Details of the first comprehensive exhibition of modern Flemish painting to come to the United States were announced Friday by the Newport Harbor Art Museum.
The works will be on display at the museum from Dec. 12 through Feb. 22, 1987. The exhibit will include about 140 paintings by 24 artists, including 14 by James Ensor (1860-1949) and 11 by Constant Permeke (1886-1952), after Ensor probably the best known Flemish painter of the era.
The exhibition, entitled "Flemish Expressions: Representational Painting in the Twentieth Century," was organized jointly by the museum and the Flemish Ministry of Culture.
"It is the first time that such a block of paintings has moved from Belgium to the United States," Belgium Ambassador Herman Dehennin said during a press conference Friday at La Dome Restaurant in West Hollywood. "There have been other requests, but it is happening with the Newport Art Museum because a great deal of initiative was taken."
The initiative came mainly from Paul Schimmel, the museum's chief curator. He said he has been intrigued since college by the rich colors and the earthy imagery employed by Ensor and his countrymen. Schimmel approached Andre Adam, Belgium's consul general in Los Angeles, with the idea three years ago.
"Paul and I first spoke at a social gathering--I don't remember which one--and he was very knowledgeable about Flemish art," said Adam. "Then I and some other Belgian people visited the museum in Newport Beach. We were very impressed by Orange County. Very impressed by the affluence there."
Schimmel said the show will cost the museum and the Flemish government between $250,000 and $500,000, with some financial help coming from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities and the Ambassador Foundation in Pasadena. After Newport Beach, the exhibition will travel to the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale.
Worked in Attic
Van Eyck, Bosch, Bruegel and Rubens, giants of pre-20th Century Flemish art, are well known. Many of the moderns are not. Ensor, for instance, modern Flemish art's leading figure, spent most of his life working in an attic studio overlooking the fishing harbor of his hometown of Ostend. His career symbolizes the relative obscurity of all Flemish artists in the 20th Century.
Adam insists that the show assembled by Schimmel--working with experts from the Flemish Ministry of Culture--represents the modern phase of "a definite tradition" going back to the 19th Century and earlier.
Schimmel describes the show as a collection of overlooked masterpieces. But he was not able to acquire Ensor's monumental 1888 painting, "The Entry of Christ Into Brussels," undoubtedly the artist's best-known work. "We tried very very hard," Schimmel said. "But they just aren't lending that one out."
There will be three works by a Paul Delvaux, a Flemish painter in his 80s whose work is well known in this country.
Many of the paintings that Schimmel did gather come from the homes of lawyers, doctors, textile merchants and farmers throughout that country, as well from such museums as the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp and the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent.
Schimmel said the affection for these painters among their countrymen is one of the reasons they are so little known elsewhere. The indifference shown to the French Impressionists by their countrymen prompted that group of artists to seek recognition outside their own country, Schimmel said.
About 70% of the exhibition will consist of pre-World War II works. The remainder will be made up of works by post-war artists that Schimmel said are among the best-known inside Belgium. "This is not a show of new and emerging artists," he said. "In that sense it is a historical show."
Judging by the Slides
Stylistically, playing with labels by which to describe the show is dangerous. Certainly--to judge by slides Schimmel presented at La Dome--some of these painters share the concentrated emotion of the German Expressionism. Yet Leon Spilliaert, who will be represented by 14 watercolors, has nothing in common with expressionism, according to an essay by W. Vanbeselaere, the late curator for the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Vanbeselaere, writing in a catalogue from a previous show in Great Britain, called Spilliaert a late symbolist.
In some of the paintings, one sees similarities here and there to Van Gogh and Edward Munch. Hodler and Cezanne will also come to the minds of some viewers.
For many people, no doubt, the draw for the show will be the Ensors. Putting his figures in masks was just one of his methods for painting a satirical picture of the society at large, and satire was just one of the painter's many diverse styles.
"You can fiddle around with semantics and labels, but the point is that he was a very good painter when he was very good," said Kirk Varnedoe, adjunct curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in an interview. "He had a certain type of brush stroke and fantastical vision that had a lot of influence on 20th-Century art."
Varnedoe, a respected authority on modern art, said he did not know enough about most of the other artists to comment. But he said that was no reflection on the show. "I'd think that you don't do a show like this to trade on established reputations but to establish new ones," he said.