A fascination for colour: celebrating an obscure corner of Flemish art


An exhibition in Drogenbos curated by a London-born, Antwerp-taught artist looks back at a movement that found expression in vivid colours and raw brushstrokes

Where the wild things were

An obscure but colourful corner of Flemish modern art is explored in a new exhibition at the FeliXart Museum in Drogenbos. The movement is the Brabant Fauves, and our guide is Nick Andrews, an artist based in Antwerp who shares their interest in colour and rhythm in painting.

The Fauves were a loose group of artists working in France at the turn of the 20th century. The movement’s figureheads were Henri Matisse and André Derain, who in the summer of 1905 started to paint in vivid, unrealistic colours with raw, undisguised brushwork. They also abandoned the realistic representation of space, instead creating a visual space based on different planes of colour.

The name, meaning “wild beasts”, comes from a critic’s playful reaction to this work by Matisse and Derain. Other artists followed their lead, such as Georges Braque and Raoul Dufy, but by 1908 most had worked through these ideas and moved on to other things, most notably to Cubism. Only Matisse continued in the same vein.

The Brabant Fauves were not linked to the French group and could barely be called contemporaries, most working in this fashion only after 1910. But their late arrival is one of the things that makes them interesting, since they also reflect artistic developments parallel to Fauvism, such as German Expressionism.

Mixing traditions

“What I enjoyed about seeing these works was that it was like a mixture of the French artists, the Blaue Reiter from Munich, and I could also see an influence of the Italian Futurists,” says Andrews, for whom much of this work was new.

Born in London in 1972, Andrews studied art in Antwerp and has been based there for much of his career. His work incorporates the same bold use of colour as the Fauves, but also draws on earlier traditions of figurative art as well as the experiments in colour and space from later abstract painting.

We asked Nick to make an aesthetic show, based purely on what someone from 2016 sees

- Sergio Servellón

It was this view of Andrews as an inheritor of the Fauve tradition that gave Sergio Servellón, director of FeliXart, the idea of inviting him to curate the exhibition.

“Instead of a making a museological show around the Brabant Fauves, we thought: why don’t we ask Nick to make an aesthetic show, based purely on what someone from 2016 sees, someone who is a painter with a life-long fascination for colour.”

The Brabant Fauves were also a loose collection of artists rather than a distinct movement, connected by friendship and shared patrons, such as the Linkebeek brewer François Van Haelen. Foremost among the artists was Rik Wouters (1882-1916), who is well represented in the exhibition, alongside friends and associates such as Edgar Tytgat, Ann-Pierre De Kat, Jehan Frison and Jean Brusselmans.

But the “movement” also included the young Felix De Boeck (1898-1995), around whom the FeliXart Museum is built. His Fauvist period was relatively brief, from around 1916 to 1919, but is still significant. “It explains a lot about his evolution towards abstraction,” says Servellón. “His first purely abstract works have very odd choices of colours, and that has to do with this Fauvist period.”

Alongside works by De Boeck, Andrews has selected several by his friend Prosper De Troyer (1880-1961), who is usually considered on the fringes of Brabant Fauvism. Yet his “Portrait of a Man” (1917) struck Andrews as going furthest towards the Fauvist idea. “It’s like a musical composition. It works with contrasts of strict and lyrical lines, of cold and warm colours.”

Realistic rendition

Another significant work is the “Portrait of Roger Avermaete” (1919) by Jan Cockx, included here despite the artist being based in Antwerp rather than Brabant. “He brings in every idea from Fauvism,” Andrews says. “The way he uses shadows and colour, everything is in rhythm. And he breaks with tradition by not using perspective to enhance the painting.”

Only the realistic rendition of Avermaete’s face anchors it to tradition. “He’s making a portrait of a good friend, so he does make a portrait,” Andrews adds. “But it is not obvious to paint in this way. These are colours that are so primary they shout to each other.”

As well as portraits, the Brabant Fauves liked to paint domestic interiors, where colour transforms scenes that would otherwise be quite banal, and local landscapes. A 1914 view of Hoeilaart church by Wouters (pictured) stands out. “For me this is a pure Brabant landscape,” Andrews says. “With these streets, it could be now.”

These are the works that stay in my mind. I can’t turn them off

- Nick Andrews

As well as these solidly Fauvist works, the exhibition includes paintings that either anticipate the trend or show how it developed afterwards. The former includes “October” (1910) by Emile Claus, an Impressionist landscape that makes subtle use of red and blue. The latter includes a 1919 self-portrait by Jos Albert, which has more than a hint of Cubism, and work by De Troyer and De Boeck that is already heading for abstraction.

Each room of the exhibition also has one work by Andrews himself, illustrating the idea that he is working in the same tradition. But to get a fuller picture, head to De Warande in Turnhout, where the exhibition Within Me presents a selection of his work from the past decade.

“For me it is not so much a retrospective, but a synthesis of what I have done in the last 10 years,” Andrews explains. It is also an emotional choice. “These are the works that stay in my mind. I can’t turn them off.”

In contrast to the Brabant Fauves, Andrews’ work often has a feeling of narrative about it, even if the sources or the stories sometimes remain mysterious. There are scenes from artist’s studios and museums, casinos and theatres, which suggest film stills or book illustrations. Only the large painting “Champagne Charlie” fully unfolds its theme, expanding into a series of lithographs imagining the music hall character’s path through life.

The exhibition also picks up on some of Andrews’ collaborative work, including a carpet produced with Vera Vermeersch, lithographs accompanying texts by Jeroen Olyslaegers, and ceramics made with Nadia Naveau.

The Brabant Fauves: a selection by Nick Andrews, until 2 October, FeliXart, Drogenbos

Within Me, until 21 August, Cultuurhuis de Warande, Turnhout

Photo: courtesy Francis Maere Fine Arts Gallery, Gent-Deinze. Foto Cedric Verhelst