“Flemish and Dutch Painting: Art of the XX Century”

“Flemish and Dutch Painting: Art of the XX Century,” which was curated by Rudi Fuchs of the Netherlands and Jan Hoet of Belgium, represented a unique attempt to reconstruct the development of Modern art in Holland and Flanders. The exhibition was built around two fundamental assumptions, or leitmotifs. First, there was the idea that Paris and New York were not the only centers around which Modern art unfolded after World War II—that Amsterdam and Brussels, as well as other cities, contributed in significant ways to international artistic debates. Second, the show presented various dichotomies and dualities intended to demonstrate how visual arts in the two cultures can be clearly distinguished, despite their countries’ geographic proximity and linguistic connection.

The tendencies that were emphasized ranged from scrupulous realism and an almost maniacal attention to detail, to grotesque and/or paradoxical invented images and situations. The curators highlighted the origins of these poles by opening the exhibition with works by early-sixteenth-century masters Joachim Patinir and Jan van Scorel. Among the historical works that were included one also found surprising examples by artists like Jan Bruegel and Pieter Saenredam’s: the curators related the work of the former to the Surrealist poetics of René Magritte and Paul Delvaux, while connections were drawn between Sanraedam’s rigorous analyses and the work of contemporary artists like Jan Dibbets or Stanley Brouwn.

Of the nearly ninety artists whose work appeared in the exhibition, Vincent van Gogh and James Ensor took the lion’s share, with entire rooms devoted to their work. The show not only focused on the influence these artists had on the Expressionists, but also on the essential differences between their work (the catalogue texts emphasize the contrast between van Gogh’s compact paint application and the fantastic quality of Ensor’s sensual and multicolored paintings). The exhibition continued with examples of Expressionism from Holland and Flanders, including work by Constant Permeke, Frits van den Berghe, Hermann Justus Kruyder, and Kees van Dongen. Jan Toorop’s linear, Art Nouveau works were juxtaposed with early abstractions by Mondrian (on which they perhaps had an influence). The exhibition also included work by artists who worked alongside Mondrian, such as De Stijl–founder Theo Van Docsburg and the architect Gerrit Rietveld, whose famous red-blue chair was displayed.

The postwar period was amply documented, with an emphasis on CoBrA’s reworking of Expressionism through its aggressive version of informel. The curators included a broad selection of works by Dutch artists Karel Appel and Constant, as well as the Belgian Pierre Alechinsky. Pyke Koch’s and Carel Willink’s threatening paintings, which are both fantastic and commonplace, were also on display. A significant amount of space was reserved for Marcel Broodthaers and his analysis of Surrealism. Two of his works dedicated to Magritte were shown, as well as the famous Miroir d’époque Régence (Regency mirror, 1973), which seemed to sum up the tone of the exhibition through its emphasis on context and linkages.

The younger generation was represented with works by artists who have recently dominated the international scene: the selection included retouched photographs by Dutch conceptual artist Gert van Elk; figurative paintings by Reinier Lucasscn, René Daniels, and Marlene Dumas; and Luc Tuymans’ delicate, mysterious paintings.

Mario Codognato

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.