Apollo Magazine (UK)
It is a premise of art history, albeit an idealistic one, that fragments can and ought to be reunited. Reassembly is the motivation for many exhibitions, particularly those with a tight focus, as the panels made for a medieval altarpiece or works from a long-dispersed collection are gathered for a brief spell before disbanding once more. It is the impulse behind many digital ventures, from those that reconvene, say, the scattered pages of a manuscript in a virtual format online, to others that use augmented reality to envelop artworks in spectral recreations of their original settings.
Considered more broadly, the longing to bring together pieces underpins the discipline of connoisseurship, with its conviction that an artist’s body of work can be made more complete. Writing in this issue, Breeze Barrington draws attention to the gaps in our knowledge of Artemisia Gentileschi’s production during the years she spent in London at the court of Charles I, about which there are tantalising archival references but few established paintings (See Feature, pp. 124–130). The first substantial exhibition in the UK of Artemisia’s work opens at the National Gallery in April – a welcome staging post, which should both summarise and stimulate research.
Can there be merit in taking things apart, too? As Susie Nash writes, in her review of ‘Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution’ at the MSK in Ghent (see Reviews, pp. 178–181), the curators’ provocative decision to show the exterior panels of the Ghent Altarpiece not as a single entity but as eight individual objects, spread throughout the rooms of the exhibition, allows the viewer to appreciate Van Eyck’s achievement as never before. That the panels of the upper register have alighted here at eye-level, and that this allows them to be seen at such close range, means that for a few months we can scrutinise the surfaces of his paintings and savour their beguiling verisimilitude in a way that has not – or not on such a scale – previously been possible.
Of course, photographs also allow us to study works in detail – to dwell on their constituent parts, or indeed to make conjectures about how parts once fitted in a larger structure. But as Nash cautions, images can easily dupe our sense of surface and scale, and of the relationship between the two. To see the panels from the upper register of the Ghent Altarpiece up close is to appreciate Van Eyck’s technique without the impediment of distance that, given its height, is at least partly inherent to the work; to see them as intended, in their original arrangement, is to be reminded that certain mysteries are designed to be fathomed from afar.
This is a paradox familiar from much medieval and early Renaissance art: to know more about stained-glass production, for instance, it helps to study fragments in light boxes at the Musée de Cluny or the V&A; but to experience its enigma, it is far better to travel to Chartres or King’s College, Cambridge, where the details stretch out of sight and dissolve into a play of light and colour. The scenes in Giotto’s cycles of the Life of Christ and the Life of the Virgin in the Scrovegni Chapel are not uniformly legible across the high walls. Appreciation of such works entails a slow dance between reason and imagination.
The Ghent Altarpiece is a suitable candidate for an interim separation. Over the centuries, parts of it have been sold, sawn up, stolen – as Robert O’Byrne wrote in the February issue of Apollo, it is ‘thought to be the most stolen artwork in history’ – and yet, one unrecovered panel aside, it somehow endures as a coherent work that can be viewed as a whole in St Bavo’s Cathedral. Besides the opportunity it affords for close viewing, then, the temporary detachment of the panels is also a spur to reflect on the historical vulnerability of the altarpiece itself; it can only be disassembled because it has previously been reassembled, and more than once, against the odds. Ⓐ