By Oliver Sargeant
The museum Fin-De-Siècle by proud exaltation presents to you Belgian born artist Pierre Alechinsky (1927). The exhibition takes you on a path through the artist’s journey, which focuses on his use of ink and paper. You move chronologically through the history of his artistic creativity, almost as if you were him.
I Knew almost nothing about the artist before my arrival. I came in with the expectation that it would be some “funky” modern art exposition with no explanation. A line here, a splodge there, and the usual hipsters suited in their turtle neck sweaters, avidly flocking to each installation. Fortunately, this was not the case. Except for me, of course, where the gallery attendees witnessed me running around trying to get "creative photos".
Armed from the outset with a booklet explaining the core details of Alechinsky's work and trajectory, you discover an artist with a unique set of influences and a personal style filled with honesty, experimentation, and a passion for the avant-garde.
Alechinksy worked closely with many European artists such as Karel Appel, Christin Dotremont, and Asgar Jorn. It is, however, his eastern influence that is the most inspiring. The most notable is from calligraphy or Shodō; a word of Chinese origin (“sho” for “to write” and “do” for “the way or the path”), known today as the art of traditional Japanese calligraphy. Chinese Artist Walasse Ting is his primary influence on eastern practices, who in 1954 taught him the “Chinese way” of drawing with a brush. The process steeped in a philosophical tradition of balancing an inkpot on one hand and a brush in the other dates back centuries. It is an art form characterized by its ritualistic engagement in the materials and brings the entire body into the performance. I shan't pretend to know much more about Shodō, but I will say that Ting taught him the “Chinese Way”, yet Alechinksy holds the brush in a Japanese fashion. Perhaps the influence of post-war Japanese calligrapher, Morita Shiryū whom he had correspondence with? I can only speak to my ignorance on the matter and point out that the nuances between Chinese and Japanese calligraphy are huge, not to mention the subdivisions within those countries. Chinese is known for its meditative approach accompanied by strong and powerful strokes. Japanese is known for its flexible and lyrical movement with a delicate touch. Perhaps Alechinsky incorporates elements from both? Whichever is truly the case, I leave to the art historians.
What matters is that Alechinsky’s art is compounded by the influential trinity of ink-paper-brush, and given its modern vivacious flux by the COBRA movement. COBRA was a European avant-garde art movement coined by Dotremont, a Belgian painter and poet, in 1948. In principle, it stands against formalism and dogmatism and advocates spontaneity and experimentation. COBRA, for the most part, found themselves to be an artistic middle ground. They aimed to avoid complete abstractionism, but also not to engage too much with hard “socialist realism.”
This experimental attitude spans the rest of his career to date. From his credos of ‘escaping the blank page’ and the ‘travelling brush’, Alechinsky represents a renewed humanist approach to art. By employing sensitivity, emotion, and spontaneity in art, he believes one can always knock on the door of our feelings and sensible experience. Each piece is almost an allusion to a social, political or metaphysical theme that relates primarily to human experience, yet attempts to overthrow these themes and push art to the limit (if there even is a limit). Almost Like in the philosophy of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, art may rupture life, and that process can give birth to new ways of thinking.
This attitude is particularly apparent in his published Idéotraces, a collection of 85 drawings made between 1960 and 1964. The method is that the idea comes second. From paper stains and rugged crinkles, lines begin and smudges form. The idea is no idea, except to simply begin. In the final moments, the paper is held on high and stock is taken, life is given whence emptiness came before. Similar to a tumultuous spirit moving towards its destination by flickering thunder, who upon arrival, is suddenly overcome with an overwhelming sense of delirium. I remember having a similar experience. I once ran out of my room into the kitchen, and when I arrived, I had no idea what I originally wanted. I guess that is the same?
To anyone interested in art, calligraphy, or just bored and in need to stretch your legs, I implore you to book a slot to see the Alechinsky exhibit at the Brussels museum Fin-De-Siècle. That is if it is safe for you to do so. Whatever the case, this exhibition has given me a new surge of interest in eastern art practices and the relevance for spontaneity in art. Next time I paint or film, I might try “having the idea second.”
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