The exhibition of 80 selected paintings, prints and drawings of Belgian painter, printmaker, illustrator and caricaturist Félicien Rops (1833–1898) will be presented on the occasion of the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2010.
In 1851, Félicien Rops, eighteen years old, leaves the small town of Namur, where he has spent his childhood, and moves to the Belgian capital of Brussels. He enrols at the Brussels Université libre to study philosophy, preparatory lectures for the study of law. Because of his fiery and rebellious spirit, he prefers to hang out in student circles rather than attending lectures. At these gatherings, Rops creates his first artistic weapon. Using his father’s inheritance in 1856, he sets up the weekly magazine Uylenspiegel, “a weekly for literary and artistic amusement”. The Uylenspiegel lashes out at the bourgeois and provincial Brussels of the time. Each issue features two lithographs by Félicien Rops. He uses them to caricature the artistic personalities of his time, creating series of political and socially engaged themes in the style of Honoré Daumier and Paul Gavarni.
In 1851, after the coup d’état in France, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte came into power. Already in the following year he announced the Second French Empire, which he ruled over as Emperor Napoleon III for the next twenty years. Due to the totalitarian regime which he implemented, certain intellectuals – Republicans – fled to Belgium. In such a way Victor Hugo, for instance, found sanctuary in Belgium during 1851–1852. Belgium, a young country that had attained independence as late as 1830, became afraid that Napoleon could put into question their common borders. The young intellectuals of Belgium therefore took a stance against the ruling political French regime.
Rops’ depictions of the time surpass the amusing tone of political comedy. Their plastic power of representation reveals the suppression of freedom in art.
“In quite a simple and naive way I try to convey that which I sense with my gut and see with my eyes; this makes up the whole of my art theory,” Rops writes to Fortuné Calmels in 1864.
The reality which surrounds us, transferring it into images and hence preserving the spontaneity of the first impression – that is the credo of Rops’ vocation. From 1860 onwards, Rops tries to move away from caricature, attempting to create simple and objective art in the realist style.
Encounter with Charles Baudelaire
“I think Charles Baudelaire is the man that out of all people I want to meet most,” writes Rops to publisher August Poulet-Malassis. When in 1864 Charles Baudelaire flees to Brussels because of bankruptcy and censorship, Félicien Rops finally gets a chance to meet him. This encounter has a fundamental impact on Rops’ continued artwork. The Devil, woman and the obscure world make an entrance into Rops’ iconography.
Modernity of the Lower Classes
In 1874, Rops finally moves to Paris. He loves the throbbing city with its lively night life. Although he lives among many artists, he at the same time also follows the life of the lower social classes, which he loves to transfer onto paper: prostitution, alcoholism, drinking holes … The drawings of the Parisian beginnings express all the cruelty of real life. “Paris gets you in its clutches from all sides and you can suddenly no longer leave this satanic town! And yet how high-strung and devout life is here!” he writes.
Towards Symbolism and Allegory
In the decadent 19th century which was coming to a close, the image of woman was predominantly an image of a manipulative being and a bearer of misfortune. Rops chose to work out from a place, typical for the 19th century: from the boudoir. By placing woman into this historical and at the same time universal environment, his language also became universal; Rops handled the exciting image of female supremacy over the male in a century that gave birth to scientific theories attempting to prove the manipulative nature of the female sex.
Travelling is of vital importance to Rops. He incessantly searches for places that provide inspiration, or is travelling to foreign lands and other continents, wishing to discover a different reality. “In order to show the desires of our times we need to invent new verbs; for talking, for touching the souls of today’s people and revealing them to their own selves, we need words, that we have not yet used, and not words whose succulence and virtue have remained on the lips of our ancestors! And this is why I must leave in certain moments and in certain periods, like the Larks, who ram their heads into the bars of the cage when the time of their migration comes; and so I, too, wish to leave this horrid and all too inescapable Paris. I must go far, very far away, with a randomly chosen steamer …”
“I think, and insist, that the printing of either graphic prints or illustrated books is the best way to get young artists established, and the best way to get hold of some money,” writes Rops. Very quickly he becomes the best paid illustrator in Paris. He is not satisfied by merely illustrating a text, his covers therefore become art creations as well as attempts at personal interpretations of the text. It sometimes seems as if the artist is not overly concerned by the subject matter of the text and gives free reign to the creative spirit, which draws out a different view from the book. Then again it seems as if he is attempting to bring together as many symbols as possible, in order to use them in a synthesis of the text and so enable the reader to understand the book already at first glace. He illustrates equally well for the naturalists, symbolists and decadent artists.
From Allegory to Satanism
At around 1878, a turnaround takes place in Rops’ career. He ceases to look at the life of the lower classes, and turns to the symbol of evil represented by woman. His work in this aspect attains a more powerful symbolic dimension.
Woman, nudity and sexuality take on a significant position in Rops’ work. Rops does not hide his love for the female sex and attempts to use his art to stir the convictions of his contemporaries, which he deems to be too bourgeois and puritanical.
The second form of eroticism is the eroticism that deals with the relationship between woman and the Devil. The whole of the 19th century is marked by the phenomenon of “Satanism”. It touches art, literature, music. It seems that the fear and fascination over Satan also make an impact on all social classes. Félicien Rops bathes in this curious atmosphere, which is made up of the fear and fascination over the Great Evil.
The joint project Wallonie-Bruxelles International, Province de Namur, Musée Félicien Rops and National Gallery of Slovenia has been organised as part of the Agreement on Cooperation between Wallonie-Bruxelles International and the Republic of Slovenia.
Author of the exhibition
Véronique Carpiaux, Musée Félicien Rops, Province de Namur
Curators of the exhibition
Véronique Carpiaux, Valérie Minten, Musée Félicien Rops, Province de Namur;
Mateja Breščak, Andrej Smrekar, National Gallery of Slovenia
Exhibition set-up and graphic design
The artworks were loaned by
Musée Félicien Rops, Namur; Galerie Derom; Private Collection, Luxemburg ; APBdM Collection ; DBdM Collection; PBdM Collection
The exhibition was supported by
National Gallery of Slovenia; Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia; Wallonie-Bruxelles International; Musée Félicien Rops ; Province de Namur