Thursday, February 24, 2011

2010 Europe Trip: Ghent - An Art Side Trip

Ghent is a city in Belgium and about a 30 minute train ride from Bruges. I originally thought I'd take a day trip to Brussels and Ghent but I only had one day. After considering the pros and cons I decided to go to Ghent.

I'd read about both Ghent and Bruges when I was in my early 20s in Conde Nast's Traveler which had recently been relaunched. The article was very short, a blurb really, comparing Bruges with Ghent. It said that Ghent is often overlooked in favor of Bruges. This might be true for many travelers but the primary reason I chose Ghent over Brussels was so I could see some key pieces of art.

When I arrived at the train station I found the tram to downtown after asking some locals. Ghent is a modern city with an amazing city center of medieval buildings. As we drew closer to downtown, however, I realized the city was in the middle of a massive restoration project. All of the streets and sidewalks of the downtown area were being torn up and redone. It was a mess.

A view of the downtown construction.

It quickly became clear that I wasn't going to do much walking around. If that's all I'd come for I would have been disappointed but I came to see the art so all was not lost.

I started at the Sint-Baafs Cathedral (you can see it in the above picture looking down the street) to see the main event, The Ghent Altarpiece or the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the van Eyck brothers (started by Hubert, who died while working on it, and finished by his brother Jan). This polyptych was completed in 1432. The altarpiece is 11 x 15 feet. Yes, that means it takes up an entire wall. I knew the painting was undergoing a major restoration but they said I could still see it and watch the restorers at work.

My postcard of the front of the altarpiece with the side panels open

The restorers were housed behind a glass wall with various tables and computers, lights, cameras, and other instruments. They were working on Adam and the singing angels in the upper left corner, and the two panels of knights in the lower left corner. The rest of the main altarpiece was still on the wall. Restorers were making notes and taking pictures of it. The two panels of knights were right in front of the glass wall so I could get a good look at them. I stood there for over an hour, watching and looking. People came and went, including crowds of tour groups. Most were there for two minutes or less. There was one couple who stayed for perhaps 15 minutes before leaving. When I was taking my class of Lower Medieval to High Renaissance Art, I was completely amazed by this altarpiece the first time my teacher showed us the slide. I vowed that I would someday see it in person. At the time it seemed like such an impossible dream. Now that I was there I was really going to look at it.

I noticed the archangel Gabriel was leaned up against the wall behind the closest restorer who was sitting at a desk with a lot of camera and computer equipment. I couldn't really see Gabriel with all the stuff in the way, plus he had a green strap hanging over his precious face. Though I can't draw faces at all I decided to stretch myself a little and draw him.

Gabriel is part of the back side panels which close over the main part of the altarpiece. He's in one panel with Mary in the other next to him in a depiction of the Annunciation.

A photo of the back of my postcard showing the back side panels. You can see Gabriel there on the upper right side and Mary opposite him on the left.

You've seen this sketch before but I had to show in context here.

Another photo of my postcard. You can see what I was trying to attempt in my sketch.

Gabriel was a tough, tough draw. Because he was behind the restorer leaned up against the wall on the floor, I had to stand on my tip toes to get a decent look at him. The restorer noticed I was trying to draw him and was kind enough to turn on a light near him so I could see better. Also, I was really intimidated because this was a treasured masterpiece by the van Eyck brothers with all its glorious attention to minute details. Still, I was very happy I made the attempt. One of the many cool things I liked about Gabriel was his traditional rainbow wings look like the cross section of a watermelon with the same kind of texture.

I reluctantly left the altarpiece and strolled around the cathedral. There's a Rubens there as well though I can't remember which one. I didn't take any pictures of the inside of the cathedral. I went outside and wandered around the main part of the historic city center as much as I could but the torn up streets and heavy equipment motoring around made me think twice so I made my way back to the tram.

Uneven, torn up streets.

Sint-Niklaaskerk is right across the street from Sint-Baafs.

The street restoration project should be finished sometime next year, if memory serves me correctly. When they're done I'm sure the city center will be gorgeous.

I took the tram back to the train station then inquired about where I could find the Citadelpark, a lovely park where there are several museums, among other things. It was very close to the train station, maybe 2-3 blocks away. I was on my way to the Museum voor Schone Kunsten to specifically to see two paintings by my favorite painter, Hieronymous Bosch. As an aside, I wrote an essay a couple of years ago entitled The Role of Extreme Violence in Art where I talk about Bosch, among others, and why I love him so much.

A very beautiful park. No one was around. I think I saw two people on my way to the museum.

Sun, trees. I can't get enough of these kinds of photos.

The museum was larger than I expected and again, no one was around. They had a special exhibit going on but I elected not to see it. The art I was looking for was in the second room I walked into. There they were: Christ Carrying The Cross and Saint Jerome At Prayer.

My postcard of Christ Carrying The Cross, the fifth Bosch I've seen so far.

I LOVE this painting and spent a long time looking at it. There was no one in that part of the museum, not even the security guards. Sadly, the painting was in need of restoration. I decided to try drawing another face and chose the grotesque face in the lower right corner of the painting. Since his features were so exaggerated I thought it might be easier. It wasn't. I particularly had a difficult time with his nose, getting it in proportion to his face and in the correct shape.

On another wall in the same room was Saint Jerome. I was really tired by then and decided to go the easy route and just draw his robe. I've gotten much more comfortable drawing draped fabric.

You can see the robe I drew draped over the tree log on the right.
As the post-it tag notes, this is my sixth Bosch.

I walked through the rest of the museum and only saw three other people. The museum is a kind of a maze with different levels and sub-levels. It seemed like it was organized in a half-circle shape. I kept getting lost and couldn't figure out which direction I was moving in. This proved to be fun because I kept walking into rooms with interesting art, particularly when I got to the 20th Century section.

I eventually found my way out and walked back to the train station where I caught the next train back to Bruges. My back, shoulders, neck, arms and hands were hurting, sketching is a painful activity for me. It was late afternoon in Bruges and folks were out in force in all the outdoor cafes. The walk back was good for me and my feet had finally gotten used to the cobblestones.

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