The culmination of Robert Hoozee's long engagement with English Art, his enormously ambitious survey, British Vision, would eventually assemble over 300 works at the museum he directed in Ghent in the winter of 2007-08. The late Tom Lubbock, writing in The Independent, hailed it as "this ground-breaking, must-see exhibition"; in the TLS, Julian Bell called it "the most startling and exhilarating account of British Art anyone is likely to see for a long time".
In the five-year preparation for British Vision, Hoozee had selected us as his advisers, alongside the distinguished Turner scholar John Gage (obituary 29 February 2012), and we'd watched with astonishment as this reserved, meticulous and apparently cautious Belgian steadily raised a modest initial project into a radical and spectacular rethinking of the British canon. With his passionate interest in Stanley Spencer (he chose 16 works by him, citing Spencer as one of his reasons for embarking on the show) and his sympathy for the visionary – Blake, Gillray, Dadd – Hoozee turned out to have a very unusual take on matters English, probably unparalleled among European museum directors; appropriately, a few days after his death, a retrospective of Ford Madox Brown opened at Ghent.
Robert Hoozee's early interest was in Constable and he spent a year in London in the 1970s, his PhD supervised by Ian Fleming-Williams (obituary 1 April 1998); he published the first complete Constable catalogue in 1979. Hoozee had studied at the University of Ghent and in 1982 became the acting director of The Museum of Fine Arts, a magnificent but somewhat neglected turn-of-the-century building by Charles van Rysselberghe, housing a great Géricault, two Bosch masterpieces, and some outstanding Flemish Expressionists, with a nucleus of James Ensor paintings and etchings, which he constantly augmented.
Over the next 30 years Hoozee would ensure that Ghent punched far above its weight, mounting important international shows such as his 1997 collaboration with the Musee d'Orsay, Paris-Bruxelles; or, more recently, a master still too little known outside Belgium, the religious visionary Gustave van de Woestyne (who he proposed to the Tate as a possible exhibition companion alongside Spencer). He had a long interest in the sculptor George Minne and was able to acquire major examples for the museum; his last show brought together Minne and Maeterlink, both born in Ghent, in a far-reaching examination of Symbolist culture.
He also befriended several contemporary artists, notably Raoul de Keyser, who gave the museum almost 200 works on paper. In 1997 Hoozee accepted what was in theory a promotion – Directorship of the Antwerp Museum – only to resign a few weeks later. Returning to his beloved city , he now had a new strategy: to close the Ghent museum for renovation and to re-open it with a major showing of British Art. It was in the course of this very stressful sequence that Hoozee succumbed to the painful lung condition that often left him depleted, and would eventually kill him, aged only 62.
His campaign was conducted mostly in the Gothic Kaserne, where walls began to fill with reproductions of our wishlist: as these choices became defined, he set off with Andrew Dempsey on a tour of British museum directors. Hoozee was so obviously a man of integrity , without any self-serving agenda, that he was given a surprising proportion of the major works he'd asked for, eventually borrowing from over 50 collections. His first love was the most naturalistic and plain-spoken aspect of British painting – as exemplified in Constable's Flatford Mill – and "Everyday Landscapes" remained a central section of his show. But this theme was subsumed within wider polarities – Observation/Imagination, Sober/Comic; and the great coup de théâtre of the exhibition's staging came in the sudden transition from quiet landscape intimacies into a huge hemispherical hall, painted deep blue and blazoned with "THE VISIONARY".
Perhaps only Hoozee could have so daringly deployed the museum's contrasted spaces to create a fully dramatised display. The opening was an exuberant event; as she walked through, Andrea Rose of the British Council exclaimed, "But this is the best exhibition in Europe!" and declared from the podium:"If I were the Queen of England, I would give Robert Hoozee a medal!"
Robert Hoozee, museum director and art historian: born Wilrijk, Belgium 21 June 1949; married Hedwig Aerts (two children); died Ghent 21 February 2012.
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