A COLLECTION OPEN TO THE WORLD
3 CENTURIES OF PASSION AND HISTORY
THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS: A MUSEUM ON THE MOVE
The Museum of Fine Arts covers the full spread of artistic movements which have burst on to the scene in Belgium since the 19th century and developed into the 20th century: neoclassicism, Realism, social realism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Surrealism and Abstraction.
Prestige and history:
Some great names contribute towards its reputation: F.-J. Navez, J. Portaels, C. Meunier, P. Paulus, M. Luce, P. Delvaux, R. Magritte, A. Darville, G. Dumont, J. Ransy, A. Bornain, J. Delahaut and M. Feulien.
As the witness to the collective memory and the guardian of our heritage, the Museum is engaged in a host of sensitive, dynamic activities: temporary exhibitions, visits with activities attached, lectures, creative workshops, concerts and more. This is how it helps to mould the younger generation.
The non-profit association ‘Friends of the Charleroi Museums’, set up in 1987, has set itself the objective of helping to promote and advertise the City’s museums. It takes an interest in all the activities directly associated with their organisation.
People who join up are helping ensure the future of these museums.
François-Joseph NAVEZ (Charleroi, 1787 – Brussels, 1869)
This Charleroi-born artist was a pupil of the French neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). Between 1817 and 1822, a scholarship enabled him to spend five years in Italy, mixing with artists such as Ingres and Granet.
He continued to develop as an artist, initially painting formal portraits, a genre in which he excelled, and which had been riding the wave of a huge surge in popularity since the end of the 18th century.
The precision and sophistication of the drawing, in its attention to detail and the lifelike way in which the subjects were portrayed, were evidence of the painter’s technical mastery. Navez also produced religious and mythological compositions, as well as large historical scenes.
On his return from Italy, he painted Italian-style compositions depicting multiple characters, in a more sentimental or nostalgic vein. His son-in-law and pupil was Jean Portaels (1815-1895), the famous Orientalist painter.
Jean PORTAELS (Vilvoorde, 1818 – Schaerbeek, 1895)
This artist, who was known for his historical paintings, religious compositions, Oriental scenes and portraits, was born into a middle-class family and may be considered as being on the cusp between the neoclassicism of Navez, whose student he was, and the Romanticism of someone like Wappers (1803-1860).
However, Portaels remains midway along the conventional spectrum in the way in which he treats his subject and in his classical vision of an exotic theme. He played a key role in Belgian cultural circles in the 19th century.
As the main representative in the Museum of Fine Arts of the travelling Orientalists, Portaels’s painting conjures up the image of the Orient as dreamed of by the Romantic spirit. Pierre-Jean Van der Ouderaa (1841-1915) became fascinated by the atmosphere of these eastern lands.
In 1844, some ten years after Delacroix (1798-1863), he travelled through North Africa, bringing back several series of sketches reflecting the theme, which he drew upon for reference throughout his career.
The subject matter, the luminous quality of the whole body of work, and a certain looseness of touch, are the result of the impact of Romanticism and that exoticism that it trailed behind it.
Constantin MEUNIER (Etterbeek, 1831 – Brussels, 1905)
Meunier studied sculpture in the workshop of Charles Auguste Fraikin (1817-1893) and then painting under François-Joseph Navez (1787-1869). He initially specialised as a painter, and then went on to devote the second half of his career to sculpture. He drew his major inspiration from the working-class proletariat from 1870 onwards.
This theme was temperamentally well matched to the artist, who focused on the everyday lives of ordinary folk and the work of the labouring classes. No sordid realism or extreme political message: just the recognition of a unique and uniform reality of labour, a genuine sculptural exaltation of the working man, with no redundant flashiness.
Moving beyond simply bearing witness in a physical or psychological way, Meunier creates a synthesis of the labourer which has something of the allegorical and presents the viewer with timeless, permanent archetypes.
Maximilien Luce (1885-1941), Pierre Paulus (1881-1959) and Alex-Louis Martin (1887-1954) all drew inspiration from the same theme, taking different approaches.
Maximilien LUCE (Paris, 1885-1941)
This French painter trained as an engraver before taking up painting, moving in the same circles as Camille Pissarro, Cross, Van Rijsselberghe and Signac, all of them seeking to create form through the technique known as Divisionism.
Luce was initially attracted by nature and landscapes: he rapidly abandoned his early efforts when he discovered, through the work of Constantin Meunier, a field which as a militant working-class anarchist he found particularly exciting.
The reason why this artist is among those represented in the Charleroi Museum’s collections has to do with the various journeys that he undertook in our region, accompanied by Van Rijsselberghe and Meunier. The use of Divisionism allowed the artists to forcefully translate the region’s effervescence, to explore the shapes, the colours and the lights of this industrial area.
Unlike the Impressionists, he lends his brushstrokes geometric rigour, handling them systematically and thus sweeping away the Impressionistic fog in favour of a solid structure.
Pierre PAULUS (Châtelet, 1881 – Brussels, 1959)
This painter, lithographer and ceramicist was born into a family of artists, his early influences being the French Impressionist school and the Luminism of Emile Claus (1849-1924) and his school; his early landscapes are imbued with this in terms of technique, subject matter and their vivid, hot colours.
Constantin Meunier (1831-1905), whose realistic, socially committed paintings were so influential on Paulus, died in 1905; from this date onwards, we see Paulus beginning to produce his first paintings steeped in the industrial atmosphere of the banks of the Sambre.
In 1910, Paulus became friends with Jules Destrée (1863-1936), and the following year, he produced Youth, a landmark work in his career, one of the masterpieces of the Salon d’art moderne at the Charleroi Exhibition in 1911.
Moving onwards from the romantic realism of Youth, Paulus evolved towards an art with Expressionist touches, reminiscent of Permeke. The knife work, using a generous paste, shows a rich palette with infinite subtleties. He places priestly figures of miners, metalworkers and the women who pushed the carts full of coal, known locally as the ‘hiercheuses’, who occupy the bulk of an oppressive, dark setting, in a similar way to an artist such as Marius Carion (1898-1949).
Paul DELVAUX (1897 - 1994)
Paul Delvaux’s paintings populated by dream-like figures who are indifferent to each other seem to be the creations of an individual who has grown up too quickly.
Skeletons, unclothed young girls, young men on the threshold of puberty, hallucinatory scientists, deserted stations and bordellos are recurrent images in his work; dream-like visions, unpretentious, children’s dreams of a touching naivety camped in settings where the influence of De Chirico (1888-1979) is ever-present.
Like the surrealists, this artist – while being very attentive to the rigour of the composition – leaves no space for material effects. No modelling, no unnecessary brushstrokes. From a purely technical angle, he seems to be interested only in perspective. It is a crucial part of his dreamscapes, defining their limits and – thanks to its strange, almost scholarly rigour – reinforcing the mystery that emanates from the picture.
In an intimate universe, at the heart of an architecture mapped out with classical lines, Delvaux works in a silence pregnant with things unsaid to organise his compositions with the meticulous attention to detail of a studious, focused child. The Museum of Fine Arts holds one painting and two lithographs by Paul Delvaux.
René MAGRITTE (Lessines, 1898 - Schaerbeek, 1967)
The universe of René Magritte is unquestionably one of the most striking in the whole history of art. Every one of his images undergoes a long and thoughtful gestation. His reflection, notably angled towards the subjectivity of language, chooses the approach of posing disturbing questions – that of a society that has ossified as a result of fateful prejudices.
When Magritte abandons the efficient objectivity of ‘Pure sculpture’, it is only to experience another form of efficiency – that of a dislocated and time-slipped everyday world.
One of the essential paradoxes inherent in Magritte’s work is doubtless to illuminate knowledge with a shadow of mystery; this is also the theme being mined in La Fée ignorante (‘The ignorant fairy’), which appears like a genuinely concentrated version of much of what formed Magritte’s brand of surrealism: childhood memories, elective affinities, differences of scale, a material at the service of ideas, etc.
Walloon surrealism is also represented by some other excellent artists such as Armand Simon (1906-1981), who favours the automatic writing advocated by André Breton (1896-1966).
The Museum of Fine Arts holds eight paintings by René Magritte, spanning the various periods in his career. They include the maquette for the mural painting for the Salle des Congrès in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Charleroi (1957).
Gilberte DUMONT (Montignies-sur-Sambre, 1910-1989)
Gilberte Dumont was fascinated by the Flemish Primitives and the artists of the Italian Renaissance, and deployed a meticulous technique in order to generate a universe teeming with details and rich in charisma.
This paradoxical work is the fruit of the tenderly naïve gaze that the artist casts over living things and inanimate objects and a rigorous and acutely observant eye, giving rise to a sometimes mystery-laden atmosphere. Dumont’s world is sometimes familiar, with the almost reassuring regularity of our little working-class houses (‘corons’), the simplicity of time spent with family, a bittersweet nostalgia for treasured moments, and sometimes unsettling, with the austere presence of unknown characters, landscapes suddenly brought alive by incongruous patterns, and unexpected settings where strange ceremonies are underway.
The association ‘Art vivant au pays de Charleroi’ (1933-1939) was to play a key role in the blossoming of the arts. Its founders include Gilberte Dumont and Alphonse Darville, Camus, Chavepeyer, Delmotte, Degrange, Martin, Moos, Mulliez and Wasterlain.
Alphonse DARVILLE (Mont-sur-Marchienne, 1910-1990)
Darville ignores the dictates of fashion and seduces us through the authenticity of his sculpture. Having trained under Victor Rousseau (1865-1954), he savours his love of classicism and of Italy.
In 1935, he was awarded the Rome Prize for the exquisite Torse de jeune fille, which is held by the Museum of Fine Arts. This classical figurative creator continued his search for absolute beauty, for pure form and primordial equilibrium, transcending any materialist notion of figuration or non-figuration.
Like Victor Rousseau, Darville was in love with poetry, and lays before us an abundant and varied body of work, ranging from monumental statuary to medals, and including portraits, a genre in which he is a perfect craftsman and which he approaches with the resources of a perfectly Roman rigour.
His monumental work stands at the very heart of the city, where it blends harmoniously with a large number of pubic buildings, including the Charleroi City Hall.
Jean RANSY (Baulers, 1910 - Courcelles, 1991)
Technical virtuoso Jean Ransy seems to derive genuine pleasure from rendering the velvety texture of wood, the chill of metal or the softness of a feather. This tendency to aestheticize distances the artist from a purely surrealist approach which some ascribe to him.
Making subtle use of numerous symbols, the artist has successfully constructed a world whose scope far exceeds the boundaries of the painting. Surrealism, symbolism and hyperrealism thus give rise to works whose hot hues tend to render the mystery less worrying.
His sense of composition and his marked taste for drawing give his paintings a classical balance dedicated to deserted lagoons, shadowy sanctuaries and ancient stones. Along with G. Camus, A. Darville, M. Gibon, J. Grégoire and A. Mascaux, Ransy joined the association ‘Les artistes des cahiers du nord’, founded in 1946.
Alain BORNAIN (Genappe, 1965)
Alain Bornain is one of today’s most promising artists in the French Community in Belgium. His gestural painting has its roots in abstract Expressionism. Initially, the feelings take flight in dazzling colours, in a gesture which is broad and difficult to contain.
Memory is grafted on. The remnant of the past, the fragments of photographs, the words, the images from life are all signs of a reflection which goes far beyond a sometimes reductive impulsiveness. So, going back to the sources of his recollections, Alain Bornain explores the blackboard: he conjugates, calculates, rubs out, rewrites, rubs out again. This is a tangible process, which allows every individual to find himself and opens the door to simple and obvious things.
The Museum of Fine Arts is particularly interested in contemporary creation, and is now keen to include this in its collections. Other artists have other approaches, such as Victor Neri and Jean-François Van Haelmeersch.
Jo Delahaut ( Vottem-lez-Liège 1911 - Schaerbeek 1992)
Painter Jo Delahaut is one of the figureheads of geometric abstraction in Belgium. Having trained as a sculptor at the Liège Academy and gained a doctorate in the history of art from the University of Liège, Jo Delahaut started painting Expressionist pieces in 1940. Falling under the influence in particular of the works of painter Auguste Herbin (1882-1960), he became, in 1946-47, the only painter to tackle abstraction with unprecedented radicalism.
He was a member of the ‘Réalités Nouvelles’ in Paris in 1946 and of ‘La Jeune Peinture Belge’ in Brussels in 1947, alongside Mig Quinet (1908), Louis van Lindt (1909-1950), Gaston Bertrand (1910-1994), Marc Mendelson (1915) and Anne Bonnet (1908-1960), and founder member of the Belgian group ‘Art Abstrait’ in 1952, and in 1954 he co-wrote the ‘Spatialist Manifesto’ with Pol Bury (1922) among others.
His geometric abstraction was a way to awaken the mechanisms of intellectual activity, a metalanguage addressed to the spirit. Nurturing the ancestral dialectic relationship between form and colour, he uses plane geometry in his work because it is, he says, ‘the most representative of man (…), understandable intuitively even by those who do not know the theory behind it’.
The work Suggestion n° 1, which has been acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts in Charleroi, translates his process of expressing the dynamism of pure form in an extremely stripped-down chromatic universe.
Jo Delahaut was also an eminent teacher at INSAS and the Ecole nationale supérieure d’Architecture et des Arts Visuels (La Cambre) in Brussels.
Marc FEULIEN (1943-2005)
Marc Feulien taught ceramics at the Academy of Fine Arts in Charleroi and began to attract notice as an artist in the early 1970s. His work takes as its inspiration the intrinsic properties of the materials he chooses to use. Obviously these include terracotta, in which he excels, but he also uses mercury, blue stone, glass, concrete, zinc sheets applied to paper, and cast iron. Another artist, Daniel Fauville (1953) also uses this material as a nod to the region’s industrial heritage. Feulien uses this selection of materials to communicate to the viewer the wide range of tactile sensations scattered throughout nature or generated by man and then forgotten. Alongside these characteristics, Feulien does not intend to polarise the viewer’s attention on the technique. His work feeds on recurrent squares and cubes, geometric figures set up as the archetype of his artistic approach.
Marc Feulien is also one of the few artists to have solved the question of how to integrate a work into an architectural project. In his case, it might be more accurate to talk about the gestation of sculptures from fundamental figures inherent in the architect’s initial plan. The piece of work is born out of the place, in an almost ‘chromosomal’ relationship with it. His sculpture leaping from the entrance to the Charleroi Regional Cultural Centre illustrates this quality.