Magazine article The Spectator

'Infinite Riches in a Little Room'

Magazine article The Spectator

'Infinite Riches in a Little Room'

Article excerpt

Recognising Van Eyck

(Room 1, National Gallery, till 15 March)

The slogan `less is more' is, of course, a modernist motto. But it is unlikely that in the foreseeable future we will see more artistic greatness packed into less space than in the National Gallery's marvellous, miniature exhibition Recognising Van Eyck. Looking at it is an Alice in Wonderland experience. The closer you peer, the more you see. Whole worlds - distant misty prospects, mountains, rivers, cities - open out in a few square centimetres of paint. At times, especially when examining the tiny Philadelphia version of `St Francis Receiving the Stigmata', the eyes ache from the effort to take in everything that is there.

Christopher Marlowe's phrase `infinite riches in a little room' comes to mind Room 1 is, as estate agents say, 'compact', and was already fairly crowded on the day I went. In this sitting-room-sized space are packed all three of the National Gallery's own three van Eycks, including the `Arnolfini Double Portrait'. From Washington there is `The Annunciation', once one of the most prized paintings in the Hermitage, sold to America by Stalin. There is a strange, presumably unfinished `St Barbara' from Antwerp and from Turin and Philadelphia two versions of `St Francis Receiving the Stigmata', almost identical except that one is four times the size of the other. Bulked out by comparative material it is still a little display. But infinite visual riches are certainly there - the other sort, too, given the enormous rarity and preciousness of van Eyck's work.

Part of the point of the show is those two paintings of St Francis, which up to now have been controversial. The idea is to confront them with undoubtedly genuine van Eycks and ask the question, are they by the same artist? The answer, to an inexpert eye, is immediately, `Yes, of course.' The fact that celebrated art historians have excluded them from the canon makes one wonder about celebrated art historians (notoriously, there are two kinds, those with eyes and those blind as bats). But it is also an opportunity to contemplate van Eyck, indeed it is about as close to a van Eyck retrospective as anything we are ever likely to see, given the probable immovability of several key works, the huge Ghent altarpiece in particular. What do we find?

Jan van Eyck was at once one of the most important and one of the most mysterious figures in Western art. We know very little about him - though a smidgen more than about some of his contemporaries. He died in 1441, collaborated with his elder brother Hubert on the Ghent altarpiece, and was employed by the Duke of Burgundy as a `valet de chambre', a minor functionary. He was sent to Portugal to paint the portrait of a princess, the kind of mission Holbein undertook for Henry VIII. Most of his works must have disappeared, many were probably ephemeral, given the taste of the Dukes of Burgundy for vulgar ostentation. `We would not err,' a historian writes, `in imagining the court consuming a cake designed, decorated, perhaps even painted by van Eyck, the greatest artist of the day.' About van Eyck's character, opinions, even the year of his birth, nobody knows a thing - except that he was obviously, overwhelmingly fascinated by the visual world around him. And that is perhaps all we need to know.

Even more than Giotto, he seems to come out of nowhere with a brand new style. Before van Eyck, Northern European art was largely preoccupied with the elaborate, filigree late Gothic of, say, the Duc de Berry's `Tres Riches Heures'. …

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