I had known his work for almost fifteen years then, but had never met the
artist. As luck would have it, I got to know Guillaume Leunens while I
visited Paris in order to bring together the works of Belgian artists working
in the French capital; works that were to be sold at a benefit auction
for the village Reine Fabiola. He lives in a small old fashioned apartment,
where the pileup canvasses hardly emerge from the half light. Penetrating
vivid eyes, giving me a piercing look; short thick crew-cut hair and a
geometrical, well kept pepper-and-salt mustache; tortured features with
high, moving cheekbones; an emaciated body.
While nervously chewing a cigarillo, he ironically purses his lips, all happy that he may express himself in Flemish.
This is how Guillaume Leunens appeared to me. His lack of practice and the contamination of his French give his speech an exquisite accent, and his kind French wife pleases her husband by accepting that he talks to me in his mother tongue. The ice was immediately broken and I already knew then that I would do everything possible to make the artist known in his mother country, which he has always remained loyal to.
Guillaume Leunens is born in a working class environment in Halle (Brabant) in 1914. After a disagreement between his parents, he is brought up at an orphanage in Herenthals.
Of his childhood, the artist has only wretched memories. As soon as the Law allows him to leave school, he becomes a factory worker. He works in a bronze and iron foundry, without yet knowing that thirty years later, this period would be the deciding factor for the orientation of his career.
During leisure time, after having completed the daily tasks, on Sundays and holidays, he devotes himself to the art of painting, to personal experiences. Is this already the call?...
Like so many autodidacts, he does not feel bound by constraining norms and is open-minded towards all new trends, among which he retains, however, only one: the one he creates himself.
From the age of sixteen on, he follows assiduously all artistic avant-garde manifestations. He is especially attracted by the expressionists, such as Permeke, Frits van den Berghe, Gust De Smet - the avant-garde of that time. Later, he goes over to the abstract painters. However, not without having compared his ideas with those of Victor Servranckx, this other pioneer, who, together with Joseph Lacasse, is responsible for the breakthrough of non-figurative art in our lands. Nevertheless, he immediately tries to develop his own style, a style that is exclusively his.
What we have retained of his figurative period - marked by the cubistic influence of Jean Brusselmans - is above all that Guillaume Leunens is a painter of the night. His heavy color constructions, in which dark blue stands in almost violent contrast with bright yellow and brick red, allow him above all to render the mysteries of the night more perceptible.
A number of his works dating from that period attract the attention of some of our perspicacious critics, such as Maurits Bilcke and the late Jan Walravens, prematurely deceased, who always encouraged Leunens and told him once: "I am looking for an occasion to write an important article on your work. People here have to finally start appreciating you."
In 1961, he wrote: "Leunens is one of the most outstanding personalities I know."
In 1958, Guillaume Leunens turns away from the vision of nature. From now on, he captures the essence itself of what could be called the absence of light. In numerous experiments carried out by means of painting, heated iron, aluminum, glass, copper and even such ingredients as ink, wax and ground coffee beans, he covers dark but nevertheless vibrant surfaces, whose somber aspect becomes even more enigmatic with a thin white line or a red spot.
Not all the works created by the artist during that period - his worrying personality makes us relive certain violent moments in the life of a van Gogh - have the same intensity. Nevertheless, in his best productions, Guillaume Leunens already succeeds in evoking the fascination of total night.
In the meantime - it is the year 1957 - Guillaume Leunens suddenly emigrates to Paris, probably attracted by the ever seducing radiance of that city...
Right from his first days in Paris on, Guillaume Leunens felt that impression of profusion, of artistic mastery. He experienced and noticed it at the galleries of the traditional neighborhoods ... as well as among the street artists of the "Rive Gauche"...
According to Guillaume Leunens, one does not have to go to famous museums in order to meditate in front of a Vlaminck, a Seurat or a Picasso... nor does one have to travel through the whole country in order to admire a Maillol, a Rodin, a Renoir, a Giacometti or a Calder... or try hard in order to see the latest works by Alechinsky, Poliakoff, Lacasse, Appel, Jorn, Warhol, Corneille, Rauschenberg, Oldenburg and many others. All this can be experienced in the multitude and diversity of almost 400 galleries in Paris. And then, one day, tired from wandering and contemplating, he looks, once again, at his own work. A new perspective, enlightened by all the works he could admire, will leave its mark in his paintings. Through a kind of artistic osmosis, a new vision will be born. A vision that will lead him to a certain state of mind. Everything is foreseeable. Everything is logical in the blossoming of Leunens. A blossoming which not even he had ever dreamed of. He sees his former production from a different point of view now, he has more freedom.
Guillaume Leunens experienced and felt of course, like so many others,
that the arts market in Paris is a real jungle. However, he successfully
persevered, which is one of his great merits. After each experience, he
started working again, without losing his heart, in silence, above all
in silence, convinced that it had to be like this and that it could not
He paints abstract pictures in different shades of gray. He is transformed into an abstract painter of the night, because the light of the night underlines the color and reveals all its mysteries. In 1960, he transposes his paintings on metal, a material he has been very familiar with since his early youth. He gives aluminum sheets his primitive geometrical shapes: circles, strained squares, inclined rectangles, diagonals, parallel lines, transverses, small squares, trapezoids in perspective, truncated and shortened cones. These shapes reveal a poetic essence. Despite the apparently dry geometry, they lent a considerable amount of human warmth to the prosaic aluminum.
Logically, the fact that Guillaume Leunens chose metal to work with, should have consecrated him as a sculptor of iron, just like the members of the "Dynasty": the Gonzalez, the Swiss Robert Muller, César, the Flemish-Canadian Pierre Heyvaert, the Flemish Reinhoud and Roel d'Haese, Remy Cornelissen and many others. However, Guillaume Leunens is a painter, and when he wants to introduce new possibilities to express oneself, he does not reject pictorial art. However, he wishes to adapt it to the ideology of the time, which has turned into something vast thanks to the cosmic conquests. One can find tenacity in his way of living, in the way he defends his conceptions and esthetics, in his never-ending struggle with the material, with the metal.
Unintentionally, we think of the roughness of Bram Van Velde. The projection of liquid aluminum, in the mastery of craft, evokes rhythms that radiate spatial presence. The poetic suggestion, the visual warmth and a range of luminous vibrations are characteristic of his originality. Despite the fact that initially a soft relief, obtained by working the metal in advance, captured the light every time and gave priority to certain lines by means of natural scintillation or depending on the angle of incidence of the beams of light, later on - and it is still like this nowadays - the surface will be treated in a completely two-dimensional way.
light remains an essential element of Guillaume Leunens' work. A work that
owes nothing to the impressionists, but rather presents the aspect of a
Caravage; however, without necessarily being qualified as light and shade.
It is more an enclosing nimbus, which, here and there, allows the sources
of light to appear between the different shadings of gray. It is a light
which, at the same time, has a color, creates an environment, evokes a
climate, suggests an atmosphere and radiates through its modulations, the
lightened lines, the receding lines animating the depths and the magic
aspect of the almost monochrome surfaces. Apart from his large, always
vertical works, which create an atmosphere of psychological architecture,
we must mention his smaller works, monotypes, created on paper according
to a technique that is and remains Guillaume Leunens secret. The result
is dazzling. Each monotype is radiant with light and emotion, shades, shadings
of colors, granular material. These elements create an harmonious entirety,
giving the metal qualities that were not thought possible up to now.
Is it possible to understand the artistic manifestations otherwise than as the equivalent of a science which escapes us? Genetics based on plastic components is developing. Having grown out of elementary geometry, it develops towards relativity: The unity of shape and color in plastic arts corresponds to the relation between particle and wave in nature. Against pictorial organisms, inspired by nature, Guillaume Leunens sets plastic structures, parallel to the action of man on nature. He presents us a construction of man within nature. His art seems to be a refuge for the mind, a place for clear thoughts. Here we have a contemporary artist, witness of his time, building strongholds against the terror that inspires our technical nature. He is an artist of the soul, whose creative force, or better: fever, equals his pitiless capacity to work and his enthusiasm. An honest man who becomes one with his work. The relation between man and work is a further characteristic of Guillaume Leunens production.
In 1969, he was invited by the group E.A.T. "Experiments in Art and Technology", founded in the United States by Billy Klüver and Rauschenberg. He exhibited his works at the Brooklyn museum and at the New York "Museum of Modern Art".
He was host of the French Government at the Pavilion of the World Exhibition in Montreal (Canada). During the "French Fortnight", "France invited to Antwerp", the Provincial Government of Antwerp welcomed him at the Arenberg Provincial Cultural Center and then at the Cultural Center of Turnhout. At each of these occasions, one could notice the harmonious unity, tranquillity and serenity achieved by this man so feverishly possessed by the arts. I have the impression that, after a rise that lasted several years, Leunens has finally reached the state of perfection when contemplation takes hold of his whole being.
Professor at the New York State University
and the Antwerp Higher National Institute for Architecture and Urbanism.
Member of the Administrative Council of the I.A.A.C.
(International Association of Art Critics)
Translated from French