Raveel, a story with a cow, a pigeon and a cart
At the start of Roger Raveel’s exhibition a cow is grazing, at the end a pigeon is cooing. It cannot be more Flemish. And yet Raveel’s art is universal. That is why he is so fascinating, says the German curator Franz Wilhelm Kaiser.
For a year, Franz Wilhelm Kaiser worked on Raveel’s exhibition in Bozar. That’s short for a trustee. He knew Raveel, but not really thoroughly. At the end of the tour, we ask Kaiser if he thinks his life has been enriched now that he knows everything about the Machel artist. ‘Anyway. The predominant feeling is hope, ”he says, somewhat surprisingly.
‘Hope because there is so much interest in Raveel here. Art has gone in the wrong direction since 1990. If an artist was international and his work brought in money, it was good. The connection of the artist with his origins was no longer considered important. Or worse: provincialist. I strongly disagree with that. The roots of the artist are crucial to create their own story with their own visual language. If done correctly, locally anchored content becomes universal art. Raveel was a great master at this. This has never penetrated abroad. Perhaps it will work with the exhibition and the trilingual catalog. I have hope.’
Kaiser opted for a thematic division of the exhibition in Bozar. It is the right choice because Raveel did not make any abrupt cut-offs in his oeuvre. He did evolve, but usually within his own idiom. Raveel was perfectly aware of the international trends in the art world. The avant-garde had no secrets from him. But he was moderately interested in what other artists did.
The roots of the artist are crucial to create their own story with their own visual language. If done correctly, locally anchored content becomes universal art. Raveel was a great master at this.
Raveel is a child of Flemish expressionism, where naturalism – painting from nature – was central. At the start of the route, the exhibition shows eight examples of such works: a few cows, a garden. Raveel destroyed the bulk of his early work in 1948. It was a statement to himself: I want new and different.
He copied the remaining paintings in 1974-75. They hang in Bozar across the street from the original. The difference is so obvious that you almost overlook it at first. Raveel painted each copy on a large white background. You are not looking at a cow as in the original, but at an image of a cow in a larger whole. The difference is subtle but important in Raveel’s world.
Roger Raveel was born in 1921 in Machelen-aan-de-Leie. He studied at the academies of Deinze and Ghent. Initially he painted in the style of the Flemish expressionists. In 1948 he broke with the past and developed his own visual language in which the realism of everyday life and its surroundings were central. Stripes and squares dominated his paintings.
In the 1960s he expanded his paintings with mirrors, everyday objects and animals. Raveel got his own museum in 1999 in his native village. He died in 2013.
Raveel lived on the margins of art development in the 1950s. Abstract art became popular, but the painter from Machelen swore by the reality of everyday life. He painted what he saw around him. Hardly anyone had an eye for Raveel, but he was already making very exciting art at that time. ‘His paintings with stripes can be called his first example of a signature style’, Kaiser explains.
We will dwell on ‘Yellow man with trolley’ from 1952. It contains all the elements that define his work. A man in yellow-striped overalls is standing by a cart. He’s at work, it seems. It is an everyday scene, but the painting is completely unrealistic. There is no shadow, there is a strange perspective, narrative elements come together that seem painterly dysfunctional. What is that pole in the front of the painting doing?
Raveel constantly makes you doubt, as the exhibition shows. Every painting almost requires a thorough analysis. Everyday the works are only in the theme, never in the elaboration.
There is one theme to the exhibition that seems un-Raveels, although the artist will completely deny it. It concerns a series of particularly abstract works – at least – from the period 1956-1962. There is nothing figurative to recognize anymore. Kaiser cites Mark Rothko and Hans Hartung as inspirations. Cy Twombly also slumbers on. Raveel strangely enough laid the basis for these works in nature. But then more in the metaphysical sense. He wanted to go out again like Van Gogh and paint more in nature. That provided him with inspiration for the fierce paintings. To be fair, they are not the most interesting in the exhibition.
Raveel stayed true to himself and never adapted to the trends. Conversely, it did. Abstraction had reached its peak in the 1960s. Pop art – the ultimate realism – made its appearance. And suddenly Raveel no longer went against the flow, but was driven along. He took a new step when he saw an exhibition in 1962 in the Kunsthalle in Bern with work by the American artist Robert Rauschenberg. He pioneered with combined paintings.
Raveel was immediately hooked and started doing the same. Expanding a painting with objects was in keeping with his deep conviction that art should blend in with its surroundings. And so in Bozar, for example, you get a painting that looks like a window. Or a painting with a curtain.
Later mirrors were added, a branch of the square that was another signature style of his. No one did it to him, no one imitated it. Raveel went further and further in the quest to expand his art palette. He designed painted carts with bicycle wheels. He designed a cupboard on wheels with which he commemorated the 50th anniversary of the German invasion in 1940 in a parade in Brussels in 1990. His art had completely detached itself from the framework of the canvas.
The exhibition ends with a number of monumental works of art, of which ‘Neerhof with living pigeon’ is perhaps the best known. Incidentally, the pigeon is a living specimen. Raveel made the artwork in 1962-63 for the group exhibition ‘Forum 63’ in the Sint-Pietersabdij in Ghent. He wanted to include a chicken in the painting, but that turned out not to be technically feasible. It became a pigeon. His fellow artists were not pleased with Raveel’s stunt. After their protest, he was assigned a place in the attic of the abbey. Raveel said foert and finished it off. That’s how he was. His way, or no way.
Raveel, Retrospective until July 21 in Bozar. Reserve online.