Peter Pauwels was taught the passion for modern art from the proverbial spoon. His grandfather was Maurits Naessens, director of Bank van Parijs en De Nederlanden, who had the Osterriethhuis on Meir bought and housed a famous art collection. In 1963, he paid as patron for the ground-breaking overview book ‘Abstract painting in Flanders’.
As a compiler, he engaged Michel Seuphor for this, who looked back on the innovative but now forgotten twenties in Antwerp, in which he, Jozef Peeters and Paul van Ostaijen played a leading role. In a new, fist-thick book, Peter Pauwels evokes the same heroic years again on the basis of letters and magazine articles that he found in archives.
“I wanted to bring back to life all the brave people who then tried to build a new world through avant-garde art,” says Peter Pauwels. “The book is a kind of collective portrait with Jozef Peeters as the central figure. It corrects the view that Brussels was the center of the Belgian avant-garde. That merit goes to Antwerp, where Flamingants, inspired by activism, wanted to put Flanders on the international map with a new art.”
Congress for modern art
They did this with ambitious magazines such as ‘Hetoverzicht’ and ‘De Driehoek’ and with the famous ‘Congresses for modern art’. “You can reconstruct how their network expands,” says Pauwels. “Jozef Peeters first contacted Holland, then France, Italy and especially Germany. Via Berlin it went on to Eastern Europe. The artists published in each other’s magazines and exchanged photos and works. Sometimes very practical. The Dutch architect Jacobus Oud, for example, brought with him the design that Laszlo Moholy-Nagy had made for the cover of ‘The Overview’ from Berlin.”
The international avant-garde also met at conferences. The most important for Belgium was the second ‘congress of modern art’ organized by Jozef Peeters in January 1922 in the Atheneum and the Flemish hall El Bardo. He received it for the collaboration with Herwarth Walden in Berlin, who sent works by Paul Klee and Kurt Schwitters. Filippo Marinetti in Rome engaged futurists to participate. Works by the Antwerp Parisians Georges Vantongerloo and Marthe Donas were also exhibited. Only the Dutch De Stijl was missing because Peeters and Theo Van Doesburg got off very badly.
No patron or money
Despite Jozef Peeter’s enormous efforts, modernism did not gain a foothold in Antwerp. Pauwels sees various reasons for this. “In Antwerp the artists had no patrons and no gallery to go to. It had Flemish Expressionism in Brussels in the person of Paul-Gustave Van Hecke. The only people who ever bought anything, a piece of furniture or linocut, were Flemish enlightened petty citizens, but their budget was limited to a few pieces.
“Antwerp’s modernists were not easy people either. They were constantly at odds with each other, unlike the painters of Sint-Martens-Latem, who were comrades. Jozef Peeters and Van Ostaijen: It didn’t click, and it also went wrong with Seuphor.”
No wonder the first generation of modernists gave up after a few years. They took a different direction or gave up as an artist, such as Jozef Peeters, who from 1927 focused on raising his children. Later came the care of his sick wife Pelagie, until then the breadwinner and his most loyal accomplice. As a tomb for himself, he decorated his apartment on the Scheldekajerne as a total work of art with abstract wall paintings and furniture designed by himself.
“The story of Jozef Peeters is tragic,” says Pauwels. “A brave personality who has seen black snow, yet accomplished something. Fortunately, at the end of his life, things went well, when a young generation of abstract artists recognized his pioneering role. He made peace again with Seuphor. It came for late to his first retrospective exhibition at the Hessenhuis in 1960 and the ledger that Seuphor made. Thanks to his daughter Godelieve, the Peeters archive was preserved and the apartment was preserved as a monument.”
Today, the role of Antwerp modernism is recognized in Belgium. This happened thanks to important exhibitions in the museums of Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent and art dealer Ronny Van de Velde, who defended the early modernists with books and exhibitions. But Peeters is hardly known abroad, although his work can be found in the Center Pompidou in Paris and the MoMa in New York, and copies of ‘Hetoverzicht’ and ‘De Driehoek’ are coveted worldwide. His followers Jos Leonard, Edmond Van Dooren or Karel Maes also share the same fate.
“The biggest problem is that there are almost no paintings and that our museums have bought almost none of them. In our new research, we have not found much new, apart from two watercolors by Peeters, which were in the possession of Marinetti’s grandson,’ says Pauwels. “It is our dream that a great book can be translated into English and that a foreign museum pays attention to Antwerp’s modernism.”
Private museum FIBAC tours
As a result of the book about Jozef Peeters, a visit is possible at FIBAC in Pulhofwijk in Berchem. Philip and Ingrid De Ferm’s private museum is housed in a beautiful Art Deco room. For the occasion, the collector couple is showing their entire collection of modern art from the 1920s with masterpieces by Jozef Peeters, Marthe Donas, Jules Schmalzigaug, Georges Vantongerloo, Jos Leonard, Karel Maes, Victor Servranckx and René Magritte. The overview is also supplemented with pieces from the Ronny and Jessy Van de Velde gallery and other lenders.
Visits, both in groups and individually, are only possible after reservation via firstname.lastname@example.org. Individual visitors can visit on Saturday 29/10, 26/11, 28/1, 25/2 and 25/3.
Peter JH Pauwels – Jozef Peeters and the fight against the tingeltangel, in 2 parts, 499 pages, Ludion 60 euros.