BABEL: Old Masters Back from Japan at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam

Although this exhibition is entitled Babel, it is better described by its subtitle, Old Masters Back from Japan. And that’s exactly what it is, an exhibition of nearly one hundred early Dutch works, mostly from the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, which were shown recently in Tokyo and Osaka.

Although Pieter Bruegel’s The Tower of Babel is the hook and the focal point for the show it is by no means the only star. Both the exhibition and the pictures on show are relatively small, and this is clearly one example where size doesn’t matter.

Most of the paintings are fifteenth or sixteenth century and many of them are no bigger than an A4 sheet of paper. But it is this very intimacy, the fact that you have to get up close and personal, that contributes to their attraction, not to mention that they are all exquisite and most of them breathtakingly beautiful in the quality of their painting.

I have to admit that I did not know the names of some of the painters but then some did not have a name, being simply known as “The Master of so and so”.

But while it is a joy to discover pictures that one hasn’t seen before by artists one doesn’t know, it is nice to have the reassurance of the familiar. Of course, the best known names from early Low Countries’ art are Hieronymus Bosch and the various Bruegels, both from the eastern region of Brabant.

Mr Bosch is represented by two beautiful lesser known paintings, Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child and The Pedler, neither of which have the grotesque aspects with which the painter is normally associated. There was a whole series of engravings which exploit those, almost surrealist familiar themes, but they were only “in the manner of” Bosch.

Finally, one comes to Pieter Bruegel the Elder – although at the beginning of the exhibition one had to run the gauntlet of Manga versions of The Tower and a play pit where one could build one’s own out of paper cups. Enough said.

The penultimate room contained twenty-odd unbelievably fine engravings, so fine that they could have been printed yesterday. Finally, one arrived at The Tower of Babel itself, majestic, spot lit and alone in a large red room. It really is an incredible painting, both in concept and execution. It is fairly well known that the inspiration for the painting came from the Colosseum in Rome but the Japanese, bless them, thought The Tower itself was based on an historical truth rather than a biblical myth. They wanted to know where it stood, how tall it was, what was inside and how long it took to build.

You can understand them getting totally immersed in it. Although it is relatively small (114 x 155 cms) for such a gigantic concept, it is still full of amazing detail and fascination. There are figures barely one millimetre high and ships no bigger than ants with full sails and rigging. But more than the technical prowess it is the mystery and storyline which is the most captivating. If you know your Bible you’ll be aware of what it was and of its consequences but I think it’s more fun to forget that and let the imagination run wild. Are we looking at a ruin or at a building under construction? Is it an early example of social housing or some sort of stadium, and what is going on inside? One of the most intriguing details is just left of centre where a narrow strip over several floors of the building has a greyish tint to it. On closer inspection it looks as though they have the builders in and that several storeys, one above the other, are covered in dust and what appears to be scaffolding. But, like all great art, the more you look, the more you see. It’s a painting that keeps on giving.   Michael Hasted    29th March 2018

Babel, Old Master Back from Japan continues at the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam until 21st May.