A boy, his dog and paintings to die for

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A boy, his dog and paintings to die for

In an empty cathedral on a cold winter night, a boy lies in front of a magnificent painting that depicts Jesus Christ descending from the cross. A large dog enters the cathedral and discovers the boy, then nuzzles him awake.

Hugging the dog, the boy says, “You have found me, Patrasche! From now on, we will always be together, won’t we? I saw the paintings at last. So now I’m really happy .?.?. But I am somewhat tired and sleepy.”

This is part of the last scene of a Japanese TV cartoon called “A Dog of Flanders” (1975), one that made me cry my heart out when I saw it as a child in the 1980s (following the happy reunion, the boy, Nello, and Patrasche die from cold and hunger).

The cartoon’s influence on me was not trivial: I called every big dog that I saw during my childhood Patrasche. And when I learned about the Flemish Baroque master Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) in an art class, I thought, “Oh, he is the guy whose paintings Nello was so eager to see.”

I’m guessing that most Koreans know about A Dog of Flanders - either the cartoon or the original novel on which the show was based, or perhaps both.

But to my astonishment, the story isn’t very well-known in Belgium. How can that be? One of the likely reasons is that the 1872 original novel was not written by a Belgian (Flanders is a region in northern Belgium). In fact, it was written in English by the British novelist Marie Louise de la Ramee (1839-1908), known by her pseudonym Ouida.

Howver, it is said that the biggest fans of the story are not the British, but the Japanese, which is even more baffling than the fact that it’s relatively unheard of in Belgium.

I read an interesting news article about this written in 2006 by Masaki Takakura, a journalist at the Yomiuri Shimbun daily newspaper. According to the article, a Japanese diplomat stationed in New York was impressed by Ramee’s obituary in 1908 and subsequently introduced A Dog of Flanders to Japan. The novel gained popularity, leading to the production of the animated show based on the story. The cartoon was broadcast on national television across Japan in 1975, firmly planting Nello and Patrasche in the country’s pop culture scene. In the 1980s, the Japanese animation made its way here, winning over the hearts of children across Korea.

But I wasn’t completely in love with the novel and the cartoon when I was young. I didn’t like that a good boy and a good dog died so helplessly. And perhaps that’s why few Belgians are interested in the story, even after some of them stumbled across it when Japanese and Korean tourists clamored to see the paintings of Rubens in the Antwerp Cathedral, according to Takakura’s article.

Still, the last part of the story - where Nello finally sees Rubens’ paintings - did in fact leave an impression on me. The boy could not see the paintings before, as they were covered by heavy curtains and he could not afford to pay a silver coin to see them. When Nello visited the cathedral on Christmas Eve, the curtains were open by chance, giving him a perfect view.

The Rubens paintings that Nello saw in his last moments show the Baroque artist’s characteristics and style. They are dynamic and emotional and splendid in their use of light and color. Whereas crucifixion scenes and those depicting Jesus descending from the cross in paintings before Rubens are generally calm and spiritual, paintings by Rubens are loud and somewhat sensual. Accordingly, the atmosphere in his paintings is very different from the novel and cartoon.

In addition, Rubens lived a life in contrast with that of Nello. Rubens enjoyed admiration from his contemporaries, including kings and queens - meaning he also enjoyed wealth. But he didn’t just produce paintings catering to the tastes of noblemen. He actively studied his predecessors’ styles and techniques and digested them well to make his own. And he put his abundant energy and pure joy of life into his paintings so that they would be full of spirit. And then there is poor Nello, who died in extreme poverty before fully exhibiting his talent and enthusiasm for art. Perhaps this contrast between Nello and the painter he adored were intentional, created to reinforce the main character of the story.

by Moon So-young [symoon@joongang.co.kr]

*“Descent from the Cross” (1612-14), by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), oil on panel, 421x311 cm, Vrouwe-Kathedraal, Antwerp
A scene from the Japanese TV cartoon “A Dog of Flanders”
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