Roger Raveel, Belgian proto-Pop artist

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He writes art criticism for The Critic, Standpoint, Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online.

[Image: Roger Raveel, Woman with Make-up Mirror, 1953, Collection of the Flemish Community/Roger Raveel Museum © Raveel – MDM. Photo: Peter Claeys, Oil on hardboard, 122 × 88 cm]

Roger Raveel (1921-2013) was one leading artists of Belgian Modernism. His pungently coloured, simplified, schematic paintings of figures and still-lifes are startlingly modern. He has been acclaimed as an important proto-Pop artist. By 1948, Raveel was already juxtaposing passages of volumetric modelling and flat strong colour. Linear forms emphasise the artificiality of a picture and the seeming arbitrariness of visual languages. The boisterous clash in styles and modes forms a precursor to not only Pop Art but Post-Modernism. His pictures still seem powerfully original and fresh, lacking the consumer culture references that date Pop Art.

This catalogue is for the 2021 centenary exhibition at BOZAR (Brussels, 18 April-21 July 2021), including about 120 art works from all periods of Raveel’s output. This edition of the catalogue is a trilingual publication in Dutch, French and English, with the English text prioritised. The catalogue is an excellent survey of Raveel corpus, including a chronology and a good selection of colour plates. The English text will make this catalogue a valuable resource for non-Belgians, permitting them to acquaint themselves with this artist.

Raveel was born in Machelen-aan-de-Leie, Flanders and remain there most of his life, a path not followed by most ambitious Belgian artists, who tended to converge on Brussels or Ostend. Raveel studied art at Deinze and Ghent over 1933-45, his studied disrupted by war. His teacher recommended that Raveel move away from Belgian Expressionism towards realism. Henceforward, his palette brightened and realism tended to be Raveel’s stylistic touchstone, as he incorporated other elements and influences throughout the years. The painter destroyed many of his paintings from the 1930s and early-mid-1940s.

There is a case to be made that the war and subsequent occupation – which Raveel saw first-hand – destroyed the idea of national and regional isolation and a concomitant attachment localism in artistic terms. The world intrudes. The heterodox nature of Raveel’s post-war art is forcefully heterogenous and non-regional. The paintings of the late 1940s could be seen as naïve or simplified. Raveel rejected his previous use of atmospheric colour in favour of local colour. The views of kitchens and local fields are deliberately homely and content. Only in 1950, do we see other aspects intrude – muted colour and objects reduced to the point of ambiguity.

 In 1948, Raveel married Zulma De Nijs. They lived in modest circumstances, in the centre of their small town. Lack of resources meant Raveel materials were limited, forcing him to improvise and perhaps instigating his use of found materials. In the early Fifties Raveel came into the orbit of CoBrA and had contact with members. The directness (both thematic and stylistic), assertiveness and accessibility of these artists lined up with Raveel’s temperament. Raveel never joined the movement but some of his painting in the 50s and 60s shares much in common with these artists. There are more than a few parallels between Raveel and Jean Dubuffet. Dubuffet’s late linear paintings, with bold patterns and reduced palette, are close to Raveel’s paintings.

[Image: Roger Raveel, Man, Bucket, etc., 1967, Private collection © Raveel – MDM, Oil on canvas, 150 × 120 cm]

Over the period 1956-62, Raveel turns to almost completely abstraction in his production. The bodies and buildings are replaced by surfaces, simple forms, brushwork, patches of strong colour, repeated marks. These are not inert or hollow – the painted forms are like handles that would be used to manipulate things but the things themselves are gone, leaving only the handles. The stakes are lowered – the viewer cannot engage deeply, protest a proposition, take away in insight into lived reality. As a result, these are the least satisfactory of Raveel’s output.  Commencing again in 1962, recognisable forms return amidst abstract surfaces. Geometric forms intervene, disrupting, displacing and obscuring figural depictions. The patterns appear on the clothing and replace the heads of the working men.

The working man, in cap and suit of matching colour/material becomes a staple figure in Raveel’s paintings. At once an evocation of the average Belgian labourer and human presence in everyday settings, the figure rarely has a face and retains a degree of mystery, anonymity and a touch of the sinister. The head is often replaced by an area of abstraction or pattern Homely and unhomely (Heimlich and unheimlich) simultaneously, the working man becomes Raveel’s prime actor, even if he never became an alter ego. It is possible that these figures represent the artist’s father, who worked in the flax trade. That oddness adds a vital touch to Raveel’s art, which could become whimsical or flippant or lightweight. Raveel is rarely pedestrian. Perhaps his weakest work are the abstracts, where we enter territory that is arbitrary and vacant.

Raveel’s interiors animate the dazzling Modernist world of De Stijl, with figures peopling these notional utopian places. This renders them accessible, banal, subject to entropy and decay. The faded, tinged quality of past projected utopias is one of the aspects that turn shimmering pristine ideals into compromised, discarded and discredited propositions. This is the essence of the melancholy of the Modern. Raveel’s art is not bleak but it has this sense of loss. The instances of alienation are matched by the scenes of domestic contentment – the cat asleep on the chair, the seated figure, the garden view from the window. Raveel is not sceptical of Modernism as such, more playful and inquiring; he proposes that Modernism is real life (figures transformed into characters in a Modernist painting-cum-architectural-setting) and real life incorporates Modernism (in the form of domestic furniture and decoration). The language in his paintings has many modes, stylistic and tonal. That plastic diversity and spirit of inquiry keeps Raveel’s art lively, laconic, unsettled. Father in a Modern Emptiness (1980) is a very adept and appealing example of this contrast between personal and familial material and the somewhat chilly, anti-human content of Modernist art, architecture and furniture.        

[Image: Roger Raveel, Father in a Modern Emptiness, 1980, Private collection © Raveel – MDM. Photo: Peter Claeys, Oil on canvas, 145 × 195 cm]

The Surrealism of Magritte – especially the incorporation of mundane realities, everyday life and figures as ciphers – clearly led to the atmosphere and some of the visual repertoire of Raveel. The standing figures of men have an oblique quality we find in Magritte. Magritte was the most prominent of Belgian artists in the 1950s and 1960s, so it is natural that Raveel would have seen a lot of his paintings. The Surrealist practice (most clearly seen in Francis Picabia’s combine paintings) of including actual objects in paintings became characteristic of Raveel. He included objects such as doors, bicycle wheels, windows, mirrors and curtains in his combine paintings. Robert Rauschenberg’s combines precede them by about five years. Raveel saw Rauschenberg’s combines at an exhibition in Bern, in 1962. One piece by Raveel includes a birdcage with a pigeon and another one has a cage with canaries. Raveel responded strongly to Pop Art and he is most often categorised as a Pop artist. Actually, by the time that Pop art became known in Belgium, Raveel had already developed elements that were Pop, which is why is viewed as proto-Pop. In Raveel’s art, there is a fusion of styles and influences. A portrait drawing of the head of a worker (1952) is partly realist, highly stylised and echoes the early drawings of Van Gogh, whom Raveel admired. The heavy outlines of forms is common throughout all of Raveel’s mature output. Raveel’s domestic scenes combining description and blank grounds recalls Hockney of the 1960s and 1970s. The painterly rounded forms and strong colour of Raveel’s interiors and landscapes will remind British viewers of the paintings of David Hockney from the 1980s and 1990s. The pair met at least once, in 1973; a photograph of them is illustrated in the catalogue. Raveel’s art gained added relevance in the 1980s, when the New Figuration and Neo-Expressionism movements returned to painting the figure, expressive paint use and absence of irony to the centre of art production.

In 1960, Raveel began teaching at the Municipal Academy, Deinze and the use of a loaned studio at the local school allowed him to make work of a greater size. He also became more involved in printmaking at this time. in 1966, Raveel was commissioned to paint murals in the basement of Beervelde Castle, near Ghent, which he painted from 1966 to 1967 in collaboration with Raoul De Keyser, Etienne Elias and Reinier Lucassen. Zulma handled the couple’s finances; the Raveels could afford to move to a larger modern house by 1968, the year the artist represented Belgium at the Venice Biennale. The honours and exhibitions only increased. In 1999, the Roger Raveel Museum opened in Machelen-aan-de-Leie. In 2009 Zulma died; Raveel remarried in 2011. In 2013, Raveel died in Deinze, at the age of 91.

The 2021 exhibition relied heavily on the comprehensive collection of Roger Raveel Museum and commences with a 1941 landscape: modest, mundane, muted in coloration, realist in execution. By 1948, the rejection of realism is apparent in the faux naïf treatment of farm animals and reduced palette. The catalogue is arranged by subject. Raveel made self-portraits that range from Flemish Expressionism to linear-proto-Pop to 1970s Pop, as well as images with the face or head replaced by blank zones. The latest painting in the exhibition is dated 1995. Some of Raveel’s best known paintings are included and his murals are illustrated. His famous Man with Wire in Garden (1952-3) is a welcome inclusion.

[Image: Roger Raveel, Man with Wire in Garden, 1952–53, Collection of the Flemish Community/Roger Raveel Museum © Raveel – MDM. Photo: Peter Claeys, Oil on paper on plywood, 75.5 × 91 cm]

The motif was used in many drawings, paintings and prints. It exemplified the use of the working-man figure, abstracted head, simplified landscape and reference to Raveel’s domestic situation. Woman with Make-up Mirror (1953) and Man Bucket, etc. (1967) are celebrated examples of his horizontally striped figures engaging in everyday activities. A drawing from 1950 shows Raveel admiration for Van Gogh. The coffee pot is drawn like Van Gogh; the handling of perspective and the revolver on the table are influenced by children’s art.

The combines with curtains and windows reach deep into art history, the trompe-l’œil of the Renaissance and Baroque. The mirror pieces play with incorporating the viewer’s image into the painting. Alone in the Backyard (1967) has the mirror in the centre, positioning the viewer’s reflection in a bare yard in Caulfield-style drawn images, with a colourful sliver of landscape confined to one corner. An extension of this was a street-vendor’s cart, clad in mirror cube, partially overpainted. Raveel did a number of street performances, bringing his paintings into non-gallery settings and eliciting public responses. Regrettably, there is not much written material in the catalogue discussing his murals.

Apart from the cart, no sculpture per se is presented. The exhibition includes paintings, combines and drawings but no prints. Understandably, for a survey retrospective, supplementary material such as documents (sketchbooks, letters, posters) are virtually omitted from the catalogue. Clearly, the aim of the catalogue is to spread knowledge of Raveel outside of the Low Countries, and the editors have made the right decision. This is a broad survey of Raveel, full of wonderful images and with a few introductory essays and a handy chronology. The art is very enjoyable and the design of the catalogue is thoughtful and easy to negotiate. Recommended for any fans of Low Countries art, Pop Art and New Figuration.   

Roger Raveel Museum website: https://www.rogerraveelmuseum.be/

Franz W. Kaiser, Kurt De Boodt, Paul Demets, Ann Geeraerts, Marie Claes, Roger Raveel: Retrospective, BOZAR/Mercatorfonds (distr. Yale University Press), hardback, 224pp, fully illus., text English, French, Dutch, €34.95, ISBN 978-0-300-25994-0

© 2021 Alexander Adams

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