Uncovering Everyday Life – From Bosch to Bruegel

Peter Morrell goes to the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam and enters a world of brothels, boozing and general bawdiness in this revealing new art exhibition.

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The Boijmans Museum has created this fascinating exhibition to illustrate a period of just over a century when art went through a huge revolution. Gone were the paintings of pious portraiture and religious scenes as artists started to depict the gritty reality of everyday life. This was a world of drunkards, prostitutes, misers, quack surgeons and peasants. Although in many instances the paintings were satirical, mocking, even cruel, there was an underpinning message of morality which showed the rewards of heaven and the wages of sin.

The timeline starts with Hieronymus Bosch, born in 1450, the centrepiece of the exhibition is his triptych The Haywain, painted on three wooden panels. In the left panel is the story of Adam and Eve and on the right it shows hell, populated with weird creatures and morphing forms. The centre panel is a pot pourri of human activity from stealing the hay to a mugging, a tooth extraction, boozing bishops and child snatchers. Atop the cart is a courting couple being protected by an angel on the left and tempted by a devil on the right. All this has been painted by Bosch with a technical excellent combined with a psychedelic imagination.

This work has been lent to the Boijmans by the Prado in Madrid and it is the first time it has been back to the Netherlands in 450 years. The fame of this painting is only surpassed by Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights dealing with a similar theme of sin and salvation which is also in the Prado.

When the Haywain panels are closed they show a Wayfarer defending himself from a dog, the same model has been used in a Bosch painting owned by the Boijmans called The Pedlar. In this second painting the man has passed a brothel suggesting he is on the path to righteousness, he has a bandage round his leg so probably the dog finally bit him. There is a huge amount of symbolism in the works but even after extensive analysis by experts it all remains indecipherable.

I moved on in style to some slightly less esoteric subjects, first to the work of Jan Sanders van Hemessen, The Surgeon shows an unfortunate man being operated on by a quack, trying to cure him of stupidity. Van Hemmessen also produced The Tearful Bride, in this work an older women with even older husband is crying, with snot dripping from her nostril, she wears a crown of over ripe cherries denoting that she is not young and virginal.

The Pancake Bakery by Pieter Aertsen was next, it is a beautifully executed painting showing a peasant’s kitchen and probably hung in the salon of an Amsterdam merchant’s house as a contrast to his lavish lifestyle.

Satire is never far away and in Marinus van Reymerswaele’s The Lawyer’s Office the legal profession is lampooned for their greed. Papers on the wall in the painting refer to a real lawsuit where the disputed property was destroyed in a storm before completion of the case.

Before taking a look at the Bruegels I saw Lucas van Leyden’s The Milkmaid, this is bursting with sexual tension, a buxom lass has caught the attention of a strapping lad, it doesn’t take much thought to imagine the outcome. The work is actually an engraving, very popular with the burgeoning bourgeoisie of the time.

The exhibition only shows the works Pieter Bruegel the Elder (artistically Bruegel the Younger was a disappointment). The Elder was born in 1525 and into a time of great change, Martin Luther had published his 95 Theses in 1517 which had started the Reformation. The art of the Renaissance was winding down to be replaced by more workaday themes. Bruegel was heavily influenced by the work of Bosch and this showed in both subject and style. The first painting I saw, one of his most famous, was The Peasant and the Nest Robber, this showed the contrast between the poor but honest farmer and the thief. The next was Les Mendiants, the Beggars, possibly alluding to the Beggar’s Revolt against the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands.

My final Bruegel was Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap, this is the artist as many people know him, with snowy scenes and diffused light, it’s a brilliantly crafted study.

These paintings are just a fraction in this exhibition which has been superbly curated by Peter van der Coelen and Friso Lammertse who have worked hard assembling the collection from many different sources. It elegantly charts the evolution of art between the 15th and 16th centuries. This exhibition runs until 17th January 2016

This excellent exhibition is unmissable but it is by no means the only attraction in the museum. I stayed in the Boijmans for a look at their permanent collection and it is world class. Highlights include paintings by Rembrant, Van Gogh, Van Eyck, Monet, Titian, Rubens, Matisse, more works by Bruegel and many others. The Boijmans Museum is a participant in the Google Cultural Institute project which gives you detailed access to their collection online. Go to www.google.com/culturalinstitute/home and search for Boijmans

The Boijmans Museum is situated in Rotterdam’s urban Museumpark and is within a few minutes walk of other cultural attractions. Earlier in the day I had paid a visit to the Kunsthal, a purpose built exhibition space which is a work of art in its own right. Its headline artist being shown at the moment is the American Keith Haring. Haring died tragically young, the exhibition called The Political Line explores his obsession with birth, death, sexuality and war. There were some immensely powerful images on show, big and bold shapes with a strongly political message. This is running until 7 February 2016

About to leave the Kunsthal I stumbled upon another exhibition called Red Wealth – Soviet Design 1950 – 1980. It was an enthralling insight into what happens when ideology drives industrial design. For example, accommodation in cities was in the form of tiny flats, so designers created small furniture to match. Many of the products on display were sturdy but utilitarian and their retro look now jars against the sleeker designs of the 21st century. This exhibition runs until 14 February 2016.

Time didn’t allow me to visit the Natural History Museum but just before visiting the Boijmans I popped into The New Institute which has become a temporary fashion museum. One of the interesting concepts being shown was upcycling. An example of this was designers taking standard chain store clothes and modifying them to create one-off items.

After four exhibition visits my weary legs welcomed the fact that home for the night was adjacent to Museumpark. The Bilderberg Parkhotel was the perfect resting place with very comfortable and well appointed rooms. Their new restaurant, The Park, inspired by top Dutch chef Erik van Loo was the ideal place to relax after a day of eclectic and thoroughly enjoyable culture.

Getting to Rotterdam is quick and convenient, I flew from London City which took 50 minutes and was in the centre 20 minutes after landing. When you arrive you will find big green spaces, outstanding architecture and a vibrant culinary scene which revolves around the Markthal, packed with food stalls.

For more about visiting Rotterdam go to https://en.rotterdam.info/

For more about Holland go to www.holland.com