The Low Countries - 2018, № 26

28 maart 2018

‘About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters’

Dutch and Flemish Artists Around the Globe

On 20 January 2017, a mural appeared on Barthélémylaan/Boulevard Barthélémy on the Canal in Brussels, of an imminent beheading. The knife and the fear on the face of a child in the depicted scene raised a furore. People thought of IS executions, and panicked.

Until it transpired that the anonymous street artist responsible had copied a section from a Caravaggio painting, The Sacrifice of Isaac (1603). The hand with the knife belongs to Abraham, a father who is about to murder his son. The hand on Abraham’s arm, holding him back, belongs to the angel, to whom Abraham surrenders at the last moment. But the anonymous imitator has expertly severed the image: we only see the child whose mouth hangs wide open in fear, a hand with a knife, another hand on an arm, a third hand holding the child’s neck. Knife and jaw attract the most attention.

A few days later, the bloody figure of a man with his stomach cut open hanging upside-down by a rope materialised on a facade on Brigitinnenstraat/rue des Brigittines. Here the painter had been inspired by The Corpses of the De Witt Brothers, a work attributed to the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Jan de Baen.

As if to say – since an understanding of traditions, in this instance of painting, the Bible, and the crisis of 1672, the ‘disaster year’ of the Dutch Republic, radically changes both perception and experience of the image –, it’s all about the context, stupid. Panic and indignation give way to uncertainty and hesitation. The complexity of the images invites us to think. Our judgement no longer comes down like an axe, but is suspended.

Art, like everything really, exists in context: every thing refers to other things, from the past or from elsewhere. Artists always build on the work of their predecessors. That network provides a frame of reference.

It is therefore worth our while to keep learning more about the canon, traditions, the history of Christianity and the history of art, for example. Because the Old Masters were never wrong about suffering… nor about so much else. It was about time we paid tribute to our Flemish and Dutch Masters in this yearbook. They are renowned worldwide, and appreciated for their masterly use of light, colour and detail.

The theme of this yearbook was developed jointly with CODART, the international network of curators of Dutch and Flemish art which this year celebrates its twentieth year. At present, CODART connects almost 700 curators from more than 300 museums in almost fifty countries. The fact that works of art from the Low Countries of the fifteenth through to the nineteenth century are widely disseminated means that CODART’s network is extensive and unique.

This twenty-sixth edition of the yearbook The Low Countries will be the last ever in print. With pride – and a little melancholy – the editorial board looks back on those twenty-six volumes: ‘It has not gone unnoticed.’ But don’t worry. From next year you can find us at www.thelowcountries.eu where we will continue with the same fervour and depth to publish information, comment and essays about the Low Countries. For more people. We still have a lot more to tell about ‘this undigested vomit of the sea’.

Luc Devoldere
Chief Editor

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