From medieval to modern art, from heaven to hell

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One of the most important Flemish masters, Dieric Bouts (c. 1410-1475) has returned to Leuven. After five centuries, the city is dedicating a major cultural festival to the painter, called 'New Horizons'. Multidisciplinary artist Francisco Correia built an exhibition in Cas-co as a part of the festival. He walked with us through Bouts' retrospective exhibition in Museum M.

According to M Leuven, Bouts was not an artist but an image maker: someone who doesn’t create new images but depicts existing ones. Do you agree with that?

Nowadays the idea is that art doesn’t fulfill a function and when it does, it happens indirectly. The medieval paintings of Bouts, on the other hand, are pure storytelling. It’s not that they didn’t have an aesthetic or conceptual function, but their mission was to tell religious stories to people, most of whom couldn’t read the Bible. Back then, painting was also closer to a ‘normal` job. Painters were craftsmen who worked together with a team in a big studio. Still, even though most of Bouts’ paintings were commissioned, there was some freedom to develop the image in his own way.

Back then, painting was also closer to a ‘normal` job

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Bouts’ paintings are placed next to those of modern image makers, like photographs of athletes. Was that a good choice?

I find it difficult to grasp. What strikes me the most is that both the saints and the sporters look like they’re suffering. I think that the paintings have a different intention though. There are millions of paintings of Maria or Jesus and, unlike pictures, we can never find the first or original painting. That makes them more abstract. Furthermore, devotion in sports comes from a mundane experience, not from religious devotion or a wish of spiritual connection. That creates a clash between these two worlds in the exhibition.

You seem to be fascinated by medieval painting techniques. Why are you attracted to it?

The Middle Ages are often seen as the Dark Ages because they were followed by the Renaissance when everyone was crazy about perfection. However, the Middle Ages were more experimental, painters were searching for technical solutions and playing with representation. Their perspective is unreal, but that makes it interesting and so does the attention to the fabrics or the weird facial expressions. You know the world isn’t like that, but you want to be there. In a way, medieval paintings are very modernist. Now, everything seems possible in art, which creates a blur and back then there was that same blurry vision because of the lack of a canon.

In medieval paintings, the perspective is unreal, but that makes it interesting, so does the attention to the fabrics and the weird facial expressions. You know the world isn’t like that, but you want to be there

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You like to build exhibitions as if you are writing short stories. What story do you read in this retrospective? 

I don’t know if I see this exhibition as a story, at least not in the way that I like to take the audience into a small world. In this case, the museum introduces an artist, collects a number of his works and contextualizes them. When I’m making an exhibition, I don’t explain so much. I don’t need to since my audience and I live in the same period and share similar references. For me, it’s not just about putting works together, but about creating new works that are connected and that form a little universe.

You made an exhibition in Cas-co, called 'Eat the frog, swallow the ebb', which is part of the Dieric Bouts Festival. Did you refer to his work?

I mostly engaged in his way of storytelling, in passing a narrative through images or objects. The Dieric Bouts Festival has the title New Horizons and that’s also what I’m talking about in my exhibition; I fantasize about a different way to look at life and work. As an artist, I stand outside of the 9 to 5 office life, even though I think it’s fascinating that economic terms, like time management and negotiation…- are taking over our everyday vocabulary. It’s like we’re giving an economic definition to life. I bought some office-building model kits on online hobby shops, which I worked into sculptures. In this way, I’m turning the idea of hobby and work upside down; for most people, a hobby is a way of escaping from work, but my job was to build the sculptures in which I was fantasizing about an office life I don’t have.

The Dieric Bouts Festival has the title New Horizons and that’s also what I’m talking about in my exhibition: I fantasize about a different way to look at life and work

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Which work of Bouts fascinated you the most?

There was a diptych of Heaven and Hell. Even though everyone wanted to go to heaven, hell was a way more interesting place to discover. It’s the most horrible thing you can imagine and that’s fantastic as it wide opens the gates of imagination. There is never a limit in fantasizing the ‘most` appalling scene.

Bouts sticks to the medium of painting. You tell stories through paintings, sculptures, performances, installations, etc. Do you need that variety?

Definitely, I don’t think in terms of mediums. When I have an idea, it comes naturally to me what form would be right. Often, I tell people that I make paintings and sculptures and that I write, in order to make it easier to understand, but if I want to make an animation film one day, I’ll do that too. It has to do with boredom and I’m also a bit of a wanderer. I use everything that excites me.

<div class="editorial-banner"> <div class=“editorial-credits”> @francisco_p_c_ / @m.leuven </div></div>

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