This blog has been on my planning for some time now. I visit the Groeningemuseum in Bruges on a regular basis. I try to visit every temporary exhibition they host, enjoy their slow art talks and love to take a guided tour on their nocturnal opening nights. But apart from the temporary exhibitions and Mind the Artist interventions, the slow art talks and nocturnal opening nights have been withdrawn from their activities programme these last few years. A real pity.
Temporary exhibitions never take over the whole museum so every visit gives me a new opportunity to discover some art works that make up their permanent collection. In this blog I want to share with you some my favourite and often overlooked paintings of the Groeningemuseum in Bruges. Bruges is known worldwide for the Flemish Primitive painters (pre-renaissance artists) that lived and worked in the city in the 15th century, Bruges’ golden age. Well known names are Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Hugo van der Goes and Gerard David. Van Eyck and Memling have been in the spotlight these last years with the exhibition ‘Van Eyck in Bruges’ in the Groeningemuseum and ‘Memling Now’ in the Old Saint-John’s hospital.
The permanent collection of the museum spans a periode that starts in the 14th century and runs up to the 20th century. Contemporary art is brought into the museum through its temporary exhibitions and interventions. Musea Brugge will build a new and modern exhibition hall BRUSK in the coming years creating more space for contemporary art in Bruges.
The portrait Margaretha by Jan van Eyck is one of the highlights of the Early Flemish paintings that form the core of the world famous collection of the Groeningemuseum. The intimate portrait of Van Eyck’s wife Margaretha is probably painted for personal use. Her head seems unusually big in comparison to her upper body and arms. But it is the soft gaze in her eyes that seems to draw everyone towards the painting. The museum does not own a painting by Rogier van der Weyden but owns two copies, one is a beautiful version of Saint Luke drawing the Virgin’s portrait. The second painting is a portrait of Philip the Good which is also believed to be a copy after Rogier van der Weyden. This painting feels like it really belongs in Bruges and shows in its execution a lot of resemblance with the portrait of Louis of Gruuhuse (shown in the Gruuthuse museum next door). Each portrait only highlights the face, the necklace of the order of the Golden Fleece and the hands. The portraits breathe serenity and both figures seem to turn inwards. I am attracted by the sober composition.
in the second room I am always drawn towards a painting by Petrus Christus ‘ Left wing of a tryptich, Isabel of Portugal with Saint Elisabeth. The devote faces of the two characters contract beautifully with the gold brocate of the dress and the golden crown. In the back, a finely painted landscape adds to the quiet atmosphere. A second painting is Saint Veronica who holds the cloth with which Veronica wiped away the sweat and blood of Christ during his walk up to Golgotha, miraculously preserving his features on the veil. It is painted by the Master of the Legend of Saint Ursula. On one of the walls of the church of our Lady we also find a painted image of Saint Veronica found during the last restoration of the church. A third painting I like is the Annunciation by Hans Memling. I am a bigger fan of Memling than of Van Eyck. I like the frail figures he paints that feel more elegant than those by Jan van Eyck. And I loved the exhibition Memling Now where his work inspired the work of contemporary artists.
In the following room I am drawn towards a painting by Jan Provoost of Saint Catherine just before she will be beheaded. How she can keep her calm while the executioner already sways his sword up above her head is a mystery to me. It is part of a triptych of which the left handed panel is part of the collection of the Boijmans-Van Beuningen museum in Rotterdam. The Boijmans-Van Beuningen museum has now an exciting new depot designed by Winy Maas that I should visit soon! In the third room I love the portrait of Mary Magdalene by Ambrosius Benson, who seems to have looked very closely to the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci and imported the Italian renaissance style of painting into Bruges.
The painting by Pieter Breughel II in room 4, is a copy after his father Pieter Breughel the Elder. I love to look at the many details in the mass of people listening to John the Baptist who is preaching. Breughel paints a hugely diverse group of people wearing all kinds of clothes and hats, documenting fashion in the 16th century. In room 6 I never get enough of the Portrait of Marie-Joséphine Lafont-Porcher by François-Joseph Kinsoen, a Bruges painter who made a very flattering portrait of the opera singer who was together with her violinist husband part of the Paris intellectual and artistic society. He painted her clothes with meticulous detail and catches the transparency of her white dress beautifully.
In room 7 I am caught by the work of Fernand Khnopff and Edmond Van Hove. I love the way Khnopff painted the reflection of the Old Saint-John’s hospital in the water of the canal. And I admire the very melancholic portraits of an older farmers couple and the self-portrait by Edmond Van Hove. His almost photographic self-portrait is very reminiscent of the 15th century portraits that only highlighted the face on a dark background. It is no surprise that I like Memling as well as Van Hove who is often named the modern Memling.
The way the painting by Roger Raveel is presented makes it impossible to miss for the visitor. You really feel as if you approach the painted man, standing in a typical Flemish fenced off garden, from behind. I am fascinated by the oeuvre of Marcel Broodthaers, but unfortunately the Groeningemuseum only presents two small works that don’t do him justice. He deserves a whole room or cabinet for the visitor to really grasp his criticism of art, the artworld, consumerism of art, authorship, reproductions and the role of museums, a message he likes to communicate with humour and irony. I like the way he incorporates text, printed word and poetry in his work.
In the last room the largest painting of the museum, The Last Supper by the religious Gustave Van de Woestyne towers above the visitor like a loud message before leaving the museum. The painting has a very Flemish feel, with the typical coarse figures that were also painted by his contemporary Constant Permeke and show a lot of resemblance with the paintings by Breughel, in particular The Peasant Wedding by Breughel the elder. While Breughel depicts morality in his paintings, Van de Woestyne’s message is deeply religious. The paintings by Permeke and Van de Woestyne strongly remind me of images of my grandparents. Do not miss the four cabinets with 17th century genre paintings. Although I am not a big fan of baroque paintings I do love the sumptuous baroque still lifes presented here. My two favourite paintings are the Flower Piece by Gaspar-Pieter Verbruggen The Younger inside a beautifully gold wooden frame decorated with carved angels and more flowers. The multicoloured flowers make me want to run to the flowershop to buy a bouquet.
The still life with Birds by Frans van Cuyck de Myerhop, an artist born in Bruges in the 17th century, attracts me although I am strongly against hunting animals and a vegetarian. The impressive trompe l’oeil technique together with a subject that strongly refers to death seemingly have a strong attraction on me. Only recently, on the arts festival ‘Beestig’ in Damme, I saw a contemporary work by the Belgian artist Gideon Kiefer that had the same strong visual effect on me. This painting also throws me back to my childhood when I saw my grandmother slaughter a rabbit for Christmas, hanging it from its back legs from a nail in the shed, just like these birds.