20th-century Flemish painter rediscovered and on show in Antwerp


Frans Van Ermengem had fallen off the radar of the art world but has now resurfaced, thanks to the discovery of a private collection in the Netherlands

Mystery man

It’s not often that art lovers, collectors and critics have the opportunity to discover an exceptional talent who’s escaped notice for 100 years. At the Raf Van Severen Gallery in Antwerp’s harbour district, just such an opportunity presents itself at an exhibition of paintings by Flemish artist Frans Van Ermengem.

Born into a prominent family in Ghent, Van Ermengem studied there as well as in Paris. His father, Emile, was an eminent bacteriologist and dean of the Medical Faculty at Ghent University.

His older brother Frédéric, writing under the pseudonym Franz Hellens, was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature four times. Frans himself was an accomplished writer, poet and art critic who published under the name Francois Maret.

He seems to have garnered less recognition for his paintings. Following a one-man show in Brussels in 1921, little is known of his artistic activities.

Modern women

He settled in Gijon, in northern Spain, in 1942 and died there in 1985. It is not known whether he continued to paint after 1928, the date of the latest painting in the exhibition.

The works on view at the Raf Van Severen Gallery all came from a single private collection in the Netherlands. Most are large-scale oils on canvas, along with some smaller paintings on board, one watercolour and a pastel. Nearly all of them feature the female form, often nude or scantily clad, set against exotic and richly coloured backdrops.

The works are confidently painted, with a boldness of contour and line combined with a vibrant palette. There are hints of Van Ermengem’s work as an illustrator in a picturesque quality to some of the works. But at times his figures seem to merge with the patterned backdrop, creating a flattened perspective that’s reminiscent of Matisse and other Fauvist painters.

His ‘Susanna’ is no blushing innocent, but rather a worldly and world-weary woman who regards the viewer through half-lidded, bedroom eyes

The painter proves to be a sensitive portraitist, as in the large double portrait of the artist and his wife from 1918 (pictured below). He is absorbed in his work, she seems absorbed in her thoughts, yet they are united by the undulating colours and patterns of the wall covering and upholstery that seem to locate the pair in an abstract world of their own.

The central figure in “A Factory Girl near a Polluted River” (1923, pictured above) gazes confidently out at the viewer, one hand on her hip, a modern woman of the 20th century. Despite the title, the factory behind her spills no visible pollution into the serene blue-and-green waters of the river but promises a better life for women like her.

Some of the paintings tackle traditional mythological and Biblical themes. His Susanna in “Susanna and the Elders” (1925) is no blushing innocent, but rather a worldly and world-weary woman who regards the viewer through half-lidded, bedroom eyes. She turns away from the old men leering from the shadows behind her, not unaware of their presence but seemingly unfazed.

In “Le Paradis Terrestre” (1928) a female nude reclines on a contemporary settee surrounded by a silent menagerie – monkeys, mice, a cat, an owl, an elephant and tropical birds. Has the painted wallpaper behind her come to life? Is she dreaming?

The bottom of the sofa is submerged in water, from which a crocodile emerges. A pink snake descends from the chandelier above. Here the painting’s sensuality is merged with the surreal.

Raf Van Severen specialises in Belgian paintings from the years 1870 to 1970, with a preference for Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s and ’60s, and figurative works from the first half of the 20th century. His original gallery is in the historical city centre. His second gallery, where the Van Ermengem paintings are exhibited, opened in 2018 in the port district, a stone’s throw from the MAS museum.

Contemporary look and feel

Van Severen is enthusiastic about bringing these works to the public. “For me what is amazing is the colour and modernism of those paintings,” he says. “If you look at a Van Ermengem painting, you think it’s a contemporary artist, and then you see the date, and it’s 1916 or 1920.”

He speculates as to why Van Ermengem’s name faded into obscurity during his lifetime. The art world, then as now, is a competitive business, and it helps to have a champion in the form of a patron or gallery promoting an artist’s work.

“One of the reasons could be that he went to Spain,” he says, “so he was out of the art scene in Paris, and there weren’t a lot of paintings on the market.”

There is a great deal of mystery surrounding the life and work of Frans Van Ermengem. But at least the public now can discover for themselves the complex and accomplished paintings that he left behind.

Until 20 February, Raf Van Severen Gallery, Godefriduskaai 52, Antwerp

Images, from top: Factory Girl Near Polluted River; Artist at Work, Madame in Thoughts
©By Frans Van Ermengem, courtesy Raf Van Severen