Arts: Magical Realism ; Jan Van Eyck's Style of Painting Seemed Miraculous to His Contemporaries. Divine, Even. Then They Tried to Copy It. as a New Exhibition Devoted to the Artist and His Influence Opens, TOM LUBBOCK Considers His Extraordinary Skill
Lubbock, Tom, The Independent (London, England)
Sometimes a piece of art strikes perfection. There is no imaginable room for improvement. It hits the nail on the head. In the foreground of Jan van Eyck's The Virgin and Child with Saints Donatian and George and Canon Joris van der Paele (1436), there's a length of richly patterned carpet. It descends the two front steps of the Virgin's throne, and stretches across the tiled floor to the front of the picture. It's not necessarily the first thing that catches the eye in this scene. There are four substantial figures in very striking and contrasting costumes, who may have prior claims on your attention. But when it does, the eye is well and truly caught.
This piece of carpet is bafflingly real. The texture of the woven fabric appears to be the thing itself. Realism of this completeness is disorienting. Most depiction involves a half-conscious collaboration between the image and the viewer's imagination. You know you're partly making the going, sustaining the picture. But here it seems your collaboration isn't needed. The image does it all, beyond your help, beyond your grasp. You can only gawp.
What makes it so real? Things like the slightly variable densities of the stitching, the slight variations in the way (brushed this way or that) the threads catch the light, the way the weave "cracks" slightly where the carpet bends at the ridge of a step, the faultless handling of the pattern (it contains circles) in perspective, especially where the carpet goes down the steps, with the thick fabric lying not in sharp right-angles but in slightly corner-cutting curves. And "slightly" is the operative word. At every point, the trick involves minute modulations of painting that persuade the eye of the presence of even tinier minutiae, a mass of numberless threads, a world of particles beyond the reach of a paintbrush but which a paintbrush has miraculously summoned.
Van Eyck's achievement certainly seemed miraculous to contemporaries, a work beyond human powers - more divine than human, not made by human hand, created by nature itself. Old art criticism often has a strain of formulaic hyperbole. But there is no reason to distrust these reactions, because they are still our own - and we've had almost 600 more years of realism in various forms to dull our impressionability. At the start of the 15th century, it was a perfect novelty. The impact must have been staggering, not least because of the suddenness of its appearance in Flemish painting. There's no long run-up to this level of pictorial illusion. It arrives fully realised - and it remains unsurpassed. Van Eyck started it and Van Eyck finished it. And then everyone else tried to do it, too.
Look at that carpet, or at the gleaming gold-thread embroidery on St Donatian's cope - or look at the embrasure of daylight in The Arnolfini Marriage in the National Gallery - and you can understand the subject of the exhibition at the Groeninge Museum in Bruges. What artist, what patron, wouldn't want a piece of this action? Jan van Eyck, Early Netherlandish Painting and Southern Europe (1430- 1530) traces the rapid export of the new realism from Flanders - then in the Duchy of Burgundy - to Naples, to Venice, to France, Spain and Portugal. This is a story of trans-European communication, through trade and travel, with an international cast of artists. North meets south. Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden, Petrus Christus, Gerard David, Dierick Bouts, Hugo van der Goes and Hans Memling hang among Antonella da Messina, Fra Angelico, Giovanni Bellini, Piero di Cosimo, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Pietro Perugino. The north, on this occasion, is setting the agenda.
The show has a good measure of Van Eyck. His surviving output is meagre (a couple of dozen paintings in all) and about a third is here. As well as the Groeninge Museum's own Virgin and Child with Joris van der Paele and portrait of his wife Margaret van Eyck, there are some little-seen but remarkable pictures, such as St Francis in Ecstasy from Milan (what robes! what rocks!) and Man in a Blue Chaperon from Bucharest (what a transfixing ear!).
Religious painting and portraiture dominate the whole show, which is selected so as to establish as many links and echoes as possible between Flemish art and the rest of Europe. They are established. But the art- historical agenda doesn't require especially exciting art, and many pictures seem to be in the exhibition because they're good examples, rather than good. There's an extraordinary, bright- red-eyed suffering Christ by Fra Angelico, and the peculiar, spherically breasted Virgin and Child by Jean Fouquet. One notable discovery is the artist Frey Carlos from Portugal, where Van Eyck himself travelled on an embassy from the Duke of Burgundy. Another is the Neapolitan Niccolo Colantonio. But the show is overwhelmingly Van Eyck's. And, dwelling on his unequalled realism, you can see a revolution whose influence extends well beyond the confines of this exhibition.
The old name for this revolution was "the invention of oil- painting". That, too, was for a long time credited to Van Eyck. Then it was discovered that painters had known about binding pigments in oil centuries before. What was really invented by Van Eyck and his Flemish contemporaries was a new use for oil-painting, which proved it superior to existing tempera painting.
Tempera painting is all surface. What you see is the top layer only. But oil paint can be a transparent and, therefore, luminous medium. Built up in dilute glazes of suspended pigment, it reflects light not from its surface, but from within, back through its translucent layers. It is also infinitely adjustable. Thin glaze laid over thin glaze allows for the subtlest control of hue and tone. In oils, the painted world gained a new presence and fine- tuning. And in giving the fullest and most persuasive demonstration of these powers, and thus starting oil-painting off on its career as the medium of European art, Van Eyck may well be considered a great inventor - not of a technique, but of a culture.
Among the world's art, European oil- painting is unique in its dedication to the look of things. Beneath all its other pretensions, there's its continual insistence on appearances: just looking. To some artists and many theorists, this has seemed to be just stupid, a mindless procedure. Michelangelo spoke out against the influence of Flemish realism: "They paint stuffs and masonry, the green grass of the fields, the shadow of trees, and rivers and bridges... And all this, though it pleases some persons, is done without reason or art." Others have spoken out in similar terms. But, for centuries, painting was unable to tear itself away from this stupidity.
Art historians and critics keep trying to point their audiences in other directions. Look, they say, paintings have stories, symbols, meanings; these are extremely important. Or look, look at the composition, the design, the colour, the brushwork - these are the things that really matter. But the paintings never quite co- operate with these instructions. All the time they're saying, more clearly than anything else: look at this bit of the visible world which I have rendered so very convincingly.
To like a painting because it's so realistic, we've all been told, is to reside in the lowest depths of philistinism. But the trouble is, so many good paintings seem to reside there too. Van Eyck's do supremely.
In his images nothing is forced and nothing is fudged. There's a profound calm in their absolute refusal to make something of the world, in their ability to render it in a way that seems only to let it be. It is a mindless art, and more. To look at it is to see a world from which mind and self have by a miracle, or by infinite pains, been removed. There may be no more need for painting of this kind; there may be enough in the world by now. (Perhaps there was no need to do more than what Van Eyck himself did.) But we can never grow out of it, because we'll always want to know what the world is like without us.
Jan van Eyck, Early Netherlandish Painting and Southern Europe 1430- 1530, Groeninge Museum, Bruges, Belgium. To 30 June. (Advance booking recommended, Globaltickets: 020-7014 8550.)
`The Age of Van Eyck: The Mediterranean World and Early Netherlandish Painting 1430-1530' by Till-Holger Borchert, published by Thames & Hudson, 15 April 2002, pounds 36.00, is available to order at the special price of pounds 29.95 including p&p in the UK. Phone 01252 541602 quoting `Independent Offer' with credit card details, or send a cheque made payable to Thames & Hudson Ltd to Thames & Hudson, 181a High Holborn, London WC1V 7QX with the same reference. Offer is subject to availability and ends 31 July 2002…
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Publication information: Article title: Arts: Magical Realism ; Jan Van Eyck's Style of Painting Seemed Miraculous to His Contemporaries. Divine, Even. Then They Tried to Copy It. as a New Exhibition Devoted to the Artist and His Influence Opens, TOM LUBBOCK Considers His Extraordinary Skill. Contributors: Lubbock, Tom - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: April 9, 2002. Page number: 16,17. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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