Inspired by the successful monographic exhibitions devoted to Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1994), Odilon Redon (1994-95) and Franz von Stuck (1995), the Van Gogh Museum is mounting a retrospective exhibition of the work of Xavier Mellery (1845-1921). Even though Mellery is considered one of the pioneers of Symbolism, not a single comprehensive exhibition on this Belgian artist has been held since 1937. His mysterious intimate interiors, penchant for antiquity in his allegorical works, and great fondness for monumental art typify Mellery as an unusual artist.
Born in Laeken (Brussels), Mellery trained with the painter and decorator Charle-Albert, acquiring the basic skills necessary for his career as a muralist. In 1870 he won the Prix de Rome, including a grant for a four-year study tour in Italy. His sojourn in various Italian cities proved significant for his artistic development.
Upon his return, Mellery established himself in Brussels, where he became acquainted with the lawyer Edmond Picard, the writers Camille Lemonnier and Emile Verhaeren and the collector Arthur Boitte, among others. In the numerous letters to his friends in that period, he wrote about his artistic ideal and his constant attempts to advance his art: In point of fact, we may be certain that the most beautiful things in art are those that have yet to be said.
Mellery’s works with Marken Island as their subject represent an important milestone in his career. His introduction to the island took place in 1878 through the writer Charles De Coster, who needed illustrations for his description of the Netherlands in the magazine Tour du monde. Marken was to Mellery what Brittany was to Gauguin: a lost paradise. One of his most characteristic works from this period is The fiancée in the best room (1878). Mellery’s stay on Marken represented a turning-point in his artistic development. He distanced himself from his academic training and secured a place in the Naturalistic movement of the Belgian avant-garde at the end of the 1870s.
As of 1885 Mellery began producing more intimist works, which express the emotions of the artist and his quest for the deepest essence of things. Because of their subject (solitude, silence, cloisters) and their approach, they more properly belong to the Symbolist movement. In his series entitled Emotions d’Art: L’ame des choses (The Emotions of Art: The Soul of Things) he confers a mystical meaning to everyday objects. In this pursuit, his own house in Laeken frequently served as the subject of atmospheric black and white drawings, aptly illustrated in My Entrance Hall, Light Effect (1889).
Even though Mellery is primarily known for his intimist works, he also made numerous designs and sketches for wall paintings in the visual language of allegorical art, in which the figures are usually set against a gold background. This idealistic art is based on a respect for tradition, a desire to establish a new order linked to the past, and a return to the ideal of a lost unity. Though this is the least-known facet of the artist’s oeuvre, we cannot ignore the importance and the value he himself attached to it.
Mellery was the only idealistic painter from the Belgian school to include words in his allegorical works. These offer clues for better understanding his work. An example of this is The Flemish Renaissance (1890), which represents the art of painting. The woman’s physicality refers to the earthly aspect of Flemish art; the fruit and grape leaves in her left hand represent life and the sensuality of nature; while the child symbolises her fertility and the painter’s palette is her standard attribute.
The exhibition will also be on view in the Musee d’Ixelles (Brussels) from 27 July to 8 October 2000. The idea for this project came from the Centre international pour l’Etude du XIXe siecle (Brussels).