Museum Mayer van den Bergh,
Permanent exhibition plus temporary display: Divine Interiors until October 16.
Born to a well-to-do Antwerp businessman and his aristocratic wife, Fritz Mayer was groomed to become a diplomat, but instead threw himself into collecting with a particular passion for Dutch art of the 14th-16th centuries.
After his death in 1901 at the age of only 43, the result of a riding accident, his mother Henriette van den Bergh set about fulfilling her son’s dream of creating a museum to house the hundreds of works he had acquired. She commissioned Antwerp architect Joseph Hertogs to create what appears to be a 16th-century townhouse, but in reality was purpose built in 1903-4. The atmospheric result is the world’s first museum to be shaped around the collection of one person.
Just one of its many treasures would be enough to merit the journey: Dulle Griet, otherwise known as Mad Meg (1561), by Pieter Bruegel the elder.
At a time when Bruegel was out of fashion, Mayer bought the work at a Cologne auction in 1894 for the equivalent of 12.50 euros in today’s money.
In common with other paintings of the time, Mad Meg is believed to have been inspired by the saying “she could plunder in front of hell and return unscathed”.
Bruegel’s interpretation of this Flemish reference to someone afraid of nothing is a fearsome, deranged woman in male armour with a bag of loot, striding across an apocalyptic landscape. Around her, an army of women pillage a house, the jaws of hell gape wide and broken eggshells, symbols of transience, and headless and half-fish monsters, reminiscent of Bosch, litter the scene.
It’s an alien world in the sense we surely react to it very differently now most people don’t believe in hell or simple morality. At the same time, the depiction of unbridled savagery and greed unfortunately still has truth.
The museum’s notes tell us this picture is among “the most Boschian” of Bruegel’s paintings and in the 500th anniversary year of Hieronymous Bosch’s death, we are steered through other Bosch connections.
The Temptation of St Anthony was a recurrent theme for Bosch and it is also well covered in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh.
One of the most involving versions is Pieter Huys’ version of 1577 in which St Anthony, unwavering in his solemnity, kneels before a ramshackle hut surrounded by a riot of earthly temptations in the form of debauched merrymakers, half-human, half-animal.
The clash between restraint and abandon is also depicted with gusto in the Battle between Carnival and Lent “after Hiernonymous Bosch”, second half of the 16th-century. Intellectually, we know Carnival is a fool and restraint is the sensible path, but it’s hard to imagine the woman carrying a fish on her head to represent Lent is having any fun. Again part of the challenge is in imaging how the original audience would have responded to the blend of the comic and the serious and in seeking the connections to our own times.
Once you’ve exhausted Boschian explorations of good and evil, Museum Mayer van den Bergh has many other offerings.
Apart from the richness of the building itself with its polished wood banisters and high, tiled fireplaces, Mayer acquired some of the jewellery for which Antwerp is famous, ceremonial seals evocative of its thriving business, books, furniture and Delftware.
One of his most celebrated acquisitions is a gilded Christmas Crib from mid-15th century Brabant. It’s a rare survivor from the times when such cribs, usually owned by convents, were set up at Christmastime and the nuns, while singing carols, took turns to pull a cord to rock the cradle, which held a figurine of the baby Jesus. The crib itself has long perished, but the highly ornate stand survives.
Paintings nevertheless dominate and Mayer’s interest extended beyond the 14th-16th Dutch art that particularly inspired him.
A collection of still life from the 17th-century is testimony to the virtuosity of the genre as it flourished in Antwerp, Frankfurt and Milan when they were prominent commercial centres with a wealthy bourgeoisie.
Frankfurt-born Abraham Mignon’s Grapes in a Niche (believed to date from 1669) is a celebration of autumn bounty. A dense cluster of green grapes, shot through with light, has the lead role. It’s framed by veined leaves tinged with copper and the picture is enriched with chestnuts springing from their spiny cases, daisies, snails and a gorgeous hairy caterpillar.
Hendrik de Fromantiou was born in Maastricht, circa 1633. The son of a soldier, he rose to become court painter to Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg. His still life with oysters, perfectly textured bread and a Venetian wine glass captures a moment of luxurious pleasure. Would today’s equivalent be a mobile phone photograph at an expensive restaurant for a celebrational meal?
Equally, portraits have become all too easy, though no less image-obsessed. In the 17th-century, one of the masters, especially of child portraiture, was Cornelis de Vos (1584-1651). His subjects are in our eyes absurdly formally dressed. His portrait of Frans Vekemans, for instance, shows a boy in a floor-length robe that resembles upholstery with cuffs and collar of exquisite lace, while he holds a large, broad-brimmed hat that exaggerates his lack of height and underlines the point he is not yet a man, but soon enough will be with all the responsibilities that entails.
As if all this weren’t enough food for thought, the Museum Mayer van den Bergh every two years puts on an exhibition that extrapolates from Mayer’s collection.
This year’s theme is Divine Interiors, a collection of works that takes us into the atmosphere of churches at the time of some of the artists represented in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh and of Rubens (1577-1640), whose house is a few streets away.
If you have the leisure and the appetite, there is an app to download and suggested tours of the Antwerp churches depicted, including the massive gothic cathedral with the tallest spire in the Netherlands and the vertiginously high ceilings so different from the intimacy of the museum.
In any case, you will better appreciate the architecture after seeing it through the eyes of the Antwerp school of architectural painting, some of whose works are exhibited for the first time in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh.
Like the rest of the artistic scene, it was a close-knit world of fathers and sons (Peeter Neeffs, younger and elder), masters and apprentices and collaborations for instance in Bartholomeus van Bassen’s cathedral with figures painted by Sebastiaan Vrancx.
They capture the as much social as religious experience of wandering through the high-vaulted aisles: well-dressed burghers parade their finery, the religious aristocracy is ostentatious in statement black clothing, ragged beggars, with possibly the greatest claim to piety, crawl on chequered floors, and dogs chafe on leads or roam free of all pretence to status.
Barbara Lewis © 2016.