On the edge of place Royale, the Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts (wwww.fine-arts-museum.be) holds Belgium’s most satisfying all-round collection of fine art, a vast hoard that is exhibited in three interconnected museums, one displaying modern art from the nineteenth century onwards, a second devoted to René Magritte, and a third to older works. Finding your way around is made easy by the English-language, colour-coded museum plan issued at the information desk behind the entrance. The museum also hosts a prestigious programme of temporary exhibitions (colour-coded red on the museum plan) for which a supplementary admission fee is usually required.
Musée d’Art Ancien
Musée d’Art Ancien
In the Musée d’Art Ancien, the blue area displays paintings of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, including the Flemish primitives and the Bruegels, and the brown area concentrates on paintings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the collection of Rubens (for which the museum is internationally famous) as a particular highlight.
The museum owns several paintings by Rogier van der Weyden (1399–1464), who moved to Brussels from his home town of Tournai (in today’s southern Belgium) in the 1430s, becoming the city’s official painter shortly afterwards. When it came to portraiture, Weyden’s favourite technique was to highlight the features of his subject – and tokens of rank – against a black background. His Portrait of Antoine de Bourgogne is a case in point, with Anthony, the illegitimate son of Philip the Good, casting a haughty, tight-lipped stare to his right while wearing the chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece and clasping an arrow, the emblem of the guild of archers.
Weyden’s contemporary, Leuven-based Dieric Bouts (1410–75) is well represented by the two panels of his Justice of the Emperor Otto. The story was well known: in revenge for refusing her advances, the empress accuses a nobleman of attempting to seduce her. He is executed, but the man’s wife remains convinced of his innocence and subsequently proves her point by means of an ordeal by fire – hence the red-hot iron bar she’s holding. The empress then receives her just desserts, being burnt on the hill in the background.
One of the museum’s most interesting paintings is a copy of Temptations of St Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch (1450–1516); the original is in Lisbon’s Museu Nacional. No one is quite sure who painted this triptych – it may or may not have been one of Bosch’s apprentices – but it was certainly produced in Holland in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. The painting refers to St Anthony, a third-century nobleman who withdrew into the desert, where he endured fifteen years of temptation before settling down into his long stint as a hermit. It was the temptations that interested Bosch – rather than the ascetic steeliness of Anthony – and the central panel has an inconspicuous saint sticking desperately to his prayers surrounded by all manner of fiendish phantoms. The side panels develop the theme – to the right Anthony is tempted by lust and greed, and on the left Anthony’s companions help him back to his shelter after he’s been transported through the skies by weird-looking demons.
Another leading Flemish artist, Quinten Matsys (1465–1530) is well represented by the Triptych of the Holy Kindred. Matsys’ work illustrates a turning point in the development of Low Country painting, and in this triptych, completed in 1509, he abandons the realistic interiors and landscapes of his Flemish predecessors in favour of the grand columns and porticoes of the Renaissance. Each scene is rigorously structured, its characters – all relations of Jesus – assuming lofty, idealized poses.
René Magritte (1898–1967) is easily the most famous of Belgium’s modern artists, his disconcerting, strangely haunting images a familiar part of popular culture. Born in a small town just outside Charleroi, he entered the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels in 1915, and was a student there until 1920. His appearances were, however, few and far between as he preferred the company of a group of artists and friends fascinated with the Surrealist movement of the 1920s. Their antics were supposed to incorporate a serious intent – the undermining of bourgeois convention – but the surviving home movies of Magritte and his chums fooling around don’t appear very revolutionary today.
Initially, Magritte worked in a broadly Cubist manner, but in 1925, influenced by the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, he switched over to Surrealism and almost immediately stumbled upon the themes and images that would preoccupy him for decades to come. His work incorporated startling comparisons between the ordinary and the extraordinary, with the occasional erotic element thrown in. Favourite images included men in bowler hats, metamorphic figures, enormous rocks floating in the sky, tubas, fishes with human legs, bilboquets (the cup and ball game), and juxtapositions of night and day – one part of the canvas lit by artificial light, the other basking in full sunlight. He also dabbled in word paintings, mislabelling familiar forms to illustrate (or expose) the arbitrariness of linguistic signs. His canvases were devoid of emotion, deadpan images that were easy to recognize but perplexing because of their setting – perhaps most famously, the man in the suit with a bowler hat and an apple for a face.
He broke with this characteristic style on two occasions, once during the war – in despair over the Nazi occupation – and again in 1948, to revenge long years of neglect by the French artistic establishment. Hundreds had turned up to see Magritte’s first Paris exhibition, but were confronted with crass and crude paintings of childlike simplicity. These so-called Vache paintings created a furore, and Magritte beat a hasty artistic retreat behind a smokescreen of self-justification. These two experiments alienated Magritte from most of the other Surrealists, but this was of little consequence as he was picked up and popularized by an American art dealer, Alexander Iolas, who made him very rich and very famous.
Magritte and his family lived in Jette, a suburb of Brussels, until the late 1950s, and the house is now the Musée René Magritte. He died in 1967, shortly after a major retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York confirmed his reputation as one of the great artists of the twentieth century.