Masereel was born in 1889 in the neighbouring seaside resort of Blankenberge where his family owned a holiday home. His parents belonged to the Ghent bourgeoisie and it was against this class that he rebelled in his work during practically his entire career.
Exhibition curator Ilse Roosens: “Masereel grew up in Ghent, an industrial city with a strong socialist following. Here he joined in the social protests of the textile workers and heard the speeches of the socialist leader Edward Anseele. Masereel had Communist sympathies and was on the side of ordinary, working class people. His favoured medium, the woodcut, also requires considerable physical effort. Many of his works picture labourers or sailors who are not usually featured prominently in art. During the Great War he fled to Switzerland where he struck up a friendship with the members of Romain Rolland's international pacifist circle.”
Rolland was a French dramatist and art historian at the centre of a gathering of philosophers and art theorists who had sought their refuge in Switzerland during the First World War. Their message was a positive and pacifist one at a time when Europe was plagued by the horrors of war.
Ilse Roosens: “Masereel's social commitment is clear from his work. Most famous as a producer of woodcuts he is fascinated by the city. His woodcut series La Ville reveals the dynamics of the urban environment. He contrasts the plight of rich and poor, is highly critical, but at the same time La Ville is also an ode to the city.”
“Masereel enjoys telling a good story and it is pictures rather than words that convey his message. His favourite medium was the woodcut, an art form that has its roots in the Middle Ages. Woodcuts allow his art and message to be widely disseminated. They can easily be reproduced and reach an awful lot of people. This contrasts with the painting of which there is often only one that often ends up in a private collection.”
The exhibition is divided into three sections. In 'Society' we see how Masereel was so effective in condemning injustice.
Isle Roosens: “His drawings appeared in newspapers. Within an hour of receiving an article he had to illustrate, he had finished his drawing. When they saw it, journalists would say that his drawings could convey a far more powerful message than all their of words.”
Masereel caricatured the wealthy factory owners who held sway over their workers, prostitutes who were being abused as sex objects. For several periods he lived in Paris where his experiences in the city's exuberant nightlife inspired his works. After some time in Berlin and Boulogne-Sur-Mer he ended up in the South of France where he would spend much of his life. The Soviet Union too attracted him.
Ilse Roosens: “Masereel was popular in Germany where his expressionist work was highly appreciated, in the Soviet Union too where the Communist sympathies so visible in his work played in his favour. Masereel made two journeys to the Soviet Union travelling great distances across the country, but he soon discovered that his guide was only showing him what the authorities wanted him to see and he learnt Russian to be able to talk with everyday people during his return visit.”
Masereel's production is exceptionally diverse. Woodcuts form the lion's share, but he painted and drew too and produced carpets. The exhibition also includes the artist's sole lithography and even a work in gypsum. His production also includes makimonos or art scrolls with stories drawn on a roll of paper. The practice is popular in Japan and the Ostend exhibition includes three specimens.
War and Resistance are the second focus of the exhibition. Masereel was forced to flee the advancing Germans during the Second World War as his works had been labelled 'entartet' or degenerate. He drew the hard realities faced by refugees with the tools he could find on his journey. Some works were only published after the conflict.
A third section of the exhibition places man at its centre: the message is a positive one with love and beauty and even Christianity getting a look-in.
Throughout the exhibition works by a series of contemporary artists are placed cheek by jowl to Masereel's production. On entering view Mary Evans's mural made especially for this exhibition. The London-based Nigerian artist uses silhouettes to portray her characters who still retain their very diverse identity. Billie Zangewa's work draws on personal experience and references the Sixties movie 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?' Romania's Dan Perjovschi, who like Masereel publishes his drawings in newspapers came to Ostend to produce his installation that will only exist for the duration of the exhibition.
'Frans Masereel and Contemporary Art: Images of Resistance' runs at Mu.ZEE, Romestraat 11 in Ostend until 3 September.