In this era of blockbuster shows, the permanent collections of the Metropolitan frequently become what we walk past on the way out of the latest event, so it's good to be reminded of how remarkable those collections are. Happily, the Met periodically organizes scholarly exhibitions that spotlight the richness and depth of the museum's own holdings. The current in-house showcase, "From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art" may be the most spectacular and thoughtful to date. For cognoscenti and novices alike, for lovers of Netherlandish painting, and even for the undecided, the show is an unalloyed delight, a celebration of the abilities of early northern artists and an education in the field's latest scholarship (including the most recent attributions).(1) If the exhibition were anywhere else, New York art lovers would be planning trips so as not to miss it.
It's a show that takes effort, full of contemplative, often devotional works made slowly with meticulous attention to nuance and detail, and meant to be studied over a long period of time. They are pictures that dwell equally on the particulars of observable reality and the intangibles of faith. (Whether any of this can be seen -- literally or metaphorically -- in a crowded gallery is another story.) There's none of the stabilizing geometry of Italian Renaissance painting in Flemish art of the same period, none of the measured harmony that implies an ideal Platonic order underlying the randomness of ordinary experience. Instead, we are presented with an empirical, curiosity-driven record of the world with all its irregularities, its myriad textures and colors, its infinite distances, and its nonstop eventfulness. Backgrounds unroll in endless layers of townscape, field, forest, and river, all teeming with activity. Something is always happening, somewhere.
Yet the result of this interrogation of life as we know it is somehow more than real, as if we were seeing the quotidian world through eyes with more than human ability. Colors are more jewel-like, more saturated than they appear in reality; patterns are crisper; leaves and strands of hair more distinct; tiny details are more evident. Everything, no matter how apparently insignificant, is revealed with the same preternatural intensity and clarity, freezing the variety and action of daily life into magical stillness.
The tangible surface of paint disappears into seamless enamelled glazes that mimic fabric and fur. The artist's hand itself seems to disappear and we are left with a powerful metaphor for the omniscient, all-penetrating gaze of a deity. (It has been suggested that these works were made with the aid of magnifying lenses and were meant to be seen through lenses.) Yet, at the same time, with northern empirical observation taking the place of Italian mathematical linear perspective, these paintings remain firmly grounded in the realm of human endeavor. No wonder these painters were among the most admired and sought after of their day.
A great deal has been written about the concealed symbolism of the apparently naturalistic details of early Netherlandish paintings. Nothing is what it seems. A lily in a vase, especially in an Annunciation or an Adoration of the Magi, is never merely a bit of still life, but an allusion to the virginity of Mary. So is a glass-paned window or a walled courtyard garden. A swooning Virgin whose pose echoes that of her dead son in a Deposition is not simply a compositional device, but a graphic emblem of (literally) compassion. And so on. When I was a student, we spent a lot of time on this sort of thing; I remember a medieval Latin jingle comparing the Immaculate Conception to light passing through a window pane -- something about "Virgo post et ante" The point was to underline the difference between Italian and northern sensibilities. For a Florentine to paint a landscape full of shepherds and travelers was a manifestation of his delight in what he saw; for a painter from Bruges, it was an allusion to something otherworldly and spiritual. …