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Design Museum exhibits work by one of the most productive and significant Belgian designers of sheet music
'Sybelle’ (music: F.Costers). Illustrator: Peter De Greef. Editor: E. De Saedeler, s.d. Paper. Collection Design museum Ghent.

GHENT.- The exhibition brings a selection of coloured sheet music covers by Peter De Greef. During the first half of the twentieth century he was one of the most productive and significant Belgian designers of sheet music. His oeuvre evolved from the art deco style to the comic strip style which was coming into its own at that time. The objects are taken from the collection of Dutchman Rob Aardse. A number of years ago the Design museum Ghent acquired the Belgian materials from this collection. A selection is made from these materials by Norbert Poulain from Ghent, chairman of Interbellum vzw, and it is complemented with top pieces from private collections. A biographical film was prepared for the exhibition by Frank Lateur from Ghent.

Illustrated sheet music
Sheet music was at one time a popular item of sale to both professional and amateur musicians and singers. Popular tunes on four pages, arias from operas, operettas and musicals, fanfare music, film music, jazz… a colourful and attractive illustration was expected to stimulate the sale of sheet music. From the last quarter of the nineteenth century onwards new printing techniques allowed for larger printing runs. Countless artists, some well-known but often specialists in the genre, created fanciful illustrations in Arts and Crafts and art nouveau. The golden age of illustrated sheet music took place mostly in the interwar period, the art deco of the 1920s and 1930s. In those times sheet music was available in large sizes or in a cheaper, monochromatic version in pocket size, often with the stamp of the music shop. In the 1940s-1960s more fine cover sheets were designed, but the colourful and large sizes became rarer.

Sheet music sunk into oblivion, wound up in the attic collecting a thick layer of dust or cobwebs, sometimes gnawed on by mice, bookworms or mildew. The sheets were often torn and worn by years of intense usage, or neatly bound and then sadly cut straight. Most of them suitable only for the rubbish bin, until a number of young collectors found some pretty pages at the homes of their relatives, among forgotten volumes, and at flea markets. What attracted them was not so much the music, but mainly the illustrations, a reflection of the complex Zeitgeist: romantic, mischievous, ironic, humorous, satirical, moralizing, sexist, patriotic… Old sheet music could be had for a song… until traders at large discovered that the cover sheets were adorned with signatures of later fame. These coveted items particularly saw their prices rise, at auctions too. There was however the risk that suddenly a large batch from the same artist would find its way to the market. And as was the case with other printing works, the ephemera of the avant-garde was especially desirable. Meanwhile libraries and museums both domestic and foreign acquired sheet music through purchase or donations. A number of examples from our country: Royal Library Albert I (Brussels), Instrument Museum (Brussels – collection Robert Pernet via the King Baldwin Foundation), Design museum Gent (collection Rob Aardse)… Suddenly there were books and exhibitions, articles in magazines. Meanwhile an interest grew in the music itself, not just in jazz but also in the popular tunes. People started collecting old phonographs, musicians and bands played live and put out CDs.

A collector can only dream of names such as Ballá, Cantré, Colin, Flouquet, Man Ray, Tytgat, Van de Woestyne or Van Rees. But creations by French or German specialists such as De Valerio, Erny, Gesmar, Herzig, Loris, Kramer or Würth also tend to command high prices. Belgian designers are seen in a favourable light on the international market: René Magritte, Marcel-Louis Baugniet, Henval, Jean Van Caulaert, Léo Baill, Alfred Mariano Bernier, Leon Meurrens, etc. And Peter De Greef was by far the most productive Belgian designer of sheet music for countless publishing firms (J. Ghislain, Ysaye, Mado, Schott Frères, E. de Saedeler, :Office Musical, L’Art Belge, Le Réveil Artistique, International Music Company, Harmonia, Ch. Bens, Herman Brauer, J. Buyst, etc.).

Peter De Greef
Pierre (Peter) De Greef was born in Anderlecht 26th of June in 1901. He studied along with René Magritte at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels from 1916 until 1922. Some of his other fellow students were Marcel-Louis Baugniet, Victor Bourgeois, Paul Delvaux, Pierre-Louis Flouquet, Karel Maes and Victor Servranckx: a “golden generation” which went through tough times during the First World War, but persevered and criticized academic education. De Greef drew and painted in various genres. His graphical talent stood out by his caricatures. Whether or not he was ever involved in the novel ideas of the avant-gardists is not yet clearly known.

Early on Peter De Greef opted for the profession of graphical artist, a line of work that could earn a living. Not irregularly, and to make some money as it was needed like Magritte. De Greef collaborated with Magritte for a while, and presumably even effectuated some of his designs. De Greef designed posters, theatrical settings, advertisements, programme brochures, display windows, book and magazine covers (Music, Weekend), record covers, he drew caricatures for Le Matin and Weekend, drew a comic, created photo collages… His musical preference was jazz, but he was not above popular tunes. He did not gain fame as others did, but his work is particularly interesting by virtue of the diversity and the masterful representation of the theme and the Zeitgeist. This is evident from the styles he wields, always in line with the theme and the period in which he worked.

In the 1950s Peter De Greef found it difficult to find work. He had become too expensive. And yet he still tried to keep busy. In the winter of 1983 he and his wife were admitted to hospital after a fall. His wife passed away, Peter wound up in a retirement home in Neuville. Meanwhile their house had been robbed bare: drawings, paintings, and part of the archive had disappeared. Peter De Greef passed away on 4 June 1985. His son Freddy can only cherish the memory of his father, and mainly raise awareness of his father’s work. A group of collectors has made this wish come true with his support.

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