Van de Woestyne was the brother of the Flemish poet Karel van de Woestyne and belonged to the so-called First Group of Latem, artists who worked in the East Flemish village of Sint-Martens-Latem on the banks of the Leie, near Ghent. Most of his Flemish contemporaries evolved from Impressionism towards a rural version of Expressionism, but Van de Woestyne’s evolution was less linear.
Van de Woestyne’s influences were very diverse, ranging from Symbolism to Cubism and from Flemish Primitives to Italian fresco, and back again. The result is a bold and visionary mixture filled with biblical themes, tender portraits, clinical precision and electrifying tension.
The exhibit commences with the impact of his stay at Sint-Martens- Latem and is filled with elegant representations of rural life, portraits of villagers and several religious paintings, which would soon become his trademark. His use of neutral colours with a hint of gold adds a realistic dose of humanity.
Images of friends and family will eventually become a focal point, portrayed with an uncanny sense of control, making the paintings seem treacherously simple (above is “Gaston and his Sister”, from 1923). Van de Woestyne turned out to be quite a popular and prolific portrait painter, as he rarely incorporated very much of his subject’s surroundings.
He saved that for his landscapes, which are heavily influenced by Symbolism; works created between 1909 and 1913 are a prime example and also considered the best of his work. He believed that nature was something sacred and made several calm and soothing representations of fields and gardens often conceived around a religious subject.
After the First World War, however, Expressionist tendencies influenced artistic circles. Although the impact of Constructive Expressionism and Cubism is clearly visible in the details of Van de Woestyne’s later works, the influence of Classicism and Symbolism still prevails, creating a unique and mix of classic and contemporary.
His themes may have been limited, but his styles were eclectic illustrating an impressive scope of creative ingenuity. Van de Woestyne’s ageold religious themes especially were representations of Existentialism, loneliness and suffering.
Van de Woestyne is considered an important representative of Symbolism in Belgium, and this striking retrospective complements the current exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels dedicated to this sensuous movement.
Until 27 June
Ghent Fine Arts Museum