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Historiska museet — A Small But Beautiful Update

I’m very remiss in this.

When I was in Stockholm, I sprinted off one morning to the beautiful Historiska museet to perv at mediæval art—as I do in every city I visit. (If I worked with written contracts, it’d be a line somewhere around Per diems: “Plus n hours free on x half-day(s) for perving at mediæval art museums” (where n = (number of pervable museums * 3) + travel time. I can get through a museum in 90 minutes if I have to, but who’d want to?)

Three of the works didn’t have captions, not so uncommon an occurrence, especially seeing this museum had just had its collection restored. Back in Berlin, I emailed off into oblivion. To be honest, I don’t expect to get a reply when I have to email museums, their average comprehension of social networks and Teh Interwebtubez is sitting around 1998. Not so with Historiska museet!

Woah! They have a new website since last time! OMG! Look. At. It! Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, look at that! … wait! They have a new blog too! (SMB have a quite good archival website, but their website isn’t the easiest to slide around, and as for Twitter… so a new blog is a good start.) OK getting sidetracked here.

The Senior Curator of the Department of Cultural History and Collections emails me not just the names of the three missing works, but details and links and attachments. I’m reading and clicking and … wow. I’m just gonna quote here:

The piece in your photos number 56-60 is the altarpiece from Jonsberg church in the province of Östergötland, dated to 1500-1525 and produced in an Antwerpen workshop; there are more images here: Medeltidens bildvärld, though unfortunately no information in English. Enclosed, you will find some more information in English about this particular piece.

The altarpiece in photograph number 61 is from Vada church in the province of Uppland, probably produced in a workshop active in the Mälar region in the first quarter of the 16th century. The wings are currently displayed in another gallery – the one where you saw the small devotional in photo 69. More pictures here: Medeltidens bldvärld. The heraldic armour of Gunhild Johansdotter (Bese) and her husband Erik Turesson (Bielke) is prominently displayed in the corpus, they were landowning nobility with strong ties to the parish and donated the piece to Vada church.

The third piece – photos 62 & 63 – is from Lofta church in the region of Småland (pictures here: Medeltidens bildvärld). As the piece from Jonsberg, this was produced in an Antwerpen workshop. Towards the end of the 15th century, the Netherlandish altarpieces became increasingly popular, competing with the German workshops. The piece from Lofta has a Marian theme, with the central scene being the death of Mary.

And then there’s the attached pages on the first Jonsberg altar—which is one of the most superb pieces I’ve ever seen, massive, almost 3 metres high and 2 1/2 wide, with 108 figures worked in oak into glorious movement (“…in 13 Passion and childhood scenes, together with 8 lesser tableaux relating to the sacraments of the Church.”)—and I’m reading through when it I come to Adoration of the Magi … Caspar … Melchior—I’m thinking, “I don’t remember an Adoration of the Magi”, so I go to Medeltidens bildvärld and it’s a real Holy Fuck! moment, cos there he is, Balthasar himself. Dunno how I didn’t see him, but added below also. And here’s the text: The Altarpiece from Jonsberg (.pdf), really worth reading.

I’m not sure about mentioning names, but Elisabet Regner, you are amazing! Your museum is beautiful (& I only saw the mediæval stuff), and thank you so much for your detailed answer.

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Bode-Museum: Sammlerglück. Meisterwerke der Sammlung Marks-Thomée

Last Tuesday, I took the day off, went climbing in the morning, waited for the rain to stop, spent the late-afternoon with Dasniya, and in-between went to one of my favourite museums, the Bode-Museum on Museumsinsel. The Bode was the first museum I went to, when I began my museum pilgrimage at the end of 2013, prior to my head-over-heels into mediæval art. Back then, I was trying to get into the Pergamon or somewhere on a Sunday, Totally queued out. I wandered up to the Bode; no idea what I was getting into, thinking myself so damn special for finding the one Sunday museum without a queue. Then I saw all the religious bollocks. Much disappointment. I’ve been back four times now. Religious bollocks. I can’t get enough of it.

I was going this time especially for the temporary exhibition, Sammlerglück. Meisterwerke der Sammlung Marks-Thomée, more of that mediæval religious stuff. Of course I made a round through the Northern European and Germanic stuff. I have a feeling they’ve changed some of this, not that it matters, I find new stuff every time, fall in love with a different piece. I was also going as a kind of “Fuck you” to Der Spiegel and the crap of their hatchet-piece, Why Berlin Is the Most Boring Museum City in the World. If I ever get back to serious blogging, I’ll go the hack on that, but as the wonderful people from Stockholm’s Historiska museet said (paraphrasing here), these collections are comparable to the major, internationally known ones, it’s just that mediæval art is not as easily to access as say, Italian Renaissance Masters or the Dutch Masters, or Impressionists, or … I mean, look at me, 18 months ago I was all sadface on my first visit to the Bode; now I schlepp to other cities and countries to gawp at the mediæval stuff.

Some of that Spiegel piece did touch on pertinent issues, which for me are questions of context, and accessibility. The latter first. I heard about the exhibition from a couple of places, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin mailing list, Museumsportal Berlin. Outside and in the main foyer were three large banners, one each for the Ein Gott (disappointing), Das verschwundene Museum (beautiful and poignant), and Sammlerglück. Then there’s only two banners. Where’s Sammlerglück? Fuck knows. For a long while I thought maybe it was a ruse to get people into the permanent collection, but then I found it near the East Wing entrance. Accessibility. This is something SMB is capable of, which they so often slip up on in small yet important ways.

Context, then. I’m thinking of Historiska museet, and Muzeum Nardowe we Wrocławiu (fucking brilliant, one of the absolute best), and wondering for SMB if it’s to do with, “Well, the Gemäldegalerie is for painting, so we’ll put sculpture in the Bode,” so you get altarpieces with paintings on the wings in one place and altarpieces with sculpture around the frame in the opposite because no one can really decide where the objects that are mixes of both belong. Then you get a small handful of Byzantine works that could probably go in the Altes Museum, because they pretty much belong in the Antikensammlung, leaving more room for paintings (harhar) on loan from the Gemäldegalerie. There’s a lack of conceptual overview of what each museum is, what each collection is (i.e. where one bleeds into another), whether to group works by region or era or type that makes a bit of a mess of what are nonetheless—in the Bode-Museum and Gemäldegalerie—incredibly beautiful and rich collections. It makes what’s on display poorer also.

If I had my way with the Bode, I’d shift all the non-Northern European stuff out, and all the Byzantine, anything pre- say, 9th century or so. I’d plunder the Gemäldegalerie for all those glorious works, raid the SMB’s archives for any and everything, raid the Kupferstichkabinett also (which is pretty much inaccessible anyway) for works on paper, and throw down on Wrocław and Stockholm. I’d put together works from the masters of Lübeck, works of the era of pilgrimages, of Bynums, works documenting the very specific representation of St. Mauritius as a black African which came out of these regions, of Magdeburg, of the northern trade of artworks with Sweden, of the north-south and east-west routes which meet in the swampy plains of eastern Germany, all of this history that the museum is more than capable of exhibiting, which for whatever reason I learnt more about from a trip to Stockholm than I have from Berlin’s museums.

Then I’d get lighting and exhibition designers who know you don’t bounce harsh fucking light on lacquered paintings into the eyes of visitors, nor do you put them opposite windows, and who know how to use non-reflective glass for works that can’t be left naked. I had a few hissy fits in the Sammlerglück exhibition over this, some of the works were simply not possible to view from anything less that 45º off to one side. And follow all that with masses of information on walls and beside the works (yes, and those SMB audio guides) so you’re sweating with the magnificence of it all.

Anyway, the Sammlerglück exhibition! Strange and rare thing that it is. It’s the private collection of a Westphalian politician from the early 20th century, Fritz Thomée. He started with mediæval art, became friends with the director (and his assistant) of the museum, Wilhelm von Bode, expanded into Italian, Renaissance, and other art (not the collection’s strong point), even picked up some Asian pieces. There’s a large photo of him at the start of the exhbition, sitting in an armchair, smoking, his house full of bits of altarpieces, retables, old stuff. It’s dead strange.

There’s a lot of exceptional work—mostly small scale—in the one large room of the exhibition. It’s mostly presented with care and attention, and looks beautiful. I ended up photographing almost all of the 90-ish pieces (exceptions being a few pieces that were destroyed by glare or glass) because it might be once this closes, they won’t be easily seen again, and together they do make a very fine collection.

Imagine the whole Bode museum like this, it’d be utterly fucking sublime.

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Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum

The last of the Brussels museums. I visited the Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum the same day as I romped through the Musée Oldmasters Museum, the day after I’d been to Jubelparkmuseum / Musée du Cinquantenaire and Autoworld Brussels. Four museums in a weekend, no wonder it’s taken me almost two weeks to get through them all.

From the airy natural light of the Oldmasters Museum, it was along, down, around, down some more, turn some corners, past some more art, ricochet off the gates of the Chagall exhibition, more stairs. Sort of how the Gründerzeit of the Zeughaus unfolds into the 21st century of I. M. Pei’s Deutsches Historisches Museum extension. Or something like Daniel Liebeskind’s Jüdisches Museum Berlin. Lots of angles. Kinda dim also. Dim with blobs of light. Or occasionally shards of natural light, in whose line delicate paintings were placed rendering them unviewable from the usual position art is viewed from.

Yes, I’m on my regular hate paragraph about shithouse lighting in museums. I actually noticed it when Medieval POC reblogged one of the works from Oldmasters Museum and I was horrified at how shoddy it looked, especially as I’d spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to unshoddify it. The orb of blue glare was strong in the upper parts of too many works in Brussels. But Henri Evenepoel’s De annkondiging van het negerfest te Blida which suffered from the ridiculous, “Let’s place a work that’s generally quite muted and dark, with figures who have dark skin, where all the details are in variations of dark tones, let’s place this work, covered with a pane of glass, in the one place on the entire floor where direct, natural exterior light will bounce off it and into the viewer’s eyes.” Did no one stop to think, “Nah, crap idea”? Obviously not. I photographed it from around a 45º angle to the left, underexposed it hugely, and photoshopped the crap out of it.

Ooievaars by Louis Dubois was also in a dim, obscure location. I guess it looked something like this. It was one of my favourites, brooding, eerie, entirely untrustworthy. I don’t think anyone meeting a gang of fowl like that would come out the other side of the swamp intact.

There were a lot—in fact probably one of the two main themes in the museum—of paintings of poverty, poor migrant workers, farmers, exhausted labourers at work or stumbling to and from the factories, single women working alone in ill-lit rooms. Léon Frederic’s triptych De krijtverkopers was one of the strongest, muted colours, lack of contrast, general hopelessness, the expression of the girl in the centre of the middle panel looking out directly at the viewer is incalculably grim.

The other main theme: women alone in similar situations, or in ateliers, or straight portraits. Maybe it was where my attention went. James Ensor’s Een coloriste, Portret van Marguerite Khnopff by Fernand Knopff, Henri Fantin-Latour’s De tekenles in het atelier. If anything marked fin-de-siècle art besides mysticism and romanticism, it’s this acutely political work.

Speaking of mysticism, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’ De bruidsstoet van Psyche struck me as the endgame of whiteness in European art. Go back through the museum and there’s works of orientalism in various forms; go back through the history of art and people who aren’t excruciatingly white are regular occurrences. This Pre-Raphaelite piece though pushes skin colour to a particular, uniform monotony (something I do see in the movement’s inspiration, Italian Quattrocento). They’re all exactly the same light tone, all also besides their hair colour have identical faces. I wanted to include it here because it spoke to me so clearly of this complete erasure, and the European fantasy of the pure white woman.

Just after, an utter treat for me: a whole corridor devoted to opera in Brussels, starting with and dominated by Wagner and Parsifal. The staging from Act II, Klingsor’s enchanted castle where the Flowermaidens attempt to seduce Parsifal, where Kundry emerges to face him. This scenography for the Belgian Première, all hot reds, oranges, yellows, looks completely modern, also for the empty blackness of the door, almost a signifier of Amfortas’ wound. Next to this, a commemorative book with Wagner’s profile on the frontispiece. Then the restaurant menu, Parsifal mounted on a horse, Klingsor’s cloud-wrapped castle hanging in the distance. And two large bronze coins, one with the Holy Grail, the other with the dancing Flowermaidens. On the wall behind all this, posters for the premiere, and for other Wagner operas staged in La Monnaie De Munt.

Three other paintings: Théo Van Rysselberghe’s Arabische fantasia. Dumb name for awesome painting. The right half mostly empty sand, a man with a long rifle riding a chestnut horse with white facial blaze. He’s in orange robes and light yellow turban, pulling the horse in, his rifle smoking, mouth open, eyes looking left and down. Behind him a mounted quintet in white all brandishing similar rifles. The thin border on the right is populated with a standing crowd of which two boys stand out. The triangle on the left is full with riders watching the scene, on horses with vermillion harnesses. One in white leans back, his bare arm supporting his weight on his horse’s grey back. Behind him, another rider in grey-blue robes looks out into the viewer’s eyes. Behind all, a white walled city blocks the horizon in a low line, above that, intense blue sky. The painting is from the artist’s second trip to Morocco in 1883/4. All the riders and audience are North African, arabic, muslim.

Then two by Henri Evenepoel, De annkondiging van het negerfest te Blida (the horribly lit one), and next to it, Sinaasappelmarkt te Blida, both from the artist’s time in Algeria in 1898.They’re substantially different to Arabische fantasia, brushwork less detailed, blocks of moving colour Fauvist rather than realism and light of Rysselberghe. Thematically also they’re more intimate, smaller, a corner in a market alley, the market itself, but mostly obscured by the figures in the foreground.

Completely opposite this these three works are three by Guillaume Vogels, all dour, grey, winter Belgium realism, skeletal, leafless trees, snow, light only through clouds and low on the horizon, everything a formless, inexact mash. I loved these also, as unique as the harsh light and colour of North Africa.

Lastly, Xavier Mellery’s La danse. I’m not sure what to make of it, it’s kinda ugly, the solid gold background, the female dancers somewhere between dark-skinned and in shadow, but not quite either, moving and jumping yet not quite either, for such a scene of movement it’s annoyingly concrete and unmoving.

And 293 images later (plus another score with Hans and in the theatre) that’s the end of four museums on a weekend in Brussels.

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Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België — Musée Oldmasters Museum

Last Sunday, I went to the Musée Oldmasters Museum in the Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België / Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels. It’s one of four in the building on Regentschapsstraat/Rue de la Régence, and a combi ticket gets you into this one, Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum, Musée Modern Museum, and Musée Magritte Museum. I was here for the first two, and a quick look into the third for the Jan Fabre stuff. Magritte? They kinda insisted I go, so ok, I go.

I’ve never liked Magritte. I find his stuff tedious and insipid, exemplary only of the twee French purgatory of symbolism. The three floors of Magritte confirmed it. While Der Blaue Reiter, Die Brücke, expressionism, and all the other radical breaks with conservative ideas was going on, he was comfortable rolling out decades of conservative fantasies. I got through all that in about 5 minutes.

On to the proper fucking art of the Old Masters!

There was so much good stuff here, I ended up having to blog a couple of works separately: Pieter Bruegel de Oude’s De Aanbiddung der Wijze and Peter Paul Rubens’ Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor. The collection here is comparable to the Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie (which I’ve been to several times now), though the gallery itself is nowhere near as conducive to good art viewing. It does flow around in concentric arcs of rooms encouraging diverse meandering, but the lighting, ooh such pain. The ideal of natural light collides solidly with the insane glossy reflectiveness of so very much of art in the past few hundred years. Some of the works suffered terribly, I could barely see them if I stood in front, and was doing severe underexposed and photograph from off to one side tricks to get something part-way useful. I was also a bit shitty after my visit to the poorly curated Jubelparkmuseum / Musée de Cinquantenaire, so when I saw part of the collection was closed, I wanted to start kicking paintings over the balcony.

The first two works, Tafereel van de Septembertagen 1830, op de Grote Markt te Brussel, and Jezus bij Simon Farizeër are in the atrium, along with a few other huge-scale works. Upstairs, in a ring around the space is the Oldmasters Museum. There were so many good works here, I’m not sure what to say on any of them. The panel of the prophet Jeremiah standing on a plinth reading flanked by another panel of Noli me tangere, the background sky a red and blue tapestry. Virgo Inter Virgines, with Saint Agatha and one of her breasts held in pincers like a delectable cake; the two different but both equally beautiful Maria met Kind, especially Quinten Metsys’ one for the expression on her face; the kissing and washing of Jesus’ feet, in Triptiek van de Abdij van Dielegem (the middle panel being again Jezus bij Simon Farizeër), and Jezus in het Huis van Simon de Farizeër; Cranach’s astounding Caritas, the colour of their skin and the shadows almost unearthly.

Later many works by Pieters Brughel the Younger and the Elder, the glorious De Aanbiddung der Wijzen met Sneeuweffect and others completely overshadowed by the uncompleted De Aanbiddung der Wijze. In Triptiek van de Familie Micault, the colour of his skin is distinctly that of a dead person, which is to say there was a particular tone and colour used to represent a person as dead even when they were prancing around. Also the guy on the left panel in the cat clothes. He is totally meme-worthy. Triptiek met de Deugd van het Geduld is one of many that has camels. Camels everywhere. I’ve never seen so many (if any at all) camels in late-mediæval art as I have in Brussels.

The works change to more recognisably Flemish and Netherlandish in Jesus bij Martha en Maria and De Keukenmeid. Both, along with Keukenstuk and Warmoezeniershof are as much about the colour and form of still-lifes of meat, vegetables, fowl as they are about the women in the scene—and women are presented as succulently as the food. It’s kinda debauched.

A couple, Portret van een Bejaarde Dame and De Bankier met zijn Vrouw I liked for themselves though could have excluded from my ridiculously long archive of images, but I kept in because I like them and because of the works’ titles. “An old woman” “his wife” both women are unnamed yet in the former obviously she is someone of bearing and importance—anyone who called her ‘old woman’ she’d just level that withering stare and their cocks would shrivel up. In the latter, the lighting, the strong red of her clothing, him in shadow and almost blending into the background, her attention pulled away from the book to him examining a coin, it seems to me it’s rather the other way around: he is hers; she is the subject.

A quick diversion into Juno voedt Hercules which at first I thought was a Maria lactans, and I suppose Rubens can pretend all he likes it’s not but everything about this work makes it obvious. The prodigious gushing of milk from her breast sprays out into the background covering it like the milky way in night sky. It’s so excessive, almost an equivalent to the bloody Jesus paintings and sculptures of the Northern Germanic middle ages.

Het Atelier van de Schilderessen, differently titled in French as L’atelier des Femmes Peintres, I couldn’t get a full image of it thanks to horrible lighting, but the group of female painters surrounding the model with her massive bludgeon and bearskin, its mouth over her head like a cowl, one of them reading, five of the others drawing and painting her, it’s the two with glowing cigarettes jammed in their mouths I love the most, and I do love everything about this work.

There were other works (oh so many others), as I finished this museum and meandered down, along, up, into the Fin de Siècle Museum (ignoring the Chagall exhibition—far too expensive). Those images are still pestering me to get on and edit, thankfully not so many. Nonetheless, this for the moment is an incomplete account of visiting a museum.

And … pictures!

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Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België — Musée Oldmasters Museum: Pieter Bruegel de Oude: De Aanbiddung der Wijze

On Sunday, I went to the Musée Oldmasters Museum in the Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België / Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels. I’m still getting through making sense of a couple of hundred images of works from mediæval to fin de siècle, but there were two works I kinda think would get buried amongst the almost eighty or so from the Oldmasters Museum and I’d spent so much time looking at them that they need their own post.

Peter Paul Rubens’ Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor from 1640 is the first one. The other: Pieter Bruegel de Oude’s unfinished De Aanbiddung der Wijzen.

I do love Bruegel (with or without the ‘h’), there’s something almost like an animation cell quality in his work, and always a gentle humour. The expressions on the endless sea of faces, the bodies, clothes, accompanying animals, it’s like photography also, everyone caught mid-sentence, sneeze, laugh, cough…

I couldn’t find a date for this one, so presuming it’s mid-1500s. There’s a few other Aanbiddung der Wijzen by the Brueg(h)els, another of which is also in this museum. This one by comparison to the other works I think is unfinished. Usually the paint is laid on thicker and the colour more vibrant; here it’s muted, like a sepia watercolour, the weave of the canvas clearly visible. As usual in this museum, it’s behind glass, opposite a window. I think the museum wants to punish the artist for being too delicate. But anyway, I managed to get some of it. In real life it’s more muted and sepia, but it’s difficult to remember exactly, and yup, image editing, always make-believe.

Elephants! Camels! Donkeys! Goats! People from Africa, Persia, many Semites and some Europeans in armour.The Magi in the foreground in the white, striped and hooded cloak, the guy behind him in the red embroidered cloak and pointed turban … there’s not very many, but women also. I’ve seen so very many paintings, retables, sculptures, altarpieces of the Adoration of the Magi, and this is the most convincing of all. Besides the Magi, all of whom are not exceptionally richly dressed, the remaining people are peasants, farmers, soldiers, religious pilgrims, mostly pretty averagely dressed; the whole setting is believably middle-eastern village two-thousand years ago—at least by comparison to the usual representations.

It’s the elephant up the back in profile that pleases me the most. I love this painting.

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Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België — Musée Oldmasters Museum: Peter Paul Rubens: Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor

On Sunday, I went to the Musée Oldmasters Museum in the Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België / Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels. I’m still getting through making sense of a couple of hundred images of works from mediæval to fin de siècle, but there were two works I kinda think would get buried amongst the almost eighty or so from the Oldmasters Museum and I’d spent so much time looking at them that they need their own post.

Peter Paul Rubens’ Vier Studies van het Hoofd van een Moor from 1640 is the first one. Not even that big, slightly larger than a piece of A3 paper (it’s 51 x 66cm), and nowhere near as striking in colour as some of the works around it; almost unobtrusive. Yet, yet, yet, along with Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s unfinished Die Aanbiddung der Wijzen, similarly muted in tone, probably the most striking work in the museum. They could put each of these alone in their own huge room and it would not feel empty. (As usual, though, not placed so well, covered in glass, and plenty of reflected light, kinda seems the museum missed the point.)

I was photographing very underexposed to compensate for rotten lighting and reflection (or I’m just getting needlessly perfectionist), so I think the first image—the full work—from memory is the most accurate in colour and contrast. Though when I got closer, as in the single headshots and detail closeups, so much colour, reds, blues, touches of yellow and orange become visible, as well as the precision and complexity of the brushwork.

It’s an utterly fucking fantastic work. Perhaps making uneducated statements here, but with the amount of mediæval and renaissance art I’ve seen in the last year I feel somewhat ok in saying whoever the subject was, he and Rubens knew each other well. His smile is the obvious pointer towards this, but I find it in more in the other three heads, where it’s a combination of relaxed and confident posture, details in his expression, forehead, eyebrows … it’s a glorious work and to stumble into its presence as I did made all the rest of this and the other museums in Brussels worthwhile.

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Jubelparkmuseum / Musée du Cinquantenaire

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.