Few shows of recent years have had the scope and grandiose ambitions of this one. Its aim, through a display of more than 300 objects culled from 156 European museums, is to give us an overview of the development of art in Europe from the end of the Roman Empire to the close of the 18th century, at which point the phenomenon of the great European museum – the Louvre and the British Museum, for example – was coming into being.
By then, cultural artefacts of distinction were no longer doomed to be locked away inside private collections. Displays of the kind we now expect to see in places such as this one were at last being made available to a knowledge-hungry public.
In part, the show’s ambition is driven by political considerations. Almost all of the 27 members of the EU are represented here. During the year of the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, a major cultural institution in Brussels pays homage to the development of the idea of Europe as a triumphally distinctive cultural phenomenon.
Its central argument is that, long before Europe developed into a political and economic entity, there was already in existence something that could be loosely described as a European cultural zone.
This kind of argument makes visitors inclined to feel that they belong to the European idea. Perhaps it also makes them more inclined to believe in the idea of the European idea in the first place. So far, so fairly good.
So far, so fairly good. The display in the galleries of this great Art Nouveau museum, designed by Victor Horta, moves through all four sides of a square, and the argument of the show proceeds chronologically. The display includes paintings, drawings, sculptures, musical instruments, jewellery and books, to name but some of the categories, and is divided into 14 separate thematic segments (sometimes housed in single galleries, at other times sprawling across two or three).
There is very little by way of captioning. A single wall text in each segment gives us a bald and fairly brief account of each bit of the argument. A map on the wall – it is a photographic projection – shows us Europe seen from the sky, pricked by points of light. These lights tell us where each object came from. Luckily, a hefty booklet accompanies the show, and a 2kg catalogue, too, which is currently available only in French.
No matter how much we may wish to flagellate ourselves by paying close attention to the niceties of the slowly unfolding argument – visual evidence of how the Carolingian script developed, for example – it is the masterpieces, as ever, that bring us up short. Section seven, for example, is devoted to the circulation of drawing in Europe. One of the most brilliant drawings on view is a meticulous rendering – it must be about 20ft high – of the north part of the façade of Strasbourg Cathedral, slightly on the tilt, which makes it look all the more marvellously vertiginous.
In black ink on parchment, with a grey and black wash, it was drawn by goodness knows whom in about 1400. It combines rigour and exactitude with asoaring, visionary rapture.
In the same room – it is so small by comparison that you could easily miss it – is a fanciful profile of an old man by Leonardo da Vinci, who loved to do drawings of this kind, bordering on caricature: the old man’s hooked nose almost meets his uprising chin.
Later in the show – in section 13, to be precise – we find ourselves in the safely agreeable company of the likes of Van Dyck and Rubens, painters to the major European courts, who circulated freely, giving form and embodiment to fanciful ideals of kingly and queenly grace. Some of the paintings in this overlarge section are not so good – there are far too many paintings here by the Antwerp-born Bartholomeus Spranger, for example, who painted at the court of Rudolf II in Prague at the end of the 16th century.
Why so many? Did someone at the Brussels museum owe Vienna a favour (most of the paintings are from the Austrian capital) for services rendered?
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