CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

CODARTfocus Brugge: review

By Leonore van Sloten, Museum het Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam and and Norbert Middelkoop, Amsterdams Historisch Museum

This edition of CODARTfocus, hosted by the Musea Brugge not only for CODART members but also the Contact Group of Early Netherlandish Painting, the Historians of Netherlandish Art, CODART Maecenases and the Friends of the Musea Bruges, attracted a fine mix of more than a hundred curators, academics and city officials. The program was twofold: a morning session on the presumed necessity of reshuffling the permanent presentation at Sint-Janshospitaal, formerly known as the Memling Museum, and an afternoon dedicated to the ars nova displayed at the Groeningemuseum – the mega-exhibition Van Eyck to Dürer.

Strolling through the magnificent hall of Sint-Janshospitaal, participants might easily have questioned the advisability of changing a museum display less than ten years after it opened to the public. However, this was in line with the invitation of Manfred Sellink, director of the Musea Brugge, to hold an open discussion on all the options, although not before two statements on the issue were made by members of a so-called “think tank” of specialists. Hilde De Bruyne, archivist-curator at the Openbaar Centrum voor Maatschappelijk Welzijn, sketched the history of the building and outlined the project leading to the current installation: a historical presentation in an old hospital hall, using added museum walls and modern showcases to create a routing leading to the apotheosis of the visit, namely six altarpieces by Memling grouped together at the end of the chapel.

Jos Koldeweij, professor of medieval art history at Radboud University, Nijmegen, pleaded for a radical change to this approach, since the monumental building is at odds with a display that behaves simultaneously like a “Memling Museum,” an “Art Museum” and a “Hospital.” In his view, the main entrance should be moved to the back of the building, the hall freed of museum architecture and the large Memling altar in the chapel placed elsewhere as it blocks the view of the baroque setting behind it. The current entrance could be turned into a huge visual “appetizer” for passers-by. And, a large part of the permanent collection could be installed on the upper floor to restore the great hall’s sense of space.

The subsequent discussion proved fruitful and touched upon a number of aspects worth considering. The general consensus was that the current display is overcrowded and the routing too complex. Suggestions for solving these problems ranged from: “The current permanent exhibition is far too extensive; show a smaller selection of the collection and perhaps move most of it to the attic for special presentations,” to “Make the building feel right to the visitor: be more clear about its former function as a hospital,” and “Take away the current showcases and confusing museum architecture. Then reconstruct what the interior looked like, using the painting with a view of the hospital interior as the key to a clearer permanent exhibition. Showcases in the form of box bed-like structures – like those in the painting – could be used for objects related to the hospital’s history.” A plea was made to “Help the visitor to step into medieval times, and take them from there to the various treasures of the collection, such as the Memlings.”

The afternoon was dedicated to Van Eyck to Dürer, curated by Till Holger-Borchert. In his view, this ambitious exhibition can be considered the sequel to Jan van Eyck and the Flemish Primitives held in the Groeningemuseum in 2002. The current exhibition treats the influence Van Eyck and his contemporaries exerted on Central and Eastern Europe. The careful and thoughtful selection of exhibits resulted in a stunning exhibition of masterpieces along with comparative works. The paintings are displayed attractively next to drawings and prints, and in some cases diptychs have been happily reunited. All together they tell a story of great importance, but with one introductory wall panel per room and only basic information – in six languages! – next to the works themselves, the message is sometimes difficult to grasp. Unfortunately there was no time to discuss the way the exhibition was built up and presented to the public. As Holger-Borchert himself suggested, the show is probably too large to digest in a single visit. Like most art lovers, the busy ars nova lover might have but a single chance to travel to Bruges. Therefore, we strongly advise reading the bulky catalogue first in order not to miss any essential information on the splendid artworks on display.

All in all, this CODARTfocus was highly successful in its focus on both permanent and temporary presentations. Studying and discussing them with colleagues at the invitation of a hosting museum offers an excellent model for future editions.