Biennial art show offers home comforts and new discoveries

Summary

The Biennale of Painting, hosted by three museums in the Leie region, is named after a fictional place and offers several revelations among its homegrown and overseas exhibits

Faraway, so close

A naked man, lying on his side on a carpet, portrayed from the foot of his neck to the base of his buttocks, with his hairy back to the viewer. “The Back” by New York painter Ellen Altfest is one of the most striking paintings on view at the fifth Biënnale van de Schilderkunst (Biennale of Painting).

It sails under the flag “Yoknapatawpha” – a title that probably only rings a bell to William Faulkner cognoscenti. It’s the name of the fictional county in which the writer sets a good number of his novels. For the Biennale organisers, it expresses the desire for the unknown and exotic versus the safety of one’s own environment.

It’s possible to see an exotic landscape, too, in the realistic “The Back”. It seems the perfect symbiosis of the tendencies the curators of Yoknapatawpha are looking for. Most of the more than 200 paintings on show belong to just one of the two categories, however.

The Biennale of Painting is organised jointly by three museums from the Leie region, named after the tributary of the Scheldt that runs through West and East Flanders. Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens in Deurle is built around the collection of the late captain of industry Jules Dhondt and his wife, Irma Dhaenens. The Museum van Deinze en de Leiestreek (Museum of Deinze and the Leie Region) focuses on local artists, while the Roger Raveel Museum in Machelen-Zulte is a monographic institution, dedicated to the work of one of the most popular post-war Flemish painters.

The three may have joined forces for this biennale, but each retains its identity. Dhondt-Dhaenens takes as a starting point two painters from its own collection: James Ensor, with his taste for the grotesque and exotic, and Albijn Van den Abeele, a landscape painter from the end of the 19th century who painted the (small) world he saw around him. Their work is surrounded by contemporary art. The abstract works by Australian Denise Green in particular are a revelation.

On the border of abstraction

The paintings of Germany-based Japanese artist Maki Na Kura sit on the border of abstraction. They can be viewed as contemporary interpretations of classical Japanese landscapes paintings, but also as an abstract entanglement of fields of paint. A third highlight in Dhondt-Dhaenens are the brooding, ominous portraits by German rebel Walter Dahn.

Raveel was a prototype of the artist who produced universally speaking art with elements very close to home

After one location – the order in which you visit the museums doesn’t matter, and you don’t have to see them on the same day – it’s already clear that the theme the curators have chosen gives way to very different works. According to one curator, many of the selected artists build a fictional universe that says something about our world. It’s true, but that could be a good definition of lots of artworks, visual or otherwise.

At the Roger Raveel Museum, the eponymous artist is part of the biennale. That’s not so strange, since Raveel was a prototype of the artist who produced universally speaking art with elements very close to home. What’s stranger is the choice to spread some Biennale works through the permanent collection. It’s a confusing set-up in a museum whose labyrinthine architecture is already puzzling. 

Luckily, this doesn’t detract from the quality of what’s on show. The mixed-media paintings of Argentinian Antonio Berni, for instance, who never shied away from adding a broom, some stovepipes or even a baguette to his canvases. But the revelation here is the little-known Belgian surrealist Rachel Baes, who faded into obscurity because she was the mistress, before the Second World War, of one of Flanders’ leading fascists. It’s time for a reassessment of her work on artistic grounds.

Distorted portraits

The rediscovery of the German minimalist Charlotte Posenenske, who died in 1985, has already started, and the three works on show here confirm how she distilled great art from a seemingly simple interplay of lines and planes. In a sense, that’s what Raoul De Keyser did for decades, with impressive results. Just one more name: the Lebanese-born, France-based Fadia Hadad and her enchanting “Masque” series.

The Museum of Deinze and the Leie Region chose works that are “in a certain way symbolist”. The starting points are paintings by expressionist Gustave Van de Woestyne, with a few amazing distorted portraits, Emile Claus – a Flemish impressionist who became fascinated by exoticism on his trips abroad – and Joe Van Rossem, whose chaotic and colourful paintings reflect his helter-skelter state of mind.

Those artists are contrasted with a dozen others, of whom Colin Waeghe (from Ghent, but living in Leipzig) is the absolute revelation. He treats diverse topics – the refugee crisis, the dismal atmosphere in the former German Democratic Republic – in his immediately recognisable style, but it’s the way he paints, with cool, at times almost clinical distance, that’s impressive.

Two other highlights in Deinze: the semi-abstract landscapes of the Dutch Carla Klein and some of the abstract works by Silvia Bonotto, an Italian living in Mol.

With some great discoveries and a handful of established names that don’t disappoint, this fifth Biennale strikes home.

Until 25 September, Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Deurle; Roger Raveelmuseum, Machelen-Zulte; Museum voor Deinze en de Leiestreek, Deinze

Photo: Johan Nobell, Soil Eater, 2012
© Courtesy Stephane Simoens Gallery