In addition to its exceptional artistic value, 'Perle fine' (Fine pearl) by Oscar Jespers is an interesting statue from a cultural and historical point of view. The work was first owned by the lawyer and campaigner for the Flemish cause René Victor. It bears witness to the special relationship that existed between the artistic avant-garde and the Flemish movement during the 1920s.

Oscar Jespers, Perle fine, 1925 (© Benjamin De Vuyst)
Oscar Jespers, Perle fine, 1925 (© Benjamin De Vuyst)

The artist, Oscar Jespers (Borgerhout, 1887 – Brussels, 1970), himself considered 'Perle Fine' to be one of his most accomplished sculptures and this was shown by the piece’s presence in almost all of the leading exhibitions in which Jespers participated. In his work from the early 1920s which was moving towards the abstract, 'Perle Fine' represented a turning point, along with 'De kapmantel' ('The Cloak', 1922, KMSKA, Antwerp) and 'De jongleur' ('The Juggler', 1923, MSK, Ghent). Following this original version in marble, Jespers made other similar sculptures in white enamelled ceramic and plaster.

Together with his younger brother Floris and Paul Joostens, Jespers was a member of the avant-garde group of the Flemish poet Paul van Ostaijen, known as De Bond zonder verzegeld papier (The Alliance without Sealed Paper). This was how Jespers came to be responsible for the design of van Ostaijen’s famous collection of poems 'Ville occupée' (1918/1921). Jespers also created the poet’s funerary monument in the Schoonselhof cemetery in Antwerp. When Jespers moved house to Brussels in 1927, the architect Victor Bourgeois designed a house for him with a studio.

Little is known about the origins of this sculpture, but 'Perle Fine' can probably be classified as belonging to the period after the time when Jespers explored the possibilities offered by Cubism. It is one of the first masterpieces of Modernist sculpture in Belgium. Taking his inspiration from Brancusi, Jespers combines radical formalism and great sophistication in Perle Fine.

The particularity of 'Perle Fine' lies in the extremely simple representation of the face’s features, with the nose, lips and eyelids barely standing out. The fluid curves of the stone thus remain intact. From the front, the face is an oval, pointed in the lower part and resting on the upper part of the neck. The face is extended in an almost uninterrupted manner, to finish in a simple, tight chignon so that, seen in profile, the sculpture is not far from evoking a triangle, whilst still retaining an organic feel to it.

Despite its simplicity, this stylised representation of a woman’s head is extremely intriguing. This may be due to the slightly asymmetric positioning of the mouth and chin, the flat nose, or the narrow eyes; or it could be due to the hair pulled tightly to the back. These aspects confer a somewhat exotic character on the sculpture, oriental yet retaining something archaic. The relatively inconspicuous features of the face permit a harmonious balance between abstraction and figuration.

Initially, it was the lawyer and art collector René Victor who acquired the work from the artist and it seems that the title of the sculpture owes its origin to a visit made to the studio by Victor. When he saw the work, he apparently exclaimed “This is a really fine pearl!”, no doubt making reference to its shape of a natural pearl. In this sense, the statue also throws light on the remarkable alliance between the Avant-garde artistic movement and the Flemish movement of the 1920s. Victor was well known for his support for the Flemish cause, but he was also known as Professor of Constitutional Law at the ULB (Brussels University). It was not for nothing that he was the friend of Van Ostaijen and the Jespers brothers.

The statue was bought by the Heritage Fund of the King Baudouin Foundation and will be given in long-term loan to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp. Oscar Jespers is without doubt one of the most important Belgian sculptors of the 20th century. The place he will be given in the re-opening of the museum makes perfect sense, particularly given that the Avant-garde, and especially Belgian sculpture, will occupy a special place there.

Whilst waiting for the re-opening of the museum in Antwerp, 'Perle Fine' is providing a remarkable addition to the limited but significant permanent collection of the Fine Arts Museum of Ghent. The ensemble in Ghent is a striking illustration of a generation of artists who remain too little known or recognised and who turned towards Abstraction during the First World War and above all during the post-war years. Without direct support from official artistic circles or galleries, these artists were justly recognised on the international scene.

Published on 06.09.18