After 1945, art movements followed on from one another in rapid succession. Abstraction gained in strength, but currents dominated by figuration also took hold, such as Surrealism. Both tendencies are rooted in the first quarter of the 20th century.
In 1917, Georges Vantongerloo became a member of the Dutch art movement known as De Stijl. Later, in the 1950s, he began creating three-dimensional work using contemporary materials. The Assault by René Magritte is a typical example of the visual language developed by this Belgian surrealist. Paul Delvaux worked on the border between magical realism and Surrealism. Broodthaers was an admirer of – and artistic heir to – Magritte. He still serves as a source of inspiration for artists worldwide.
Amédée Cortier evolved from figurative to abstract art, and found a connection with American Colour Field painting. The work of René Heyvaert is highly minimalistic. Raoul De Keyser created an abstract style based upon his immediate surroundings and the natural world. His work enjoys international acclaim.
A wooden floor, a black wall with an opening that offers a view of a residential tower block. On the floor is a beam that resembles a cloud-filled sky, a grooved sphere and a frame containing a realistically painted female torso. What do these things have in common? Magritte enjoys wordplay and the title only serves to deepen the mystery.
What do we see? When it comes to the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte, this is always the first and best question to ask. It also holds true for this canvas, which dates from around 1932. We see: wooden floorboards and a black wall with an opening that resembles a Romanesque arch. Through the arch: a five-storey residential building and rows of curtained windows. On the floor to the left: a rectangular block with clouds. A bisected ball, or bell, lies in front of the opening, and on the right, we see a picture frame containing a realistically painted female torso.
After looking, come the questions. But the answers are not forthcoming, as is often the case with Magritte. Or, rather, there are many possible answers. Why is this work known as The Assault? Does that title have nothing, something, or everything to do with what we see? We know that Magritte’s titles are designed to mislead viewers. Is the spherical object a bomb? Have the clouds, a symbol of freedom, been imprisoned? Is this an ‘attack’ on the way we tend to look at the world? Is this a kind of theatrical stage set? One that offers a glimpse of something beyond?
Nothing is what it seems, images are unreliable, the real world is precarious. In any case: reason and logic only take us so far. Mystery reigns supreme. And this, perhaps, is Magritte’s most important message.
In the 1950s, Roger Raveel’s work evolved from Expressionism to a new form of abstract figuration. He drew inspiration from his surroundings and his family. Here we see a man, probably the artist’s father, in a typical Flemish garden of that period, fenced with concrete panels and with concrete posts for stringing up a washing line.
In these three monochrome paintings, the colour entirely corresponds to the surface. Colour became a standalone element in Cortier’s work in the 1970s. He explored the tensions that arise when intense, flat colour fields influence one another.
Paul Delvaux, together with René Magritte, is the most important representative of Belgian Surrealism. Young female nudes, stations and trains, skeletons and architecture are recurring elements in his works, which above all evoke an estranging, dreamlike mood. The serenity of this painting is reminiscent of the work of the Flemish Primitives. Delvaux made the panel for the Groeningemuseum in 1970.
Paul Delvaux is often mentioned in the same breath as René Magritte, as another important representative of Belgian Surrealism. The individualist Delvaux, however, always preferred to talk about his ‘poetic realism’. The key ingredients of his work being: young female nudes, stations and trains, frames and architecture. And above all: an alienating, surreal atmosphere.
There is something unusual about this panel Serenity: Paul Delvaux painted the work in 1970 especially for the Groeningemuseum! The peace and serenity it evokes are reminiscent of the Flemish Primitives. It is no coincidence that the three blonde, half-naked women are depicted in front of a church, which is built in the Romanesque style. The woman on the right has draped a blue cloth over her back, which reminds us of Mary. In the background, behind the water, fragments of a city that recalls Bruges can be seen. The realistic way that Delvaux has painted the buildings is something that we recognise from the landscapes and cityscapes of the Flemish Primitives.
Raoul De Keyser was a friend of Roger Raveel and originally worked in the same style. Over time, he evolved towards a form of abstraction. A figurative source of inspiration would often shine through, however, such as the branches of a baobab tree in his garden, as seen in Sinking. His work is admired as far off as the United States.
Raoul De Keyser, who died in 2012, is internationally recognised as one of Belgium’s most important contemporary artists. De Keyser’s work was principally inspired by the everyday surroundings of his house in Deinze: the local grass football pitch with its white chalk lines, details in his own home...Slowly but surely, his depictions of the surroundings became increasingly minimal, less anecdotal and therefore more universal. Abstract too, but without becoming completely non-representational. Or, as one art critic said of De Keyser’s poetic, silent and subtle work, it became about the ‘beauty of almost nothing’.
De Keyser continued to paint variations on the same themes but also kept renewing himself. Searching, faltering, making mistakes and trying again: this is all revealed in his brushwork. For De Keyser, the physical act of painting was an essential component of his oeuvre. He invites us to look closely and, in so doing, to discover new layers.
De Keyser once took lessons from Roger Raveel, whose work is also part of the museum collection. Raveel and De Keyser also worked together. Just like De Keyser, Raveel was a stay-at-home artist. His domestic surroundings became the painterly alphabet with which he began to work. This approach was called the ‘New Vision’.
Following his academic training as a sculptor, Georges Vantongerloo lived in the Netherlands as a war refugee, together with Rik Wouters. It was here that they encountered Modernism. He made his first paintings in 1916, influenced in part by the fauvist late Pointillism of Wouters. Vantongerloo paints using a broad range of rhythmic notes, with the white canvas often shining through. The palette is limited to a few core colours.
In the 1920s, Vantongerloo developed a painting style based on geometric abstraction. This was in line with Mondrian, but also utilised both primary (red-yellow-blue) and secondary colours (green-purple-orange). Fifteen years later, a period followed in which Vantongerloo left the pure linear structure of his artworks behind and introduced mathematical curves. These are often in green and red on white.
During the 1950s, Cortier painted numerous still lifes. These are simple compositions in which he depicts familiar items from his immediate surroundings. The clearly defined but schematically portrayed objects are set down upon the canvas with tight contours. They sit on a table positioned widthways across the picture plane. The background of the painting is pared down to a few patches of colour.
This relief — painted in smoothly applied black gloss paint from the brand Sikkens Rubbol A-Z — comprises two small wooden panels with a difference in height of a few millimetres. The relief line ensures minimal disruption to the monochrome black painted surface.
For this sculpture in white painted cement, Georges Vantongerloo began by portraying a seated woman. Working drawings that have been preserved show the evolution from Realism to Abstraction. At that point in time, Vantongerloo lived in the Netherlands and became familiar with the work of international avant-garde artists via exhibitions. He became the sole Belgian member of De Stijl, a movement that promoted a new abstract visual language.
In 1918, Georges Vantongerloo used the representation of a seated woman to make this statue in white painted cement. We know this because the working drawings have survived. They show, as it were, the evolution from realism to abstraction. The result is this work, which is called Construction in the Sphere. It is based on a simple equation: volume + emptiness = space. Now that’s something to think about...
Georges Vantongerloo was living in the Netherlands when he made this work. It was here that he was introduced to members of the Dutch avant-garde and the artists of De Stijl, including Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondriaan. They proposed a new abstract visual language, one that would apply to all art forms. A New World, this was their goal! Mathematics and geometry would play an important role in this development, as a theoretical basis for their art. This was also true of Vantongerloo. He was also a painter and even developed his own theory of colour.
We have already deepened our knowledge of Flemish Expressionism in the 1920s. Yet abstract art, or ‘pure imagery’ as it was called, was also being created in Belgium at this time. Within the museum, it is Georges Vantongerloo who represents this movement. He is rightly known as ‘the Belgian Mondrian’. Vantongerloo had been working in Paris for several decades when he died in 1965.
The Groeningemuseum owns several works by Vantongerloo. As an ensemble, they provide a fine survey of his work.
The Manuscript 1833 (Le Manuscrit trouvé dans une bouteille) is an edition of 120 examples from 1974. MS. Found in a Bottle is an 1833 novella by Edgar Allan Poe in which the narrator recounts his hallucinatory adventures at sea, thereby satirising the popular nautical fiction genre. With Broodthaers, the bottle itself is the manuscript.
Now we’ve reached the end of the tour, you will meet an all-round artist who was fiercely critical of the art world and museums: the internationally renowned and infamous Brussels artist, Marcel Broodthaers. The Groeningemuseum owns almost every edition of his printed works, as well as a wealth of posters, catalogues and invitations... When it comes to an artist like Broodthaers, these things are all part of his ‘life and work’.
Broodthaers’ critical ideas can all be found in his works on paper: about the role of the artist, the bond and the relationship between art and money, about art and museums, for example... These issues formed the basis of his artworks and his performances.
In the seminal year of 1968, Marcel Broodthaers installed a fictitious museum in his own home, with empty packing crates and postcards of 19th-century paintings on the walls. In one of the departments that he added afterwards, the objects and images carried the message: ‘This is not an artwork.’
And with this critical wink, your audio tour of the Groeningemuseum comes to an end. We hope that you’ve enjoyed listening and, more importantly, looking at the works of art.
Did you enjoy your visit? If so, the museums of Bruges have a lot more to offer, such as the Gruuthusemuseum, the St. John’s Hospital and many other sites.
We hope to see you again soon!
This miniature atlas contains the land mass silhouettes of thirty-two different countries, in alphabetical order and all reduced to the same size. This means that the book is entirely unsuited to the military, although it may well be appropriate for artists.
The work of De Sauter can be categorised as ‘fundamental art’. Originally, he restricted himself to drawing lines or making a single fold in the canvas. The artist applied this visual language very consistently. In the 1980s, De Sauter explored the possibilities of a different material by using brass, zinc and copper in combination with gold leaf.
Due to illness, architect René Heyvaert became confined to his house and kitchen table. It was here that he crafted minimalist artworks with everyday materials such as packaging, cutlery, bricks or branches from his garden. His work on paper is also highly Minimalistic. Heyvaert was forgotten for a time, but his work is attracting considerable attention once more.
In the 1950s, Georges Vantongerloo continued his quest for form and colour. He was living in Paris by this time, where he received a visit from the young American artist Ellsworth Kelly, an admirer of his experiments. Vantongerloo attempted to unite sculpture and painting. By painting on transparent Plexiglas, which folds itself into the space, he literally makes colour float.
In his final works, Vantongerloo drew his inspiration from astrophysical phenomena that he had either read about in books or seen with his own eyes. He fashioned the sun’s orbits from a spiral of metal wire. These create the cosmological space that is activated energetically by the objects. Vantongerloo’s oeuvre is striving towards infinity. He successfully combines emptiness and volume.
Before becoming a visual artist in 1963, the poet and critic Marcel Broodthaers earned his living as a photographer. He took numerous photos during the Expo 58 world exhibition. In the 1960s, he frequented the artistic milieus of Brussels, where he made portraits of his friends. He completed his iconic self- portrait two years before his death.