I am standing in the entrance to a monumental studio space. In front of me is an imposing painting which must be at least 16 feet high and over 20 feet wide (I still think in imperial measures!). The studio is entirely roof-lit, with grey light filtering down on this misty January day.
I enter and look both ways. There are huge paintings on every wall, interspersed with smaller works, perhaps fifty in all. I am in the Musée Wiertz in the Leopold District of Brussels, which, as the name suggests, is dedicated to the work of the Belgian artist Antoine Weirtz, and, on this particular day, I am the only person in the museum, apart from the curator. The grandiose Musée Wiertz was designed by the artist himself, supposedly inspired by the temple of Neptune in Paestum. Apart from the studio, which had to be large enough for him to display his giant paintings, there are several smaller exhibition rooms with living spaces for his family above and a surrounding park.
Wiertz lived and worked here for about fifteen years until his death in 1865, when it passed into the hands of the Belgian state as Wiertz had intended. It became a museum dedicated to his memory that he hoped would ensure his place in posterity. During his lifetime, Antoine Wiertz’s work was controversial and Baudelaire dismissed him as that infamous poseur…a charlatan, idiot, thief…whose stupidity is as massive as his giants. Admittedly Baudelaire did not have a high opinion of the Belgians but, in this case, his judgement seems to have reflected the views of many of Wiertz’s contemporary critics.
And yet, might there be more to Wiertz, notwithstanding his inflated ideas of his own genius and in spite of Baudelaire’s dismissal?
I first visited the Musée Wiertz in the middle of last year at the height of a heat wave in Brussels. I had a few hours to spare, having completed some research in the archives of the Musées des Beaux-Arts. A short entry in my guidebook proved irresistible (despite an outside temperature of 40°). It claimed that the Musée Wiertz, was;
one of the most extraordinary museums in Brussels…Wiertz was an artist whose self-esteem far outstripped his talent…many (of his works) are so macabre and moralistic, they will inspire wonderment and mirth.
I knew nothing of Wiertz but on my first visit I became intrigued by his seemingly limitless ambition, by his unstoppable determination to succeed and by his apparent self-delusion. Wiertz was prepared to take anything and everything to extremes, whether it was the matter of the sheer size of his paintings or the weirdness of his subject matter. The titles of his works give some idea of this, Faim, Foile, et Crime (Hunger, madness and crime), L’Enfant Brûlé (The scorched child), Le Miroir du Diable, (The mirror of the devil), Une Scéne de L’Enfer (A scene from hell) and, possibly his best known work today because of its echoes of Poe, L’Inhumation Précipitée (The premature burial).
However, what interested me most were Wiertz’s attempts to picture the ‘undepictable’. Two works seemed to exemplify this. The first, Le Suicide, which showed a man blowing his brains out. In the picture, he is still holding the gun that he has just fired, smoke envelops his disintegrating head and his body falls backwards as he loses consciousness.
The second, more complex work, was even more extraordinary. Pensées et Visions D’Une Tête Coupée (Thoughts and visions of a decapitated head) is series of three paintings, which attempt to show what a guillotined head might perceive in the dying moments after its amputation. In the first picture, the head ‘looks back’ at the severed neck of its body just after the blade has fallen. In the second picture, it ‘sees’ its body apparently being thrown off the platform to the crowd. And in the final picture, as the head loses consciousness, it ‘experiences’ the material world dissolving around it.
Following my first visit, I speculated about Wiertz’s attempt to take illusionistic painting to its very limits and beyond. It seemed as if he was straining to overcome the limits of the medium and to find some new form of expression. Then, I came across Wiertz’s name in an unexpected place: Walter Benjamin’s ‘Brief History of Photography’. At the end of this essay, Benjamin describes Wiertz as a ‘barbaric ideas painter’, but he continues by quoting, approvingly, Wiertz’s remarks on photography in 1855.
In less than 100 years that machine (the camera) will have become the brush, the palette, the skill, the experience, the patience, the deftness, the accuracy, the tone, the glaze, the exemplar, the perfection, the synopsis of painting.
This prompted me to explore Benjamin’s ‘appreciation’ of Wiertz further. I discovered that he had referred to him in the research notes for ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, claiming that Wiertz ‘had a conception of painting which already seemed wholly determined by film’. This suddenly made sense of Wiertz’s images of Le Suicide and Une Tête Coupée, in which he was exploring the division between consciousness and unconsciousness, between being and not-being by using what could be seen as ‘moving’ or ‘’filmic’ imagery.
Benjamin wrote further about Wiertz in his Arcades Project where he compared his exhibition practices to those of early nineteenth century showmen, who opened up entirely new markets for the arts, by staging elaborate spectacles and panoramas for the paying public. He observed that Wiertz’s vast studio was not just a place where he could work on his giant canvases, it was also a performance space. In this space, he staged shows of his works using lighting and various other effects, all designed to thrill, shock and outrage his enthralled viewers. Wiertz may have been spurned by the critics but his phantasmagorical shows were a huge popular and financial success.
And so it was, that when I returned to the Musée Wiertz last month, I saw the place and its contents in a different light. On entering, and before taking a closer look at the paintings which interested me, I stood alone in the middle of his studio for some time, with my eyes half-closed. I envisaged the space over 150 years ago lit by gas lamps and thronged with expectant people. I sensed the vibrancy and excitement of the crowd. And I imagined Wiertz’s satisfaction, as he revelled in his showmanship and his celebrity.
Before I left, I noticed one more of Wiertz’s visual tricks. In the far corner of the studio, a shadowy, trompe l’oeil figure was peeping in at me, observing my responses – as she has done to the dwindling number of visitors for a century and a half.
And, as I walked down the hill towards the centre of Brussels, I reflected that, although Wiertz may not have been the great artist he imagined he was, his work foreshadowed much of what was to come in quite unexpected ways.
Jon Stevens, M.Res History of Art
All of the photographs in this article (with the exception of ‘L’Inhumation Précipitée) were taken on my phone to emphasise my viewpoint in the museum.