1 DECEMBER 2018 -
28 FEBRUARY 2019
Art does not belong to anyone, it usually passes on from one artist to the next, from one viewer to the next. We inherit it from the past when it served as a cultural testimony to who we were, and we share it with future generations, so they may understand who we are, what we fear, what we love and what we value. Over centuries, civilizations, societies and individuals have built identities around art and culture. This has perhaps never been more so than today.
As an off-program exhibition, I decided to invite five Belgian artists whose work I particularly like, to answer back with one of their own contemporary works to a selection of older works that helped build my own Belgian artistic identity. In no way do I wish to suggest that their current work is directly inspired by those artists they will be confronted with. No, their language is mature and singular. But however unique it may be, it can also be looked at in the context of the subtle evolution from their history of art, as mutations into new forms that better capture who these artists are, and the world they live in. Their work can be experienced within an artistic continuum, in which pictorial elements are part of an inheritance, all the while remaining originally distinct.
On each of these Belgian artists, I imposed a work from the past, to which they each answered back with a recent work of their own. The exercise is as fictitious as it is deeply informative of certain movements that have shaped the history of Belgian art in the XXth century, and therefore of the echoes still reverberating in contemporary artistic creation, however more globalized it may have become. Thus, looking at an arbitrary continuum spanning over 119 years since 1900, allow me to briefly and chronologically introduce ten artists I admire.
Gustave De Smet - The Eel Fisher (1900)
Olivier Legrain - The Shelter (2017)
Let us first embark on a small wooden boat, floating at dusk in the middle of lake probably in the region of East Flanders. The year is 1900. Gustave De Smet (1877-1943), a young painter from Ghent, was about to come under the influence of Luminism and of the painter Emile Claus (1849-1924). De Palingvisser (1900) depicts a local eel fisher, waiting for the perfect catch, blended into the crouching darkness of the water and the trees, barely lit by a dying orange sun. The subject of the painting however is clearly the twilight atmosphere bathing the beauty and the grandeur of Nature. De Smet would indeed become famous a few years after he made this painting, at first with beautiful impressionist renderings of women and landscapes, then after returning from exile during WWI, with his own avant-garde take on what was to be labelled Flemish Expressionism.
His influence lives on, consciously or not, in the work of many Belgian artists today. Olivier Legrain (1970) is one of them. He acknowledges that heritage. As an aficionado of De Smet and Permeke especially, he allows his work to similarly let atmosphere and impression prevail, as in The Shelter (2017). This recent painting is one of several landscapes by the Brussels-based artist and film maker, whose work so far has been overly concerned with human figuration, at times relying on a cinema-based iconographic process not so different from that of Antwerp-based artist Luc Tuymans (1958), but representing his very own confrontation of human cynicism and fragility. Legrain’s The Shelter serves both as a warning against the dangers of the wild, and as an invitation to take refuge, to save ourselves. The title suggests there might be someone in that abandoned cabin. If not, the point of view could be that of someone about to take shelter in the wooden house.
If De Smet creates the impression of orange sun beams dying into shades of green through numerous overlays of paint texture to translate his vision of light, Legrain’s palette is decisively darker and more monotonous. His work on paper mounted on a wood panel is even scarred with what resembles 35mm negative scratches. Both works symbolically bare witness to a changing world. De Smet’s natural harbor and peaceful way of life would soon enough be disrupted by the Great War, while Legrain’s setting could as much be a homage to great American westerns of old, as it could depict a post-apocalyptic stopover from the movie The Road (2009).
Prosper de Troyer - Sacred Heart of Jesus
among the People (1926)
Nel-14512 - Don't let your Son hang around
Nel-14512 (1986), a pop-surrealist sculptor from Liege, was charged with the tricky task to rebound on a very peculiar work by artist Prosper de Troyer (1880-1961), who developed a form of magical realism in the 20s, inspired by the people, the bible and nature. His work Prelude (1925) is currently prominently highlighted at the Tate Modern in London, as part of the Magical Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-33 exhibition which runs until July 14, 2019. While Sacred Heart of Jesus among the People by De Troyer, born on Christmas Day near Gent, belongs to a rich period of figurative works started in 1922, after a fauvist and later a more famous cubist period, its somewhat naïve style and colorful expressionism often placed it along the lines of the German movement Neue Sachlichkeit which took place between 1918-1933. In many ways, this period of De Troyer still needs to be (re)discovered by the wider Belgian public.
Born more than a hundred years later, Nel-14512 has worked along the veins of pop art and surrealism, in sculpture mostly. Yet her work is equally concerned with human figuration, social consciousness and religious discourse. Recurring themes include feminism, sexuality, the climate and religion, and she was immediately engaged when I showed her De Troyer’s The Sacred Heart of Jesus among the People. While Proper De Troyer questions the role of religion and the church among the people of Belgium in the years following WWI, touching on the intricate social struggles at play, Nel’s sculpture is concerned with Christ as an individual, and his relationship to his Father. Laisse pas trainer ton Fils (2014), a pun on the famous title of a rap song by NTM, is her contemporary take on the responsibility of fathers to their children, of our generation to the next. Her Christ seems to be accusing his father of denying him the very same values he wishes him to teach. Showing us an abandoned son, bound to a tragic life on earth, the artist questions what the love of God (or universal love) truly means. If we are made in God’s image, then why would his own failure at fatherhood not get back at him in the form of a lonely disillusioned son, a Christ who is the opposite of the one depicted by De Troyer, a dissocialized savior. The artistic continuum here lies more in the diversion of popular religious images to comment on contemporary social issues, but their realistic approach also follows similar iconography.
Pol Mara - Two Women in Mirrors (1975)
Olivier Pauwels - Guestronauts (2013-2014)
I met Olivier Pauwels (1974) five years ago. He was busy making big machines out of scrap materials in a huge hangar in Ostend, where he currently lives and works. Pauwels was also filling his unique metallic universe with cyberbabies, unusually blessed with huge heads, often seen behind helmets. The images and the art stuck with me. Around the same period Pauwels was lucky to collaborate with George Miller on the movie Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), a visual next-level post-apocalyptic epic that rocked me in my chair, and for which the art department where he worked won an Oscar in 2016.
That same year I came across an enigmatic work by another multifaceted artist, this time from Antwerp. Born in 1920, Pol Mara navigated the Belgian seas of painting, making his way from surrealism into lyrical abstraction, only to reach fame with his pop art work in the 1960s. His compositions were concerned with popular culture as conveyed through magazines, television and other media, which he distilled and rearranged into very personal portraits for which he won a prize at the 1967 Tokyo Art Biennal. Like Pauwels, Pol Mara was a recycler of our popular iconographies. Today his pop art works are considered iconic in the Belgian art scene of the 60s and are part of many museum collections. They are also on display at the Pol Mara Museum in Gordes (France). Two Women in Mirrors (1975) is a typical nude by Mara, who was then overwhelmingly concerned with female portraiture. In a rather philosophically cubist fashion, he recomposed these twin portraits of the same woman by splitting the perspectives of their upper and lower body parts, and imprisoning their beauty in mirrors, perhaps as a warning of the increasing power magazines were to have on generations of women reading them.
When I proposed Two Women in Mirrors to Olivier Pauwels, he quite naturally decided to answer with two twins of his own. This time, the media mirror is replaced by TV heads imprisoned in space helmets - and like Mara, Pauwels reuses materials to create his statues. His two Guestronauts are part of a series of eleven clones created between 2013 and 2014. Through them, Pauwels questions the influence of the media, science, and cloning in particular, as well as our survival on this planet. Through his many depictions of female beauty as portrayed in the media, Pol Mara was also questioning his contemporary world and particularly the emancipation of his sparkling young women through the media. Although the work of both artists evolved in totally separate spheres, there is an artistic continuum that can be observed in their approach to recycling materials to make their own figurative portraits of popular culture.
Fred Bervoets - Untitled (Cicatrice Series) (1987)
Tom Liekens - Birds (2018)
I recently had the opportunity to make a film about Wilfried Pas (1940-2017), a distant family member at first, who I became close to while making the documentary about his work, before his premature and unfortunate passing. Through him I was introduced to the work of Fred Bervoets (1942), a pioneering artist of the Antwerp scene of the sixties along Pas, Goossens and Cox. I later often came across Bervoets’s work at De Zwarte Panter, the emblematic Antwerp gallery founded by Adriaan Raemdonck more than fifty year ago. Bervoets was a friend of Maurice Wyckaert (1923-1996) who, along Cox, certainly influenced his work. Tom Liekens (1977) studied painting under Bervoets at the Academy in Antwerp, and although their work is seemingly far apart, there are elements that continue from one generation to the next.
The two works in communion here are separated by some 30 years of art history, a lifetime for Tom, a few periods for Fred. Both works are self-portraits. While the large untitled and unstretched canvas by Bervoets gives space to a super-expressionist portrait-based narration, where a central bird-like figure splits the pictorial plane into four distinct compartments populated by his typical beasts (as well as family and friends perhaps), the birds chasing Liekens (or is he chasing them) obey a more structured composition where the artist is central to a clean white space only disrupted by woodcut overlays which fade into the background, creating the illusion of action. Both artists have worked in very large formats, and in the latter part of the 1980s, Bervoets was slowly putting an end to what is now called the Cicatrice paintings (Scar paintings). His untitled work here belongs to that period, according to me one of his best, although I admire the whole body of work which keeps on expending into new territories. It was made in late 1987 and shown at the Vlaams Cultureel Centrum de Brakke Grond in Amsterdam (NL) early in 1988. The artist’s ironical and at times almost comical approach to dramatic and tragic subjects like war or love make each of his paintings a journey of its own, with no place for repetition. With Fred, humans are the main protagonists. Himself, usually the main actor in his creations
Tom’s work was a discovery, an instant love story. His realm is the animal kingdom where humans appear as rare guests, on occasion. In his work I found the same raw energy as in Bervoets’s expressionist renderings, where color is free. Tom’s paintings often pay a ravishing chromatic homage to old masters like Delacroix or Van Gogh, so it is an interesting and daring choice by the artist to propose a black and white woodcut collage on canvas as an echo to his friend’s Cicatrice. Birds (2018) nonetheless carries echoes of his mentor’s work, at times made of massive black and white etchings. Although not taken from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), Liekens often uses film frames as a basis on which he expands his own universe as in his recent King Kong Series, or as in his work based on Lust for Life (1956), the Kirk Douglas biopic about Vincent Van Gogh.
Peter Depelchin - Hortus Conclusus I (2014)
Pjeroo Roobjee - The Illness of P. (K. von S.)
or the Tragical End of Silence (1988-1989)
The fifth and final artistic face-to-face is the one I proposed to Peter Depelchin. I confronted him with one of Pjeroo Roobjee’s majestically complex canvases, in a typical green hue for the Gent-based artist: The Illness of P. (K. von S.) or the Tragical End of Silence (with Reiner going to the Horses of Knokke), dated 1988-1989. I must admit I secretly hoped Peter would answer back with what I consider to be his masterpiece so far: Hortus Conclusus I (2014). Both works have in common that it is impossible for the viewer to grasp their essence at first sight. They each require time, immersion and engagement to dissect the pictorial elements, their linkages and the artistic process through which they imbricate. To me both works projected sound first, like baroque compositions justifying the richness of the motifs and decorations. They made me want to dance, to fly, to be in motion, which I suddenly was, for I needed to zoom in, to walk closer, to step back to consider that the whole is only made of details; that life is an endless sequence of fast and slow breaths which both artists express in lines and colors, representing a disappearing world, with fear and hybridity in the case of Depelchin, and with ostentation and nostalgia in the case of Roobjee.
Upon first laying my eyes on it, I sat down in front of the Peter’s Enclosed Garden, the first of a detailed series, and tried to imagine how he spent years researching, inventing and drawing a universe of characters who appeared as if they belonged to both our future and our past, at the crossroads of civilizations, as if our icons and our gods all met in a limbo of despair, waiting for us to call them back into our faiths. I could have stayed there, sitting in front of his 172 x 323 cm drawing for the rest of my life. Its raw sexual power is hidden in lace-like ink patterns that draw the viewer into what looks like the organized stage of a theatre of chaos, perhaps a visual metaphor for human existence, torn between unlimited freedom and societal survival.
I first met Pjeroo through books of his paintings, and later in the flesh. Just like Peter after him, the artist elaborated a personal universe of stories, images and colors that perfectly coexist on canvas. His work investigates our history, our history of art, and his personal history, to then twist it all with irony and wit. A master illusionist, a modern wizard, Roobjee’s paintings are open windows into a magical world. In his Tragical End of Silence, the artist paints a smiling woman who seems to emerge from the sea, like a siren, naked but wearing a double-faced monstrous scarf on her shoulders. All around her, hundreds of creatures seem to be laughing, while her flaming fingers disappear into the mouth of a red hare. And this is only the first layer of pictorial elements which one has to go through to start grasping the ensemble. The continuum here lies in their approach to the multitude of elements making the whole and perhaps also in the joyfulness of chaos which transpires in their works.
I hope this introduction will encourage you to jump into this continuum 119, as I call it. An exercise that ends up making a lot of sense to me. It informs me on my tastes, my conceptions of visual narration and of vital energy. It confirms that the history of art which we so often break down to better understand it, is foremost a continuity, never interrupted, always reinvented.