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Exhibition of paintings dating from the 1930s and '40s by Jean Brusselmans on view in The Hague
Jean Brusselmans, Dame au canapé (Lady on Sofa), 1937, Oil on canvas, 150 x 150 cm, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

THE HAGUE.- In the face of every movement that swept the art world during the first half of the twentieth century, Jean Brusselmans (1884 - 1953) constructed an obstinately idiosyncratic oeuvre starring the rolling landscape and village life of Belgian Brabant. Terraced houses, small patches of farmland, simple interiors and robust working folk; Brusselmans depicts his subjects almost two-dimensionally, placing a clear emphasis on colour and form. This spring, the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag presents his best works, mainly dating from the 1930s and ’40s. The exhibition comprises around forty oil paintings, including a number of previously undiscovered gems from private collections, now for the first time on show in a museum setting.

While his immediate contemporaries – artists like Rik Wouters, Constant Permeke and Gustave De Smet – made their names as leaders of a new avant-garde in Belgian painting following the First World War, Brusselmans went unnoticed. He spent almost all his life in Dilbeek, a country village to the west of Brussels, and his surly character and geographical remoteness from the art world were barriers to success. On the sidelines – and in great poverty – Brusselmans developed his own style.

It was only in the 1940s that his work gained a degree of cautious recognition, although it still remained relatively unknown to the general public. Brusselmans was for a long time ignored in all the major survey exhibitions of Belgian painting. Jean Brusselmans – My Flemish Fatherland is the first full-scale exhibition of his work to be held outside Belgium for many years. The aim is to give today’s artists and the Dutch public the chance to become acquainted with this major player in the twentieth-century renaissance of Belgian painting.

Everyday subjects
In 1904, at the age of twenty, Brusselmans decided to devote his life to painting. He resigned from his job as a lithographer and dropped out of classes at the Brussels art academy. Together with former fellow-student Rik Wouters, he hired an attic studio in Brussels. The years that followed were dominated by an artistic voyage of discovery during which Brusselmans developed a sharp eye for rhythmical patterns, designs and geometrical motifs in everyday subjects: his wife’s dress, a storm at sea, plates on a dresser, a winter landscape… Brusselmans structured and stylised the image without ever arriving at complete abstraction.

Much to his displeasure, he quickly came to be viewed as a Flemish Expressionist. He never intended to express emotion through his art. To Brusselmans, his subjects were the point of departure for experimentation with lines, planes, colours and patterns. The sea, a snow-covered field, a shell or a vase of flowers offered him the excuse to play with colours, patterns and composition to his heart’s content. In this respect, his work has more in common with that of Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne than with the tradition of Belgian Expressionism.

An artist’s artist
His idiosyncratic refusal to be associated with any possible ‘ism’ or school makes Brusselmans an ‘artist’s artist’ par excellence. His exploration of the picture plane is still extremely attractive and inspirational for artists today.

During Jean Brusselmans’ own lifetime, his art found recognition and appreciation only among fellow-artists from French-speaking Belgium and a handful of respected collectors, like industrialist Tony Herbert from Kortrijk (Courtray). The Gemeentemuseum is mounting this exhibition of the highlights of Brusselmans’ oeuvre in close consultation with Anton and Annick Herbert of the Herbert Foundation and Dutch artist and collector Jan Dibbets. Following exhibitions on Emo Verkerk (2014), Alice Neel (2016), Lee Bontecou (2016) and Anton Heyboer (2017), the museum is once again turning the limelight on an artist whose work has for long remained almost inaccessible to the general public.

The exhibition is accompanied by a book authored by Rudi Fuchs and curator Hans Janssen (Hannibal Publishers).

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