What a week: Belgian Art Prize announced and prestigious honour for Van Eyck show


As Belgium chose its most intriguing artist of the last two years, London’s Apollo magazine named Ghent’s Van Eyck exhibition the best of 2020


Two notable arts prizes were handed out last week: The biennial Belgian Art Prize and the international Apollo Award for Exhibition of the Year, which went to Ghent’s Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution.

Flemish artist Els Dietvorst has won the Belgian Art Prize, the highest honour for a visual artist in the country. The award is granted every two years to a Belgian artist or to an international artist living and working in Belgium.

Dietvorst is the former, born and raised in Antwerp province but now living in Ireland. A multi-media artist, she creates sculpture, drawings, video installations and performances often focused on migration, racism and the climate crisis. Her investigation of the human condition covers major themes like life and death, alienation, longing and fear.

A drawing from the No Fences series by Els Dietvorst, 2014

The Art Prize jury, made up of curators, critics, historians and collectors, was particularly impressed by the coherence between the artist and her oeuvre. “Els Dietvorst is a socially engaged artist who tackles issues by seeking to reveal the connections that are woven between people, situations and environments,” said the jury in a statement. “Her work is rooted in observation, listening and caring, and succeeds in revealing what too often remains invisible, preferring wonder to denunciation.”

The Belgian Art Prize comes with a €20,000 award and a production budget – provided by Proximus – to create an exhibition of new work. The exhibition will open at Bozar in the autumn of 2021.

Another prestigious prize awarded last week was the Apollo Award for Exhibition of the Year. The prize is awarded by British arts magazine Apollo, which chose the exhibition Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution.

Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution had to close six weeks early

The exhibition opened at the Ghent Fine Arts Museum in February and sadly had to close six weeks later because of coronavirus measures. As some of the works had been borrowed from other museums and had to be returned, the exhibition never re-opened.

Some 127,000 people managed to make it to see the exhibition, however – the biggest one ever devoted to the work of the 15th-century Flemish master Jan Van Eyck. And the international press was thoroughly convinced, with The Guardian calling it “mesmerising” and giving it five stars, the Wall Street Journal calling it “sublime”, and The New York Times saying that it was “the real thing” and a “once in a lifetime exhibition”.

“Ambition and intimacy are not the most natural of bedfellows,” wrote Apollo editor Thomas Marks in the announcement of the winner. “But the achievement of Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution was that its curators realised more or less the grandest imaginable exhibition on its subject, in scope and scale, while allowing visitors a beguiling proximity to so many paintings by Jan van Eyck.”

The exhibition missed no trick in creating moments of intense drama in the juxtaposition of his works

- Apollo editor Thomas Marks

Further, the exhibition “missed no trick in creating moments of intense drama in the juxtaposition of his works” and had a “sense of integrity, of an exhibition in the right place at the right time,” he said. He went on to talk about how the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece could be viewed by the public and the Closer to Van Eyck website, which made high-resolution image available online.

“In this context, Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution felt like the dividend of local and international collaboration,” he continued. “Several loaned paintings had been newly conserved for the exhibition; its robust catalogue contains 19 essays by leading Van Eyck scholars.”

He ended with saying that the exhibition had to close early, a victim of the pandemic, but that half the ticket-holders got to see it before it did. “For many of them, as for me, the memory of it will have provided much consolation in the months that followed.”

Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution can be seeing via a virtual tour.

Photos, from top: ©DB, ©Els Dietvorst, ©David Levene/MSK Ghent