“My paintings are like an interior.” The geometric art of Léon Wuidar

Liège-born and -based painter Léon Wuidar (1938) celebrated his 80th birthday this summer. Although his work has been shown both in and outside of Belgium and is even part of several museum collections, including the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, it was thanks to a series of happy coincidences that Léon Wuidar’s extensive portfolio recently regained a place in the art world’s swivelling spotlight. After a successful show at London’s famed gallery White Cube this summer, and two shows to come in Brussels this September, the public has been spoilt rotten with opportunities to discover his wonderful paintings.

Photographer Joke De Wilde (c)

Press visuals Rodolphe Janssen (c)

After a road trip from Brussels of about an hour and a half, I arrive at the home of the Wuidar’s — a trip well worth the effort, because Léon and his wife Michele live in a gem of brutalist architecture. Under half a century old, the Wuidar’s home was built in two phases: the first part completed in the 70s while the second was added two decades later. “It’s a great honour and true pleasure to be able to live in this house,” says Wuidar, “It truly is exceptional. Were it not for my age, I would build a second extension because I imagine being confronted with the plans and vision of an architect would be one of the greatest things ever to experience. A guest who was familiar with my work but not the architect’s once asked me if I had designed our house myself — I think that says a lot about the link between my artwork and Charles Vandenhove’s architecture. A house is never more than an assembly of geometric shapes, so Charles and I have a common vocabulary.”

The house was conceived by the Liége-based architect Charles Vandenhove, also responsible for the immense Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Liége compound, a collaboration with Sol LeWitt and Daniel Buren. Vandenhove, a devoted collector of the arts himself, would work again with said artists in the 80s when the federal opera theatre La Monnaie was restored under the supervision of his office.

“I was the only artist to work with Charles on a freestanding home. I think our home is representative of his vision of architecture at the time.” Wuidar recalls how Vandenhove and his team put in a lot more work than their commission warranted. “Once the house was finished, Charles merely asked me for two paintings of his choice. I also gave him a selection of very beautiful drawings.”

Wuidar met Vandenhove in 1967 at an art opening organised by the Liége-based Association pour le progres intellectuel et artistique de la Wallonie, which, incidentally, was co-founded by the collector and patron of the arts Fernand Graindorge, who was behind one of the art movement Cobra’s very first expositions in Liége. In December of the same year, Wuidar visited Vandenhove’s home of and learned more about not only his architecture, but his extraordinary art collection, too. Today, the Vandenhove collection is housed in Ghent University’s archive centre of his own design, near Henry van de Velde’s Boekentoren. “It’s both a great pleasure to know it’s there in Ghent, and a great sorrow that Liége missed out on the chance of keeping the collection,” Wuidar muses. “I think it’s because the politicians of the Liége administration are neither enlightened nor cultivated — don’t worry, you can keep this on record. We live in a cultural desert here. The people in charge are not cultured and simply do not care about the arts. I’ve worked with the City of Liége before, but never on their behalf. I feel very strongly about private initiatives, and never want to ask the City for funding. I prefer to remain independent.”

The Liégois artist is an autodidact, heavily inspired and shaped by the post-war drudgery of his hometown. He taught himself to paint using scraps of broken windows as a palette and an old chair as an easel. A romanticised image would come to mind if it were not for the results at hand: his paintings betray a mastery that could have only be attained through tireless dedication and hard work. After trying out a number of styles – expressionism, surrealism, realism — he chose to abandon figurative painting and focussed on abstraction instead. Art history in terms of painting reads like a history of loss in his eyes: “After the perfection that was the van Eyck brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece, we started to lose things due to painting became more and more abstract; until painting itself was the subject of painterly practices. Walter Leblanc once wrote that there was nothing more to be done with painting. Maybe that was true for him, but for me, painting is still very much alive, and there remains so much to do with the medium?”

More recent work shows Wuidar’s love for wordplay and typography. Many works from the 80s and 90s have a “secret message”; a personal alphabet hidden amongst the colourful geometrics of his paintings. I ask if his fascination with and curiosity for the visual representation of languages could be due to problems of hearing, which have plagued Wuidar since he was a schoolboy. Intense counselling with an audiophonologist only helped a little. The fact that he is hard of hearing is a source of much frustration, especially for someone who loves language as much as he does. “This has nothing to do with it,” he replies. “I do it because it amuses me; I like creating personal alphabets and discovering the right form for each letter to take within the context of my paintings.”

No doubt about it, Wuidar is a painter pur sang: his sketchbooks are full of small drawings of tiny geometrical patches of colour. Often, there are more than 20 per page, neatly ordered. These small sketches conceive a pictorial freehand, an iconographic alphabet indeed. “My sketchbooks are like a visual diary. If I would live to be 120, I would still be drawing; I would keep inventing images.”

Inspiration was drawn from visits to Ghent’s fine arts museum MSK, where he saw works by Gustave De Smet, Léon Spilliaert and Jheronimus Bosch. Even more of a trip were the museums in Brussels. Referring to the capital city’s cultural landscape today, Wuidar notes on the newly-opened museum Kanal in the Yser/Ijzer neighbourhood. “I haven’t visited it yet, but I have been keeping up to date with its ins and outs. It seems enormous. The controversies surrounding it don’t concern me, even if it seems like a very complex issue. Perhaps, in the end, it’s better than nothing.”

As we walk towards the newer part of the house, Wuidar tells us how he’s always on the look-out for silent retreats. “I walk through the city and look for places of calm. Even in our old house in the centre of town, I would take refuge in the basement or in the attic. I need a sense of serenity, like that you’ll find inside a monastery. There’s not a lot to see in my paintings; there is no subject nor anecdote. There’s always a frame, which does put a limit on things. My paintings are like an interior — it’s intimate. Small paintings of the 17 century with modest themes, or even the work of Italian painter and printmaker Giorgio Morandi radiate this same sense of intimacy.” He turns. “Allez, it’s time. Let’s go down again.”

Léon Wuidar’s retrospective exhibition Inventaire is on display at Rodolphe Janssen until 20th October. Additionally, he will be part of Galerie Albert Dumont’s next group show until 7th October.