Roger Raveel, Belgian proto-Pop artist

[Image: Roger Raveel, Woman with Make-up Mirror, 1953, Collection of the Flemish Community/Roger Raveel Museum © Raveel – MDM. Photo: Peter Claeys, Oil on hardboard, 122 × 88 cm]

Roger Raveel (1921-2013) was one leading artists of Belgian Modernism. His pungently coloured, simplified, schematic paintings of figures and still-lifes are startlingly modern. He has been acclaimed as an important proto-Pop artist. By 1948, Raveel was already juxtaposing passages of volumetric modelling and flat strong colour. Linear forms emphasise the artificiality of a picture and the seeming arbitrariness of visual languages. The boisterous clash in styles and modes forms a precursor to not only Pop Art but Post-Modernism. His pictures still seem powerfully original and fresh, lacking the consumer culture references that date Pop Art.

This catalogue is for the 2021 centenary exhibition at BOZAR (Brussels, 18 April-21 July 2021), including about 120 art works from all periods of Raveel’s output. This edition of the catalogue is a trilingual publication in Dutch, French and English, with the English text prioritised. The catalogue is an excellent survey of Raveel corpus, including a chronology and a good selection of colour plates. The English text will make this catalogue a valuable resource for non-Belgians, permitting them to acquaint themselves with this artist.

Raveel was born in Machelen-aan-de-Leie, Flanders and remain there most of his life, a path not followed by most ambitious Belgian artists, who tended to converge on Brussels or Ostend. Raveel studied art at Deinze and Ghent over 1933-45, his studied disrupted by war. His teacher recommended that Raveel move away from Belgian Expressionism towards realism. Henceforward, his palette brightened and realism tended to be Raveel’s stylistic touchstone, as he incorporated other elements and influences throughout the years. The painter destroyed many of his paintings from the 1930s and early-mid-1940s.

There is a case to be made that the war and subsequent occupation – which Raveel saw first-hand – destroyed the idea of national and regional isolation and a concomitant attachment localism in artistic terms. The world intrudes. The heterodox nature of Raveel’s post-war art is forcefully heterogenous and non-regional. The paintings of the late 1940s could be seen as naïve or simplified. Raveel rejected his previous use of atmospheric colour in favour of local colour. The views of kitchens and local fields are deliberately homely and content. Only in 1950, do we see other aspects intrude – muted colour and objects reduced to the point of ambiguity.

 In 1948, Raveel married Zulma De Nijs. They lived in modest circumstances, in the centre of their small town. Lack of resources meant Raveel materials were limited, forcing him to improvise and perhaps instigating his use of found materials. In the early Fifties Raveel came into the orbit of CoBrA and had contact with members. The directness (both thematic and stylistic), assertiveness and accessibility of these artists lined up with Raveel’s temperament. Raveel never joined the movement but some of his painting in the 50s and 60s shares much in common with these artists. There are more than a few parallels between Raveel and Jean Dubuffet. Dubuffet’s late linear paintings, with bold patterns and reduced palette, are close to Raveel’s paintings.

[Image: Roger Raveel, Man, Bucket, etc., 1967, Private collection © Raveel – MDM, Oil on canvas, 150 × 120 cm]

Over the period 1956-62, Raveel turns to almost completely abstraction in his production. The bodies and buildings are replaced by surfaces, simple forms, brushwork, patches of strong colour, repeated marks. These are not inert or hollow – the painted forms are like handles that would be used to manipulate things but the things themselves are gone, leaving only the handles. The stakes are lowered – the viewer cannot engage deeply, protest a proposition, take away in insight into lived reality. As a result, these are the least satisfactory of Raveel’s output.  Commencing again in 1962, recognisable forms return amidst abstract surfaces. Geometric forms intervene, disrupting, displacing and obscuring figural depictions. The patterns appear on the clothing and replace the heads of the working men.

The working man, in cap and suit of matching colour/material becomes a staple figure in Raveel’s paintings. At once an evocation of the average Belgian labourer and human presence in everyday settings, the figure rarely has a face and retains a degree of mystery, anonymity and a touch of the sinister. The head is often replaced by an area of abstraction or pattern Homely and unhomely (Heimlich and unheimlich) simultaneously, the working man becomes Raveel’s prime actor, even if he never became an alter ego. It is possible that these figures represent the artist’s father, who worked in the flax trade. That oddness adds a vital touch to Raveel’s art, which could become whimsical or flippant or lightweight. Raveel is rarely pedestrian. Perhaps his weakest work are the abstracts, where we enter territory that is arbitrary and vacant.

Raveel’s interiors animate the dazzling Modernist world of De Stijl, with figures peopling these notional utopian places. This renders them accessible, banal, subject to entropy and decay. The faded, tinged quality of past projected utopias is one of the aspects that turn shimmering pristine ideals into compromised, discarded and discredited propositions. This is the essence of the melancholy of the Modern. Raveel’s art is not bleak but it has this sense of loss. The instances of alienation are matched by the scenes of domestic contentment – the cat asleep on the chair, the seated figure, the garden view from the window. Raveel is not sceptical of Modernism as such, more playful and inquiring; he proposes that Modernism is real life (figures transformed into characters in a Modernist painting-cum-architectural-setting) and real life incorporates Modernism (in the form of domestic furniture and decoration). The language in his paintings has many modes, stylistic and tonal. That plastic diversity and spirit of inquiry keeps Raveel’s art lively, laconic, unsettled. Father in a Modern Emptiness (1980) is a very adept and appealing example of this contrast between personal and familial material and the somewhat chilly, anti-human content of Modernist art, architecture and furniture.        

[Image: Roger Raveel, Father in a Modern Emptiness, 1980, Private collection © Raveel – MDM. Photo: Peter Claeys, Oil on canvas, 145 × 195 cm]

The Surrealism of Magritte – especially the incorporation of mundane realities, everyday life and figures as ciphers – clearly led to the atmosphere and some of the visual repertoire of Raveel. The standing figures of men have an oblique quality we find in Magritte. Magritte was the most prominent of Belgian artists in the 1950s and 1960s, so it is natural that Raveel would have seen a lot of his paintings. The Surrealist practice (most clearly seen in Francis Picabia’s combine paintings) of including actual objects in paintings became characteristic of Raveel. He included objects such as doors, bicycle wheels, windows, mirrors and curtains in his combine paintings. Robert Rauschenberg’s combines precede them by about five years. Raveel saw Rauschenberg’s combines at an exhibition in Bern, in 1962. One piece by Raveel includes a birdcage with a pigeon and another one has a cage with canaries. Raveel responded strongly to Pop Art and he is most often categorised as a Pop artist. Actually, by the time that Pop art became known in Belgium, Raveel had already developed elements that were Pop, which is why is viewed as proto-Pop. In Raveel’s art, there is a fusion of styles and influences. A portrait drawing of the head of a worker (1952) is partly realist, highly stylised and echoes the early drawings of Van Gogh, whom Raveel admired. The heavy outlines of forms is common throughout all of Raveel’s mature output. Raveel’s domestic scenes combining description and blank grounds recalls Hockney of the 1960s and 1970s. The painterly rounded forms and strong colour of Raveel’s interiors and landscapes will remind British viewers of the paintings of David Hockney from the 1980s and 1990s. The pair met at least once, in 1973; a photograph of them is illustrated in the catalogue. Raveel’s art gained added relevance in the 1980s, when the New Figuration and Neo-Expressionism movements returned to painting the figure, expressive paint use and absence of irony to the centre of art production.

In 1960, Raveel began teaching at the Municipal Academy, Deinze and the use of a loaned studio at the local school allowed him to make work of a greater size. He also became more involved in printmaking at this time. in 1966, Raveel was commissioned to paint murals in the basement of Beervelde Castle, near Ghent, which he painted from 1966 to 1967 in collaboration with Raoul De Keyser, Etienne Elias and Reinier Lucassen. Zulma handled the couple’s finances; the Raveels could afford to move to a larger modern house by 1968, the year the artist represented Belgium at the Venice Biennale. The honours and exhibitions only increased. In 1999, the Roger Raveel Museum opened in Machelen-aan-de-Leie. In 2009 Zulma died; Raveel remarried in 2011. In 2013, Raveel died in Deinze, at the age of 91.

The 2021 exhibition relied heavily on the comprehensive collection of Roger Raveel Museum and commences with a 1941 landscape: modest, mundane, muted in coloration, realist in execution. By 1948, the rejection of realism is apparent in the faux naïf treatment of farm animals and reduced palette. The catalogue is arranged by subject. Raveel made self-portraits that range from Flemish Expressionism to linear-proto-Pop to 1970s Pop, as well as images with the face or head replaced by blank zones. The latest painting in the exhibition is dated 1995. Some of Raveel’s best known paintings are included and his murals are illustrated. His famous Man with Wire in Garden (1952-3) is a welcome inclusion.

[Image: Roger Raveel, Man with Wire in Garden, 1952–53, Collection of the Flemish Community/Roger Raveel Museum © Raveel – MDM. Photo: Peter Claeys, Oil on paper on plywood, 75.5 × 91 cm]

The motif was used in many drawings, paintings and prints. It exemplified the use of the working-man figure, abstracted head, simplified landscape and reference to Raveel’s domestic situation. Woman with Make-up Mirror (1953) and Man Bucket, etc. (1967) are celebrated examples of his horizontally striped figures engaging in everyday activities. A drawing from 1950 shows Raveel admiration for Van Gogh. The coffee pot is drawn like Van Gogh; the handling of perspective and the revolver on the table are influenced by children’s art.

The combines with curtains and windows reach deep into art history, the trompe-l’œil of the Renaissance and Baroque. The mirror pieces play with incorporating the viewer’s image into the painting. Alone in the Backyard (1967) has the mirror in the centre, positioning the viewer’s reflection in a bare yard in Caulfield-style drawn images, with a colourful sliver of landscape confined to one corner. An extension of this was a street-vendor’s cart, clad in mirror cube, partially overpainted. Raveel did a number of street performances, bringing his paintings into non-gallery settings and eliciting public responses. Regrettably, there is not much written material in the catalogue discussing his murals.

Apart from the cart, no sculpture per se is presented. The exhibition includes paintings, combines and drawings but no prints. Understandably, for a survey retrospective, supplementary material such as documents (sketchbooks, letters, posters) are virtually omitted from the catalogue. Clearly, the aim of the catalogue is to spread knowledge of Raveel outside of the Low Countries, and the editors have made the right decision. This is a broad survey of Raveel, full of wonderful images and with a few introductory essays and a handy chronology. The art is very enjoyable and the design of the catalogue is thoughtful and easy to negotiate. Recommended for any fans of Low Countries art, Pop Art and New Figuration.   

Roger Raveel Museum website: https://www.rogerraveelmuseum.be/

Franz W. Kaiser, Kurt De Boodt, Paul Demets, Ann Geeraerts, Marie Claes, Roger Raveel: Retrospective, BOZAR/Mercatorfonds (distr. Yale University Press), hardback, 224pp, fully illus., text English, French, Dutch, €34.95, ISBN 978-0-300-25994-0

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art  

Museum Mayer van den Berghe: A Conservative Vision of Past and Future?

Centre: portrait of Henriëtte Mayer van den Bergh by Jozef Van Lerius © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.
  1. History in the Past

The concept of private patronage is especially important in a time when the state-controlled institutions are increasingly falling into the hands of individuals driven by politics. Private museums and collections are bulwarks against an erosion of culture. In that light, this new monograph makes valuable reading. Ulrike Müller’s At Home in a Museum: The Story of Henriëtte and Fritz Mayer van den Bergh examines the nature and history of a famous private collection of art located in Antwerp. Although the museum seems like a burgher’s home, it is actually not a home and was built as a museum. This richly illustrated book recounts the development and character of a collection of a remarkable historical art sited in its purpose-built museum.

Belgian aristocrats Emil Mayer (1824-1879) and Henriëtte Mayer van den Bergh(1838−1920) established both prestige through charitable deeds and wealth through income from shipping, distilleries and land. Emil bought some Jan Brueghel paintings and perhaps his lead influenced his son. Today, the remarkable Mayer van den Bergh Collection remains unchanged in Antwerp. With the exception of Emil’s few acquisitions, the entirety of the collection was assembled by Fritz Mayer van den Bergh (1858−1901). Upon his sudden death (due to a riding accident) his mother Henriëtte Mayer van den Bergh decided to build a suitable museum as a tribute to her son’s collection. The museum was inaugurated in 1904, with a foundation established in 1906 to maintain continuity and integrity of the collection. This volume traces how that collection came to be, what it consists of and how it remained independent as a museum.

© 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

From the start, Fritz’s collection had a consciously, unashamedly connoisseurial character. It was not planned to have a tight historical or geographical focus; it would prioritise aesthetic considerations over documentary value; it would prefer the major over the minor. In some ways, it was – and appears – wilfully eccentric, both in senses of being unusual and also off centre. There are Japanese woodblock prints, medieval carvings, Gothic altarpieces, illuminated manuscripts, Golden Era Flemish paintings, Dutch genre pieces and Nineteenth-Century Belgian society portraits. Fritz “did not limit himself to collecting art from the past; he also expressed an interest in contemporary fine and applied arts. […] The wallpaper in Fritz’s death chamber, for example, features an Art Nouveau floral motif, which, at first glance, may seem unexpected. The motif recalls the wallpaper of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement […] Fritz also actively sought out contemporary artists who shared his historical interest and aesthetic preferences.” He was not a purist other than the most essential aspect of a great collector – he cleaved purely to his own taste without consideration of outside approval or disapproval.

Fritz scoured Europe for treasures of fine- and applied-art from Flanders, Holland, Italy, Germany and Austro-Hungary, sometimes accompanied by his mother. He bought during the great age when South Netherlandish masterpieces were in circulation following the centuries of neglect that had seen these pictures put in storage or sold for a pittance by collectors and church authorities, who considered them primitives (hence Flemish Primitives). (Read my review here.) He bought and sold from the collection, refining his holdings. Knowledge that American collectors were buying Netherlandish art on a huge scale worried connoisseurs in the Low Countries. The relatively few early paintings in private and national collections (especially Belgian museums) prompted collectors to purchase work deliberately to keep art close to the location where they were created. Fritz’s activities were an expression of taste rather than a tightly organised investigation.

© 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

At the same time as American magnates were assembling collections of European masterpieces, one Belgian was doing the same. The boom in the international art trade in the 1880-1940 period saw the massive movement of art from their places of origin to museums and private collectors, many of them in the USA.

Fritz commissioned the De Scalden artist Edmond Van Offel (1871-1959) to illustrate a collection of German legends. This book was not published until after Fritz’s premature death. The one drawing here seems derivative of Beardsley’s illustrations. The De Scalden movement (1889-1914) was a Flemish school drawing on historical roots, something like the Nazarenes, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts Movement. It was a Catholic movement that sought to break away from academic art. However, rather than taking the optical/Modernist road laid out by the avant-garde (Impressionists and Post-Impressionists), it sought to revive the regional, national and Gothic art. There was a clear sympathy between De Scalden and the Symbolists, Aesthetic Movement and the Decadents. It did parallel – constituted as it was as a society – the more adventurous groups Les XX, De XIII, Les Independants, La Libre Esthétique and Kunst van Heden.

Cornelius Mahu (attrib.), Still-life with Goblet Holder (C17th), oil on panel, 52 x 74 cm © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

So, what are the highlights of the museum?

Master Heinrich von Konstanz’s Christ and St John the Evangelist Group (c. 1280-90) is a polychromed walnut carving. It shows the two figures in identical golden robes. St John the Evangelist rests his head on Christ’s shoulder and rests his hand in Christ’s. The portrayal catches the modern eye by St John’s apparent effeminacy in his pose. It is an unusual sculpture and it is not surprising it captured Fritz’s attention. Wilhelm Bode wanted to acquire the sculpture for the Berliner Gemäldegalerie and even wrote to Fritz about the possibility.

The Mayer van den Bergh collection houses two great paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1565). The little-known Twelve Proverbs (1558) has 12 scenes of figures illustrating common Dutch proverbs, arranged in a grid format. In 1894, Fritz bought for 300 marks a painting from a Cologne auction house. It was thought to be a fantasy painting by Jan “Hell” Brueghel. It turned out to be Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s lost original panel painting Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) (1563) – a sensational find. Bruegel’s reputation was on the rise during the period, after a long stretch of obscurity and indifference. His art was considered too grotesque, scatological and crude for most art historians. Only with the acceptance of the Romantics and the rise of Symbolism were precursors appreciated more. The rise of Flemish nationalism in the 1890s provided an impetus to greater interest in Bruegel as a great original Fleming.    

Pieter Bruegel, Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) (1563), oil on panel, 117 x 162 cm © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

The collection comprised Medieval and Renaissance art. David Teniers the Younger’s painting of The Temptation of St Anthony (c. 1640-60) and typical panel by Joachim Patinir are familiar sights for museum goers. Other artefacts include stained-glass windows, stone carvings of many periods, bas reliefs in metal, Japanese prints and netsukes, coins and furniture.

Within months after her son’s death, a grieving Henriëtte had commenced work on a museum to house her son’s collection. The building of the museum was finished in 1904. It was maintained by a board of regents and was initially only opened to invited guests. “After the 1880s, a large number of collector’s museums were founded, across Europe and in North America. Some of the best-known examples include the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan (which opened in 1881), the Musée Condé in Chantilly (1898), the Wallace Collection in London (1900), the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (1903), the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris (1913) and the Frick Collection in New York (1935).”

The house was built with period features, including fittings such as panelling and fireplaces that were either original or replicated. There was antique furniture also. The rooms represented different periods of Flemish history: Renaissance, Gothic, Baroque, Louis XVI. The rooms varied from the baronial to the bourgeois in character and size; it was not by any means a massive building, taking up only the land allotted to two adjoining residential buildings. It was a private vision of cultural history, on made without the control of state-accredited experts. Both the collector and his mother were averse to publicity and guarded their privacy actively. Few personal papers survive and there were no diaries or memoirs written by them, so there is relatively little personal information about their lives, which seems to have been their intention.

This book includes numerous photographs of the interior of the museum, both recent and vintage. It includes a selection of images of notable works in the collection but is nothing like a comprehensive catalogue. For those of deprived of international travel, this book provides a glimpse of one of Belgium’s most distinctive and original museums.

View of the museum facade, 1905 © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.
  • History in the Future

Dr Müller explains that the Ghent collecting culture of the Nineteenth Century was different from that of Brussels. Brussels collections were concentrated on art that was produced in the territories that became Belgium in 1830, and tended to be more recent in a deliberate or subconscious attempt to reinforce a national identity; Ghent (and Antwerp) collectors focused on art of Flanders, eschewing the state for the cultural nation, and preferred medieval artefacts. Reproduced in the book are photographs of the 1894 World Fair in Antwerp, which was used as a chance to celebrate Flemish culture. (Fritz was a member of a society promoting preservation and restoration of distinguished buildings and monuments.) Although Fritz was forming his collection at this time, his taste was broader than Flemish art alone. (As already discussed.) The revival of historic architecture and patriotism in this period would play a part in the building of the Mayer van den Bergh Museum, which was in a historicist revival style.  

Fritz’s amateur collection grew at a time when museums were becoming professionalised. The first university degrees in art history (at Belgian universities) were commenced at the time the museum opened. Fritz did research on his acquisitions, buying books and auction catalogues and subscribing to journals. He also consulted foreign art historians and museum personnel and was consulted in return, earning the respect of professionals. Fritz assisted in providing information to writers who published articles about his acquisitions but did not publish himself.

Fritz’s study at his parental home, c. 1900. © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

“It seems Henriëtte and Fritz were mainly interested in the archaeological and aesthetic aspects of the reconstruction of the 16th-century city centre of Antwerp. They did not identify with the dominant bourgeois Liberal interpretation of history that was so prominent in Oud Antwerpen. As members of the Catholic upper class, with strong ties to the nobility, the Mayer van den Berghs espoused very different ideals than the Liberal – and mainly anticlerical – bourgeoisie. Catholics focused on the traditional values of Christian faith and charity and on the conservation of existing societal structures. The Liberal Party, meanwhile, mainly pursued economic progress, striving to limit the Church’s interference in society and education.”

“After Fritz’s death in 1901, Henriëtte deliberately opted to establish her own foundation rather than bequeath his collection to the city, the state or another institution. She did this despite a long-standing Antwerp tradition of donations to the Museum of Fine Arts. […] Fritz and his mother did not maintain particularly close ties with members of the city’s Liberal cultural circles […] Fritz was not exactly well disposed to the Liberal municipal municipal council […]” Her caution was well deserved. In only one instance – fixed by bequest – was a donated collection kept intact by state or municipal authorities. In all other cases, the collections were dispersed.

Rogier van der Weyden (school of), Maria Lactans (c. 1450-1500), oil on panel, 59 x 43 cm © 2021, Museum Mayer van den Berghe.

Henriëtte wrote, “My poor Fritz would not have liked it at all that his art treasures were managed by the Liberals – whom he detested.” She established an enduring trust to preserve the museum from the city’s control. “I am mainly in favour of a tontine, to ensure that I cannot be forced to leave the collections that my son amassed to the city.” Her expressed hostility to the liberal city municipality, written into foundation documents, preserved her legacy. Namely: “The museum shall always bear the name ‘Museum Mayer van den Bergh’. The collections will remain unchanged in the state that they were upon my death. Nothing may be added or removed from the collections. No object that belongs to the collection shall ever leave the museum.”

Since that time, a compromise has been reached. Since 1974, the city employs the staff and allows access to visitors but the regents of the museum retain ownership and control of the museum and contents. Loans are rarely permitted. This is something we have seen modern authorities do repeatedly to bequests that were specifically left to be non-loan collections. (See the Burrell Collection, Barnes Collection, etc.) We should bear in mind James Burnham’s observation. “The truth is that, whatever its legal merits, the concept of “the separation of ownership and control” has no sociological or historical meaning. Ownership means control; if there is no control, then there is no ownership.” We might harshly view the regents’ position as little more than titular figureheads, politely permitted to maintain the illusion of control, while not having the capacity to pay its staff. We might generously view the compromise as maintaining the character and contents of the museum whilst permitting some useful flexibility. I recall seeing Dulle Griet in the 2018 Vienna exhibition of Bruegel.

She did not see the need or value of debasing the privacy and seclusion of her museum to the general public. Her dismissal of the possibility shows her aristocratic mindset. Did she foresee the compromises that would have had to have been made to allow mass viewership? She commissioned scholarly catalogues documenting the collection.

In early years, the number of visitors was between 30 and 50 per month. With so few visitors (almost all of them previously known to Henriëtte), the tours could be led by the owner herself. When questioned about the possibility of the museum becoming fully public, Henriëtte responded: “This depends what you mean by ‘public’. Do you mean everyone, the masses? No. Are you referring to my friends, art lovers from Antwerp and abroad, famous people or people who were recommended to me? Yes, they will have access to the museum and I will be happy that so many of them have demonstrated an interest in my artistic endeavours.”

This is a pressing issue today, as conservative and reactionary groups are struggling to re-establish core values through cultural production and collection in the face of the pro-globalist establishment which is hostile to Western values, Christianity and localism. The model of the Mayer van den Berghs could provide a profitable one for those who need to keep their culture away from the influence of an expanding state. Disappointing as the compromises since Henriëtte’s death are, conservatives have to address the issue of pragmatism. What happens if a museum is not financially viable? Who will pay for necessary repair and security measures in an old building? Can a museum be maintained in an urban district that becomes inhabited by a new population that is hostile towards the museum? Should a museum refuse a gift of a valuable complementary artefact because of its charter? All of these problems – squalidly prosaic and expansive as they are – have to be considered by collectors considering preserving their collections in toto.

Unlikely as it may seem, this book could become a handbook for cultural conservatives looking for inspiration in their quest to preserve their culture. Highly recommended.

Ulrike Müller, At Home in a Museum: The Story of Henriëtte and Fritz Mayer van den Bergh, Hannibal/Museum Mayer van den Bergh, 2021, 240pp, fully illus., hardback, €39.95, ISBN 978 9 463 88 7717

Website: https://www.museummayervandenbergh.be/en

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books, visit www.alexanderadams.art

The Decadence and Darkness of Symbolism

“Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie exhibition of Belgian Symbolists, Decadence and Dark Dreams: Belgian Symbolism, closed last month. As few were able to attend, for obvious reasons, this article will review the exhibition from the catalogue.

“Symbolism – like its precursor, Romanticism – is a school that thrived, and had its premier exponents reside, in Northern Europe. Belgium produced some of the best Symbolist art in the era 1860-1914. Artists of the new nation of Belgium in search of an identity reached back to the Flemish Primitives as a strong regional model and nation achievement.

Symbolism was a rejection of the deracinating impact of greater homogeneity in industrial production, education, and news dissemination, and the dwindling of traditional religion, farming and attachment to the land and homeland

“Symbolism was a rejection of the deracinating impact of greater homogeneity in industrial production, education, and news dissemination, and the dwindling of traditional religion, farming and attachment to the land and homeland. In the same way the Arts & Crafts movement was a reaction against industrialisation, Symbolism was a reaction against rationalism…”

To read the full article visit The Brazen Head here: https://brazen-head.org/2021/02/26/the-decadence-and-darkness-of-symbolism/

Paul Delvaux: The Man who Loved Trains

Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) is best known as the painter of female nudes, but his second most favoured motif was the train and railway station. So often did Delvaux paint trains and stations that he has become known in some quarters as a “train-station painter”. Indeed, when the curator of Museum Delvaux (at St-Idesbald, on the Flanders coast) discussed visitors with a British art historian, he noted that the majority of British visitors were train enthusiasts rather than art connoisseurs.  

In the last decades of the Nineteenth Century, railways developed extensively across Belgium, accelerated by – and aiding – in the country’s advanced heavy industries of coal, iron and textile production. Anyone growing up in the Edwardian age, as Delvaux did, would have been aware of the great freedom train travel offered all but the very poorest. The network allowed one to reach the very edges of civilisation from one’s home district, had one the fare. Trains, railways and railway stations became nodes in the romantic imagination – highways to adventure, sophisticated metropolises, distant lands and amorous intrigues.

Camille Brasseur is the scientific director of collections at Fondation Paul Delvaux, St.-Idesbald. She has combed Delvaux’s archives, museum and art works, piecing together Delvaux’s deep fascination for trains. Brasseur outlines Delvaux’s student days and his early career, moving between realism and Impressionism. At times, Delvaux felt the tug of Symbolism, classicism and fantastic art – not least the illustrations of Jules Vernes novels – which gave him a sense that art could be more than a range of styles depicting the real.

Train stations appear in Delvaux’s paintings in 1921. They are accurate depictions of stations in central Brussels, such as Gare du Quartier-Léopold and Gare du Luxembourg. He adopted mainly high viewpoints (on bridges) and concentrated on freight carriages. The attention he paid to the rail workers (labourers and freight handlers rather than guards) puts him in the tradition of Constantin Meunier and the social realists. The evening light, smoke haze and palette overwhelmed by earth hues, all contributed to a stylistic correlation to social realism, though Delvaux never had a commitment to depicting the lives of the working class with a view to disseminating information about their plight or effecting political change. Delvaux was never a socially engaged artist.

In the 1930s, Delvaux made views of rural stations near Huy, the region of his birth. “Often going against traditional clichés, Delvaux chooses not to represent the station façades, but is interested instead in the interior views and the circulation of the machines. The equipment represented essentially consists of wagons and locomotives used for the transportation of goods.” Delvaux’s attention was captured by the least poetic and picaresque aspects of railway stations: the tracks, shunting yards, signals and freight wagons. The romance of travel and the opportunity for human comedy and drama in the form of interactions between passengers is entirely absent from these pictures.

When train stations reappeared in Delvaux’s art, it was in the late 1940s, at a point when Delvaux had established his Surrealist-Symbolist dreamlike repertoire and clearer style and palette. This time the stations foyers and waiting rooms were the settings for scenes occupied by nude women. The dirt and danger of clinker, smoke and heavy machinery has been banished; instead, belle-époque interiors function as theatrical sets for reveries of strange incongruity and erotic contemplation.

Brasseur notes that Delvaux’s house in Boitsfort (bought in 1954) was close to the station and railway (the Brussels-Namur line) and that his subsequent paintings used motifs that were drawn from life. Delvaux’s engines, wagons and signals were accurate and can be found in contemporary photographs or preserved items. Blueprints of wagons attest to Delvaux zeal for correctness. Vintage postcards provide evidence on how Delvaux adapted the locales to the necessities of his art. In the 1950s, the exterior of provincial stations started to feature in settings. The painter reduced the emotional intensity and spatial concentration by opening up his paintings. No longer are interiors and platforms under roofs central; instead, we are outside, in small country towns at night, under empty, cloudless skies, inhabiting sparsely populated squares or generously broad paths. The compositions become more diffuse. We get views across train tracks that run parallel to the picture plane.

The Last Wagon (1975) was one of the few Delvaux paintings set inside a train. The platforms, lamps and awnings of railways of Delvaux’s youth – he always preferred the old to the recent – appear detached from their origins in many scenes, the way in dreams objects become separated from their sources. Reproduced in this book are photographs of lanterns, signals, buildings and stations that Delvaux used in his pictures. His collection of authentic objects and models is viewable in his museum at St-Idesbald. Some of it is reproduced here.

It was to be expected that, considering Delvaux’s attachment to trains and his success, he would be commissioned to produce paintings for the national rail network in Belgium. The four paintings of 1963 are not his best nor most imaginative, but they form a set that will please rail enthusiasts. They were reproduced as stamps. He was commissioned to produce a great mural for the casino at Knokke, called The Legendary Journey (1973-4), which featured a railway. In 1984, Delvaux was made honorary stationmaster of St-Idesbald station. A peculiar omission – the only fault in this fine and thorough book – is the failure to discuss Delvaux’s mural for La Bourse metro station, Brussels, executed in 1978. Although it depicts trams rather than trains, it is the last flourishing in his art of track-based-transport imagery.

Overall, this book forms an excellent explanation of the role and extent of railway and train imagery Delvaux’s art. It also comprises a good discussion of Delvaux as a whole. Considering the dearth of good commentary in English on this artist, Brasseur’s contribution is an essential purchase for all Anglophone fans of Delvaux’s art.

Camille Brasseur, Paul Delvaux: The Man Who Loved Trains, Snoeck, 2019, 240pp, 200 illus., hardback, €34, ISBN 978 9 461 615732. English edition, French and Dutch editions available.

(c) 2021 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books, visit www.alexanderadams.art


Signac and the Independents

The exhibition Signac and the Indépendants (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) gives a cross-section of French art in the 1880-1940 period. The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue. This exhibition of the collection of Gilles Genty was organised around the subject of the Indépendants exhibition. The collection of Gilles Genty is a selection of avant-garde French and Belgian art from the 1880s to World War II. The collection follows the central line of avant-garde art that is preferred by art historians: Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism (Divisionism/Pointillism), Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism.

Paul Signac (1863-1935) founded the Salon des Artistes Indépendants in 1884 as means of avant-garde artists exhibiting outside of the academy. From 1908 to 1934 Signac was president of the group. It drew its inspiration from the independent exhibitions of the Impressionists (commenced 1874) and shared a number of artists with those displays. The annual exhibitions became the focal point for controversy regarding new art. Over the years it featured art by the Symbolists, Nabis, Fauves, Expressionists, Salon Cubists, Orphists, Dadaists and the École de Paris. Matisse made his name for his Fauvist paintings exhibited with the group.

Signac was a Divisionist or Pointillist, a close associate of Seurat and the leading proponent of the style following Seurat’s early death in 1891. Signac was wedded to Pointillism from 1884 until the end of his life. There are plausible suggestions that Signac’s political anarchism influenced his commitment to Pointillism, with its conception of individual marks playing their parts in a harmonious whole. (Pointillists sometimes believed in the inclusion of all parts of a spectrum in a painting.) Pissarro’s anarchism contributed in his adoption of “scientific” Pointillism as a companion to the “scientific” social solution of anarchism as a cure for social ills. Pissarro was doyen of artist-anarchists and the Neo-Impressionists.

As the Salon accepted and absorbed the avant-garde following a lag, so artists transferred their loyalty from the Indépendants to the more lucrative and highly attended. Both the Indépendants and the Impressionists resented artists defecting. (Manet was not eligible for the Impressionist exhibitions because he continued to exhibit at the Salon.) Signac commented, “For twenty years now, a few comrades and I have been running the Salon des Indépendants, where every artist has been free to exhibit what he liked and how he liked. Now, few of them stay with us! They prefer to be rejected or to reject others from exhibitions based on the detestable principle of Authority. (Société des Artistes Français, Société Nationale, Salon d’Automne). Too bad for the spineless!”

Among the art included are pictures by Impressionists Eva Gonzalès and Berthe Morisot, with a masterpiece by the former. The Sparrow (c. 1865-70) is a fine pastel, delicately made and sympathetically observed. It shows a bust in profile of the artist’s sister as a Roman woman holding a sparrow. It dates from her apprenticeship years, when she studied under Charles Chaplin, an academic painter.

Maximilien Luce was a social realist and anarchist who portrayed the industrial workers of Wallonia and scenes of steelworks and collieries on the Sambre river at Charleroi. (Constant Meunier – not part of this collection – took similar topics for his sculpture and paintings.) Luce became president of the Indépendants on Signac’s retirement. Luce’s oval-format views of Paris are pretty and would have considerable appeal if they were better known.

The Belgians who exhibited at the Indépendants included Spilliaert, Van Rysselberghe, Willy Finch, Khnopff and others. (Ensor is absent here.) Odilon Redon is represented by a large number of pastels and prints, typical of his output. It is useful to have pieces by Maurice Denis, who was an intermittently accomplished painter. There are artists who are not often covered in publications, such as Pointillist Achille Laugé, whose paintings are attractive – the best of the three shown here is a landscape. Louis Hayet is a lightweight painter of theatre interiors. Paul-Élie Ransom is a minor Nabi and involved in the religious syncretism; he is harsh colourist and unoriginal. Louis Valtat’s Woman with Fox Stole (1897-8) is a fine picture, crackling with energy. The proto-Fauvist brushwork and Cloissoniste outlines create a powerful image with the motif balanced by a swirling background. A good marine by him suggests there is more pictures worth attention, outweighing a few weaker Valtat pictures here. A curiosity is a group of early drawings by Claude-Émile Schuffenecker, an artist best known as a forger of Van Gogh than as an artist under his own recognisance. They are illustrations (from c. 1881 to 1885) of everyday scenes of Parisian life, competent, unambitious and somewhat banal.  Gauguin, Maillol, Derain and Braque are represented by minor works. Considering the rarity and cost of Seurat’s paintings, the drawings fill in. However, Seurat’s remarkable drawings are better than most artists’ best paintings.

There is a broad section on posters with classic poster artists. It is striking how these artists fall into different groups and movements yet could translate their art into commercial designs: Toulouse-Lautrec, Denis (Post-Impressionism), Bonnard, Vallotton (Nabi), Bottini (Cosmopolitan Realism), Grasset, Mucha, Steinlen (Art Nouveau). Jules Chéret defies classification. Although classified as Art Nouveau, Chéret syncretic style drew from many sources. His preference for facets and angles over curves makes his style not entirely compatible with Art Nouveau. It seems his simplified shapes may have influenced Seurat’s later depiction of figures.    

The Nabis were a group of Post-Impressionist artists who were deeply influenced by Japanese art, Gauguin and were committed to making art from street life and domesticity, especially in print format. All the leading members are included in this exhibition: Vuillard, Bonnard, Roussel, Riviere and Vallotton. The collection of art by Félix Vallotton is large and representative. The woodcuts (commenced 1891) are justly celebrated. The inclusion of a preparatory drawing for the 1897 print The Symphony is a pleasing addition to the prints themselves. Vallotton’s 1899 marriage gave him financial security and allowed him to pursue his ambitions. In 1901 he ceased making woodcuts and devoted himself to making oil paintings, principally nudes, landscapes and still-lifes. War (1915-6) was an exceptional return to the medium of woodcut. It was a suite of prints made to support the military effort of France. They are unsuccessful. Vallotton’s prints were not suitable for grave subjects or action and all fall flat.

The Bonnard works are mainly early Nabi graphics, including posters. There are some small marines with the skies in distinct horizontal strips. The dabbing of varying colours comes from Impressionism but Bonnard’s technique rejects the tenets of Impressionism. The École de Paris works by Matisse, Marcoussis, Modigliani, Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger, Maurice de Vlaminck, Albert Marquet and others are generally bagatelles. Marie Laurencin is never anything more than vapid; Othon Friesz is irredeemably third rate. Raoul Dufy is decorative and nothing more.  

There is a set of Picasso’s Saltimbanques prints. Produced from 1904 to 1905 and editioned in 1913, during the artist’s Blue and Rose periods. These 14 prints are inconsistent; the finish and detail of the prints varies dramatically and it is clear Picasso did not conceive of the group as having any connecting thread other than the subjects that attracted him at the time: portraits, acrobats, the poor, primitive people.  

This catalogue is full of information on the Salon des Indépendants and the avant-garde in Paris at a critical time. There are plenty of surprises. The biographies and bibliography are useful for specialist researchers, particularly anyone studying Neo-Impressionism and Pointillism.

Gilles Genty (ed.), Signac and the Indépendants, Hazan/Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (distr. Yale), 2020, hardback, 384pp, 550 illus., $55, ISBN 978 0 300 25 1982 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art


James Ensor: Chronicle of his Life

Xavier Tricot, Ensor scholar and author of his catalogue raisonné, has written James Ensor: Chronicle of His Life, a summary biography of James Ensor (1860-1949). Ensor is a significant artist in the development of Post-Impressionism and the foundation of Expressionism and has gone to be one of the most influential of Belgian artists. This book illustrates paintings and photographs, giving an account of major events and relationships, with lengthy quotations from letters and press articles.

Ensor was born in Ostend in 1860. His mother was Belgian and his father English. He met his future wife while on holiday in her native city. Ensor revered his father, whom he described as exceptionally intelligent, handsome and athletic. He had hoped to start a new life for the family in the USA but his foray across the Atlantic coincided with the Civil War and he had to return. It seems the set-back left him increasingly resentful of narrow materialism and limited intellectual scope of Ostend. More than a little of this attitude seems to have been adopted by his son. The family ran a gift, curio and seashell shop. The many masks in the shop and the apartment above provided Ensor with his most compelling subject, one that make him famous.

Ensor studied fine art in Brussels from 1877 to 1880. His art education in Ostend had been limited and traditional. At the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts he received more traditional training. He did not do well in examinations and tended to be placed in the middle or bottom of the class. One of his fellow students was Fernand Khnopff. Ensor worked alongside Willy Finch (1854-1930). They sometimes painted the same still-life side by side and they used similar styles; they painted each other’s portraits.

Ensor was disillusioned by the expectations of the academy and the opportunities for advanced art in Belgium in 1880. That year he left both the academy and the capital, to return to live with his parents in Ostend. Advanced art was synonymous with Impressionism and Realism. Ensor enthusiastically explored both avenues, relishing the use of paint that made clear its materiality. The Oyster-eater (1882) is a good example of Impressionist-inflected Realism.

His early paintings were marines, townscapes, still-lifes and interiors. They show careful observation and the adoption of a Realist palette, enlivened by attention to facture. Tricot has included seminal works by Ensor, stressing the paintings rather than the drawings or etchings. The book amounts to a biography of Ensor through his own words and art as Chronicle contains quotes from Ensor’s own writings, which were extensive. He wrote some articles and many letters, few of which are available in English translation. The reproductions are largely accurate and all the paintings are reproduced in colour.

Ensor’s paintings earned respect from critics and fellow artist when they were exhibited in numerous group exhibitions over the 1880s. He was building the reputation of being a leading painter, without there being anything unique about his paintings. His association with Les XX (the Belgian group of avant-gardists, operational 1883-1893) and La Libre Esthétique group (the successor group, 1893-1914) helped to spread knowledge of Ensor’s art. Despite this recognition, sales were slow and prices low.

In 1883 Ensor began painting his mask series in earnest. These paintings were of figures wearing carnival and theatrical masks – and the masks with figures – as well as skeletons, each interacting with each other and with figures who seem unaware of their presence. They were to prove Ensor’s greatest achievement. They destabilised the narrative of Realist art and took on aspects of caricature, satire and dream imagery. They extended gothic art and fantasy art. Ensor was playing with the boundaries between real and unreal, living and inanimate, high and low art, entering the territory that Symbolists were examining in the same period. What made Ensor different was his wit and the use of images and conventions found in satirical prints. The Symbolists were rather averse to humour, satire and social commentary, which can make their art rather self-important, grand and detached.

He started to overpaint his older pictures, adding masks which mock the oblivious subjects. Ensor’s mask paintings were not his sole output during this time. He was as likely to exhibit a still-life, view of Ostend or a religious drawing. Ensor’s religious paintings are almost all centred on Christ, interpreting the life of Christ through a personal fusion of Ensor’s own surroundings and the art he loved. They are highly idiosyncratic pieces and vary in tone from the devotional to satirical and the autobiographical. His spurt of originality lasted from around 1883 to 1900, when Ensor’s verve diminished rapidly. His love of Turner blunted his earthy palette. He reprised old subjects but never recaptured his fire. Ironically, it was after 1900 that artistic taste caught up with Ensor and collector interest increased substantially.  

Ensor participated in the 1901 Venice Biennale. A series of publications and exhibitions raised his profile. He was knighted in 1903. In 1904 he met art dealer François Franck and in 1910 the well-connected gallerist Herbert von Garvens-Garvensburg, both of whom bought and exhibited his art. Ensor ended up painting replicas of his old paintings to meet the demand of collectors but his new compositions were generally unremarkable. In 1925 Ensor was admitted to the Académie Royale. In 1929 a huge retrospective was held in Brussels, including 337 paintings, 325 drawings and 135 etchings. The same year he was awarded a barony.   

Tricot has uncovered new data about Ensor’s life from memoirs and Ensor’s own letters. It seems his father was brutally attacked in 1885 and was hospitalised, apparently mentally unstable, and died in 1887. Tricot reveals links between Ensor and a number of artists well-known and obscure. He quotes letters written to (and from) Ensor’s publishers and collectors. He discusses matters of price and provenance that allow us to understand Ensor’s attitude towards the disposal of his art. In particular, Tricot provides information about how Ensor attempted to place key pictures with certain museums. Although this is not a full biography, the inclusion of the artist’s words gives a vivid sense of his character and views. His sardonic humour, wild wit, self-pity and capriciousness emanate from his comments. Memoirs and letters of others tell us how he was seen. Tricot has corrected the dating of At the Conservatoire from 1902 to 1893, altering his position the publication of his 2009 catalogue raisonné.

Overall, this is a very useful guide to Ensor’s life and art, especially when read in conjunction with larger catalogues. Perhaps the only shortcoming is the absence of graphic work, which may be less familiar to readers but was a key aspect of Ensor’s oeuvre.

Xavier Tricot, James Ensor: Chronicle of His Life, 1860-1949, Mercatorfonds/Yale University Press (distr. Yale), 2020, paperback, 224pp, 200 col. and mono illus., £30, ISBN 978 0 300 25397 9

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Publication: Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History

Adams2_draft_cover (1)
 
I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book.
 
 
Alexander Adams, Professor Frank Furedi (foreword), Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History, (Societas) Imprint Academic (UK/US, distr. worldwide), paperback/e-book, 170pp (approx.), £14.95/$29.90, illustrated by the author, mono illus., published worldwide 6 October 2020
 
 
Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History surveys the origins, uses and manifestations of iconoclasm in history, art and public culture. It examines the various causes and uses of image/property defacement as a tool of political, national, religious and artistic process. This is one of the first books to examine the outbreak of iconoclasm in Europe and North America in the summer of 2020 in the context of previous outbreaks, and it examines the implications of iconoclasm as a form of control, censorship and expression.
 
 
The book contains detailed discussion of the history of iconoclasm in the following areas: Egypt, Byzantium, England, France, Switzerland, the Low Countries, Mexico, Wahhabism/ISIS/Taliban, Nazi/post-unification Germany, Spain, Russia, Ukraine, China and USA. The phenomenon of art vandalism and defacement as an artistic strategy are analysed. The book contains a discussion of the 2020 iconoclasm, Confederate monuments and identity politics, including a thorough list of monuments destroyed or removed. It is fully footnoted and written in a clear, accessible style.
 
 
 
 
The book is available for purchase from the publisher’s website (UK and USA), via internet booksellers internationally and usual book retailers.
 
 
 
To view my books and art, visit www.alexanderadams.art

“Belgian light amid the gloom”

“I once lived in Belgium by mistake. I moved into a flat in Ixelles, a district of central Brussels, and spent my free time in museums, where I encountered art by remarkable artists of whom I had never heard. Among these artists were two who are receiving current attention: Fernand Khnopff and Léon Spilliaert.

“Symbolism is a late manifestation of Romanticism, the movement dedicated to the irrational, mystical and emotional in art. Symbolism (which flourished from 1840-1914) was an approach which allowed artists to deal with fundamental fears, desires and the meaning of human life through use of general symbols to induce strong emotions in the audience. Both Symbolism and Romanticism were founded on morbidity — a hyperawareness of death and the brevity of life — and a sense of loss at a receding past of heroism. The greatest Symbolists came from Northern Europe (and Switzerland), as if a hostile climate and long cold nights nurture a melancholy attachment to a fantastic past…” 

Read the full review here: https://thecritic.co.uk/belgian-light-amid-the-gloom/

The Renaissance of Etching

 

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/358012

[Image: Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola), The Lovers (1527-1530), etching; second state of two, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926 (26.70.3(102), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

This review evaluates the catalogue for The Renaissance of Etching, a recent exhibition of the earliest etchings, charting the development of the medium and its partial (and eventual total) eclipse of engraving (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 23 October 2019-20 January 2020; scheduled for Albertina Museum, Vienna, 12 February-10 May 2020). The exhibition covers artists from the Low Countries, Germany, Italy and France, including others, such as the Swiss Urs Graf (c. 1485-c. 1528).

The oldest forms of printmaking are woodcut or wood engraving (relief method, with the raised matrix on the block holding the ink). A later development was engraving on sheet metal. Originally, iron was used until the 1540s, when it was supplanted by copper; this lasted until now, with zinc becoming a common alternative metal in the Twentieth Century. In etchings the matrix design is cut with a fine gouge, being intaglio printmaking where the ink is held in the depressed lines. The plates were inked, with ink on/in the matrix, damp paper laid on the plate and then ran through a roller press, thereby transferring ink from plate to paper.

Engraving is generally made by a specialist cutter who was not always the designer. It is carefully planned in advance and very difficult to correct. It favours parallel hatching – straight or curvilinear – and sometimes cross hatching and stippling. Etching is an intaglio printmaking system done by drawing lines with a fine needle in a wax (or oil paint) covering the metal plate. This design is then bitten with a mordant (a corrosive solution), leaving the matrix in the metal, which holds the ink. Technically, the engraved plate and the etched plate are similar in appearance and structure. However, etching allows styles that imitate engraving but also permits much greater freedom of handling, design and correction. It favours a more spontaneous approach and permits creation of prints that have the style of a sketch. It is also quicker to execute.

The exhibition The Renaissance of Etching explores the origins of etching and its birth as a regularly practiced printing medium during the Renaissance in Northern Europe and Italy. Etching technique was long established. It arrived as a means of printmaking via metalsmiths and armorers in the production of armour, arms and tableware with elaborate incised decoration. The designs included floral, vegetal, abstract, heraldic and pictorial ones. It was the artists of Augsburg and Nuremberg – a noted centre for metalwork in Bavaria – who pioneered print etching on iron plate. This group included Daniel Hopfer (1471-1536), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), his pupil Sebald Beham (1500-1550) and Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1473-1531) and Hans Burgkmair the Younger (1500-c. 1562).

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/336272

[Image: Daniel Hopfer, Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women (c. 1515), etching.
The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1951 (51.501.383), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

The first etchings as flat-metal-plate intaglio prints were made around 1490. The earliest illustrated examples are from that time. The first print in the exhibition is dated c. 1500, made by Hopfer, who was the most prolific and creative among the Augsburg etchers. Hopfer is thought to have etched three excellent religious figures on a steel cuirass, with a deep and dense border, exhibited in the display. Hopfer was a brilliant innovator in the field of etching. Death and the Devil Surprising Two Women (c. 1510-5) is an etching in the style of Dürer (the dramatic cover illustration). Hopfer used brush effects to create wash-like shading. Beham produced work in various genres, adding to his extensive print corpus. Dürer only made a few pieces through etching, preferring to return to the established mediums of woodcut and engraving. His etchings are not qualitatively different from his more numerous and famous engravings.

Damage to plates and prints caused by rusting was only overcome by moving to copper, a move that seems to have been led by Dutch master printmaker Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533), following the development of a new mordant. The Germans adopted the copperplate in the 1540s, finding that although the softer metal was less durable than iron, it allowed finer lines and suffered less from corrosion. Later, steel facing of copper plates would increase the durability. Microscopic scrutiny of plates and proofs reveal matrices cut by combinations of engraving, etching and drypoint. We find a range of approaches to craftsmanship, with Dürer and Leyden exhibiting consummate care and Schiavone at the opposite end. “The hastiness of execution and the sketchy, free quality of Schiavone’s paintings, drawings, and prints proved alarming to his contemporaries, who expressed a mixture of admiration and frustration with his technique, considering it at once admirable for its spirit and grace but careless for its lack of finish.”

Leyden, Jan Gossart (Mabuse) (c. 1478-1532), Frans Crabbe (c. 1480-1553), Nicolaas Hogenberg (c. 1500-1539), Dirck Vellert (c. 1480/85-c. 1547) and Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen (c. 1504-1559) are discussed as practitioners of etching in the Netherlands. Other prominent artists who produced etchings include Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538), Flemish artists Hieronymous Cock (1518-1570) and Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1526/30-1569). Bruegel made a sequence of drawings recalling his journey over the Alps, which would leave such a dramatic legacy in his art, which is ostensibly set in Flanders yet with mountainous terrain. Bruegel’s Alpine landscape drawings no longer exist but we have the etchings, some of which are illustrated. Bruegel started his career in Antwerp as a designer of prints; his Rabbit Hunt (1560) is the only print by his hand. There is no extant painting of this composition.

The Rabbit Hunt, 1560

[Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Rabbit Hunt (1560), etching and engraving. Published by Hieronymus Cock. The Albertina Museum, Vienna (DG 1955/37) (Etch-170)]

Francesco Parmigianino (1503-1540) produced numerous etchings. The fast and free medium lent itself to the artist’s temperament. Parmigianino made designs for block cutters to translate into chiaroscuro woodcuts – a specialist skill – but was able to express himself quickly and directly in etching. His art was noted for its grace and elegance. His chalk and highlight drawings feature extensive contrapposto, exaggerated proportions and sweeping lines.

There was a burst of activity in France of the 1540s, particularly at Fountainebleau palace, a centre of court patronage. Jacques Androuet du Cerceau (c. 1511-1585) produced some very detailed and precise architectural etchings. Large Architectural Composition (1551) is of an invented Italianate Renaissance palace. It is so detailed and realistically lit that it functions as a painting or advanced computer generated imagery that one finds in architectural presentations or video games.

Compositions in all of the major genres make an appearance in etched form: biblical, proverb, portrait, landscape, history, mythology, topography, cartography, architecture, scenography and ornamental. There are some appealing images illustrated, including those with backstories. Altdorfer made a pair of etchings of the interior of the synagogue at Regensburg in 1519 just as it was being demolished. The Jews of the city were expelled and their synagogue replaced by a church. Altdorfer documents a building in the knowledge that it was due to be destroyed and that life in the city was about to change.

26.72.68

[Image: Albrecht Altdorfer, The Entrance Hall of the Regensburg Synagogue (1519), etching, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926 (26.72.68), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

A view of a village by Augustin Hirschvogel (1503-1553) is printed on blue paper. A handful of these etchings were handcoloured with watercolour, presumably by assistants in the print studio. Non-guild members (including women and children) were sometimes paid a pittance to colour prints individually. Hirschvogel designed the defences of Vienna in preparation for Turkish invasion. His map of Vienna is included. Mannerist Juste de Juste (1501-1559) produced a peculiar etching of nude male acrobats in a highly artificial pose. The body forms, lack of faces and extreme stylisation prefigure (and perhaps inspired?) Salvador Dalí’s playful nude drawings of the 1930s and 1940s, as seen illustrated in his autobiography.

The use of comparative illustrations and multiple impressions gives a broad view of the practices and products of early printmakers who used etching. In some cases the original compositional sketch in ink is displayed next to the resultant print. The essayists are specialists who explain the development of etching in terms of national schools and regional centres of activity. The essays and catalogue entries are informative, clearly written and present the latest research (including original research) on exhibited items. A glossary, notes, bibliography and index comprise appendices. The Renaissance of Etching is an ideal reference work for anyone interested in the development of printmaking and the art of the Late Renaissance.

 

Catherine Jenkins, Nadine M. Orenstein, Freyda Spira, The Renaissance of Etching, Metropolitan Museum of Art (distr. Yale), 2019, hardback, 304pp, 237 illus., $65, ISBN 978 1 58839 649 5

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Fernand Khnopff: Between Eros and Thanatos

7.9 bis - meduse - via Galerie Nagy

[Image: Fernand Khnopff, Study for Le sang de Meduse (1898), pencil and coloured pencil on paper, 22 x 15 cm. Private collection, courtesy of Richard Nagi, Dover Street Gallery, London]

Featuring prominently in this important contribution to studies of international Symbolism is the house-studio of Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921). Khnopff was one of the most influential artists in this field, yet outside of enthusiasts of fin-de-siècle beaux-arts the artist is not well understood. His art has recently come to be reassessed. Khnopff was a widely known and influential figure in the international Symbolist movement of the 1890-1914 period. He exhibited with the leading vanguard group of the 1890s Les XX, beside Ensor, Van Gogh, Seurat, Redon and Rops. He also exhibited abroad and his art was widely reproduced. He exchanged pictures with fellow artists, including Burne-Jones. This is the English translation of the extensive monographic exhibition, held at the Petit Palais, Paris 2018-9.

Khnopff funded the building of a unique domicile, meticulously designed by him. This house-studio was constructed between 1900 and 1902, in the Ixelles district of Bruxelles. It was designed as an immersive spectacle, in the modern style. The building featured high ceilings, dramatic drapes and clean lines, with much painted white. It lacked dado rails and strongly patterned carpets. Its public rooms lacked furniture. There were satin curtains rather than internal doors. It was designed in a Secession style, with polished walls give the interior a chilly unearthly atmosphere.

Despite Khnopff’s reputation for isolation, according to the testimony of visitors he used his studio in a way that was no different from those of other artists. At this time, the studios of artists were social spaces where the artist could hold court, show his wares and entertain. It was a place where an artist could control an environment for the display of his art and even make the spaces art. His own was prominently positioned in all rooms, with a few key pieces by fellow Symbolist artists. His house was featured in a journal article that included photographs of the public rooms. The press described the artist-designed building as a coded self-portrait: imposing, inscrutable, elegant and individual. Regrettably, this experience is unrecoverable. The art was dispersed by auction after the artist’s death in 1922 and the house was demolished in 1938.

Khnopff grew up in Bruges. He studied law at university in Bruxelles before undergoing extensive studies in fine art, partly under Xavier Mellery. Although he is seen as anti-academic (specifically his non-narrative, ahistorical, Romantic, Tonalist tendencies), his grounding was in academic art. Some of his heroes (Naturalists, James McNeill Whistler, Gustave Moreau, Burne-Jones and Alfred Stevens) contributed to Salons and won prizes, as well as exhibiting with independent groups. Khnopff followed the same approach. His preference for drawing (especially with limited tints) rather than painting is a deliberate distancing from Salon art. Yet his fastidious technique and aversion to the spontaneous effects or materials that are difficult to control marks out Khnopff as a temperamentally conservative artist and character. His attachment to art fulfilled emotional needs and his art reflects that; it is almost devoid of intellectual content. It is poetic in character.

A good example of that is the frontispiece Khnopff illustrated for the first edition of Georges Rodenbach’s landmark novella Bruges-la-Morte (1894), which involves death of a wife, a widower’s grief and the appearance of a doppelganger, set in the moribund city in Flanders. It is essentially an extended dream and mediation on loss and yearning. Khnopff’s frontispiece was partly based on a photograph. Khnopff was an avid user of photography, both to provide sources and to reproduce his art. This catalogue includes many of the sources beside the art. Khnopff also augmented photographs of his art with additional touches.

4.2 -via symbolisme

[Image: Fernand Khnopff, Portrait of Jeanne Kefer (1885), oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm. The Getty Museum of Art, Los Angeles]

Khnopff earned a living from his society portraits, as did Klimt. Some of his early portraits are very fine. Khnopff shared with Klimt the use of the peculiar modern format of the square – a surpassing rarity as a ratio for easel paintings before the 1880s. It seems to have been a Secession proclivity. Khnopff used it for his portraits, Klimt for his landscapes and (later) Schiele for his early (1909-10) nudes. Khnopff also used the extremely elongated vertical for drawings of standing figures; Klimt did likewise, as well for the vertical of his controversial (censored) poster design; Klinger also used the extreme horizontal in a number of paintings and prints (including The Glove suite).

One of Khnopff’s outstanding square-format portraits – Portrait of Jeanne Kéfer (1885) – is now owned by the Getty Museum, LA. In it, the young child (dressed formally for the outdoors) is at the back of the shallow pictorial space, standing with her back touching a closed door. It curiously prefigures the distanced, alienated children of Schiele’s drawings, emphasising her physical and emotional isolation from the viewer. This approach reinforces the impression of vulnerability.

Khnopff used his younger sister Marguerite as his model for face and clothed figures. His source photographs are reproduced. Presumably, his nudes are of erotic photographs (sources not reproduced). The faces and unclothed bodies generally look unpersuasive, like poor montages. Marguerite’s visage was re-imagined through the visage through the lens of Greek statuary. His figures are types rather than individuals.

Khnopff’s preferred landscapes were rather bucolic views around the forest at Fosset, a village close to Brussels. The landscapes are minor scenes played in a minor key. They are not substantial and while naturalistic lack the punch of Harald Sohlberg and Nikolai Astrup. The oddly lack the Pictorialist approach that unifies his more artificial scenes. The townscapes – typified by An Abandoned City (1904), which shows a few Flemish townhouses being encroached upon by the sea – are the best of Khnopff’s views, using vignetting and unifying tone. I almost wrote “art set outdoors”, yet in his airless oneiric art, with its stress upon motifs rather than elaborated compositions, the distinction between indoors and outdoors is a muzzy one. The forest landscapes are so tamed they could be the corner of a drawing room; figure motifs float in suspension as if they are in misty gorges. It seems there is not a single picture by Khnopff that includes direct sunlight. Colour is muted, definition is misty, lighting is crepuscular. Streets are largely or entirely unpeopled.

A Souvenir of Flanders (A Canal) 1904 (pencil & pastel on paper)

[Image: Fernand Khnopff, Des souvenirs de la Flandre: Un canal (1904), pencil, charcoal and pastel on paper, 25 x 42cm. The Hearn Family Trust, New York]

What are the other qualities of Khnopff’s art? Timelessness, stasis, immobility, lack of vitality. His nudes are idealistic and detached. They are erotic but sexless, eschewing the sordid and corporeal qualities of the female body. (There appears to be no male nudes – aside from academies from his student years – made by Khnopff.) His nudes, sexes decorously concealed, are too vaporous to be carnal. One cannot imagine touching or kissing the subjects of Khnopff’s unearthly visions, except in a dream or fever, so beloved of Symbolist novelists. This is the art of a man who venerates women greatly but probably does not understand them much. In this sacralising approach we find indications of a degree of squeamishness on the matter of the sex act. (His only attempt at marriage was late, uncomfortable and soon dissolved.)

Passing thoughts. In 1886 Ensor would accuse Khnopff of plagiarising Ensor’s painting. The two artists are seen as embodying two poles of Flemish art: the Symbolist v. the realist, the mystical v. the satirical, the fastidious v. the painterly, the Flemish Primitives v. Rembrandt/Rubens. En passant boulevard du Régent (1881) bears a strong resemblance to Degas’s Place de la Concorde (1875), something which bears closer investigation. Khnopff is more an artist of morbidity than of eroticism.

The exhibition selection is broad. Sketchbook pages catch the artist at his least guarded and most spontaneous. Variants – some original drawings and variants juxtaposed with modified photographic reproductions – and a wide selection of art and sources provide us with a good understanding of the artist’s output and working methods. As with fellow artists of his movement, Khnopff paid a great attention to framing his art – a common trait among the Symbolists, Aesthetic Movement and Art Nouveau. This catalogue includes reproductions of works with elaborate original frames that Khnopff commissioned.

Author Michel Draguet is director general of Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, an academic expert and a writer of the highest ability. (One wishes heads of all major museums had such impeccable grasp of the subjects of their institutions.) His knowledge of Belgian and French art and the fin-de-siècle movements is vast; he has excelled in curation and publications on the subjects and Khnopff is a subject placed centrally within his area of expertise. This catalogue covers a wide range of subjects in great detail, tying together literary and artistic influences, including detailed discussion of iconography. Links to Romanticism, Stéphane Mallarmé, Maurice Maeterlinck and Rodenbach are discussed extensively. The role of polychromed plaster statuary is set out with Khnopff’s rarely reproduced examples presented as an active attempt to revivify Greek precedents. An account of the operation of Les XX, Rose-Croix, Munich Secession and La Libre Esthétique and Khnopff’s level of engagement with these is particularly interesting for those studying those groups.

This is a beautiful and serious book about a significant artist and can be warmly recommended.

 

Michel Draguet, Fernand Khnopff, 2020, Mercatorfonds (distr. Yale University Press), hardback, 304 pages, 210 col. illus., $60, ISBN 978 0 300 24650 6

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art