Wednesday, June 25, 2008

L'Art Belge

Isy Brachot, publisher of L'Art Belge

L’Art Belge was a fine art revue published by the Brussels gallerist Isy Brachot from the 1920s. Edited by Yvonne Harvengt, it was subtitled ‘revue du mouvement artistique franco-belge’. Lavishly illustrated, it was the most important vehicle for discussion of the Belgian art of the day. Unlike many art revues, L’Art Belge did not generally publish original prints. However, I have acquired a most unusual copy of the 1933 ‘numéro jubilaire’ (which was actually published in 1934). Purchasers of ordinary copies of this number would have been well-pleased with this large-format publication, hundreds of pages long, and stuffed full of interest. There are articles such as ‘Cent ans de peinture Belge’ by the critic Louis Dumont-Wilden, and hundreds of illustrations in colour and black-and-white, including important series of colour plates by Allard L’Ollivier and Camille Barthélémy. There is also a beautiful Art Deco colour lithograph on the cover by the artist Anto Carte (1886-1954), the founder of the Nervia group of Walloon artists.

Anto Carte, L'Art Belge
Original lithograph, 1934

However my copy holds a treasure-chest of secrets. It has a specially printed half-title page, which reads, ‘Cet exemplaire hors-commerce portant le numéro XVII a été specialement imprimé pour Monsieur Louis Dumont-Wilden qui a bien voulu accorder sa collaboration au present numéro de “L’Art Belge”’. How many of these special not-for-sale copies were made up is impossible to say, but I would guess around 20. What makes them special is that Isy Brachot and Yvonne Harvengt tipped into them 20 signed original etchings by major artists of the day, protected by tissue guards. As these etchings were not intended as part of the revue, there is no printed list of titles or of artists, and it has taken some interesting detective work to firmly attribute each etching; in one case I am still at a loss, and in a second still in doubt.

Yvonne Harvengt, editor of L'Art Belge

The artist I don’t recognise is the first. The etching is a fairly undistinguished portrait of a young man. The swashbuckling pencil signature is I’m sure immediately obvious if you already know it, but is impossible to read if you don’t. It might be something like Carlus. So far so disappointing.

Note added 3/5/13: Thanks to the detective work of Wally at the etsen blog, I now know the artist is Henri Mortiaux (1890-1965).

Henri Mortiaux, Portrait of a young man
Original etching, 1934

The sky begins to brighten with the next etching, a self-portrait by Isidoor Opsomer (1878-1967), really beautifully worked, rather in the manner of Anders Zorn. What seem like random loose scribbles coalesce into a haunting portrait of a man looking middle age straight in the eye. I particularly love the hat. And it’s helpfully signed I. Opsomer in a clear readable hand. Isidoor Edmond Henri Opsomer was born in Lier. His career was made at the age of 25 when he won the prestigious Prix Godecharle. In 1926 he became director of the Institut Supérieur des Beaux-Arts d’Anvers. In 1940 he was made a baron.

Isidoor Opsomer, Self-portrait
Original etching, 1934

The next etching is an even greater hit with me, because it an impressionistic Brusssels street scene with dramatic light and shade in the Belgian Luminist manner. It too is signed with an immediately legible and recognisable name, that of Henri Logelain (1889-1968). Logelain was born in Ixelles. He studied Auguste Oleffe at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and Oleffe left a lasting influence on his style. The art of both men was shaped by their admiration for the Impressionists and the Fauves.

Henri Logelain, Vue de Bruxelles
Original etching, 1934

The next etching, so big that it is barely contained within the pages of the revue (which is 310 x 240 mm, or 12 and a half by 9 and a half inches), is a powerful study of a man hauling a barge, with a more Modernist feel. It is signed P. Paulus, identifying it as the work of Pierre Paulus (1881-1959), who was a member of the Nervia group, and a professor at the Institut Supérieur d’Art d’Anvers. Like many Belgian artists, Paulus spent WWI in London. Like Opsomer, he was ennobled, becoming Pierre, Baron Paulus de Châtelet.

Pierre Paulus, Le haleur
Original etching, 1934

The fifth print is a quietly contemplative etching with aquatint of a young woman with a traditional veil headdress, signed L. Buisseret. This was a much harder signature to read, but I got there in the end, helped by the fact that Louis Buisseret (1888-1956) was also a member of the Nervia group, alongside Carte and Paulus. He won the Prix de Rome for etching in 1920, and from 1929-1949 was the director of the Académie de Mons. And now I have just found elsewhere in L’Art Belge a reproduction of a painting by Louis Buisseret entitled Mater Beata, dated 1931; this etching is evidently a study for the central figure.

Louis Buisseret, Femme au voile
Original etching, 1934

Louis Buisseret, Mater Beata
b/w reproduction of an oil painting, 1934

Next is a study of two lay sisters or beguines. Written beneath in pencil are the words ‘par Alfred Delaunois’. I suspect that ‘par’ means that this was written by someone other than the artist, even though the signature resembles the sample signature in Benézit. However, it’s not a flamboyant signature, and it’s possible that many Belgians educated at the same period would have had similar handwriting, so I have to accept the balance of doubt. Alfred Napoléon Delaunois (1876-1941) studied under Constantin Meunier, and specialised in interiors, often of churches. He was director of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Louvain.

Alfred Delaunois, Beguines
Original etching, 1934

The seventh etching is a decorous (and Deco) nude, printed in sanguine, and signed both in the plate and below in pencil by William Ablett (1877-1937). Ablett was born to English parents in Paris. Although he became a member of the Royal Academy in London, Ablett is essentially a French artist. He is best remembered today for his boudoir prints of fashionable Art Deco ladies.

William Ablett, Seated nude
Original etching, 1934

Next is another poser. It’s a stunning etching with aquatint showing a canal – quite possibly a scene in Venice, but possibly somewhere in Belgium or the Netherlands. The vendor from whom I bought this copy of L’Art Belge identified the artist as Paul Hermans (1898-1972). I would never have guessed this from the signature, and would be very grateful if anyone out there can confirm or refute it. The signature on a Hermans oil reproduced elsewhere in the revue is not unlike it, but not so similar as to settle the question.

Paul Hermans (?), Canal
Original etching, 1934

Is this the signature of Paul Hermans?

Then another easy one: a gorgeous etching of a mother nursing her baby signed and dated in the plate, Rassenfosse Nov. 1929, and stamped in the bottom righthand corner of the sheet with the artist’s studio stamp. Armand Rassenfosse (1862-1934) taught himself to draw, and learned the art of etching from an old book, before attending the Beaux-Arts, Liége. At the age of 22 he went to Paris, where he was taken under the wing of his fellow-countryman Félicien Rops. The two artists even collaborated on prints under the joint name Ropsenfosse.

Armand Rassenfosse, Maternité
Original etching, 1929

The next print offers another conundrum. It is an etching with aquatint of a landscape, and is annotated ‘par Marc Henry Meunier’ in pencil lower right. Now Marc-Henry Meunier, also known as Henri Meunier, died in 1922, so he certainly wasn’t around to hand-sign this proof in 1933 or 34. For this reason I’ve decided that this inscription was most probably not written by Meunier himself (which maybe raises another doubt about the Delaunois). I’ve listed both prints as ‘unsigned’ on Idbury Prints, to be on the safe side. Marc-Henry Meunier (1873-1922) was the son of an etcher, Jean-Baptiste Meunier, and the nephew of the sculptor Constantin Meunier.

Marc Henry Meunier, Paysage
Original etching, 1934

Another problem follows. The next etching is by the Belgian Luminist Marcel Jefferys. Jefferys died in 1924, so the same argument should apply here as with Meunier. But I can’t for the life of me see anything wrong with the pencil signature on this proof. Jefferys’ signature is very distinctive, and this looks exactly right. So the only thing I can think is that Isy Brachot must have had a stock of signed Jefferys prints, which he used to enrich the special copies of this issue of L’Art Belge. This time I’ve been able to list the print as ‘signed in the plate’, as it is signed with the artist’s Whistler-inspired monogram in the plate. But I do believe the signature is genuine. The subject is a typical one of Jefferys’ later years, showing the river Thames shrouded in fog. This melancholy scene reflects both the influence of Monet and Whistler, and Jefferys’ inner grief at the loss of his son in WWI. Marcel Jefferys (1872-1924) was born in Milan, to an English father and Belgian mother. Like Émile Claus, who greatly influenced him, Marcel Jefferys spent the war years in London, where I believe he remained until his death. Despite the puzzling matter of the signature, this etching with aquatint is my favourite of all the prints in L’Art Belge. It shows very strongly the influence of Nabis artists such as Bonnard and Vuillard.

Marcel Jefferys, Promenade
Original etching, 1934

Signature of Marcel Jefferys

The next print, an etching with aquatint depicting fisherfolk on a beach, poses no problems. It is clearly signed both in the plate and in pencil below by Manuel Robbe. Robbe (1872-1936) was taught how to etch by Eugène Delâtre. Many of his etchings were published by Edmond Sagot.

Manuel Robbe, Scène portuaire
Original etching, 1934

The next etching is Victor Mignot (1872-1944), a portrait of an old man, clearly signed and monogrammed in the plate. Here too the pencil signature reads ‘par Mignot’, so I have to assume it is not in the artist’s own hand; it looks like the same handwriting as the Meunier attribution. I’m not sure what the old man is carrying or selling; it looks like mistletoe.

Victor Mignot, Vieillard
Original etching, 1934

Then comes another poser. The vendor offered no attempt to identify the author of this etching of boats at harbour, and for a long while I was completely stumped. Then I had a brainwave and, realising that the signature in the plate was reversed, I looked at the etching in a mirror and discovered that it was by Auguste Oleffe. Oleffe (1867-1931) was one of the Brabant Fauves, He specialised in seascapes and port scenes. As a professor at the Institute Supérieur des Beaux-Arts d’Anvers, Auguste Oleffe had a huge influence on younger Belgian artists. There’s no pencil attribution on this proof, presumably because Oleffe’s reversed signature was familiar enough to make the artist’s identity obvious.

Auguste Oleffe, Marine
Original etching, 1934

Next is my second favourite print, an etching with aquatint of a canal. The signature below is that of Armand Apol (1879-1950), another of the Belgian Fauves. This wonderfully loose image has a mix of improvisation and observation that reminds me strongly of Raoul Dufy.

Armand Apol, Le canal
Original etching, 1934

Actually, is the Apol my second favourite? I’m not sure, because it has to complete with this elegant woman with her pearls and cigarette, and the pencil signature of Henri Thomas. She is the 1920s personified. Henri Joseph Thomas (1878-1972) was, like Rassenfosse, hugely influenced by Félicien Rops. The other etchings with aquatint that I have by Thomas were inspired by the risqué verse of Rops’ friend, Théo Hannon.

Henri Thomas, Femme à la cigarette
Original etching, 1934

The next etching, of two old men sitting on a bench, is by Kurt Peiser (1887-1962), a realist whose art was deeply imbued with his empathy for the poor and oppressed. It is signed in the plate and dated 1932, and also hand-signed below.

Kurt Peiser, Trimardeurs
Original etching, 1932

Next comes an etching of an Arab or Berber horseman out hawking, pencil-signed by Gustave Flasschoen (1868-1940). Flasschoen studied under Stroobant at the Académie de Bruxelles.

Gustave Flasschoen, Cavalier arabe
Original etching, 1934

Then an etching by Maurice Flament (1884-1968), signed by the artist who has also written the title, Impasse, and justified the etching 28/200. This justification intensifies my suspicion that Isy Brachot was just making up these special copies of the revue with etchings that he had lying around in stock. In other words the etchings were not specially commissioned for this purpose, and if one found another special copy it might contain quite different prints. I haven’t been able to find out anything much about Flament.

Maurice Flament, Impasse
Original etching, 1934

The next artist is Camille Barthélémy, an important post-Impressionist painter and printmaker, who studied under Nester Outers, Émile Fabry, and Jean Delville at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. Elsewhere in the revue is a series of seven tipped-in colour plates of oil paintings by Camille Barthélémy, Barthélémy’s pencil-signed view through an archway brings the sequence of original prints slipped into my copy of L’Art Belge to an end. After a long journey of discovery, to be afforded a glimpse into a new world is exactly what you need.

Camille Barthélémy, Le porche
Original etching, 1934


Anonymous said...

Thank you for introducing these Belgian artists. I find Belgian art strangely attractive and am trying to understand why that is. By the way, I remember reading that Albert Baertsoen spent time in London during WW I, where his son lived. I didn't realize that many others did. Your website is a cornucopia of information and ideas where many sites about art give little or no information other than the images. I wish it were easier to find information about Belgian artists here in the States. Thanks again.

Neil said...

Thanks, Jane. Baertsoen and Claus were friends, and both spent WWI in London, working in the studio of John Singer Sargent (this may be the subject of another blog entry when time permits). Because Belgium suffered so much so early in the war, I think a lot of Belgian artists ended up in London, especially those who were in Paris when war broke out. I'm just finding out about Belgian art myself - you realise as you discover more how little you know. The 'official' history of art is incredibly skewed towards particular individuals and countries.

Anonymous said...

Truly beautiful drawings. It's amazing what we don't know about the artists of Belgium.

Anonymous said...

I think most people writing about art want to be taken seriously and part of that is writing about whomever others have included. And then there's the matter of access. The internet has opened a door, with musuems and libraries putting their entire collections online. Nationalism, like any organizing principle, has its limits. Because I speak French, I'm embarrassed by how little I know about Belgian art. Writing about it makes me learn something.

Neil said...

There was a very interesting-sounding exhibition last year at the Fondation de l'Hermitage in Lausanne called Belgium Unveiled: From Impressionism to Expressionism. But I didn't get to see it, and haven't been able to get hold of a catalogue. And I missed the 1994 show at the Royal Academy in London, Impressionism to Symbolism: Belgian Avant-Garde 1880-1900. I think these were probably the two best recent opportunities to get a good overview of the Belgian art of this period. I don't argue with the pre-eminence of the artists who have achieved international status - Stevens, Khnopff, Ensor, Evenepoel - but many of the others seem unfairly neglected. Baertsoen and Claus I especially like.

Anonymous said...

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In first steps it's very nice if someone supports you, so hope to meet friendly and helpful people here. Let me know if I can help you.
Thanks and good luck everyone! ;)

Ester Joris said...

Do you have any idea of how many magazines (number 1, number 2, number 3,...) they made? I'm trying to figure this magazine out but all the archives i find (and can not find) are so chaotic.
Your blog anyways made some things already more clear to me :)

Neil said...

Hi Ester - Sorry, I don't know much more than this - I only have this one special issue with the extra prints. But even ordinary copies seem quite hard to come by.

Ester Joris said...

Thanks for responding anyways!
But I went to the Royal Library of Belgium in Brussels to look for some archives, if you are interested there are books found from 1924 until 1929 with the magazines of every month. There are also 3 special editions, of which 2 are yours I guess.
It seems to me that there are more special editions to be still alive than the ordinary ones.