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Celebrating Mad Meg and the paintings of Bruegel in Antwerp

By Ron Smith

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Belgium is a surprising and complex country, with three official languages, vast sandy beaches and quiet hills and valleys, the frenzied ant hill of Brussels and small quaint villages.

Antwerp is the second biggest port in Europe, vital to the whole European commerce, and it was to here that Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s famous painting, Mad Meg, came home this year.

Mad Meg returns to the Meyer Van Den Bergh Museum Antwerp
Mad Meg returns to the Meyer Van Den Bergh Museum Antwerp

Bruegel was born around 1525, probably in Breda in the Netherlands, and came to Antwerp because it was, and still is, the capital of commerce for the whole of the Low Countries.

He died 450 years ago (in Brussels) on September 9, 1569. Another anniversary this year is that on October 5, 125 years ago, a wealthy collector bought Bruegel’s “Dulle Griet” (Mad Meg) painting at an auction in Cologne for a mere 448 old Belgian Francs.

The collector was Fritz Mayer van den Bergh. He was probably the first to really appreciate the value of Bruegel’s paintings. His art collection grew, and included many of Bruegel’s works, including his etchings and drawings, stimulating an awareness of these works.

Fritz died young, aged only 43, in 1901. In his memory, his mother built the museum alongside the family home and it was opened on December 17, 1904. Since 1952 it has been owned by the City of Antwerp, and today the Mayer van den Bergh Museum in Antwerp contains a significant collection of world-class art.

Bruegel is renowned for landscape and peasant scenes. Mad Meg was inspired by a Flemish proverb, “Pillaging at the mouth of hell”, meaning to be afraid of nothing and no-one. Mad Meg, with sword and fire, is destroying the world, while devils of all sorts rush to the mouth of hell for shelter.

The MAS art gallery and museum in Antwerp
The MAS art gallery and museum in Antwerp

Other proverbs are incorporated as well, most have lost meaning now. It has been restored over two years at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels, and the colours are now vibrant once again.

In Bruegel’s day, artists earned their money from religious paintings (which ceased with the Reformation) and portraits. The wealth created by the Dutch/Belgian commerce produced a merchant class who wanted their family portraits painted, or themselves painted against backgrounds of trade or industry.

But Bruegel – the most significant artist of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painters – painted not in the fashionable Italian style, but portrayed landscapes and less grandiose scenes. He trained in Italy before coming to Antwerp where he prolifically churned out prints for a leading publisher.

In 1563 he moved to Brussels, the centre of government, to solicit customers. He married here and settled in the Marolles district. Around two-thirds of his works were painted here.

All through 2019 Brussels is laying on exhibitions, shows and many events celebrating Bruegel.

The Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium has the second largest collection of Bruegel’s paintings (after the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna) and is running conferences, guided tours, an itinerary for children, workshops and internships.

Ruben's House, Antwerp, one of the many museums with world class art in Antwerp
Ruben's House, Antwerp, one of the many museums with world class art in Antwerp

The Royal Library has an exhibition, Bruegel in Black and White. This is a unique opportunity to see more than 90 of his engravings and graphic works.

The Palais de Beaux – Arts is displaying engravings in Bruegel’s time, an important collection.

The Porte de Hal, actually built in 1381 as part of the ramparts of Brussels, has Back to Bruegel, a virtual-reality tour with 3D glasses, so that you can immerse yourself in the world of Bruegel.

The famous Atomium (built in 1958 for the world's fair, and representing the shape of an iron crystal magnified 150 billion times) is running an exhibition within its nine interconnected spheres, which will put you into the middle of his works.

The Church of La Chapelle has The Great Escape, where 10 characters from his paintings are alive and walking around for you to meet.

There are many other events all year, including walking tours, bicycle tours and even 11 themed “street art” paintings which form a trail.

Even the main railway station buffet has style in Antwerp!
Even the main railway station buffet has style in Antwerp!

Bruegel’s paintings are fascinating. His Children’s Games show just what it says in the title, and it is interesting to identify all the games the cast of hundreds are performing. Netherlandisch Proverbs will keep you studying all the images contained for a long time, identifying the proverbs, many of which are well known to us as well, of course!

I was told once that CCTV shows that visitors to art galleries spend an average of 12 seconds in front of a painting. I am sure that you will spend much longer than this studying his beautiful complex and crowded paintings, full of life, action and cameos.

Belgium is certainly the place to be in 2019.

Need to know

For more information on the events for Bruegel's anniversary year, see www.bruegel.brussels

Getting there

I took the relaxing journey of train from Keith to Newcastle, then the luxury overnight DFDS (www.dfdsseaways.co.uk) ferry to Ijmuiden, Amsterdam.

The ferry bus drops you at Amsterdam Centraal station where at least two direct trains per hour connect with Antwerp and Brussels in 1hr 15mins or 2hrs, depending on the train.

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