Charbel-joseph H. Boutros, The Sun Is My Only Ally, SMAK Ghent to 10th May 2020
Jan Van Eyck, An Optical Revolution, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent to 30th April 2020
Two buildings stand in opposition to each other. One, SMAK, has galleries which could befit an aircraft carrier; the other, SMK an older classical building is probably no less expansive, and reveals itself in smaller doses, with its walls bedecked in the more traditional form we’re familiar with in art museums as opposed to what we might call art galleries. Another difference which was shall we say un-ignorable was the fact that the former had maybe 10 adult visitors in the entire building (I exclude a school trip, since none of its participants seemed to have a clue why they were there). The latter building, in the spaces devoted to its special van Eyck blockbuster was heaving, not as bad as the Bosch 500th in 2017, but bordering on the uncomfortable nevertheless.
So, the picture here is representative of the interest shown in the work of Boutros, an artist from Beirut. I have to say that without the exhibition notes, Boutros’ work was of limited appeal—the appearance of emptiness punctuated with seemingly random objects is a bit a of cliché these days, on its own. But the exhibition notes tell a different story. In the case of the works illustrated (above) we have: '2m Long of Isolated Darkness' (2017) (the bit that is partially hiding underneath the felt). This is ‘isolation foam, empty metallic tube, darkness.’ The table is '1m2 of Lebanese Land Finally Liberated from this Shitty Situation' (2016) where the artist has clearly stolen part of his home country for the sake of art. Then, on the left hand side of the picture you have the ends of two cubes which is called 'I Stood in the Middle of the Strait of Gibraltar and Dropped My Left Tear in the Atlantic Ocean and My Right Tear in the Mediterranean Sea' (2015-19). The cubes are containers whose contents are as in the title, containing the waters of these two mixes.
This then is post-studio art par excellence. Here’s another two examples: one exhibit I waltzed by turns out to be 'Le dernier souhait d’Alfred Jarry' (2105). The dying wish of Alfred Jarry which for anyone who doesn’t know, was to have a toothpick. Jarry, of pataphysics fame would have been (I dare say) impressed with 'Untouched Marble' (2014), ‘A marble cube, untouched by humans, has been extracted from a quarry and later accompanied the artist in his everyday action for the duration of one month– in his studio, at the bar or cinema, on his bicycle, in his bed . . . Here the stone is exhibited close to an identical one that wasn’t charged with an intimate experience.’
Without explanation how much of all this would have passed the viewer by, wandering around these uncaptioned, empty spaces? There’s very deceptively a lot going on here, and it begs the question as to whether you need to know what it is all about before you look at it—or should it speak for itself inside your head, in which case, fine, but maybe missing a point or two. I’m afraid for me the works didn’t grab my attention as much as the explanations did. An interesting conundrum which judging by my visit’s observations hasn’t bothered too may people.
This gallery is well worth returning to, and being only twenty-odd minutes by train from Bruges is well within the scope of a day trip. On this occasion the main purpose of my visit to Ghent was the Jan van Eyck exhibition. As is my experience of these blockbusters I wonder whether I would rather spend my time gazing on just one example of his work—indeed one of the very best, 'Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele' which can be seen in uncrowded comfort in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges (and which wasn’t loaned to the Ghent show). But despite that picture’s absence this show was perhaps the most comprehensive survey of van Eyck’s work one is likely to see in one place in this lifetime. Van Eyck has been described as the inventor of oil painting, and I guess of composition too. Superlatives are easy to come by looking at his astonishing handling of sometimes microscopic detail—many of the pictures here are little more than several inches square, yet if they were to be resized to A1 poster size you would still marvel at their dexterity. The thought that runs through my mind is how such work was created in the relatively primitive circumstances of the day, that is with the light available. I assume such intricate works would chiefly be created in daylight, so for a north European artist limited daylight hours must have been quite a constraint. We should never forget how dark things were when the only artificial lighting would have been pretty dim candles made from melted horse fat or whatever they used in those days. But Beethoven composed some of his greatest works when he was stone deaf, so perhaps such practicalities are passé for the genius.
The highlight of the show were panels from the Ghent Altarpiece. They have an impassive authority, the subject is contemplation, each figure contained in their own niche, each dressed in flowing robes which suggest a certain station in life. These are not peasants but very well attired pious nobles and saints going about their religious duties, literally people to look up to, to aspire to. Indeed the only person in this exhibition who is portrayed in rags is Jesus himself and then only to conceal his modesty. The people who mainly appear in van Eycks (Eycks plural since his brother Hubert was a major collaborator) are sartorially well endowed. In religious pictures of this period bishops come off particularly well, their cloaks and gowns splendidly embroidered in gold and whatever other finery they could lay their hands on. Why one wonders do bishops go in for this sort of dress even today, when their Saviour passed on with barely a loin cloth? Or, in his day, was van Eyck just showing off, running the best designer clothing atelier in Europe? Whatever, thank heavens these pictures survived the iconoclasm of the Reformation—which heralded bare walls and plain objects—a bit like the scenes we find in modern art galleries these days.