Hans Memling was one of the most important painters in fifteenth-century Burgundian Bruges. He painted a series of artworks for the medieval St. John’s Hospital, including the Shrine of St. Ursula, one of the masterpieces of Flemish Primitive panel painting. In addition to six of Memling’s most celebrated works, this museum also exhibits a range of other paintings, sculptures, furniture and utensils from the hospital’s rich history. St. John’s Hospital is an exceptional building and one of the oldest preserved medieval hospitals in Europe. It was only in the mid-nineteenth century that it ceased to care for patients. The St. John’s Hospital was converted into the Memling Museum in the twentieth century, with the authentic contents from that era as its core collection
Hans Memling’s work was highly regarded by fellow artists and contemporaries alike. Artists would visit St. John’s Hospital, not for medical care, but to study and be inspired by Memling’s paintings. Pieter Pourbus, Albrecht Dürer, Joshua Reynolds and James Ensor are just a few of the figures who were influenced by Memling in Bruges.
There is nothing new in the notion that artists influence one another’s work, whether consciously or unconsciously. Studying and copying work by pupils and illustrious predecessors is a core part of an artist’s training. The starting point for the exhibition ‘Memling Now’ is the notion that this influence carries over to the present day. For the exhibition, the museum selected five contemporary artists whose work already alluded to Memling. Two of these, Diana Al-Hadid and David Claerbout, created new work in response to the exhibition.
Thanks to the intervention of the King Baudouin Foundation in Belgium and the King Baudouin Foundation New York, the St. John’s Hospital was able to obtain a portrait by Hans Memling on long-term loan. Exceptionally, the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris has loaned the small panel entitled ‘Allegory of Chastity’ for the ‘Memling Now’ exhibition.
The sculptural installation ‘Allegory by a Thread’ was specially commissioned by Old St. John’s Hospital for the exhibition ‘Memling Now’. Diana Al-Hadid created this artwork for a site that she chose herself: the sunken remnant of the medieval St. John’s Hospital with the ancient stone floor. Her sculpture begins at the modern-day ground level. Starting from a rug atop the historic floor, threads fan out into a rising, swirling tangle which culminates in the suggestion of a figure towering high above everything. Hadid’s familiarity with and passion for her chosen materials allows her to play with dimensions, both sculptural and two-dimensional, in which she tests the possibilities of these materials to the limit.
Diana Al-Hadid draws her sculptures in the space. From their anchor points in a robustly-welded steel construction, a light, almost floating energy is created that transcends the material. With the unusual proportions of the hospital building as a counterweight, this sculpture can extend in all dimensions and inhabit the space with a whirling energy. She combines distinctive architectural fragments of the St. John’s Hospital with allusions to Memling’s painting.
Hadid’s inspiration for the female figure came from Memling’s ‘St. John Altarpiece’, the large triptych that was commissioned by the monastic community for the chapel of the St. John’s Hospital. The rug at the Virgin’s feet is echoed in the illusionistic version on the ancient floor. Moreover, the figure rising out of the whirling thread construction alludes to Memling’s small panel entitled ‘Allegory of Chastity’ from Paris, which depicts a young virgin who is trapped in a crystalline rock structure from the waist down. Hadid had already incorporated that image into her wall sculptures and monumental installations repeatedly. The two artworks, from completely different eras and created using fundamentally different techniques, stand shoulder to shoulder like sisters in ‘Memling Now’. A unique experience.
This small panel is one of Memling’s most enigmatic paintings. The young woman is serenely imprisoned in a crystal rock, guarded by two lions bearing a coat of arms. Art historians disagree on the meaning, iconography and function of this painting. Was it part of a larger ensemble with allegorical scenes? There is even disagreement on the title, ‘Allegory of Chastity’. The young woman is chastely holding her hands in front of her stomach and genital area. From the waist down, she is surrounded by the violet crystal of the mountain in which she appears to be trapped. In the Middle Ages, violet – both the colour and the flower – was a symbol of humility and chastity, characteristics which of course allude to the Virgin Mary.
Yet the iconographic inspiration may also have come from secular fifteenth-century texts. Numerous natural science treatises and studies drawing upon ancient Arabic and Greek writings were already in circulation at this time. While the translations of the ancient science may not always have been accurate, the books included descriptions of natural phenomena, mystical creatures and continents with foreign peoples. This was also an age in which rhetoric flourished. Artisan milieus had their own cultural traditions and elites, alongside the existing regal and ecclesiastical cultural customs. From time to time, these came together in ephemeral (temporary) decorations and tableaux vivants in the streets of Bruges, for example to mark jousting tournaments, Joyous Entries (the first official visit of a monarch or member of the aristocracy to a city), or a marriage such as that of Charles the Bold to Margaret of York in 1468. A number of descriptions and woodcuts of these remain, but in addition, fragments of fifteenth-century murals show that medieval people were surrounded by secular scenes. Might this young woman perhaps be a secular allegory from a (now vanished) novel, a witch or the mount of Venus, as described in a book from 1475 entitled ‘Formicarius’, or Anthill? The many possible interpretations of this small painting are just one of the reasons why the work holds such fascination for Diana Al-Hadid, who in turn reinterprets the image and incorporates it into her sculptural installations.
In his youth, spent in the cosmopolitan Iran prior to the Islamic revolution, Aghdashloo became intrigued by the art of the Italian and North European Renaissance in the fifteenth century. The quiet dignity and magnificence of works by the Flemish masters impressed him, as did their remarkable mastery and eye for detail.
This is one of the paintings from the series ‘Years of Fire and Snow’ (1978), based on a powerful portrait by Hans Memling, ‘Portrait of a Man with a Coin (Pietro Bembo)’, which is part of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp collection. Aghdashloo scratches out the man’s face, just as he mutilates and dehumanises other portraits. In fact, the identity of the person in the portrait is irrelevant in his art. This is a representation of a man set against a cold, snowy background. The contrast with the original Memling painting reflects the artist’s struggle and state of mind in the pre-revolutionary context of the Iran of the Shahs. In order to preserve that sense of melancholy, he emasculated portraits in the ‘Years of Fire and Snow’ series by tearing them, splattering them with paint, and erasing them. These became a foreword to his later series ‘Memories of Destruction’.
The Iranian painter, graphic artist, film maker, calligraphist and publicist sees himself as a history painter, not as a political activist with a brush. Nevertheless, the destruction of the portrait, in the way that he applies the idea to his paintings, represents the erasure of individual identity. Because of this, his work acquires a political, social and historical dimension.
In 1982, Kosuth presented a series of works in which he placed enlarged photos of artworks upside-down, along with a few lines of text that served as a kind of caption to the photo, to which he had also added coloured crosses. He named the series ‘Cathexis’, a word derived from Greek, which in the English translation of Sigmund Freud’s works was used for the term ‘Besetzung’, which could either mean interest, fascination or fixation.
All the elements in these works suggest a ‘meaning’. These elements exist simultaneously and equivalently and therefore influence one another, despite the artist having placed them indiscriminately in the same visual field. The painting, the text, and the coloured x’s all appear to be significant. It is possible to read the painting in a materially different way to the text. Experiencing the painting as a painting has now been rendered impossible. The average viewer is familiar with the world and the art that represents this world. But here the ‘conditions’ for the usual study and interpretation are presented as ‘natural’ and unproblematic, whilst this is by no means the case. By turning the image ‘upside down’, there is no longer an ‘insight into another world’. Kosuth’s ‘Cathexis’ is an object, an artefact that is made up of different components and located here in this world. It is as though the viewer is obliged to undertake a direct and instant reading of the work. Kosuth lays bare the mechanisms of viewing, understanding and appreciating. This forces the viewers/readers to become aware of their own subjective role in the process of ascribing meaning to an object. Whilst usually, either the text or the image is subordinate to the other, here the two are of equal importance. The text does not provide an ‘explanation’ of the image, and the image does not ‘illustrate’ the text.
The text is read ‘inside out’ and the image ‘upside down’. The inner meaning of both depends upon (is brought together and completed by) their function as a part of something else (this artwork). A field of tension is created between text and image, which not only points to their difference, but also their complementarity, through which a new meaning can come into being.
The truss of the large Diksmuide attic of St. John’s Hospital glows orange above the blazing fire in ‘Wildfire’. But the fire also dies down, birds appear and a brook babbles gently. Only to flare up again with all-consuming intensity, thus mirroring the contemporary reality in many other parts of the world.
Fire and brimstone were everyday concepts for the average medieval man and woman. People did penance and indulgences were purchased in order to shorten the time spent in hell and purgatory. The right-hand panel of the ‘St. John Altarpiece’ by Hans Memling in the chapel of this museum shows St. John the Evangelist on the island of Patmos, engaged in writing down his Apocalyptic vision, the final book in the Christian Bible. In this Apocalypse, the end of times is described in a highly expressive manner: the seals of a book are broken, horsemen wreak havoc, a floating Virgin with child is attacked by a seven-headed dragon, a hellish monster appears; and above all there is a great deal of fire and brimstone. The chosen ones sit in the top left-hand corner in a heavenly sphere, close to God and surrounded by saints and patriarchs.
Humans and animals keep an instinctive distance from a wildfire, a conflagration that has got out of control. And yet fire continues to fascinate biologists and we keep staring straight into the sun, as in two of David Claerbout’s previous videos, ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Reflecting Sunset’.
How can fire, which rages so destructively, also contain such a meditative sense of serenity and beauty? With this video ‘Wildfire (meditation on fire)’, the artist explores the possibilities and borders of the virtual exhibition world. How is a visual image created? How does our brain construe an impulse on the retina as a meaningful representation, a constructive interplay of neurological processes, experiences, memories, and so on.
The digital construction of a three-dimensional image clearly follows the same steps, in the same way that an image travels from our retina until it becomes a meaningful concept. Claerbout’s quest for a realistic digital construction of a burning fire was thwarted by the realisation that this would probably set his server and render farm (a computer system that generates visual effects) ablaze. Nevertheless, the ambition is still there.
As part of the exhibition ‘Memling Now’, David Claerbout was commissioned by Musea Brugge to create the first part of ‘Wildfire (meditation on fire)’ for the large Diksmuide attic in the St. John’s Hospital.
This donor’s portrait depicts a member of the aristocratic Castilian De Rojas family and is now on long-term loan to the St. John’s Hospital collection. It is illustrative of the subject’s status and ambition. A kneeling presence within a Biblical scene, the donor permanently represents the foundation of either a mass or the chapel, and is a reminder to the presiding priest to remember him and his family in his prayers. Memling paints the man’s body in a generalised way. He probably made use of generic model drawings in the ‘donor’s portrait’ mould. A drawing of the actual donor was only needed for the face. This donor’s portrait also served as the left-hand panel of a lost altarpiece. The middle panel probably showed a crucifixion or resurrection scene, as suggested by the inclusion of Christ’s open tomb in the background of this left-hand panel. The donor’s wife was depicted on the lost right-hand panel. It is not known why the painting was commissioned.
Thanks to the painted coat of arms in the bottom right-hand corner, the man has been partially identified as a scion of the De Rojas family. One of the members of this politically active Spanish family was Francisco de Rojas (1446-1523), who from 1492 regularly visited the Burgundian Netherlands as an ambassador to the Catholic kings of Spain. In 1496-97, he played a crucial role in the preparations for the marriage of Philip the Handsome, the son of Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian of Austria, to Joanna of Castile, the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. He also commissioned a book of prayers from the studio of the Bruges-based book illuminator Simon Bening, which De Rojas presented to the King of Spain as a gift.
It is tempting to identify the donor in this panel as Francisco de Rojas. But this would probably be jumping to an over-hasty conclusion. His clothing suggests that the painting was made earlier, in around 1465-70. That is some twenty years before Francisco de Rojas travelled to the Low Countries! The dark brocade of his robe with his white overshirt beneath it, and his black velvet cloak with its fur lining and trim, unashamedly illustrate his high social rank and status. The mystery of who exactly this man is, which descendent of the De Rojas family he is precisely, is therefore yet to be solved.
In the United States, an emancipation movement which places ethnicity, representation and inclusion high up on the agenda has already been in existence for several decades. The rapid change in cultural production, the representative presence of African American art and artists in museums, and the evolution in visual literacy are clearly apparent.
Kehinde Wiley is part of a relatively large group of black artists who, since the time of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, have consciously adopted an inclusive and multicultural position in the arts. In the ensuing years, the conventions of taste, religion and sexuality underwent fundamental changes. At the same time, an alternative art historical movement was born, which was less oriented towards Europe/the West and also included sociological research, literary criticism and gender studies. Kehinde Wiley is influenced by both movements, and his own identity and experiences as a homosexual black man also feed into his work.
The result is a painting that is visually stunning, which literally borrows from the portrait art of Western/European painting, yet replaces the privileged white medieval figures with African American models. Wiley’s activism is subtle. He plays with the boundaries of the artistic practice that is familiar to establishment types who are often found in museums; as well as with iconography, design, size and presentation. Here, the artist uses the notion of race as a flagrant provocation in the face of the legacy of white, Eurocentric intellectual and artistic superiority. But it cannot merely be reduced to this social accusation – on the contrary. Wiley’s work gets the message across with an immense degree of respect and admiration for the traditional art of portraiture, an undeniably Western European genre.
Wiley finds his black models for this portrait series through ‘street castings’. His models then choose which painting they would like to feature in. This leads to a co-creative process and a shift in the power(lessness) of the model in relation to the artist. In the majority of cases, the young men make direct and active eye contact with the viewer, unlike their medieval forerunners. Their clothing is authentic and the background is a recognisable copy of Memling’s original painting.
Just as in the rest of Wiley’s work, a central role is afforded to a demographic group – young men of colour aged between 18 and 35 – who often feature negatively in the statistics on violent crime, detention and early death. It is a part of the population that is often vilified in the media and that now stands on the frontline of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.