Exhibition explores First World War’s influence on Flemish arts


An Antwerp exhibition examines the impact of the Great War’s impact on the works of Flanders’ then best-known visual artists

Visual and literary arts

The Great War is currently being commemorated in many historical exhibitions across the country, but in Antwerp you can enjoy a particularly interesting one about the influence of the First World War on the local visual arts scene.

The Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (RMFA) will be closed for renovation works until the end of 2017. To be able to show at least part of its collection in the meantime, the museum has been staging exhibitions at other locations, including the Koningin Fabiolazaal, a stone’s throw from the museum.

The new show there, The Moderns: Art during the Great War, puts the spotlight on the work of mainly Belgian artists during the First World War. Organised in collaboration with the Antwerp museum of literature Letterenhuis and the Provinciaal Museum Emile Verhaeren, the exhibition encompasses more than just the visual arts. With letters, newspaper clippings and contracts, there is also plenty of historical written material.

Although there’s some interaction between the visual artworks and the literature, the latter has to contend with that particular tension inherent in literary exhibitions – most of the artefacts on display are not really made to be read by people bent over glass cases.

The Moderns zooms in on six central figures, among them writers Paul van Ostaijen and Emile Verhaeren, and visual artists Rik Wouters and Jules Schmalzigaug. None of these artists died on the battlefields, and only one of them, Wouters, was drafted as a soldier.

“They all followed a different trajectory,” says Nanny Schrijvers, the RMFA curator responsible for the visual arts in the exhibition. “Some of them left the country, while others stayed behind. Some saw their work change under the influence of the war; others just continued in their usual vein.”

An overdue limelight

During the Great War, contacts between the artists became more intense – as if they were in need of a deeper solidarity than in times of peace. Schrijvers gives the example of Wouters, a Mechelen-born painter and prisoner of war in the Netherlands who was released because he had cancer. 

Wouters stayed in the Netherlands, where his wife joined him – first in Amersfoort, afterwards in Amsterdam. “This happened thanks to a group of people who cared about him very much,” explains Schrijvers. “It gave him the chance to undergo surgery by some famous surgeons.”

The artists all followed a different trajectory

- Curator Nanny Schrijvers

Wouters is one of the artists whose work doesn’t seem to have changed under the influence of the war. He continued to paint and draw the same themes he had in the past – interiors, landscapes, himself and his wife Nel of course – the love of his life and the inspiration for many of his works.

“The only difference with his life before the war is that, due to practicalities, he can’t sculpt,” says Schrijvers. Only “Nachtmerrie - oorlog” (Nightmare - War), an almost abstract work by Wouters, seems to refer to the battlefield atrocities, and only really in the title.

There are only two oil paintings between the 20 Wouters works on view, and there’s a logical explanation for this surprising choice. Because of the major renovation works at RMFA, the highlights of its vast Wouters collection have been on show in the Schepenhuis museum in Mechelen for the past three years. “Moreover, the drawings presented here aren’t often exhibited, so this was a great opportunity to show them,” says Schrijvers.

And they certainly deserve the attention. With a sparse number of often dancing and squirming lines, he achieves maximal expression. The latter is also true of the 1915 “Zelfportret met groene hoed” (Self-Portrait with a Green Hat), one of his last paintings and the last self-portrait he would make. In a nearby case, there’s a letter from Wouters asking friends in Antwerp to send him a number of specific paint pigments he needed.

A bold declaration

Jules Schmalzigaug – who was incidentally born in a house facing the Koningin Fabiolazaal – is one of the artists whose work did radically change during the war. The oldest son of a rich coffee roaster, he frequently travelled to Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. 

At one point, he went to Paris where he discovered an exhibition focussed on the Italian futurists. Deeply impressed by the show, he moved to Venice. “In the spring of 1914, he was part of an important futurist exhibition,” Schrijvers explains. “He stated loudly and clearly: ‘I’m becoming a futurist’.”

The exhibition has three futurist paintings from that year; they offer wild geometrical rhythms – not fully abstract, however – brushed in heavily contrasting colours.

When the war broke out, Schmalzigaug returned to Antwerp. He tried to enlist but was declared unfit for military service for medical reasons.  The artist and his family then moved to The Hague, where Schmalzigaug started teaching in a girls’ school.

And his art transformed drastically. “He was very interested in the way you could create depth with colours without relying on the perspective,” Schrijvers explains. Two beautiful aquarelles testify to that change.

In the process, Schmalzigaug also lost his previous interest in futurism. “That was much more than just an artistic movement,” says Schrijvers. “Futurism got very political, and the Italian futurists were strongly in favour of the war. For them, it was a solution to get rid of the old Europe and wipe the slate clean. Schmalzigaug didn’t agree with this viewpoint. This means that he isn’t only geographically, but also mentally, isolated from his former artistic friends.”

Alienated and depressed, the man who intensely longed to be a futurist killed himself in 1917.

An intriguing still life by Marthe Donas, also from Antwerp, hangs in the same room where Schmalzigaug’s works are shown. “She moved with her sister to Dublin during the war, where she worked in a studio where stained-glass windows were created,” Schrijvers explains. “Influenced by that work and after a move to Paris in 1916, her art changed from quite traditional, a form of luminism, to a cubism with strong lines and colours that are reminiscent of stained-glass windows. And she became part of the cubist avant-garde. Sadly, she’s one of those modernist women artists that have been forgotten by history.”

Infectious enthusiasm

The most surprising painting in The Moderns is a very recognisable nude by Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, one of a few non-Belgians in the show. “Painter Hippolyte Daeye stayed in London during the war, where he visited a Modigliani exhibition,” says Schrijvers. “It impressed him deeply and made him change his style. This Modigliani was shown at that London exhibition, so we are certain that Daeye saw it there. Since it’s part of our collection, it was the ideal occasion to show it here.”

Indeed, Daeye’s “Sereniteit” (Serenity) portrait of a woman clearly shows the influence of Modigliani, especially in the way the eyes are painted.

Schmalzigaug was both geographically and mentally isolated from his former artistic friends

- Curator Nanny Schrijvers

Antwerp writer and poet Paul van Ostaijen was only 18 when the war broke out. “It’s remarkable to see,” notes Schrijvers, “that around that period in Antwerp quite a lot of young men, not to say boys, became very interested in the new times, among them of course Van Ostaijen.”

His enthusiasm infected the brothers Floris and Oscar Jespers, sons of a traditional sculptor. Van Ostaijen tried to convince them to leave the old forms behind and to choose a new course. The 1917 expressionist sculpture by OscarDe man met de trui” (The Man with the Jumper) is the first one that got Van Ostaijen’s approval.

Van Ostaijen also befriended the Antwerp painter Paul Joostens, currently the focus of a fascinating, two-part exhibition at Mu.Zee in Ostend. “We have loads of drawings by Joostens, but apart from in Ostend, those have rarely been shown. And for this expo, I only chose drawings from 1917, to go with the sculpture,” Schrijvers explains.

The exhibition ends with a second group of Antwerp painters who also strove for renewal. Among them are abstractionist Jos Leonard (always a treat) and the little-known Jan Kiemeneij, who alternated between geometrical abstraction and paintings set against the backdrop of the world of dance.

With many more artists included in the show, The Moderns offers yet another reminder of what a rich collection of modernist art the RMFA holds. Let’s hope that there will be enough space in the renovated building to show a great part of this particular treasure trove. 

Until then, the Koningin Fabiolazaal is the place to be, with a new The Moderns: Tour de France exhibition already lined up for January.
Until 11 January at Koningin Fabiolazaal, Jezusstraat 28, Antwerpen

Photo: Portrait of Paul van Ostaijen by Floris Jespers 

An Antwerp exhibition examines the impact of the Great War’s impact on the works of Flanders’ then best-known visual artists.

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First World War

Claiming the lives of more than nine million people and destroying entire cities and villages in Europe, the Great War was one of the most dramatic armed conflicts in human history. It lasted from 1914 to 1918.
Flanders Field - For four years, a tiny corner of Flanders known as the Westhoek became one of the war’s major battlefields.
Untouched - Poperinge, near Ypres, was one of the few towns in Flanders that remained unoccupied for most of the war.
Cemetery - The Tyne Cot graveyard in Passchendaele is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.
550 000

lives lost in West Flanders

368 000

annual visitors to the Westhoek

1 914

First Battle of Ypres