My taste in art has long been mostly modern – 20th century, some late 19th – Klimt, Matisse, Cezanne, O’Keeffe, Picasso, Kandinsky. But this recent trip to Bruges has turned that on its head. As luck would have it, the night before we left we happened upon the start of a new BBC4 series, The Renaissance Unchained, written and hosted by art critic and professional eccentric Waldemar Januszczak. The first episode was about the so-called Flemish Primitives of the 15th century, for Januszczak the place where the Renaissance started – that is, not in Italy as has long been believed. (Still available on BBC iplayer, with some clips on YouTube.)
Waldemar, as we call him at home, made a good case for these paintings to be regarded as not so ‘primitive’ but instead as true masterworks. In one segment, he focussed on Jan van Eyck’s Madonna and Child with Canon Joris van der Paele, pointing out the detail that could make the viewer easily distinguish the textures of fur, velvet and lace. Although van Eyck was not the first to use oil, he is credited with having perfected oil painting techniques, mixing powdered colours with egg whites to come up with a concoction that spread more thinly and allowed for a greater variety of colours. These Flemish artists are also noted for breaking away from strictly religious themes and painting the everyday lives of real people.
Some thirty-six hours after watching this programme, there I was at the Groeninge Museum studying this work for myself. Staring at the way the bristles in the carpet opened up over the steps in this magnificent painting, its complexity and visual subtlety transcended me to that place where creativity hinges on spirituality.
At the same time it made me feel ashamed of myself for having scoffed the Renaissance painters for so long. While I can appreciate the craftsmanship of Da Vinci, Botticelli and their ilk, I had tired of Madonnas and their pontificating children and tended to lump Renaissance paintings into a category of over-commercialised art. What’s the old expression – a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing? Mea culpa. I’ve now become an unofficial member of the van Eyck unofficial fan club. I’m also cultivating an appreciation for other artists of this early part of the Renaissance, having seen works at the Groeninge by Memling, Bouts and van der Goes.
While in Bruges, somewhere reading placards in a museum, I discovered an interesting take on the term ‘Flemish Primitives.’ It was derived from the French premier, meaning that these artists were the ‘first’ of
their sort. If true, it’s a shame that this meaning has been lost.