In perspective

an innovative wildlife artist following in the steps of a great tradition

Sculpture focused on the portrayal of animals figures more prominently in the history of art than is generally thought. The cathedrals, choir stalls, fountains, equestrian statues and monuments tell us that our sculptors have been drawing inspiration from animals for centuries. The first milestone in the representation of animals was reached in the work of the Flemish-born Italian artist Giambologna (1529-1608). He worked in Tuscany for the Medici family. One of his best-known works is the powerful equestrian statue he sculpted for Cosimo I in Florence.

The next important artistic step was taken in France, in the second quarter of the 19th century. Antoine-Louis Barye (1796-1875) created pioneering work with his sensational sculptures, and with the realism of his dramatised animal images.

Many French and European sculptors followed in Barye’s wake, adding to the successful animal theme. The name “wildlife artist” is the universally accepted term now used to describe sculptors specialising in this subject matter. This new genre also became popular in Belgium, Flanders and Antwerp, particularly towards the middle of the 19th century. In newly independent Belgium, there was no shortage of official commissions and top-quality bronze foundries abounded. Flanders and Antwerp boasted such enterprises. In 1843 Antwerp opened a zoo that attracted hoards of visitors. Circuses were also very popular at the time.

The transition from 19th to 20th century is mainly hallmarked by the work of three leading French sculptors: the charismatic Rembrandt Bugatti (1885-1916), the innovative Emile-Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929) and the modernist Raymond Duchamp-Villon (1876-1918).

In his search for absolute form, the Romanian Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) came under the spell of animals (such as The Cock, The Fish, and Bird). He also made a far-reaching study of abstract channels of expression.

Over the years, Antwerp Zoo has acquired several works of art. Naturally, animals constitute the central theme. They include the Indian elephant by Rembrandt Bugatti and the polar bear by Erwin Peeters (1964). Which citizen of Antwerp is not familiar with the life-size bronze camel stationed 21 metres in the air indicating the zoo’s entrance? It was made by Josuë Dupon (1864-1935).

Animals are once again a popular subject in contemporary art. Here are a few examples of contemporary artists that are reviving a centuries-old theme. Jan Fabre’s giant tortoise was exhibited on the beach in Nieuwpoort at the art festival 2003 Beaufort. 2006 Beaufort is continuing down this path with a giant spider entitled Maman by Louise Bourgeois, an ageing master of contemporary art, above James Ensor’s grave in Oostende. The nine life-sized wooden elephants that gathered on the beach in De Panne were an enormous attraction. They are the work of the South African artist Andries Botha.

Animal art is still alive and well today. Erwin Peeters, together with the likes of Ronald De Winter (1956), belongs to the top of this genre. Erwin Peeters specialises in the realistic portrayal of animals: snapshots of animals in conflict, at rest, at play, etc. His varied and exciting oeuvre reflects nature in all its facets: rough, merciless, poignant and forever young.

Erwin Peeters is a sculptor that fervently continues in the tradition of the Antwerp wildlife artists. The romanticism of the 19th century has obviously been replaced with a contemporary interpretation of the animal kingdom. Erwin Peeters demonstrates a powerful form of simplicity. His amazing powers of observation are a testament to the seven years he worked as a keeper at Antwerp Zoo. His favourite objects include apes, rams, pumas, horses and eagles, archetypal creatures with a mythical quality. The portrayed animal receives an added dimension and that’s what art is about. He creates a spiritual added value by giving expression to the instinctive character of the animal.

During the bronze casting process, the artist works together with the Norga brothers in Oudenaarde. Since he usually casts only six copies and sometimes one to four artist’s proofs, he pays attention to the conventions of the medium of sculpture regarding the original so as not to end up with a multiple series.

Artistically speaking, he builds upon the achievements of the 20th century sculptors such as Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967) and Henry Moore (1898-1986), breaking up monolithic structures and creating spatial information with open sections. Erwin Peeters has broken up the shape so that the space enclosed in the hollows of the statue is just as important as the mass, the bronze, which contains this space. Light is allowed to penetrate his sculptures so the play of light and shadow is just as important in the background as in the foreground.

The style of his recent statues is a bit rougher; he uses his sense of touch more.

In conclusion, Erwin Peeters has given a traditional genre new content and form. This is keenly recognised by art lovers. In recent years, our sculptor has gone international with two successful showings at the art fair in Toronto and a successful showing at the art fair in Washington. This is no mean feat for a comparatively young artist at the start of this new century.

Ernest Van Buynder,
MuHKA President
January 2007

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