Sunday 24 June 2012

'It takes at least two centuries to judge a painter.'

On a rainy Friday in Brussels, I recently visited the Wiertz Museum, situated next to the European Parliament in 62 Rue Vautier. Championed by Montague Summers, who used no less than three of Wiertz's paintings as illustrations in The Vampire: Hit Kith and Kin, half a dozen of the paintings by Antoine-Joseph Wiertz keep turning up in books on various macabre subjects like vampires. So, of course, I had good reason to head straight for the museum, part of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, despite getting soaked by the rain.

Born in Dinant in 1806, Wiertz clearly was unusual, not only as a painter, but as an individual. In the leaflet on sale at the museum - the only text on his life and work currently available - he is described as 'a visionary artist, a champion of monumental painting, a 'pictorial philosopher', an often powerful sculptor, and prolific writer - who was also endowed with a quite extraordinary personality.' Visiting the museum, located in a huge building, one immediately wonders why he chose the subjects of many of his paintings: Death, cruelty, suicide, a mother whose child is badly burned, children mourning the loss of their father, the devil, hell, a head severed from the body, and a prematurely buried person. Why should someone have this extraordinarily macabre craving for spending his time meticulously painting such visions?

Part of an answer was given me by the museum attendant, himself an artist, who was keeping an eye out on the few visitors to the museum and on the raindrops entering through the roof, while also answering questions from me and the two or three other visitors. Clearly very much interested in the work of Wiertz, he told me that Wiertz used his paintings as social commentary to attract the public eye to concrete problems and to help people in need. This was the case of the woman who had left her child at home while she was out to work, only to return to find that her house was on fire and her child had been badly burned. Wiertz painting the scene in all its horror, exhibited the painting, L'Enfant brûlé, and donated the revenue to the mother. At the same time, Wiertz suggested that one should take care of children at nurseries when their mothers had to go out, to prevent small children from being left home alone. A novel and progressive idea at the time.

The building that houses the museum is a huge studio, apparently patterned on the ruins of the temple of Poseidon in Paestum in Italy, bequeathed by the Belgian government to Wiertz in 1850, enabling the artist to work on his gigantic paintings, one of them appropriately portraying a giant. In fact, the famous Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen said of Wiertz, when both men were in Rome: 'This young man is a giant'.

Wiertz lived for his art, never desiring neither marriage nor wealth. Despite his many portrayals of naked women, the woman who mattered most to him appears to have been his mother. Most famous of all is his portrayal of female vanity, a naked model studying the skeletal remains of a beautiful woman, La Belle Rosine, but the same vanity is also the motif of a the twin paintings of Le miroir du Diable, Satan's mirror.

The Devil hiding behind the mirror is very similar to the face peeping in on the naked woman reading in her bed, apparently a painting causing a scandal at the time, not because of the woman being naked, but because of her posture, the mirror image and the theme of the book on her bed: adultery. According to the attendant, the painting was simply considered pornographic.

One is left in no doubt of the singularity of the vision of Wiertz, but was he a great artist? Views differ, but Wiertz has very few champions these days. His taste for the gigantic, the sensational and the macabre certainly lends him no favours, unless if you are particularly interested in those things.

Indeed, while one is accustomed to various horrors in the cinema, one rarely goes to an art museum to see a suicidal man literally blowing his head off, a woman who is raving so much from hunger that she kills her child to supper on its limbs, or the horrors of the prematurely buried who awakens in his or her coffin, a painting inspired by the find of the skeleton of a person who had clearly been buried too hastily.

The three paintings by Wiertz chosen to illustrate The Vampire: His Kith and Kin were Faime, folie, crime, Le Suicide, and, of course, L'inhumation precipitée. The attendant told me that the latter - so famous or infamous from numerous vampire books - was originally exhibited in a tent where you had to look at the painting through a kind of telescope, so you would get the feeling that you were yourself looking out of your own coffin to see the person peering out of a coffin.

Standing in front of this painting, exhibited in a frame probably not too dissimilar to that of the wooden coffin depicted, I was again left contemplating what kind of person would spend his time painting this motif. Years before pulp novels, EC comics and recent horror films, sometimes simply exploring horror for its own sake, it is really a strange and unpleasant painting. No doubt, Wiertz had his own philosophical - as he coined it - reasons to choose the motif, showing us the folly and unfortunate fate of humans, but the effect nevertheless is macabre and horrifying.

The ubiquitous presence of Wiertz's painting in books on vampires goes to show how singular and effective the work is. Has any other painter before the twentieth century created anything like this? I for one cannot think of anything like it.

Wiertz himself claimed that 'it is impossible to condemn or absolve a man's work before his demise; it takes at least two centuries to judge a painter.' Less than that time has passed since his death, but it is clear that he has very few champions these days. In many ways, Wiertz has what it takes to become a genuine cult. The leaflet on sale at the museum concludes with the words: 'Wiertz annoys or seduces, but never leaves one indifferent.'

Writing in The Economist in 2009, Charlemagne certainly was not indifferent. He considered Wiertz 'perhaps the worst painter to have a government-funded museum all to himself, at least in the free world,' and wrote of his fate:

'For a while, posterity’s judgment was kind. In 1927, six decades after his death, his studio received 46,000 visitors. Belgian art-lovers thrilled to the melodrama of “Premature Burial”, in which an anguished figure peeps out from a coffin in which he is trapped. They relished the social commentary of “Hunger, Madness and Crime”, depicting a destitute peasant waving a bloody knife as the leg of her murdered infant peeps from a cooking pot. Nor was patriotism forgotten. In “Ravishing of a Belgian woman”, Wiertz breaks with convention by equipping his heroine with a pistol (although not with any clothes). She duly shoots the soldier molesting her, causing his head to explode, an event Wiertz depicts in gory detail.

Alas, modern audiences have proved less tolerant of such cod-Gothic nonsense. In recent years the Wiertz Museum has attracted an average of just ten visitors a day, many of them dragooned in school parties (the museum is currently closed for a few months, while its roof is replaced). The curator, Brita Velghe, concedes that Wiertz is “no Rubens”, but defends the museum as a rare example of a 19th-century studio, with a unique history. Ms Velghe adds that Wiertz might flourish today as a performance artist (he once turned up in Paris with a 28 square-metre painting of the Trojan wars, demanding that it be displayed in a tent outside the Louvre).'

Quasimodo and Esmeralda
Dissatisfied with traditional techniques of oil painting, Wiertz had created his own technique, peinture mat, mat painting, that recreates the look of a fresco. Unfortunately, the mix of colours, terpentine and petrol deteriorated the artist's own health, leading to his death in 1865. He had requested to be embalmed in accordance with ancient Egyptian burial rites and buried in the garden of his atelier, now the Wiertz museum. He was in fact embalmed, but the authorities had him buried at a local cemetery in Brussels. His heart, however, was embalmed separately and sent to his native town, Dinant.

Obviously, in death, as well as in life, he was a singular person.

The collected writings of Wiertz, published in 1870, are available on Google Books.

The Royal Museum of the Fine Arts of Belgium houses several famous paintings, including some by Breughel and Bosch that might be of interest to readers of this blog, and those interested in the art of another artist whose works have adorned books on e.g. vampires, Felicien Rops (1833-98), may wish to travel to Namur, south west of Brussels, to the Musée Rops. Whereas the works of Wiertz are to remain at the museum in Brussels, the drawings and painting by Rops have been exhibited abroad. I myself saw a selection exhibited in Denmark some years ago.

Plus philosophique qu'on ne pense (More philosophical than one thinks)


Nicolas Barbano said...

Thanks for an informative and inspiring blog entry on Antoine-Joseph Wiertz!

In "The Jewish War", historian Titus Flavius Josephus describes how, during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in AD 70, people in the city were starving so badly that a woman killed and ate her own baby. I wonder if that incident was the inspiration for Wiertz' painting "Faim, folie et crime"?

At any rate, I certainly agree that Wiertz should be included in the modern appreciation of art in this particular area, and have posted a link at the wonderful Facebook-page called 'The Macabre and the Beautifully Grotesque', hoping it will attract kindred spirits to your post and to the weird world of Wiertz.

Niels K. Petersen said...

At the museum I was told that Faim, folie et crime was actually based on a contemporary incident concerning a woman who had gone insane from hunger. I.e. another example of the kind of art Wiertz considered 'philosophical'.

R.H. Quaytman said...

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and sympathetic comments about Wiertz. I think he was a revolutionary artist. R.H. Quaytman

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