God Is in the Detail

A certain kind of museum exhibition resembles a Christmas pudding or fruitcake. It half-bakes together various treats, making a point of the rich little bits. It is worthy, responsible, and exceedingly fine in prospect, but you can never be quite sure what you are eating, and it is finally more ceremonial than nutritious. I thought “From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” – comprising 140 works drawn almost entirely from the Met’s own collections – would be an admirable example of this kind of museum pudding. Instead, the show is both intellectually stimulating and unexpectedly poignant, for it clarifies one of the essential dramas of the Western mind.

Organized by Keith Christiansen and Maryan Ainsworth, the exhibit covers the period from 1420 to 1560, when Netherlandish artists opened the church door to the world outside. The cosmopolitan artists from the region – the wealthiest in Europe – often traveled abroad; Jan van Eyck (died 1441) and Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464) were probably the most celebrated painters on the Continent. Of course, the Met’s holdings, while extraordinary, do not include many of the signature works of the tradition. There is only one Van Eyck, one Rogier, and no Hieronymus Bosch. But it hardly matters. Van Eyck elevated every artist around him. What’s more, the exhibit includes nine or ten Hans Memlings, a mini-retrospective of sixteen works by Gerard David (1455-1523) – a brilliant painter who should be better known – and The Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel (died 1569).

You might suppose that the early masters of modern Netherlandish painting, who emerged during the waning of the Middle Ages, would be torn between medieval and Renaissance ideas. Yet the dominant early figures transcended such dilemmas, enriching their art with seeming paradoxes. In particular, they harmonized the sacred and the secular. On one panel of a magnificent diptych at the Met, Van Eyck depicted the Crucifixion in a naturalistic and worldly space; on the second, he placed the Last Judgment in a symbolic space. (An assistant helped with the description of Heaven, which the best artists often find a chore.) Whether or not the work was originally a diptych, there seems to be no necessary conflict between the images: The one enhances the other. Van Eyck is fluent in every religious and human feeling, from the most delicate reticence to the harshest judgment. In The Last Judgment, connoisseurs of hellish imagery will particularly relish the maggot-squirm of bodies.

The early aspiration of Netherlandish painting is encompassing. It struggles to bring into metaphysical balance the focused detail and the distant panorama, the individual and the crowd, the country and the city. The momentary and the eternal seem to speak in the same voice. The rational and the mystical arrive at the same answer. There is always something strict, and something sensual. This great range not only creates the illusion of a complete world but forms a near-paradise in which everything has its proper place. Even a secular portrait by a painter like Hans Memling (died 1494) has a quasi-religious, meditative glow. The strong tradition of devotional piety in the region, together with its great commercial wealth, lends a kind of soft, bejeweled joy to the secular.

The later rooms of the Met exhibition offer a fascinating illustration of how a great tradition can change, decay, and come alive again. Ideas from abroad – notably the playful distortions of Italian Mannerism – eventually crowd into the tradition established by Van Eyck, upsetting its careful measure. But nothing offers a richer challenge to his worldview than the sheer intoxication of observing the world, warts and all. (The secular genie could not be kept for long in a medieval bottle.) The curators end the show eloquently, with Bruegel’s Harvesters, an eruption against any idealization of the world. Here, a church is partly obscured by an ungainly tree, and the brilliantly observed peasants are presented as they are, not as they should be. You can almost hear the gasping snores from the open-mouthed man who is sacked out against the tree, taking a nap after lunch.

The Netherlandish tradition finds an echo in contemporary culture, in part because nineteenth- and twentieth-century art is built upon similar paradoxes. The modern art of the Netherlands, for example, includes both the platonic dream of Mondrian and the visceral avowal of Van Gogh. But the distance in the echo is more telling. The patient mysteries of craft are essential to the fifteenth century; there is no such patience today. A space that can frame both the tiny and the boundless – in which a panorama can become smaller than a necklace – matters greatly to Netherlandish artists; it also matters to us, but our atoms and galaxies resist art’s framing. Then as now, astonishment before the spectacle of the world seems appropriate, but we must make do without the leavening power of the miraculous.

God Is in the Detail