Walter Vaes (1882-1958). Etchings and paintings


In 2021, the Musée L received a gift of 158 etchings by the Antwerp painter Walter Vaes, from Jean-Marie Gillis, Emeritus Professor at the Université catholique de Louvain. The exhibition presents part of this donation, together with works loaned by galleries and private collectors. The show explores the parallel strands of print-making and painting in Vaes’s career, and highlights the element of fantasy in his work – an aspect he reserved for his etchings.

 Walter Vaes is little-known today but enjoyed considerable acclaim in his lifetime. His still-lifes and portraits are in the Flemish tradition, with a fresh, realist tendency that reflects the success and influence of Gustave Courbet’s painting Les Casseurs de pierres (‘The Stone Breakers’), when it was shown at the Brussels Salon in 1851. The Antwerp School’s Realist renaissance was spearheaded by Henri Leys (1815-1869), his pupil Henri De Braekeleer (1840-1888), and Piet Verhaert (1852-1908). The three masters were an important influence for Vaes.

Vaes very soon abandoned history painting and mythological scenes, to concentrate on smaller-scale portraits and still-lifes, beginning in 1905. His still-lifes of animal subjects – a single skate-fish, a crab lying on its back, a fish-head on a plate, a chicken carcass, etc. – fall clearly within Courbet’s repertory of ‘visible and tangible things’, but also show a taste for the monstrous and grotesque that finds free expression in his etchings, and only there. Vaes’s etchings are populated with disturbing insects, monsters and hybrid creatures (a shellfish-man) – a phantasmagorical bestiary clearly inspired by Bosch and Breughel – especially during the First World War when these ‘diabolical’ figures served to caricature the German and Austrian troops attacking the city of Antwerp.

Etching as a technique consists in drawing directly onto a metal plate covered in acid-resistant varnish, using a pointed needle. When the plate is immersed in acid, only the lines uncovered by the needle are ‘bitten’. The prints that result have a spontaneity close to drawing; etching allows the artist to quickly sketch a motif in the open air. Vaes’s landscapes are influenced by the picturesque realism of etchings by Henri Leys, Henri De Braekeleer and Piet Verhaert. His use of print-making for fantastical and satirical subjects is typical of a 19th-century tradition, but stems more directly from James Ensor (1860-1949), whose work he often studied. Vaes borrows some of Ensor’s motifs (skaters, Antwerp cathedral, scenes and landscapes around Nieuwpoort), and aspects of his technique, including a cursive, highly economical style and short, quick, densely hatched marks as in Cathédrale de Tours (‘Tours Cathedral’). Like Ensor, his etchings alternate between vedute and visions. In Vaes’s skyscapes, his wandering drypoint and imagination conjure cloudforms and monstrous creatures alike. The clouds in Bourrasque dans les dunes / Vlaag in de duinen (‘Wind Gusting in the Dunes’), shown here, prefigure the creatures that appear in his later prints. Vaes often drew directly onto the plate, with no preparatory studies, giving his stylus and his imagination free rein over the surface of the copper.