“Nobody knows about Van Eyck, certainly not in Belgium.”
Jan Vercruysse, interview
“Putredini dixi: pater meus es: mater mea, et soror mea, vermibus.”1
The Book Job 17:14
It must have been during the summer of 2015, in Arraiolos, when the idea first emerged to preserve Gerard van den Acker’s “work”, and to make it more widely known. Barely had we (Bert Timmermans, Margarida Garcia and Björn Schmelzer) said goodbye to Gerard, when we understood that there would be no more van Eyck summer schools.
Like all the previous editions, the last evening of the summer school ended in the village (most participants having stayed on an extra night especially) and we caroused until the early hours. Gerard had already left by then.
We had our last meeting the following morning. Everyone seemed in a rush, although there was no need. Perhaps it was nervousness about the impending journey home, or the recognition that most of us might never meet again. Or was it the uncomfortable sense of premonition that accompanied the dawning realisation that the same thought had slowly but surely descended upon everyone without having been spoken aloud?
In any case, the mood at the time was one of forced cheerfulness. As usual, we took stock of the previous ten days, which, also as usual, had been spent in a kind of unrelenting ecstasy. The daily seminars were chaotic and unstructured. Rooms often had to be changed at the last minute due to planning oversights. Sometimes a three-hour seminar would decamp to the chapel of the mosteiro, or just outside, in the semi-open cloisters, or amid the cool of the knobbly cork oaks. And sometimes, when we chanced to recall that what propelled us in this daze of art-historical research – a daze constituted by panels, seminars and shared hypotheses, by fierce philosophical exchanges and even iconological discoveries – was none other than van den Acker’s vision of Jan van Eyck’s paintings, a sense of unreality would kick in. At the time we said nothing of a next edition, or of Gerard. It seemed to us that everything had been said. Only in retrospect would we call the ensuing years Gerard’s last “dark” period.
This anecdote should provide a concise introduction to Gerard’s peculiar constitution and the paradoxes that governed this exceptional, but extremely complex, personality. For example, there was no “work” to speak of. What did we mean when we all agreed that his “work” should be preserved and passed on? Where should we seek and find it? What could we guard and disseminate since Gerard’s work precisely replicated his seminars, having no beginning or end, but rather amounting to a meandering stream of ideas and connections, building on what was understood only by us die-hard Ackerites. To us fell the retrospective task and responsibility of organising various unofficial meta-seminars to take in tow the newcomers, stragglers and slower minds. The strange thing was that, as participants in the seminars at the time, we couldn’t have cared less whether or not we could follow what was going on, even less in which direction it would go. In fact, none of the stragglers, so to speak, was even slightly aware of being off track.
In short, scant, if any, official publications ever appeared, certainly not in their final version. Gerard never even finished his dissertation, although we all suspected that he had gone to America especially for this reason. From this American period emerged his so-called “Conversations with Columbo”, a series of pamphlets based on his lectures which was released episodically – and little of which, as we now know, has survived (really only a handful of illegible fragments). Columbo was the nickname of a friend of Gerard’s in New York – his real name remains a well-kept secret, alas – a cloakroom attendant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who not only resembled the squinting inspector (the only perhaps not insignificant difference, curiously, being that Gerard’s Columbo did not squint) but also adopted his methods, applying them to philosophy and art. According to Gerard, this Columbo was the actual brains of the museum, the true curator, the one who, just like the real Columbo, always understood everything immediately, and for this very reason acted dumb. “Columbo”, Columbo always said, “is Socrates turned into a cop.” To which Gerard would reply that he was not entirely sure that he didn’t prefer the idea of the reverse hypothesis.
Yet, as is often the case with people whose antennae are so sharply attuned that they no longer derive any pleasure from it, Columbo felt more at ease in his cloakroom, where he would explain, several times a day, to the ladies and gentlemen who handed over their coats and cloaks, the mechanics of the curious machine that automatically retrieved them. Such machines are, to my knowledge, also used in the National Gallery in London. However, I am aware of none so old or monumental as the copper version at the Met, which may date back to the 1950s. Columbo regularly mentioned how deeply he regretted that this venerable carrousel, which, by the way, is a pure joy to look at, especially when it spins with a motley array of coats, was not a fixture of the museum’s guided tours. According to him, this conveyor system was the museum’s absolute masterpiece – forgotten (or, he added conspiratorially, perhaps supplanted) by the curators. Later, I searched for pictures of the machine on the Internet and, curiously, couldn’t find any.
This was the first paradox: we constantly talked about van den Acker’s work as if it had been chronicled, as if there was an oeuvre to study. In reality, we ourselves would have to assemble, edit and reconstruct this oeuvre, hitherto existing only virtually in the form of his ideas, which still circulated in his wake; in the hundreds, perhaps even thousands of pages of notes made by seminar participants in Arraiolos; in numerous unfinished variations on themes; in so many thousands of sketches by van den Acker for essays, magazine contributions and small independent publications; and, finally, in his “magnum opus”, the never completed, seemingly impossible-to-complete book on Jan van Eyck, the working title of which was on everyone’s lips in Arraiolos; all of us hoping that Gerard would read, or better yet, paraphrase passages from it, because in so doing he developed a self-commentary driven by an invisible force that had a suspense often lacking in the unstructured, contextless fragments circulated amongst participants –fragments which some argued lacked authenticity or the equally nebulous and notorious van den Acker touch, being only well-intentioned forgeries aimed at convincing skeptical newcomers or resolute non-believers (who, of course, mingled with the loyal subscribers each and every year and often spoke the loudest), of the progress of the masterpiece “The Sodomite and the Unsightly”, which was the name Gerard had settled upon for his own personal “Arcades Project”.
Let’s get to the point: this website is a perpetually-in-flux e-version of van den Acker’s unfinished book, which the curators hope to present in its entirety in the not too distant future. It is also a transitional tool, an ever-accumulating status questionis and a paradoxical window onto the world of a mansard scholar whose only windows in life were the paintings he studied.
The sole aspect of his work which can be described in relatively straightforward terms is its monomaniacal focus on 15th century artist Jan van Eyck, however broad and trans-historical his studies were. Gerard was convinced that this obsession (as he openly spoke of his van Eyck studies) would cost him his life, that van Eyck would be his downfall – which, he added, would be inevitable with or without van Eyck. Furthermore, towards the end, he admitted that he no longer knew whether his obsession was purely with van Eyck, or with downfall itself. In any case, van Eyck and the idea of downfall were the twin obsessions to which everything else was sacrificed – he even went so far as to dub himself “denier-of-all”, with the requisite dose of self-derision. Everything – potential publications, lectures (ample at the start, albeit admired less for their content than for the brilliant, idiosyncratic rhetoric with which van den Acker managed to capture an audience even before beginning to speak) was set aside. Until finally he jettisoned his whole academic career in order to dedicate himself to the all-consuming van Eyck study. The great refusenik, the eternal eliminator, the cursed canceller, he was called by friends at the time, though the latter inevitably became increasingly sparse on account of the fact that he avoided every seminary, every study group, every conference or colloquium – in short practically every human encounter.
All the more surprising, then, that in 2012 van den Acker agreed to attend the Van Eyck Summer School in Arraiolos. Without this initiative, there might have been no trace at all of his work, so its importance cannot be overestimated. And without the influence and unwavering insistence of Tim Foubert, whose real name none of us knew until recently, and whom everyone at the time called Durtal, van den Acker would never have been convinced. It was Durtal who had been providing for van den Acker for the last 20 years, although for the time being it is not clear how important a role Durtal played for Gerard besides offering this material support. What is certain, however, is that van den Acker could always rely on gaining entry to a second-floor apartment in the historic building which Durtal owned in the centre of Bruges, and whose address I am not legally in a position to disclose at present. (Van den Acker continuously commuted between Bruges and his hometown Antwerp, making a pitstop in Ghent, where he would sit on the mythic bench in the cloister of St. Bavo’s Abbey after “touching” Hubert, as he put it, when describing these nigh weekly visits to Hubert van Eyck’s weathered grave, which he had to “feel” ever more frequently from 2016.) Only in 2017, when the house went up in flames, and with it most of van den Acker’s archive, which had meanwhile been transferred to the city, did Durtal finally slip off the cloak of anonymity.
The summer school undoubtedly played a pivotal role in saving Gerard’s work from obscurity. Such a great quantity of material was collected there between 2012 and 2015 that the destruction of many original documents in 2017 ultimately proved less disastrous for Gerard’s oeuvre than one might have thought at first.
What prompted Durtal to organize the summer school in Arraiolos was initially a mystery and no credence was given to the idea that it was to do with his regular business trips to the area. Nor can it be attributed to an anecdote Gerard once told concerning an amorous liaison he had in Alentejo, which he sometimes mentioned on balmy nights when only a handful of students and a few drops of bagaço remained, since this dated back to just after the revolution of 1974. Perhaps the reason was far more prosaic, revolving around the fact that Durtal was easily able to secure the cooperation of the local authorities in what is arguably Portugal’s oldest artisanal carpetmaking hub.
Of course, every van Eyck aficionado knows that the artist himself spent almost two weeks in Arraiolos in the company of those Burgundian ambassadors who arrived in Lisbon at the end of 1428 to arrange the future wedding of Duke Philip the Good and the Infanta Isabella, daughter of the Portuguese king, João I, and Philippa of Lancaster.
In a preserved travelogue of the voyage one can read in Old French: “Si actendirent en une ville nommee Reols (Arraiolos) jusques au xije jour de janvier (1429), que le roy les manda devers luy. Ledit xije jour de janvier, se partirent yceulx ambaxadeurs dudit Reols.”2
Van Eyck went on to make two portraits of the Infanta in Avis, 20km from Arraiolos, for her future spouse Philip the Good, who had stayed in Flanders; one was sent by land and the other by sea. The portraits have sadly been lost and are only known to us through a later copy that is kept in Lisbon, and which, according to specialists, was the inspiration for the Sibyl of Cumae figure on the Ghent Altarpiece.
Van den Acker lived in Paris in the 1980s and was influenced by the art historians of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, notably Louis Marin, Hubert Damisch and Daniel Arasse. With this intellectual baggage in tow he returned to Belgium in the early 1990s, immediately sensing how radically different and alien his views had become in his absence – not least given the prevailing intellectual and art-historical climate in Belgium, which stuck to traditional iconological methods or local derivatives thereof.
If I am not mistaken, the only people he had contact with at the time, and from whom he may have drawn inspiration (whether or not it was mutual) were philosopher Bart Verschaffel, art historian Paul Vandenbroeck and various Lacanian philosophers and anthropologists based in Leuven. Van den Acker considered Verschaffel’s essays on Vercruysse, Magritte and especially De Braekeleer to be groundbreaking works on the Flemish academic scene, and I well remember how scandalized he was when Verschaffel’s interpretation of De Braekeleer was all but dismissed – an interpretation that van den Acker nevertheless thought crucial for a true understanding of De Braekeleer’s work. Van den Acker’s concern seemed to be just, as is proven by a recent monumental publication on De Braekeleer, in which Verschaffel’s interpretation has been reduced to a footnote. The fact that, under a thick brown layer of varnish, and in the dusty, conventional interiors depicted in De Braekeleer’s paintings, an uncanny and subversive artist might have been hiding was a major revelation for van den Acker.3
When he returned to Flanders from Paris in ‘92, van den Acker realized that his vision of art history would struggle to gain a foothold. This was also the moment when he made the radical decision to become a private scholar, and only to share his research with confidantes and sympathetic souls. From that moment on, he refused to participate in symposia, refused all publication requests. It was as if he had simply obliterated himself.
We know that, in addition to the afore-mentioned Leuven circle, he maintained solid contact with various artists, including Vercruysse, whose vision of art and society he shared. There is an anecdote about van den Acker’s visit to Vercruysse in London, at a time when his obsession with convex mirrors was flaring up – an obsession which he tried to extinguish with intensive study and writing (we will not dwell on this fiery anecdote here). In van den Acker’s own words, this fascination for convex mirrors went back to his childhood, a crucial period in his life, much of which he spent in an apartment in the legendary Hotel Palace in Zeebrugge – a building still extant – with no one but his melancholy mother for company.
Two memories are decisive here: the front door with its Art Deco door surround above which is written, in Middle French, Honi soit qui mal y pense (“shame on anyone who thinks evil of it”), and a small convex mirror in the drawing room, set in a gilded frame scattering excessive light rays. It is here that the young van den Acker realises for the first time that the convex mirror is not a mirror, but an anamorphic instrument, and thus an instrument of fantasy. He often seeks refuge by this mirror and loses himself in its distortions. However, the obsession with the convex mirror becomes traumatic when, much later, and now a student of art history in the Netherlands, he seeks to share his memories of it with family members, only for them to obstinately deny any knowledge that such a thing had ever hung in the drawing room. (Van den Acker’s interest in Freud also dates to the same period, in that this upsetting exchange with his family confronts him with the repression that can affect subjects themselves confronted by the deranging curvature of reality.)
In London van den Acker meets the film director Joseph Losey, then putting the finishing touches to his last film. That same year, 1984, Losey dies. Still, before this event, he has the chance to visit Losey at his house in Chelsea, though he is particularly interested in a house on the other side of the street. Twenty years previously, Losey had filmed his masterpiece The Servant in this house, a film that Gerard has always connected with van Eyck, not least because of the convex mirrors that feature in it, but also because he recognizes the deforming effect of mirrors as itself a queer element, an idea he first had upon reading Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, a famous story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges in which the following quotation attributed to the Gnostics appears on the second page: “Mirrors and fatherhood are hateful because they multiply and expand it.” The only mirror that is tolerable is therefore the convex mirror, van den Acker would say, because in it, reproduction is always aberrant and truly monstrous.
Is it coincidental that the artist John Murphy, with whom Vercruysse was staying at that time, refers in a recent work to Losey’s film Eve, which is set in Venice, with Jeanne Moreau as femme fatale, and Stanley Baker as the artist-writer obsessively in love with her, who confesses that he himself has not achieved anything, but stolen everything from his deceased brother? In our minds this work undoubtedly draws on the conversations and ideas that van den Acker, Murphy and Vercruysse exchanged in the 1980s. After all, in an essay of his own, van den Acker touches on this motif of Losey’s, comparing it to van Eyck’s own position vis-à-vis his talented older brother Hubert, to whom he owed everything (read: from whom he stole everything). According to Van den Acker, this fraternal rivalry manifested itself in van Eyck’s obsession with doppelgängers, and in the theme of homosexual, incestuous fratricide, which he portrayed several times.4
Van den Acker’s vision of art was universal. He was firmly against the historicism and culturalism that underpinned mainstream theory in his day. His specific brand of universalism, however, must be understood as that of the crack, of the impossibility, of the exceptional or useless detail in the work of art.
For van den Acker, van Eyck was one of the first artists to operate with such an attitude. Naturally his thesis barely resonated with contemporaries. Nevertheless, he managed to transform his social frustrations into far more pleasurable intellectual pursuits, driven by an imperturbable work ethic; often he referred to his work as “sport”, a game approach which soon caused him to be unable to fall asleep. Indeed, he became a notorious insomniac, but had no bones with this, enjoying the irony surrounding the fact that recognition of his own work had until then been dormant. Insomnia was not so much a disorder or consequence of work addiction, as the guarantee of the work itself, according to Gerard, and also a last vestige of what the ancients called “grace”. Without that heavy morning state that he called sommeil or the nocturnal heat that kept his mind aflame, he would have had no ideas, no insights and therefore no work. In short, office hours were wholly unsuitable for him.
Only a position like his could have turned the van Eyck study into a study of aberrance, into the study of an aberrant painter who painted aberrant details and aberrant structures. Only in the margins (“bourgeois margins”, Gerard called them, unashamed to admit that he’d opted for the marginal of his own free will) could an aberrant vision of a canonical painter like van Eyck become possible. To develop an aberrant discourse, he had to shy away from master discourses, and develop something that did not yet exist, and which would therefore allow one to see what no one else had ever seen.
The contrarian van den Acker constantly sought to expose historicism, in which he did not believe, as a hidden and false abstract universalism. His Bible in this battle was Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, a supremely concise text that he always carried with him and constantly re-read. Perhaps this is also where the seed can be found for his post-2015 collapse and terrible last years – an idea that reminds me of none other than Nietzsche, in the period before his catatonia; or of his disciple, the Jewish-German art historian Aby Warburg , who ended up at Ludwig Binswanger’s sanatorium in Kreuzlingen in the early 1920s.
Van den Acker called the pseudo-positive vision that tries to understand van Eyck’s art as something situated in, with and through his own time, an absolutely false vision. The only vision that mattered, according to him, was the vision apart from, away from, outside of one’s own time – which, according to van den Acker, is not a negation of one’s own time, but a negation from one’s own time (which, by the way, according to the maestro, is the only possible relationship with historical time at all).
Historicism is a conservative, anti-artistic impulse that does not accept that (real) works of art never belong to their own time. The reality that works of art produce is not that of some reality preceding the work of art – so-called “everyday life”. This is not to say that artists in the 15th century would not have experienced daily life. Van Eyck, however, constructs daily life as a fantasy; the more his works approach the quotidian, the more fantastical they are in reality. Van Eyck’s work fundamentally derives from fantasy, which is of course embedded in, and a crucial part of, reality. Van den Acker saw himself as a fantasy historian. How does fantasy operate, what does it not do with, but rather in reality, and how does it manage to produce reality? For van den Acker there is always fantasy before there can be any question of reality. Or rather, every reality arises from a fantasy which is then retroactively concealed. This is the basic attitude which van den Acker encourages viewers to have when considering van Eyck’s oeuvre.
Gerard saw in van Eyck a rigorously progressive artist who mapped the fundamental problems of modernity through painting. What is art and what is its social status? What is sexuality and what has it to do with art and society? This second question is linked to van den Acker’s exploration of the modern subject in the Freudian or Lacanian guise, whose emergence he traces back to van Eyck’s work. It’s a question linked to the medieval theological conception of sodomy – sodomy being van Eyck’s term for problematic, inorganic non-reproductive sexuality.5
How are sexuality (sodomy), the subject and art related to religion and economics – and more specifically to a nascent capitalism in which Bruges, where van Eyck’s studio was located, played a key role? What is the role of language and what is that of the body? To van den Acker, van Eyck was an artist of language; without the primordial role of language, his art is inconceivable. As he argued, van Eyck’s work cannot be aligned with later forms of realism or naturalism in art; on the contrary, it is closer to anti-realist and anti-naturalist movements; to the work of Magritte, Broodthaers, Vercruysse and so on.
How does painting become a catalyst for social change or ideology? What role does the unconscious and fantasy play in this? For van den Acker, van Eyck was the first real painter-comic – the all-time laugh-painter – unlike Bosch (and to a lesser extent Bruegel, about whom van den Acker was always ambivalent), who was always conservatively comical, and not a critical, emancipatory comic like van Eyck. Perhaps the recent restoration of the mystic lamb on the Ghent Altarpiece and the revelation of its original face, with the bizarre humanoid eyes, are proof that van den Acker was right in this.
It should not be forgotten here that, in addition to attacking historicism and the typical art-historical view of reality, van den Acker was also extremely critical of the continually recurring positive-scientific, cognitivist tendencies of art-historical research, which he found extremely dubious and considered a symptom of conservatism and intellectual drought, as well as of the restoration urge. Van den Acker’s essay, “Van Eyck Through a Scanner Darkly”, in which he combines Philip K. Dick’s eponymous science fiction novel with a biting critique of the scanning techniques applied to works of art in order to reveal their secrets, so to speak, draws a parallel with the mania for restoration, which supposedly seeks to return the work of art to its (more) original state. The only salvation for van Acker is that restoration can sometimes reveal substantive aberrations hidden by time, ideology or institutes: a kind of restoration that destroys (clichés) or deconstructs. Recent restorations of van Eyck’s works confirm what van den Acker knew thirty years ago: that the aberrant, exceptional and unusual in his work has been corrected, normalised and neutralised throughout the centuries.
In sum, there is an absolutely solid foundation for this website – the same reason that explains the success of the summer school in Arraiolos. Van den Acker’s method was not based on the panoramic view of an artwork, whereby one starts with the context, be it historical or art-historical, rather than the work itself. For van den Acker, it is impossible to situate the truth of the artwork in its totality. After all, the work never politely breaks down into details that once again form the total artwork when reassembled. Rather, a work of art bursts open with cracks and details that are impossible to reintegrate, that have always cracked the work, and that are of course necessarily obscured by the painter, or obfuscated so that the work can appear as a whole; a whole that, at the same time, is necessary for the existence of the aberrant details. This is what iconology and “disguised symbolism”cannot grasp: the dialectic between the whole and the details which contribute nothing to the whole.
There is a name for this insignificant – but at the same time essential – detail: Barthes calls it a punctum; Arasse calls it a détail (something situated in the difference between dettaglio and particolare); for Didi-Huberman it is a stain (pan or patch); for Freud a symptom; and in Lacan’s (pseudo-scientific to some) jargon, objet petit a. Everything stands or falls on the relationship to this point, van den Acker believed. It is not just a matter of determining where this point is located, but above all of valuing the work of art in its tension with, and impossible relation to, this point. This point is where the painter and the viewer lose their grip on the wheel, as Gerard always liked to claim.
For Deleuze, “losing one’s grip” can be a neat trick for reading the history of philosophy and actually doing something with it. In Gerard’s view, losing one’s grip is the universal point of the artwork; the point when the work of art is catapulted from the window of its own time. The whole collective undertaking in Arraiolos consisted of investigating and legitimising the function of the punctum. The summer school was nothing but this for ten days (how we amused ourselves). Gerard was able to arouse a totally new interest in a painter who had until then been monopolised by orthodox theory as a subject of study.6
Since Gerard had no affiliation with academic institutions, his texts may sometimes come across as curious and somewhat idiosyncratic. We believe that this characteristic is also a part of their strength. What at first sight appears simultaneously eclectic and restrictive (ignoring art history as a canonical movement) is actually part of a larger, consistent whole, built upon a foundation of solid logic. According to van den Acker, works of art should also have a solid intrinsic logic, and his art-historical method was just as rigorous, despite its apparently kaleidoscopic or postmodern aura.
Two questions remain – questions that should perhaps have been addressed earlier. What does the logo mean, and why call this website Dark van Eyck, when there is apparently no painter so bright, so colourful, so anti-chiaroscuro as van Eyck?
At first sight, “Dark van Eyck” might seem to be flawed or at the very least perversely antithetical as a title. Nothing seems more alien to van Eyck than darkness: everything with Van Eyck is total visibility; nothing hides in the dark, indeed everything is overexposed and over-detailed, appearing in light’s full clarity.
And this was van den Acker’s claim, too – there was no shadow world or parallel realm lurking “beyond the mirror”. And yet van den Acker also believed that this state of affairs was the result of one of van Eyck’s most effective traps: the tableau might show everything but at the same time be full of contradictions, ambiguities and anamorphoses.
Van Eyck’s blackness is not opposed to light or visibility. It is the light itself that obscures, and it is its very visibility that makes it things invisible. The painting’s netherworld is on the surface. Van Eyck is no Bosch (there is no question of Gnosticism or cosmic dualism in his work) and of course no Caravaggio either, with his visual and thematic chiaroscuro. But what does it mean for everything to be visible, and what do we really see in van Eyck’s overexposed world? There is no agreement possible. “Dark van Eyck” points to that meta-darkness, a darkness that is itself darkened, as it were.
Van den Acker referred to himself variously as: a historian of putrefaction, fantasy, gaps, holes, ambiguity and ambivalence; an archaeologist of decomposition; an art-historical pathologist; a seismographer-of-the-crack; and a scholar-of-the-worm.
This aberrant nomenclature not only reveals Gerard’s unique black humor, but also ties in with his belief that only the present can decrypt the past and its works of art. And that, at the same time, it is artworks from the past that strike back with renewed vision, inducing the present to comprehend things that it does not yet know, and that it would never have deduced on its own, without the past, without which all would have stayed the same.
In the end, the logo means nothing and everything. It’s a punctum drawn like graffiti on the back wall of Arnolfini’s room, right after the painter’s name and the statement of his presence. This statement would go on to be canonized, quoted everywhere and seen as essential to the meaning of the work. “Johannes de eyck fuit hic” (“Jan van Eyck was here”). It’s like pushing at an open door. What if it really meant: van Eyck is everywhere and nowhere; van Eyck is actually this thing here – this awkward punctum, this almost-winged hole, point or eye that no one has ever mentioned, that no has ever really seen before? Except, that is, Gerard van den Acker. Its nothingness is not without significance.
1 “If I have said to rottenness: Thou art my father; to worms, my mother and my sister.”
2 J. Paviot, Portugal et Bourgogne au XVe siècle, Lisbon, 1995, p. 208
3 I got to know Gerard in the 1990s in Leuven, where he was living then, and where I was studying under anthropologist Renaat Devisch, and also friendly with Paul Vandenbroeck. I remember that Gerard spoke effusively about Bart Verschaffel. I have no idea if they knew one another, although it’s possible, and not hard to imagine a possible affiliation given the parallels in their vision and methodology. The Music Box, a documentary made at that time by Verschaffel and Jef Cornelis, left a particularly big impression on Gerard. If you analyse the section dealing with De Braekeleer, the similarities to van den Acker’s work are clear. One can also trace them in a text van den Acker wrote about Antwerp Baroque painter Abel Grimmer, and the motif of the figure who sees nothing – a motif that he linked to the trauma of iconoclasm, tracing the idea as far as Beckett’s Film and certain works by Thierry de Cordier. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was Gerard who introduced Verschaffel to De Braekeleer’s work, not least because he had just returned from Paris and was seriously influenced by art historians such as Louis Marin and Hubert Damisch, who wrote about Verschaffel. B. Verschaffel, art. Het heimelijke van Henri De Braekeleer, in De Witte Raaf, Ed. 54, 1995, No. 10 (54), pp. 11-15
4 Van den Acker’s text is being edited and will soon be available on the “Work” page of this website.↲
5 We must of course be clear about what exactly sodomy means, first and foremost historically, but also in the curious sense used by van Eyck, as explored by van den Acker’s research, in which the term gains a universal emancipatory aspect. According to van den Acker, an interesting parallel can be drawn between the first official ecclesiastical condemnation of sodomy, the literary oeuvre of Alain de Lille, the rise of the Gothic, and of polyphony and art in general (with its sudden emphasis on human suffering and, linked to this, the suffering of God himself up to and including the incarnation of God and divine denial). Sodomy in art means a crack from within that articulates art’s inorganic aspect. Van Eyck was the first to develop this kind of art, in which sexuality and the subject played a pivotal role. We might say, drawing on van den Acker’s off-kilter view of the world, that van Eyck’s painting represents less of an “optical revolution”, as has been argued, than a sodomitical one.
6 Van den Acker’s method can also be understood as a constant battle conducted from different angles against orthodox theory, as Panofsky calls canonical iconology (which of course has its merits too), a term which is linked to iconological theory in art history.