Pieter Bruegel’s ‘Mad Meg’ is a painting you never grow tired of looking at and the longer you look, the more stories you find! The painting seems to depict the carnage and upheaval caused by a battle. The horizon appears to be on fire. Amid the chaos we find a group of Flemish villagers. An array of bizarre creatures and weird monsters inhabit other parts of the canvas, while a horde of soldiers enter from the right. Centre stage stands ‘Mad Meg’ or ‘Dulle Griet’ in Dutch. She is a woman warrior, a giantess among the other mortals, portrayed in a suit of armour. Just imagine the impact such a portrayal will have had on people in the Middle Ages!
Bruegel biographer Leen Huet compares the artist to the director of a horror movie appealing to all the senses. It’s been suggested the painting depicts a time-honoured theme: the battle of the sexes. Note it’s women who are wearing the trousers!
‘Mad Meg’ is one of the star attractions at the Mayer van den Bergh Museum in Antwerp. The museum houses the collection of the Antwerp art dealer and collector Fritz Mayer van den Bergh, who picked up the painting for what today seems a pittance, 448 Belgian francs, some 11 euros in today’s money, at auction in Cologne (Germany) exactly 125 years ago.
The painting has just been restored by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage, the KIK-IRPA in Brussels, in time for the landmark Bruegel exhibition at the Art History Museum in Vienna, which has just been concluded. The return of ‘Mad Meg’ is timely. This year celebrations are held to mark the 450th anniversary of the painter’s death.
The masterpiece that was believed to be lost until Fritz Mayer van den Bergh rediscovered it at auction towards the end of the 19th century was seen by art experts as a dark landscape with a deep red sky and touches of brown. Yellowed layers of varnish and later overpainting have been removed during the restoration. The painting’s original splendid colours have been restored and the whole canvas looks a lot fresher! Colours have become brighter and more varied. Details, long invisible, are once again clear: the finely executed helmets, the magnificent landscape in the background and even a teddy bear! Bruegel’s brushwork and exceptional painter’s talent are once again visible to all. Art experts note a sense of depth has been restored and the scene as a whole displays a much clearer effect of depth.
Experts at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage spent a year and a half working on the restoration. A team of experts working in different fields was brought together with success. An array of techniques were used to analyse the painting’s material history and structure. The team discovered that the inception date featured on the painting was 1563 and not 1561 as was formerly thought. 1563 was the year that Bruegel married and moved from Antwerp to Brussels. The painting bears the Dutch word “Dul” that was thought to refer to the Dutch title of the work, but it’s now believed that what were deemed to be letters are actually scratches, possibly made by accident!
The new dating of the painting throws up the question whether ‘Mad Meg’ was painted in Brussels or Antwerp and where it is set. Bruegel married in the Kapellekerk in Brussels in 1463. Did Bruegel start the painting in Antwerp and finish it in Brussels or was it completely painted here?
This year it’s exactly a century and a quarter since Antwerp art dealer Fritz Mayer van den Bergh hit upon the lost painting at an auction in Cologne. The strange work was hanging high up on a wall and attracted little interest from prospective buyers. The Antwerper was clearly far more alert than buyers for the world’s most celebrated museums and picked up the work for 448 Belgian francs, an amount that even in that day was rather modest for a work of this nature.
To mark the anniversary the Museum Mayer van den Bergh will be staging an exhibition homing in on the acquisition talents of Fritz Mayer van den Bergh and Florent Van Ertborn, an Antwerp mayor and art collector whose collection of over a hundred works is now in the closed Antwerp Museum of Fine Art that is undergoing renovation. Masterpieces by Jean Fouquet, Rogier van der Weyden and Gerard David will feature at the exhibition that also looks at the collecting passion of Mayer van den Bergh and Van Ertborn starting 5 October 2019.
‘Mad Meg’ and other highlights from Fritz Mayer van den Bergh’s collection of Netherlandish medieval and Renaissance art are on show at the Mayer van den Bergh Museum in the Lange Gasthuisstraat 19 in Antwerp. Open Tuesday through Sunday 10AM till 5PM.