Museum Mayer van den Berghe: A Conservative Vision of Past and Future?

Centre: portrait of Henriëtte Mayer van den Bergh by Jozef Van Lerius © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.
  1. History in the Past

The concept of private patronage is especially important in a time when the state-controlled institutions are increasingly falling into the hands of individuals driven by politics. Private museums and collections are bulwarks against an erosion of culture. In that light, this new monograph makes valuable reading. Ulrike Müller’s At Home in a Museum: The Story of Henriëtte and Fritz Mayer van den Bergh examines the nature and history of a famous private collection of art located in Antwerp. Although the museum seems like a burgher’s home, it is actually not a home and was built as a museum. This richly illustrated book recounts the development and character of a collection of a remarkable historical art sited in its purpose-built museum.

Belgian aristocrats Emil Mayer (1824-1879) and Henriëtte Mayer van den Bergh(1838−1920) established both prestige through charitable deeds and wealth through income from shipping, distilleries and land. Emil bought some Jan Brueghel paintings and perhaps his lead influenced his son. Today, the remarkable Mayer van den Bergh Collection remains unchanged in Antwerp. With the exception of Emil’s few acquisitions, the entirety of the collection was assembled by Fritz Mayer van den Bergh (1858−1901). Upon his sudden death (due to a riding accident) his mother Henriëtte Mayer van den Bergh decided to build a suitable museum as a tribute to her son’s collection. The museum was inaugurated in 1904, with a foundation established in 1906 to maintain continuity and integrity of the collection. This volume traces how that collection came to be, what it consists of and how it remained independent as a museum.

© 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

From the start, Fritz’s collection had a consciously, unashamedly connoisseurial character. It was not planned to have a tight historical or geographical focus; it would prioritise aesthetic considerations over documentary value; it would prefer the major over the minor. In some ways, it was – and appears – wilfully eccentric, both in senses of being unusual and also off centre. There are Japanese woodblock prints, medieval carvings, Gothic altarpieces, illuminated manuscripts, Golden Era Flemish paintings, Dutch genre pieces and Nineteenth-Century Belgian society portraits. Fritz “did not limit himself to collecting art from the past; he also expressed an interest in contemporary fine and applied arts. […] The wallpaper in Fritz’s death chamber, for example, features an Art Nouveau floral motif, which, at first glance, may seem unexpected. The motif recalls the wallpaper of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement […] Fritz also actively sought out contemporary artists who shared his historical interest and aesthetic preferences.” He was not a purist other than the most essential aspect of a great collector – he cleaved purely to his own taste without consideration of outside approval or disapproval.

Fritz scoured Europe for treasures of fine- and applied-art from Flanders, Holland, Italy, Germany and Austro-Hungary, sometimes accompanied by his mother. He bought during the great age when South Netherlandish masterpieces were in circulation following the centuries of neglect that had seen these pictures put in storage or sold for a pittance by collectors and church authorities, who considered them primitives (hence Flemish Primitives). (Read my review here.) He bought and sold from the collection, refining his holdings. Knowledge that American collectors were buying Netherlandish art on a huge scale worried connoisseurs in the Low Countries. The relatively few early paintings in private and national collections (especially Belgian museums) prompted collectors to purchase work deliberately to keep art close to the location where they were created. Fritz’s activities were an expression of taste rather than a tightly organised investigation.

© 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

At the same time as American magnates were assembling collections of European masterpieces, one Belgian was doing the same. The boom in the international art trade in the 1880-1940 period saw the massive movement of art from their places of origin to museums and private collectors, many of them in the USA.

Fritz commissioned the De Scalden artist Edmond Van Offel (1871-1959) to illustrate a collection of German legends. This book was not published until after Fritz’s premature death. The one drawing here seems derivative of Beardsley’s illustrations. The De Scalden movement (1889-1914) was a Flemish school drawing on historical roots, something like the Nazarenes, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts Movement. It was a Catholic movement that sought to break away from academic art. However, rather than taking the optical/Modernist road laid out by the avant-garde (Impressionists and Post-Impressionists), it sought to revive the regional, national and Gothic art. There was a clear sympathy between De Scalden and the Symbolists, Aesthetic Movement and the Decadents. It did parallel – constituted as it was as a society – the more adventurous groups Les XX, De XIII, Les Independants, La Libre Esthétique and Kunst van Heden.

Cornelius Mahu (attrib.), Still-life with Goblet Holder (C17th), oil on panel, 52 x 74 cm © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

So, what are the highlights of the museum?

Master Heinrich von Konstanz’s Christ and St John the Evangelist Group (c. 1280-90) is a polychromed walnut carving. It shows the two figures in identical golden robes. St John the Evangelist rests his head on Christ’s shoulder and rests his hand in Christ’s. The portrayal catches the modern eye by St John’s apparent effeminacy in his pose. It is an unusual sculpture and it is not surprising it captured Fritz’s attention. Wilhelm Bode wanted to acquire the sculpture for the Berliner Gemäldegalerie and even wrote to Fritz about the possibility.

The Mayer van den Bergh collection houses two great paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1565). The little-known Twelve Proverbs (1558) has 12 scenes of figures illustrating common Dutch proverbs, arranged in a grid format. In 1894, Fritz bought for 300 marks a painting from a Cologne auction house. It was thought to be a fantasy painting by Jan “Hell” Brueghel. It turned out to be Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s lost original panel painting Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) (1563) – a sensational find. Bruegel’s reputation was on the rise during the period, after a long stretch of obscurity and indifference. His art was considered too grotesque, scatological and crude for most art historians. Only with the acceptance of the Romantics and the rise of Symbolism were precursors appreciated more. The rise of Flemish nationalism in the 1890s provided an impetus to greater interest in Bruegel as a great original Fleming.    

Pieter Bruegel, Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) (1563), oil on panel, 117 x 162 cm © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

The collection comprised Medieval and Renaissance art. David Teniers the Younger’s painting of The Temptation of St Anthony (c. 1640-60) and typical panel by Joachim Patinir are familiar sights for museum goers. Other artefacts include stained-glass windows, stone carvings of many periods, bas reliefs in metal, Japanese prints and netsukes, coins and furniture.

Within months after her son’s death, a grieving Henriëtte had commenced work on a museum to house her son’s collection. The building of the museum was finished in 1904. It was maintained by a board of regents and was initially only opened to invited guests. “After the 1880s, a large number of collector’s museums were founded, across Europe and in North America. Some of the best-known examples include the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan (which opened in 1881), the Musée Condé in Chantilly (1898), the Wallace Collection in London (1900), the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (1903), the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris (1913) and the Frick Collection in New York (1935).”

The house was built with period features, including fittings such as panelling and fireplaces that were either original or replicated. There was antique furniture also. The rooms represented different periods of Flemish history: Renaissance, Gothic, Baroque, Louis XVI. The rooms varied from the baronial to the bourgeois in character and size; it was not by any means a massive building, taking up only the land allotted to two adjoining residential buildings. It was a private vision of cultural history, on made without the control of state-accredited experts. Both the collector and his mother were averse to publicity and guarded their privacy actively. Few personal papers survive and there were no diaries or memoirs written by them, so there is relatively little personal information about their lives, which seems to have been their intention.

This book includes numerous photographs of the interior of the museum, both recent and vintage. It includes a selection of images of notable works in the collection but is nothing like a comprehensive catalogue. For those of deprived of international travel, this book provides a glimpse of one of Belgium’s most distinctive and original museums.

View of the museum facade, 1905 © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.
  • History in the Future

Dr Müller explains that the Ghent collecting culture of the Nineteenth Century was different from that of Brussels. Brussels collections were concentrated on art that was produced in the territories that became Belgium in 1830, and tended to be more recent in a deliberate or subconscious attempt to reinforce a national identity; Ghent (and Antwerp) collectors focused on art of Flanders, eschewing the state for the cultural nation, and preferred medieval artefacts. Reproduced in the book are photographs of the 1894 World Fair in Antwerp, which was used as a chance to celebrate Flemish culture. (Fritz was a member of a society promoting preservation and restoration of distinguished buildings and monuments.) Although Fritz was forming his collection at this time, his taste was broader than Flemish art alone. (As already discussed.) The revival of historic architecture and patriotism in this period would play a part in the building of the Mayer van den Bergh Museum, which was in a historicist revival style.  

Fritz’s amateur collection grew at a time when museums were becoming professionalised. The first university degrees in art history (at Belgian universities) were commenced at the time the museum opened. Fritz did research on his acquisitions, buying books and auction catalogues and subscribing to journals. He also consulted foreign art historians and museum personnel and was consulted in return, earning the respect of professionals. Fritz assisted in providing information to writers who published articles about his acquisitions but did not publish himself.

Fritz’s study at his parental home, c. 1900. © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

“It seems Henriëtte and Fritz were mainly interested in the archaeological and aesthetic aspects of the reconstruction of the 16th-century city centre of Antwerp. They did not identify with the dominant bourgeois Liberal interpretation of history that was so prominent in Oud Antwerpen. As members of the Catholic upper class, with strong ties to the nobility, the Mayer van den Berghs espoused very different ideals than the Liberal – and mainly anticlerical – bourgeoisie. Catholics focused on the traditional values of Christian faith and charity and on the conservation of existing societal structures. The Liberal Party, meanwhile, mainly pursued economic progress, striving to limit the Church’s interference in society and education.”

“After Fritz’s death in 1901, Henriëtte deliberately opted to establish her own foundation rather than bequeath his collection to the city, the state or another institution. She did this despite a long-standing Antwerp tradition of donations to the Museum of Fine Arts. […] Fritz and his mother did not maintain particularly close ties with members of the city’s Liberal cultural circles […] Fritz was not exactly well disposed to the Liberal municipal municipal council […]” Her caution was well deserved. In only one instance – fixed by bequest – was a donated collection kept intact by state or municipal authorities. In all other cases, the collections were dispersed.

Rogier van der Weyden (school of), Maria Lactans (c. 1450-1500), oil on panel, 59 x 43 cm © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

Henriëtte wrote, “My poor Fritz would not have liked it at all that his art treasures were managed by the Liberals – whom he detested.” She established an enduring trust to preserve the museum from the city’s control. “I am mainly in favour of a tontine, to ensure that I cannot be forced to leave the collections that my son amassed to the city.” Her expressed hostility to the liberal city municipality, written into foundation documents, preserved her legacy. Namely: “The museum shall always bear the name ‘Museum Mayer van den Bergh’. The collections will remain unchanged in the state that they were upon my death. Nothing may be added or removed from the collections. No object that belongs to the collection shall ever leave the museum.”

Since that time, a compromise has been reached. Since 1974, the city employs the staff and allows access to visitors but the regents of the museum retain ownership and control of the museum and contents. Loans are rarely permitted. This is something we have seen modern authorities do repeatedly to bequests that were specifically left to be non-loan collections. (See the Burrell Collection, Barnes Collection, etc.) We should bear in mind James Burnham’s observation. “The truth is that, whatever its legal merits, the concept of “the separation of ownership and control” has no sociological or historical meaning. Ownership means control; if there is no control, then there is no ownership.” We might harshly view the regents’ position as little more than titular figureheads, politely permitted to maintain the illusion of control, while not having the capacity to pay its staff. We might generously view the compromise as maintaining the character and contents of the museum whilst permitting some useful flexibility. I recall seeing Dulle Griet in the 2018 Vienna exhibition of Bruegel.

She did not see the need or value of debasing the privacy and seclusion of her museum to the general public. Her dismissal of the possibility shows her aristocratic mindset. Did she foresee the compromises that would have had to have been made to allow mass viewership? She commissioned scholarly catalogues documenting the collection.

In early years, the number of visitors was between 30 and 50 per month. With so few visitors (almost all of them previously known to Henriëtte), the tours could be led by the owner herself. When questioned about the possibility of the museum becoming fully public, Henriëtte responded: “This depends what you mean by ‘public’. Do you mean everyone, the masses? No. Are you referring to my friends, art lovers from Antwerp and abroad, famous people or people who were recommended to me? Yes, they will have access to the museum and I will be happy that so many of them have demonstrated an interest in my artistic endeavours.”

This is a pressing issue today, as conservative and reactionary groups are struggling to re-establish core values through cultural production and collection in the face of the pro-globalist establishment which is hostile to Western values, Christianity and localism. The model of the Mayer van den Berghs could provide a profitable one for those who need to keep their culture away from the influence of an expanding state. Disappointing as the compromises since Henriëtte’s death are, conservatives have to address the issue of pragmatism. What happens if a museum is not financially viable? Who will pay for necessary repair and security measures in an old building? Can a museum be maintained in an urban district that becomes inhabited by a new population that is hostile towards the museum? Should a museum refuse a gift of a valuable complementary artefact because of its charter? All of these problems – squalidly prosaic and expansive as they are – have to be considered by collectors considering preserving their collections in toto.

Unlikely as it may seem, this book could become a handbook for cultural conservatives looking for inspiration in their quest to preserve their culture. Highly recommended.

Ulrike Müller, At Home in a Museum: The Story of Henriëtte and Fritz Mayer van den Bergh, Hannibal/Museum Mayer van den Bergh, 2021, 240pp, fully illus., hardback, €39.95, ISBN 978 9 463 88 7717

Website: https://www.museummayervandenbergh.be/en

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books, visit www.alexanderadams.art