Mu.ZEE Opens Jean Brusselmans Exhibition

The Jean Brusselmans exhibition opened on 9th April in Mu.ZEE in Ostend. The exhibition runs until 4th September 2011.

Jean Brusselmans is the first major solo exhibition in over 30 years’ time, organised by Mu.ZEE director, Phillip Van den Bossche and the artist, Koenraad Dedobbeleer. Kris Kimpe and Jan Verheyden were responsible for the architecture.

Fifty paintings are on show, alongside a number of drawings and watercolours. The emphasis is on the 1930s, the period in which Brusselmans’ style and compositions reached their high point, and some works from the 1920s and 1940s. Brusselmans’ personal world formed the source of his inspiration and was easily reduced by him to geometric shapes. He considered nature as a “miraculous mathematical monument. A striking element is the repetition of themes that emphasized his quest for an image, always from a different perspective or at another moment in time. The exhibition focuses on these repetitions with an almost conceptual slant: he organises, arranges and rearranges the reality of the painting with a mathematical precision!

Jean Brusselmans, the storm, 1938. Collection Mu.ZEE, Oostende. Photo : Steven Decroos. ©SABAM 2011 Belgium.

The work of Jean Brusselmans (1884-1953) appears to be a closely guarded secret among art lovers: his style is unique and his work demonstrates a high degree of autonomy but is also deeply human and uncompromising. “His seemingly harsh awkwardness is just a tenderness that distrusts itself or does not know itself”, wrote the French professor and critic Gaston Diehl about his work in the 1940s. A contemporary of Constant Permeke, Edgard Tytgat and a fellow student of Rik Wouters, Brusselmans therefore occupies a special place in Belgian painting from the interwar period.

In 1947 Jean Brusselmans wrote “Je suis le peintre du Kouden Haard” [I am the painter of the cold hearth] on a postcard. The words stand amidst a drawing of a chessboard, a vase with flowers, a fruit bowl, a plate of fish and shells. With this small drawing, he succinctly provides a summary of his artistic ‘program. The vase, the fruit bowl and the shells make regular appearances in his numerous still lifes.

Kouden Haard refers to his home in Dilbeek. After being briefly resident in a number of places, in 1924 he finally took up residence with his family in Dilbeek, remaining there until his death. His house stood isolated on a hill with stunning views of the Flemish Pajottenland: from then on he again and again painted and repainted, structured and restructured the landscape he saw from the window of his studio.

As a child Brusselmans was already displaying a special talent for drawing and painting, but making it one’s profession was not so evident at that time. Around the turn of the century he followed evening classes and after a brief career as an engraver and lithographer, he took the final step in 1904 to become a professional artist. A few years later, he met Marie Frisch, whom he married in 1911: she became his steadying rock. She was his source of inspiration and his only model. He painted her again and again, often with a spotty dress, but more often in an almost abstract way – the nude as a form, as a pose.

Despite the poverty that almost constantly plagued the family, he built up a unique body of work, in which mathematical precision and a deep human sensitivity do not interfere with each other. On the contrary, just as with the chess game, Jean Brusselmans uses his métier as a painter to shift the rules of the ‘constructive’ figuration. He combined the parts or components with a mixture of intuition, a sense of geometry and repetition, to eventually go further than his expressionist contemporaries. He organized reality; he positioned and repositioned his set pieces again and again, whether it was a model, a field, a tree, a vase, a shell, a cloud or a fruit bowl.

In the 1940s the tide seemed to turn and he finally achieved public recognition, and some important commissions such as creating a mural for the World Exhibition in Brussels in 1935. The work, depicting two nudes with a vase, has disappeared; however a photograph has been preserved and this can now be seen in the exhibition. When he exhibited in the Galerie de France in Paris in 1947, the French critics were unanimously full of praise. His last retrospective exhibition was held at the Palace of Fine Arts in Brussels in 1952. He passed away a few months later.

Reality is the instrument for Jean Brusselmans but painting remains the goal. By painting the same elements over and over again, he allows us to look further. Brusselmans does not hold a mirror in front of us, but rather lets us look behind the mirror. His deliberate repetitions and compositional revisions have an almost conceptual bias. They also show how Brusselmans regarded the history of art, from Memling to Cézanne and the rise of abstract art in the first half of the twentieth century, from the hands in the portraits of Memling, the apples of Cézanne – although Brusselmans preferred pears – to decorative patterns (see clothing, linen on the washing lines or the carpeting) and the citing of his own work in several paintings. The exhibition in Mu.ZEE is based on this interpretation and chooses to exhibit grouped by subject (landscapes, portraits, still lifes, seascapes, etc.). The exhibition takes the 1930s as its starting point. It is the period when Jean Brusselmans first achieved a masterful synthesis, in which he had reality at his will and developed a unique vision of art. The exhibition in Mu.ZEE is not a retrospective, but a solo exhibition of fifty paintings, many drawings and watercolours

The exhibited drawings are drawn from the Mu.ZEE collection and were purchased during the past two years. The watercolours were selected to be in dialogue with the drawings. Jean Brusselmans’ vision has not lost its relevance, quite the contrary; hence the decision to show modern and contemporary art in dialogue with the paintings of Brusselmans. The exhibition is an invitation to step into his world: the vase, the shell, the tree, the model, the landscape and through the clouds, the shafts of light portrayed by Brusselmans.

Mu.ZEE in its exhibition program purposefully selects artists such as Georges Vantongerloo (2008), James Ensor (2010) and now Jean Brusselmans, choosing to display artists whose work shifts boundaries and that therefore may fall outside their own time but whose relevance still continues to increase. They are artists who, in other words, find themselves walking a very fine line indeed. Jef Geys, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Daan van Golden are examples of contemporary artists from the Mu.ZEE exhibition program, just like Koenraad Dedobbeleer, co-curator of the Brusselmans exhibition. Besides this joint selection, Dedobbeleer will also be responsible this autumn for the selection of contemporary artists who are already being displayed with the exhibition with Francis Picabia (1879-1953, Paris), Marcel Broodthaers (1924 – 1976, Brussels), Rodney Graham (b. 1946, Abbotsford) and Manfred Pernice (b. 1963, Hildesheim). They are all so-called “idiosyncratic” artists, artists who create universal models from their own individually structured reference context!

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