Back to News

Abstract Antwerp: Belgian Avant-Garde, 1917-1925 (Virtual Exhibition)

Geographically situated between France and Germany, Belgium was ravaged in the First World War. In the War’s aftermath, avant-garde artists, writers, and musicians developed new forms appropriate to an irrevocably altered world. Artistic activity flourished throughout the country with particular concentration in Brussels (Brussel; Bruxelles) and in Antwerp (Antwerpen; Anvers). In largely Francophone Brussels, the nation’s capital, avant-garde artists who gathered around galleries such as l’Époque and Le Centaur and journals such as Variétés (1928-1930) tended to orient themselves toward French culture and, in the late 1920s, toward Parisian Surrealism. Artists active in the predominantly Flemish/Dutch-speaking port city of Antwerp to the north, by contrast, were more inclined toward Holland and Germany and the abstract, constructivist tendencies emerging there. It is this lesser-known development of abstraction in Antwerp in the early 1920s that is the focus of this collection.

In Antwerp, the Kring Moderne Kunst (Modern Art Circle) was founded in 1918 with Jozef Peeters as Secretary. Peeters pioneered a striking form of abstraction in print, as exemplified by his portfolios and his so-called “constructive graphics,” in which abstract, geometric forms compete with the communicative function of language. In 1922, when Peeters joined the editorial board of the Flemish-language journal Het Overzicht (The Overview; Antwerp; 1921-1925) he transformed its appearance with his own dazzling covers and those of his colleagues. The poignantly-titled Ça Ira (It will be fine), was an Antwerp-based, French-language literary journal (1920-1923), but also a publishing house for contemporary prose and poetry and an organizing society for exhibitions, lectures, and performances. Its exhibitions featured leading members of Antwerp’s artistic avant-garde such as Jan Cockx, Paul Joostens, Peeters, and Victor Servranckx, together with international counterparts including Willi Baumeister, Sándor (Alexander) Bortnyik, Max Burchartz, Walter Dexel, Lajos Kassák, El Lissitzky, László Moholy-Nagy, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and Karl-Peter Röhl. Ça Ira’s concert program presented experimental music by modern composers such as Georges Auric, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Erik Satie, frequently performed by the avant-garde Belgian singer Evelyne Brélia.

If Antwerp’s artistic accomplishments of the early 1920s have attracted less attention than the subsequent achievements of Belgian Surrealist painters such as Paul Delvaux and René Magritte in the late 1920s, this may in part reflect the complexities of Belgian history. Many of the figures featured here promoted Flemish language and culture, but when nationalism became a polarizing force in the late 1920s, only some found common cause with Germany and followed the trajectory toward collaboration.

Note: Due to the COVID-19 crisis, this online exhibition was prepared without physical access to the works themselves or to reference libraries. Until updates are possible, uncertain or missing information appears here in [square brackets].

Leave a Reply