14 March 2018

Georges Le Brun: The Man Who Passed By

The triptych is a familiar form in painting, long associated with Christian religious subjects.  What we have here in Georges Le Brun's La ferme de la Haase  (The Haase Farm) is something quite different, his affectionate rendering of his native Flemish countryside and a rich source of inspiration. And we know that Le Brun had seen his nation's most famous triptych.

Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece ( completed in 1432) is arguably the greatest work of art in Belgium, one that has inspired generations of visitors to make a pilgrimage to this Flemish city.  To grow up surrounded by the glorious works that artists created during the period when the Burgundian royal court sat in Flanders and not be affected by them would be difficult to imagine, especially for aspiring artists.  What originated as a painterly arrangement of the metaphysical world became an organizing principle in  paintings by Fernand Khnopff. (1858-1921).

Roughly contemporary, the artist Georges le Brun (1873-1914) felt the pull of those early Flemish primitive painters, too. "I remain convinced that being able to draw consists not so much in making no mistakes; but rather in revealing the individual psychological character of people and things by a judicious accentuation of every typical irregularity.  There is more art, more feeling and more poetry in one realist work done in the style of the primitive or one of the minor Dutch artists than in the stuffy compositions of the great masters."

There are other similarities, too.  Le Brun used the combination of charcoals and pastel to create a personal symbolism, notable for excellent draftsmanship.   Although Le Brun traveled, spending three months in Italy in 1900, the landscape he became attached to emotionally was the high fens (Haut Fanges) of the Ardennes in eastern Belgium.   During his times in Brussels, the lawyer/collector Octave Maus helped to advance the young artist's career, commissioning articles from Le Brun for his magazine L'Art Moderne. And Le Brun, as much as Khnopff, was a master of ambiguity. 

Although Le Brun's symbolism never quite gives up its meaning,  it  is situated in the everyday world. His depictions of quiet interiors and the unreachable aura that attaches to his human figures have invited comparisons to his contemporary, the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi.  The reading woman in The Vestibule reminds me of Seuart's  charcoal drawing of a floating woman (Art Institute of Chicago), found at last.   Le Brun had married Nathalie de Rossart of Brussels in 1904.  The couple bought a house in Theux, a small town in the Ardennes, where they had two children: Andre, born 1905 and Joan, born 1907.   In Le Brun's interiors, even empty rooms suggest domestic life in progress, if only by the sight of a coffee pot warming on a stove.  
The elaborate geometry of the vestibule is suggestive of some greater significance than its emptiness as is the wash of light where we might expect shadows.

A similar image whose title gives a different emphasis, The Man Who Passes directs us to regard its human as its subject.  Technically, what makes these images  appear odd is that the artist placed his focal point in the center of the image, violating a basic precept of composition.  As a result, the viewer's expectations  are upended.  A scene that appears at first ordinary may be the artist's  intimation of time and space stretching and curving before our eyes.

Le Brun heightened the symbolism in his pictures by using a limited palette Le Brun works with.  Compared to them, the mural (at top) La ferme de la Haase uses the same media to more realistic ends; we can imagine ourselves looking out a window at the fen lands.
Born in Verviers in 1873, Georges Le Brun grew up in a privileged environment. His life was marked by regular changes of of scenery and incessant journeys between Verviers, Brussels, and the Ardennes.  His love of nature found no outlet in medical school so he  resigned and after  a few months he registered at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels.

Belgium in the nineteenth century was at the forefront of industrialization and for several years Le Brun apportioned his time between painting and working as a representative for a steel company although he deplored its effects on the countryside and the peasants who bore the brunt of its upheavals.   In 1899 he exhibited at the Salon des Beaux-Arts in Ghent and participated in the group La Libre Esthétique. From 1903 to 1908, he collaborated on the magazine L'Art Moderne where he defended the works of the Nabi artists in France.
While on combat duty with the Belgian Army, Georges Le Brun disappeared near the Ysaer on October 28, 1914.  His body was never found.  

1. La ferme de la Haase, 1913, water and pastel, private collection, Belgium\
2. The Vestibule, c.1909, charcoal and pastel,  Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
3. The Man Who Passes, 1900,  pastel and charcoal, Musee Communale de Verviers.

No comments: