Published  21/04/2023

Flemish Expressionism: Wonderful Memories

Flemish Expressionism: Wonderful Memories

An informative survey explores one of the 20th century’s artistic side-streams, which captured quiet Flemish villages and provincial voyeurism between the wars

Gustave De Smet, The Good House, 1926 (detail). Oil on canvas, 120 x 135 cm. Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent.

Kunstmuseum Den Haag
25 March – 20 August 2023


The 1910s and 20s saw great artistic tumult: the jazz age, dada, modernist literature, the Second Viennese School, constructivism, new objectivity, the Bauhaus, and so on. In the Netherlands, there was the Amsterdam School and de Stijl; and in Belgium, the rise of Magritte and the bande dessinée (comic books). But to fixate on these avant-garde clusters is to ignore the cultural mainstream of the time, what the gallery-going and painting-buying public thought of when they thought of art. And it can also efface the work of artists who, neither part of the conservative norm nor the canonised saints of the avant garde, carved their own niche somewhere between the two.

Emile Claus, The Days of Sunshine on the Hoefje, undated. Oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm. Kunstmuseum Den Haag.

Flemish Expressionism: Wonderful Memories, at the Kunstmuseum Den Haag, tells a story of one such artistic constellation. The brooding Constant Permeke, often considered the movement’s leading light, is pushed out of focus. Instead, the stars are Frits van den Berghe and Gustave de Smet, two artists who created profitable works on the margins of modernism. They began as minor practitioners of luminism, a late offshoot of impressionism chiefly concerned with the rendering of light. Major figures included Emile Claus, Anna de Weert and (Gustave’s brother) Léon de Smet, who worked alongside the River Leie in Flanders and specialised in scenes of rustic tranquillity. A room in the exhibition showcases their meticulously luminous works, all blooming gardens and long summer afternoons on the river. 

Gustave De Smet, The Big Shooting Booth, 1923. Oil on canvas, 134 x 155 cm. Groeningemuseum, Bruges.

The two future expressionists’ early works, by contrast, contain an element of unsteadiness. It is clear that impressionism was not their bag. The figure in Van den Berghe’s Little Girl in a Garden (1909) looks like no human child, while Gustave de Smet’s Summer (1913) aims for reverie but achieves only a decorative flatness. Everything would change when Germany invaded Belgium. The two painters fled to the neutral Netherlands. Here, they fell in with that country’s more progressive artistic scene. They perused German modernist journals such as Der Sturm and Das Kunstblatt, met risk-taking collectors and exhibited together in Amsterdam.

Edgard Tytgat, The Eight Ladies, 1940. Oil on canvas, 89 x 116 cm. Kunstmuseum Den Haag.

When they returned to the banks of the Leie in 1922, they became the leaders of a small movement. Other members included the sculptor Jozef Cantré and painters, Edgard Tytgat, Jean Brusselmans and Hubert Malfait. Gallerists Paul-Gustave van Hecke and André de Ridder called it Flemish expressionism, in reference to the towering German movement that prioritised the subjective, emotional lens of the artist over verisimilitude and representation. Van den Berghe’s The Painter (1916) epitomises this tendency, with a giant, brooding artist occupying the foreground; he leers over the subject of his work, a set of colourful blobs less important than the artist in the progress of capturing them. In Obsession (1919), painted after the death on a train track of his only son, the artist is aghast, his face green with misery. His wife, Gusta, sits at a table behind, her blank face relegating her to secondary importance.

Edgard Tytgat, Memory of a Sunday, 1926. Oil on canvas, 89 x 116.5 cm. Museum Dhont-Dhaenens, Deurle.

Despite these stormy passages, the characteristic tone of the Flemish expressionists is much calmer than that of their German and Nordic inspirations. Expressionist angst is tempered by southern influences, with De Smet, in particular, showing the influence of Picasso’s primitivism and Matisse’s art of pleasure. Tytgat’s painting Memory of a Sunday (1926) is instructive. It captures a summertime visit by Marc Chagall. The revered Russian artist and his Flemish acolytes travel by boat to a riverside cottage. Wine and gramophone music await. On the opposite bank, De Smet, a devotee of folk tradition, shoots an arrow, while in the background, another group enjoys their own boating trip and a man cycles along the banks.

We are a long way from the Weimar Republic. De Smet and Van den Berghe enjoyed painting rustics. But the realities of farm labour seldom intrude. Instead, they fixated on leisure. They were particularly seduced by the wonders of the fairground, just as their great Belgian predecessor James Ensor was captivated by the carnival. One 1915 oil painting of a fairground by Tytgat shares Ensor’s palette and mask-like visages, though has a naive quality quite unlike the precise Ensor. Tytgat had spent the war in English exile, where the fairground became a focus for his homesickness. In 1919 and 1920, he made a series of woodcuts depicting merry-go-rounds and carousels in a folk art-ish style. De Smet and Van den Berghe were soon in on the act, with paintings of children experiencing giddy abandon.

Gustave De Smet, Woman with Rose Plant, 1912. Oil on canvas, 107 x 130 cm. The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.

They also explored less-innocent entertainments. Ghent was close, Brussels not far. Some of the most kinetic works here feature taverns and dancehalls. De Smet’s 1921 painting of the latter conveys the claustrophobia and closely packed bodies of a minute Low Countries bar. De Smet’s c1926 painting The Good House shows a brothel, with ruddy-faced johns surrounded by nude and semi-nude sex workers. Everyone is smiling, as if at a meeting of old friends. Van den Berghe is franker about male desire. The Desire (c1924-5) has a naked woman hemmed in by tough-looking characters who stare intently at her pink body, while The Imprudent One (c1924-5) shows a man peeking through a window at his female neighbour. As he sneaks a glance, his head separates from his body, as if he has taken leave of himself. Like many of their contemporaries, the Flemish expressionists have a habit of objectifying women.

The movement gradually faded out. Van den Brughe died in 1939, De Smet in 1943. The exhibition pauses at their 20s peak. But it does peer into one artist’s future. Tytgat outlived his compatriots and moved towards a flatter, caricatural style, a milder cousin to George Grosz. His 1940 painting The Eight Women depicts a set of respectable ladies sitting in a waiting room. Over the next seven years he created a 500-page opus in which these figures are masked as playing cards and made to play various immoral games, a sort of defanged Marquis de Sade. As Europe slid into another war of unimaginable horror, the aged painter turned to a hedonistic fantasy with a cruel edge of its own.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

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