Flemish Expressionism began to flourish in the 1920s. The key protagonists were Constant Permeke, Gustave De Smet and Frits Van den Berghe. Prior to the First World War, they lived and worked in the artists’ village of Sint-Martens-Latem near Ghent and were still heavily influenced by Impressionism. During the war years, Van den Berghe and De Smet stayed in the Netherlands and Permeke in England. Here, they came into contact with the latest artistic developments: Fauvism, Futurism and, above all, French Cubism and German Expressionism. Under the influence of the international avant-garde they developed their own style, in which the recognisable reality, despite the sometimes extreme distortions, remained the starting point.
Flemish Expressionism is characterised by rustic and popular themes. Permeke primarily focused on fishermen and farmers. De Smet and Van den Berghe had a remarkable eye for village life and leisure activities: the fair, the circus, the local bars,...
Gustave De Smet is the most classical representative of Flemish Expressionism. He painted this canvas during his exile in the artists’ village of Blaricum in the Netherlands. In keeping with the avant-garde, he evolved towards a more synthesised visual language of angular shapes and sombre colours. The schematised, pipe-smoking man represents a type rather than an individual person. The rhythmic, facetted appearance of the naked woman in the background is reminiscent of Picasso.
Fairs and circuses were a lifelong source of inspiration for De Smet, whose father used to paint sets for such events. In this purified composition, the space is reduced to a two-dimensional surface and the colour palette is limited. The figures have oval heads, almond-shaped eyes, big rosy cheeks and cylindrical necks and limbs. They are evocative of the French artist Fernand Léger, but are also inspired by African and Egyptian art.
Gustave De Smet, who grew up in Ghent, was introduced to the world of fairs and circuses as a child: his father used to paint backdrops for the show tents. It became a lifelong source of inspiration for his son, Gustave.
We are standing before a shooting range. When De Smet painted this canvas in 1923, he was already acquainted with the European avant-garde, such as German Expressionism and Picasso’s Cubism. He encountered these styles during his long stay in the Netherlands, both during and after the First World War. These discoveries would be a source of inspiration that had a life-long bearing on his work.
Brown, red and ochre: this is the minimalist colour palette used in the painting. The space is reduced to a flat, two-dimensional plane and the four figures possess the characteristic features that we often see in De Smet’s work: an oval head, almond-shaped eyes, flushed round cheeks, a cylindrical neck and tubular arms and legs.
Gustave De Smet was part of the group of Flemish Expressionists who lived and worked in the environs of Sint-Martens-Latem near Ghent.
Constant Permeke is the best-known representative of Flemish Expressionism. A pronounced sense of monumentality and extreme distortions are typical characteristics of his work. He depicted rural life in earthy colours and thickly applied paint. At the roughly sketched table, a moustached farmer and a second, semi-abstract figure sup porridge in silence.
The painter of this canvas, Constant Permeke, is undoubtedly the best-known representative of the Flemish Expressionists, a group of artists who depicted reality in a distorted way. Their style was in keeping with European artistic developments but, at the same time, typically local: the Flemish Expressionists tended to depict subjects drawn from village life or the countryside.
We are in Astene, in 1922, as you can read at the bottom right. That summer, Constant Permeke is painting scenes of rural life in the East-Flemish village near Sint-Martens-Latem. He uses brownish colours, with paint based on earth pigments. His work reminds some people of Rembrandt.
Eating in silence around a schematic table. The background is neutral. An angular farmer with a moustache ladles out the porridge. To his left, a second figure is hunched over a plate. Is this the farmer’s wife? Or could it be a child? The figure is almost abstract. Permeke’s vague style of painting, with rough lines, lends a kind of universal character to the local inhabitants of the village.
Frits Van den Berghe only painted in the Expressionist style for a brief period of time. Between 1922 and 1926, he made a series of canvases based on the rural surroundings of the village of Sint-Martens-Latem. His expressionistic sense of form is conveyed in almost caricatural distortions, as well as through the robust figures, spontaneous handling of the paint, idiosyncratic use of colour and the striking light-dark contrasts.
Robust and almost caricatural figures. An idiosyncratic use of warm colours. Contrasts between light and dark... Frits Van den Berghe became acquainted with European Expressionism during the First World War and soon started painting in the same style.
This canvas, which is dated 1925, bears witness to these developments. During this period, Van den Berghe was living in the vicinity of the artists’ village of Sint-Martens-Latem, like many of his fellow artists. Village life is the backdrop for this canvas. Surviving preparatory drawings for this painting show a group of farmers dancing and celebrating the carnival. You can still see traces of this in the background.
It is remarkable how the lives and careers of many Flemish Expressionists resemble each other: they lived in Sint-Martens-Latem before the First World War and painted in an impressionistic style. They discovered the work of international avant-garde artists in other countries during the war, after which they painted in an expressionistic style. It is to this that they owe their fame.
Frits Van den Berghe was the most well-read and intellectual painter of the group. This might explain the perceptible irony of this kind of work. And also, the painter’s unease: despite the success of his Expressionist work, Van den Berghe’s style soon evolved into a form of Surrealism. The work we see here dates from before that time.
Brusselmans’ Brabant views are amongst the most original landscapes in the Flemish tradition. Until his death in 1953, he lived and worked in dire poverty in Dilbeek. Here, he found inspiration in the landscape of rural Pajottenland, west of Brussels. He documented the region throughout the seasons, as seen in this tranquil winter landscape that has been stripped of all superfluous detail.