ROOTED. Painting Flanders

Gustave Van de Woestyne, De slechte zaaier, collectie De Bode ©SABAM 2017

The nineteenth century sees Belgium become one of the leading industrial nations in the world. Farmers become factory workers, deserting the countryside for the city to live in cramped and stinking slums beneath towering mill chimneys that belch smoke day and night. Small wonder that growing nostalgia for a lost pastoral age causes artists like Emile Claus, Gustave Van de Woestyne, George Minne and Valerius De Saedeleer to abandon the stench of Ghent and breathe the purer air of the Leie area.

Here they find echoes of the lost idyll. Whether consciously or not, each seeks his roots in his own way. One finds them in ripening cornfields, another in the Bruegelian poetry of a winter landscape or a peasant’s ruddy face. Glimmering through their paintings, sculptures and drawings is a kind of collective essence of what Flanders is. A monumental, uncomplicated, and often almost spiritual ode to the region and those whose lives are bound to it.

But the Leie is not the only place where people are painting. In fashionable Ostend, James Ensor alternates between authentic fisherfolk and fantastical burlesque, for absurd humour is typically Flemish too. And as the nineteenth century turns into the twentieth, Léon Spilliaert finds himself lost in a world of accelerating change. While the war has yet to begin.

The First World War marks a dramatic watershed. Exile abroad gives artists like Gust De Smet, Frits Van den Berghe, Constant Permeke and Edgard Tytgat a sense of what is happening on the international art scene. They too take inspiration from the lives and pastimes of ordinary people and reflect what they see in  images of café interiors, fairs, circuses and the music hall. They commit their own emotions to their works of art, creating an intensely personal view of the world at that time.