A few weeks ago, I visited one of the most important temporary exhibitions currently on show in the Netherlands. Important not just because of the paintings, but because of its theme: the “discovery” of daily life, or daily life and ordinary people as subject matter in art.
Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam hosted a fabulous temporary exhibition on Jan van Eyck, his era, his predecessors and successors in 2012. It quite rightly drew huge crowds and many international visitors. The museum’s current exhibition is just as fascinating.
It shows the context in which Hieronymus Bosch and his contemporaries worked. Apart from work by Bosch, such as his brilliant “Haywain Triptych” on loan from the Prado, there are also works to be seen by similar revolutionary artists. Among them are Quinten Massijs or Matsys, Lucas van Leyden and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
In 1513, Albrecht Dürer wrote down his opinion that art should serve religion. Art was of course, used to promote the Catholic faith, the Bible, the life and suffering of Christ. It is difficult for us to understand how the Christian faith totally permeated and controlled daily life. About a decade later, Dürer decided to make a “grand tour” and visit fellow artists in the Spanish Netherlands. At the time, this part of the Habsburg Empire included places like Leiden, Rotterdam, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Mechelen, Brussel – to name a few.
Dürer met, wined, dined with fellow artists there (the party bills still exist). He visited their studios, looked at their works, must have discussed ideas and the latest trends. He even attended the wedding of fellow artist Joachim Patinir, whom he described in his diary as “der gut landschafft Mahler”. Patinir was not just an excellent landscape painter. In his paintings the landscapes often dominate, dwarfing saints: religion no longer dominates.
A revolutionary departure from Dürer’s earlier remark. A revolution which can already be detected in scenes from the fabulous “Trés riches Heures” painted by the Limbourgh brothers. As many of their miniatures show, saints no longer dominate pictures and some scenes show farmers at work.The exhibition not only shows farmers as subjects of paintings and prints. It also shows how prints played a role in the new focus on daily life.
When Dürer visited ‘s-Hertogenbosch, Bosch was already dead. But his influence on painting and painters continued. Bosch not only painted devils and monsters. He included contemporary folks in his large, allegorical paintings like “The Haywain”. The exhibition shows two pedlars, one on the back of this painting.
Was it because the middle classes became more important and richer? Or did Bosch included all of society to hold up a mirror to it? All members of society are represented in his allegorical “Haywain”. But the exhibition also shows works which are more obviously critical: monks misbehaving, people so obsessed with wealth and the good life they simply try to buy off death.
The exhibition not only shows paintings and prints. Ordinary items like vessels, glasses, pottery, which are depicted in the many works can be seen as well. Other archaeological finds include toys; while visitors can also listen to the kind of music the farmers and their wives danced on.
This is an exhibition which unlike some (see Turner), will certainly not disappoint and is a delight to visit and revisit. It brims with irony, laughter, merry-making, criticism, misbehaviour, humour and much more. You come across money lenders, tax collectors, poor and rich folks, prostitutes, courtly men and their ladies, odd couples, fools, thieves, swindlers, labourers, mercenaries, children … even someone’s behind – but you’re warned about this.
During this exhibition the museum does charge an additional admission fee, but it is well worth it. This exhibition simply is a must-visit! But: as with their “van Eyck”- exhibition, this one is extremely popular and draws crowds. With only two tills to deal with long queues, you better buy your tickets in advance through the museum’s website. (Scroll down for the link.) The website not only shows ticket prices, visiting days and opening hours, but also contains additional information.
If you have time to spare after this exhibition, the museum’s permanent collection is also worth a visit, as is its café. The museum has a decent museum shop which sells the accompanying exhibition catalogue. Unfortunately, it is only available in Dutch (“Van Bosch tot Bruegel”, eds P. van der Coelen and F. Lammertse, 287, about 35 Euro).
Arttube exhibition introduction video: Bosch to Breugel
“From Bosch to Bruegel”, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen can be visited till 16th of January 2016.