Sarah Westphal subverts Mayer van den Bergh collection


With interventions and rearrangements, German artist-in-residence Sarah Westphal probes Museum Mayer van den Bergh collection

Westphal is first contemporary artist to work with museum’s collection

Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp is a museum masquerading as a home. It feels as if it was once an opulent private residence in the Flemish renaissance style, but in reality it was purpose-built in the early 20th century to house its namesake’s collection.

Now this air of grandiose domesticity has been gently subverted by Sarah Westphal (pictured, right), the first contemporary artist to be invited to work with the museum’s collection.

Fritz Mayer van den Bergh had a passion for the art of the Low Countries, and his collection ranges from the Middle Ages through to the Baroque. He was instrumental in the rediscovery of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his sons, collecting their work in the late 19th century when it was highly unfashionable.

In addition to paintings, he also collected statues and religious carvings, books and jewellery, furniture, fabrics and stained glass. Pride of place in the museum may go to Bruegel’s epic vision of hell, “Dulle Griet”, but just as much effort has gone into displaying the gilt leather wall hangings and the richly illustrated breviary in the library.

Westphal, a young German artist who trained in Ghent, has taken up the challenge of seeing the museum as a home, rearranging the furniture, among other interventions, in a way that comments on the whole enterprise of the collection. Sometimes the effect is more like having a poltergeist around the place than an artist in residence. 

Subtle changes

In a room devoted to religious sculpture, Westphal has gathered together all the representations of the Madonna and Child and put them in a single glass case. Figures of various sizes all face inward, turning their backs on the viewer, as if watching over the smallest Madonnas in the centre of the group. It’s as if Westphal is saying to Mayer van den Bergh: If you are going to collect them, at least collect them in one place.

One consequence of this rearrangement is that spaces open up in other cases where the Madonnas once stood. One thinks of a burglary or gaps left in the chapels where these statues presumably started their lives. In one case, all that remains are two angry-looking putti, or little winged angel figures, one with a broken trumpet, the other pointing an accusing finger at the viewer.

In another room, the change is more subtle. Westphal has taken Alessandro Allori’s full-length portrait of Francesco I de Medici off the wall and moved it a little closer to the painting that hangs alongside it. This is “Peasant Company by the Fireplace” by Pieter Aertsen, in which two drinking men grapple with a serving maid. A bird cage in the background is meant to signal that this is a brothel scene.

The space on the wall where Francesco once hung is indicated by a rectangle of projected light, and the shadow that marks his former position cuts through his left eye, his heart and his straight left leg. This emphasises his gaze towards the peasant scene, suggesting a step into the darkness of desire and dissipation.

Bourgeois salons

Elsewhere, Westphal uses light alone, picking out details in a room of Baroque portraits to create the feeling of an animated bourgeois salon. The effect is more alarming with a 13th-century representation of Christ and St John in a casual embrace. This sculpture was intended to help nuns contemplate the “mystic marriage” they might achieve with Christ, but with Westphal’s spotlights picking out the blushing cheeks, the ruby lips and the clasped hands, it looks anything but holy.

While some of the artist’s interventions are playful (look out for the cat in the library), she also probes more sensitive areas of the collection. The most poignant involves Fritz’s mother, Henriette, who established the museum following her son’s death in 1901.

Henriette’s presence is strongest in a small upstairs room that she used as an office. A portrait of her as a young woman hangs on the wall, but part of it had to be cut away to fit it in the space above the mantelpiece. The story goes that this remnant, showing Henriette’s hands holding a fan, for years hung in the bathroom of a family friend. It was later returned to the museum, where it languished in an attic until its recent rediscovery.

Westphal has built a kind of reliquary for the recovered portion of painting, a pedestal topped with a pair of clasped hands that seem to complete the missing limbs in the painting on the wall. Meanwhile, the wandering fragment of canvas lies flat in an illuminated niche within. Fans, porcelain and other objects that Henriette may have held are displayed in cabinets around the room. And so the collector’s mother becomes part of the collection, incorporated into the monument she built for her dead son.

Until 21 April
Sarah Westphal: Allure Craquelure
Museum Mayer van den Bergh
Lange Gasthuisstraat 19, Antwerp

Photo by Elisabeth Broekaert