Herman Deckers - Hemelvaart - 1930 - olieverf op doek (collectie Walden art stories)
March-November 2023

How do the three exhibitions relate to each other?

Baroque Influencers makes a journey through time that spans more than four centuries. We set off from seventeenth-century Antwerp, make a stopover in the interwar period, and land in the present, where we look both backward and forward.

The festival teaches us that some of the problems we wrestle with today are not fundamentally different from the ‘Big Questions’ that people tried to answer in the seventeenth century:

How does solidarity relate to responsibility?
How can I lead a meaningful life? What role do education and training play in this?
Is humankind at all perfectible?
And not least, how do I deal with people who think differently from me?

These questions form a common thread that runs through the three exhibitions and the programme of lectures. Despite the differences, there are mostly parallels in the ways in which the Jesuits in the seventeenth century, the avant-garde in the interwar period, and artists today relate to these big questions. These similarities became increasingly apparent over the course of a consultation with the various curators of the exhibitions.

We invite you to journey with us awhile.

Jesuits in the seventeenth century

There are several ways to answer the above questions. The intellectual legacy of the Jesuits offers an interesting perspective. Many Jesuits in the seventeenth century were ‘provocateurs’ in the literal sense: They called people forth. They challenged others. They did so with boldness and confidence in the future. They saw possibilities and were hopeful in challenging times. Epidemics, poverty, war: the seventeenth century was by no means a rosy period. Moreover, the discovery of the New World fundamentally changed the familiar view of humankind and the world. In those turbulent times, Jesuits looked for ways to convince people to keep faith in a better future.

The Church in Flames, Petrus Balthasar Bouttats
© Collection City of Antwerp Rubenshuis

The exhibition Baroque Influencers: Jesuits, Rubens and the Art of Persuasion shows us the various means used by the Jesuits to communicate and disseminate their ideas. The exhibition is spread over three different locations.

The part of the exhibition taking place in St Charles Borromeo Church presents the interpersonal story of the Jesuits and delves deeper into how they were embedded in the society of seventeenth-century Antwerp.

Wilhelm Schubert van Ehrenberg – Interior of the Saint Borromeus Church in Antwerp © Collection City of Antwerp Antwerpen Rubenshuis

Jesuits actively sought to connect with the urban population, organized education for pupils from different backgrounds and actively thought about how to relate to dissenters, such as Calvinists and people from overseas. The Catholic faith was central to the Jesuits. From that religious standpoint, they looked at the profound changes that society, science and the economy were undergoing. The Jesuits wanted to help influence those changes.

Besides disseminating devotional prints, part of the exhibition in St Charles Borromeo Church, the impressive baroque architecture and visual arts were an important instrument in celebrating and spreading their faith.

Peter Paul Rubens, Esther before Ahasverus © The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)

Peter Paul Rubens and the Sodality

The Jesuits in the seventeenth century called on none other than Peter Paul Rubens, who supplied several works for St Charles Borromeo Church and the Sodality, which now houses the Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library. The relation between Rubens and the Jesuits is explored in the second venue of the main exhibition, the Snijders&Rockox House. Unique oil paintings will be used to reconstruct the ceiling paintings Rubens made for St Charles Borromeo Church, paintings which were destroyed in a fire in 1718. In addition, other special loans will show Rubens at the top of his form.

The Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library is the third and final venue of the main exhibition. This building was the setting for the Sodality. The Sodality refers in this context to the building itself, but also to the religious brotherhoods that were housed there and which Peter Paul Rubens belonged to. Indeed, when the building was completed in 1621, it housed two chapels for the brotherhoods attached to the Jesuit community. Hundreds of men from Antwerp’s elites gathered here every week. The chapels were decorated with baroque works of art: altars, statues and especially paintings by the best Antwerp artists. There were indeed many of these: among others, Rubens and van Dyck, both members of a brotherhood, donated their paintings.

When the Jesuit order was suppressed in 1773, all the art treasures were sold publicly. Until then, they had both a decorative and an instrumental function: they were used to spread messages. The artworks that were part of the Sodality’s furnishings relate in a special way to each other in and to the space they were located in. What remains of this meaning when these pieces are taken out of context? This question runs like a connecting thread through the exhibition in the Heritage Library.

Art society De Pelgrim

1773, the year the Jesuit order was suppressed by the Pope, marks the end point in time of the main exhibition. Baroque Influencers then makes a big jump in time and lands in the interwar period, where we take a closer look at another ‘Sodality’, namely the art society De Pelgrim (The Pilgrim), founded by writer Felix Timmermans, architect Flor Van Reeth and writer Ernest Van der Hallen. Well-known members of the society included painter Albert Servaes, architect Huib Hoste, composer Renaat Veremans and writers Gerard Walschap and Marnix Gijsen. The ‘spiritual leader’ of this society was a Jesuit, Leonce Reypens, who was also a co-founder of the Antwerp Ruusbroec Society.

Just as the Jesuits in the seventeenth century wanted to address all layers of the population very directly, De Pelgrim wanted to reconnect with the community after the devastation of World War I by combining modernity and faith. Despite parallels in terms of content, in terms of form, the result is completely different. Many of the artists in De Pelgrim strove for sobriety and opposed the banal sentimentality of the religious visual culture of their time. They wanted to make community art that was explicitly social and religious: art that ennobles humankind through beauty and brings it closer to God. From the baroque, they did not retain splendour as much as religious inspiration. That urge to improve the world ties in with the desire for universal brotherhood in humanitarian expressionism. It is no coincidence that a writer like Marnix Gijsen both published in the magazine Ruimte (Space) and was a member of De Pelgrim.

The attitude towards science was also diametrically opposed to the way the Jesuits welcomed the emergence of modern science in the seventeenth century. In the interwar period, many people believed that, with the rise of science, humankind had created its own monster. A lot of figurative art from that time is about the individual fading into the masses and having to fight against the excesses of a commercial, inhuman modern world. For the artists around De Pelgrim, their faith-based community art offered an attainable alternative.

What role can art play in the social debate today?

Sergio Servellón drew inspiration from one of the main figures of De Pelgrim and the historical avant-garde, namely Jozef Peeters, who organized several international conferences around art during the interwar period. The question of what social role art could play was of central importance. This is also the occasion for the third exhibition, which sails under the flag of Baroque Influencers and takes place in one of Antwerp’s most impressive buildings today, the Port House. With Antwerp (Re-)Active: Search-Stadium, curator Sergio Servellón wants to reflect on the project of Jozef Peeters and build a sculptural arena in the main hall of the Port House for the public and artists to meet, reflect and interact.

What role can art play today?
Should artists once again reconnect with the community, like the Jesuits in the seventeenth century and the avant-garde during the interwar period?
What would this require?
Can we once again give the arts a social mission, as has happened several times before in history?

Various actors from the wider arts field will be invited to help think about this from the perspective of their role: art education, galleries, art organizations, museums, artists themselves and, of course, the public. Like architecture, visual art always relates to the social context in which a work emerges. Baroque Influencers also invites visitors to think: everything is context, context is everything. The programme of lectures that accompanies the exhibitions deepens this thinking exercise to which the public is invited with a visit to the exhibitions.

Baroque Influencers changes our view of the future

And so we come to the slogan with which we are launching all this into the world: Baroque Influencers changes our view of the future. We have entered a new age when we as a society are facing great challenges, as in the seventeenth century. Do we know enough about the historical developments that have shaped our present-day society? How uncertain was the future in the seventeenth century and how uncertain is ours? Can we find inspiration in the seventeenth century to develop new insights with which to tackle today’s challenges? Can we tap new sources of hope and imagination?

We still have to wait until March 2023 to really get started, but mark 2023 in your diary already to come and watch, listen and, above all, discuss and think. In the meantime, you can already get a foretaste by listening to our podcast (in Dutch).

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