Minne and Unknown (Pietà)



Left: Unknown (Northern European), Pietà, chalk stone, 1410-20, H: 65.5 cm, Compton Verney Art Gallery.

Right: George Minne, Mother Grieving over her Dead Child, plaster, 1886, 15.9 cm x 46.1 cm x 28.2 cm, MSK © www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw, photo Dominique Provost.

Selected by: Marjan Sterckx

When the Ghent artist George Minne (1866-1941) exhibited for the first time at the Ghent Salon of 1889, his work was compared to medieval, ‘primitive’ art. In the progressive art journal L’Art Moderne, the symbolist writer Emile Verhaeren wrote: ‘He explores the plastic from simple, naïve and primitive movements, contrary to every convention and achievement, he shuns each pomposity and bombast, that are as if the rhetoric of the sculptural art, and he concentrates on a special world full of melancholy and religion, like a medieval stone mason in whose footsteps he walks…’. Indeed, religious medieval art was an important source of inspiration for the so-called ‘primitive’, introspective and expressive style George Minne developed from 1886.

In that year, at the age of twenty, Minne made his Mother Grieving over her Dead Child. In that same year during which his younger sister Emma passed away, he left the Ghent Academy, where his non-academic, unusual work was not appreciated, and obtained his own studio in the old city centre. At that time, he was much engaged with the mysticism of the early Middle Ages, following a path similar to his friend, the Ghent-based Symbolist writer Maurice Maeterlinck, who was then translating into French the ascetic writings of Jan van Ruysbroeck, one of the so-called Flemish mystics, who, in the fourteenth century, wrote in Middle Dutch (his writings having also been translated into Middle High German and Middle English).

Just as the anonymous fifteenth-century Northern European Pietà in Compton Verney (which Minne did not know), George Minne’s Mother Grieving over her Dead Child, some 20 centimetres smaller, shows a mother mourning over her dead child on her knees, respectively lying and sitting. In contrast to some earlier medieval examples of this iconography, the Compton Verney Pietà is a calm, aestheticized image, in which beauty prevails over showing suffering. The mother’s face is graceful and almost unaffected, and the figures’ hands and limbs are elegant and elongated.

In Minne’s sculpture, too, the limbs and body (that seem to merge with the block she is sitting on) are elongated and distorted, but here adding to the expressive quality of the image, just as the nudity of both figures makes them timeless and universal. Minne’s tormented mother does show deep grief and is all but idealized. This is well expressed by her face, resembling a death mask, and by the combination of her forward-leaning, skinny upper body and her long-haired head turned backwards. With her chin pushed upwards, Minne’s ‘Mother’ thus vulnerably exposes her long neck, recalling not Mary’s but Christ’s head in the Compton Verney Pietà, and creates a strong contrast with the downwards hanging head of the young child, whose passive, thin body she clasps in her arms.

As a child, Minne, who would later father eight children himself and know poverty, was already struck by the misery of the French exiles who arrived in Ghent following the Franco-Prussion war of 1870-71. Minne exhibited his Mother Grieving over her Dead Child not in Ghent, but at the more progressive Salon of Les XX in Brussels, in 1890, where his work was admired by a modernist and mostly leftist élite. With its social character, Minne’s work is related to that of Constantin Meunier or Edvard Munch.

During the First World War, Minne lived with his family (except from three sons at the battleground in Flanders) in exile in Wales, where he created hundreds of drawings, many retaking the iconography of the Pietà, death and motherhood – which would remain an important theme throughout his work. In the exhibition Belgian Art in Exile held in London in 1916, Minne exhibited a realist bust of a Flemish Peasant. Maurice Maeterlinck was one of the authors of the catalogue, just as Emile Verhaeren, who wrote a poem, entitled The Ancestors: Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, the famous so-called Flemish Primitives whose work Minne was well acquainted with in Ghent.

His inwardly turned youthful figures were also shown and especially appreciated in Germany, largely via art critic Julius Meier-Graefe, and in Austria, adhering as they do to the Jugendstil aesthetic of the ‘fin-de-siècle’ avant-garde artists in Vienna (where Minne showed at the Sezession), such as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and later Wilhelm Lehmbruck.