The Courtauld’s visiting scholars programme this term brought us the current curator of Early Netherlandish and German paintings at the Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Stephan Kemperdick. His three-day takeover of the Research Forum proved immensely popular, especially the opening lecture in the Kenneth Clark lecture theatre: packed-out with people eager to know “What Happened Around 1430?” The answer to this intriguingly question-marked lecture title was quite simple: Jan van Eyck. Stephan showed how van Eyck’s painting of what he saw rather than simply what he knew rippled throughout Europe: albeit less “intellectual” painters who copied his motifs, such as cast shadows, rather than observing Nature for themselves.
The following day we visited the Victoria and Albert Museum Cast Courts with Stephan for a look at Early Gothic Sculpture. Essentially, we looked at fold style for about two hours: an indulgently obscure way for a group of art historians spend a morning. The stiff, decorative V-folds of the effigies of Henry II and Richard the Lionheart from Fontevraud Abbey we contrasted with a smaller, unknown queen who is often thought to be of the same series. Usually identified as Isabella, consort of King John, who died in 1246, she posed a problem. The much deeper, naturalistic folds that suggest the body underneath clearly separated her from the late-twelfth-century English kings, but also not advanced enough for the more monumental style of the mid-thirteenth-century. A look at Romanesque sculpture, such as the façade of Santiago de Compostella, revealed supposedly ‘Gothic’ ideas of folds in contrast to the alleged firmly “Gothic” Fontevraud monuments. We also had a good long look at the extraordinary Ecclesia and Synagogue from the south transept of Strasbourg Cathedral: both in their technical skill and their surprising sultriness.
For his final talk, Stephan filled the Research Forum room to give an afternoon seminar of the history of the reception of the Ghent Altarpiece after its completion. What emerged from his study of the early accounts of the altarpiece – including Albrecht Dürer’s visit in 1521 – is that all of the viewers saw the altarpiece in its open state. Many of them seem to have visited on weekdays (it’s always special to realise an art-historical event happened on a Tuesday), outside of major feasts, when the altarpiece would be firmly shut. This meant that these viewers were considering the altarpiece entirely from an artistic perspective: never including the outsides of the shutters, which were presumably returned to its normal closed state after the tourists’ departures. However, the copy by Michel Coxcie, made for Phillip II of Spain and now split between Brussels and Berlin, Stephan showed was keen to replicate the work as a liturgical object. Not only were the folding wings included, but the original donors were replaced with the Evangelists: showing that function was valued over the precise subjects. After a good question session, Stephan’s visit concluded – as most things do at the Courtauld – with wine, and reflections on what had been a very stimulating few days.