10 January 2012

The Free Aesthetic In Belgium

 “As if art had a formula!– Gustave Marissiaux, 1898.

Beginnings and endings are arbitrary but necessary devices for shaping a story.  Ten years after the founding of Les Vingt in 1883, a new artistic society  - La Libre Esthetqiue or Free Aesthetics - was formed to promote new art in Brussels.  Blegium being a small country, there was overlap between the two groups and many of its members shared multiple friendships and influences.

Armand Rassenfosse (1862-1934) and the photographer Gustave Marissiaux (1875-1929) and  were longtime friends of the painter Auguste Donnay (1862-1921).   Marissiaux traveled widely, making frequent visits to Brittany, Umbria and Venice.    The Belgians were admired for the luminosity of their photographs, but there were doubters.

The recession of 1885-1886 caused a collapse in wages.  The Belgian Workers Party pressed for social reforms, including universal suffrage.  Protests in the industrial cities of Liege and Charleroi were brutally suppressed by the authorities. Within this context, Belgian art photography was seen as a bourgeois retreat from that reality.  Edouard Hannon  (1853-1931) was a founding member of the Association of Belgian photographers in 1874.

 Perhaps the finest Belgian pictorial photographer, Leonard Misonne (1870-1943) was born into material comfort at Gilly, near Charleroi.  Missonne studied to be a mining engineer but his frail constitution necessitated a less strenuous occupation.  He admired the French painters Millet and Corot, whose influence shows in his subject matter and  and  perspectives.  "Light glorifies everything. It transforms and ennobles the most commonplace and ordinary subjects. The object is nothing; light is everything."   

Rassenfosse and Donnay met when they were the principal poster artists for the publisher Auguste Bernard in Liege in the 1890s.  Marissiaux photographed his friends, immersed in their collections.  As we have noticed before, the aesthetic of ukiyo-e prints translated easily from hand-crafted woodblock printing to new techniques  in printing.

Born Edouard Albert Drains in Paris (1855-1925),  the photographer known professionally as Alexandre  moved to Brussels in 1875.  His  technical bravura, his willingness to try anything and his use of “instantaneous” flash photography  attracted the attention of Khnopff   He was in close contact with Les XX, especially Jena Delville, Xavier Mellery and Mellery’s former pupil Khnopff.  In 1896 Alexandre executed platinum plates of works by Khnopff, which Khnopff then enhanced with color, creating a series of unique new images.    This work earned Alexandre an invitation to join the British Linked Ring Brotherhood (1893-1908), eventually becoming  official photographer to the royal family.  He died  at Nice. 

In the work of Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) painting and photography were combined in images of the artist's arbitrary, individual symbolism.  D'Autrefois (In The Past),. was modeled by the artist's sister Marguerite Freson-Khnopff, although you would have to be familiar with her from his previous works to recognize her likeness here.  Khnopff's psychological attitude toward his sister remains an enigma, and a story for another day.   But something he wrote in Fashion In Art (1896) suggests the impulses that behind La Libre Esthetique, the idea, and the group he helped to found. (Note: D'Autrefois  is the only known existing image that Khnopff planned as the central panel of a triptych intended to be a portrait of the city of Bruges.  It was to be flanked on the left by a view of canals and on the right by the tomb of Mary of Burgundy.)

"Can it be true, as skeptics say, that in any work of art there is no thing but what we ourselves find in it, that we admire it, bot for its intrinsic merit, but because it answers to certain feelings of our own, and that we seek in it only a reflection of our own soul?  After all, it is quite possible.: - Fernand Khnopff.

1. Gustave Marissiaux - Auguste Donnay, c. 1911-1914, Museum of Wallon Photography, Brussels.
2. Auguste Donnay - The Imaginary Theater of Maurice Materlinck, Musee Felicien Rops, Namur.
3. Edouard Hannon - Sunbeams, 1897, Museum of Photography, Antwerp. 
4. Leonard Misonne - untitled landscape, 1890s,  published by Heering-Verlag, Harzburg, 1976.
5. Gustave Marissiaux - Armand Rassenfosse In his Studio, c. 1911-1914, Museum of Wallon Photography, Brussels.
6. Henri Carriere - Red Star Line.Anvers-New York, 1898, University of Liege.
7. Armand Rassenfosse - Genievre la Croix Rouge, Musee d"Ixelles.
8. Alexandre -  Morning After The Rain, c.1903, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Paris.
9.  Fernand Khnopff - D'Autrefois (In The Past), pastel and watercolor over photograph of original work, 1905,  Belgian Royal Museum of Art, Brussels.
10. Fernand Khnopff - dream Flowers, 1895, private collection, Belgium.

For further reading:
The Artist and the Camera: Degas to Picasso by Dorothy M. Kosinsk, New Haven, Yale University Press: 1999.


ctorre said...

Not enough comments are left here, which is fine, but I must your pieces are always a pleasure to read.

Jane said...

Thank you, Ctorre. Please comment as often as you like. I'm so happy to know that you enjoy the articles.

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