Highlight in Brussels – Bernard van Orley

There are moments when time stands still. When discovering and being mesmerized become one, when an artist whose name you don’t really know, suddenly becomes a revelation to you. I experienced such a moment when visiting the monographic exhibition dedicated to Bernard van Orley in the Palais des Beaux-Arts (Bozar) in Brussels. How is it that Bernard van Orley has been unknown to me so far? When I last sang in the Cathedral Saints Michael and Gudula, I couldn’t stop looking at the absolutely incredible stained windows and still have them very clearly in my mind. Yet, it never occurred to me to check who the artist was.  Until now.

Who is Bernard van Orley?

Bernard van Orley is a Renaissance painter from Brussels. Born in 1488, he is thought to have been trained by his father Valentin. He was the court painter to Marguerite of Austria from 1518 and then to Mary from Hungary from 1532, receiving also commissions from Charles V. He was a very popular painter in his day, owning his studio and can be seen as the missing link between Rogier van der Weyden and  Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Seeing that this year celebrates the 450th anniversary of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s death, numerous exhibitions such as the one in Vienna which you can read about in the previous blog (Insights into Bruegel) are being shown all over. Here, in Brussels, Bruegel is being celebrated too. However, the Bozar has decided to take an indirect approach by celebrating his predecessor Bernard van Orley in a major exhibition and holding another show presenting “Prints in the Age of Bruegel“. What an excellent idea this is!

Van Orley was a very complete artist. He painted portraits, devotional paintings, produced tapestries and stained glass windows. In his beginnings, he did it all alone, but quite early on, he started his studio and left more and more the painting to his assistants, allowing him to concentrate on the tapestries and the stained glass windows.

Holy Family, 1521 (?), Bernard van Orley, Oil on Panel

Influences

In 1520, van Orley gave a feast in his house in honour of Albrecht Dürer. Dürer was at the time visiting the Low Countries and presented van Orley with several engravings and also painted his portrait. Van Orley was influenced in his work not only by Dürer but also by Italian painters such as Mantegna ( whose work you can see in Berlin in another wonderful exhibition ( Mantegna-Bellini ) or Da Vinci.

Segment from Tryptic Haneton, 1520, Bernard van Orley, Oil on Panel

Tapestries

Van Orley not only made tapestries for the Emperor Charles V: he excelled in this art already early on in his career. In the first room we find a gorgeous example from his early days: “Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon”, made for the imperial postmaster Frans van Taxis.

Legend of Our Lady of the Sablon: The Statue of the Virgin Welcomed with Grand Pomp in Brussels, 1526-28, Bernard van Orley – Unknown Brussels Workshop, Wool and silk

Margaret of Austria (Aunt to Charles V) took him into her service in 1518. She already then possessed an important collection of tapestries, extending it further with the orders to her court artist.  In the exhibition the “Square Passion” is being shown fully. It is a set of four devotional tapestries, which were produced between 1518-1522 and regarded as one of the most refined creations of this period.

The Crucifixion, 1518-1520 – Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, 1520-1522 (Square Passion), Bernard van Orley – Pannemaker workshop, Wool – silk – gold and silver thread

Around 1530, van Orley made two large tapestries series for the Emperor Charles V. These are among the most prestigious ever realized by the Brussels workshops. The Emperor Charles V was then at the height of his powers, and Brussels was the city he lived in most, making it the center of the western world. In this exhibition we see “The Battle of Pavia. Attack on the French Camp and Flight of the Besieged” from a series of 7 Tapestries depicting the military victory in Nothern Italy in 1525 by the new imperial armies. On the other side of the room a set of 3 tapestries from a series of twelve, depicting The Hunts of Charles V are shown. Here we find a beautiful representation of the Brussels landscape.

The Hunt of Charles V. The Month of September (Sign of Libra), About 1531-33, Bernard van Orley – Dermoyen workshop Brussels, Wool – silk – gold and silver thread

Famous in his days

When van Orley entered the services of Margaret of Austria he was a known painter, having already produced the prototypes for traditional portraits of the regent and young Charles  which were copied and distributed numerous times. This was reason enough for important public figures such as the doctor Georges de Zelle to get their portrait made by him too.

Portrait of Georges de Zelle, 1519, Bernard van Orley, Oil on Panel

What a feast this exhibition is. My afternoon there was reason enough for me to get the catalogue, which I can highly recommend even if it is a little pricy. I also want to point out that in the last room, at the end of the exhibition you will find a small flyer with an invitation to walk to different places in Brussels where you can discover more about this great artist. It is a little darkly lit there, so you may not see the flyer at first glance. Of course, the stained glass windows can’t be in the exhibition, although some wonderful drawings and sketches are shown. I have, however, found a photo from a segment of those at the Saints Michael and Gudula Cathedral from my last time there, which I want to share with you. It is a fine thing when one can finally recognize an artist whose work one has admired before.

Segment of stained glass Windows at Saints Michael and Gudula Cathedral in Brussels, Bernard van Orley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Insights into Bruegel – An outstanding exhibition in Vienna

Bruegel versus Brueghel

I recently got the chance to attend two main monographic exhibitions in Vienna. Each one of them was vast and inspiring: no wonder with such big names as Bruegel and Monet, whose works are part of our collective consciousness. I initially wanted to write about both exhibitions and compare them to one another. But on second thought I voted against this judgemental “competition” and decided to let each artist and each curator “speak for themselves” instead. Here is my impression of one of Vienna’s most interesting exhibitions of the past years.

The Painter and the Connoisseur, 1565

A  surprisingly critical mind – Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Vienna‘s Kunsthistorisches Museum, which possesses the largest collection of Bruegel paintings worldwide due to the Habsburg’s collecting passion, hosted a once-in-a-lifetime monographic exhibition on the most prominent Netherlandish painter of the 16th century, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525? – 1569).

The Peasant Wedding, around 1567

Many of Bruegel‘s paintings are known to a wider public thanks to numerous reproductions. Most of us would probably recognize The Hunters in the Snow or The Peasant Wedding as one of his works (the latter was even included as a parody in the victory feast at the Belgian village at the end of Uderzo’s and Goscinny’s Asterix in Belgium).

But how many of us know of Bruegel‘s highly symbolic drawings, engravings, and paintings which bring to mind another prominent Dutch master, Hieronymus Bosch (1450 – 1516)? I certainly didn’t. And when does one ever get a chance to experience such an amount of masterpieces, which museums rarely loan to other institutions, gathered together in one spot and thus get an insight into the artist’s complex pictorial world?

Children’s Games, 1560

The exhibition’s set-up

The Viennese anniversary exhibition commemorates 450 years since Bruegel‘s premature death in his early 40s. The curators chose a thematic organization of the approximately 90 exhibits, while still following the artist’s biography. Thus the created structure helped visitors discover and immerse into different aspects of the artist‘s diverse oeuvre. The detailed information provided by the museum through various media, consisting a.o. of descriptions aside from each work, as well as a free little booklet with more details, facilitated this journey into Bruegel’s unique artistic world. More so, the museum initiated a research project that prepared and accompanied this noteworthy exhibition, focusing on a comprehensive technological analysis of the twelve panel paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder in its possession. Even after the end of the exhibition, a free website under www.insidebruegel.net offers deep insights into Bruegel‘s paintings and working method, based on the recent technological analyses.

The Hunters in the Snow, 1565

Bruegel’s different subjects

The four large galleries and six smaller adjoining rooms presented and examined Bruegel’s remarkable artistry, focusing on the different subjects he chose, as well as on the analysis of his craftsmanship. They showed Bruegel‘s artistic beginnings as a draughtsman and graphic artist and revealed the fact that he also trained as a miniaturist.  A big collection of path-breaking masterpieces in landscape and genre painting, where series and groups like The Seasons were reunited, some of them for the first time in centuries, underlined the painter’s innovations and vital contributions to the evolution of landscape-painting and his phenomenal observation skills.

The Procession to Calvary, 1564

The exhibition set an additional focus on Bruegel‘s religious works, from the large oil-on-canvas panel The Procession to Calvary which was displayed without a picture frame and gave spectators the feeling of standing in the painter’s studio, to such enigmatic and apocalyptic paintings as The Triumph of Death and Dulle Griet which were exposed near each other and invited  visitors to draw their own comparisons and conclusions. The engraved allegoric cycles The Seven Deadly Sins and The Seven Virtues reinforced the impression of Bruegel as a sharp-eyed observer of the human race and appeared very modern in their witty, satirical and caustic approach to me.

Big Fish Eat Little Fish, 1557 (Printmaker: Pieter van der Heyden)

A scientific look at Bruegel’s work

The technological analyses that helped prepare this extraordinary exhibition focused on the materiality of Bruegel’s works, starting with his drawing- and painting materials and -technique and letting the hidden underdrawings come to light through infrared photography. Additionally, questions of the present state, as well as the restoration work on the paintings, were addressed.

The interesting findings of these analyses revealed and documented the painter‘s creative process and allowed visitors to look over the artist’s shoulder, and appreciate his artistry even more. A presentation of contemporary artifacts depicted in The Fight between Carnival and Lent proved how realistic and skillful Bruegel‘s painting of everyday objects of his time was, and let us immerse even more into the 16th century.

The rear side of the panel of The Procession to Calvary, 1564

Bruegel in Vienna: A most satisfying acquaintance with the master

The Viennese Bruegel retrospective’s thematical organization, accompanied by a large amount of information on the displayed oeuvres as well as on the working methods of the artist, plus a very modern, interactive website (still online – check it out under www.bruegel2018.at, it’s absolutely worth it!) had a highly educational and engaging character which I enjoyed very much, especially since I knew very little about Bruegel before.

Of course, Bruegel’s detail-oriented and often highly symbolic way of drawing and painting cry out for such an approach. There is so much to discover in each and every work, and it is quite impossible to notice everything at first sight without proper background- or historical knowledge. The provided information guided my eyes to many details I might not have noticed and encouraged me to start looking more attentively. I especially loved the juxtaposition of works which might not have been created as a group but have a lot in common, summiting in the two versions of The Tower of Babel.

The Tower of Babel, Vienna Version, 1563
The Tower of Babel, Rotterdam Version, after 1563?
An amateur copyist working on “The Tower of Babel”

Fancy a little more Bruegel?

This exciting exhibition awakened my interest for the unique Netherlandish artist and made me start reading about him, so as to be able to join the never-ending discussions about the possible meanings that are hidden in Bruegel’s distinctive oeuvre.

While doing so, I discovered the following websites and blogs I can highly recommend to those interested:

  • The Pursuit of Bruegel in the blog “That’s How The Light Gets In”: A fellow blogger’s pursuit of Bruegel around Europe with wonderful descriptions of Bruegel’s works, including background information.
  • The e-Art Magazine “Art in Words“: Current reports and previews of exhibitions around Europe, articles on art history and artists (unfortunately only in German).
  • The online-channel “Museumsfernsehen“, that bundles videos from German-speaking museums in one platform and contains two Bruegel-experts’ lectures in English.

And what about the name?

While the dedicatee of the exhibition started omitting the “h” from his surname from 1559 on, and went down in history as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, his two sons, who also became painters kept it, and are thus known as Pieter Brueghel the Younger (1564-1638) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625).

 

 

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