Two paintings. One — rough rainbows, jagged angularity, empty textured patches. The other — soft rounded glow, smattering of light, pearly overflowing haze. An etching table, some mushrooms. Between them — an unmistakable, unexplainable thread of kinship. In front of them — me, heart racing.
It was supposed to be just another stopover. I might have easily gone to see Magritte instead, but I hesitantly opted for the unknown and the temporary. It was meant to be a little excursion to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium; just passing the time on the outskirts of the real adventure: a week in Morocco.
Morocco pales in comparison.
Rik Wouters, this painter I’d never heard of before, followed me all the way to magical Marrakesh. His life and paintings kept me up at night for the entire trip.
What was it about Wouters? Many of his paintings are seemingly unfinished, as if he just stopped as soon as he got bored. This might sound like a weakness. In fact, it means the complete banishment of boredom from the canvas. It means achieving one of the alleged aims of impressionism — “capturing the moment” — like no impressionist ever had. It means staying true to the essences of things, even if these turn out to be no more than a smudge of paint. Just look at the shoe below!
Others of his works are filled to the brim with paint. Filled even to overflowing — I wasn’t the only person to audibly exhale in front “Apples and artificial flowers B.” So gloriously too much.
Wouters loved Cézanne, and the kinship between their work is clear — but their paintings have different personalities. Where Cézanne is meticulous, Wouters is fervent.
Wouters is all intensity.
A woman’s face recurred in these paintings over and over. With romantic naivety, I found myself thinking “please let it be his wife!”
It was. Nel Wouters appears in her husband’s works again and again and again. Sleeping, waking up, ironing, looking out the window, ill with tears in her eyes, dancing, hugging herself tight — in all the motley instants which held her husband’s gaze.
And reading. “Woman reading” is warmer than any painting I’d ever seen. Nel is perfectly self-contained, wrapped in her own shoulders mirroring the curve of her engrossing book. I come closer, scrutinize her face, and am startled, almost upset to find that it reveals nothing more. There is only the instant.
In “Woman reading,” Wouters painted love itself. I can’t put it any other way.
As I look at yet another portrait of Nel, I have an epiphany. Love is the missing link, the glue which holds all of Wouters’s paintings together. In the empty canvases and in the overfull ones, the soft and the jagged — everything is there because it’s loved. Everything is seen with the lover’s intoxicated eyes. Not just Nel, but the mushrooms, the furniture, the light. And, of course, the paint.
Wouters painted not so much the impression of things as their atmosphere. In one work, he depicts only the feeling, the glow of furniture in a living room. He painted domestic life as it is — suffused with meaning.
I stand in front of “Domestic cares” — a monumental sculpture of Nel, strikingly intimate despite its grandeur, which Wouters sculpted in his basement in 1913–14 — listening to the audioguide. The accumulation of portraits of Nel in the room, witnesses to love, becomes almost unbearably moving. The larger-than-life “Domestic cares” in front of the miniature “Woman reading.” In their opposite ways, each doing exactly the same thing —giving off the same love.
The audioguide informs me that “Domestic cares” was supposed to represent the overcoming of financial hardship. Rik and Nel had been living in poverty for years, but this was the turning point after which everything would get better.
This was the turning point after which the war started. The days of domestic cares, the audioguide tells us, had been their happy days.
I don’t quite know what’s coming— but behind my eyes, tears are getting ready.
The last room cut me with the abruptness of death. One minute —love’s kaleidoscope. The next — a handful of dark paintings, “Self-portrait with an eyepatch” — and the exit door.
Wouters was conscripted in 1914. He couldn’t bear the horrors of war. On top of that, he started suffering from horrible headaches. It soon turned out that he had sinus cancer. He had to have several operations, and in 1915 he lost his eye and part of his jaw. He died in 1916.
He was 33. Nel was 27.
I can’t do justice to what Wouters’s paintings did to me. I’d hit the highest notes of praise too soon, in posts about puny Munch and Matisse, and I ran out of notes for Wouters. I’d lied about Munch — it turns out that was nothing like seeing a painter for the first time. With Wouters, there was no bewilderment — just instant connection.
Why hadn’t I heard of Wouters before? Maybe universal renown is too much to ask for a painter who spoke to me on such a personal level. After all, he’s famous enough in Belgium, and not many are privileged to be remembered outside of their homeland.
Still, I think art history has been unfair to Wouters. He puts more famous painters to shame. Why did Matisse have to buy all those antiques, if there is so much to shimmer in Wouters’s humble interiors? Just look at Wouters’s paintings of Nel — did Gaugin really have to leave his wife and kids? What good are Munch’s tormented mirages when there is so much color in a plate of mushrooms?
I like those famous guys — but Wouters is mine like they never will be.
As critics emphasize, Wouters’s work is touchingly simple. But these words have to be carefully cleaned of misguided associations to be recognized for what they are: the highest possible praise.
It’s a simplicity that doesn’t give up anything that matters. A refusal to give the viewer empty riddles, to show off your personality, to be part of a movement. An homage to the beauty ordinary people and things exhibit not despite their ordinariness — but because of it. An exuberance rather than a calm contemplation. A cutting open of the smallest things to reveal the jewels inside. A fervent polishing of surfaces till they shimmer from all angles — with their own natural light.
It’s a simplicity that manages to paint love itself, over and over. Without a trace of boredom or sentimentality — only earnestness.
Simple, but not easy — like all great art.
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