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From Tiepolo to Richter: prestigious artworks show snapshot of European history

16:05 11/06/2018

Encompassing the religious iconography of the Renaissance, the emerging individualism of landscape painters in the 18th century and abstract art in the modern period, From Tiepolo to Richter, European Dialogue is a cultural journey around Europe.

The variety of artists represented is unique, including German engraver Durer, Italian decorative master Tiepolo, French sculptor Rodin, German abstract artist Richter and Belgian pioneers Ensor, Evenepoel and Spillaert. Lesser-known artists play a key role, too, particularly those from Finland.

The result is a surprising, eclectic and unique exhibition that offers a thought-provoking overview of European art over seven centuries. The first part, covering the 15th to 19th centuries, is chronological; the second is thematic – abstraction, silhouettes and modernity.

Preserving cultural heritage

Staged by Belgium’s leading philanthropic institution, the King Baudouin Foundation (KBF), the exhibition marks the European Year of Cultural Heritage and KBF’s hosting of the European Foundation Centre’s general assembly in Brussels at the end of May.

For the occasion, it invited 13 other European foundations – all active in saving cultural heritage – to select works of art from their own collections to serve as cultural ambassadors.

“The aim was to show how art has been a vector for not only innovation, but information and exchange – economic, cultural, political and social,” explains Anne De Breuck, coordinator of KBF’s heritage department. “It illustrates a common history.”

Art as ambassador

From the key trade and art centres of Flanders and Italy in the 14th century to the waning influence of Europe from the latter part of the 20th century, the exhibition reveals the continent’s importance and creativity. It also reinforces how movement and migration across the continent have long been commonplace.

Artists were frequently nomadic and accumulated cross-cultural influences from their travels. Art had an ambassadorial role and royal courts were arbiters of style, commissioning and collecting rare and fine works from across Europe. An intricate network of collectors fuelled this fashion, roaming the continent for the latest developments. Objects and paintings accompanied wealthy travellers as keepsakes and served as diplomatic gifts.

“Visiting Italy and its ancient art was part of a ‘Grand Tour’, essential for the education of the aristocratic classes,” says de Breuck. They would then decorate their stately homes and castles with riches from foreign lands. 

Constant Nieuwenhuys, Fauna © C/O Pictoright Amsterdam 2018

With the discovery of the New World and travel to more distant lands, exotic objects became fashionable, indicating Europe’s openness to the world. Examples here include a Turkish wall hanging, delicate marquetry wooded boxes and a rare carved coconut – the Humboldt Cup – set in fine engraved silver. Depicting scenes of Europeans interacting with indigenous people in the Dutch West Indies in the 17th century, the carvings show the Dutch ‘civilising’ the New World.

Visitors follow the evolution of art history. While artists were once commissioned, in the 18th century they increasingly displayed their individuality. This was evident in the development of the English landscape school and Romanticism, as well as in the growth of portraits aimed at showing the inner person. The development of modern and abstract art was symptomatic of growing globalisation as the US became the centre of the art world.

Innovative Belgian artists

The large-scale oil painting View of Brussels by Jean-Baptiste Bonnecray (1664-65), pictured below, welcomes visitors at the beginning of the exhibition. It shows the medieval city in all its glory, secure within its fortress-like city wall and imposing turrets. Inside, the spiked rooftops of Brussels’ distinctive skyline are interspersed with the soaring spires of its religious architecture.

Jean-Baptiste Bonnecroy, View of Brussels-© KMSK, Ro Scano, J. Gelyens

Jean-Baptiste Bonnecroy, View of Brussels © KMSK, Ro Scano, J. Gelyens

In the latter section, three works by prominent artists from the pioneering CoBrA international collective are grouped together – the name represents the cities of its founders: Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam. Belgian Christian Dotremont is represented in the exhibition by his logogram Brusquerie des soie, bruissement de suie; a merging of word and images in distinctive black ink brush strokes.

An eye-catching painting by Belgian Charles Evenepoel is Charles in a Striped Jumper. Dated 1898, the oil painting is a surprisingly modern work; an endearing portrait of a child in bold blocks of colours.

Henri Evenepoel, Charles in a Striped Jersey © Studio Philippe de Formanoir

Flemish artist Léon Spillaert’s The Absinthe Drinker (1907) is more haunting. Defying classification, it is an example of the Symbolist painter’s most creative period. Self-taught Spillaert used a minimal palette, preferring dark tones that reinforce his dark outlook on life.

A selected history

De Breuck is careful to point out that the exhibition is far from a complete history of European art; the KBF was reliant on the works selected by each foundation around which it created a unifying narrative. Each foundation has provided an accompanying short text, focusing on the European aspect of each piece.

Among the significant early works, The Road to Calvary after Dutch Flemish primitive Hieronymous Bosch is testimony to the growing influence of Antwerp and the highly influential Northern Renaissance period.

After Hieronymus Bosch, The Road to Calvary © Studio Philippe de Formanoir

Referenced in the title of the exhibition, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s two large-scale action works on display – Hunter with Deer and Hunter on Horseback – are examples of his Rococo period. Both are believed to have been from a commissioned series of episodes in the life of Queen Zenobia.

In the latter part of the exhibition, lesser-known works from Finland show a variety of portraits and landscapes by pioneering modernist and abstract artists. Among a strong representation by women, Marie Sunna’s Cage is a depiction of the female form, blurred, featureless and indistinct within a cloud of bubbles.

Mari Sunna, Cage © Ari Karttunen/EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art

From Tiepolo to Richter, European Dialogue
Until 30 September, Art & History Museum, Cinquantenaire Park, Brussels

Top photo: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Street Scenes [Straßenszene] © Achim Kukulies, Düsseldorf)

Sorry! Our prize draw to win tickets has now closed.


Written by The Bulletin