The international press recently announced an art historical sensation: an archeologist from Halle thought he had discovered a self-portrait by the artist Robert Campin on a nearly 600-year-old painting in the London National Gallery. Hardly larger than a pinhead, it seemed to be hidden in the fluorescent red gem on the ring finger of the lady portrayed in the painting. The scientist’s hypothesis however - supported by nothing more than extremely enlarged reproductions - was unanimously rejected among specialists for Early Netherlandish painting. The experts declared it to be an optical illusion.
A painter who enjoyed a dissolute lifestyle and who smuggled his image as a tiny reflection into the portrait of a young lady who might even have been his mistress—this dramatic story thrust one of the most exciting artists in the history of painting into the media spotlight. The Fleming Robert Campin, also known as the Master of Flémalle, was a pioneer of the detailed representation of reality. Now, the Städel Museum dedicates an impressive exhibition to him and to his most important associate, Rogier van der Weyden. Although Campin and van der Weyden were two of the most innovative European artists of the 15th century, the show, sponsored by Deutsche Bank, is the first exclusive exhibition ever of the painters’ work.
Along with the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck, it was primarily these two artists who powerfully advanced the development of Early Netherlandish painting. It is them who represent the discovery of the visible world. They ingeniously perfected the technique of oil painting, which enabled them to record their visual impressions in a vivacity of detail that was previously unknown. Be it the tears running down the cheek of a grieving Madonna; be it precious brocade fabrics; the shadow of a beard on a man’s face; or the flowers and stalks of grass in a meadow: Both artists discovered entirely new motifs for painting, and their works possess an urgency that even modern viewers are unable to resist.
Around 50 masterpieces of saints, biblical scenes, and portraits are on view in Frankfurt. Some of the world’s most important museums have loaned paintings to the exhibition, which in March 2009 will also be shown in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Due to restorative concerns, some of these works are virtually never being shipped out on loan. Thus, the Städel’ own collection is augmented by valuable works, such as the Annunciation Triptych from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, an Annunciation scene from the Prado, and a diptych from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. This is a rare opportunity to see such a comprehensive survey of the both the artists that will not come again all that soon.
The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden
November 21, 2008 through March 01, 2009
Städel Museum, Frankfurt
March 20 through June 21, 2009
Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin