ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Dirk De Vos - 2008 - Edible Mayonnaise [EN, interview],
Thirty questions for Rogier Van der Weyden
Several years ago I met the restorer Irene Glanzer, who together with Elisabeth Bracht and Louise Wijnberg restored Barnett Newman’s painting Cathedra (1951) for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. She told me that nobody knows which brushes this artist used and that these days notable restorers like Carol Mancusi-Ungaro (Whitney Museum and Harvard) spend much of their time interviewing artists as so as to gather as much detailed information as possible about their technique before they leave us forever.
This optimistic message reminded me of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ sad remark that he was well aware of the questions his predecessors should have asked the Brazilians who surrounded him, but that he could not imagine what questions he should ask to satisfy the curiosity of future anthroloplogists. This is how I hit on the idea of inviting three experts on the work of Rogier Van der Weyden to write down the ten questions they would ask him if he miraculously came back to life today. As I expected, but to my great delight nevertheless, all three came up with different questions. I hope you derive as much pleasure from them as I have.
In 1974 one of these three experts, Lorne Campbell, published a wonderful book about Rogier Van der Weyden, which moved me to tears as I sat on a train between Brussels and Antwerp, slowly and breathlessly turning the pages and ravenously devouring the text. What I found most moving was to see how he isolated and enlarged women’s faces, as if the people Rogier had painted were real people to Campbell. Somewhere in this book he writes that Rogier lengthened the noses of his characters artificially, because this gave them a more devout appearance. I had only just left Antwerp station when I met a woman with exactly the same long, pious nose as the men and women in Rogier’s paintings. I took a photograph of the lady in question and sent it to London without a message. ‘I know,’ Campbell wrote back several hours later, ‘I have seen hundreds of them in Britain as well.’
Griet Steyaert (b. 1965)
1. Do you see yourself as an artist or as a craftsman?
2. The figures in the Descent from the cross (Prado, Madrid) are arranged in a case, the sort of gilded wooden case we know from carved altarpieces. Do these figures represent living people or polychromed figures? The figures are actually too big for the case. Did you do this on purpose to create tension and make the image more powerful and dramatic?
3. How long did it take you to make the Descent?
4. What were the dimensions of your studio? Can you describe the lay-out? What was in your studio? How many people worked there and how many people actively painted with you?
5. How many paintings did you make during your career and which do you like best?
6. Did you have any books? What were they?
7. Your son, Pieter van der Weyden, succeeded you. Can you describe his work? How is it different from yours? (The Master of the Saint Catherine Legend was later identified as being this son.)
8. Tell us about your apprenticeship. Which painters did you know personally?
9. An Annunciation painted on the outside panels of the Bladelin Triptych (De Vos, cat. n° 15) was clearly the work of a less able hand. Was this painting produced in your studio? By whom? And if not, was the painting done at a later date? What was the story here?
10. In the Seven Sacraments altarpiece (De Vos, cat. n° 11) ten heads were painted and stuck onto an intermediary medium (pewter, parchment or paper). Why was this done?
Lorne Campbell (b. 1946)
1. First break the news that his paintings of the Justice of Trajan and the Justice of Herkinbald, painted for the Town Hall of Brussels, have been destroyed. Please tell us as much as you can remember about them.
2. Show the tapestry of Trajan and Herkinbald (Historisches Museum, Berne). What are the main differences between this and your paintings for the Town Hall?
3. What was your position in the workshop of Robert Campin?
4. Where was your workshop and how did you organise your team of assistants?
5. Show the Prado Descent from the Cross. Would you agree that this was the best thing that you ever did?
6. Explain what your intentions were in presenting the Descent from the Cross in this way.
7. Show the Escorial Crucifixion and explain about the damage it has undergone. Did you enjoy working on this without interference from a patron?
8. Show the Washington Portrait of a Lady. Tell us about her and about how you painted her.
9. Tell us about your painting (which went to Genoa and which we know only from a very short description by Bartolommeo Facio) of the woman sweating in her bath, with a puppy near her and two youths peering at her through a chink.
10. Did you go to Italy? If you did, what were your impressions of the country and its art?
Dirk De Vos (b. 1943)
1. Standing waiting for you at Brussels Central Station, I recognized you immediately from a later portrait drawing based on a painting which really does capture your features. I suspect it was not a self-portrait. Who was the painter of that portrait? (which, sadly, has been lost).
2. Was Robert Campin your teacher?
3. How is it that the workmanship varies so much from one of your paintings to another and that some sections in the large formats can only be described as poor? – with apologies for this impertinent question which is not intended as criticism.
4. Is it true that you knew Jan van Eyck personally and was he of an older generation?
5. Was your wife Elisabeth, whose mother was a Van Stockhem, by any chance the niece of Ysabiel de Stoquain – clearly a gallicization of Van Stockhem –, who was married to Robert Campin?
6. Did you really do the drawing which alludes to the ‘Scupstoel’ (Ducking Stool) and which is the only surviving design for a series of satirical sculpted capitals on the front of Brussels Town Hall?
7. I don’t wish to give you a heart attack, but were the four Justice paintings which went up in flames under the French bombardment of Brussels town hall in 1695, the commission which led you to leave Tournai and settle definitively in Brussels because of your appointment as city painter?
8. Was the paint you used thinned with water, even when it was combined with oil (what we call ‘emulsion’), rather like our modern-day mayonnaise? But perhaps edible mayonnaise is something you were familiar with too?
9. When you produced a portrait of someone, I assume you first made a separate drawing. Did that person sit again for the painting?
10. Did you ever make a painting without a specific purpose or without being commissioned to do so?
Montagne de Miel, 4 June 2008