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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.

Manga Artist Katsuhiro Otomo inspired by Bruegel

The exhibition reflects the fascinations of the Japanese public, who asked novel questions about the paintings, and new interpretations by Katsuhiro Otomo and Kosuke Kawamura. The two artists travelled to the Colosseum in Rome, Bruegel’s inspiration, and studied the two versions of Bruegel’s painting in Rotterdam and Vienna. Specially for the exhibition, they have made their own, highly detailed visualisation of the interior of the tower, entitled ‘Inside Babel’. To match the colours and perspective exactly, approximately 25,000 digital image manipulations were required.

Manga Artist Katsuhiro Otomo inspired by Bruegel
Katsuhiro Otomo and Kosuke Kawamura in front of 'Inside Babel'. Photo: Aad Hoogendoorn

Japanese objects and videos

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is one of the few museums in the world with a rich collection of early Netherlandish art. This was the first time that such a large exhibition of early Netherlandish works had been shown in Japan. 'BABEL: Old Masters Back from Japan’ provides a survey of the amazing developments in painting in the Low Countries in a period of less than 150 years and provides the Dutch public with an insight into the perspective of visitors to the exhibition in Tokyo and Osaka. Bosch’s fantasy world and Bruegel’s realism appealed enormously to the Japanese public. In addition to reproductions, reconstructions and interpretations, the Japanese produced all kinds of gadgets. In Rotterdam, the old masters are introduced with a selection of these Japanese objects and videos, including a Tower of Babel made from 46,000 Lego bricks by the Lego Club at the University of Tokyo. The exhibition also includes a ‘construction site’ with materials where visitors can build their own Tower of Babel, and touchscreens allowing visitors to explore the tower in great detail.

Trailer 'BABEL - Old Masters back from Japan' More information

Monsters and demons

The exhibition features ninety paintings, sculptures and prints from the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. It covers a period of around 120 years from Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516) to Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569). Bosch is famous for his fantastical images of monsters and demons, and his extraordinary technique, which was far freer than that of his contemporaries. The generations that came after Bosch, including artists such as Lucas van Leyden, Jan van Scorel and Maarten van Heemskerck, also introduced remarkable innovations, many of them inspired by Italian art. Bruegel also travelled to Italy but was mostly influenced by the Netherlandish tradition and by the work of Bosch in particular. This is clear from the bizarre imagery in his paintings and prints. The exhibition charts the extraordinary developments in technique, composition and choice of subject matter in the period 1450-1570.

Monsters and demons
Pieter van der Heyden, Big Fish Eat Little Fish, 1557, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.


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.

Curator Peter van der Coelen’s favourite Bruegel print

The exhibition was curated by the museum’s Curator of Prints and Drawings, Peter van der Coelen, together with his colleague Friso Lammertse. This is his favourite work from the exhibition.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder Brueghel

Pieter Bruegel the Elder Brueghel

c.1526-30 Brussels 1569 Engraved by Frans Huys Antwerp 1522 1562 Ice Skating at St George’s Gate, Antwerp, c.1558 Engraving BdH 8020 (PK)

Ice Skating at St George’s Gate, Antwerp

‘This skating scene in Antwerp is Bruegel’s earliest print with an image from everyday life. He has depicted the inhabitants of his own city skating on ice, a highlight of the winter season. The moats around the city walls are frozen and provide amusement for young and old alike, both on the ice and from the sidelines. The bystanders laugh at the foolish postures and clownish movements of those attempting to negotiate the slippery ice. The skater who has fallen, lying on the ice with his buttocks bared, is the object of especial merriment. People point at him from both the bridge and the embankment, with reactions ranging from an amused look to roars of laughter.

Bruegel invites us, as viewers, to laugh with the bystanders. To this end, he employs the device of the man who approaches us in the foreground, almost skating out of the image. He engages us with a fearful expression as he attempts to keep his balance, his arms and legs akimbo.’