Edgard Tytgat stuns at M-Museum in Leuven

Leuven’s M – Museum is currently staging a landmark exhibition on the work of the Brussels’ painter Edgard Tytgat. Seventy-four narrative works, mainly from private collections, reveal an artist who had greater insight than he is usually credited with, an anarchic bourgeois, well versed in the European tradition of art.

A native of Bruges, for most of his life Edgard Tytgat lived and worked in Brussels. During the Twenties and Thirties this was a liberal environment, something that is also clearly visible in Tytgat's work. If it was banned in Paris, it was probably available in Brussels and this state of affairs clearly benefited the world of art. Tytgat loved to rail against the establishment and the authorities, but led the life of a middling bourgeois. Exhibition curator Peter Carpreau says he was an anarchist at heart, but one with the softest of natures.

Tytgat is often linked to the Latem School of painting, labelled an expressionist, a naïve painter, somewhat primitive and childlike in his approach. Carpreau, who teamed up with filmmaker Gust Van den Berghe to produce this exhibition, begs to differ: ‘Tytgat is the storyteller par excellence. His works are well thought through. In intimate interiors his approach is impressionist, while when he attempts to relate a universal story he is markedly modernist.'

Tytgat’s oeuvre consists of three parts: portraits, landscapes and works that tell a story. The exhibition focuses on this third category and explores how Tytgat constructed his visual stories. Peter Carpreau: “We are used to the baroque tradition: the entire story is told in one image and it’s left to your imagination to work out what happened before and after. Tytgat, who was well versed in the traditions of painting, loved to incorporate all the different stages of the story in the very same painting and thus tells the entire tale.”

A series of core images return again and again in his oeuvre: the window, his only vantage point from which to access the world, when he was ill lying in bed as a boy, the circus that he loved, but also the carousel that he fell off as a boy, an accident that nearly cost him his life and marked him out for life. Peter Carpreau: “The carousel is supposed to be a purveyor of joy, but not for Tytgat, who was traumatised as a boy when he fell off.”

The exhibition opens with a photograph of the Tytgat home in Brussels that he shared with his beloved wife Marie. She is his muse and features in practically every painting that led her to complain that modelling meant she struggled to get any housework done. Tytgat too loves to paint himself, often also including a Mephisto-like figure: a satanic creature, who tempts us in the direction of life’s vices. However, Tytgat just recounts the story. He is never judgemental.

Sex is never far away either. One of the central works of this exhibition is ‘The Rules of the Game’, a book of pictures revealing the temptation of eight women by two priests. Both priests are equally guilty, but in the end one goes to heaven, only one goes to hell.

The photo of the house that opens the exhibition is very symbolic for Tytgat’s entire oeuvre. Everything seems quite normal. Everything seems to fit, but take a closer look and you discover the street is missing. This is how it is with his works that can be interpreted at several levels.

Tytgat had a problematic relationship with the Belgian authorities and establishment. Like so many Belgians he found refuge in England during the Great War. He was most productive in order to make a living, but on his return to Belgium accused the authorities of taxing him to the hilt and making him a pauper once again. Note his work ‘The Emigrant from the Land of Rubens’. Reminiscent of the Flight to Egypt it is set against the backdrop of urban expansion in Brussels when the authorities had a greater eye for French artists than their home-grown talent.

Peter Carpreau: “It’s hard to recognise one single work as a Tytgat. Tytgat has a set of recurring images that constantly refer to one another in successive paintings. He can only be understood if you are aware of the relationships between the various works as symbols are repeated again and again introducing new levels of meaning.”

Art historian André De Ridder believes Tytgat started out as an expressionist. During the Twenties he was still searching for his own style. He edged towards the macabre carnivalesque scenes of Ostender James Ensor only to move towards Modernism by the end of the decade.

Tytgat was familiar with the techniques employed by artists through the centuries and made good use of them. Moreover, he was well versed in the themes and stories occurring in the history of art and loved to reinterpret these, often in a modern setting.

A major theme is the Coming of Age, the loss of innocence. Girls and women are portrayed as they lose their innocence. Men’s clothes deposited on a chair signal the sexual act, which may or may not be subject to a financial transaction. A boat or ship will signify a transition in place and/or time. The time of innocence may be portrayed, but beyond the water all innocence is lost. But who is cheating on who? Don’t miss 'When Husband Dear Goes Hunting’. The husband is a-hunting as another man leads his wife into a tent, but in a convex mirror we see entirely the opposite: nothing is entirely as it seems.

The exhibition appropriately concludes with ‘Tytgat and the Waxen Figures’ (top). The painter is portrayed in a work in which many strands of his oeuvre come together: the naked women, who are slaughtered, the anarchists, who are hanged and Charlie Chapman’s tramp, who symbolises liberty and a rejection of bourgeois life.

Edgard Tytgat, Memory of a much-loved window, runs at the M-Museum in Leuven until 8 April 2018.