When it comes to the great art of the Flemish Renaissance and the many famous Flemish painters, no city has had as big an impact as Antwerp. It should go without saying that Antwerp must then be a veritable art lover’s dream city. It was with this anticipation that I arrived in Antwerp to live in 2011, only to discover that Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Art would be closed for renovations until 2022. While that was definitely a gut punch, I quickly discovered that there is great Flemish art on display all over the city. Every great church has something from Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens, or Matsys.
Antwerp also was home to many great collectors whose palatial homes have been turned into wonderful museums. One of those is the Museum Mayer Van Den Bergh. Fritz Mayor Van Den Bergh was a major collector of 14th to 16th century Northern Renaissance art. After he died in 1901, his mother Henriette built an exquisite neo-gothic addition to their home in the heart of Antwerp to display his art collection. She also curated the art museum until her death in 1920. It is with Henriette, the daughter of a brewer, where this post finds it’s inspiration.
Only 16.66% of the Problem
It is well documented that all of the problems of the human race; war, pestilence, racism, poverty, auto-tune and drunkenness all come from the same source. Men. There is no denying that women haven’t received a fair shake in the affairs of the world; career opportunities, salaries, and credit for what is good and just in mankind. But the Flemish artists of the 16th century weren’t dummies. They might have even been visionaries, paying homage to the strong female figure in society while highlighting the folly of men.
In Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Twelve Proverbs (1558), we see twelve scenes related to poor moral character. Ten, that is 83.33% if you are doing the math, depict men. The Flemings were on to something 463 years ago.
The two proverbs depicting women show one woman holding a cloak in the wind and another carrying fire and water. The former highlights someone who is driven to and fro as the wind blows by rumor and gossip and the latter indicates someone who will stoke the fire of rumor as a scandalmonger on one hand and rain on someone’s parade, so to speak, thru criticism on the other. So in other words, women are chatterboxes and quick to jump to conclusions. Nobody, not even the enlightened Flemings, are saying women are perfect.
Of the ten proverbs with men, three have some sort of drunkenness connotation. One shows a man pissing against the moon, signifying a man who fails at everything. Look at the world today. It is hard to disagree. Man is nothing more than a bladder full of beer trying to douse the moonlight.
Another shows a man drinking and playing dice. Doing so makes the man poor and gives him a bad name.
The final example is similar to the last one. It shows a man collapsed between two chairs. This man has lost everything and finds himself in an awkward position, but his one redeeming quality? Nobody… can outdrink him.
While Bruegel provides clear examples thru proverbs, other Flemish painters weave evidence a little more cleverly into otherwise everyday scenes.
The Real Glue Holding the Family Together
Whether it was the 1500’s or the 1600’s, Flemish artists enjoyed painting shindigs. Antwerp’s own Marten Van Cleve painted this farmhouse wedding scene sometime in the later half of the 1500’s while Pieter Bout painted a village yearly market at the end of the 1600’s. Two scenes more than a century apart, yet the truths within span millenia. When it comes to partying, men and women join equally, but it is always the men who take it too far and the women who have to deal with it.
Here the husband lay passed out in the bushes while his dutiful wife cares for an infant. The older child is allegorically chugging from a pitcher, like father like son. It is easy to imagine the woman trying to make eye contact with the bride… this is what you are in for…
Here, the yearly market. A husband overdoes it and is throwing his hand up to complain as his wife patiently takes him by the arm. Meanwhile, their daughter, probably unnerved by her father’s behavior, remains near the calming waves of her mother’s skirt. His dog, oblivious to his master’s trangressions, is excited by his gesture and leaps against his leg.
The Real Strength of Moral Character
Monks in the Middle Ages might have had many purposes in life, but two of the key ones were deference to their Creator and brewing beer. It is inevitable that these would not always work well together. In this unknown masterpiece from the late 1500’s this struggle is depicted. Entitled The Conflict between Carnival and Lent, this painting shows a slew of dancing monks, a bishop, and other assorted men of the cloth engaged in an orgy of drunkenness, including one in the center balancing a Jan Steen kan on his head and a Berkemeyer glass on his thumb. However, it is the Sister of the cloth who is the epitome of self-control here, representing the moral conscience, scolding the men with her nun’s finger. She is perhaps the only one in this scene not holding her proverbial cloak in the wind and going with the flow.
The Real Disciplinarian
One of the oft-painted parables in the Bible is the Return of the Prodigal Son. In fact, it is so often painted, that you are bound to see one in every major art museum housing classic art. The Prodigal Son is such a familiar theme that you could be forgiven for substituting recognition of the term with actually knowing what the hell the word prodigal means. Well after many years of pretending I knew what it meant, I finally looked it up, and it means wasteful. The story is about the youngest of two sons asking his father for his inheritance early. The father gives it to him and the son leaves his family and squanders the inheritance. He is then forced to return home to ask his father to take him back. The father decides rather than to admonish his son, he throws him a huge party to give thanks for his son’s return. In this painting by Frans Pourbus, the son of Bruges painter Pieter Pourbus, we see the father has spared no expense. The Prodigal Son is seated at the table surrounded by musicians and entertainers, feasting and drinking. Ironically, doing all of the things that he probably squandered his inheritance on. The lascivious look on the son’s face shows no indication that the son has learned anything. If a son blows his money on booze and women, he is just sowing his wild oats. This is man’s discipline.
On the other hand, Pourbus shows us exactly how a woman would handle it in the far upper left of the painting. There is no doubt if the son had returned home to find his mother in charge, this would have been the welcome he would have received.
The Real Multi-Tasker
In Pieter Aertsen’s Farmer’s Company By the Hearth (1556), we see more than just an innocent image of some farm workers enjoying a hot meal at the end of a busy day. The focal point of the image is a young woman being groped by one man while she holds a clenched fist over the drunk man’s knife. The other hand is holding a ladle and extending towards a soup pot. She is looking downward as if her mind is elsewhere. It is a look of determination. This is a woman navigating thru a man’s world. And what a man’s world it is! The youngest male is stirring the pot with a party hat on while looking up and back. He has a guilty look on his face as if something deviant is happening in the room and someone out of view has suddenly caught them in the act. The middle male who has his arm around the woman’s waist has a blank, emotionless gaze, as if lacking any cohesive thought or intellect whatsoever. And finally the oldest male is gazing longingly into his empty beer mug oblivious to the woman’s fist above his groin. The birdcage above the fireplace is symbolic of a brothel, further indicating the conditions under which this woman is forced to use her resourcefulness to survive.
The Real Action Hero
In the last couple decades, some of the best action heroes of cinema have been female, with Lara Croft (Tomb Raider films), Selene (Underworld series), and Alice (Resident Evil series) being my favorites. While their combination of feminity and strength is a far refreshing change from the corny testosterone-charged 1980’s and 90’s, there is nothing particularly groundbreaking in them. The female action hero had already been invented some 458 years ago, and if you think it is impressive to battle corrupt treasure hunters, booby traps, vampires, and zombie hounds, nothing can top marching straight into Hell in search of loot. In 1563, Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted such a scene. That woman was Dulle Griet or Mad Meg. The painting shows Dulle Griet with her sword confidently pointing forward almost phallically, already carrying plunder, but not satisfied until she has taken from the Devil himself. While this painting has many interpretations, not all of them flattering, there is no denying the Flemish recognized certain truths about the strength of women. Even a proverb originally published in Antwerp in 1568 clearly sets the record straight.
One woman makes a din, two women a lot of trouble, three an annual market, four a quarrel, five an army, and against six the Devil himself has no weapon.Bruegel by Keith Roberts (1971)
Naturally, a woman as kickass as Dulle Griet would be well entrenched in the beer culture of Belgium. She has a beer named after her by the Schelde Brouwerij as well as a nice beer bar in Gent.
101 years after her death, Henriette Mayer Van Den Bergh would be proud of her museum, which is, at least until 2022, arguably the nicest art museum in Antwerp. I wonder, as she curated this impressive collection, if she ever considered that so many of her paintings gave a wink, a nod, and sometimes a sword-wielding poke in the ribs of what the Flemish masters thought about their ladyfolk. Yes of course, I may be interpreting sarcastically heroic something that was intended only as sarcasm, but isn’t the fun of art the interpretations that we make from them? If Bruegel, Aertsen, Pourbus, and Van Cleve were alive today, perhaps the one thing they would be more impressed with than Kate Beckinsale in her black Underworld costume is how more than 450 years after Dulle Griet money-heisted Hell that women haven’t yet taken over the world. I am sure us five would just shrug our shoulders, have another sip of beer, and wait for it all to happen.