The Belgian city of Gent has begun a year-long celebration of the Flemish Old Master.
Showing at the Fine Arts Museum Gent (known by the Flemish acronym MSK) until April 30, Van Eyck – An Optical Revolution is the largest ever gathering of the artist’s works, featuring 13 of the 23 works confidently attributed to him and dating between 1432 and 1439. The MSK’s permanent collection includes Flemish art from the Middle Ages to the first half of the 20th century, with works by Old Masters such as Bosch, Rubens and Van Dyck. while modernists include Rodin, Ensor and Magritte.
An Optical Revolution marks the start of a city-wide festival, OMG! Van Eyck Was Here, the third in a series of theme years in Belgium entitled Flemish Masters, which has already focused on Rubens and Bruegel. The year-long programme features a range of Van Eyck-inspired events, from a multi-media spectacle, a specially commissioned choral work and a tour of new street art to exclusive products by local craftmakers, chef-prepared contemporary recipes using historical ingredients and even hand-made Van Eyck treats by a master chocolatier.
The celebrations will climax with the unveiling in St Bavo’s Cathedral of the partially restored Gent Altarpiece, Van Eyck’s most famous work. (Film fans will recognise it from the movie Monuments Men, in which George Clooney “rescued” it from an Austrian salt mine, where it had been hidden by the Nazis, who stole it for the planned Führermuseum in Hitler’s birthplace, Linz.)
Located under the vaulted ceiling of the Raadskelder (Council Cellar), the Van Eyck Shop has products by 70 local craftmakers inspired by the altarpiece. The range includes hats by Els Robberechts, glassware by Mieke Verwaetermeulen, knitwear by Wolvis, handbags by Paarl, kitchen knives by Antoine Van Loocke and mirrors by Veerle Verschooren. Other products include cushion covers, jewellery, carpets, scarves and ceramics.
The Raadskelder is situated under the Belfry, one of three medieval towers in the old city centre and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Belfry is also the starting point for a two-hour walking tour of local shops.
Describing itself as a ‘graffiti-friendly city’, Gent has commissioned international street artists to create Van Eyck-inspired murals on homes and businesses which successfully applied to have their walls decorated. As part of the public art programme, an artist will site 15 pairs of different sized Adam and Eve sculptures, fashioned after the outer panels of the Gent Altarpice, around the city.
Even Belgium’s – for some – most popular product is getting in on the act. The artisan chocolatier Nicolas Vanaise of Yuzu is continuing five generations of chocolate passion in his family reaching back to his great-great-grandfather, who became a patissier in 1884. If there is such a thing as a chocolate artist, Nicolas is one.
Yuzu has produced a special Van Eyck collection of hand-made chocolates with decorations inspired by jewellery and fabrics in the Gent Altarpiece and flavours by some of the edible plants depicted in it, including quince and malted barley, coffee and hazelnut and cinnamon and orange blossom cream. To be savoured, not gulped!
St BAVO’S CATHEDRAL
On October 8 the partially restored Gent Altarpiece will be unveiled in a new visitor centre adjacent to St Bavo’s Cathedral, the painting’s original home. Augmented reality glasses will enable visitors to view the work up close, time-travel back to Van Eyck’s era and even visit his studio. The altarpiece will be closed twice a day so that visitors can view the art on the reverse side of the panels. After a few months, the top half will be replaced by a copy and the original removed for several more years’ of restoration, which is expected to be completed in 2024.
In the meantime contemporary art in the cathedral is represented by Sophie Kuijken and Lies Caeyers. Kuijken uses traditional Flemish painting techniques to create portrait composites of anonymous faces collected on the internet, while Caeyers has produced microscopic images of seeds of plants identified in the Gent Altarpiece. Both artists’ works blend beautifully with the magnificent surroundings. Art-lovers will also want to seek out ‘The Conversion of Saint Bavo’ (1623–1624), an altarpiece by Peter Paul Rubens, while Kris Martin’s ‘Altar’ (2014), a metal replica of the altarpiece’s frame, stands in the square outside the cathedral.
Other OMG! highlights include: a new choral work by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt; a display during the annual Gent Floralies flower show of specimens found in the altarpiece; foodstuffs by local producers, such as cheese, sausage, breads, cookies, craft beers and teas, based on Van Eyck-era ingredients; Kleureyck, an exhibition at the Design Museum showing Van Eyck influences in contemporary design; and Lights on Van Eyck, a multi-media show by Mat Collishaw in St Nicholas Church featuring dancing robot arms and a fire-breathing dragon.
FURTHER INFO: www.vaneyckwashere.be
Style note: For the purposes of this article the Flemish spelling ‘Gent’ has been used and not the English spelling ‘Ghent’.