I wouldn’t mind trying to teach him again

Svetlana Alpers

  • Hans Memling: The Complete Works by Dirk de Vos
    Thames and Hudson, 431 pp, £95.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 500 23698 4

I was not able to get to the major exhibition organised by the city of Bruges to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Hans Memling. But there is consolation in the fact that if one has ever been to Bruges one knows something of what his art is like. To a remarkable degree Memling has come to be identified with this city, whose centre is a preserve out of time. Swans floating on the surface of a web of canals bordered by medieval houses. This, it seems, is the proper setting for the master of a calm beauty, somewhat removed from the real world.

It was an aura Memling sustained even when depicting a company of eleven thousand virgins on their pilgrimage from Cologne to Rome and back to suffer violent death. The Shrine of St Ursula is exhibited together with altarpieces and portraits by the prolific Memling studio in the chapterhouse of St John’s Hospital for which it was made. The ensemble constitutes a Memling museum. It offers further confirmation of the link between a peaceful painter and his patrons in this peaceful little town.

But the match between painter and town is misleading. In Memling’s years there (c. 1465-94), Bruges was still the major trading centre of Northern Europe, with a significant population of foreign merchants. And it was also a centre of opposition to the new Habsburg rule which, in the end, contributed to its being supplanted in banking and trade by Antwerp. The year after Memling painted Maarten van Nieuwenhove (the portrait is featured on the dust-jacket of the De Vos book), Maarten’s brother, a burgomaster and a supporter of Maximilian against the people of the town, was beheaded. Yet Maarten is depicted kneeling in prayer in front of windows giving onto a bridge over still water in a green landscape which extends around the building to the other wing of the diptych, where the Virgin sits and is reflected with Van Nieuwenhove in a mirror on the wall beyond. The activity of light, its reflection and lustre, that Van Eyck persistently explored in paint is, here, almost casually noted. The pictorial battle is, as it were, over. And the new pictorial ease extends also to the attitudes of those portrayed. Were Memling’s beautiful images then simply out of step with his time and place?

In his well researched and beautifully illustrated monograph, Dirk de Vos does not take up this question directly. Or rather, his position is, too simply perhaps, that ‘no artist with the possible exception of Fra Angelico ... has ever created an oeuvre with as little connection with the real world as Memling.’ His task, as he sees it, is a different one. How does one make a case for a master who has fallen out of favour; who, since early in this century, has been consistently described in negative terms? Max Friedländer, in his great corpus of Netherlandish painting (1924-37), put it that Memling was neither an explorer like Van Eyck nor an inventor like Rogier van der Weyden. And Erwin Panofsky cleverly called him ‘the very model of a major minor master’. De Vos does not really disagree. That is how he, too, tends to define and defend Memling. He steadfastly refuses to make claims for his originality except as a portraitist or a narrator of composite scenes. Indeed, he provides evidence against his priority in this or that pictorial matter: Italians were ahead of Memling in placing portrait heads against landscapes; his figural arrangements are derived from Rogier van der Weyden; he took most of his often repeated subject-matter from German painters. On this account, the swan-song of 15th-century art in the Netherlands is a kind of healthy normalisation, an expansion and multiplication of what came before. He achieves, one concludes, very unusual quality for painting-as-usual. By not doing battle for Memling, De Vos manages to make a virtue of his limitations. I recall how hard it was to make Memling interesting in the classroom. After Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hugo van der Goes, what could one say? I wouldn’t mind trying to teach him again.

Early Netherlandish Painting, to use Panofsky’s name for a much-named phenomenon, has been a breeding-ground as well as a battle-ground for many issues – questions of art and history, of nationalism and taste. This book keeps a low profile on such things. It seems a bit old-fashioned in relation to contextual art history, but maybe it is also a sign of things to come. In order to see Memling as a painter steadily and to see him whole, De Vos has defused or side-stepped a number of issues that have swirled around his art. Given how pacific his art was (with the single exception of the Fall of the Damned in the early altarpiece in Danzig), it is remarkable how caught up in controversy Memling has been. There is first of all the fact of his German birth and training: his name seems derived from Mömlingen, a town off the River Main between Stuttgart and Frankfurt. In the early years of the 19th century, Memling’s German spirit was essential to his appeal for Schlegel and his friends. They discovered it in the tranquillity of the Moreel triptych, St Christopher in the stream bearing Christ, which they saw in the Musée Napoléon in Paris where it had been taken from Bruges.

That was not the first time a work of his was made hostage to military action. Though Memling’s art might appear to be outside history, it has repeatedly suffered its effects. His Last Judgment, ordered by Angelo Tani (Medici agent in Bruges and predecessor of the Portinari depicted in Van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece), was seized with the Burgundian galley taking it to Italy by a ship from the Hanseatic League. It has, ever since, been in Danzig.

German or Flemish? In the great exhibition of so-called Flemish primitives organised in Bruges in 1902, Memling, represented by the Moreel triptych and some thirty more works, was classed along with Van Eyck and Gerard David as the great Flemish primitive. On that occasion his particular Flemish religiosity (again with the less-than-convincing comparison to Fra Angelico) was emphasised. On the one hand, the very model of a Flemish primitive master; on the other, the German Memling who could, so an American friend of German parentage tells me, be part of one’s upbringing in the Fifties. De Vos defuses the national debate. His introductory account of Memling’s reputation significantly stops well before 1902. And while treating Memling as a Flemish artist, he also admits that, to his surprise, a systematic survey of all his motifs shows that he stuck closely to pictorial models from the land of his birth. De Vos encourages further study of Memling’s German training. Very well. But surely the career of an émigré artist whose art negotiates between two pictorial cultures is worth pursuing in these terms. Did the cultural mix have resonance at the time?

The relationship of art to its historical circumstances is much debated these days. Here, too, the pacific Memling is at the centre of the fray. Could one say that Memling exemplifies the argument that the picture artists give us of an age is far more serene and happy than that we glean from documents and texts? Are his pictures, taken as historical documents, misleading, even fallacious?

This suggestion was famously made, with Van Eyck and Memling as prime examples, by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga. His views have been recently brought to our attention by Francis Haskell in his fascinating and sceptical History and Its Images: Art and the Interpretation of the Past. In his Waning of the Middle Ages (published in English in 1924), Huizinga rejected the established view that the realistic mode and richness of life depicted by these artists was a sign of Renaissance discovery. They were instead signs of medieval decadence and decline. But in replacing a positive reading of the images with a negative one, Huizinga fell into the very trap of trusting to art as historical evidence that he was warning against. His argument was more complicated still. He went on to say that to look at art of this kind aesthetically, as art, is anachronistic because at the time all art was applied art. In Huizinga’s words, art in the age of Van Eyck was subservient to some practical purpose. We are thrown back onto art and its circumstances, though curiously, in this view, without art.

Writing about De Vos in the TLS, the historian Jonathan Israel argued that, far from being unconnected with the real world, Memling provided the art appropriate to give quasi-legitimacy to new men: his patrons were ambitious arrivistes in the employ of the ducal court. Memling, in Israel’s words, quite literally provided lustre. The proposal is convincing about Memling’s career. It may be, as Israel proposes, that art history is, or should be, ‘essentially an adjunct of history itself’. But what sort of an account of paintings would be offered under such a regime? The pun on lustre – in painting and in the social world – speaks to the market, but it does not get us very far into the paintings. It is perhaps not that paintings are either fallacious, or functional, or ambiguous as historical documents, but that in any instance only certain aspects of their production register immediate circumstance. There are constancies in pictorial practice that outlast a particular moment.

In De Vos’s one serious foray into a contextual account of the pictorial evidence, he considers Memling’s abbreviated under-drawing and his simplified (the comparison is with Van Eyck) handling of paint. Dismissing the view that these practices speak to a suppressed expressionist temperament, or a new spontaneity, he convincingly argues that what is at issue for Memling is saving time. (More than ninety of his works survive – in Van Eyck’s case, there are fewer than thirty.) In the current fashion for applying economics to art, it is commonplace to describe stylistic innovation as product innovation in a competitive market. With Memling, it seems to me, the analysis really works. But the question remains: what is the pictorial effect achieved by these particular time-saving means? I am quite unconvinced by the suggestion made here that Memling was opening the way for the modern aesthetics of the brush-stroke. But this question is related to the larger one of how one is to understand Memling’s pictorial enterprise. De Vos’s implicit argument for him as either an unworldly soul like Fra Angelico or a classicising artist, a kind of Northern Raphael, is not quite right.

One way of seeing Memling, as well as understanding our taste for him today, is as a latecomer to an established tradition, as someone who had to figure out how to carry on. Though it is not put in these terms, there is much interest these days in the late-comer phenomenon. One could describe exhibitions devoted to Boucher, Fragonard, and now G.B. Tiepolo and other Venetians of the 18th century, in these terms. These painters came at the end of a tradition and carried it on longer and, in the case of a Tiepolo, took it further than one might expect. In this respect, they are comparable to Vuillard and Bonnard, also of interest today, who surprise by extending late 19th-century practices into the 20th long after the Cubist revolution. Innovation through the reworking of what is already known is a characteristic of late-comers. They are artists conscious of, and comfortable with, the making of art out of art.

With the exception of his portraits from life and his many-scened narrative landscapes, Memling steadfastly made his art out of the figural and compositional inventions of Rogier van der Weyden, in whose studio he might well have worked. Similarly, his concern with light and lustre is a re-presentation of the pictorial representation of optical facts explored by Van Eyck. As De Vos points out, paintings such as the Nieuwenhove diptych don’t pretend to depict a single, consistent reality. Inconsistencies abound because space, light, colour and volume are separately analysed. Because he was in demand and learned how to work fast, Memling produced a greater number of works than any of his contemporaries. He also replicated himself, though not in the ironic manner of a Post-Modern late-comer and replicator like Sherri Levine. The endgame is of interest to art historians and artists alike just now.

Related to this is the fact that Memling’s works span phenomena that came to be labelled and seen as either medieval or Renaissance. Recently, the Royal Academy in London, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Getty Museum at Malibu have all organised exhibitions devoted to the illuminated manuscripts that were produced alongside panels and frescos in 15th-century Italy. To acknowledge the persistence and refinement of something established is to complicate our sense of the development towards the Renaissance. Progress in art is a less dominant concern when one stops to look at something out of sequence. Is there perhaps a new respect for those who keep art going? Fra Angelico, once thought of as retrievable for the Renaissance despite his retardataire ways, is a beneficiary of this view. The point is not to deny originality, but to grant the role traditional practice plays in its production.

For those who, like myself, did not make it to Bruges during the run of the exhibition, this book will have to do. It does splendidly. Many aspects of the pictures are more visible here than they would be in a museum. This is partly because the paintings are, not inappropriately, presented at nearly the size and with the intimacy of a large book of hours. The relationship to book illumination (which De Vos, surprisingly, does not bring up), so apparent in Memling’s inspiration and practice, is enhanced through loss of scale and diminished distance from the eye. New technology permits us to study the under-drawing and to see it, a bit unfairly perhaps, lurking just under the surface in marvellous photographs of the finished works. Colour printing can finally approximate the clarity and resolution of the best old black and white photographs.

It is assumed in many quarters today, most surprisingly in libraries themselves, that the era of the book if over: we will soon rejoice in calling up books as discrete images on a screen. But the image on the computer screen cannot compete with the sequence of book pages before our eyes. This makes one feel for Memling, who, in the age of printing and the panel painting, tried to hold onto the proximity and working of the manuscript page. (It occurs to me that perhaps his loose handling is in part a displacement of that superseded craft.) It seems, therefore, altogether fitting to instance a book on Memling’s art as evidence against the obsolescence of the printed book.