Last Saturday, the day I went to Autoworld Brussels, my first stop was Jubelparkmuseum Musée du Cinquantenaire in the EU east of the city. Walk, Metro, either way about 45 minutes, unless like me I read my hand-drawn map wrong and veer somewhere elsewards. The museum is a typical mix of archaeological, antiquities, the spoils of Great Game era colonialism, and a grab-bag of medieval stuff, an uneasy jumble of art/non-art that demonstrates through this collision fundamental issues around art, history, colonialism, orientalism, and what constitutes ‘Europe’ in all this.
Hans said to me yesterday many museums suffer under federalism because they are funded equally from the Flemish and Walloon communities, who each try to undermine the other, resulting in splendours for the visitor such as really dirty glass cases, and a general apathy not befitting the quality of the works. The museum also claims to have one of the biggest collections of wooden retables in the world. Wrocłow still has the best. The tapestry collection here is well fine though (when not obscured by miscellaneous junk in front).
I was thinking after I’d been in Autoworld that museums such as Cinquantenaire suffer from perceived stodginess. Even those who have no idea car museums exist can imagine what a car museum might hold, and appealing to that is quite straightforward: Lots of fucking mental autos plus educated nods to the petrolhead set, and plenty of extras to make it a whole experience. Far too many museums have no idea mediæval art is fucking mental, let alone how to create “Museum of Fucking Mental Mediæval Art.” Cinquantenaire Museum is firmly in the ‘no idea’ camp.
It starts well enough, with some Eastern Christianity works, sadly walled behind glass plus glarey light. It was miserable to see so much of the collection behind glass, altarpieces, retables, sculptures, all behind the smudged, streaked mess. Normally, by the time I’m at this stage of writing, I’ve organised the couple of hundred images (I photograph the caption also, so only around 2/3rds are actually artworks), edited the ones I want to blog, made a selection from those, looked at them all together many times, and I have a feeling for the museum, the collections’ coherency, the sense of it. I’m looking at the 67 images here and going, “yeaaah … it’s a little … patchy …” There isn’t a good flow through the works. It jumps incoherently between tapestries, altarpieces, retable fragments, small works in stone and ivory, back and forth across the middle ages from the usual 12th-14th centuries to the 8th, no real solid core to any, just a lot of, “Here’s a thing. Here’s another thing,” and suddenly it’s in the Baroque and then it’s all over.
Which is not to say there aren’t beautiful pieces. The small pieces from 13th-15th century England, Graflegging van Christus, Kroning van Maria, Sint-Janshoofd op schotel, are all gorgeous, as are the many wooden sculptures of Mary, Magdalena, Saints Barbara, Anna, Sedes Sapientiae. The tapestries are an overwhelming delight, yeah and let’s be clear here, they’re art made by women. And they were a beast to photograph, being mostly several metres on the long side, which is why Taferelen uit de Passie has only closeup images.
A peculiar absence for me was the black Magi, and Saint Mauritius. The latter I think is more a central northern Germanic Europe thing, so I’d expect to see it in Germany, Poland, maybe Czech, Austria, Switzerland, maybe Denmark and possibly in Sweden. I would though expect to see other representations in Belgium, given the mediæval trade ports like Brugge and Antwerp, but nope, not in this museum. The representation of the Magi Balthazar as a young black male I did however expect to see far more of than was here. Perhaps I’m used to it now, but whenever I’m in a museum looking at mediæval art, it’s the absences which make me curious, because in Germanic Europe at least, the default is presence.
There were only a couple, Heilige vrouw en soldaat van een kruisiging, a fragment of a retable; the large altarpieces Passieretabel van Oplinter and Retable van Pailhe both of which had a small black Magi in the bottom, right corner, the usual location, though both of these felt unconsidered compared to the representations I’ve seen elsewhere. I was getting a little uncertain, was this presence specifically Germanic, or was the absence the choice of the collection curators? Then I saw the massive wall tapestry, De triomf van Aurelianus, and there, on the far right, a brown-skinned guy with gold earrings, curly dark hair, one of the only ones dressed in resplendent blue, wielding a thick chain with a scowling lion on the end. So, yup, significantly here also in the history of Belgium, even if on the sparse side in the museum.
Going up the stairs I find a really odd object, an entirely white retable, over 5 metres long and 2 1/2 high. In the first section to the right of the centrepiece is Mary and child with the three holy Magi, and the one on the right, as white as all the others, is definitely a black Balthazar. Further up the stairs is an explanation: The original Afgietsel van het Mariaretabel van de Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk van Lombeek, was made in Brussels in 1512-16 in wood; it was cast (from a gelatine mould in plaster) by the Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis in Brussels in 1892. Many retables were originally painted quite brilliantly, so it’s possible the white plaster could have also been intended to be painted. The white though is something remarkable.
Up the stairs more to the mezzanine and I see what I keep thinking of as, “All Aboard the WTF Sleigh” sleigh. A baroque (sometime in the 18th century from what I’ve managed to read) sleigh, with a life-size black archer, bow in left hand, right reaching over his shoulder for an arrow (the quiver now empty); a red, green, and gold crown of feathers on his head, and naked, muscular torso merging into a similar skirt of feathers which become the body of the sleigh. From his ears hang pendulous gold earrings; around his neck is painted a delicate chain of gold balls; the bronze strap of the quiver cuts diagonally across his torso. His skin is painted a uniform, satin black, lips bright crimson.
I found it, him, difficult to photograph and every time I look at the photos I feel that again. He looks like a real person, the musculature, position, the way his stomach below his navel sticks out, the expression on his face and in his eyes as I moved around him. There’s a brutality in the work that goes completely unsaid in the caption (which I forgot to photograph), the history of Belgium, of slavery, of its colonies in the Congo—even though this sleigh predates the latter—this absence of context on the part of museums, particularly for a work such as this, is what troubles me the most in my visits, and what makes photographing and documenting an unsetting process. Whoever this person—and others like him—was, I’m trying to not do more violence to him when I take these photos. Perhaps I’m overly anthropomorphising a sleigh, or being vacuously sentimental, but in every museum, there’s at least one person like him, the subject, where it feels like there is no distance between then and now.
Back down the stairs, or off somewhere else, and into the Baroque. Mostly furniture and other objects, not so much art. In one of the last rooms, five huge watercolour on canvas works, De Vijf Zintuigen, one of those Chinoiserie orientalism pieces from the late-18th century. Each of the five ‘exotically inspired compositions’ (the museum’s words), is full of Chinese (possibly southern-China, though there was a Belgian colony later in Tianjin) in classical dress smoking long pipes, tropical vegetation, even a sitting Buddha, and pale Europeans lounging around and being served.
I’d planned to go to a third museum that day, but decided instead to only go as far as Autoworld. A good combination somehow: for the moment I can regard my hooning in a relatively uncritical light. So, Cinquantenaire Museum. Probably not worth seeing unless you really have a need to (though I didn’t see any of the Asian, Tibetan, Islamic, and so on collections), or are also going to split your day between there and Autoworld and lying around in the park. It could be an excellent museum, unfortunately it’s about in the middle of the typically low standard of way too many museums in Europe.