To find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now.
Belgium is a beautiful city, in the words of the previous POTUS, Brussels, alas, is a hellhole. In these times of division, polarisation and discord, nationally and internationally, we Belgians shrug our schizophrenic shoulders and sigh. Belgium having so often been called a surrealist country, the entire world is now catching on to the fact that it is no less so. A favourite parlour game of the British is ‘Name ten famous Belgians’. The implication that this is an impossible exercise never fails to tickle the average Englishman. There are funnier jokes. Somewhere in the first decade of this century, Belgian TV decided to copy BBC1’s Great Britons series. True to character, it came up with two lists, one of famous Flemish Belgians, and one of famous Walloon Belgians.
Yet it is truly not difficult to name 10 famous Belgians, without even resorting to ancient history (Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor), fiction (Tintin, Hercule Poirot) or criminal history (Marc Dutroux, King Leopold II). There are even some that are habitually claimed by both Flemish and Walloons (Aldolphe Sax, Django Reinhardt, Audrey Hepburn, Jacques Brel…). At times, we are true Belgians.
But then again, sometimes we simply cannot shrug off our provincialism. At this very moment, a commission of nine experts is fashioning what is called a ‘Flemish Cultural Canon’: a list of the most important names, events and objects from Flemish culture and history, so-called cultural anchor points. It should be ready by October 2022. An impressive array of medals for the Flemish to flaunt in the face of the rival Walloons, the patronising Dutch, snooty French, and the chuckly Brits. Likewise, a handy tool to indoctrinate, I mean integrate, refugees and other newcomers to our neck of the woods.
Upon hearing of the planned exhibition of Pierre Alechinsky’s work, I was overcome with nostalgia for a bygone era, in tempore non suspecto, when the arts might allow one to feel a harmless flutter of national, yes, even European, pride, without being yelled at or soliciting insult.
Pierre Alechinsky (b. 1927, in the ‘hellhole’) is most often described as a Belgian painter. Arguably, he is also the last.
The Carta Canta exhibition in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, is not a retrospective. It is inspired by the long-lived relationship between Alechinsky and the museum, and the many works the painter donated. The title can be translated as ‘words fly away, writings remain’, or more succinctly: ‘there it is in black and white’. The exhibition comprises hundreds of graphic works, prints, etchings, lithographs, drawings, and a small number of paintings.
Upon entering the exhibition, I found I had to check my habitual anarchic streak: meticulously ignoring the thematic order and even the trajectory proposed by the curator. No such luck in pandemic times. But I was not perturbed: apart from keeping hygienic distance and sheepishly following the darts stuck to the floor, the visitor may ignore the curator’s set-up at leisure. He or she may contemplate the works as such, without the intermediate literature. And read the visitor’s guide at home (thank heavens, there are no audio guides). Despite so much ink having flowed throughout the artist’s long life, describing and analyzing his many inspirations, his methods, media, and techniques, I am happy to confirm that the visitor to Carta Canta can easily do without the ‘background information’ and enjoy the full anarchic force of Alechinsky’s oeuvre. It is strong enough.
Alechinsky crosses frontiers other painters avoid, and he appropriates them. The usual categories do not apply. His work is painting, but it is drawing, it is painterly but likewise graphic. His painting is a form of writing. His writing is not based on conventional signs, yet it is legible, albeit only in a painterly way. It narrates, but the story is not the object. His painting-drawing-writing is spontaneous – some would say automatic, yet rigorously disciplined. It is wild. It evokes (medieval) illumination yet is not illustrative (of a pre-existing reality). It is informed by Asian calligraphy, but is just as evocative of Breughel or Jeroen Bosch. It is monumental, as in the grandes machines (of which in my greed I would have liked to have seen more), and precious like jewellery, as here in his graphic works.
The paintings on paper are mounted by way of marouflage: glued with wallpaper paste onto raw canvas, resulting in a surface with a sheen beyond comparison. It is as if the more or less ruffled painted-on paper, once smoothed, acquires a new dimension, as if it has somehow come into being by itself.
Many compositional devices and features in Alechinsky’s work challenge the observer’s gaze. He plays, profiting from being ambidextrous, with the reading order (East Asian: also right to left/vertical). The composition of paintings with predella (along the frame at the bottom), or with ‘marginal remarks’ surrounding a central painting, offer multiple shifting perspectives.
Carta Canta exposes a paper universe of sizzling, crackling and chirping creatures, objects and spaces, all issuing from the tip of a brush, and laid down, without relenting, on all kinds of paper supports: fine Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese paper, 19th-century laid paper, vellum, wrapping paper, old hand-written letters, invoices, securities, notarial deeds, maps – anything the painter can lay his hands on, attesting to an appetite for salvaged paper possibly only rivalled by Paul Klee.
Pierre Alechinsky is one of those rare remaining (Belgian) painters, who do not resort to selecting their ‘subject matter’ from one or other photographic source, in order to then arbitrarily superimpose ‘content’ (the back story). Because this content never really merges with the form, it must painstakingly be repeated, by the artist, gallery owner, museum curator, critic. Ultimately, however, you are left with a random, photo-based, mute ‘image’.
In Alechinsky’s work, refreshingly, form, content and physical substrate are an indivisible, organic unity. Carta Canta is evocative, affecting, delectable. It is a feast.
Carta Canta, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Until 01.08.2021
Volume 35 no. 6 July/August 2021