A Story of the Image: Old & New Masters From Antwerp

“A Story of the Image: Old & New Masters From Antwerp is an ambitious exhibition which surveys historical and contemporary works of art to look at the evolution of the image and its commercialisation…This exhibition of 150 works features 13 paintings by old Flemish masters from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Antwerp (KMSKA), 25 prints from the Museum of Plantin-Moretus/Printroom and 112 contemporary Flemish artworks from the Museum of Contemporary Art (MuHKA)””

There is a strong distillation of what an image is, percolated from hundreds of years of experience of displaying art in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Antwerp, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Belgium at the heart of the exhibition, claiming to be the oldest birthplace, before Amsterdam, of the commerce of art for merchants. Belgium, best known for Tin Tin comics and beer now has another point of interest. The exhibition forces one to reconsider the means in which artists made images, why they made images in response to societal and economic concerns. 

The concept of commercial galleries possibly came from Belgium, and art fairs still run strongly in Brussels. While the reason to trade in art isn’t explained in the exhibition, one can postulate the following plausible reasons.

Firstly, the rise of strong nation states since the Renaissance, meant that inter-nation trade could make merchants wealthy. These merchants could now afford what the aristocrats could afford – the access to commission artists to create works of art for churches, their large homes or guilds. Secondly, the numerous murals and paintings found in churches across Europe, meant that church goers were able to gain exposure to paintings that were rich in symbolism, and illusionary in realistic representation. They could feel the heavens move, and stories from the bible come alive.

Thirdly, the development of printing technology which meant that new learning could be spread further and faster. Oil paintings could be reproduced in etching and distributed to the middle classes at a fraction of the cost of commissioning. A merchant in Antwerp could purchase a German print of a painting. Owning a piece of art was perhaps a means of proving one’s social status. Fourthly, printing fueled the appetite for knowledge and ancient philosophy. Concepts and philosophies of beauty and art could now be distributed across borders.  

The exhibition tries to do the impossible, to separate the image from its carrier (painting, photography, object conveying an idea). This separation is best explained by what art historian E.H. Gombrich calls schema. Images are very much grounded in schema. Schema is an outline, a cultural, logical, scientific lens the artist might have to view the world. The idea of the world preludes the creation of an object, in this case a broader classification of an image. What the artist sees, thinks, understands is then mediated socially, culturally and scientifically to produce the object. The schema, or european aesthetics in creating an image is perhaps what the exhibition expounds critically and eloquently.

The creation of smaller galleries, juxtapositioning contemporary art with old masters heighten this schema. As the concept of time and history is flattened in this arrangement, and the viewer gets lost within, we are allowed to ponder the essence of image and imagination. The experience of getting lost, liken a visit to the grand Lourve museum or the National Gallery in London, means opportunities for discoveries. One of these discovery is the painting by Old Masters Peter Paul Reubens, may not be the best work by the artist.  The painting and wall text suggests that it was done by his workshop of apprentice, but endorsed by him. Similarly, the work When Faith Moves Mountains (2002) by Belgium artist Francis Alys involved thousands of participants, and the master’s hand is hard to distinguish in the mountain of materials. The legitimacy, scale and involvement in which artists make art are thus allowed to be examined too.

The prominent styles of representational art from Antwerp and how it varies from old and new may not be adequately explained. The selection of the new and old masters may require more explanation to the local audience. The viewer who is there to search for an example of linearity of stylistic development of art, ‘from representation to abstract, to conceptual’, will find none. Art, when appropriate cross sectional studies across the ages, in various media will reveal, is non-linear, jumping from ideas to discoveries, or re-discoveries. The birth of the Renaissance in the 15th century (though some argue that the science of painting perspective began earlier with Giotto in the 14th Century), and the examination of Greek and Roman art in the Renaissance is but one example of such non-linearity.

What makes an image successful, or what elevates an image to the status of art, the idea of the spectacle, or ‘shock of the new’ would be the next logical story. What eventually stands out, the stories of the images is strongly tied to the stories of the artists, or at least the stories told by these artists. 


National Museum of Singapore (http://www.nationalmuseum.sg)
from August 14 through October 4, 2009.

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