All hail 'The Young Van Dyck'

November 30 2012

I'm afraid I haven't got time to write a full review of 'The Young Van Dyck' right now, as Old Master week is upon us, and today is the first day of viewing.

The good news is, if you were pushed for time and could only take a day off to see this fabulous show (which you should), it's just about possible. I landed in Madrid at about 10.30, and, thanks to Fernando Alonso's taxi-driving dad (it seemed), was at the Prado by 11am (where, wonderfully, I was promptly presented with a complimentary exhibition catalogue - thanks!). I took the 8.45pm flight back, which gave ample time for the exhibition, the main Prado collection, a quick visit to the Thyssen collection, and a fine lunch in the Prado's amiable cafe. Of course, if you want to stay the night in Madrid, then the Ritz is just opposite the Prado...

Regular readers will know how much of a Van Dyck anorak I am, but even if I wasn't, I'd still rate 'The Young Van Dyck' as one of the best exhibitions I've ever been to. Perhaps it's because in the UK we're increasingly fed a diet of low-brow blockbusters (you know, the ones that pointlessly lump together two or three Big Name artists), and so my expectations were low. 'The Young Van Dyck', however, was a masterclass in what museum exhibitions should be - an opportunity to bring together exquisite works to make a thorough examination of an aspect of an artist's oeuvre. Here, the visitor is treated to just the right number of drawings and studies alongside the main works so that we can fully chart the evolution of Van Dyck's genius, but there are no distractions with engravings, works by Van Dyck's followers, or, worst of all, explorations of 'contemporary resonance'. Clearly, they don't have 'outreach curators' at the Prado. The show just tells you everything you can hope to know about Van Dyck's first years in Antwerp.

And the catalogue - well, it's epic. You rarely get catalogues like this anymore. It is almost entirely free from new art historical guff - there are no essays about social context or convoluted theories on, say, stylistic discourse. There is even a great deal of connoisseurial discussion. It makes the Tate's effort on Van Dyck in Britain look very weak by comparison (which, as Brian Sewell said, read as if 'written by a student with access to Wikipedia'). Instead, we have an old-fasioned, fact-filled investigation of what Van Dyck painted, whether he painted it, and when, and for 'the how' there's even a thorough section on technical analysis. If you can't get to the Prado, it's well worth ordering.

I'll write more on the exhibition next week.

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