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Portrait de Maître

Observation begins with the one who is observing

Interview with Roger Marijnissen
Roger Marijnissen and Eric De Bruyn

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1E.D.B: In 2006 you published a little book, Soigner les chefs-d’oeuvre au pays de Magritte. In the first paragraph you write that at the age of five you became blind in one eye, but that you sometimes have the idea that because of this you are more alert than you would be if you had two eyes. This issurelycurious: an art historian who looks at paintings with only one eye?

2R.H.M.: I did not become blind in one eye: the eye was removed. Apparently the ophthalmologist told my mother that I had an ulcer. But it was probably a tumor. I turned it into an advantage. It obliged me to be more alert than other people. By using and developing my sound eye, my field of vision became almost twice as broad as would be the case with people using both of their eyes. Personally it did not bother me, and at any rate it did not prevent me from doing what I have done.

3E.D.B: In a 1988 interview you explained the origin of your preference for Hieronymus Bosch. In 1943, during the war, you saw two boxes in the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts where Bosch’s Carrying of the Cross and St. Hieronymus were safely kept. In the 2007 reprint of your Bosch monograph from 1987, the newly added appendix is attributed to Georges Chabot, the man who gave you the opportunity to see those opened boxes in 1943. Who was Georges Chabot?

4R.H.M.: Georges Chabot was a high-ranking tax officer in Ghent and also an art-lover. He was on friendly terms with the Latem painters: Permeke, Servaes, Van de Woestyne. I owe this man a lot: the love of art, a focus on art, absorbing art. He was also a member of the museum committee, and he asked Maurice Dupuis, who was the curator of the then closed museum, to show me the two Bosch panels--inn the middle of the ruins; the museum was in a very bad shape in those days.

5E.D.B: After the war you took up the study of art history at the Ghent university, and you wrote a master’s thesis about the patronage of Philip II. Your supervisor was Jozef Duverger.

6R.H.M.: Yes. As a person he may not have had a pleasant manner, bút he was an excellent professor. One of the courses he taught was ‘Historical Criticism’, one of the most interesting courses I have ever taken ; he taught meto question the authenticity of sources. Who exactly is the author of what has been written on this parchment or that paper? Has he personally seen the facts he writes about or is it from hearsay? To what degree is it in his own interest to defend a certain point of view? Actually, you can apply this to almost everything.

7E.D.B: For your master’s thesis you also  carried out research inthe Brussels archives of the Spanish clerks at the Spanish court?

8R.H.M.: I have sweated blood there, in the reading room of the State Archives [Rijksarchief / Archives de l’Etat], in the Nassau Chapel, sitting close to a glowing stove. I hardly had a smattering of Spanish, and the handwriting of the sixteenth century consists of scrawls, and all the abbreviations make it hard to read the texts. And worst of all: those documents were of little benefit. Philip II’s interest in the arts did not amount to very much. His so-called interest in Bosch? I believe that that is a big misconception.

9E.D.B: But didn’t the Spanish friar José de Siguença write in 1605 that King Philip II even had a Bosch painting hanging in his bedroom?

10R.H.M.: Yes, but it was not the painting itself but rather the religious, moralizing message that appealed to him. Philip II was a tragic figure who could lie on his prie-dieu for hours, very unlike his father, Charles V, who was a very pragmatic ruler, who mingled with the common people and who drank beer with his German subjects, something which Philip II thoroughly abhorred. He thought that as an ambassador of the Lord Above he had to guard the Christian faith, and that he could rule a part of the world from his monastery cell in the Escorial. Philip II was a bigot, perhaps even worse than a bigot. But with that master’s thesis I was really on a wrong track. I was already interested in the technique of painting before I began my studies. I wondered how the painter of the Lamb of God had painted the grass. I admired his skills enormously. And during the occupation I translated two books, (in the middle of the night because during the day I had to work): Pascal’s Pensées, although I knew little French back then, and I also translated Max Doerner’s Malmaterial und seine Verwendung im Bilde. And it was actually this interest that introduced me to Professor Coremans who was looking for an art historian with a technical background. Apparently I matched the profile he was looking for, and in 1959 I was appointed assistant director of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage [Institut Royal du Patrimoine Artistique], which had been established shortly before. Because our statute was put on the same line as that of universities, the name of that function was later changed to ‘Head of the Conservation Department’.

11E.D.B: In an interview with the magazine Antiques from 2001 you said that you had always admired Paul Coremans a lot, among other reasons because he played an important role in the Van Meegeren affair.

12R.H.M.: And very rightly so. Paul Coremans was a man with quite a lot of qualities. His course for instance was a description of the material facts and contrasted strongly with all the woolliness of art history. What struck me most in the case of Coremans was the fact that he took large steps when walking. Unfortunately I found out, later, that he always took large steps when he was walking in the wrong direction. Coremans wanted me as his assistant, and I admired him; he was the supervisor for my PhD thesis, but I think the mutual misunderstanding was enormous. I thought he was really a scientist, and he thought I would be an obedient servant. Unfortunately we often have to talk about people, but there is also the reality: I am talking about the works of art which we have to respect. I am afraid that many of my colleagues are more interested in themselves than in the works of art they are writing about. I have been blamed for not being loyal to the man who taught me everything and to whom I owed everything. And indeed, I learned everything from him, alas, or should I say fortunately, also everything that you are definitely nót to do in our profession. For me it was an enormous shock when I realized that Rubens’ Descent from the Cross, one of the most famous paintings in the world, was unscrupulously used by my boss, my supervisor, for his own glory. He gave priority to his own glory instead of to the safety of Rubens’ Descent from the Cross. I clearly told him that this had to stop because he did it under my administrative supervision. Unfortunately I found out that this was his system. I treated him in a correct way, but he had already become unapproachable. That has made it really tragic. The institute that he created is an excellent organization, but it was not there for the works of art. The works of art were there for his institute and for his person. And I did not accept that; I asked the minister responsible to start an investigation into the state of affairs in the section I was supervising. Oh well, nobody is interested in the entanglements of my career, but, not one of the colleagues who have repudiated me has ever told me what he would have done in my place! But enough; I prefer to talk about the works of art, not about people.

13E.D.B: What probably not many people will know: in 1966 you also published a novel, De Duiven van Dubrovnik [The Pigeons of Dubrovnik].

14R.H.M.: Well, how shall I put it? I have always wondered in due course how far I could go. Okay, I liked writing, but I am nót a writer of fiction. I am good at writing reports about practical things, that is my skill so to say, but I am not good at writing fiction. There is a difference between proper linguistic usage and creative literature.

15E.D.B: And yet, in 2005 you published another little book, Daroema’s Taô, and this is what the English call a hoax, a caprice. It is supposed to be the edition of the sayings of an ancient Chinese philosopher, but the ‘sayings’ are in fact short maxims dealing with wisdom that you thought up yourself!

16R.H.M.: That little book is philosophical entertainment. It is about the meaning of life and is influenced by Zen Buddhism, to which I owe a lot. I am not a Buddhist myself. Buddhism is often mistaken for a religion, but it is a way of life, a philosophy. What I learned from it is that you have to be objective about yourself. That introspection, being able to watch our own personality from a distance, is what distinguishes us from animals. And I am afraid that in the circles of art-historical specialists, the gift of introspection is rather rare.

17E.D.B: I would like to come back once more to De Duiven van Dubrovnik. In that book someone tells the protagonist: ‘You should have become an actor, Niko. You are always longing for applause’. In 1970 you became a member of the Belgian Royal Academy for Sciences, Literature and Fine Arts. Admission into the Academy, isn’t that a sort of applause or expression of esteem?

18R.H.M.: [Smiling] Yes, but not all colleagues were happy with it! Make no mistake, I was chosen as an art critic, not as an art historian. This appointment as a member of the Academy was mainly the result of my reviews in the Flemish newspaper De Standaard. Administratively speaking they have always been a protection for me, and I have always been grateful to De Standaard, and especially to Manu Ruys and Guido Van Hoof, who have never censured one of my articles. Oh well, once again the main thing is not necessarily to be in the right. In those articles I just did what I was asked to do: to explain to everybody who can read and write why art is as it is. It is not up to the art critic to prescribe to artists what they should do. The meaning of art criticism is to explain what is going on and why. It is a cultural-historical approach to art.

19E.D.B: A minute ago you said that introspection distinguishes us from animals. In 1987 the Mercatorfonds published your wonderful voluminous book about Hieronymus Bosch, and its motto is a quote from the late-medieval poet Willem van Hildegaersberch, boiling down to: whoever wants to improve something about this book, is definitely allowed to do so because the matter it treats was very weighty’. Of course that is humour, and humour is also something that distinguishes us from the animals. In a 1988 interview with the Dutch newspaper NRC,one of the things you said was: never trust people who have no sense of humour.

20R.H.M.: Yes indeed. Mind you, that does not mean that people with a sense of humour can automatically be trusted [laughs]. You should not forget that I was born in Ghent and people from Ghent are believed to be rather sharp in their dealings with the world. Introspection and self-criticism are also characteristics of people from Ghent. Undoubtedly this sharp and critical approach of things is a disease I caught in Ghent, if you want to call it a disease. But in life you cannot dispense with humour.

21E.D.B: In this respect it is remarkable that you have stated more than once that humour is completely absent from the paintings of Bosch

22R.H.M.: Yes. This is an interesting issue, all the more so when you also involve Bruegel, who is Bosch’s spiritual heir. From our perspective there is something like a triangular relationship – Bosch, Bruegel and us – and we can truly understand the one as well as the other. Bosch and Bruegel are both faithful persons; they both have a religion, the Roman-Catholic one, but for Bosch, man is a wicked being.  After the Last Judgment there were but a few blessed souls, you can count them in his works. Bosch is fanatical in his opinions, and because of that fanaticism he has no sense of humour. On the other hand you have Bruegel who imitates Bosch’s ghosts and monsters, but I have the impression that his approach to mankind is milder than Bosch’s.

23E.D.B: And which view of mankind do you share: that of Bosch or of Bruegel?

24R.H.M.: Oh, I do like both, as artists, of course. But from a humane point of view? Then I would choose Bruegel.

25E.D.B: From your publications Bosch arises as a right-wing, even reactionary bigot who created a revolutionary form for his moralizing message which centers around the contemptus mundi idea. Is that a correct summary?

26R.H.M.: Yes. The purport of Bosch’s work is harsh and relentless. Bruegel is, I dare not say, ‘kinder’, for his criticism is also terribly sharp, but according to him there is still a possible way toward salvation for mankind.

27E.D.B: When you say something like this about Bruegel, do you have any particular drawings or paintings in mind that support your view?

28R.H.M.: I base such an interpretation on the complete oeuvre. We as art historians are incredible narcissists, as observation inevitably begins with the one who is observing. I have seen this more than once, even in the case of the exact sciences, and let me be clear: I wonder if I don’t do it myself sometimes. To project misconceptions into reality and recycle them as observations. Well, in our field of study the same thing frequently occurs. Lacan has written something which is actually disconcerting: ‘on ne pose des questions que quand on connaît la réponse’. What Lacan wanted to express is that observation begins with the one who is observing, and the same is true for sciences. Sometimes people have criticized my opinions for being too sharp, and they asked me, ‘can’t you turn a blind eye for a change?’ I always answered: ‘sure, but when I turn a blind eye, it will always be the one with the prothesis’ [laughs]. No no, I don’t think that objectivity exists. I would define objectivity as the lowest level of subjectivity, and a scientist has to reach for the very lowest level of subjectivity.

29E.D.B: In the introduction of your 1987 Bosch monograph you state that a book about Bosch should actually be written in Middle Dutch. Of course that was a witticism, but isn’t it just as correct to say that a book about Bosch should be written in Latin?

30R.H.M.: Definitely not in Latin because in his imagery Bosch often makes use of Middle Dutch idioms. Bax and others have written some interesting things in this respect. I am not claiming that what Bosch painted was intelligible for every common man or woman, but it certainly was for people who could read and write, a minority in those days! No doubt Bosch’s contemporaries understood him better than we do today. On the other hand, since Bosch is currently being thoroughly analysed , I strongly suggest that scholars should find out which texts Bosch may have read. The inscriptions in his paintings are in Latin, and more than likely he attended the Latin school; in his time there were not many choices.

31E.D.B: Do you think that Bosch sometimes followed the instructions of spiritual advisors, as has been proven true in the case of the painter Dirk Bouts?

32R.H.M.: People tend to forget that late-medieval artists were trained as craftsmen and that they could comply with their clients’ wishes without having to  minimize their creativity. It is also beyond doubt that in ’s-Hertogenbosch in the southern Netherlands, Bosch was working in a strictly religious environment, an environment in which Modern Devotion played an important role and which would have appealed more to Bosch than it did to Erasmus, when he was a student in ’s-Hertogenbosch.

33E.D.B: One of the most essential requirements for the study of Bosch, that you  already mentioned in 1987, is a systematical technical examination of the complete oeuvre. Your wake-up call is now being answered in the Netherlands with the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, the results of which are expected in 2016.

34R.H.M.: I applaud this. It is one of the things I have always been advocating.

35E.D.B: In your 1987 Bosch monograph you compare the tunnel of light in which blessed souls ascend to heaven on one of the panels in Venice with the interior of a modern cooling tower…

36R.H.M.: I wanted to show that we have to be careful when drawing parallels. Of course it is amazing that five centuries ago painters created images that resemble things from our current world. As a matter of fact, that tunnel of light has also been compared to bridges across the Dieze stream in ’s-Hertogenbosch, where you get a similar effect.

37E.D.B: In 1996 you published another book about Bosch. There it says, on page 11: whoever is convinced that he or she exactly knows what Bosch meant with his images is either reckless or arrogant.

38R.H.M.: We are always looking for concrete facts to help us understand Bosch’s imagery. But his creativity, his imaginative power, we have no idea about that. The man died long ago, and we can’t question him about those things. One of his greatest qualities is the freedom of combination, visually I mean, not regarding the contents, his lucky accidents. It comes as no surprise that Bosch is the precursor, or rather the model for the Surrealists. But to me it seems logical that everyone who is dealing with Bosch tries to clarify the work of Bosch, starting from his or her documentation and using sound arguments.

39E.D.B: You have just said observation always begins with the one who is observing. I believe you had a funny experience in that respect with Father Gerlach who, together with others, contributed to your first Bosch monograph in 1972. It had to do with the eroticism in the central panel of the Garden of Delights triptych…

40R.H.M.: Oh yes. Let me first stress the fact that Father Gerlach has delivered a great amount of good and positive work about Bosch. But during the preparation of the Arcade book in1972, I had a discussion with him about the Garden of Delights, and I tried to make it clear to him that in the opening of the large blue sphere in the upper part of the central panel Bosch depicted the two types of unchastity, the heterosexual and the homosexual one. And I pointed out to him the man who is obviously touching the genitals of a woman. Father Gerlach looked at the detail and I can still hear him say: ‘I don’t know what could be unchaste about that’ [laughs]. Of course, you should place his reaction in the context of the earthquakes that were occurring inside the Church back then. It was Charles de Tolnay who first began psychoanalytical analysis of Bosch. In the end that approach did not figure in my book from 1972. It is of course up to the psychoanalysts to judge that. Personally I don’t think that their methods are very fruitful as long as you cannot question the author of the images you are studying. Are they confronted with the same obstacle as the (art) historian?

41E.D.B: In an article in De Standaard on 10th December 1984, you wrote about the central panel of the Garden of Delights: a very nice picture puzzle for teenagers and adults. And yet, when it came down to suggesting answers for that erotic picture puzzle in your books, you always left your options open, apart from a few minor details…

42R.H.M.: I am convinced of the fact that there are a lot of things in that notorious Garden of Delights that I cannot explain with a historical source. It is at those moments you have to shy away from projection. We feel the need to offer an interpretation for all the scenes, and preferably, how shall I say, a saucy one. But even if you can’t explain all the details, the overall meaning of a panel like this remains clear: it deals withsexual desire, with unchastity. And furthermore, one thing I know for sure is that there are so many things that I don’t know [laughs].

43E.D.B: Something you already emphasized in 1987 was the needed research on Bosch’s patrons and on the function of his paintings. In September 2012 that was the main theme of the Third International Congress about Bosch in ’s-Hertogenbosch.

44R.H.M.: Our problem with paintings from the past is often caused by the fact that we don’t know the original function of the work. Too often we still cherish the romantic idea of an artist working in his little attic. In many of Bosch’s paintings, donors are depicted, unfortunately not in the Garden of Delights. But that man worked for his society. An artist in those days, be it Bosch or Bruegel, and up to the Baroque period, worked for a society, just as the cobbler and the baker. Whereas our artists who want to get a message across are fulminating against their society. Bosch and Bruegel had, I would say, grown into a society, whereas our modern artists want to grow away from society.

45E.D.B: As far as Bosch is concerned we know for certain that his patrons belonged to the circles of the Brotherhood of Our Lady, of important noblemen and of well-to-do patricians. But in the appendix with updates in your 2007 Bosch monograph, you claim that some of Bosch’s paintings were intended for monasteries. Isn’t that based on sheer assumption?

46R.H.M.: Can anyone go back in time 40 years and then remember all the things that happened in that year? Of course not. How then can we know everything that happened 500 years ago? What do we actually know about Bosch? About the essence of the matter? Hardly anything. And yet we go on publishing bold interpretations. I remember one professor who could elaborate on historical figures in a fascinating way, as if he belonged to their offspring. When it comes down to Bosch my point of view is: ‘back to basics’.

47E.D.B: One of the things you have continuously emphasized in the past is the risk paintings are running when they are on loan for exhibitions and therefore have to travel.

48R.H.M.: It strikes me with dismay to see that a lot of people in museums have lost their ethics and their common sense. It is an outrage that important museums, and especially the Louvre, are setting a bad example. It is beyond discussion that those so-called blockbusters and the travelling about of works of the highest quality are harmful to those works. In the past I have regularly asked our museums to publish the insurance claims directly related to the circulation of exhibitions. But that question has been ignored over and over again. For thirty years I have been able to see what works of art can suffer, and if people don’t want to react to my question, they silently admit that I am right. But being right is of no benefit to me in this matter. In my book Dialoog met het geschonden beeld [Dialogue avec l’Oeuvre Ravagée] I published colour photographs demonstrating that Bosch’s Ghent Carrying of the Cross, the restoration of which was much praised at the time, has become physically deteriorated, in spite of all precautions. In fact a clear proof that every damage to a unique old creation is definitive, or strictly speaking, impossible to restore.

49E.D.B: A final question. In spite of the fact that you are aggravated by a number of things in the world of art you have turned 92 this year. What is your secret?

50R.H.M.: Yes indeed, on some occasions I have criticized our profession and the way in which it is practised. The worst in all this is the denial of responsibility. But to answer your question, I am not easily flattered. The advantage of this is that I am not easily insulted either.

51E.D.B: As you write in Daroema’s Taô: a whirlwind rarely lasts a whole day?

52R.H.M.: There you go [laughs].

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Electronic reference

Roger Marijnissen and Eric De Bruyn, “Observation begins with the one who is observing”CeROArt [Online], HS | Juin 2015, Online since 31 May 2015, connection on 21 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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