Tamara Beheydt writes on the art and technique of Laurens Legiers works.
Laurens Legiers and modern Belgian art history
Considering his young age, artist Laurens Legiers (born 1994) has a very recognizable style. Heavy, expressive brushstrokes or itchy details are clearly not what he aims for. His work seems clearly legible, his painting technique, even. Curator Sasha Bogojev accurately describes it as follows: “With a focus on the motif as a whole, rather than on details and separate features, the visuals appear soft, almost graphic, and are the perfect base for the light and shadow play he performs on the surface of his paintings.”[i] Legiers works with soft, rounded shapes and modest colours. The perspective is unique: there is not quite a foreground and background; the depth perception is created almost purely by a subtle play of shadows. This keeps the surface tempered, mild. As a viewer you can dive in and enjoy it without too much effort. There are hardly any obstacles, the image is harmoniously accommodating, devoid of any ego of the artist.
Legiers fits into a group of young painters, a new generation that paints mostly figuratively and often with – I am careful with this label – a naive touch. It is remarkable that many of these fresh talents find their roots in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp and some of them integrate references to Belgian or Flemish art history in their practice. However, amidst his contemporaries, Legiers strikes me as the most outspokenly 'Belgian' artist.
When I first saw his works, on the so-called Wunderwall of PLUS-ONE Gallery and Gallery Sofie Van de Velde in Antwerp, I spontaneously and inexplicably felt a kind of ‘Belgitude’ in the work. I couldn't quite place it, but it could have something to do with the mussels, that steal the show in some paintings; with the apples that reminded me of Magritte; or with the greyish hues that seem to be repeated in the Belgian sky.
On mussels and eggs
Those mussels and other signs of a ‘Belgitude’ were not there by chance: the artist himself declares that during that period he aspired to make “a Belgian painting.”[ii] As a result, several works evoke associations with other artists, because he consciously wishes to inscribe himself in a tradition, or art history – albeit without weakening his own strong character, because he is by no means a copycat.
When mussels and art come together, an association with Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976) is inevitable. From 1965 on, he created several works with mussel shells, including his famous ‘Grande Casserole de Moules’, which is part of the collection of S.M.A.K. In this work, the mussel is a symbol of “Belgium and its national culinary culture,” but there is more: “Broodthaers considered the mussel to be independent, existing in its own shell, not allowing itself to be shaped in accordance with the whims of society, and in this sense it is perfect.”[iii]
Mussels; natural, with white wine, with garlic sauce, with or without vegetables, always with fries: one of the most popular Belgian dishes. The fact that Broodthaers’ mussel shells are empty indicates that dinner is already over, the conviviality has come to an end. His mussel pot is – among other things – a monument to the beauty and the banality of that Belgian identity, which seems inherently linked to eating a particular dish. In Legiers’ works the mussels are still floating around in the sea, their habitat. The mussel is also perfect for him – even surreally so: their shells have an ideal roundness, an unreal smoothness.
The same goes for eggs, or maybe it's more correct to say: egg shapes. In some works, Legiers seems to be painting eggs very clearly (images reminiscent of the traditional Easter egg hunt), in other images we may discern rocks in what is essentially the same shape. The stones, mountains or pebbles are so beautifully rounded that their real identity becomes uncertain. This also makes the scale unstable, and adds to the surreal qualities of the work: are there starfish and mussels on a series of eggs? Or on the tops of a mountain range? Both options are equally unlikely and intriguing.
Where in Legiers’ works the egg shapes play a rhythmic, aesthetic and formal role, Broodthaers used eggshells in his oeuvre for a completely different reason. For him they were an object of everyday life; their transience involved a subtle critique of the commercial aspects of the art world. His assemblages heralded conceptual art in Belgium and, moreover, were closer to arte povera than to surrealism, from which he wanted to distance himself.[iv]
Legibility and Jean Brusselmans’ Influence
Legiers admires the work of Jean Brusselmans (1884-1953), a Belgian painter who remained somewhat under the radar during his life, and also later. He was given a major retrospective in 2018 at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. What appeals to Legiers in Brusselmans' oeuvre is “his directness, the legibility of his works.” According to the artist himself, this is also what he strives for.
“Brusselmans’ work looks naive, but it has been painted with a masterful hand. At times that virtuosity turns into an all but gauche painting style.”[v] This quote is close to Legiers' work, which could also be experienced as naive. However, there is no question of a “gauche style”. From a distance one might think that his works are airbrushed, but nothing could be further from the truth: he works off the cuff, and therefore very controlled. Incidentally, this virtuosity is something he deliberately practices: by often painting the same subject, he tries to perfect the depiction of it – albeit within his own visual language. When the best version is reached, he leaves the object in question behind. It is therefore no coincidence that the mussels, lobsters, leaves, snails, etc. return in different compositions and in different contexts (winter, summer, rain, sunset).
In this context, “naive” means that every painted object is easy to read, has clear contours and does not contain unnecessary details. “Brusselmans takes the visual elements, the visual motifs, and strips them of their function and tactile value and of their material structure,” curator Hans Janssen writes.[vi] Legiers uses an abstraction that leads to an essence: all recognizable elements are present, but any individualizing details are missing. However, his work evolves from featuring landscapes and narratives to being increasingly formal, symmetrical, harmonious. It is not about a complex plot, but about a clear, comfortable composition. Legiers wants to “create an atmosphere, convey a pleasant feeling; like the quiet joy you can experience watching a beautiful sunset.” This aspiration is not far away from Brusselmans’, as is apparent from his quote: “Naïve painting, pure, compact, being natural.”[vii]
A Veil of Rain and Clouds
Although Legiers does look at his examples, often with a technical question in mind (for example: are Monet's lilies darker or lighter than the water?), he always paints from memory. Therefore, he does not lose himself in a multitude of details; he brings his subjects to an essence, which is sufficiently symbolic, yet always pleasant and peaceful to look at. He perfectly knows in advance what he will create: the object, the scale, the colours, the composition; everything is clear before his brush touches the canvas. Only very rarely does he change this plan while working.
One painting can however influence another: painting mussels led to an interest in the sea and other sea creatures, such as lobsters. When asked why he chooses lobsters and not fish, for example, the answer is simple: because their shape interests and challenges him; because they fit his personal aesthetic. Occasionally a coincidence also leads to the next subject: the beautiful sunset from the window of his studio encourages him to also incorporate that orange-yellow glow in his paintings, and a heavy rain shower makes him realize that that too can be interesting to look at; it may cloud our perception.
As I write this text, rain has been pouring down the sky for days. In mid-July, the Belgian weather is greyer than ever, and it has a depressing effect on our minds. A blue-grey haze hangs over the landscape and the city, a filter that muffles the light. The contrast with the comforting yellow light, which I turn on out of necessity, is great. It also has some ambiguous beauty, this continuous rain. The soft murmur of it, the view of running water on the window and into the gutter, while I myself sit inside and wear a sweater in the summer. Typically Belgian?
Legiers himself declares that he takes inspiration from the romantic landscapes of, among others, Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840): the storms, the wild sea, the dark foreground with a radiant sunlight in the background. However, the sublime dynamics and natural power that the romantics explored cannot literally be found in his work. There is no turmoil. All works – to my knowledge without exception – are characterized by a comfortable symmetry, a harmonious composition and smooth colours. One shade often determines the entire painting; a grey haze seems to hang over most of the works, as if our view has been darkened by rainy and cloudy weather.
Since 2020, it seems that Legiers has been leaning more towards moderate greys, greens and blues, and less towards bright warm colours, as he did before. While his vibrant and brusque areas of colour could still be reminiscent of Brusselmans, his colours now are much softer and less distinct. He recently plays with shades from light blue to grey, colours that are reminiscent of the oeuvre of René Magritte (1898-1967). His convex, round clouds and the soft blue tones are in a sense reflected in Legiers’ work. To this, he himself adds: the stylized leaves, which often represent an entire tree. His leaves could often represent mountains with snowy peaks; there is also a nod to romanticism here. And the same goes for the aforementioned painting with the apples: in the foreground is a pile of black apples, while in the background more apples float in a red-orange sunset colour.
The rain, which in Legiers’ work consists of large vertical drop shapes, spread over the entire canvas, can be read as a – perhaps unconscious – reflection of the Belgian weather, but this too is a formal matter for him; an object that fits within his aesthetic universe. For him, the rain has the same function as the (horizontal) waves of the sea: breaking with the smooth, soft forms of the other painted elements. After all, it allows the artist to “cross out” his own work in slightly more expressive ways; to counter the beautifully delineated finish with a slightly thicker brushstroke, a dynamic that is stylistically at odds with the rest of the work. And in that we recognize something of Brusselmans: “This grey is indicative of the cloud mass, also conveyed here and there by broad trailing strokes of grey. It is from this that we can infer their drifting motion.”[viii] In his seascapes, the water is always very mobile and crosses the work emphatically, just like the clouds, which move massively from one side of the image to the other – but within a horizontal landscape, something that never occurs with Legiers.
In his striking and sometimes quirky combinations of formal elements and objects, such as lobsters, mussels, leaves, flowers, snails, clouds, rain and rocks, Legiers is an heir to Belgian surrealism. His work is mysterious and humorous enough to attract attention, but remains accommodative and strives above all to create a pleasant atmosphere in the exhibition space. Isn't it typically Belgian to seek the best of different worlds, to strive for beauty, to find humour and attraction in the most mundane of things? The modest aesthetics, the soft shapes and the well-dosed humour graced the Belgian surrealism of, among others, Magritte, and now also the paintings of Legiers. Seemingly without any effort, and above all without pretension, the artist creates an extremely unique visual language that pays homage to the greatest of his Belgian predecessors, and also appeals, excites and intrigues.
[ii] Conversation between the artist and the author, in the artist’s studio in Antwerp on July 7th, 2021. All other discussions and interpretations of Legiers’ work in this text come forth from the same conversation, or contain personal reflections of the author.
[iii] S.M.A.K. “Grande Casserole de Moules. Marcel Broodthaers,” last access July 19th, 2021. https://smak.be/en/collectie/de-smak-collectie/177
[iv] Canonne, Xavier. Surrealisme in België. 1924-2000. Brussels: Mercatorfonds, 2006: 217 and 319.
[v] Tempel, Benno. “Voorwoord” in: Janssen, Hans. Jean Brusselmans. 1884-1953. 2018: Hannibal and Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, exhib. cat.: 4.
[vi] Janssen, Hans. “On the visual motif in the work of Jean Brusselmans” in: Janssen, Hans. Jean Brusselmans. 1884-1953. 2018: Hannibal and Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, exhib. cat.: 26.
[vii] Janssen: 28. Quote originally from: Delevroy, Robert L. Jean Brusselmans, catalogue raisonné, vol. 4 of Maîtres de la peinture contemporaine en Belgique. Brussels: 1972.
[viii] Fuchs, Rudi. “Brusselmans Revisited” in: Janssen, Hans. Jean Brusselmans. 1884-1953. 2018: Hannibal and Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, exhib. cat.: 18.
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