'Charles Van der Stappen': Musees Royaux Des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 2 July-26 Sept 2010 Www.fine-Arts-Museum.Be

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'Charles Van der Stappen' Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 2 July-26 Sept 2010 www.fine-arts-museum.be

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He exhibited his sculptures with great success at prestigious shows in England, Scotland, Wales, Italy, Austria, France, Germany and the Netherlands. He was decorated by the king of Italy, and the emperor of Austria-Hungary went to see his sculptures in Vienna. In Brussels, his home town, the art critics showered praise upon him. This was also where, at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, he radically modernised teaching in accordance with the ideas of John Ruskin and William Morris: he encouraged his students to go directly to nature for inspiration and he improved the standing of the applied arts. He was the first to open sculpture classes to women and taught famous students as diverse as the Scottish James Pittendrigh Macgillivray, the Japanese Kozaburo Takeishi, the Brazilian Joao Turin, the Czech Helen Zelezny and the Finnish Emil Cedercreutz. Nevertheless, a century after his death the name of Belgian sculptor Charles Van der Stappen (1843-1910) is practically unknown to most people, even in Belgium.

Francisca Vandepitte and Angelique Demur have organised this Van der Stappen retrospective--the first for almost 100 years--with the aim of putting this remarkable artist back in the public eye. The exhibition, on the ground floor of the Musees royaux des Beaux-Arts, was rather small because the curators were only able to include pieces from the museum's own collection. However, it was quite representative of Van der Stappen's evolution as an artist thanks to the display of preparatory sketches and archive documents alongside the sculptures. An engaging touch was added by the curators' overall design, which they based on photos of late 19th-century art shows. The journey through the exhibition brings the visitor from Van der Stappen's early Italianate works via his social realist sculptures to one of his Symbolist masterpieces, Le sphinx (The Sphinx, 1898).

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This is not Le sphinx mysterieux (The Mysterious Sphinx, 1897) mentioned in my review of the exhibition 'Symbolism in Belgium' (exhibition 26 March-27 June 2010, see review in The British Art Journal, XI, 1, pp112-3), but one of several different representations of the same theme created by Van der Stappen. Whereas the 1897 work--not included in this show--is a typically Symbolist combination of different materials (ivory and an alloy of copper and silver), the 1898 sphinx is sculpted only in pure white marble. Le sphinx was arguably the most intriguing work in the Brussels exhibition. Like every truly Symbolist work of art it is not a mere descriptive allegory: it has a wealth of iconography into which viewers can read a whole range of interrelated but nevertheless different meanings. The sphinx figure itself is of course a feminine guardian of secrets. Its unusual winged helmet, as well as the serpent clinging to its bosom, refers to the warrior maiden Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and particularly to the Athena Parthenos (5th c BC) by Phidias, a sculptor Van der Stappen greatly admired. The base of the sculpture is decorated with the lotus flower and the papyrus. According to Chevalier & Gheerbrant's Dictionary of Symbols (1982/1994) the lotus is 'the archetypal sexual organ or vulva, pledge of birth and rebirth' while the papyrus stands for 'the world in gestation ... the scene of the daily rebirth of the universe'. In ancient Egypt the papyrus also served as 'the magical sceptre of goddesses'. It is clear that Van der Stappen put all these symbols together for a reason: to suggest an idea. However, the artist left it to each viewer individually to decide on the nature of that idea. …