THOMAS DEPREZ FINE ARTS
19th & 20th Century Belgian works of art
( 1 8 6 6 - 1 9 4 1 )
Mère et enfant I, 1921
Height 60 cm
Original patinated plaster
Signed on the base
[ Van Puyvelde 75 ]
Formerly in the collection of André De Ridder
By descent into the family
Leo VAN PUYVELDE, George Minne, Editions des Cahiers de Belgique, 1930, cat. 75, ill. pl. 84.
Until recently, George Minne’s production after the turn of the century had been largely neglected. Possibly due to an incapability to comprehend his ongoing plastic experimentations and new artistic vision, as well as the pressure felt from modernist art history, which focused solely on the groundbreaking start of the artist’s career, Minne’s post-war work has remained relatively obscure and undervalued. However, when assessing the artist’s oeuvre in the light of the decorative and stylistic evolution from the Art Nouveau style during the fin-de-siècle to the Art Deco style of the 1920s, Minne’s development shows parallels with such influential figures as the artist, architect and designer Henry Van de Velde. Like his dear friend Van de Velde, Minne kept constantly reinventing himself. After a stylistic crisis between 1910 and 1914 – during which he adopted a radical form of realism –, the artist arrived quite naturally at a new visual language, seamlessly adapted to the times. Several important accounts have been written on George Minne’s last artistic period; some of the most notable are by Paul Haesaerts in his voluminous study Sint-Martens-Latem: Gezegend Oord van de Vlaamse Kunst, and by Léo Van Puyveld, who, next to his important monograph on the artist, published a 28 page article – entitled Les Œuvres récentes de George Minne – in La Revue d’Art in 1925.
During the First World War, Minne momentarily laid down his chisel in favour of drawing. Interestingly, it is within these drawings, made while facing the hardship of war and the isolation caused by his exile to Great Britain, that an important new vision was created. Most poignantly, Minne starts a series of drawings around the theme of Mother and Child – caught between the religious and the spiritual –, which will become a constant throughout his further life. The artist’s first and most important biographer, Léo Van Puyvelde, explains:
“Who will define the border? The spiritual works of Minne often touch upon the religious domain. They cross it much more often still. I’m not referring exclusively here to the countless drawings of Mother and Child of which it is unclear when to entitle them Virgin and Child. […] One day Minne said to me, with his customary simplicity, while showing me drawings of the Virgin and Child: ‘This is my prayer. I cannot find the words to pray. To draw for me is to pray.’”
With his two sons in constant danger at the battlefield, the artist found consolation in the universal theme of love, which he sublimated through the old religious motif of the Virgin and Child. Through Minne's was obsession with the relationship between mother and child, and the dynamics of embracing volumes, these drawings are carefully detached from their religious background and are in fact a pure expression of the most basic human feelings. Often described as a Symbolist heralding the Expressionist movement, George Minne’s best works are probably more easily classified within the realm of Mysticism. In an attempt to express the largest and most absolute human feelings, he touched the divine, the infinite and the absolute, from his position as an artist. Reaching full artistic bloom around 1920, this series of drawings formed the basis for Minne’s newfound identity as a sculptor.
“It was through meditation, aided by drawing, that Minne reconquered the fullness of his talents after the crisis that had pushed him towards realism. He resumed sculpting in 1921. Once again his serious mind eliminates all anecdote and his figures become representations of an order that seems universal, where all transient and individual contingencies are suppressed; […] So here is the last step in the evolution of his style.”
Over the course of the following year, Minne executed four different versions of the Mother and Child; the present work being the first and arguably one of the most accomplished ones from his last stylistic period. The theme of Mother and Child continued to feed the artist’s imagination and creativity until 1929, when the last version in the series (VIII) was created. Later still, he continued to draw the subject. Van Puyvelde explains that “In the work of George Minne, the ‘subjects’ are of little importance. What is important is the realised plastic form: it’s the intrinsic beauty and the expressive force of his language.” Thus, the Mother and Child serve their function only as a katalyst for intense human feeling, and are carefully chosen by the artist in order to draw the beholder into a position where he is able to experience the deeper and more essential themes of these works. When the poet and art critic Karel Van de Woestijne was confronted with Minne’s new production on the occasion of the triennial Salon on 1922, he remarked:
“Modern to the extreme and yet again connecting with Cimabue and Giotto. Denseness and looseness. Sculpted by masses and a strong rhythmic of lines. A miracle of grace and delicate emotion. […] It is work to pray with. It is the very intimate prayer of a modern soul.”
The present original plaster, actively used in the production process of the bronzes, stems from the highly acclaimed collection of André de Ridder. This famous writer and art critic founded – together with Paul-Gustave Van Hecke – the renowned art gallery Sélection in 1920. They also produced a magazine with the same name, which would go on to become the printed voice of the Flemish Expressionist movement. Their showroom was covered with wallpaper designed by Marie Laurencin and the sofa’s with fabric by Raoul Dufy. Besides Belgian artists, De Ridder and Van Hecke also presented Léonce Rosenberg’s Ecole de Paris, with Braque, Picasso, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, André Derain, André Lhote, Metzinger, Survage, Severini, and personally invited Le Fauconnier, Dufy, Foujita, Modigliani, Valentine Prax and Zadkine to exhibit at Sélection. One of the select few, George Minne was praised as an important forerunner of the Expressionist movement and the flagship of modern Belgian art.
Although he was one of the most important and influential art collectors in Belgium during the 1920s, André De Ridder’s endeavour in the art market was unfortunately short-lived. He later wrote a monograph on George Minne, describing the artist not so much as a Symbolist, Expressionist or Mysticist, but as a “spiritualist”. In an attempt to address the bloodline that all of George Minne’s works share, he stated that the artist never profoundly innovated his art. The essence of the artist’s personality and his main artistic preoccupations were always felt in his art, throughout the different periods of his career.
“If one excludes more banal figures – who are, however, on average quite rare in an oeuvre as wonderful, original and touching as his own, moreover, in such an extensive oeuvre (consisting of a hundred and fifty figures), then one will admit that all these creations arose from the same vein and source: from the very conscious thought, from the lively but vigilantly restrained sensitivity, from the fertile imagination and the rich sense of life, from the deliberate and self-assured technique, which Minne possesses.”
André de Ridder notes two main characteristics in the work of George Minne: first, what he calls “massaliteit”, or ‘massiveness’, and second, ‘closedness’ (“geslotenheid”). It is the same duality Karel Van de Woestijne referred to. That same duality is also apparent in the present work, as we can read in a description by De Ridder:
“Pushing her child against the chest, holding it tightly, becoming one shape with it, defined by capricious contours, the woman emerges from the ripples of the material, often conjured up from the stone with a bold evocation force. In the beginning, the mother is sometimes depicted from the feet up and still rising upwards, in the visual light, like most figures of yesteryear. Subsequently, it satisfied the master to show only half of her – just the bust –, as she occupies less and less room, tied to the ground, captured in stone.”
An important note has to be made concerning casts of George Minne’s works, either in bronze or in plaster, that are dispersed in private collections around the world and resurface from time to time at auction. ‘Caveat emptor’ – ‘buyer, beware’ – is what comes to mind when we consider the sheer amount of works cast until long after the artist’s death, either from surviving moulds or extant bronzes. By 1910 George Minne had opened his own bronze foundry, whereas before that time, he regularly worked with J. Petermann in Brussels. Minne critically supervised his own output in terms of quality. However, very few notes survive about the number of versions made at the time. As always, provenance is key; and due to the fact that foundry and edition marks on authentic bronzes of Minne are absent more often than not, it comes down to the connoisseurial eye to determine whether or not a cast is deemed authentic.
The present original plaster cast of Mother and Child I, does not seem to require a provenance as majestic as André de Ridder. The undeniable detail and quality of the cast, its warm and pure patina, and the visible cutting lines – an obvious sign of the plaster having being used in the production of moulds for bronzes – all speak for themselves.
Full text with footnotes available on request