Symbolism and Expressionism 20th Century
Symbolism and Expressionism 20th Century
The museum’s acquisition policy has resulted in a rich collection of work by Flemish symbolists and, particularly, expressionists in the widest sense of the word. The work of George Minne, Valerius De Saedeleer, Gustave Van de Woes- tyne and Jakob Smits are different expressions of a mystical, almost religious symbolism. They later became famous as the first Latem group, which took its inspiration from symbolism. They sought to capture in their paintings the deeper, invisible character of nature and people. Through their paintings they wanted to lift the veil of outward reality in order to reveal the magic, mystic or religious mystery beneath. Gustave Van de Woestyne’s earl) work contained certain symbolist elements, but gradually evolved towards expressionism. His painting The two Springs may be described as symbolist due to the personification in the two female figures of the natural country life on the one hand, and artificial city life on the other. His later work Gaston and his Sister is, in its alienation, a typically expressionist piece.
In the same way as the artists mentioned above withdrew to the unspoiled beauty of Latem, the older Jakob Smits had already spent a decade in the Campine where he painted his rustic interiors, portraits, landscapes and religious paintings. The museum possesses a comprehensive collection of 31 paintings and numerous drawi ngs by this artist, which clearly illustrate his conception of light. It was his specific technique, consisting of thickly layered and thoroughly worked paint, which imbued works such as The Train of the Magi with their unusual intensity of light.
The Flemish expressionists occupied a not unimportant place in Western Europe between the two World Wars. Gustave De Smet, Frits Van den Berghe, Albert Servaes and Constant Permeke each created a personal ccuvre in which the rural theme in particular is a common feature. These artists became famous as the second group to settle in Sint-Martens- Latem. Servaes viewed people and landscape from a religious perspective which led him to develop his own style. His early works are simple in form and two-dimensional, but at the same time powerful and monumental. The dying Man, painted in 1910 and purchased in 1989, recalls Jakob Smitswith its fresh colouring, two-dimensional character, the grainy surface and the location of the subject in an everyday interior. De Smet evolved from his impressionistic debut towards a fairly strictly constructed but serene expressionism. Any sense of directness and spontaneity is tightly controlled in The Mussel Eaters. The intimate, domestic scene with its subtle tonalities, the cubist, synthetic style and the manner in which space is reduced to a flat surface, are brought together to form a single harmonious image.
Frits Van den Berghe later became more interested in city life than in the rural environment. Two of the works in our collection complement one another particularly well in their illustration of the two sides of his art. In the recently acquired Double Portrait of P.G. Van Hecke and Norine, dating from 1923/24, we recognise the artist’s worldly, ironic and critical characteristics, while the melancholy Life, painted in the same year, highlights the moralising tendency of his personality. Both works were produced during his expressionist period. P.G. Van Hecke played an important role in Belgian artistic life as a writer, gallery owner and promotor of modern art. The rather sarcastic Van den Berghe was later dubbed the surrealist amongst the Expressionists, because around 1929 he left the pure expressionist fold and turned increasingly towards phantasmagoria. The museum’s collection is particularly well-endowed with his work from the 1930-39 period.
Constant Permeke, the purest expressionist, portrayed man as crushed and deformed by work, with broad, hard contours and monochrome tints. He painted farmworkers and fishermen, large seascapes, imposing landscapes and large female nudes in a rough and primary manner, but with a sense of empathy. His Ostend Fisherwoman, robust, like a massive block bearing the mark of life’s tragedy, sits and waits. Permeke used a sombre range of colours with bluish grey tones. His preference for monochrome is even more striking in the angular and linear Vespers of 1927.
Hippolyte Daeye, Edgard Tytgat, Jean Brus- selmans and Leon Spilliaert – rather more isolated figures who, nonetheless, had certain points of contact with expressionism – developed a new content and style through their own particular temperaments. Hippolyte Daeye spent the period between 1914 and 1920 in Britain, where he was in contact with Gustave Van de Woestyne, Edgard Tytgat and Constant Permeke. It was during this period that he was introduced to other modernist tendencies in European art. He was fascinated by the work of Modigliani, as he was following a similar path towards stripping down the portrait genre to its essence. Apart from the outward form, he also sought to create the experience of seeing. Despite Daeye’s apparently spontaneous method of working, he studied the model for a great deal of time until a synthesis began to develop, bringing with it a necessary degree of deformation. Serenity is simple in construction and highly refined in its colouring. Daeye’s palette is unusually intense in this work, in which, as customary, a single figure situated against an abstract background fills the canvas.
Although leaning towards expressionism, the paintings of Jean Brusselmans are more controlled in character. The structure of his canvases is paramount, and it is his impressions of nature which then have to yield, thereby resulting in strictly constructed compositions. They are carefully ordered, but retain a playful quality through their lively colouring and rhythm as we see in Spring and Pajottenland. The museum has twelve paintings by this highly individual figure within Flemish expressionism, three of which were donated by the artist’s son in 1981.
Was Spilliaert an expressionist, a symbolist or a surrealist? Most of his works have something of a surreal atmosphere, with every thing bound up synthetically, and he was able to convey the essence of his subject with sparing use of materials. He did not work after nature, but rather suggests a memory of reality, preferring water colours, gouache and coloured pencils to oil paints. The artist’s Self Portrait reflected in a mirror is executed in symbolic light-dark water colours.
Oscar Jespers is one of the most important representatives of expressionist sculpture. He made his debut as an impressionist, but changed his views under the influence of several revolutionary impulses. His works are simple and pure in form. The human figure of The Hooded Cloak executed in taille directe is stripped down to a strictly closed form.
The museum’s collection features 109 works by Rik Wouters, thanks in part to the recent donation of 58 works by Ludo van Bogaert- Sheid. Wouters, the most interesting of the Brabant fauvists, was aware of the new possibilities of expression offered by colour. Brabant fauvism is a term applied to the work of a number of painters active in the Brussels region (the province of Brabant) in the period around 1910-23, who are related to French fauvism. The artists were friends who exhibited together, but did not really form a coherent group. Some of them only adhered to fauvism for part of their career. The home of Auguste Oleffe was a meeting place for Edgard Tytgat, Jean Brussel- mans, Anne-Pierre de Kat and Rik Wouters, the star of the group.
Wouters painted sun-drenched landscapes, brilliant portraits with broad green and blue strokes, and sunny rooms filled with vibrant light. His unusual vitality is apparent from the fact that he completed this ceuvre in a period of less than ten years. He drew, painted and modelled the life around him – his wife Nel, the landscape of Bosvoorde, children and still lifes. He rarely deviated in his paintings from his observed feasts of colour. The chaotic feelings and problems of the war period are barely- detectable in his work. Woman ironing is one of many paintings inspired by Nel at work. She looks up in surprise in a bright room filled with shimmering sunlight. The colours are muted to form subtle variations of soft yellow, pale pink and watery green across the entire surface of the canvas. This painting which dates from 1912 is the first of Wouters works to be purchased by the museum in 1923. Wouters painted himself during his illness in Rik with a black Eye Patch, which followed a second operation in 1915. The canvas is divided into large patches of colour: the deep red of the curtain, the melancholy blue of his pyjamas and the blue-black armchair. Despite all his troubles, Wouters continued to work with an unforgettable intensity until the very end.
Wouters also managed to imbue his sculptures with the same impressionistic touch as his paintings. Nel was once again his model for Reverie, a unique, slightly larger than life-size work. The maturity of the figure is accentuated by the almost closed composition, and a great deal of emphasis is placed upon achieving a plastic, round representation of volume. Two sculptures are particularly eye-catching: Mad Force and Household Cares, both on loan to the Middelheim Open Air Museum in Antwerp. The latter represents a moment of reflection, while the former shows the letting go of all control. Wouters progressive attitudes are reflected in the return to the classical, breaking with pathos and romanticism. He tries to capture nature in its outward appearance and concentrates on its volume in space, the movement of this single figure.
Modern International Masters
Although they cannot be summed up under a single heading, we certainly cannot ignore a series of impressive names – artists of international stature who helped determine the character of the 20th century artistic scene. A number of foreign masters are represented in the museum’s collection, thanks in particular to purchases stimulated by the ‘Friends of Modern Art’, and a variety of donations. Lovis Corinth was one of the leaders of German impressionism. He painted the expressionistic portrait of Georg Brandes, the Danish critic, in 1925, the year of Brandes’ death. The Newspaper Vendor (1909) by the Frenchman Georges Rouault, who was particularly interested in people on the fringes of society, is fauvist in character. Another Frenchman, Raoul Dufy, executed his water colour Anemones with bright, joyful colouring of typical fauvist sumptuousness. Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian artist from around the turn of the century, who worked in Paris, was a leading sculptor and painter. His monumental Sitting Nude was a gift of the government. Marc Chagall, meanwhile, was a quiet modernist who lived in a universe all of his own. His sense of colour is evident from At the Window, which is dated around 1927-28. Like Henri Matisse and Maurice De Vlaminck, Kees van Dongen was one of the founders of fauvism. He painted Mgr. G. Messarra, Metropolitan of Beirut when fauvism had already passed its peak, and he dedicated himself to portraits of figures from worldly and official circles with a certain element of lighthearted mockery. Georg Grosz’s Portrait of Walter Mehring was purchased at the famous auction of’Degenerate Art’ in Lucerne in 1939. This is a fine example of the German Neue Sachlichkeit. The museum has also acquired three sculptures in different materials by Ossip Zadkine, one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century. The earliest of these, The Suffering of Job, executed in 1914, and which was donated by the artist himself, is a stylised, expressionist work.
The first generation of abstract artists active in Belgium during and after the First World War includedJozef Peeters, Georges van Tongerloo, Jules Schmalzigaug, Victor Servranckx and Jan Kiemenij. Van Tongerloo is not represented in the museum. Jozef Peeters was Antwerp’s defender of the constructivist ideal, which was based upon form, geometry and surface structure. Composition, dating from 1921, is his painted manifesto. It is brightly coloured with overlapping surfaces, with movement and distance created by the properties of the colours. Before Peeters withdrew from the avant-garde fray in 1927 he was a founder of the Modern Art group, he organised conferences and exhibitions and contributed to magazines. Victor Servranckx also had to defend abstract art by means of articles and addresses because of the resistance which it aroused. The two extremes of this pioneering artist’s work are present in the museum. His paintings are sometimes warmly lyrical, with a suggestion of movement and chaos, and sometimes strictly constructive with complex compositions. His resolute message is conveyed by both the geometrical Opus 20 of 1922, and The Domain of the Water, a cosmic work in which he uses the structure of the base material, a triplex sheet, to suggest wave movements. Like Servranckx, who was a friend and correspondent of the futurists, Jules Schmalzigaug was also particularly attracted to futurist art. He is the only Belgian futurist, and his work consists primarily of water colours and drawings, with a total of only thirty oil paintings. Seven of his works were donated to the museum by the artist’s family, including the revolutionary Impression of a Dance Hall dating from 1914.
The Generation of 1900, a collective name given to artists born around 1900, can be broadly split into two trends. On the one hand there were animists like Albert Van Dyck and Jozef Vinck, who sought through a process of internalisation to achieve an intimate realism, while on the other there were the surrealists Paul Delvaux, Rene Magritte and E.L.T. Mes- ens, who created alien worlds with concrete and familiar details. Paul Delvaux painted his Pink Snares in an almost frugal style. The theatrical decor and the antique buildings form a space for a group of naked women who havejust stepped out of a dream world. Rene Magritte had an enormous influence upon the development of international contemporary art. In 1985, the museum purchased the sculpture Madame Recamier by this marvelous transformer of objects, who created surprising effects by linking hitherto unconnected items. His works are not explained by their poetic titles. On the contrary, even greater mystery is aroused through the linking of word and image, as in Vengeance.
Abstract art, which began in Belgium before 1920, flourished after 1945. The two main trends – the geometric with Jo Delahaut, Luc Peire and Guy Vandenbranden, and the expres- sionistic or more lyrical abstract of Antoine Mortier, Louis Van Lint and Englebert van Anderlecht – are represented in the museum’s collection.
The artists’ movement ‘Jeune Peinture Beige’ was founded in 1945, and was joined by Pierre Alechinsky, Jan Cox, Louis Van Lint and Antoine Mortier, although it did not give birth to a uniform style. Jan Cox, a painter of pictorially rich portraits and figures, has been dubbed a classical modernist because of his subjects, which are often colourful, ethereal fragments based upon Antique and Christian civilisation, together with visions and dream images. Like Cox, Louis Van Lint was inter- ested-in the Cobra movement. His experiments led him to the creation of lyrically abstract canvases. The structure of his Chartres ( 1 950) is determined by a powerful rhythm applied on top of the colour like nervous handwriting. The lyrical abstraction of Antoine Mortier is more passionate, and it is Mortier who may be viewed as Belgium’s ‘action painter’. His spontaneous gestures are like a release, leaving dynamic traces behind on the canvas. In 1966, raw and emotional, he painted The third Pair, with powerful stripes, a true unburdening. We find a similar tendency towards expressionism in the Cobra movement – an international grouping of poets and artists such as Karel Appel and Pierre Alechinsky which was fascinated by the materials, colour, writing and images it found in the world of primitive peoples, children and the mentally ill. In his Flying Man dating from 1958, Karel Appel combined bright colours and raw, passionate forms to produce a display of action painting. The last Day (1964) is a monumental oil painting which is viewed as a historic peak in the evolution of Alechinsky’s Cobra adventure. According to the artist, the title of the work refers to the idea of death. In the midst of prevailing chaos we discover strange creatures in a colourful whirlwind.
The years 1960-70 saw a great deal of experimentation. The aim of the international avant- garde group called ‘Zero’ was to find a symbiosis between nature, art and technology. A major exhibition entitled ‘Zero International Antwerp was mounted in the museum in 1979, which led to a number of purchases. Concetto Spaziale, with its razor cuts, by the spiritual father of the Zero group, Lucio Fontana, was bought, as were Big Sun and the serial Nail Object by Otto Piens and Gtinther Uecker respectively, both of whom belonged to the German core of the movement. The key figure as far as the Zero movement in Belgium was concerned, was Jef Verheyen with his monochrome paintings. Pure monochrome is used in his work to suggest infinite space. Variation is one of his well-known “rainbow tint paintings, from which a radiant light is conjured. It was through the person of Jef Verheyen that the internationally oriented group ‘G 58 – Hessenhuis came into contact with the German Zero movement. The group provided an artistic meeting place in Antwerp for demonstrations and exhibitions, and boasted honorary members like Rene Guiette and Jozef Peeters, and members including Vic Gentils, Paul Van Hoeydonck and Walter Leblanc. These artists experimented with new materials. Vic Gentils created spatial compositions by combining wooden materials and objects like frames, driftwood, furniture legs and hat blocks, which he scorched with a blow lamp or sandblasted. These heterogenous objects were combined to form baroque figures, charged with irony and/ or humour. Homage to Permeke developed into a pure sculpture, while Sun Explosion is a lively relief made from piano keys and hammers, and felt. After setting out with abstract, monochrome canvases, Paul Van Hoeydonck discovered an entirely new figuration: his work is associated with space travel and the planets. He gives concrete form to the new mythology which has grown up around journeys of exploration in space, by means of assembled astronauts, cosmonauts and mutants. His Spacemen are put together using all kinds of materials, including little wheels, machine parts and rags, which he sprays white in order to indicate the infinity of the universe.
The sculptor Roel D’Haeseis also inspired by new materials, and he attaches a great deal of importance to craftsmanship. The large equestrian statue Song of Evil is his most monumental and most recent self-cast statue. He began by fashioning the hind legs, then the body, the front legs, the head and the rider. It is his dramatic manifesto, in which he views the worst enemy of mankind as mankind itself. D’Haese occupies a leading position in post-war Belgian sculpture.