Oud Holland

Review of: ‘Pro arte! Cui bono?’ (2021)

November 2022


Review of: Katrien Dierckx, Pro arte! Cui bono? Kunst en expertise in laatnegentiende-eeuws Brussel (1860-1914), Antwerp [University Press Antwerp], 2021

Pro arte! Cui bono?, is the trade edition of a dissertation defended at the University of Antwerp by historian Katrien Dierckx. The limited number of small black and white photographs and a functional, straightforward design still betrays the book’s origin. In it, Dierckx analyzes the Brussels art scene in the period 1860-1914 and more specifically the role of art criticism in it. The artistic business was in full development in this period and so, of course, was the position of the critics. That makes this a relevant study for a better understanding of this important moment in Belgian art, which fills a gap in Belgian art historical writing.

Applying the concepts of Deutungsmacht (the authority to explain) and Deutungskampf (the battle for [the right to] explain) that were developed by the German professor of systematic theology Philipp Stoellger, Dierckx interprets its evolution primarily as a struggle for authority and the right to speak (“the right to explain art”). She proposes to read critics’ texts as “speech acts, by which expertise was simultaneously claimed and negotiated” (p.18). And so Dierckx focuses on the ‘tactical considerations’ involved and on the fact that critics “deliberately strove to amass social, intellectual and cultural capital” (p. 11). To get to the bottom of this, Dierckx argues, an analysis of discourse is not enough. Therefore, she zooms in on “the concrete interaction between actors, the calculated, but also the petty strategies they invoke in relation to each other, and the power conflicts between them” (p. 17), next to “the connection between aesthetic and political-ideological developments” (p. 13). This makes for a fine and rich study, which includes the discourse on the official salon, the role and significance of sincérité (honesty) in artistic discourse, the role of critics in the ‘marketing’ of art and in lawsuits related to art dealings; the transition from propriété artistique (artistic property) to droit d'auteur (copyright); and the search for synthesis and reconciliation in the 1890s, after a period of fierce polemics and turmoil.

Dierckx emphasises, somewhat superfluously, that she, “deliberately enters into debate with the existing literature” (p. 27), and that she wants to correct the prevailing tendency, namely that research of the (Belgian and) Brussels art world at the end of the nineteenth century has focused too exclusively on aesthetic developments, privileging avant-gardism and overestimating its influence. Also, she argues, research has remained rather limited to groups such as Les Vingt and La Libre Estéthique, and the magazine L'Art moderne – whose discourse was almost completely adopted and identified with the vision of ‘the’ Brussels art scene (fig. 1). With her study, Dierckx wants to explicitly counter this. She wants to avoid narrowing the attention to “those artists, critics, art mediators and other actors who already dominate art historical memory” (p. 213). Instead, she aims to make it clear that the period in question saw, “striking diversity of voices and the proliferation of opinions” (p. 25). This allows her to show that the so-called non-avant-garde magazines (La Fédération artistique, among several others) were not as unequivocally conservative as is often assumed and that the break with the past perceived and propagated by L'Art moderne, in reality, concealed a gradual transition and ‘shifting hybridity’. The older forms continued to live on. Dierckx has hardly found any evidence of an opposition between the high-quality and intellectual art criticism within the specialised art magazines, on the one hand, and the ‘banal’ criticism in the newspapers, on the other. 

Cover of: Pro arte! Cui bono? Kunst en expertise in laatnegentiende-eeuws Brussel (1860-1914)

Middle: fig. 1The Nikosthenes Painter, High-handled drinking cup (kantharos) with erotic scenes, Greek Archaic Period—about 520–510 BCE, 16.2 x 20.3 cm (with handles: 24 x 28 cm.), by 1892: A. van Branteghem Collection (Hotel Drouot auction of Van Branteghem collection, Paris, May 30-31 and June 1, lot 26)

Right: fig. 2, David Oyens, Artist reading L’Art Moderne in his studio, 1884-1986, 29 x 22.4 cm., Dordrechts Museum, Dordrecht

These are just corrections, but to my mind, Dierckx keeps hitting the same nail unnecessarily hard, and frequently. For indeed: reality, including artistic reality, is complex and cannot be covered by an unambiguous discourse. The division of artistic actors into ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ forces is problematic (and does injustice to a great many artists, works and discourses). The Brussels art scene, “did not unambiguously propagate the triumph of the new art” (p. 161). Ruptures do not occur suddenly and completely. Studies indeed often “present historical reality much more schematically than it actually took place” (p. 31). Artistic life is populated by many more men and women than the few we still know and that appear in the retrospective works. And yes, many of them are far more interesting (and better artists or art critics) than their obscurity suggests. All this is very true – and it is undoubtedly good to say so explicitly from time to time – but it is also, in fact, largely self-evident, and no one will deny, or even doubt it.

It seems, therefore, a pity that Dierckx did not put more effort into showing the possibilities of a broader focus. She repeatedly points out that more than 100 art journals were published in Brussels in the last decades of the nineteenth century (and particularly in the 1890s), most of them “undervalued and as yet unstudied” (p. 23). The amount of sources on which this research is based is astounding (and the extensive footnote apparatus is a gold mine for further research), yet quite a few of these journals do not appear in the book, while L'Art moderne is mentioned hundreds of times. And the ‘lesser gods’ of the Brussels art scene also remain more or less invisible here. Only in the fifth (and final) chapter is the searchlight fully focused on a ‘forgotten’ figure. There, Dierckx paints a beautiful and intriguing portrait of Alphonse van Branteghem, an art collector specializing in Greek antique vases, and makes it clear that he played a significant role in the museum world (fig. 2). He had a huge collection, of which the British Museum was “several times inquiring to buy over pieces” (p. 236) and there was “wide recognition for the thoughtful, scholarly collection construction” (p. 241). Yet Dierckx portrays him as a “tragic” and “marginalised” figure (p. 27 and 221). Indeed, he failed to become chief curator of the Musée du Cinquantenaire, or to sell his collection in part or in its entirety to that museum. But does that make him a “failure” (p. 224)? He represents an older generation and an earlier phase, and illustrates, as Dierckx also (rightly) emphasises, “how much private players, in defiance of the historiographical emphasis on discontinuity, remained influential long after 1860” (p. 255). Is this long-lasting influence not a form of success rather than failure?

Frequently, Dierckx seems to shy away somewhat from the consequences of her own advocacy, or at least she seems to have a tendency to see the artistic production of this period as homogeneous, ignoring the actual great variety, differences and contradictions that characterised it. Describing the proliferation in the art world as “confusion”, “rudderlessness” or “artistic chaos” (pp. 161, 162 and 167), she gives the impression that polyphony is a problem, and that it really should not be there. Moreover, she seems to deny complexity and polyphony to those parts of artistic life that lie just outside the edge of her own focus. Telling is a (brief) passage about the Paris Salon in the nineteenth century, in which the usual clichéd image is repeated without difficulty, namely that this salon was “rigorously composed year after year [by] an admissions jury whose judging criteria were completely aligned with the aesthetic vision of the state-controlled Academy”, and that it was organised in such a way, “that the art as taught at the Academy reproduced itself as a matter of course” (p. 40). I find it hard to believe that things were simple and straightforward in Paris, if they were not in Brussels. In fact, it is commonly agreed that the Paris art world was at least as complex and many-voiced, with not only, on the one hand, modernist rebels, who turned their backs on existing institutions and wanted to overthrow them, and on the other, idle and old-fashioned academics, who abhorred any change and guarded the salon like a fortress, aiming at destroying any innovation by all means. Why would Paris lack the “striking diversity of voices and the proliferation of opinions” and “shifting hybridity” that, as Dierckx convincingly argues, so strikingly characterised the Brussels art scene?

To sum up, Pro arte! Cui bono! is an inspiring book that paints a compelling picture of the Brussels art world at the end of the nineteenth century, highlighting some of its major and minor actors and strategies. It also makes clear that there still is so much more to discover in nineteenth-century art life. Let us discover the lives and work of the artists, dealers and critics who are (or seem to be) forgotten – and not see them as failures.

Tom Verschaffel
Professor, Head of the Research Group, KU Leuven
Translated from the Dutch to the English by John Bezold.
Tom verschaffel, 'Review of: Pro arte! Cui bono? Kunst en expertise in laatnegentiende-eeuws Brussel (1860-1914)', Oud Holland Reviews, November 2022.