The Boys in the Back Room

John Haber
in New York City

From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Netherlandish Painting

One can learn a lot about friends by going through their closets—usually, something one never wanted to know. As a child, I dreaded my mother's periodic exercises in housecleaning. I cared less about the labor than about the junk I might find. Layered upon layer, it served as a tangible reminder of the fear and indecision that had filled our closets in the first place. But what might one see if one cleaned out the back rooms of the Northern Renaissance? Pieter Bruegel's Harvesters (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1565)

For a while, the Metropolitan Museum airs in public every last bit of its holdings, starting shortly after 1400 and spanning nearly two centuries. One gains rare insight into the Renaissance artist at work, constructing beautiful, deceptively familiar scenes out of oil paint and tall stories. One watches the birth of an art world one takes for granted today. One learns something as well, even something unsettling, about the modern museum.

Stretching a museum's wings

For more than a few visitors to the Met, the Renaissance will mean something from Italy. It did for the Italians, too. Back when the museum assembled much of its holdings, even scholars often called the rest "Flemish primitives." How much they missed. Color, texture, and detail outshine individual actors in this art's drama. It offers tall stories quite as much as fine objects for distant reverence. One wants to get close to this art to unravel the stories, and at the Met one now can.

The opening room alone includes Jan van Eyck, his brother Hubert, and his finest pupil, Petrus Christus, along with others who labored anonymously beside them. Historians still cannot agree on who painted what, so one can trace for oneself this art of transparency, gradation, and detail. One would be wise, in fact, to skip the wall labels and give it a try.

With the Cloisters under renovation further up in Manhattan, the room has brought down the most important Renaissance painting in America. This Annunciation scene takes place in an common enough interior, while a couple pray in a secluded garden below. Each detail, however inconsequential, fills out the Biblical text. Robert Campin, the painter, seems to scramble inside and outside, surface beauty and inner meaning, and the proper place of God and humans. In this way he carefully sorts out a person's place in a world of change and a timeless cosmos.

The altarpiece looks larger, perhaps more impressive, here in an ordinary museum room. It must have looked much the same in someone's private home back when it was painted. In one small corner now, it shares space with other paintings, carvings, and an illustrated book as well. A few years ago, a show at the Met traced Italian art through Fra Angelico to the delicacies of illuminated manuscripts. I doubt anyone believed it, but that history matters a great deal to the North.

As the opening suggests, one can approach this show as a series of tiny exhibitions, each with its own pleasures. One whole room holds portraits, many by unknown hands, while Gerard David has a room to himself. That show within a show makes a strong case indeed for perhaps the North's truest High Renaissance mind outside of Albrecht Dürer. Like Dürer and his contemporaries, David at times traded emotion for command of form, but how many forms he could handle! They may include the first independent landscape, a dark forest. One will probably never know just what these two slim panels once framed—if anything at all.

The show, in short, brings together what museum walls too often keep apart. One sees in their proper context not only the closets, but also the Linksy and Lehmann collections. I always wish the Met had the nerve to refuse colossal ego trips like those, no matter the wealth at stake. If someone wants a nice wing with his name over the door, fine, but it has to hold the cafeteria dumpsters. Art should to join the regular collection.

Landscape and resurrection

In an exhaustive gathering like this, leading artists get a fresh look. Did the Met always have that tortured Christ by Juan of Flandres? I had forgotten the eloquence of its plain color and startling focus on the leading actor.

Above all, for the North a gathering means a wealth of stories. After the first room they get ever more arcane, but also rather fun. God comes down from Campin's upper chamber, and saints run rampant like spoiled school kids. Campin's nuanced scheme of salvation goes pretty much awry for good. So does any hope that the aristocracy and everybody else can comfortably listen together to the same tales.

In Mannerism, art history's name for the sixteenth century, acrid colors and even harsher drawing create separate objects for the elite and for the masses. Think of the gap today between commercial blandness and the excesses of alternative radio. Like these, Mannerism gives a lot of room for sheer ineptitude, but it also permits fresh emotion, as in Adraen Isenbrant's dark Christ crowned with thorns. I would have liked to see Hendrick Goltzius and Jan Gossart here.

The show ends as neatly as some of those Biblical stories, with a return to landscape and a resurrection. Newly cleaned, Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel has a calm I had never experienced. Faces glow with the ruddy tone of men and women after strong drink and a long day in the sun. The gray sky has a softer light, signaling a new connection between humanity and the landscape. I used to think of the painting only as one part of Bruegel's cycle of the seasons. Now I sense the cyclic motion within it, a steady, quiet arc encompassing labor, play, and rest.

Bruegel's flat way of painting faces and his wild, ironic stories derive from Hieronymus Bosch decades before. But when Bosch depicts worldly terror and the constant threat of evil, he has in mind a parable for moral decisions. Paradoxically, Bosch's manic imagery relies on the symmetry and depth of a humanist ideal, a life firmly balanced between heaven and hell. At its most tortured, it holds out a momentary escape from despair.

Bruegel's visionary landscapes look beyond heaven and hell. It is as if he had set off an explosion at the center of Bosch's symmetric scene. There is no final end to human folly. The frame just cuts things off. The common man and woman have no escape to a grand hierarchy of saints, but they are all one has, and they are Europe's future.

Stock and trade

I have been telling stories myself, but a housecleaning has no simple way to fit into any of them. On the one hand, Renaissance painting depends on the myth of unveiling. It takes the visible as a guide to the unseen. As with the Bruegel, historians, too, know that understanding and authenticating may require a look under the surface. In another painting on display, one can see the underdrawing, a casual sketch of the principal figure. It has surprising life for an otherwise undistinguished artist.

On the other hand, northern art defers the final revelation of truth. It is an art of exquisite surfaces, and no one can step outside time to check which will come true. It also depends on the anonymous craftsman, one among many in a workshop. Museums, too, flourish from keeping things under wraps. The museum store room grew up along with art history, as scholars learned to sort out the identity of the masters and consign others to silence.

This show's housecleaning therefore gives unusual attention to at least two institutions. I mean the Renaissance artist's and the Met, and I had better start with the first. One goes behind the scenes of art history, to see the evolution of the master's workshop. When the Renaissance began, workshops allowed entry into a guild, certified by civic authorities, for training in a craft. By its end workshops had become more like shops nowadays, turning out goods for a flourishing private market accountable to no one. And change came without a defining moment and without artists missing a beat.

One learns the old explanations in school—or from the curator's uninteresting catalog essay. Workshop assistants had certain preparatory tasks, including grinding pigments, laying grounds, and the transfer of under-drawings. Experienced assistants took on subsidiary passages, including background or stock figures, but not always. Painting in the North hinged far too much on the glories of an entire surface in oil. Assistants also made copies to keep pace with demand, and they had access to the master's designs once they set up for themselves. Trade secrets like these have helped historians draw connections and identify artists.

Workshop copies ranged from straightforward replicas to transpositions into other media and from large commissions to private, devotional images. One sees these small icons, works on paper, and wooden altars not just on the Met's walls. Artists represented them as well, within the humble interiors of their art. Most often, these lesser works turn up in lesser works themselves, but not necessarily. A peasant shed in one of Renaissance art's glories, the Munich Adoration by Rogier van der Weyden, displays a crucifix.

Historians have interpreted images like Rogier's as his awareness of God's perfection or the Virgin's piety in life's passing scenes, much like the life of the Virgin in a Book of Hours or other "pages of gold." Traces of the incarnation and passion at the moment of Christ's birth bring a foreboding of tragedy amid the greatest of life's joys. However, I take them literally as well, as an accurate representation of most households in a religious age. People prayed to them often, as church attendance ceased to dominate daily rhythms.

Over the top

Those first copies into other media seem innocent enough. Viewers still privilege the original, in all its mythical genius. Yet they already unsettle the privilege, for they signal something quite new—an increasing specialization. The copy has a function now that the original, hanging in a church, never could. And this specialization comes to characterize a private art market, just as factories now specialize in overpriced art posters. One should keep specialization in mind as background to a "Renaissance man" like Albrecht Dürer or Gerard David.

Perhaps van Eyck himself tried his hand at manuscript illumination, or at least some historians see his hand. Soon, however, certain skills grew foreign to the master, and certain commissions lay beneath him, falling to names that art historians only now are recovering. One talks less about assistants within a shop and more about followers. Rivals had to turn out copies, too, especially after Bosch's popularity. Far later, in the age of the academies, one talks instead about students. Historians may have missed out on the decisive step, however, and one finds it on display everywhere right now at the Met.

I found it most exciting, in fact, at its most inept, for the knock-offs make no bones about diverging from the original. Face it: the diminished artistic insight of the follower makes things schlocky. And it has to, for art had found a new audience. In the icy-hard tears of Aelbert Bouts's dead Christ, I imagined the hysterical tears of a Hollywood movie. With Mannerism, the disruption of art's calm symmetry went over the top.

The new audience loved stories, especially stories about people like themselves. The man in a portrait bears the signs of a confraternity—not of monks but of a trade. In an Antwerp Last Supper, John nestles asleep at Jesus's side, as the favored apostle always had, but now he looks drunk out of his mind.

Books had long used multiple scenes to tell stories, and here the comic strips fill multiple panels. The life of Saint Gondelieve, a sermon on charity, the "fifteen mysteries"—all read left to right, with no care for single-point perspective. The scenes fill with asides and tiny characters well before Bosch's or Bruegel's tempestuous worlds.

The story really ends after this show, in the great age of Dutch genre painting, from church interiors to still life. As serious artists undertook the cheap jobs, the transformation to a private market becomes complete. Once the artist undertakes what formerly was mere background, one has the landscape. Once painting lets in enough histrionics, one has everyday life as moral fable. If a still-later time, of J. B. Greuze and sentimental French art, seems theatrical to at least one historian, the transformation starts right in this exhibition, with the Renaissance workshop. See what the boys in the back room will have, and publicize it.


The show, of course, has a story to tell about the Met's own back room, and that story bears the trace of private sentiment, too. Frankly, the news at this show is not all good. Perhaps I seem to have told already a story of bad art, a story about art specialists for specialists. I fear that the Met these days consistently does the same. For all the oohs and ahs when it lights its Christmas tree and sells its gift boxes this time of year, it has lost its mission to make art vital to the public.

One can hardly see a show anywhere these days without dealing first with the banners, the build-up, and the building. Any museum in New York will use exhibitions to advance a professional agenda. It could be the Jewish Museum's thought-provoking commitment to artists one rarely remembers as Jewish, but placing them within its traditions. It could be the heartfelt mission of an alternative space or a sculpture garden to diversify contemporary art and challenge one's responses. Most often, however, museum politics hang over art like steel sheets from Richard Serra.

It could be in the Whitney's provincial view of America or the carnival of the Museum of Modern Art's expansion into Queens. It could be the Guggenheim's determination to create its own empire. And so that museum pumps money into new buildings worldwide, rather than taking chances on its collection. And so the word masterpieces titles nearly every one of its shows.

At the Met politics has meant bigger gift shops and pointless crowd pleasers, combined with shows of marginal public interest. Retrospectives of major figures, from Lorenzo Lotto and Jan Vermeer to George de la Tour and Paul Cézanne, have missed New York City entirely. So have imaginative selections of van Eyck and Eugène Delacroix. Artemisia Gentellischi made the news with an appalling movie, but a show of her work then took place at a private gallery. That show held two pieces from the Met's collection, and yet no one at the museum could tell me where they had gone.

In their place, one has Donato Creti and Pierre-Paul Proudhon. Even obvious pandering, as with more Monets, failed this last year to draw much of a crowd. And surely no one has taken seriously in an even longer time the Met's modern wing, with show after show of older British artists.

Is it coincidence that the Met now settles for hauling out its own paintings by forgotten northern masters—and legitimizes itself by displaying the collection of Edgar Degas? All those earlier exhibitions pretended to educate visitors while throwing a museum's clout behind a curator's career. Like one on the origins of Impressionism, they advanced a thesis. Like a show of Petrus Christus not long ago, they put forth attributions rarely accepted by scholars. So it is at the Met right now, and so it will be when it hauls out its medieval collection next.

What an unveiling hides

As in so many previous shows, the present exhibition has wall labels almost too long to finish on every work. They state a curator's attributions without acknowledging controversy. They simply tell people what to think rather than educating people and welcoming one to decide for oneself.

The period has some of the greatest paintings ever, but one will not spot them here. That means not just middling popularity. It also means that people new to the Renaissance come away with a distorted idea of it. They either find it of mild interest or, worse, admire it for its whimsy.

As I hope I made clear, a show like this contains treasures and insights I could never have stumbled on elsewhere. But should it have had this form? The Met could have stated honestly that it mostly showed the bargain basement of the Renaissance. It could have pursued what that means in its catalogs and labels. It could have reproduced and talked about other paintings, even if it decided not to borrow widely from America and Europe.

It could have used the occasion of an unusually broad look at a century to add context. A single work from Italy, a slyly smirking red-head by Antonello da Messina, provides the only clue to the artistic interchange back then. Nothing mentions the exciting controversies over the meaning of symbolism in Renaissance art, the roles of women, or images of the flesh in tales of the spirit. Only that one example of exposed under-drawing points to the artists' techniques. Not even the restored Bruegel gets help to let visitors know how it has changed.

I said that the show makes most sense as a series of brilliant but more unobtrusive ones. I could picture instead a year's succession of thoughtful "concentration" rooms. Set right among the permanent displays, each could have its own hand-outs and a decent shot at publicity. They each could draw school groups and attract more visitors to the permanent collection. In time they might even build a genuine love for the Northern Renaissance.

But that might not give the curators' academic publications the same buzz—and a good thing, too. Naturally the show that one gets instead reflects on the back room of the Renaissance and the Met. Too bad the Met could not reflect a little more on them, too.

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From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art ran through January 3, 1999.


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