Wednesday, 5 December 2012

'Proudly and Furiously Bad...'

Rereading (after many years) William Gaunt's Victorian Olympus - the third volume of his wonderfully readable trilogy on Victorian art movements - I came across a name that was unfamiliar to me: Antoine Wiertz. When the young and prodigiously gifted Frederic Leighton was travelling around Europe, working with and learning from a range of artists whose talent he would soon eclipse, he visited the Brussels studio of Wiertz, an artist Gaunt describes as 'proudly and furiously bad'. This seems to be a fair judgment of a painter driven by paranoiac delusions of grandeur, who was convinced not only of his own genius but of his ability to reform society by means of his eloquent brush (the painting above, for example, Buried Too Soon, is a typically understated plea for cremation). As his themes grew larger - Greeks and Trojans Fighting for the Body of Patrocles,  The Fall of the Rebellious Angels -  so did his canvases. 20ft by 12ft was his kind of size, and he developed a new medium that enabled him to cover large areas fast with a flat matt finish (it involved mixing petrol in with colours and turpentine, and it hasn't lasted well). Lurching between classicism and lurid, not to say morbid romanticism, Wiertz's paintings became ever more grandiose, and his ambitions grew with them. Amazingly, he managed to persuade the Belgian government to build a dedicated museum to display in perpetuity all his works, which he donated to a not terribly grateful nation. Still more amazingly, the museum is still there - attracting an average of ten or so visitors a day - in a suburb of Brussels where it stands quite overshadowed by another ugly monument to delusional folly, the European Parliament complex. If I find myself in Brussels again, I must go and have a look. Meanwhile, if you can stand it, there are images of many of Wiertz's paintings here....

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