Visual arts: Octave Landuyt one hundred years

Tomorrow the 26th of December will be Octave Landuyt, one of the greatest and most versatile Belgian artists of the second half of the twentieth century, 100 years. For no fewer than eight decades, he has studied the deepest structures of objects in nature in an interdisciplinary manner. In his work he was always looking for limits: those of his own knowledge and those of life and death. A portrait of a famous artist who has exhibited worldwide and won numerous awards.

Panta rhei

Several Flemish galleries recently jumped on board with Landuyt’s 100th anniversary. For example, the Limburg gallery De Mijlpaal in Heusden-Zolder is dedicating an exhibition to Landuyt until 12 February 2023 under the title Panta rhei [Grieks voor ‘alles stroomt’, ‘alles is aan voortdurende verandering onderhevig’]. She shows a universe where everything seems to move, everything seems to be questioned, but where a personal, sharp view of a dark world is a constant.

‘About the old cherry trees’, India ink and grime, 2013, private collection, photo Thomas Min, courtesy Koenraad Tinel

At the same time, it is intended as a tribute to the centurion, with artists who have worked directly with him as students (Camiel Van Breedam and Hubert Minnebo) or with artists who undergo the same uncompromising search in their work (Koen Vanmechelen, Nedda El-Asmar , Lore Langendries). In addition to his latest, more recent works Panta rhei a number of Landuyt’s early masterpieces together again, to allow them to enter into dialogue with the work of the next generations.

Patrick Declerck’s Antwerp WM Gallery celebrated Landuyt’s birthday with an exhibition under the title Aurum Flandriae, based on the monograph of the same name by Philippe Roberts-Jones from 1994. It took place from September 18 to October 23 last year. In this context, Declerck spoke of ‘a rebirth of the Flemish primitives’. He referred to the way in which Landuyt patiently creates large-format paintings that stand out for their fine brushwork, related to the Flemish primitives, where depth, color and knowledge coincide. Declerck: ‘The countless fashions, trends and currents of the last century had no hold on Landuyt. Red is the recurring color in his oeuvre: Landuyt experiences red as more than a color from a tube. She is a fundamental aspect of the universe.’

Tuning fork

Octave Landuyt was born in Ghent on 26 December 1922. His mother came from Wallonia. His father was a postman, his grandfather a shoemaker. In the latter’s studio, Landuyt drew lots of pieces of leather as a small child. As a child, his grandmother took him to the Ghent Art Museum every Thursday afternoon to look at the paintings. It wasn’t long before he wanted to become a painter.

In the period 1928-1931, the family successively moved to Eeklo, Koksijde and Kortrijk. In the latter city, Landuyt attended elementary school and the natural sciences at the National Secondary School. He also took drawing lessons at the Art Academy, where he passed each year with distinction.

Then World War II broke out. His experiences in the dark years played a large role in Landuyt’s oeuvre. He sees death as the tuning fork to which all life events are tuned. In 1941, he signed up as a free student draftsman at the Technical School in Kortrijk. In 1944 he was appointed art education teacher at the local state high school and in 1945 in the same position at the state real school in Roeselare. His first important exhibition took place at the gallery La Sirène in Brussels in 1952. In 1954 he received a mention in the prize Young Belgian painting, he participated in the Venice Biennale for the first time and was appointed to the Rijksstandaardschool in Ghent. There he stood as a teacher and pedagogue at the cradle of the first professional teacher training program Plastic Education in Belgium.

Patrick Van Caeckenbergh, ‘Drawings of old trees on winter days’, pencil and paint on paper, 2007-2014, photo Fotorama, courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp

Mummies

In 1956 Landuyt married Raymonda (Mona) Verhage. The couple first settled in Ghent, in Landuyt’s birthplace, had a daughter (Isabelle) in 1957 and moved permanently to Heusden-Destelbergen in 1965. The family lives in a monumental house built according to instructions from the artist, which over the years has increasingly the allure of a temple or a pyramid. Not only Landuyt’s own work was given a museum home there, but also the countless mummies – some thousands of years old – and other ethnographic objects that he began to collect as witnesses of past civilizations.

Landuyt’s mummies, they stand and sit like coagulated life, like objects that he has highlighted by making a new creation around them and devising ‘situations’ for them. This gives them a new life that the artist identifies with. Witness an interview with him for the opinion weekly Spectator from 1978: ‘I wish that after my death I could also sit in a cupboard as a mummy. Then I had a job. Object between objects.’

Allrounder

In the 1950s, Landuyt became internationally known. He participated in the São Paulo Biennale (1957) and Dokumenta in Kassel (1959) and won one prize and distinction after another. Things also went well for him in the 1960s, including participation in biennales in Tokyo and Venice. Exhibitions in galleries and museums around the world completed the picture. In 1973 he enjoyed a first retrospective in St. Peter’s Abbey in Ghent. Two more followed in 1974, one at the Cultural Center in Venlo in the Netherlands and one at the Center for Fine Arts in Brussels, followed by – in 1979 – a retrospective at the Commanderie van Sint-Jan Museum in Nijmegen.

By this time, Landuyt had long since developed into a largely self-taught but masterful painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, designer of stage and television sets, costumes, jewelry and tapestries, as well as household and industrial designer — say an ‘all-rounder’. Alone as a jewelery designer, he made jewelery for, among others, Queen Fabiola, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Anne, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and the wife of Kurt Waldheim (former UN Secretary).

Retrospective

Octave Landuyt is one of dozens of Belgian artists who were allowed to design a work for the Brussels metro. For metro station Naamsepoort he realized in 1979 under the title The ultimate traffic four monumental bas-reliefs in enamelled ceramics. The bas-reliefs were placed in gate-shaped frames on the black-veined white marble in the station hall. The combinations of faces and hands represent the four stages of human life: birth, love, maturity and death. Eyes and mouth form dark slits in the faded gray ceramic material, while a single reddish-brown leaf-shaped element as the only area of ​​color highlights the monochromy of the various gray shades.

On the occasion of his 85th birthday in 2007, Landuyt again enjoyed a look back at his own country. It consisted of no fewer than three exhibitions in three locations. The exhibition Highlights took place in Ghent’s Sint-Pietersabdij from 6 May to 26 August. For that place, Landuyt chose the works of art that he himself considered the highlights of his enormous oeuvre. There were mainly paintings, drawings, bronze sculptures and a unique collection of jewelery and gold sculptures to admire. Many of these works belong to private collections and have never been exhibited before.

Recorso

The second exhibition Gothic, was exhibited in Ghent’s Caermersklooster from 6 May to 24 June. Landuyt devised a project with a purposeful choice of paintings, drawings and sculptures in relation to the design of the impressive space in the Gothic abbey church. Tail piece off Recorso — the main title of the three exhibitions — could be experienced in the Museum of Deinze and the Leie region. Under the title Oldies and design the artist chose very early work that had never been exhibited before (from 1934), works from the ‘smooth’ and organic periods, followed by works from the 1950s-1970s. There were also designs for the metal, furniture and textile industries, theater sets and costumes, advertising and posters. A 300-page bound catalog with texts by Elie Saegeman was published to accompany the three exhibitions.

Donatella Bianchi, ‘Témoins immobiles’, India ink, indigo and charcoal on paper, 2013, collection of the artist, courtesy Donatella Bianchi

Coherent vision

Landuyt debuted as a magical realist with paintings in which monstrous people with wide-open eyes are dramatically isolated in empty space. They appear naked and unarmed to their fellows. These are mostly figures with their heads bent back, as if in vague anticipation. They can be placed in an art historical development that goes back to the masters of the early and full Renaissance, such as Piero della Francesca, Michelangelo, Maarten van Heemskerck and William Blake, and which Landuyt also finds among contemporaries such as Oscar Jespers and Carel Willink. Furthermore, the cinematic point of view and the lens perspective are also striking in these works.

Gradually in 1958 – partly thanks to frequent peeks through the electron microscope – the period in Landuyt’s baroque work developed, which the art historian Emile Langui refers to as ‘infrarealism’. Landuyt revealed the infrastructure of matter in it and gave it a pictorial form in the form of animals, plants and minerals that tend towards the abstract. Certain details are elevated to separate worlds with their own textures and plastic forms. These works in oil paint often have the color of the blood of the slaughtered animals, which Landuyt watched with horror every day as a child living in Eeklo above a slaughterhouse. From the end of the 1960s, a greater imagination broke loose in the artist, and the reality he depicted became uglier and more hallucinatory.

Art critic Frans Boenders pointed in an essay to the relationship between art and science in Landuyt’s work. Like scientists, Landuyt longs for a coherent vision of the world. To this end, he shows a penchant for researching all techniques in plastic arts and their integration into a global project. Seen in this way, Landuyt’s oeuvre can be considered as one gesamtkunstwerk be considered.

Existential fear

Craftsmanship and perception of beauty have always been central to Landuyt’s work. As confusing and confusing as it sometimes appears, it always assumes a classic status. Rational explanations should not be sought in his work, nor should symbolism be sought. The artist finds that concept too determining and limiting. His work is about depicting the ‘twilight zone’, the existential anguish we all face on a daily basis.

The result is art that is universal and timeless, as if it has always been there. Landuyt feels as at home in the pre-Columbian, Tibetan, Egyptian and African civilizations and cultures as in the last century, which did not always go smoothly for him. The fact that in all those years he has never been part of an artistic group or movement is therefore no more than proof. Landuyt is a universe in itself. May he stay like this for a while.

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