Antwerp exhibition examines the unreal in the real


Bringing together Flemish and Dutch artists who took similar approaches, a new show in Antwerp explores neo-realist tendencies in the Low Countries during the interwar period

Testing the limits of representation

“Bertha of Antwerp” is the perfect poster girl for Uncannily Real, a new Antwerp exhibition exploring neo-realist tendencies in Belgian and Dutch art between the two World Wars. Painted in 1931 by Dutch artist Pyke Koch, Bertha (pictured) is clearly meant to look real, yet there remains something unsettling about her appearance. The painting still tests the limits of representation, only not with the modernist strategies that previously resulted in reality being dismantled.

There is no distinct school of Low Countries neo-realism, so the exhibition explores its theme more obliquely, putting together artists who appear to be following the same line of thought. It does this by drawing on work from Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts, the city’s Plantin-Moretus Museum and the Gemeente Museum in The Hague.

Bertha’s grotesque side is explored further in the work of Flemish artist Henry Van Straten, whose woodcuts depict an underworld of jazz clubs, burlesques and boxing. Bawdy and often politically incorrect by present standards, Van Straten nevertheless captures a powerful idea of 1920s debauchery. There is also more character-driven work in his illustrations for Willem Elsschot’s novel Soft Soap.

The realism is more forgiving when artists paint themselves, yet the results are still revealing. Take Georges Van Raemdonck’s manic stare, or the three striking self-portraits that follow Charley Toorop from a bohemian 30-something to white-haired 60-year-old.

Magical realism

Uncannily Real’s most daring proposition is to remove Paul Delvaux from the questionable embrace of the Belgian surrealists and place him with the Dutch magical realists. These include Koch, Carel Willink and Raoul Hynckes, a Belgian who fled to the Netherlands during the First World War and did not return.

Delvaux’s “The Pink Bows”, with his characteristic nudes in a night landscape, is placed opposite Willink’s “Simeon the Stylite”, with the saint perching on a column while a city burns in the background. Two further works by Willink support the argument that the two artists inhabited the same classically influenced dream landscape.

Other highlights include Koch’s hyper-real “Chimney Sweep”, a pair of large canvases by Flemish expressionist Gustave Van de Woestyne, and a Modigliani-inspired portrait of a young woman by Brussels-born Georges Creten. There is also a lot to enjoy in the still lifes, from Hynckes’ dead duck, sensuously enfolded in linen, to Dick Ket’s study of shed junk, an evocative wreckage of dead leaves, rose stems, barbed wire and broken brick, set off with a bird’s nest and an abandoned enamel bowl.

Until 31 August at Koningin Fabiolazaal, Jezusstraat 28, Antwerp