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Barbarians in Antwerp
Jan Fabre at the Koninklijk, Antwerp

Michael Savage
posted 2 June 2006

I've often paid good money to see bad art, but the Koninklijk in Antwerp is the first gallery where I've had cause to demand my money back. The art is fantastic, but the hooligans in charge don't want you to see it. Until 3 September contemporary artist Jan Fabre is exhibiting alongside the permanent collection, presenting his works 'in dialogue with' the old masters. Alongside is a misnomer. It is not just that they jar in style and quality; they remorselessly and insistently demand your full attention, refusing quarter to the best of Renaissance and baroque art.

The gallery has one of the best collections of Northern Renaissance art in the world. These rare and precious panels are from an important period in the development of Western art, when the use of oil paint was refined and the development of naturalism often raced ahead of the Italians, combined with sophisticated iconography and compelling characterisation. But they were not produced in the same volume as Italian art, and they have suffered more from the effects of a damper climate and from religious iconoclasm.

Even the most comprehensive collections, such as the Louvre or the National Gallery in London, have only small and often patchy collections of the Northern Renaissance. Many have remained in the areas where they were created - Northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The Koninklijk has two Van Eycks and two van der Weydens - two of the greatest and rarest masters of the Northern Renaissance (and particular favourites of mine) - and a strong collection of the lesser masters. It also has a fabulous collection of Rubens and other seventeenth century artists from Flanders and the Netherlands.

But don't expect to see anything. In the first room a life-size sculpture of a man leans his face against the glass in front of a painting claimed as a van der Weyden (though actually probably by a follower; of course, I can't judge for myself because there was a man blocking my view). I asked a guard why I couldn't see it. He fetched a curator, who explained that this was of course impossible, but I was free to comment in the visitors' book. There was only one other visitor in the room, and my fellow hapless victim of their arrogant prank joined vociferously in my remonstration. She accused them of irresponsibility, which seems exactly right to me. They have custodianship of these rare masterpieces, which they treat like playthings at the disposal of infantile artistic rebels. The sheer, unfounded arrogance of putting some one of Fabre's meagre talents alongside these giants is unforgivable; allowing him to obscure them is criminal.

It got worse. The Brueghels were moved for an installation. Another room, with more Brueghels and a well hidden Cranach, was in darkness except for a film projected against one wall. The largest gallery is devoted to one of the best collections of Rubens anywhere. The paintings are now interspersed with video displays. The sound and light made it literally impossible to appreciate these paintings intended for quiet churches and austere palaces. I had to avoid the room altogether, lest my memory of the paintings be tainted with this intrusive crap.

They gave me my money back without demur; I doubt I was the first to ask. The visitors' book was bursting with the righteous indignation of injured visitors - people who had travelled far to see particular things, or had returned to see old favourites, and had instead Jan Fabre thrown in their face. The curator pointed me to this book with alacrity, perhaps to deflect criticism into a safe sphere. I fear that there is more to it than that. I fear that the very reasonable comments will be ridiculed for their quaintly traditional views, and compared to those of the conservative critics of the Impressionists. The strength of feeling from the old guard of traditional visitors will be taken as evidence of the effectiveness of the display.

It looks like a brave and forward-looking gesture on the part of the curators, bringing the old into dialogue with the new. But it smacks of pitiful timidity, a lack of confidence in presenting the past in its own terms, as if it cannot speak to us today without the interpellation of a contemporary artistic vision. Contemporary artists can engage in dialogue with historic art without overwhelming it, without being in the same space and denying us the different pleasures it can afford. And historic art can stand proudly alone, without trendy updating or quirky gimmicks.

I had planned to spend the whole day at the Koninklijk. Instead I had the pleasure of an afternoon at the Mayer van den Bergh, a historic townhouse with van den Bergh's endearing and highly personal collection. There are some great and celebrated things there, particularly the early sculptures. There are good Brueghels and some exceptional late fourteenth century northern paintings. Best of all was the atmosphere - quiet solace where the art is unencumbered by over-interpretation, inappropriate juxtaposition and external curatorial agendas. And the visitors' book was filled with well-earned praise in half a dozen languages.

Jan Fabre at the Koninklijk until 3 September.
Mayer van den Bergh


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