Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution
Museum of Fine Arts (MSK), Ghent
1 February – 12 March 2020 (early closure due to COVID-19).
In describing some of Jan van Eyck’s paintings, now lost, the fifteenth-century Genoese humanist Bartolomeo Fazio wrote of an angel Gabriel ‘with hair surpassing reality’, a Saint Jerome ‘like a living being in a library’, and a donor who ‘lacked only a voice’. Of another work, he commented that ‘almost nothing is more wonderful in this work than the mirror painted in the picture, in which you see whatever is represented as in a real mirror’. This last description is particularly evocative of how Van Eyck’s paintings have often been discussed, as mirror-like imitations of reality.
Continued awe at the optical effects that Van Eyck was able to produce is reflected in the title of a recent exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts (MSK), Ghent: Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution. The exhibition and its nearly five hundred-page catalogue locate this revolution in Van Eyck’s mastery of oil painting, acute observational skills and scientific knowledge, which allowed him to realistically represent the effects of light. Six hundred years later, Van Eyck’s optical revolution has been followed by two more, in the physical and digital display of his famed Ghent Altarpiece (1432). The core of the MSK exhibition was the grand public unveiling of some of the recently restored panels of the Ghent Altarpiece – eight restored exterior panels, as well as the two depicting Adam and Eve, not yet restored. A remarkable feat in itself, the exhibition included sixteen additional known works by Van Eyck and set them against contemporary Italian examples and works in other media, resulting in many surprising and revelatory juxtapositions.
As articulated by Fazio in Van Eyck’s own time, verisimilitude – the appearance of truth – is a quality of Van Eyck’s paintings that continues to astonish. Indeed, Van Eyck meticulously observed reality, but his creations are complex, inventive, designed realities in their own right. Frames cast fictive shadows inside his paintings, contributing to the impression that what we are seeing is truthful, but Van Eyck was one of the first artists to sign his works and sometimes included his personal motto ‘Als ich chan (as best I can)’, drawing attention to the fact that, real as they may seem, these are his skillful inventions. The portraits of Joos Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut from the Ghent Altarpiece exhibited at the MSK may seem so real that, in Fazio’s words, they ‘[lack] only a voice’, but Van Eyck was innovative in his deliberate choice to depict his subjects in three-quarter profile. In the altarpiece’s Annunciation panels, Van Eyck painted true light entering from a window on the right, as well as fictive light and multiple perspectives. These effects cannot coexist in reality but are visually convincing, enhancing the messages conveyed in the artworks – and they are all the more breathtaking post-restoration.
The recent display of the Ghent Altarpiece has taken a cue from Van Eyck’s sophisticated, purposeful manipulations of reality. The first optical revolution occurred in the MSK’s decision to hang the panels as single artworks, in separate themed rooms and at eye level. In its original setting of fifteenth-century Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, the altarpiece would have towered above as a unified whole, it would have been frequently handled, its wings opened and closed, and viewed under candlelight. In modern times, it has resided in a different room in the cathedral, in less than optimal viewing conditions, behind a thick and faintly green-tinted glass. The cathedral’s exceptional loan to the museum resulted in the opportunity to see the panels up close in a way that will possibly never be replicated. If reality or truth is defined as the original object existing in the physical world, which is being re-presented, then the museum’s bold curatorial choice ‘[surpassed] reality’, to echo Fazio. The artificial conditions created by the museum were a worthwhile sacrifice in exchange for the extraordinary access they provided visitors.
The second optical revolution in the presentation of Van Eyck’s paintings has been digital. A collaborative project commissioned by Saint Bavo’s in 2010, the interactive web application Closer to Van Eyck displays images of the altarpiece and several other works by Van Eyck obtained through high-resolution macrophotography, infrared macrophotography, infrared reflectography and X-radiography. These are freely available to the public and updated as the altarpiece’s restoration progresses, thereby providing unprecedented access and revealing new aspects of the work to novices and scholars alike.
It is also worth noting that the technical evidence on Closer to Van Eyck, as well as the restorations, are rich manipulations of reality. Though they might seem purely scientific and objective, technicians and conservators will tell you that infrared and X-radiography images are works of art in themselves, subject to complex technical decisions when being created and then to often conflicting interpretations. In addition, the restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece was the product of many difficult choices by restorers, including the decision to remove sixteenth-century overpaint covering much of its surface. Determining which layers had been originally created by the artist, and only preserving those, is fraught with challenges. Thus, restoration is not so much a winding back of the clock as a stage in the continued evolution of the artwork. No matter how careful and researched the intervention, rather than restoring a painting to its original truth, the process results in the creation of a new object.
Do these reconstructed realities get us closer, as the exhibition and Closer to Van Eyck claim, or further? Standing nearly at eye level with Adam, seeing each individual hair on his body, usually not visible from the tall upper registers of the altarpiece– or zooming into these details and seeing through the panels via the technical images– is not a mirror-like imitation of truth in the sense that it is not how the object would have been viewed and experienced in its original context. Rather, six centuries later, curators, restorers, technicians and time itself have staged their own sophisticated interventions on Van Eyck’s creations, forever altering them through the way they are perceived.
This review owes much to the methods and expertise of Professor Susie Nash, under whose guidance I completed my MA at The Courtauld.
Alexandra Reyes received an MA from The Courtauld Institute of Art in 2020, specializing in Northern Renaissance art. Prior to this, she worked at Sotheby’s New York in the nineteenth-century paintings department. While completing her BA at Yale University, she was a writer and editor for Out of Order Magazine, focusing on contemporary art. Alexandra is currently based in London.
 Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution 360° Virtual Tour, (Published: n.d., Accessed: 27 August 2020, https://virtualtour.vaneyck2020.be/en).
 Michael Baxandall, ‘Bartholomaeus Facius on Painting: A Fifteenth-Century Manuscript of the De Viris Illustribus’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 27 (1964), 102, doi:10.2307/750513. [Accessed 13/07/2020].
 Baxandall, 102.
 Maximiliaan Martens et al. (ed.), Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution [exhib. cat.] (Belgium: Hannibal Publishing, 2020).
 Susie Nash, Northern Renaissance Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 35-36.
 Baxandall, 102.
 Baxandall, 102.
 Closer to Van Eyck (n.d., accessed: 27 August 2020, www.closertovaneyck.com).