlands abolished the aristocracy and the Catholic church, art became an affair of the bourgeoisie. But much the same thing happened in the Southern Netherlands, where aristocracy and church retained their elevated status throughout the ancien régime. Even within the churches, the main donors were Antwerp families. Time for a rethink?
The collection owned by the KBC bank is worthwhile, but not exceptional. Normally, one- or two-day visitors to Antwerp will give it a pass in favor of the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (KMSKA), the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp. What has now happened is that the KMSKA is closed for a long period for major renovation. To keep at least part of the vast collections available in Antwerp, the KMSKA lent to the Rockox House Museum a rich sampling of its treasures, topped by incomparable paintings by Simone Martini, Antonello da Messina, Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling. This is wonderful in itself, having the cream of the KMSKA holdings available in the kind of rich domestic environment where these paintings hung for so many centuries. Adding to the effect is the hanging plan realized by Hildegard Van de Velde of the Rockoxhuis and her associates. Making use of the room-by-room inventory drawn up on Rockox’s death and of paintings of Antwerp collections by Frans Francken the Younger (1581-1642), she installed the KMSKA paintings, with some other loans and works from its own collection, in a form approximating the look of the house and collection in Rockox’s time. All but one – a St. Jerome by Jan van Hemessen, now in a private Antwerp collection – are stand-ins for paintings in the Rockox inventory.
The renovation of the KMSKA created another Antwerp lending opportunity of grand allure. The museum normally houses half of the sixteen surviving altarpieces from Antwerp cathedral, of the sixty that are numbered in a mid-eighteenth century groundplan.
With the museum closed, its eight altarpieces have been moved to the cathedral for display as close as possible to their original locations. In this regard the organizers – the admirable Ria Fabri and Nico VanHout – have had to make a compromise. The church authorities did not wish to mar the current virginal look of the nave.
Rather, then, than hanging the foremost altarpieces on the nave piers which were once their location, within an exclusive enclosure known as a “tuin,” a garden, they have had to retreat to the side aisles, where they nonetheless exercise their magic.
The northern side aisle of Antwerp cathedral, with the altarpieces of the fencers’ guild, Frans Floris’s Battle of the fallen angels, the tailors’ guild, an Adoration of the Magi by Artus Wolffort and more. Photos and markings of groundplan by Gary Schwartz.
Transverse view from the first bay of the northern aisle, between Frans Floris’s Adoration of the shepherds for the gardeners’ guild and his Battle of the fallen angels, onto Wolffort’s Adoration of the Magi and, into the southern crossing, Rubens’s Descent from the Cross, always in the cathedral, but in the context of the exhibition seen in its historical function as the altarpiece for the musketeers’ guild.
The exhibition enriches the visiting experience magnificently, with a display that not only changes the prospect within the great building but also kindles your historical imagination, bringing the artists and their patrons back into a picture that is otherwise often unrevealing. I must admit that I would also have liked to see at least one altarpiece fitted out with its altar, its enclosure and a hint of the main function – a mass for the donors, with music, if included in the endowment – for which the altarpieces were ordered. As presented, the exhibition can be faulted for paying excessive tribute to the art of painting, which already captures so much more cultural territory than it merits in historical terms. This is true of the title of the exhibition as well, From Quentin Metsijs to Peter Paul Rubens: masterpieces from the Royal Museum return to the cathedral. These are scholarly quibbles, though, that fall away in the face of the unique offering – and of the catalogue, with its generous splash of excellent color plates and foldouts of paintings that are so hard to photograph. (Another quibble: I would have appreciated a modern groundplan, with the placing of the altars historically and in the exhibition.)
Initially, the exhibitions in the Rockox House and the cathedral were scheduled to close at the end of 2013. However, work on the KMSKA having gone into overtime, both are open for the indefinite future. Still, don’t wait too long to enjoy this historical thrill.
You will have to be quicker to savor another historical rehanging, across the Channel and up the coast to Norfolk, at stately Houghton Hall, the former demesne of Robert Walpole (1676-1745), one of the greatest art collectors of the eighteenth century. (Originally intended to close on 29 September 2013, the exhibition Houghton revisited has providentially been extended until 24 November.) The present heir to the estate, David Cholmondely, on the advice of curator Thierry Morel, director of the Hermitage Foundation UK, undertook the ambitious aim of bringing back to the house 60 of the old masters that hung there before George Walpole (1730-91), come on hard times, sold them in 1779 to Catherine the Great (1729-96), empress of Russia. The total purchase, including heirlooms from other Walpole houses, comprised no fewer than 204 paintings. There was public outrage at the time over this loss of British treasure, and the hiatus of Houghton Hall left a lasting gap in the national heritage.
Morel writes momentously of Houghton Hall that it “is distinctive for having been designed and built as the setting for an art collection” and of his show Houghton revisited that it is “a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition [that will] transport visitors back to the eighteenth century.” As hyperbolic as they sound, these claims came to life for us on our visit. The hanging had a solid historical basis in the form of drawings made for the purpose after the Walpole paintings were moved from London to the wilds of Norfolk in 1743.
A drawing for the Common Parlour next to a photograph of the hanging for the exhibition shows how close they have been able to come. Above the fireplace, which is in the upper center of the drawing, hangs a portrait by (the German-born, Dutch-trained numero uno of English portraiture) Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) of the (Dutch-born and trained) sculptor and carver Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), who created the surrounding garland of gilded wood around the portrait, the motif of which was imitated in the marble relief decorations of the fireplace. How contextual can you get? The Russian empress may have bought the painting fair and square, but in St. Petersburg its context cannot be more different. “The Hermitage collection of 16th- to 19th-century English painting includes over 450 items and is of particular importance, bearing in mind the rarity of works by English artists in European museums” (from the museum website). One of 450 examples versus a true one of a kind. Of course not every display in Houghton is as stunningly in its place as the Kneller, but that great prize illustrates the spirit in which Walpole built and furnished his house, its appurtenances and its art. It is saddening to think that after November the sheer rightness of this hanging will be undone, and the spell it casts over visitors will never again in our time do its magic.
Behind all three exhibitions is a complex of artistic and historical values that are dear to me. In 1987, upon the invitation of the Swiss Institute for Art History, I wrote an essay with the title “Le musée documentaire: reflections on a database of works mentioned in art treatises and town descriptions before 1800.” (Available on Schwartzlist documents.) There I took a step to recording in a database “the works of art in Europe which are still located on the premises, or owned by the families, for whom they were made.” The immense effort put into the living reconstructions in Antwerp and Norfolk, and the gap between these temporary realities and the ideal that I sketched only goes to show how vital it is to build that database. May it serve as an instrument for the preservation of artistic-historical values where they still exist and for stimulating more projects like these inspiring and moving shows.
© Gary Schwartz 2013. Published on the Schwartzlist on 27 August 2013. The first Schwartzlist column to be offered in WordPress, a move made to gain better control over things and sooner or later to save money. Reactions are more welcome than ever. All will be answered. Gary Schwartz@xs4all.nl.
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