The Belgian sculp­tor José Vermeersch (Bissegem 1922 — Lendelede 1997) is a loner in post-war sculp­tu­re. One will the­re­fo­re look in vain for him in art his­to­ry hand­books whe­re eve­ry­thing is care­ful­ly orde­red in move­ments and isms. In his sculp­tu­re extre­mes meet, from the ter­ra­cot­ta figu­res from the tombs of the Ch’in dynasty to the American pop art of artists such as Duane Hanson, George Segal and Edward Kienholz. Vermeersch, a stu­dent of Constant Permeke and Walter Vaes, began as a pain­ter. In 1969 he per­ma­nent­ly swit­ched to wor­king in cera­mics, later also in bron­ze. His almost life-size sculp­tu­res — peo­p­le and dogs — are built up from thin sheets of clay, which makes high tech­ni­cal skills. The human figu­res, out­ward­ly impas­si­ve but with a gre­at expres­si­on, are alo­ne with them­sel­ves; the dogs are the­re as their faith­ful companions.

Jose vermeersch student

José Vermeersch was born on 6 November 1922 in Bissegem, near Kortrijk. From as ear­ly as pri­ma­ry school age, he was alrea­dy showing gre­at skill at dra­wing and pain­ting. In 1937, he enrol­led at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Kortrijk. Although fas­ci­na­ted by all gen­res, it rapid­ly beca­me clear that his gre­at talent lay as a port­rai­tist. He has the effort­less knack of ren­de­ring a coun­tenan­ce, of cap­tu­ring an authen­tic expres­si­on. His rea­lism is aca­de­mic wit­hout being cold. As a good obser­ver, he has an eye for detail. In his com­po­si­ti­ons, he makes it his task to chro­ni­cle the dai­ly life of ordi­na­ry peo­p­le. He descri­bes their-day-to-day exis­ten­ce, making no soci­al barbs or com­ments, wit­hout indul­gen­ce, and yet with a hint of romanticism.

In 1941 he enrols at the Antwerp Academy, valu­ing the tea­chings of Walter Vaes more high­ly than tho­se of Isidoor Opsomer whom he accu­ses of exces­si­ve tech­ni­cal vir­tu­o­si­ty. In 1943 he is obli­ged to inter­rupt his stu­dies. He goes under­ground in order to avoid being ship­ped off to the for­ced labour duty in Germany. He see­ks refu­ge in Westvleteren, not far from Veurne and the French bor­der. During his enfor­ced reti­re­ment, he pro­du­ces an eclec­tic set of works. He is clear­ly in search of a per­so­nal the­me and sty­le, but has not yet found them. Some of his works stri­ke us with their fres­h­ness of expres­si­on, con­ju­ring up ani­mism. But he also allows himself to be drawn toward expres­si­o­nism in the sty­le of Permeke. However, his port­raits always remain true to an aca­de­mic rea­lism. As soon as hos­ti­li­ties are ended, he resu­mes his stu­dies at the Antwerp Academy under a new gene­ra­ti­on of pro­fes­sors, inclu­ding Constant Permeke and Roger Avermaete.

From 1945 to 1958, José Vermeersch sear­ches relent­les­sly for a per­so­nal orien­ta­ti­on that he might give to his art. He rea­li­ses that he could be able to make a living of sorts by pain­ting port­raits – a dis­ci­pli­ne in which he excels – but it is not enough to satis­fy the aspi­ra­ti­ons of the young artist. He thus embra­ces a monu­men­tal art, rela­ted to mura­lism and the pit­tu­ra meta­fy­si­ca of Chirico. Abstract pain­ting lea­ves him cold and sur­re­a­lism is the in thing. From the end of the 1940s, he aban­dons this par­ti­cu­lar direction.While con­ti­nuing to turn out port­raits to order in a pure­ly aca­de­mic sty­le, he ende­a­vours to sim­pli­fy the repre­sen­ta­ti­on. He is fas­ci­na­ted by the quest for the essential.

In other words, the pri­ma­ry goal is to ren­der the sitter’s expres­si­on. How far can he go in this quest for sim­pli­fi­ca­ti­on? One tech­ni­que he uses is to accen­tu­a­te the geo­me­try of the phy­si­o­gno­my, lea­ving out detail, skip­ping finis­hing touches.

As for his lands­ca­pes, one can’t help men­ti­o­ning a stran­ge work that clas­hes with the rest of his pro­duc­ti­on at this time. The sub­ject is a fair­ly banal one: a per­spec­ti­ve view of a road with a surfa­ce made of con­cre­te pla­tes. Vermeersch holds back his use of colour so stern­ly that the work brus­hes up against mini­ma­lism. But do not be decei­ved, for the­re is a gre­at deal more in the work than first meets the eye: plays of light and sha­de, care­ful ren­di­ti­on of the asp­halt, inter­play of clouds. The work inau­gu­ra­tes a new peri­od of research. Easel pain­ting no lon­ger satis­fies him. He con­si­ders that in the modern world, pain­ting must be inte­gra­ted into archi­tec­tu­re, who­se domi­na­ting role he recog­ni­ses. This is an idea he attempts to express in a who­le series of works. We note the pur­ged archi­tec­tu­ral volu­mes used to lend rhythm to the com­po­si­ti­on. Structured in this way, the tableau takes on con­struc­ti­vist allu­res, imme­di­a­te­ly con­tra­dic­ted by the ela­bo­ra­te tre­at­ment of cer­tain details.

Toward the end of the 1950s, it appe­ars that Vermeersch has not yet dis­co­ver­ed a mode of expres­si­on cor­res­pon­ding to his tem­pe­ra­ment. His quests lead him in a mul­ti­tu­de of dif­fe­rent direc­ti­ons, some­ti­mes frankly con­tra­dic­to­ry. This is pro­ved by the fact that very few of his works from this peri­od are with us today. It is pro­ba­ble that we lack a cer­tain num­ber of key works in order pro­per­ly to docu­ment his evolution.

The inte­rest shown by José Vermeersch in archi­tec­tu­re goes hand in hand with an incre­a­sing aver­si­on for easel pain­ting. In his eyes, the brush and can­vas are old-fas­hi­o­ned means of expres­si­on for which an emi­nent­ly modern alter­na­ti­ve needs impe­ra­ti­ve­ly to be found. For this rea­son, he exhi­bits a series of cera­mic panels in 1959. The step clear­ly shows his wish to inte­gra­te with archi­tec­tu­re, whi­le it can­not for a moment be said that he has mana­ged to shrug off his con­s­traint of pain­ting. Very soon he grows wea­ry of the deco­ra­ti­ve side of the­se works.

He ima­gi­nes he has found a valu­a­ble alter­na­ti­ve in a self-inven­ted tra­cing tech­ni­que and will prac­ti­se it for seve­r­al years to come. Vermeersch pro­ceeds as fol­lows: he cuts out a tra­cing tem­pla­te in card­board accor­ding to the exte­ri­or con­tours of the sub­ject of the pie­ce. This tem­pla­te is cover­ed with paint, applied to the can­vas, and then pul­led off again shar­ply. The ope­ra­ti­on is repe­a­ted until the desi­red result is achie­ved. A few finis­hing tou­ches with pas­tels, char­co­al, or cray­ons are some­ti­mes added to com­ple­te the tableau. Diametrically oppo­sed to the sten­cil­ling tech­ni­que, this pro­ce­du­re allows inte­res­ting tex­tu­ral effects to be achie­ved. The cut­ting out of the tem­pla­te has sty­lis­tic cues: the forms and atti­tu­des are sty­li­sed and deper­so­na­li­sed. Here in any case is an oeu­vre that is easi­ly iden­ti­fia­ble, cor­res­pon­ding to Vermeersch’s tas­te for the monu­men­tal. His the­mes bow to the demands of his method. They take their turn in a uni­ver­sal, anti-anec­do­tal man­ner: sit­ters in poses of varyin­gly hiera­tic degrees, parents and child­ren, domestic animals.

Early Years

As a young man working in his own studio

Vermeersch beco­mes qui­te taken with it and attempts to pro­ve that his tra­cing method is not an impe­di­ment to tre­a­ting sub­jects requi­ring a more meti­cu­lous appro­ach. In this spi­rit he pro­du­ces a ran­ge of sur­re­a­list works in which he delights in ren­de­ring an infi­ni­ty of detail with the dedi­ca­ti­on of a mini­a­tu­rist. Sometime around 1965, a new direc­ti­on emer­ges. Vermeersch returns to the brush, but his sty­le has evol­ved dra­ma­ti­cally. No more details and finis­hing tou­ches: on the con­tra­ry, the exe­cu­ti­on is com­po­sed of lar­ge sweeps and grand flou­ris­hes. These are the tan­gi­ble signs that tech­ni­cal mas­tery and the­ma­tic matu­ri­ty have final­ly been acquired.

Throughout his career, José Vermeersch is inte­rested in sculp­tu­re. With no par­ti­cu­lar appa­rent pre­fe­ren­ce for this or that mate­ri­al he car­ries out a num­ber of expe­ri­ments in the field in the 1950s. At the start of the 1960s, he gra­du­al­ly dis­co­vers the pos­si­bi­li­ties offe­red by cera­mics. He pro­du­ces a num­ber of well-exe­cu­ted tor­sos and ani­mals charac­te­ri­sed by a sim­pli­ci­ty and puri­ty of line. He is by no means immu­ne to the charms of potter’s clay, mixing and mat­ching it into a vari­e­ty of dif­fe­rent tones. This mate­ri­al with its fine, duc­ti­le tex­tu­re, with its infi­ni­te mar­bling, offers him per­spec­ti­ves only glim­psed until this moment.

The end of the 1960s repre­sents a radi­cal evo­lu­ti­on in José Vermeersch’s pain­ting. He final­ly rids himself of any aes­the­tic pre­oc­cu­pa­ti­on, of suf­fo­ca­ting ide­a­list pre­ten­si­ons. In a flu­ent, liber­ta­ri­an sty­le, he paints a view of huma­ni­ty redu­ced to its sim­plest expres­si­on. Each can­vas repre­sents an ever more asexu­al sit­ter, devoid of con­tin­gen­cies and con­s­traints. This evo­lu­ti­on is step­wi­se in natu­re, but the­se steps take pla­ce at an acce­le­ra­ted rhythm bet­ween 1966 and 1968. At the start the sit­ter, pla­ced in a non-spe­ci­fic envi­ron­ment, finds himself or herself incon­gruous­ly con­fron­ted with a clear­ly iden­ti­fia­ble and strong object, being a box, appa­rent­ly emp­ty. This object, who­se sin­gle fina­li­ty is to exist but for the gra­ce of that which it is ima­gi­ned to con­tain, appe­ars to Vermeersch to be the ulti­ma­te remin­der, oh how banal, of soci­e­ty and his efforts to remo­ve himself from it. In later works, the phy­si­o­gno­my and ana­to­my fur­ther sepa­ra­te. Physical points of refe­ren­ce — sun and hori­zon — fade away, then dis­ap­pear com­ple­te­ly. This pain­ting ends up by con­cen­tra­ting on the sil­hou­et­te that accen­tu­a­tes a vir­tu­al halo.

These sit­ters, vagu­e­ly male, vagu­e­ly fema­le, repre­sent a new huma­ni­ty, one which is a noti­ce­a­bly long way away from the huma­ni­ty he advo­ca­ted at the start of his career. The New Man is emi­nent­ly free, devoid of con­tin­gen­cies, even his sexu­al adhe­ren­ce. He is supre­me­ly indif­fe­rent to his surroundings.The fol­lo­wing sta­ge is fore­see­able and even under­way. The sit­ter will be deta­ched from the can­vas, remo­ved from a two-dimen­si­o­nal world.

Around 1969, two-dimen­si­o­nal expres­si­on is no lon­ger satis­fying José Vermeersch. He turns back to cera­mics. In com­pa­ri­son with his expe­ri­ments at the start of the 1960s, he now pos­ses­ses two major advan­ta­ges: a visu­al pro­gram­me bor­ro­wed from his pain­ted oeu­vre, as well as an inno­va­ti­ve method of hol­low cera­mics. Instead of wor­king in soli­di­ty, Vermeersch con­structs his sta­tu­es by pla­cing clay pla­tes, which he has befo­re­hand pro­ces­sed, amal­ga­ma­ted, and for­med into asto­nis­hin­gly thin lea­ves. First he fas­hi­ons the feet, then the legs, then the tor­so, and final­ly the head, obser­ving moments of rest to allow his mate­ri­al to dry and har­den. This method is thus of capi­tal influ­en­ce in the aura of the sta­tue. Standing on its own two feet, it is well sup­por­ted on solid legs. The sub­jects are pre­sen­ted to us in unstu­died atti­tu­des, mar­king their asto­nish­ment in front of very exis­ten­ce itself. The tor­sos, though often volu­mi­nous, never give an impres­si­on of hea­vi­ness. At no time are we allo­wed to for­get that they are hol­low, that the­se car­cas­ses are mere­ly flo­a­ting in the air they occu­py. Freed from the con­s­traints of can­vas, the sub­jects take pos­ses­si­on of their own spa­ce, so Vermeersch repre­sents them in extre­me, not to say exu­be­rant, poses. This excess does not detract from the qua­li­ty of the expres­si­on, alt­hough this gestu­a­li­ty rapid­ly evol­ves toward a gre­a­ter reserve.

But at the start, all is undis­co­ver­ed. So Vermeersch stu­dies the impact of the use of colours: engo­be whi­te, fle­sh pink or ultra­ma­ri­ne blue, pain­ted plays of light and sha­de. Accessories, auda­cious or other­wi­se, make their appe­a­ran­ce: real hair, nec­k­la­ces and pen­dants, some­ti­mes even a pair of spec­ta­cles or a dog’s leash. For at the side of man, the dog makes his appe­a­ran­ce. Vermeersch’s cani­nes are of the mutt vari­e­ty. The pro­duct of any­thing but selec­ti­ve bree­ding, they are stoc­ky and robust, and what they lack in ele­gan­ce they also lack in inhibition.

Vermeersch incre­a­sin­gly sees the pos­si­bi­li­ties of his work. He appre­ci­a­tes the added value of grou­ping his sta­tu­es. De Kennel” from 19731974, a work selec­ted for the (abor­ted) Venice Biennial, con­sists of nine humans and five dogs. The jux­ta­po­si­ti­on of the­se intro­ver­ted spe­ci­mens of man­kind is out­ra­geous­ly grip­ping and illu­stra­tes the deep con­tra­dic­ti­on bet­ween the amorp­hous natu­re of the charac­ters and their mem­ber­ship of a group. The reser­ve, or even indif­fe­ren­ce, of the humans is in fla­grant con­trast to the atti­tu­de of the dogs with their somehow asso­ci­a­ti­on to the child­ren. They all dive into the game and the effrontery.

Colours, acces­so­ries, and tricks beco­me super­fluous. The sub­ject mate­ri­al is suf­fi­cient in itself. The sta­tue expres­ses eve­ry­thing. Vermeersch is fas­ci­na­ted by the tones of the clay he mixes. He exploits the mar­bling that appe­ars in a less than per­fect­ly amal­ga­ma­ted mix. He goes fur­ther, inter­sec­ting blocks made up of dark and light lay­ers. He even goes so far as to copy regu­lar designs with squa­res, dots, groo­ves, you name it. Thus he mischie­vous­ly sug­gests the edgiest hint of clothing. But the­se struc­tu­res are also to be found with no refe­ren­ce of any dis­cerni­ble type in his nudes, his tor­sos, in forms both sophis­ti­ca­ted and rustic.

José Vermeersch’s cera­mics imme­di­a­te­ly under­go a con­si­de­ra­ble fris­son. Thirty years of pain­ting in an air of stu­died indif­fe­ren­ce have blos­so­med into an acu­te­ly ori­gi­nal mode of expres­si­on that is lap­ped up vir­tu­al­ly wit­hout reser­ve by the public and the cri­tics ali­ke. This popu­lar suc­cess and the new per­spec­ti­ves offe­red to him by cera­mics pro­pel him into a giddy new whir­l­wind. Exhibition after exhi­bi­ti­on fol­lows, some­ti­mes col­li­ding, always at an ever gre­a­ter rhythm. Orders flood in, and yet he never loses his tas­te for exploi­ting new cre­a­ti­ve for­mu­las. The upshot is a sub­stan­ti­al pro­duc­ti­on, a pro­duc­ti­on indeed wort­hy of his own sub­stan­ti­al constitution.

Build Up

Working in the studio 4 kopie

In 1979 Vermeersch renews his links with han­di­craft tra­di­ti­ons. Driven by the tas­te for a chal­len­ge, he designs a tra­di­ti­o­nal wood-fired kiln and then with the help of a num­ber of friends actu­al­ly builds it in the midd­le of the coun­try­si­de. This deli­ca­te and deman­ding ope­ra­ti­on takes pla­ce in an atmos­p­he­re of fes­ti­vi­ty and con­vi­vi­a­li­ty. It is a hands-down suc­cess. For Vermeersch this expe­rien­ce marks the peak of ten years of cera­mic cre­a­ti­on. However, the 1980s start off in a cli­ma­te of cri­sis. Although the public is none the wiser, Vermeersch fears that he has exploi­ted all the cre­a­ti­ve pos­si­bi­li­ties of cera­mics. The nightma­re of repe­ti­ti­ve work, wit­hout the adre­na­li­ne of inno­va­ti­on, tor­ments him. Thus he is dri­ven to find rene­wal of his the­mes and tech­ni­que by any avai­la­ble means. When direc­ting a semi­nar for young cera­mics artists in the Dutch town of Heusden, he turns his hand to the deli­ca­te work of por­ce­lain. The result — essen­ti­al­ly deco­ra­ti­ve in natu­re — is a pro­duc­ti­on of minus­cu­le sta­tu­et­tes, some of which he arran­ges together to form veri­ta­ble litt­le sce­nes of narrative.

An abrupt chan­ge of heart fol­lows in the sha­pe of an appea­ling series of tor­sos. Once again, he shows off his per­fect tech­ni­cal mas­tery, both in the tex­tu­re of the mate­ri­al and in the life­li­ke natu­ral­ness of his work. Finally he sur­mounts the cri­sis when he orga­ni­ses an exhi­bi­ti­on on the the­me of Conversation”. His charac­ters, arran­ged either in cou­ples or in lar­ger groups, inclu­de an ora­tor with a num­ber of eager lis­te­ners. This adja­c­en­cy of charac­ters is thus enri­ched by a total­ly new dimen­si­on, that of communication.

A com­mu­ni­ca­tor too, but a com­mu­ni­ca­tor of a dif­fe­rent sort, Man’s Best Friend takes up a more asser­ti­ve role than in the past. Vermeersch accen­tu­a­tes the canine’s anar­chic charac­ter. Dogs and child­ren are not in the least bit inte­rested in the games adults play. They draw their vita­li­ty from the game and by moc­king eve­ry­thing that is serious and res­pec­ta­ble. Vermeersch’s reputa­ti­on is now begin­ning to cross bor­ders. His par­ti­ci­pa­ti­on in the 41st Venice Biennial in 1984 is not­ed far and wide, and con­so­li­da­tes his reputa­ti­on abroad. In a peri­od stret­ching less than a deca­de, he is the sub­ject of seve­r­al major exhi­bi­ti­ons in the Netherlands, Mexico, France, Germany, and the United States.

Perhaps it is now the moment to men­ti­on some­thing cru­ci­al: Vermeersch starts pain­ting again. Though when star­ting his cera­mics pro­duc­ti­on he had hoped to mount a two-front assault with his acti­vi­ties as both pain­ter and cera­mic artist, he was soon for­ced to sub­mit to the evi­den­ce that it was all but impos­si­ble to stick to such a cour­se of acti­on. Between 1971 and 1982 he hard­ly pain­ted at all. The result was that his pain­ting and his sculp­tu­re evol­ved in dif­fe­rent direc­ti­ons. His can­va­ses of the 1980s are exe­cu­ted in a meti­cu­lous­ly rea­lis­tic sty­le which owe more than a litt­le to the hyper-rea­lism that was so fas­hi­o­na­ble at the time. His port­raits too obser­ve the same aes­the­tic. Whether a lands­ca­pe, a port­rait, or a still life, his over­ri­ding qua­li­ty is one of lumi­no­si­ty. For him, you see, the­re is not a sin­gle sty­lis­tic dis­tinc­ti­on bet­ween the­se renow­ned gen­res. They may be very dis­tinct from each other, but the­re is no dis­tinc­ti­on bet­ween them.

Closing Years

Roland Minnaert

In the clo­sing years of his life, the work of José Vermeersch is charac­te­ri­sed by the mark of con­ti­nui­ty, whi­le never being divor­ced from the eman­ci­pa­ti­on of tech­ni­cal expe­ri­men­ta­ti­on. He stays ever faith­ful to his cast of charac­ters; an arche­ty­pe of new-born huma­ni­ty, with nei­ther know­led­ge nor expe­rien­ce, a shoc­king ini­ti­al con­trast to the dis­co­ve­ry of his own exis­ten­ce. The beau­ti­ful chi­na shop is ups­et not by bulls, but by dogs. Rebellious and facetious, they glad­ly feign the stran­ge beha­vi­our of humans, moc­king their so-cal­l­ed superiority.

Vermeersch now makes a sub­stan­ti­al num­ber of sket­ches. Some of the­se are designs for monu­men­tal sta­tu­es that he is plan­ning to pro­du­ce in bron­ze. In con­trast to the bron­zes tur­ned out from his cera­mic work, this new sculp­tu­re takes a dif­fe­rent spi­rit as its star­ting point. Though his cast of charac­ters retain their phy­si­cal fea­tu­res, they no lon­ger express that ephe­me­ral sta­te of pri­ma­ry inno­cen­ce. Their soli­di­ty under­sco­res their per­ma­nen­ce. I’m here, they say, and I’m here to stay. And nobody’s ever going to get the bet­ter of me.

In the same way that he plun­ged into por­ce­lain, Vermeersch now plun­ges into tech­ni­ques that are new to him, with the heart­felt hope of ope­ning new per­spec­ti­ves in his work. He cre­a­tes a series of figu­ri­nes in blown glass. Sadly, the ven­tu­re is less than overw­hel­ming. Nevertheless, the charac­te­ris­tic raku crac­kling suits his tad­po­le charac­ters per­fect­ly, both accen­tu­a­ting the cur­ves of their bodies and reve­a­ling the fines­se of their atrop­hied limbs.

Painting lends him ever more satis­fac­ti­on. In it he sees the per­fect esca­pe from his suc­ces­sful cera­mic work that binds him to a relent­less com­mer­ci­al rhythm. He goes back to his roots in port­rait pain­ting. The goal is the same: ren­de­ring the essen­ti­al. And he does it so: facing his sub­ject squa­re on, abando­ning the back­ground, abando­ning pret­ty details, abando­ning any diver­gen­ce that might draw the atten­ti­on away from the sit­ter. A curious series of twin port­raits done in gou­a­che lets him eva­lu­a­te the dis­tan­ce bet­ween the port­rait and the après natu­re and his sim­pli­fied interpretation.

Vermeersch’s last works are bre­a­tht­a­king sea views pain­ted with an incre­di­ble brio and mar­vel­lous sweeps of rich­ly con­tras­ting colours. In the dra­ma of his work, he expres­ses the fas­ci­na­ti­on he has for the North Sea. Its uni­que and chan­ging lumi­no­si­ty deser­ved­ly earns him a pla­ce alongsi­de his belo­ved tea­chers and Grand Masters: Permeke, Ensor, and Spilliaert. A brief ill­ness clai­med José Vermeersch on 13 December 1997 in Lendelede. He had just cele­bra­ted his 75th bir­th­day. — Rik Sauwen

In the studio kopie

Two sitting men discussing kopie

Kiln 1979 reninge 5

Tree talking dogs kopie

Kiln from above in the morning

Late selfportrait from the back
With self portraits kopie 2