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up to and including 21 May 2018

BABEL: Old Masters Back from Japan

How did 660,000 Japanese museum visitors perceive 15th- and 16th-century masters from Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s collection?

The Tower of Babel and ninety other masterpieces from Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s collection were recently exhibited in Tokyo and Osaka. This was the first time that such a rich group of early Netherlandish works was shown in Japan. The same selection of works will be on view in Rotterdam from 3 February to 21 May 2018 under the title BABEL: Old Masters Back from Japan.

Highlights from the collection

One of the highlights of the exhibition was The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It is interesting how differently people in Japan perceived this painting. They saw it not as an illustration of a Biblical story but as a depiction of reality. Visitors asked how tall the tower was, what it looked like inside, how many people were involved in its construction and where it was located. This curiosity about the details of the building – an eagerness to get closer to the facts – was also an eye-opener for Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. The Japanese visitors were also very interested in the paintings and prints by and in the spirit of’ Bosch (e.g. by Bruegel). They were interested not only in the realism of the paintings but also in the fantasy world of Bosch and Bruegel.

In Rotterdam, the exhibition will engage with the kinds of questions raised by the Japanese public in Osaka and Tokyo. It features interpretations of The Tower of Babel by famous Manga artist Katsuhiro Otomo. He travelled to Rome to see the Colosseum, Bruegel’s inspiration for his tower, and to Rotterdam and Vienna to see the two versions of Bruegel’s painting, and created his own vision of the inside of the tower specially for the exhibition.

Unique survey

The exhibition BABEL: Old Masters Back from Japan provides a unique survey of art from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, beginning with Dieric Bouts and ending with Pieter Bruegel. It charts the spectacular development in art in the Low Countries in this period: from religious motifs to new themes such as landscapes, portraits and still lifes. In addition to The Tower of Babel, the exhibition features 38 paintings and 43 prints from the museum’s collection. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is one of the few museums in the world with such a rich collection of early Netherlandish art.


The exhibition in Japan was organised in partnership with museums in Tokyo and Osaka, and the Japanese media giant Asahi Shimbun. It was the first travelling exhibition in the BVB Collections programme, a series of exhibitions with works from the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen tailor made for foreign museums.