M Leuven presents a radical new look at Dieric Bouts this autumn and winter. With DIERIC BOUTS. Creator of images, the museum is taking the bold step of moving a 600-year-old painting for the first time from its original historic setting to literally invite us to see the 15th century Flemish Primitive in a new light.
Part of a four-month city-wide cultural and culinary celebration of Bouts this season in the city, M Leuven puts Bouts up against modern day image-makers, such as Star Wars creator, George Lucas, and asks, what can we learn?
Mad genius or jobbing professional?
The hi-falutin concept of a mad genius fine artist as we might think of it today did not exist in Bouts’ time, so M Leuven presents Bouts as he would have seen himself: a jobbing professional image-maker, turning out art-on-demand from his large workshop in the city where he married his well-to-do wife. Her contact book gave him access to the great and good who were flocking to up-and-coming Renaissance Leuven, and commissions from individuals and institutions started rolling in.
Now, for the first time, the largest ever curation of his oeuvre is set alongside that of similar professionals of today, such as sports photographers, film directors and game developers, allowing us to appreciate the inventiveness and radicalism of the images Bouts was paid to produce 600 years ago.
Take for instance, one of his most well-known works: The Last Supper (painted between 1464 and 1468 – some decades before Michaelangelo’s version). The tryptich was commissioned by the Fraternity of the Blessed Sacrament and two theologians from the (then recently founded) University of Leuven helped Bouts come up with his new representation of ‘The Last Supper’.
What was so radical about the result was not only Bouts’ revolutionary use of vanishing point perspective, centring the bread of the Holy Sacrament. Bouts also sets the supper in the city of Leuven as it was at the time, including well-known figures as Biblical characters and painting the Grote Markt, which was only just been being built, into the scene.
It’s a gutsy move to play with what many thought should be a sacred image in this way, putting ‘modern’ Leuven and its inhabitants into a Biblical scene, a bit like something a modern street artist might attempt. But Bouts contemporaries clearly approved of his take on things: four years after the Supper was finished, he was made the official artist of the city.
Swapping places with the 15th century
Bouts was known as the “painter of Silence” since his figures always have a calm and distant air. But now things are being shaken up by M Leuven as for the first time in the 600-year history of Bouts’ Last Supper, it is being taken out of the place it was painted for to be displayed in M instead.
And replacing The Last Supper in St Peter’s Church? Just as Bouts’ was unafraid to inject modernity into a sacred image, so M Leuven have injected a modern installation into a shrine of art history, putting “The Off Hours” by American conceptual artist, writer and filmmaker Jill Magid in The Last Supper’s place.
At this point, it’s important to note that it is not quite true to say Bouts’ work has remained in St Peter’s Church for the whole of its existence. Its central panel has not moved, but its “wings”, the side panels of the tryptich, have been repeatedly “removed and exploited as commodities, spoils, and reparations of war between Germany and Belgium.”
Paying tribute to that troubled existence and the new journey the painting and its wings are on, Magid has used a musical score “inspired by the nocturnal flight calls of migrating birds” and turned it into a hair-raising film and sound installation that echoes around the Church during its closing hours.
Highly recommended, Dieric Bouts: Creator of Images runs from 20 October 2023 to 14 January 2024. Standard tickets cost 12 euros and include both M and St Peter’s Church, as well the rest of M Leuven’s shows. Visits involve booking a timeslot, but fear not, there is some leeway on the schedule. M is open from 11:00 am to 6:00 pm, with a nocturne until 10:00 pm on Thursdays.