Meditations on a 90 year old Belgian paperback

It must have been lying around on my windowsill for over 10 years – a frail old paperback migrating from pile to pile over the years, unread.
But its moment had come  - “Méditations devant des images” - yes, meditativeness was welcome now. 
I tested its weight in my hand (heavier than expected), appreciating the soft texture of the paper cover, then passing my fingers over the roughness of some of the cut pages. A previous reader obviously had never gotten further than the chapter on Van Eyck, beyond which the pages were still uncut.

Enthralled by the opening sentence, I carefully, though inexpertly, started cutting open the rest of the book with a kitchen knife, page by page - an oddly tactile ritual for accessing a book.

Les plus grandes œuvres des Primitifs flamands sont silencieuses. Tout y est immobile : la nature et les hommes. Cela est surprenant quand on évoque les temps pleins de tumulte dans lesquels ces œuvres furent conçues, temps de guerres incessantes, de meurtres politiques, de soulèvements, et temps de mœurs bruyantes, de fêtes pompeuses […]

The greatest works of the Flemish Primitives are silent. Everything is still: nature and men. This is surprising when one remembers the tumultuous times in which these works were conceived, times of incessant wars, political murders, uprisings, and times of raucous habits, pompous feasts [...]

So here we have a Gustave Vanzype, back in 1929 caring about how artists of previous eras could produce works of intense stillness and noble elation amidst the clamor & materialism of their times. It’s what a brooding blogger, writing in 2019, can only wistfully recognize as an almost shameful longing (a longing for an art stepping out of its rowdy age, expressing deeper seated human longings, edifying works of beauty and truth beyond pressing everyday realities).


This elated trust in what high art can achieve is clearly the common theme of the different essays in Vanzype’s book, covering both Italian and Netherlandish artists. Gustave Vanzype (1) also turns out to be an elated Belgian. He is unashamedly proud of “our school” (examples in the book span Bruegel, Rubens, van Dyck and Belgian ‘modern’ painters such as Henry Leys, Jan Stobbaert and Franz Courtens) but explains how the works of "our masters" have gotten dispersed all over Europe, following the historical upheavals that so often have upset our provinces.

Il n’est pas pays plus européen que le nôtre. A son action comme à sa pensée, toujours l’étranger participe. Et c’est miracle que subsistent des caractères particuliers à nos provinces. Ils subsistent, intenses et permanents dans le langage que, toujours, nous avons parlé avec le plus d’éloquence : le langage de la peinture. Mais pour nous en rendre compte, nous devons sortir de chez nous, parcourir l’Europe, aller au Louvre, au Prado, à l’Ermitage, à Vienne, à Munich, à Berlin, à Dresde, à Florence. Nous ne pouvons nous bien connaître en demeurant sous notre ciel. […] Pour ma part j’avais quarante ans quand j’ai entendu le vrai langage de celle de Bruegel. Il a fallu que l’occasion s’offrît de voir Vienne. (2)

It’s a startling passage to read in 2019, by a mind brooding about the state of the world, and of Europe and Belgium in particular. Who would, today, in our fragmenting countries, still dare to evoke a shared historical language of painting (and of music)?

A Belgian Biographical Note

(1) The Belgians amongst us – for as long as there still are any – may smile affectionately when pronouncing his name – it sounds so endearingly familiar & prosaic: “Gustave Vanzype”. The solid sound of his name makes for a lovely contrast with the sensitive & erudite character of his writings. One imagines a typical Belgian francophone Flemish bourgeois of the end of the 19th Century. Which is indeed borne out by the first paragraph of his on-line biography biography.

Gustave Vanzype naît à Bruxelles le 10 juin 1869, d'un père d'origine brugeoise et d'une mère née en Hollande, à Maestricht. Mais c'est le français que l'on pratique dans son milieu.

Gustave Vanzype was born in Brussels on June 10th, 1869, of a father of Bruges origin and a mother born in Holland, in Maastricht. But it's French that is spoken in his circles.

What follows next, surprises and humbles. Here is a boy, abandoned by his father, utterly poor but so devoted to literature and art that he runs away from a sensible training in business. So poor, even, that after a failed stint in Paris, he has to walk back home, on foot, all the way from Paris to Brussels. Désargenté, c'est à pied qu'il effectue le trajet Paris-Bruxelles.

In today’s world, a “Gustave Vanzype” might write freely in Dutch – so that’s good. But then, maybe in today’s world our Gustave would never have dared to give up a training in business to go and write about art. At the most, idling away a Sunday – today’s Gustave might write some arty stuff on the social media, maybe in some sort of English.

(2) a startling passage - in translation
There’s no country that’s more European than ours. In its actions as in its thoughts, the foreign always participates. And it is a miracle that our provinces still retain a particular character. It subsists, intense and permanent in the language that we have always spoken with the most eloquence: the language of painting. But to be aware of it, we must leave our homes, travel across Europe, go to the Louvre, the Prado, the Hermitage, Vienna, Munich, Berlin, Dresden, Florence. We cannot know ourselves well by staying under our skies. [...] For my part I was forty when I heard the true language of Bruegel's. It took the opportunity to go and see Vienna

meditations on a burning cathedral

That we no longer build things for eternity (no pyramids, no temples, no cathedrals) – so be it.  (1) But that we, with all our material means, are not even able to take care of the best that previous generations bequeathed to our world!  That we, with all our technology, let burn a cathedral! 
It was with a mix of sadness, despair and shame, too, that I watched the photos.  If we cannot even preserve our cathedrals… (2)

 In the days following the disaster, general outpourings of grief & regret kept equal pace with outpourings of generosity. 
We are going to rebuild this cathedral, all together ”.   Propaganda of an embattled president? Perhaps, but the sentence truly touched me.  In the middle ages, people of all walks of life helped build the cathedrals, bringing stones & beams & provisions for the workers, with whatever means of transport that were available, clogging the roads to the cathedrals’ building sites.  That, in any case, is the romantic image I have somehow retained from my Cathedral-readings (3)

 Does it reflect a historical truth? I would certainly like to think it does.   Just as I’m now equally eager to hear an echo of this medieval enthusiasm in the fervour of the crowd funding for the restoration.  Seeing it somehow as a proof that we are not merely superficial individualist consumers, that we do still cherish the beauty and the relative permanence of our cathedrals, that we do still acknowledge the greatness of what a shared longing for transcendence can achieve. 

Of course, there were not only the crowds, but also the billionaires stepping in. It’s legitimate to raise the question of whether their immense fortunes are not a failure of social fairness. One can understand the grumbling that they’d better just pay their fair share of taxes. (4)
But on the other hand – if their donations were inspired by an obscure sense of seeking redemption, well – then there too, I somehow find reason for hope.    If shrewd businessmen still feel such a need for redemption , still feel awe in the face of beauty and history - well, then our age does not live in entire forgetfulness of that which might transcend our human condition.


(1)    Maybe future generations will stand in awe of our digital web spanning the whole wide world, catching our every single move & utterance.
(2)    We’re not the only generation realising with a shock that cathedrals can burn, that we might  irrevocably lose invaluable treasures : “Le grand incendie de 1836, qui détruisit la toiture avec sa belle charpente, et qui eût pu détruire l’église toute entière, attire sur elle l’attention des érudits, des artistes et de l’Etat. On s’effraya à la pensée que ce chef d’œuvre aurait pu être anéanti sans qu’il en restât même un souvenir. «   Emile Mâle – Notre Dame de Chartres, 1948
(3)  The cathedral-enthusiasm of the crowds is described in Emile Mâle’s book about the Chratres cathedral, citing a medieval abbot: “L’enthousiasme des foules  -  On vit cette année-là, à Chartres, les fidèles s’atteler à des chariots chargés de pierres, de bois, de blé et de tout ce qui pouvait servir aux travaux de la cathédrale, dont les tours s’élevaient alors comme par enchantement. L’enthousiasme gagna la Normandie et la France : partout on voyait des hommes et des femmes traîner de lourds fardeaux à travers les marais fangeux ; partout on faisait pénitence, partout on pardonnait à ses ennemis »   Emile Mâle – Notre Dame de Chartres, 1948
(4)     The ethical question of where to put priorities (bluntly put : saving cathedrals or people) has been evoked by Proust, in the far starker context of a war, with people’s lives at stake.
Les cathédrales doivent être adorées jusqu’au jour où, pour les préserver, il faudrait renier les vérités qu’elles enseignent. […] Ne sacrifiez pas des hommes à des pierres dont la beauté vient justement d’avoir un moment fixé des vérités humaines. »   Le TempsRetrouvé  

meditations on some blobs of paint

It’s a precious skill as an art gallery visitor: the ability to fully concentrate on a painting, amidst the comings & goings and the whispers & shouts of one’s fellow visitors. 
Mind you, this concentration is not a question of simply blocking out one’s surroundings, it is not a matter of withdrawing in a noise-cancelling lonely vacuum. 
 It’s rather about welcoming the gallery space with its thronging visitors as a safe surrounding conducive to all manners of meditation (including one’s own) in front of cherished images.

On my way to the rooms with the Dutch painters, I was stopped in my tracks by a sign “Silence! Mindfulness Session Going On! Behind the sign, a group of people was sitting on folding chairs, looking intently at a Frans Hals painting, while listening to their Mindfulness Coach, who, speaking in a low appeasing voice, invited her audience , “to look at the painting and, at the same time , to become aware of their own sensations”.

I might have been expected to snigger at the new-fangled sign with the over-hyped term, at the meekness of the group. But then I didn’t, because, obviously, paintings do invite to contemplation and meditation, they indeed can induce a state of absorption and aesthetic bliss. And instead of an isolated & transient self-absorption, they offer a connection to (relatively) durable images and stories, which have been meaningful for so many people throughout the ages.   So, hype aside, maybe it’s all the better, if ‘mindfulness’ courses bring people to the museum, teaching them how to sit still and to look at a painting.

Un-aided by folding chair or coach, I engaged in my own kind of meditations – standing quietly in front of a painting by Emanuel de Witte.  
 A 17th C Dutch painter of mainly church interiors, de Witte in our age has often been less highly regarded than the sternly abstract Saenredam – being considered as (too) anecdotic, (too) pleasingly painterly. 
But each time I meet one of his paintings, I stand watching in bliss – captivated by their luminosity, their limpid sensation of space & time. 

The light, oh the light!  The happiness of witnessing that light filtering through the church windows.  The joy of seeing those pillars and tiles dappled with light – the immersion into that atmosphere suffused by light.    

Staring intently at some flecks of light on the pillars – one gets get mesmerized by the magical transformation of tactile blobs of paint into light. From modest matter to mystical light? 

What kind of optical laws govern this interaction of painterly matter and light and vision?  The camera is fooled even more than the naked eye.  It simply records and shows "light" – and it takes a lot of zooming and processing to bring out the texture of the paint that de Witte so brilliantly splodged on these pillars.