Three reasons why you should see the Van Eyck exhibition in Ghent


The most significant event in Europe’s exhibition season is in Flanders right now – don’t miss it

It’s in the details

Unless you live in a cave, and one with no internet connection, you know that the central panel of the Ghent Altarpiece is fully restored and back on view to the public in the city’s Sint-Baafs cathedral.

It was unveiled last month with much fanfare, international headlines and a deluge of memes regarding the difference between the look of Jan Van Eyck’s original Lamb of God and the overpainting, now removed.

In honour of this auspicious occasion in the arts world, Ghent has launched Van Eyck Year, with many events and activities related to the 15th-century Flemish master and his work. The cornerstone is the exhibition Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution.

Born at the very end of the 1300s in Maaseik, Limburg (then spelled Maaseyck, hence the artist’s name), Van Eyck lived a great deal of his life in Bruges. While he travelled often to study his craft and carry out commissioned work, he was a Flemish Primitive through and through.

People around Europe have already booked their tickets to Ghent to see this show, the largest collection of works by Van Eyck to ever be gathered in one place. If you live in Belgium, you owe it to Van Eyck – and to yourself – to see this exhibition at the city’s Fine Arts Museum.

But don’t just believe me. I spoke to Ghent University professor Jan Dumolyn, an expert in the social and cultural history of the Southern Netherlands. Here are the main reasons why you should see Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution.

1 He’s the best painter. There’s no better painter than him. Everyone says so.

What is so great about Van Eyck then?

JAN DUMOLYN: Everything. Nobody can do a portrait like him. Nobody can do a bird like him. Nobody can do a stone like him. Nobody can do a plant like him. Nobody can do the light like him. Nobody can do reflection like him. Nobody can paint water like him. He’s just a genius. There’s no sociological explanation for that. He is the greatest genius of all time in painting.

FT: Surely there are historians who would refute that.

DUMOLYN: There are no serious art historians who would argue with the fact that he’s the painter with the most technical skill. I’m not being chauvinistic, that is just accepted. He’s in the league of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Picasso, but his realism is the most precise. And the details and the minute things he can do on two millimetres … he paints a vase or a piece of metal. In two millimetres, he paints a reflection of something else on the other side of the room. Who can do that?

2 Because bigger is better

This exhibition brings together more Van Eyck paintings than any before it. If he’s the greatest painter, why has no museum ever accomplished that?

DUMOLYN: The fact is, Van Eyck never got the credit that Michelangelo or Da Vinci got because of this myth of the Italian Renaissance that they invented themselves. Some of the French cultivated that. Vasari [Giorgio Vasari, who wrote the first book on art history] invents that myth, that the Italians are the best. And that stayed the norm in art history. All of the 17th and 18th century academies taught this.

That’s why they invented the term ‘the Flemish primitives’. They’re good, these Flemish, but they’re still ‘primitive’. If you look at Van Eyck the last word you would use is ‘primitive’. But Michelangelo, Davinci and Rafael are considered the geniuses.

Disproportionately, especially in the Latin countries and in France, and Italy itself, obviously, there has been much less attention paid to Flemish art. The British and Americans are far more interested, though. Many scholars or art historians specialised in Flemish art are Americans.

3 Ghent Altarpiece, up close and personal

The Ghent Altarpiece is a triptych, and the side panels were built with hinges so they could be closed. Van Eyck pained both sides of the panels, so the altarpiece can be viewed from both sides as well as open or closed.

Most of the 12 panels that make up the interior of the Ghent Altarpiece are inside Sint-Baafs Cathedral in Ghent, the altarpiece’s permanent home. The bottom register has undergone restoration and simply glows with the wondrous life that Van Eyck gave it nearly 600 years ago.

Two of the panels from the upper register, however, as well as the 12 exterior panels are part of the Optical Revolution exhibition. The exterior panels have also been fully restored in the three-phase restoration process.

The altarpiece at Sint-Baafs is generally diplayed with the side panels open, so visitors must go around to the back to see these panels. Some of them are rather high up, and all of them are behind glass. So this is the one – and possibly only – time you will get to see them up close.

This confirms how truly spectacular they are, each a masterpiece in its own right. Alongside several figures depicted, including the Archangel Gabriel and the Prophet Zachariah, are highly detailed scenes of interiors and a city seen through the confines of a slender window.

Each painting highlights one of Van Eyck’s many trademarks, from architectural specificity to fine facial lines to highly detailed rendering of sculptures. Two of the altarpiece’s front panels are here as well: Adam and Eve. Adam’s foot appears to protrude outside the frame, suggesting that he could emerge at any moment, as mortal and ordinary as you and me.

More optical revolutions

The title “An Optical Revolution” is a reference to Jan van Eyck’s ground-breaking techniques in oil painting. He is known for having revolutionised the process by adding what is now referred to as a siccative, a combination of substances – including linseed oil, ground glass or mineral-derived pigments – to oil paint. This allowed the paint to dry faster, opening up a world of opportunity for layering and creating texture.

Van Eyck used the paint he invented to great effect. It allowed him to paint the reflections and refractions for which he has gone down in history. Van Eyck’s diamonds glitter, his gold shines, his water spurts. His mirrors reflect with spatial accuracy, his light comes in through a window and dapples the floor, the way it really does. If any painter opens up a photographic world of the 15th-century, it is Van Eyck.

This is impressive enough, but there is even more to Van Eyck than meets the eye. Art historians, for instance, happily rattle off a number of “firsts” when it comes to the painter. He was the first to paint his wife, the first to paint a portrait of a commoner, the first to paint a relection, the first to paint craters on the moon. He painted flowers and plants with botanical accuracy, which no one had done in religious or landscape art, meaning that historians can identify the plants he included in his work.

In two millimetres, he paints a reflection of something else on the other side of the room. Who can do that?

- Historian Jan Dumolyn

The process that led him to make such decisions is lost to us, but fortunately the works are not. The Ghent Altarpiece – also known as “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” is the single best example of his skill with flora and fauna. This is one of its endless highlights, especially now that so much of it has been restored, removing overpainting that covered some 50% of the original.

As for An Optical Revolution, however, it is those ground-breaking portraits – strategically placed in the final room – that prove the most charming part of the exhibition. After being wowed by technique and detail, what a lovely experience to see the great swath of colour on “Portrait of a Man with a Blue Chaperon” or gaze into the eyes of Jan de Leeuw, a personal friend of Van Eyck.

“Portrait of Jan de Leeuw” (pictured above) is the first portrait ever painted of a commoner. A friend of Van Eyck’s he had likely not commissioned it. The 30-something’s profession as a goldsmith is evident in the ring he holds, but it’s the look on his face that enters straight into the viewer’s imagination.

It’s as if De Leeuw knows he’s doing Van Eyck a favour, allowing him to practice his craft, bemused at the idea of posing, like some kind of royalty or regent. De Leeuw is immediately likeable, approachable. He’s the kind of guy you’d like to go have a pint with – then or now.

Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution, until 30 April, Fine Arts Museum, Fernand Scribedreef 1, Ghent

Tips for getting the most out of An Optical Revolution:
Book ahead online to ensure your time slot, especially if you want to visit the exhibition during the weekend. February weekends are already sold out.

Before your visit, check out the website Closer to Van Eyck to hone in on the details of the paintings you’ll be seeing. You’ll be even more impressed when you see the paintings in real life.

Images, from top:
Jan van Eyck, “The Annunciation” (detail), c1434-1436, oil on panel, transferred onto canvas 92.7 x 36.7 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W Mellon Collection
Jan and Hubert van Eyck, “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”, 1432, lower register of the outer panels of the closed altarpiece, oil on panel, Sint-Baafs Cathedral, Ghent © - Art in Flanders vzw
Jan van Eyck, “Portrait of a Man with a Blue Chaperon” (detail), c 1428−1430, oil on panel 22 x 17 cm, Muzeul National Brukenthal, Sibiu (Romania)
Jan van Eyck, “Portrait of Jan de Leeuw” (cropped), 1436, oil on panel 33 x 27.5 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wenen, Gemäldegalerie