ANTWERP.- This is the fifth in a series of exhibitions on The Moderns at Koningin Fabiolazaal, a venue run by the Province of Antwerp. For this jubilee edition, we have made a selection of the finest pieces in the art collection of the Province, which for most of the time remains hidden to the public. In this show, the selected pieces enter into a dialogue with paintings, sculptures, drawings and collages from KMSKAs own holdings.
The exhibition is comprised of 65 pieces by 50 artists. Items from the collection of the Province are combined with pendants from the KMSKA collection. The choices were made associatively and based primarily on visual aspects: the focus is very much on observation and comparison. Some of the pairings are rather conventional in the sense that they consist of work by the same author or belonging to the same genre, such as landscapes, urban scenes, still-life paintings or portraits. In other instances, the pieces share formal aspects: colour, line, form and composition.
The exhibition is not arranged chronologically or stylistically. Instead, the presentation highlights unexpected visual confrontations and surprising formal connections. Young and old, classical and experimental, national and international: all are incorporated into this show, which thereby provides a multifaceted view of modern art.
The art collection of the Province of Antwerp
The art collection of the Province of Antwerp is surprisingly rich and diverse. Comprised of over 2 000 objects, it offers a good overview of the visual and applied arts from circa 1850 to the present. Almost every artist of note to have been born or to have lived and worked in the Province is represented with at least one work. The emphasis is primarily on painting, but the holdings also encompass numerous prints and drawings, sculptures (including some large exterior sculptures), and an applied arts collection consisting mainly of textile, ceramic and glass objects. The textiles collection includes both historical and contemporary pieces.
Within the Provincial administration, art first and foremost serves a representative purpose and pieces are commonly displayed in offices and reception rooms. Nonetheless, at its best, the collection is of museum quality. Its origins date back to around 1971, the year when the Provincial administration moved into premises at Koningin Elisabethlei in Antwerp. Over the years, it has grown into a wonderful sample card, partly through purchases and partly through donations, bequests and loans. The focus in expanding the collection is on artistic production within the Province of Antwerp, from nineteenth-century masters such as Nicaise De Keyser and Henri Leys to present-day artists such as Hugo Heyrman, Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven and Koen van den Broek. Equally well-represented are the Modernist movements of the Interbellum with work by Paul Joostens, René Guiette, Jan Kiemeneij and Michel Seuphor and post-war avant-gardism by the likes of Walter Leblanc, Camiel Van Breedam and Guy Vandenbranden.
For the purpose of this exhibition, some thirty collection pieces have been carefully selected. Each of these items is representative of a strand of artistic life in the Province of Antwerp and makes for an attractive pairing with a pendant from the collection of KMSKA.
Decreasing light is increasing darkness, increasing light is decreasing darkness. Jef Verheyen, 1959
By way of introduction, the exhibition begins with two pieces that demand some time and focus on the part of the viewer. At first glance, there is nothing to see or recognise, but if you look long enough, you will discover something new and experience the previously unperceived.
Light is the central theme in the work of Jef Verheyen. He devoted a lifetime of painting to capturing the extremes of lightness and darkness. From 1958 onwards, he opted resolutely for monochromy. Black Space is a dark expanse devoid of any handwriting. Using a broad brush, the artist has applied the paint in transparent layers. The black has not merely been spread out uniformly across the canvas. It is velvety and cloudy, spatial. And the resulting spatiality almost becomes tangibly real.
The work by David Claerbout belongs to a four-part series entitled Venice Lightboxes. An almost black photo is shown on a lightbox in a completely dark room. With some effort, the viewer can begin to discern a picture. Claerbout concerns himself with the moment at which the image is formed: he makes the viewer aware of the actual act of seeing. As you continue to focus on the image, it almost seems to move, to breathe, much like Verheyens Black Space.
From natural objects, I obtain line for lines sake, colour for colours sake, form for forms sake. Cedric Morris, 1928
In modern art, the traditional genre of landscape painting is the object of experimentation and innovation. Not only figurative artists, but abstract painters, too, draw inspiration from nature and city. The modern masters approach landscape painting in very different ways, ranging from truthful imitation to treating it as a purely formal and pictorial motif.
In 1923, the English artist Cedric Morris settled in Céret, at the foot of the French Pyrenees, where he painted directly from nature. Morris was not after photographic likeness; he wanted to transform the landscape into art. View of Céret is composed of solid forms and strong hues. A thick impasto brings to life the texture of the canvas. The landscape almost becomes a tapestry or a mosaic.
Form and colour are even more basic in The Suburb, a painting from 1930 by René Guiette, a Frenchspeaking artist from Antwerp. Here, the artist expresses his fondness of Cubism. On a pale ground of paint and sand, Guiette renders a house and outbuilding in just a few fields of colour. Some plain details have been added in a playful manner and the living quarters are accentuated by carved contour lines. The house was inspired by Guiettes own home Les Peupliers in Wilrijk, which was constructed after a design by the renowned French architect Le Corbusier.
I prefer someone who smashes a weathered window to someone who tries to clean it. Jan Kiemeneij, 1959
The eye is keen to compare, in order to discover more. And what it soon discovers in this ensemble is contrasts. There is contrast of colour, for example. Emile Clauss Market in front of the Theatre in Antwerp shows market-goers on a grey day holding dark umbrellas glistening with rain. Some crates of oranges in the foreground are the only source of brightness. The painting is paired with Campine Village Scene by Frans Van Leemputten, which represents a rural market in vibrant greens, reds and blues, dotted with the bright white of the womens headcaps.
And there is the contrast between movement and stillness. In 1917, Jan Kiemeneij was sharing a studio with Paul Joostens, Edmond Van Dooren and Jozef Peeters, and he very much belonged to the inner circle of the Antwerp avant-garde. His painting Ballerina is an idealisation of dance, movement and speed, expressed in the new visual language of Cubism and Futurism. Kiemeneij dissects the movement of the arm in a composite image of three successive postures that are blended into a single flowing movement through the use of colour fields. Large Dancer by Italian sculptor Marino Marini, on the other hand, expresses no movement whatsoever: she is balancing on her toes, with hands on back and head held high. She epitomises the tensed stillness proceeding movement, balance prior to action, and concentration before the dance.
I represent women in a very forceful manner, because I perceive them as elementary beings who deal with their femininity in an entirely open and conscious way. AMVK, 2008
It is impossible to keep ones eye off Lucienne, a blushing girl with sky-blue eyes and glistening red lips. Pieter Rottie painter of a small oeuvre of forceful, idiosyncratic images observed his model keenly and reconstructed her in strikingly sober fashion. The paint has been applied sparingly, and the palette is characterised by a snowy clarity. Using minimal means, he attains maximal expression. Equally serenely beautiful is the portrait of Mrs Craeybeckx: such proximity and presence, meticulously observed and captured.
From portraits we move on to nudes. To male artists, the female body is a favoured subject. But how do female artists see women? In Alice Freys dream world, abound with wonderful sounds and poetry, the female nude occupies an important place. In Nude with Red Curtain, the model turns away from the painter as well as the viewer. She is not striking a pose, but appears to be alone and lost in reverie. The Room of Guilt by Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven is one of four works that make up the series Treasures from the West. It consists of two images: an interior delineated and structured and an aggressive-looking woman with superimposed contours of a female nude. Reason and emotion, male and female, order and chaos are placed side by side. It is up to the viewer to create connections.
Every blank canvas poses a question, a human question, and each completed painting should provide an answer. Jan Cox, 1956
Some artists represent the real, visible world; others create a new, personal reality. They tell stories from the Bible, mythology or history. Or the tale may originate in a book, a dream or the artists imagination.
The work of Jan Cox occupies a separate place in the history of post-war Belgian art on account of its magical or surreal quality. But Cox also distinguishes himself from his contemporaries through his choice of subject matter: dreamlike images, inspired by the Bible or classical mythology. Women also feature frequently in his painting. Girl with Garland is a female bust, monumentally modelled in clear restful lines and executed in cool hues. It is almost like a painted rendering of an antique sculpture. She represents a maenad, an intoxicated and blood-thirsty dancer from Greek mythology.
Towards the end of the 1960s, after a period of abstraction, Marc Mendelson returned to creating figurative art. With a sense of humour and poetry, he visualised an entirely personal universe. His new visual idiom was spontaneous and fresh, like a childs drawing: his canvases are inhabited by peculiar types and strange symbols, composed of plain forms and bright colours.
I am the simpleton who passes on the knowledge. Seuphor, 1962
In 1962, Michel Seuphor, a great connoisseur of abstract art, composed an eight-line poem dedicated to the Catalan sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs. Entitled Pour Subirachs, it is an ode to the leitmotif in Subirachss oeuvre, namely the Hegelian synthesis of thesis and antithesis that are at once opposites and complements: man-woman, life-death, spacetime
The sculpture Frontal by Subirachs symbolises the passing of time, decay, destruction,
death. The diminutive pillars are relics of ancient cultures, fossils, ruins; they represent transience. But despite death and erosion, the work of art survives. It is immortal.
Time also appears as a theme in Denmarks Dead Letters. A spreadopen newspaper has been cut into horizontal strips and rearranged onto a support, creating an illegible whole. The paper has slowly discoloured due to its exposure to light, so that time has in effect cast its shadow over the composition. What remains of the word is merely a trace, dead letters. This piece is Denmarks response to the incessant information flow. Ritually and systematically, he silences the information carriers by cutting, folding, wrenching and gluing. Yet Dead Letters will be preserved for eternity and for ever remain part of an art collection.
There is nothing more interesting than people. Everyone is different. Kees van Dongen, 1925
People never get bored of people, including people in paintings. That is why portraiture is such an interesting genre. The Dutch-born artist Kees van Dongen achieved fame in 1920s Paris thanks to his colourful fauvist portraits of mostly women. Occasionally he painted men, as in this 1928 portrait of the Metropolitan of Beirut, Gerasimos Messara. The portrait is conspicuous by its size and bravura. It has a Frans Hals-like quality: it is boldly executed in dark colours with fiery highlights in the bright green and red stola. The prelate is pontifical in appearance. Van Dongen has paid close attention to the expression of the figure as a whole, to which the various details, such as the glistening points of the shoes, fundamentally contribute.
The new mode of painting also caught on in Antwerp. Young Jan Cockx found himself spellbound by Fauvism. He was an admirer of Henri Matisse and Rik Wouters. In 1919, he painted a portrait of his friend, the Antwerp author and art critic Roger Avermaete in a manner that was entirely in line with the new style. Avermaete is captured in a nonchalant pose, open-legged and with hands in pocket. Is he perhaps suspicious of the artist? The entire painting is oozing with colour. In the background, the patterns in the wallpaper and carpet seem to be dancing with sheer brightness.
I consider space to be an essential ingredient. To me, you have to be able to stroll around in a painting. Luc Peire, 1966
A title is often more than just the name of a work of art: it adds an imperceptible colour, a particular sense or association, an assertion, a historical event or story.
In 1955, Luc Peire embarked down the path of abstraction. He would become the master of abstract verticalism, thereby reducing his paintings to a rhythmical interaction between lines and fields while retaining a strong sense of spatiality. Saragossa is a good example: the composition is flat yet highly expressive due to the alternation of dark and light areas. Clearly the painting is not so much a rendering of Saragossa as an evocation of the impression the Spanish city made on the artist.
At first glance, the plaster painting by Svent Jolle also appears to be an abstract composition, consisting in a relief with black horizontal and vertical lines alternating with white areas. Kûfi refers to Kufic: a stylised, angular calligraphic form of Arabic script that was seen to give expression to the perfection of Allah. The title clearly tweaks the meaning of the piece. In a purely Western context, it comes across as a modern geometric-abstract work, but the title reveals that it is based on an ancient Arabic technique. The artist invites the viewer to reflect on the often simplistic and prejudiced way in which the West looks at the Middle East.