Europe as a ‘Grand Atelier’

In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, Europalia.Europa and the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels have organized ‘The Grand Atelier: Pathways of Art in Europe (5th to 18th centuries)’, which naturally presents a view of pan-European identity and artistic exchange. Indeed, it is hardly surprising to find Dominique de Villepin’s L’Homme Européen in the exhibition’s gift shop.

As with anything that bears the stamp of the European Union, there is much left unstated in ‘Le Grand Atelier’, but its essentially teleological thesis is clear enough – ‘Europe’ represents a definite cultural zone that is the product of Greco-Roman antiquity, the Carolingian renaissance, humanism, and the Siècle des Lumières. As it happens, this conception roughly tracks the proposed EU constitution’s reference to the ‘cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe’. While the quality of the works mustered in the thesis’ defense is undeniable, one would have to be quite sanguine about European unity to draw any meaningful conclusions from it.

The exhibit begins ab ovo with the bequeathal of classical forms and values from the collapsing Roman Empire to the various barbarian successor states. A fragment from the sarcophagus of Richaire, first bishop of Liège, speaks eloquently to this process, comprised as it is of a 3rd to 4th century Roman piece adapted for use in a 10th century burial. This Roman legacy is stressed throughout the room devoted to the Carolingian Empire (described as the ‘true birth of Europe’), as evidenced most convincingly by the Utrecht Psalter’s juxtaposition with a 1st century Neapolitan fresco.

As befits an exhibition held in the capital of an enlarged Europe, the organizers have seen fit to include a selection of works from the Carolingian periphery, for example some exemplary stained glass window fragments from the pilgrim church of St. Hadrian in Zalavar, Hungary. The extent to which denizens of represented Central and Eastern European countries would consider themselves on the ‘periphery’ of the Carolingians is debatable (especially during that period), but such is the magnetism of the European concept. The third room of the exhibition expands Europe’s (artistic) frontiers further, taking into account the Mediterranean basin and demonstrating patterns of cultural syncretism between Norman, Angevin, Byzantine, Andalusian, and Maghreban artistic productions. (Here, perhaps, we are tentatively approaching the idea of a Mediterranean Union recently floated by France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy). It is indeed an extraordinary thing to view, for instance, an ivory box with copper and silver niello Kufic inscriptions glorifying Allah, yet which came to function as a reliquary for the remains of Saint Regnobert in Bayeux. Readers are likely to come to different conclusions as to the contemporary relevance of such artifacts.

It is unnecessary in this space to go into too great a level of detail regarding the fourteen rooms of ‘Le Grand Atelier.’ (I would be remiss in not noting, however, that the masterworks of the globe-trotting Netherlandish sculptor Nicolas de Leyde in Room VII are alone worth the €10 entry fee.) ‘Le Grand Atelier’ eventually culminates in a room devoted to eighteenth-century paintings of various picture galleries (real and imagined), with each portrayal of an aristocratic pinoteca designed to celebrate the patronage, purchasing power, and continental reach of the collector. The visual interplay between these buyers and their dealers, at a time when, in historian Norman Hampson’s words, ‘The gentlemen of Europe formed more of a social club […] than at any time before or since,’ is a suitable conclusion to the exhibition. The curtain is dropped in 1787, however, with two works by Pietro Antonio – one of an exhibition at the Salon du Louvre, the other a British Royal Academy counterpart. A few more decades of coverage would have included the apex of pan-European pathways in art, namely Napoleon Bonaparte’s continent-wide spoliation of masterpieces destined for the Louvre galleries. Yet the innocent visitor is spared such enormities.

For all its considerable merits, ‘Le Grand Atelier’ is to a certain extent art in the service of the European dream. In light of Oxford professor Jan Zielonka’s latest writings on the ‘neo-medieval’ paradigm at work in the EU project, it is at least worthwhile to investigate the deep cultural history of pan-European trends. Nonetheless, one is immediately confronted with a sad irony. Elsewhere in the splendid Beaux-Arts complex, one can see the triumphant Gustaf Wappers oil-on-canvas Episode from September Days 1830 (on the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville in Brussels), a sort of Belgian (and hence Rubensian) La Liberté guidant le peuple. Yet now, all over Brussels, the Belgian tricolour flag is manifested rather differently. It hangs limply and pleadingly from city windows, or is brandished in the occasional solidarité marches (‘un dieu, un roi, une nation’ proclaimed one banner I ran across of late) that crisscross the capital of a country reeling from popular linguistic-nationalisms and their resultant quisquiliens and vexations. Just as certain monarchical, historical, and religious ties have not always been availing in maintaining Belgian solidarity, thirteen centuries of European artistic pathways are not necessarily firm foundations for an ever-closer political and economic entity (pace ‘Le Grand Atelier’).

Le Grand Atelier: Chemins de l’art en Europe (Ve – XVIIe siècle)
Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
October 5, 2007 to January 20, 2008
€ 10,00