Monday, 23 February 2009

Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts, Brussels

We hopped the Channel to visit one of Scott's cousins in Brussels this weekend.  While we were there, we went to two museums worth reviewing (this was in between the grotesque quantity of mussels I ate and the numerous delicious Belgian beers we consumed).  

The Musees Royaux des Beaux Arts are actually several museums, housed under one roof.  Centrally located near the Gare Centrale, it's easy to incorporate a visit to this museum into any visit to the city.  The art is divided chronologically, with the older art ("Art Ancien") in the main building, and the more modern (19th and 20th Century) art downstairs in what appears to be a more newly renovated "wing."  They are also opening a wing in June specifically for the art of Renee Magritte.  

We didn't see everything, but the museum has a really nice collection of Belgian, Flemish, and other Northern European art.  Highlights from the collection include:
  • Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Marat.  This painting is an absolute 'must-see' and in my opinion, is worth the price of admission on its own.  To see the brush-strokes on this painting up close, after studying it in so many art history classes, was a real treat.  The way David created the look of "death" in Marat's flesh was a remarkable accomplishment.  Bits of golden flecks are mixed with more muddy tones to create the flesh-tone.  I also loved seeing the messy brushstrokes he used to create the blood stains on the fabric and the knife.  For a brief overview of the significance of this painting, read this.  The way David imbues this painting with so much symbolism is really indicative of his overall work.
  • The paintings by Pieter Brueghel are also really exceptional.  I especially like looking at all of the faces of the individuals in his compositions that are so full of people.  It's almost like an early comic book, and he manages to include so much expression and individualism in his scenes.
  • The centrepiece of the 'ancient art' wing has to be the huge room full of Rubens paintings.  I am not often left speechless, but the size of these paintings absolutely shocked me.  They are at least twice as big as I imagined them to be, and the way they are exhibited was actually really well executed.  As much as I enjoyed the finished paintings, I think I enjoyed the oil sketches in the neighbouring room even more.  It's fascinating to see the process Rubens went through to create such massive, animated and emotional paintings.  Loved this.
I suspect that once the Magritte Museum opens, that will be worth a visit in and of itself.  However, many of the Magritte paintings were not on display, so we only got to see a handful of these.  In about two hours, we got a good feel for what the museum had to offer.  The biggest downside to the museum was the confusing layout.  The 19th and 20th Century paintings are separated from the main building by several long staircases and hallways, and there's no clear transition between the spaces.  This was a small annoyance though, and the opportunity to see the Rubens paintings and The Death of Marat more than compensated for it!

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