|A door to another world|
In Brussels recently I visited 62 rue Vautier in the Leopold district, housing a museum dedicated to Antoine-Joseph Wiertz (1806-65). While mainly known as a painter, he was also a sculptor and writer. It is the enormous canvases in the main gallery, however, which make the greatest impression on entering the building. Having read about Wiertz in Fortean Times a few months ago I had some idea what to expect regarding his themes, but walking into the cavernous gallery was still a surprise. I found the pictures remarkable, and think their creator deserves to be better known.
Driven by pride in his achievements, he was keen future generations should enjoy them as well, to which end he made a deal with the Belgian government that his work should be kept intact in perpetuity and available for public display, despite his contemporaries not being universally enamoured by it. He was unbothered by their indifference, claiming it takes a couple of centuries for an artist’s reputation to bed down and a definitive verdict to be reached. In exchange for undertaking to donate his creations to the state, in 1850 the Belgian government, looking to cement the identity of the new nation, financed construction of the building which became his final studio. As well as the large gallery there are three smaller rooms (‘salons’) added after his death.
According to the brochure produced by the museum, written by Brita Velghe, there are some 220 works in a variety of media on display. Pictures are crammed together in the sort of hanging style prevalent during Wiertz’s lifetime. The end salon houses a large display case containing smaller artefacts associated with him, and his death mask is on display in the main gallery. There are two maxims written in charcoal by Wiertz himself, translating as: ‘Pride, a virtue which inspires great works and wounds the vanity of others’; and ‘Modesty, a mask which flatters the vanity of others in order to attract praise.’ Clearly he did not feel the need for modesty, feeling it would be a dishonest pose.
Self-confidence was necessary for the young man to improve his prospects. Born into very modest circumstances, his father encouraged his talent and he was lucky enough to acquire benefactors who assisted his development. Through them he was exposed to a number of old masters, particularly Rubens, who became a major influence, and with whom he eventually considered himself on a par. After training at the Antwerp Art Academy he was further submerged in art history by stays in Paris and Rome.
He achieved early success and made a reputation for himself, in the process becoming critic-proof, a profession for which he had little time. Nor did he care much for Paris, a city that had snubbed him, and he published a pamphlet foreseeing a time when Brussels would become the capital of Europe and Paris a provincial town. In a way the EU returned the compliment, as rue Wiertz runs through the European Parliament complex nearby.
As if to answer his critics, the canvases got bigger and grander, but it is in his smaller paintings, with their often morbid subject matter, that his view of the world is most clearly expressed. If his reputation had rested on the large pictures, it is doubtful whether he would be as well remembered. While he became imbued with the values of the Romantic movement, often in tension with formal academic tendencies, he is also seen as a precursor of the Symbolists and Surrealists, offset by a marked gothic sensibility. As the list suggests, he can be hard to pin down.
His oeuvre encompasses the large paintings, on classical and religious themes, self portraits, and nudes. The last includes La Liseuse de romans (The Reader of Novels), 1853, who obligingly has stripped completely and lies recumbent to peruse her tome, oblivious to a hand reaching in to steal one of the volumes lying next to her on the bed (perhaps symbolising the self-indulgence and escapism of reading). The most interesting paintings, at least to my mind, are those dealing with macabre themes, though the categories are not mutually exclusive. Les Deux jeunes filles ou La Belle Rosine. (Two Girls, or The Beautiful Rosine), 1847, combines nudity and the macabre by depicting a naked woman staring at a skeleton, no doubt pondering on the way of all flesh, while La jeune sorcière (The Young Witch), 1857, has a naked young woman suggestively astride a broom with an old crone and other shadowy figures watching her.
One virtue of Wiertz knowing his own mind and not having to worry about the marketplace was his indifference to what others thought. In his contemplation of suffering his pictures may not be on the same level as Goya’s horrors, but there is still a power to shock. The titles of many of these speak for themselves: in L'enfant brûlé (The Burned Child), 1849, a terrified woman pulls a baby from a brazier, alas too late. L'Inhumation précipitée (The Hasty Burial), 1854, shows a terrified face peering out of a coffin in a vault as the prematurely interred individual attempts escape. Le suicide (The Suicide), 1854, shows a man shooting himself in the head, the smoke from the pistol thankfully obscuring his face.
More explicitly gruesome, in Le soufflet d’une dame Belge (The Outrage of a Belgian Woman), 1861, a nearly-naked woman defends herself against a soldier about to rape her by shooting him upwards through the bottom of his head, causing his face to explode. (Apparently Wiertz’s wanted to promote training in the use of firearms by women, and proposed the setting up of a rifle range for ladies.) In Faim, Folie, Crime (Hunger, Madness, Crime), 1853, a woman driven insane by starvation, though actually looking in rude health, has cut off the leg of her baby and put it in a cooking pot, the wrapped corpse held on her lap with a stain from the amputated limb seeping onto the material. Her exposed breast contrasts the nurturing maternal attitude with the monstrous act she has committed (but the salaciousness of the exposure undercuts the horror).
There is still more maternal agony in La civilisation du XIXème siècle (The Civilization of the Nineteenth Century), paired with Le soufflet d’une dame Belge on the wall, the two in identical frames: a terrified woman clutching a baby flees soldiers who are shooting at her at close range, a box with jewellery spilling out at her feet. Now we are not only talking about Belgium, we are talking about civilisation generally, or the lack of it. Wiertz was acutely aware of and sympathetic to the vulnerability of women and children, while leaving himself open to the charge he was willing to use nudity to titillate the viewer, employing classicism as a fig-leaf.
The cover of the Penguin edition of Maldoror and Poems, by Comte de Lautréamont, has a detail from L'Inhumation précipitée, and unsurprisingly a detail appears on the cover of Buried Alive: The Terrifying History of Our Most Primal Fear, by Jan Bondeson. Bondeson, who regularly appears in Fortean Times, contributed an article to the July 2018 issue, extracted from his book The Lion Boy and Other Medical Curiosities, which in part discusses Wiertz. After a general biographical sketch, Bondeson uses Wiertz’s remarkable triptych Pensées et visions d'une tête coupée (Last Thoughts And Visions Of A Severed Head), 1853, to discuss speculation about the length of time a decapitated head can maintain consciousness. (Clearly fascinated by decapitation, Wiertz also painted Une tête coupée (A Severed Head), 1855, exhibited nearby, showing a guillotined head in close-up on straw.)
In 1848 Wiertz had had the idea of being mesmerised in order to enter the mind of a convicted murderer as he was guillotined. This Wiertz did while standing on the scaffold, and he wrote an elaborate and frightening account of the condemned man’s final moments until extinction, which by the calculation of witnesses lasted three minutes (Bondeson points out that in reality, with blood flow to the brain terminated, it would be a matter of seconds). The three panels of Pensées et visions d'une tête coupée show the stages of the execution as a whirl of action, losing form as the dying man’s thought processes decay. Wiertz included his account as a légende in the triptych’s trompe-l’oeil frame (a form he was fond of), and it was published posthumously in his collected literary works in 1869. Despite stating that Wiertz’s description of his mesmeric rapport is given in full, the version in FT is abbreviated.
A fuller, though still not complete, translation by Walter Benjamin and originally published in German in 1929, can be found in the English-language collection of his writings The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility. In addition, the editors provide a description of the three panels, which is useful as they are rather murky. Benjamin had an interest in Wiertz’s work and there are numerous references to him in The Arcades Project, including to Wiertz’s writing on photography: Wiertz penned an article about the subject after seeing an exhibition in 1855, and was one of the first to recognise both photography’s own artistic potential and the impact the new medium would have on painting. Elsewhere Benjamin refers to the ‘panoramic tendency’ of Wiertz’s paintings, though it does not seem he visited the museum to see the large-scale canvases for himself.
Benjamin describes him as ‘progressive’ and a precursor of montage (doubtless thinking of Pensées et visions d'une tête coupée). Less positively, he quotes Baudelaire’s unflattering assessment of ‘that infamous poseur named Wiertz, a favourite of English cockneys,’ actually a fairly mild beginning compared to the foam-specked invective following. Baudelaire refers to Wiertz’s notion of Brussels as capital and Paris as province, which one suspects was what got him riled. Baudelaire asks what Brussels will ‘do with all this after his death?’ Doubtless he would have been grinding his teeth to see the Wiertz museum still in existence, giving the ‘poseur’ the last laugh.
According to the museum brochure, when Wiertz died, in the museum, his body was ‘embalmed in accordance with Ancient Egyptian burial rites.’ Presumably they entailed submersion in natron for 70 days, having his brain removed through his nose, and his organs preserved in canopic jars. One suspects it was in fact embalming light, but if he had gone the full Egyptian it would have been a fittingly bizarre end to a singular career. He had wished to be buried in the garden, making him part of the museum and therefore an exhibit in his own right, but permission was denied and he was buried in the more bourgeois surroundings of the municipal cemetery at Ixelles, a suburb of Brussels.
The description in the Rough Guide to Belgium & Luxembourg is sniffy about Wiertz and the museum, focusing on the morbid and the nudity, and overegging the yuck factor. By saying he came to believe he was better than Rubens and Michelangelo, they invite the reader to dismiss him as a talentless egomaniac with a penchant for melodrama, which probably serves to put readers off visiting but is most unfair. There are fans though: Olivier Smolders and Johan van den Driessche made a short film about Wiertz in 1991, Pensées et visions d'une tête coupée, though sadly it seems to have done little to raise his profile. To its credit Dinant, the city of his birth, has a statue of him, even though he left to go to the Antwerp Art Academy at the age of 14 and did not look back.
Musée Wiertz was very quiet while I was there, and this is the common state of affairs I understand (Bondeson says that when he went in 2011 he was the only visitor). One suspects the Belgian government would prefer not have to foot the bill for its upkeep, but I am glad they do as my time there was a highlight of my stay in Brussels. I was surprised how brief the official brochure – at least the English-language version – is, and Wiertz surely merits a catalogue raisonné. Entry is free, though opening hours are limited, and I urge anyone visiting Brussels to make the time to call in and experience this fascinating artist at first hand.
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project, Harvard University Press, 1999.
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty and Thomas Y. Levin, Harvard University Press, 2008.
Bondeson, Jan. ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Severed Head’, Fortean Times, July 2018, pp. 36-43.
Lee, Phil and Trott, Victoria (eds). The Rough Guide to Belgium & Luxembourg, 7th edition, Rough Guides, 2018.
Velghe, Brita. Antoine Wiertz (1806-1865), Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, n.d.