Treasures old and new from Wallonia. A curious land

Bruxelles, Palais des Beaux-Arts (Bozar Expo), from 14 february to 18 may 2008.

The press release begins by saying : « The exhibition[…] comes straight from the imagination of Laurent Busine, the highly inspired director of MAC’s (musée des arts contemporains of Grand-Hornu).” It should have remained there. The visitor will leave after having seen some very beautiful works among them one or two previously unpublished, and many mediocre ones including several copies that are presented as authentic. He or she in any case will not have learnt anything about Wallonia or its art.

1. Robert Campin known as Master of Flemalle
(active between 1406 and 1444)
The Virgin in Glory between Saint Peter and
Saint Augustin, worshipped by a donor
, c. 1440
Oil on panel - 47 x 31 cm
Aix-en-Provence, Musée Granet
Photo : D. Rykner

The curator, who obviously mistook himself for an artist, thought he was producing a work of art by presenting objects without any chronological or thematic coherence, with no explanations and accompanied by notices reduced to a strict minimum. Only the scenographer, artisan of a sober and elegant staging, deserves to be complimented. It would be interesting to see his work in a real exhibition.
The title is deceiving. Three centuries (from the XVIIth to the XIXth) are totally missing from this so-called panorama of Wallonian art. Why make such a choice ? In reading the catalogue (and who would be tempted to do so ?), no explanation is given, nor for the fact that a contemporary sculpture by Michel François is present in every room.

But the total vacuity of these choices is not what troubles us the most, nor the real lack of substance. The most serious issue here and which constitutes a veritable scandal, is the risk taken in moving these remarkable works without a valid reason. We have often denounced in The Art Tribune (and its French version La Tribune de l’Art) this type of event, which is usually organized for political or financial purposes. The fact that the curator’s ego would seem to be the real justification for this presentation — commissioned by the Palais des Beaux-Arts — does not make it any more honourable. The loan by the Musée Granet of its Robert Campin (ill. 1), one of the masterpieces in its collection, an extremely fragile painted panel is totally unjustified as is also the Josse Lieferinxe from the Petit Palais in Avignon.

2. Jacques Du Brœucq
(c. 1505-1584)
Saint John the Evangelist,
c. 1550 (before the accident)
Alabaster - about 81 cm
Mons, Collégiale Sainte-Waudru
Photo : M. Lefrancq

3. Exhibition Treasures old
and new from Wallonia

A view of the three Evangelists by Du Broeucq without the
Saint John,
damaged during shipping
Photo : D. Rykner

It is well known that the risks incurred in travel are not imaginary and this unnecessary exhibition provides us, sadly, with another terrible illustration. The lecturer who made the presentation to reporters stated that the Saint John by Jacques Du Broeucq, of alabaster (ill. 2), and which was to accompany the other three Evangelists by the same artist (ill. 3) was not included because it was “too fragile”. Nothing could be further from the truth, or, alas, only too true : this work which is indeed too fragile was damaged en route to the exhibition, a fact that the speaker was finally obliged to avow, going so far as to reveal that the Irpa (Institut Royal du Patrimoine Artistique) had opposed the shipment of the statues, to no avail. When questioned about the extent of the damage, she replied that the work was “cracked”. It is practically impossible to restore alabaster. In any case, (and let us hope that the damage is not any worse than that) the restoration will be noticeable. This is in fact probably the most beautiful piece in the series.

4. Jacques Du Brœucq
(c. 1505-1584)
Saint Mary Magdalen, c. 1550
Alabastr - about 180 cm
Mons, Collégiale Sainte-Waudru
Photo : D. Rykner

The four Evangelists are not the only Du Broeucq works on display here. He is unlucky in that he seems to be one of the curator’s favourite artists. There are several galleries displaying his works, all of alabaster. One can only shudder at the risks involved in the trip back, especially in the case of Mary Magdalene (ill. 4), a life-size work hanging several metres from the ground over a retable from the collegiate church of Saint Waudru in Mons.

Nothing much is to be gained from an exhibition of this type, except perhaps for the publication of a beautiful Virgin with Child, an anonymous XVth century work from the museum in Verviers. One cannot even really speak of “publishing” since most of the works on display are not covered in the few short essays included in the catalogue.
Museum goers can opt instead for the Paul Klee retrospective located in the same Palais des Beaux-Arts, a happy reminder that this institution, which recently organized Le Grand Atelier in conjunction with Europalia, also knows how to present meaningful exhibitions.

P.S. (12/3/08)—Thanks to the gracious assistance of Mr. Dufour, President of the Fabrique de Saint-Waudru, we have obtained further information concerning the condition of the statue of Saint John and the circumstances surrounding the accident.
When the sculpture was taken down from the retable, the head, which was not in fact of one solid piece with the rest of the body (unbeknownst to everyone) but rather fastened by means of a steel peg, came off and fell from a height of four metres. Luckily, it did not shatter. However, several cracks are visible : particularly on one ear, in the hair and on the chin. A restoration estimate has already been prepared.
As stated in our article, Monsieur Dufour also confirmed to us that the IRPA had expressed strong reservations concerning the shipment of the works. These reservations were never revealed to him by the borrower.

Laurent Busine (ed), Trésors anciens et nouveaux de Wallonie ce curieux pays curieux, Fonds Mercator and Palais des Beaux-Arts, 2008, 256 p, 39,95 €. ISBN : 978-90-6153-810-3 (french) ; ISBN : 978-90-6153-809-7 (nederlands)

Visitor Information : Bruxelles, Palais des Beaux-Arts, rue Ravenstein 23, 1000 Bruxelles. Phone : + 32 02 507 85 94. Open from Tuestday through Sunday, 10.00 - 18.00 (Thurday : 10.00 - 21.00). Admissions : 9 € ; 14 € (with Paul Klee) Site Internet

Didier Rykner, samedi 8 mars 2008

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