Groeningemuseum, Bruges In the permanent collection
For anyone unfamiliar with the Judgement of Cambyses, the best way to learn about it is by seeing Gerard David’s dyptich (painted in 1498)of the same name in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges. It is surely one of the most excruciating pictures of all time – nothing designed to shock in the modern era comes close, and indeed I don’t think anything from the medieval period matches it either. In brief, the story is that the Persian King Cambyses, on learning that one of his magistrates was corrupt, ordered that the offender be stripped of his skin. The skin was used as a covering for the unfortunate magistrate’s chair – which was then occupied by his son, who was given his late father’s position.
One picture shows the arrest of the magistrate. His accusers all look very serious, and are possibly portraits of the local burghers who may have contributed to the cost of the painting, a bit of vanity perhaps mixed with a bit of insurance? I would need to check out the history of the painting, but I’m rather happy to make this assumption, since it was common practice at the time for patrons to have themselves painted in. The right hand panel shows the start of the process. It’s not unlike Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. NicolaesTulp (in the Mauritshuis, The Hague) but Rembrandt’s scalpels are cutting into a cold, grey cadaver. Here, the magistrate’s teeth-clenching grimace shows he is very much alive. He lies there helpless – knowing that to struggle could intensify the pain – the skin is already being pulled off his left leg, incisions are being made elsewhere.
But the burghers’ gaze is averted – they stand to the fore and seem distracted by something else, whereas the second rank of onlookers are fixated with the magistrate’s skinning. What I wonder is David telling us? Are the chief accusers a little embarrassed by the harshness of the punishment? The two pictures are set in the centre of a town. There are passers-by. In both pictures dogs attend to their genitals or an itch behind the ear. There is no great mob of baying peasantry. The whole scene is one of considered bourgeois normality – oh! Let’s skin the magistrate today! It’s the civilised thing to do.
In my opinion David’s dyptich is one of the greatest masterpieces of western art. It is of its time, but it is vibrant in its ambivalence. It could be telling us that ‘in its time’ was a time of untold cruelty, given succour by despotic rulers connived in by fawning acolytes. I suppose the straightforward interpretation would be that uncorrupted justice is the most valuable quality of civilisation and its corruption deserves the most heinous punishment. But really - even in 1498 - being skinned alive? It can only be a fortuitously good thing that members of ISIS will never have visited the Groeninge, for they may have learnt something about how our civilisation developed.
The Groeninge permanent collection also has Bosch’s Last Judgement. After David, it is a relief. Here people only get cut up, or are transmuted into strange beasts and get to wear Bosch’s trademark weird metallic headgear. The fires of hell singe the very ground mortals tread and there is no relief from torture. But it’s on a different scale, and one never feels the personal. Bosch’s concern is the condition of mankind, not of one man. But another extraordinary piece all the same, and it is possible to approach the tryptich close up – under the watchful gaze of the gallery attendant – unlike at last year’s Bosch 500th show in s-Hertogenbosch where hordes of Americans blocked the view of each and every picture. Here, one Bosch will do when you can study it en solitaire. The same is true of Jan van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon Joris van der Peele. Superlatives won’t suffice to describe the quality of this work. I wish ‘breathtaking’ could do it justice. It just has to be seen to know that there is everything to aspire to in the world of art, then, now and always.
David is also represented in the collection with his tryptich The Baptism of Christ. Naturally its altarpiece form gives it a devotional flavour (I have a small reproduction bought secondhand in Paris for 60 euros – so it became a mass-produced icon) but I prefer to ignore that aspect. One small section displaying David’s talent could be a piece on its own and might be called ‘The Cloak and The Knees.’ David didn’t have to paint any ripples to indicate the water Jesus is standing in, since his legs are still – but apart from that, this little section in itself makes a great painting.
A few galleries away, there is a room devoted to the Flemish Expressionists. There’s no accounting for taste. Between the Groeninge and Arenthuis (the two museums are related) there is an outside gents urinal. It’s a bit smelly but seems well suited to its medieval surroundings. It would be a good place for Ai Wei Wei to make one of his contemporary gestures. (Yeah? Eh? Why not??)
Left: with an expressionist
Haute Lecture by Colard Mansion, to 3rd June 2018
I once worked with a printer who still did letterpress printing in the 1980s, and one can only marvel at a technology which has lasted for over 500 years (and still exists for collectors, e.g. think of the Folio Society’s letterpress Shakespeare). Letterpress is painstaking and dexterous work, but for some a labour of love. During the 1980s, when I was working in offset-litho printing, I came across the reclusive Hull poet Ted Tarling, who I think wrote some of his poetry simply to have something that he could print on his Adana press. On one occasion he asked me to print the photograph which appeared on the cover of his collection “The Wild Whistle.” He had already printed the title, etc., using letterpress. Sadly, as I was transporting the half-finished covers to my workshop they fell out of the package on my bike’s carrier – straight into a puddle. All I could do was rescue a copy and reprint the whole lot using offset. When delivered to Ted, he felt the covers and noticed there was no indentation on the back. I feigned ignorance – too embarrassed to explain what had happened. He was too polite to ask.
This exceptional exhibition looks at the book printing triumphs of medieval Bruges, seen largely through the eyes of master printer Colard Mansion, who lived in the city for 30 odd years in the 1400s. No-one knows what his background was before he came to Bruges, and it is suggested that after a very obvious success professionally he eventually ‘fled’ the city – back into obscurity. Books in those days were modelled on manuscripts which I guess were mainly created by monks – nearly every text was religious, although some drew on the classics. So early typescripts relied on typefaces which replicated the elegant Gothic or Italianate styles of handwritten language. One typeface was created in the style of Mansion’s own handwriting.
Looking at the books on display it is hard to believe that they were actually printed, rather than painstakingly transcribed by some monk locked away in a monastery for ten years. But this image of uniqueness is not accidental, since most of the adornment, pictures, illuminations and embellishments were added by hand, or by the insertion of separately printed woodcuts and engravings. Mansion worked with William Caxton for many years (Caxton lived in Bruges between c.1450 and 1476). Both of them also served as translators, producing texts in English and French. No need for that now. Just leave it to Google Translate and stick it on your Kinder.