Museum of Fine Arts Ghents exhibition Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution
brings together more than half of the twenty surviving paintings and drawings by Jan van Eyck (ca 1390-1441). They are displayed along with works from his studio, copies of lost works by the Master and more than 100 masterpieces by his contemporaries including Fra Angelico, Paolo Uccello, Pisanello and Petrus Christus. Highlight of the exhibition is a once-in-a-life time opportunity to witness eight panels of the Ghent Altarpiece displayed together for the first time in a museum, in what is the largest exhibition that has ever been dedicated to Van Eyck.
Eight panels of the Ghent Altarpiece in a single exhibition
The core of the exhibition consists of eight exterior panels of the closed Ghent Altarpiece (1432) by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Between 2012 and 2016, the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK) restored these panels in the MSK. The exceptional results of the restoration, whereby after the removal of old layers of varnish and overpainted portions the original masterpiece came into full view, provide a new 'look' into Van Eycks process. The restoration also inspired the MSK to create this prestigious exhibition.
For one time, and with the utmost exception, the eight restored panels of the closed altarpiece, along with the presentation of Adam and Eve that are not yet restored, are being displayed as separate paintings outside the walls of St Bavo's Cathedral in Ghent. Moreover, they are being exhibited at eye level so that the splendid colours, the brilliant details and the nearly tangible rendering of materials can be admired up close by everyone. It will be the first and last time that the visitor can come this close to the hand of the Master. The MSK is extremely grateful to the Cathedral for this generosity.
The exhibition route in a nutshell
The exhibition, which is spread out over 13 museum halls, opens with a sketch of the luxurious and ambulatory Burgundian court life in the Low Countries. In the introductory halls, Van Eyck emerges as the chamberlain and court painter of the Burgundian Duke, Philip the Good (1396-1467), and as an important player in the urban network. The interchange between the court and flourishing cities such as Ghent and Bruges, with their artisanal environment and circle of mobile merchants, created the ideal climate in which Van Eyck's revolution could take place. His mythic status and the reception of his work from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century are also explained.
After this contextualising of the 15th-century environment and the origin of Van Eyck's work, the visitor delves into the richness and masterly detail of his optical revolution. In an outright impressive ensemble of some 140 panel paintings, miniatures, drawings and sculptures, Van Eyck himself steps into the foreground.
The exterior panels of the Ghent Altarpiece guide the visitor through the exhibition and are the anchors for various themes such as 'Sin and Salvation, 'Space', 'Mother and Child', 'Saints in a Landscape', 'The Divine Portrait', 'The Word of God', 'Architecture', 'The Painted Sculpture' and 'The Individual' with Van Eyck's famous portraits of contemporaries.
The route carries the visitor from panoramic vistas to enclosed, contemplative spaces; it evokes the interchange between the material and the spiritual; zooms in on the macro and the micro-cosmos and evolves from Late-medieval society to the individual.
Van Eyck's optical revolution in three facets
Moving from hall to hall, it becomes clear that Jan van Eyck was more than 'a painter': he was an learned artist. He was educated to a certain extent in literature and was one of the first artists to sign his work, which exhibits a high degree of self-awareness. However, he also possessed a great deal of knowledge that allowed him to unleash an optical revolution.
We see the revolution on three levels: his oil-painting technique, his observation of the world and his painting of optical effects of light phenomena.
Oil painting before Van Eyck was actually an impractical medium, until so-called drying agents were added that shortened the drying period and made oil paints easier to manipulate. That is precisely what Jan van Eyck did, and his intervention took on such a mythical proportion that the Tuscan Giorgio Vasari unequivocally attributed the discovery of oil painting to him in 1550. The myth of Van Eyck's genius was thus born. Only late into the eighteenth century was this myth debunked, thanks to the discovery of copy of a twelfth-century manuscript on painting.
The second facet of his optical revolution is Van Eyck's fine-tuned observation of the world. The troubles he went through to minutely and nearly tangibly reproduce the smallest detail was never seen before and remains astonishing to this day. A deep-rooted interest in the painting of light was crucial along with this observation. Persons, objects or interiors gain three-dimensional form through the light that shines on them, or by the very absence of light in the shadows.
Finally, he went yet a step further in his already genial mastery of light. The hypothesis proposes that the painter not only relied upon direct perception and the painting of the world, but that he also possessed knowledge about the optical effects of light--the third facet of his optical revolution. Constant lighting was impossible in an artist's studio at the time because a painter was dependent upon sunlight or candlelight. With the smallest change of the lighting conditions the optical characteristics also change.
And that is precisely what Van Eyck showed: he painted the actual lighting in the Vijd Chapel (St Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent), the place in which the Ghent Altarpiece was installed after completion. As such, it appears as if the exterior panels are actually illuminated by the light that enters into the chapel from the right, and this is done with a coherency and accuracy that, in a time without artificial lighting, is exceptionally true to life.
How did Jan van Eyck achieve this? Suffice it to say that he had knowledge of the principles of light, shadow and more complex light phenomena such as reflections and distortions. Van Eyck, in other words, arguably had command over both a rational method and practical knowledge on how light behaves in reality.
In order to place Jan van Eyck's optical revolution in a broader perspective, his works are brought together with exceptional loans of Italian contemporaries such as Fra Angelico, Paolo Uccello, Pisanello, Masaccio and Benozzo Gozzoli. In contrast to Van Eyck, who painted in oils, the Italians worked with egg-based tempera. While Van Eyck carried out his innovations, the Italian painters experimented in turn with space and introduced mathematical perspective.
These developments caused painterly revolutions on both sides of the Alps and had a great impact on the Late-medieval notion of the painted image. It is highly exceptional that the works of artists from the North and the South are being exhibited alongside each other, and can be admired together.
In addition to the impressive series of works that are to be seen together for the first (and also for the last) time, some museums have taken the occasion to perform conservation and/or restoration treatments on the works that are being sent to the MSK. The result is that the public will get to see, in addition to the restored exterior panels of the Ghent Altarpiece, various other masterpieces in their original condition for the very first time.
Three works by Van Eyck received a treatment: 'Portrait of a Man ('Léal Souvenir' or Tymotheos)' from the National Gallery in London, 'Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy' from the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin and the 'Turin-Milan Book of Hours' from the Museo Civico d'Arte Antica/Palazzo Madama in Turin, in which the only two surviving miniatures by the Master are preserved.