Five centuries of images in Antwerp

Walking through one of the isles of a big London supermarket last week made me realise once again how we are culturally programmed to value image over substance. The way we deal with food packaging is one of the best examples of our inclination towards superficiality and the ease with which we are swayed to buy and eat something that looks nice/tasty/healthy (when it actually isn’t) is astonishing. I was swayed to buy these organic, ‘natural’, cereal bars, packaged beautifully and very ethically in recycled material which, reading the small print when I got home, happened to contain 265 calories per bar, and just as much sugar as a can of coke.

Jean Fouquet – Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim (1452)

Although I’d like to believe that we’re on the verge of a shift in mentality there is no getting away from the fact that we live in a consumerist society where we are constantly bombarded with images trying to manipulate us into buying things. The Image is very powerful in this respect, and often more powerful than the Word because it easily triggers our brains to make associations. Marketers know this, and use images in lies to sell us goods. Artists know this too, and use images in art to make us think and reflect. This slight difference explains why I rather spend time in museums than in supermarkets.

The exhibition currently on show at MAS (Museum on the Stream) explores the history of the image over the last five centuries in Antwerp. The currently underappreciated Belgian city played a pivotal role in the creation and distribution of the Image in Western Europe, especially during its heyday in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. As a consequence, according to the exhibition catalogue, Antwerp has a unique understanding of the function of the image. MAS calls this one of the city’s biggest qualities and chose it as the concept behind the show. It’s a very fluid concept to build an exhibition around, and arguably not especially profound, but the execution of the project is interesting and definitely worth mentioning and seeing.

On a subdivided floor in the contemporary architectural structure that houses the museum, paintings by Jan van Eyck and Jean Fouquet (both considered Belgian’s master painters) are placed next to old Roman coins as well as video installations and sculptural works made in the 1960’s and 1970’s. ‘Art’, as the wall text says at the beginning of the show, ‘is a means for artists to communicate their relationship with the world.’ Images are used to visualise this relationship and to show how we see ourselves, the world we live in and our place within it.

Marlene Dumas, Blind Joy (1996) – foto Syb’l. S. – Pictures, collectie M HKA

Religion, saints and sins were crucial in our relationship with the world five-hundred years ago, but we increasingly started to look for meaning in human emotion, natural products and seemingly banal everyday objects like urinals or bread rolls. Seeing works from all these different times in the same space, not necessarily chronologically, but intermingled in order to see the similarities, made me reflect not only upon the history of art but on the history of humanity and what crazy animals we actually are. Whereas art has changed substantially, humanity at it’s core seemed to have some sort of stability. We live and experience things and we like to document these; we use the world as our source of inspiration, reflect upon it and try to relate to it. We can embrace what we see, or oppose it and fight against it, but either way we like to translate our feelings about it into something visible and tangible, captured for later generations to reflect upon and explore.

In this, MAS is right, the role of the image has remained the same. The need to capture our relationship with the world is inherently human, it’s only the way in which we do this that changes over time. That is, at least, in art. Whether it applies to supermarkets too, only the future will be able to tell.