Personal Variants on Parisian Cubism

De pottendraaier 1921, euvillesteen,  41 x 33 x 25 cm Maastricht, Bonnefantenmuseum.

De pottendraaier
(The Potter)

1921, stone from Euville
41 cm height
Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht

Moeder en kind 1923, palissanderhout, 44 x 17,5 x 17,5 Brussel. part. coll.

Moeder en kind
(Mother and Child)

1923, rosewood
44 cm height
Private collection, Brussels

De Jongleur 1923, steen, gepolychromeerd, 96 x 46 20 cm Belgë, part. coll.

De jongleur
(The Juggler)

1923, stone, polychromed
96 cm height
M.S.K., Ghent

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After several years of research and with Paul van Ostaijen’s encouragement, Oscar developed his own personal expression within Cubism, where the human figure is not fragmented, as was the trend in Paris. Referring to De pottendraaier, van Ostaijen wrote that the cube had become the fundamental form of everything. Jespers showed increasingly the body or the head intact and the cube, sphere and oval forms all assisted in providing his sculptures with a solid consistency. This technique applies to all his artistically important work created in the Twenties. For example, De jongleur (The Juggler) was constructed from two cylinders. The juggler and circus characters in general were at the time an international inspiration in the fine art and poetry world. When Jespers used two tiny pots of paint to colour one of the juggler’s legs green and the other one blue, his only explanation was that ‘it needed it’. During the 1920s, he loved to self-impose one or other severe restriction. This was the case, among other reasons, when in 1925 he created Het Toilet from an old stone threshold belonging to a church in Ostend: a monumental female figure with the reverse side revealing a motif of a lyrical, almost musical repetition. Year after year the artist favoured working with Belgian Bluestone. However, cutting into it released a pungent unpleasant odour that consequently persisted to permeate his whole workshop. In the Twenties it seemed as if this formally rigorous point of departure fuelled Jespers’ creativity.

Art Deco in the Twenties

Kleine ruiter 1924, gekleurd gips,  37,5  x  29 cm Caroline & Maurice Verbaet Collection, Antwerpen.

Kleine ruiter
(Small Rider)

1924, white marble
94 x 72 x 5 cm
J. Felix collection, Antwerp
 

Engel 1927, brons/gips, 126 x 48 x 37 cm Antwerpen, Stadsbegraafplaats Schoonselhof, perk H

Engel
(Angel)

1927, bronze
126 x 48 x 37 cm
Antwerp city cemetery
Schoonselhof, square H

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Several of Jespers’ sculptures dating from the Twenties show an affinity with the Art Deco movement. He even succeeded to combine his admiration for Egyptian sculptural art with his own artwork. For example, with the Kleine ruiner (Small Rider) Jespers conceived the eyes of the mother and the child as if they were facing forward, while they are actually both in profile: an artistic choice often found in hieroglyphics. Similarly, the mother’s hairstyle is reminiscent of wigs worn by Egyptian courtiers. The decorative artwork over the entire surface and the highly stylised forms that emerge from this piece are characteristic of Art Deco. Similarly, Engel (Angel), a monument that Jespers sculpted in 1927 to stand over the grave belonging to Anaïs Franck, located in the Schoonselhof cemetery in Antwerp, also displays Art Deco features: the upper part of the torso extended and lower torso shortened, upper arms shortened and the forearms lengthened. Also, the grief revieled by the inclination of the head, tilting to rest on the shoulder, shows an extremely stylised expression in keeping with the best tradition of Art Deco.

Affinity with Brancusi

Perle Fine 1925, wit marmer,  22,5 x 11 x 22,5 cm Caroline & Maurice Verbaet Collection, Antwerpen

Perle Fine
1925, white marble
22,5 x 11 x 22,5 cm
Caroline & Maurice Verbaet
collection, Antwerp

Stubborn Cubism

Het toilet 1925, hardsteen, gepolijst, 1925 x 45 x 20 cm Antwerpen.

Het toilet
(The Toilet)

1925, Bluestone, polished
169 x 45 x 20 cm
Antwerp
 

Visser 1926 (p.360)

Visser
(Fisherman)

1926, stone from Euville
47 x 28 x 25 cm
MuZEE, Ostend
 

Constant Permeke 1928, hardsteen, 75 x 18,5 x 26 cm Oostende, MuZEE.

Constant Permeke
1928, Bluestone
75 x 18,5 x 26 cm
MuZEE, Ostend
 
 

Vrouwenhoofd 1929, wit marmer, 36 x 18 x 20 cm Luxemburg, part. coll.

Vrouwenhoofd
(Female Head)

1929, white marble
36 x 18 x 20 cm
Private collection, Luxembourg
 

Jonge vrouw 1930, limbahout uit Kongo, 167 x 39,5 x 35 cm

Jonge vrouw
(Young Woman)

1930, Limba wood from the Congo
167 x 39,5 x 35 cm
 

Expressionism

Moederschap 1930, hardsteen, 83 x 22 x 14 cm Maastricht, Bonnefantenmuseum,

Moederschap
(Maternity)

1930, Bluestone
83 x 22 x 14 cm
Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht
 
 

Geboorte 1932, hardsteen, 40 x 125 x 59 cm Antwerpen, Openluchtmuseum voor beeldhouwkunst Middelheim.

Geboorte
(Birth)

1932, Bluestone
125 cm L.
Middelheim Museum, Anvers
 
 

Engel, grafmonument voor de dichter Paul van Ostaijen 1932, hardsteen,  63 x 60 x 165 cm Antwerpen, Stadsbegraafplaats Schoonselhof

Engel (Angel)
Funerary Monument for
the Poet 
Paul van Ostaijen
1932, Bluestone
165 cm L.
Schoonselhof, Antwerp cemetery
 

Vrouwentors 1932, hardsteen, 77 x 38 x 33 cm coll. Ministerie van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap, Brussel-Sijsele, Cultureel Centrum.

Vrouwentors
(Female Torso)

1932, Bluestone
77 x 38 x 33 cm
Coll., Ministerie van de Vlaamse
Gemeenschap, Brussel-Sijsele
 

De bekoring van Sint Antonius 1933, hardsteen, 40 x 146 cm New York, M.O.M.A.

De bekoring van Sint Antonius
(The Temptation of Saint Anthony)

1933, Bluestone
146 cm L.
MoMA, New York
 
 

Worstelaar 1933, hardsteen, 91 x 36 x 26 cm Enschede, coll. gemeente.

Worstelaar
(Wrestler)

1933, Bluestone
91 x 36 x 26 cm
Municipality coll., Enschede
 
 

Voorovergebogen vrouw  1933, wit marmer, 37,5 x 12,5 x 25 cm Gent, part. coll.

Voorovergebogen vrouw
(Woman Leaning Forward)

1933, white marble
37,5 x 12,5 x 25 cm
Private collection, Ghent
 
 

Voorovergebogen vrouw  1933, wit marmer, 37,5 x 12,5 x 25 cm Gent, part. coll.

Voorovergebogen vrouw
(Woman Leaning Forward)

1933, white marble
37,5 x 12,5 x 25 cm
Private collection, Ghent
 
 

Edgard Tijtgat 1933, hardsteen, 49 x 21 x 25 cm coll. Ministerie van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap, Antwerpen, Politierechtbank.

Edgard Tijtgat
1933, Bluestone
49 x 21 x 25 cm
Coll., Ministerie van de Vlaamse
Gemeenschap, Antwerp
 
 

Broer en zus 1934, hardsteen, 56 x 30 x 25 cm Antwerpen, K.M.S.K.

Broer en zus
(Brother and Sister)

1934, Bluestone
56 x 30 x 25 cm
K.M.S.K., Antwerp
 
 

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In 1927 the sculptor and his wife, Mia Jespers-Carpentier, moved to Brussels. Henry van de Velde had invited him to teach at the Hoger Instituut voor Decoratieve Kunsten in Brussels, also known as La Cambre. On December 14th of that same year, Oscar and Mia unexpectedly lost their only child, Hella. This tragic event prompted the artist to seek, as he himself expressed, “more humanity” in his work. His friends, the Expressionist painter Gustave De Smet (1877-1943) and Constant Permeke (1886-1952) encouraged this shift in his artistic exploration. The subject matters explored by the Flemish expressionists were: love of life, birth, growth and to a lesser extent their contrast: death. This positive and substantive orientation in Jespers’ work method is also reflected in the subject matter of Jespers’ Expressionist pieces, and named appropriately; such as Geboorte (Birth) and Moederschap (Maternity). Similarly, his piece called De bekoring van Sint Antonius (The Temptation of Saint Anthony), which is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, exudes existential values.

Geboorte (Birth) was inspired by the arrival of Paul, Oscar’s only son and cut in 1932 from Belgian Bluestone, being the stone that Jespers chose for most of his Expressionist sculptures. The powerful expression is created by the contrast between the rounded form of the belly and breasts placed in juxtaposition to angular knees, arms and hands. Also, the woman in labour is compelled to use her immense hand to repel the physical suggestion to cry out from pain. Furthermore, a large part of the sculpture is in contact with the ground. All these features contribute to the Expressionist ideology, characteristics also evident in Engel (Angel), Funerary Monument for the Poet Paul van Ostaijen. This monument, located in Schoonselhof cemetery in Antwerp, depicts an angel guarding and mourning a life cut short too young.

A Monumental Relief

België aan het werk 1936-'37, gedreven geel koperwerk, 600 x 600 cm Antwerpen, zijgevel Stadsschouwburg, Maria.

België aan het werk
(Belgium at Work)

1936-’37, gilded brass
600 x 600 cm
side facade of the
Stadsschouwburg, Antwerp

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België aan het werk (Belgium at Work), commissioned by the World Exposition in 1937, held that year in Paris. This early Expressionism shows vigorous characters making a meaningful contribution to the prosperity of Belgium: a rather telling and narrative piece.

Terracotta Female Figures

Opschrik 1939, terracotta/brons, 81 x 26,7 x 26,5 cm

Opschik
(Finery)

1939, terracotta
81 x 26,7 x 26,5 cm
Private collection

Pureté 1945, terracotta/brons. 78 x 18 x 13 cm versch. verblijfpl.

Pureté
(Purity)

1945, terracotta/bronze
78 x 18 x 13 cm
Various locations

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During the Second World War sculptors found it difficult to obtain high quality stone, clay was an alternative. Using a wire-thread, Oscar Jespers would slice a slab out of a block of clay then model it into a round form: arms and legs then had the required hollow shape needed for firing. One of the purest forms he built using this technique was the 78 cm high Purity. At a later date he cast this same piece out of bronze, thus the transition towards the next period: bronze female figures.

Female Figures in Bronze

In de zon III 1947-'48, brons, 64 x 23 x 17 cm Ixelles/Elsene, Museum

In de zon III
(In the Sun III)

1947-48, bronze
64 x 23 x 17 cm
Musée d’Ixelles, Brussels
 

Leunende vrouw 190, brons, 104 x 45 x 58 cm Brussel, K.M.S.K.

Leunende vrouw
(Woman Leaning)

1950, bronze
104 x 45 x 58 cm
Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts,
Brussels

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Between 1946 and 1947, Jespers cast three female figures out of Gypsum and named all three In de zon (In the Sun). Compared to the Expressionist statues, these figures appear to be closer to reality, of everyday life, but this impression is deceptive. They actually depict women as a myth, specifically the myth of perfection and fecundity. The same deception applies to Leunende vrouw (Woman Leaning), made in this same period.

A Few Heads

Pail 1942, grijsgroene hardsteen uit Namen/brons, 33 x 25 x 26,5 cm, brons in versch. coll.

Paul
1942, gray-green Bluestone
from Namur/bronze
33 x 25 x 26,5 cm
Various collections

Noordhollander 1953, terracotta, 37,5 x 22 x 26 cm versch. verblijfpl.

Noordhollander
(Northern Dutch)

1953, terracotta
37,5 x 22 x 26 cm
Various collections

Vrouwenkop 1953, witte kalksteen 36 x 16,5 x 24,5 cm Belgë, part. coll.

Vrouwenkop
(Female Head)

1953, white limestone
36 x 16,5 x 24,5 cm
Private collection, Belgium

Stéphane 1060, wit marmer, 23 x 14 x 18 cm Parijs, part. coll.

Stéphane
1960, white marble
23 x 14 x 18 cm
Private collection, Paris
 

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Sculpting childlike heads was another subject matter loved by Jespers. In 1927-28 he created Babykop (Baby Head) in white marble. The extreme roundness symbolises the singularity of this new life. In 1942 he managed to immortalise in Bluestone the head of his thirteen year old son, Paul: a young life containing the dormant seeds of all his future talents. His hair is styled to look like a helmet, similar to those found on ancient Greek sculptures. The portrait of his grandson Stéphane, made from white marble in 1960, lies between these two works. The adults and the elderly whose portrait Jespers created experienced a rejuvenation in his hands.

Little Leda and the Swan

Kleine Leda met de zwaan 1963-'65, wit marmer, 34 x 24 x 23 cm Nederland, part. coll.

Kleine Leda met de zwaan
(Little Leda and the Swan)

1963-65, white marble
34 x 24 x 23 cm
Private collection, Netherlands

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Jespers completed Kleine Leda met de zwaan (Little Leda and the Swan) in 1963, yet he signed the sculpture only in 1965. The story of the Metamorphoses of Ovid, tells how the great god Zeus transformed into a swan so that his jealous wife would not realise that he was courting the beautiful Leda. With its triangle-shaped base and undulating volumes, this white marble sculpture expresses plenitude and satiety. Combining strength and precious beauty, Kleine Leda met de zwaan provides a synopsis of Jespers’ sculptural oeuvre.