Jef van Tuerenhout, the last Belgian Surrealist - (1926-2006)
"This is not a conflict between old art, which doesn't even exist in our country and new. It is not a battle for some kind of development or change in art, but for art itself, for the right to create artistically. And this is the point. Our Secession is the struggle of new artists against those travelling salesmen who pretend to be artists and have a commercial interest in keeping any art form from being discovered", declared Hermann Barr in January 1898 in the first issue of "Ver Sacrum", the review, published up to 1903, that voiced the ideals of the Viennese Secession.
It is this claim, clear and precise - with no words wasted - that I find manifest in the work of Jef Van Tuerenhout, the Belgian artist (Mechelen, 1926) whose many years of accomplishment are represented today in a fine exhibition held in the enchanted scenario of the Chiostro de Sant'Angostino at Pietrasanta - a place, an atmosphere and a symbol emblematic to artists the world over. And if, as I am increasingly convinced, the nominalist question is never merely casual and goes far beyond its definition to assume the role of content, the name of the great Saint born in Tagaste suggests two fundamental qualities of this painter's art: speculative intuition and vigourous personality. These are traits which always, and inevitably, spring from a concrete, soundly-based, wide-ranging culture, and which are always inherent to the art of Van Tuerenhout; with a reading, at first glance simple - though never simplistic - but in reality imbued with refined allusions and illusions, metaphors and dualisms. His strict training at the Academy of St. Luke in Brussels; his lengthy wanderings round the world, his works displayed in many one-man shows and famous art galleries from Sweden to Haïti, from the United States to Germany, from Canada to France, as far as Japan, the distant Orient so closely attuned to his own taste and sensitivity; his ardent collecting of non-European and, more generally, of so-called "primitive" cultures (which could more appropriately be termed "original"); his spirit of superb craftmanship, in the finest historical sense of the term, and incomparable artist - these are many, but not all, of the tesserae in a msaic throwing light on the figure, the temperament, and the disanchented gaze of "Mastro" Jef. I have pondered at length whether to use this term, which may seem anachronistic and reductive but which instead, I believe, places an artist of his standing within his true dimension, as the acknowledged heir of the long and splendid Flemish tradition, which has influenced contemporary art more than is currently recognised.
The sharp, clear contours, the skilful use of colour - and of monochrome - a perspective, in the scenes crowded with personages and allusions as well as in the extempore portraits, focused intently on the foreground, offering a continous reading, seem the direct descendents, especially in the architecture of the works, of the artist's centurieslong school of origin, perhaps not in the philological sense but certainly not incidentally.
Van Tuerenhout's style has been compared to that of Klimt, and this must be acknowledged, especially when we think if his "Woman" - and I use the capitalized, singular form not by chance but in the sense of archetype - always allusive, wavering between bold sensuality and intangible stylising in the elongated format, the rhytmic, sinous lines of a decorativedesign that becomes in itself a subject. The reference is obvious, but not exhaustive, especially as van Tuerenhout's artistic chronology unfolds. The sensitivity of Marino Marini ("Mother and child", 1948; the two "Studies", 1950) in his "Pomona", along with echoes of Arcimboldo, reverberate in ornate, feminine decorative schemes (as in "Bloemenkraus"). The structural and spatial metaphysics of "De Denkster" and "Iristuin", evocative of De Chirico, extend as far as the haunting, dream-like references to the landscapes, and even more the skies, of Van Gogh (" Landschap"). I am aware - to forestall the critics - that the instinctive and at times cerebral exercise of the "reference to" - which should never become comparison, especially between different epochs and contexts - may seem out of date, and out of fashion. Especially to the illustrious and the snobbish, it may seem a rather grossier method of approaching the work and its creator. But this is not so, I am convinced. Because an artist, such as Jef, is a man who lives, feels, and carefully observes. He is a man who travels, avid to discover. He is a "blank page" on which Nature and her primordial themes - a powerful force in this artist, as we shall see - as well as the work of man (and thus the art of his predecessors) leave indelible signs, which re-emerge at the moment of creation. Certainly, I repeat, for this to happen, the indispensable premises are knowledge and culture, made up sensitivity and personal growth, which come together in Van Tuerenhout's work in elegance of style and life, in disenchanted reflection on contingent facts - always, for centuries, "under the same sun" - in a civilization of feeling and relationship no longer inherent to our own time. It is for this reason, as well as for the others I have mentioned, that the attribute of "gentrleman" is not, I believe, inappropriate to this artist. And I continue to be amazed and fascinated; at the brushstroke, the sobriety, the accute and immediate perception, which do not exclude, but rather enrich, the artist's profound humanity.