Jan Van Eyck’s Diamond-Hard Brilliance, as You’ll Never See It Again

GHENT, Belgium — God is within the particulars, they guarantee you; however some artwork is so jam-packed with particulars, every hair so positive, every fold so painstaking, that it surpasses even the divine. Nearly six centuries in the past, right here within the northwest nook of Europe, the painter Jan van Eyck used a brand-new know-how — oil paint — to pioneer an artwork of such precision that it nearly negated its spiritual perform, and went previous inspiring prayer to develop into one thing everlasting itself. Still right this moment, for secular audiences, his diamond-hard work can seem to come back from one other world.

“Once in a lifetime,” a phrase I usually disdain as a marketer’s wheeze, truly applies to this giant show. For this occasion only, the altarpiece’s eight recently restored outer panels — including a pellucid Annunciation featuring Mary and Gabriel in Belgian-chic gray — have left the cathedral and are being displayed as independent paintings, which means you can get closer than ever before. At the end of April, they’ll rejoin their interior partners at St. Bavo’s for good.

Besides the altarpiece, only 22 autograph paintings by Van Eyck survive, and 12 of them have made the trip back here, as have another nine attributed to Van Eyck and his workshop assistants. Add in tapestries, marble statues, illuminated manuscripts and paintings by fellow Flemings such as Petrus Christus and Italian contemporaries like Fra Angelico, and you have a blockbuster of celestial proportions.

Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts (known by its Dutch abbreviation MSK) has smartly cleared out an entire wing of its collection galleries to make space for “An Optical Revolution,” and contextualizes the changes wrought by Van Eyck’s ultra-meticulous art across six whole introductory rooms. The Burgundian Netherlands was one of Europe’s most urbanized areas in the early 15th century. As the region got richer, and as the court partied from Brussels to Ghent to Bruges, local notables competed to commission luxurious and learned works of art — including, for the first time, panel paintings.

Jan van Eyck (and his brother) saw Burgundy booming from afar, and this immigrant artist soon won the trust of Philip the Good, the duke of Burgundy, for whom he served as a court painter, confidant and even spy. From this artistic and cultural epicenter, Van Eyck developed an unprecedented new painting style, which saw the flat signs of Gothic painting give way to exquisite illusions of bodies in real spaces. He discovered that, by varying how crisply or hazily he painted a tree or building, he could reproduce on a flush plank of poplar the depths of a Flemish countryside or a palace interior.

And oil paint, above all in the Van Eyck brothers’ altarpiece, birthed a new religious art with such exactitude that believers could look past this world to the world beyond. In the altarpiece panel depicting the nude Adam, moved to the MSK, you can see a dusting of individual black hairs on his milk-white thighs and calves, and even his toenails have been meticulously curved. On Gabriel’s wings you can make out every last feather, gently gradating from green to gold to grapefruit pink.

But don’t expect Edenic silence. The MSK provides visitors with audio guides that must be passed in front of motion detectors stationed next to each painting, emitting a beep with every swipe. They make the galleries sound like a Kmart checkout line, and pose such an infernal distraction you may want to bring earplugs.

Concentration doesn’t come easier at St. Bavo’s Cathedral, in Ghent’s historical center, where the interior panels of the altarpiece are on display. They’re shown in a cramped little room, and although the church forbids both speaking and photography inside, that doesn’t help when you hear the roar of dozens of hand-held audio guides. (The cathedral is opening a new interpretation center this autumn, and I have one request: please, audio guides with in-ear headphones.)

Under these conditions, and with Van Eyck’s panels more than five feet away behind thick glass, I struggled to form a definitive opinion on their restoration — especially regarding the face of the Lamb of God, which last month launched a thousand memes more worthy of ruminants than children of Adam. The altarpiece does appear brighter and crisper than it did on my last visit to Ghent. Mary glistens, the angels trill. But it’s hard to appreciate the altarpiece, here, as anything but a bucket-list jewel. It made me think, for better and worse, of my iPhone’s screen, which emits light through each pixel.

If Van Eyck’s innovations are hard to see in the cathedral, all the more reason to grab the chance to see the outer panels at the MSK. Consider this, however: We see more images in a month than the worshipers of 15th-century Flanders saw in a lifetime. And even we, in our muddle of memes, feel something like the awe they must have experienced standing before these 600-year-old paintings, where human invention stretches toward the sacred.

Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution

Through April 30 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent, Belgium; vaneyck2020.be.

Source link Nytimes.com

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