Mood Indigo

April 8, 2012 § 4 Comments

William Degouve de Nuncques, Nocturnal Effect (1896)

Two days ago I stepped off a train in Namur, heading for an exhibition that a few weeks ago I didn’t know existed, much less imagined would ever take place – William Degouve de Nuncques, maître du mystère. I wouldn’t even have known about it if not for stumbling across the catalogue in the Musée d’Orsay bookshop last month. A happy accident if ever there was one.

The exhibition was hosted by the Musée Félicien Rops. Namur has always found it tricky to accept its most famous son – not surprising when you consider that a. it is a provincial and very Catholic town in Wallonia and b. said famous son is best known for etchings that range from the exceedingly risqué to the frankly pornographic, with a good helping of the macabre at all points on the spectrum. So the museum is tucked inside a house in the old town which is in turn tucked into a narrow, deserted lane – one that wouldn’t look entirely out of place in Degouve de Nuncques’s work.

The exhibition curators opted for a rather unusual hang – not by chronology or theme but by colour (blue and white). I was initially sceptical about this but the moment I entered the first room, I realised what a perfect choice it was. Degouve de Nuncques had one of the most restricted palettes I’ve ever come across in late 19th-century art – even taking into account Symbolism’s obsession with l’heure bleue – and, seeing so much of his work gathered together for the first time it struck me that he handled blue with a sensitivity that seems as much musical as painterly. Even splitting his work into ‘blue’ and ‘white’ seems somewhat arbitrary, because his whites seldom appear as pure whites, more milky, icy blues.

William Degouve de Nuncques, In Venice (1895)

This was the first time I’d ever seen so much of Degouve de Nuncques’s work in the flesh. (Up until now, I’d only seen Nocturne in the Parc Royal, Brussels – one of my unmissable works at the Musée d’Orsay – and two or three paintings at the Kröller-Müller Museum eight years ago. The Kröller-Müller, it turns out, owns about 20 of his works, but I guess they only display a few at a time – no doubt because quite a few of them are pastels.) And you really have to see them in person to appreciate not only his subtlety as a colourist, but his way with textures. The stardust quality of Nocturne in the Parc Royal is inherent in all of his pastels, perhaps most strikingly in Lake Como simply because of its size (I’d only ever seen it reproduced in books and had no idea it was so large). The oils, however, are painted thinly – so thinly that you can easily see the weave of the canvas through the paint surface – something I found distracting at first but that I ultimately thought was perhaps a way of approximating pastel’s diaphaneity. The one exception was a view of a Venetian canal, whose surface called to mind the swirls of colour in an oil slick on water. It’s cliché to describe a work of art as ‘magical’ but try as I might, I can’t think of any better word for his work.

William Degouve de Nuncques, Lake Como (1897)

William Degouve de Nuncques, Night in Venice (1895)

There was more to the exhibition, of course – sketchbooks, letters, photographs – but what has stayed with me, then and, I think, ever after, is that extraordinary, enchanting, musical blue mood.

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