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