From the 24th of April till the 14th of November 1993, the Centre International du Vitrail in Chartres housed the exhibition "Contemporary glass art in Flanders", which was organized by the VIZO, the "Flemish Association for Glass Artists" and the "Centre international du vitrail". Eighteen contemporary1 glass artists were represented, along with eight others who could be called the pioneers of contemporary glass art in Flanders. They were Michel Martens (º1921), Armand Blondeel (º1928), Herman Wauters (º1929), Armand Calders (º1931), Jos Knaepen (º1939), Staf Pyl (º1923), Jean-Pierre Tuerlinckx (º1932) and Paul Wilmots (º1938). Their work was housed in a kind of honourary gallery. Together, the eighteen from Chartres represented the cream of the latest generation of glass painters. Each of them has his/her own artistic merit. Each was represented in the contemporary section of the exhibition by his or her own stained-glass window and photographs of work integrated into a particular piece of architecture. Their work and their different personalities are discussed further on in this book. When we were looking for glass artists who had followed a very individual course for the last fifteen years, who had been constantly innovative in his/her work, who had the courage to experiment, who had been successful on a formal and technical level and who had given their discipline a new lease of life, our eyes fell on Herman Blondeel (º1956). We therefore would like to shed some light on the developments in this glass painter's career. In 1981, he set up his own independent workshop beside that of his father's Armand Blondeel, and no longer worked under his wing. Herman Blondeel followed an academic training course in the art of painting in Ghent, but learned his trade at home from the age of seven onwards. At the age of sixteen, he was already a fully grown glass artist2. His first tasks were rather humble: cleaning up the workshop, preparing the tools ... soldering something, cutting little pieces of glass, until he cut his first small stained-glass window3. Apparently, the boy was talented. As early as 1977, he was awarded the Province of East Flanders Prize for Artistic Crafts in the glass painting section. At this early stage, he already swore by documenting oneself thoroughly on architecture and art history in general and also regarding the order received. He travelled a lot, mainly in Africa where he preferred Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt4. His first windows were experiments with all kinds of techniques and ideas, which he has continued to do till today. Around 1985 however, he had reached a first level of maturity. At the time, he was working with grisaille, with "wild" coloured glass surfaces (see "Djikr" 19805) and boring "small rosettes" in untouched sheets of glass. Around 1985, certain things changed in his work. "He works with skill and control and has taken a new and very clear course which is strongly related to the richness and the nature of the material he uses. (...) And all these experiences taught him how to make the most of the quality of unprocessed sheets of glass: the raw material the glass artist has to work with6." Another characteristic of his work is its freedom. At his father's workshop, he had always been able to work as he wished in complete freedom, without having to worry about customers' orders etc.7. This "complete" freedom developed into a conscious form of freedom tempered by experience which he has kept to until his most recent order. This new order is for the Veyt chapel8 at the Sint-Baafs cathedral in Ghent, which is quite heavy in terms of obligations (see below). In 1982, he was given his first order at the former cafe "De kristallen bol" on the Oude Graanmarkt in Brussels. His clients were the architects Luc Maes and Herman van Meer. He was to work with the latter on a number of occasions from then on (see below). He integrated a twenty-seven meter long element (doubly measured) in milky glass into the ceiling. It had to hide the artificial lighting and at the same time have its own artistic value (Photo 1). A whimsical line ran along the entire surface and therefore cut through the space. It was the first time he used the 'line' as a symbol. These thin glass strips are found in all his later works, where they function as artistic elements and further stressed in later works, like "neon line"9 for example. The 'line' stands for the capriciousness of existence, for human fate. Between 1982 and 1986, Herman Blondeel's production mainly consisted of what we call exhibition windows, separate windows which were shown at numerous exhibitions. This is also the case with the work of his contemporaries. This made us call all these young glass artists, who have great difficulty in acquiring orders for glass integrations in architecture, the "born independents"10. Herman "installs his glass panels in a frame and later on a pedestal, thus giving them a completely autonomous place in the spatial context11." Fortunately, this situation was to change at a later stage, however hopeless it had appeared at the time. Herman has contributed to this change himself. He wanted to give stained-glass window an interdisciplinary dimension, link it up with the other arts and with architecture; have it integrated into the present cultural scene. He therefore began adding neon light elements to his windows in 1985. The neon light is designed to maintain the artistic effect of the window when natural light fades. In 1988, he produced a series of 'red' windows which he placed on pedestals. The events in Barcelona from 1985 till 1993 were of great importance for his later career. He was invited to participate in a stained-glass window exhibition called "Hommage à Miro", organized by the Centre del Vidre de Borcelona, and led by Pilar Munoz. He brought his works there personally and made some interesting contacts. He also gave a speech and led a workshop. Between 1985 and 1988, he travelled back and forth between Ghent and Barcelona. In 1988, he created the first part of a large work, consisting of three windows measuring three meters sixty by one meter twenty for the Zoological Museum of Barcelona. He finished the two others in 1989. From 1988 till 1991, he became artistic advisor at the school connected to the Centre del Vidre de Barcelona. From 1992 till 1993, he was the director there. Unfortunately, at the end of that year the school had to close its doors because the subsidies had been stopped. He fitted in wonderfully well at this centre. Their objective was to integrate stained-glass windows into architecture by devoting a large part of the programme to getting the pupils acquainted with all forms of contemporary art. Of prime importance was the attention the school gave to all types of glass handling techniques. It was a laboratory which worked with stained-glass windows in an open and unorthodox manner, at times even acted contrary to the current teaching norms.
Up until 1989, he had received no large orders in Flanders. In that same year however, he began to work with Herman van Meer again in refurbishing the 'Stellingwerff-Waerdenhof" house in Hasselt13. His work comprised of a glass skylight composed of 122 rectangles made of milky glass each containing a glass line drawing. He drew his inspiration from many sources: the history of Hasselt, heraldry, the rectangles themselves, etc. The whole surface was covered with symbols which were played off against one another. On a technical level, this is a traditional work. As far as its content is concerned, it is experimental however. Usually an artist is very anxious about the continuity of the drawing. The work has purposely been kept minimal. Once again, the line here is a thin glass strip of painted glass. As a result, he has received orders for monumental works on a regular basis ever since. In 1991, the city of Ghent ordered a monumental stained-glass window (see photo) for its City Library on the Wilsonplein (known as "The South"). It measures about fourteen meters by four and covers a whole facade. This window can be read in three different ways. One can see it from the square because of the capricious neon lines that once again transect it and light it up continuously. One sees it immediately when entering the space and one can also 'read' it in the reading cafe. In this work, he has made a very complex whole which runs contrary to the general trend among artists of abstracting and simplifying. The reference to its function is clear: it contains text fragments from all cultures and in all forms of writing. There is also a certain order involved: the large, red surfaces symbolise the unchanging data of life, the neon lines its variables, while its blue section or living environment contains the texts. There is also some filling, worked out in fine glass lines above and along the bottom railing. All construction elements and supports have been integrated into the composition. In 1991, he also carried out some experiments along with Hans Weyers (º ...) and made the folding screen entitled "Wodan". It can be considered as a digression, a kind of 'tabula rasa' in which both artists completely tuned into each others views and inspiration. The following year, he worked on an integration element for the new Museum for Decorative Arts (see photo). This was rendered possible by the fact that the building contractor applied the '1% rule'. This installation evokes discussion on the question "Is artistic craft art?". Herman refused to fill in "the traditional hole in the architecture. In fact, this work completely goes against such a concept and puts the spectator on the wrong foot. It looks like a collection of loose elements which are only temporarily present in space. In reality, they are permanent. There is no functional reference, nor a reference to the museum. The seven panels are spread across the dome on the second floor as seven separate stories. They are detached from the architecture, although they process and structure the dome in an unobtrusive way. Its charming, more anecdotic features have disappeared, along with its aesthetics. The panels have been kept as pure as possible: glass and lead lines determine the composition. In 1993, he received the most impressive order of his career. He was selected to create two contemporary windows of eight by four meters for the Veyt chapel of the Sint-Baafs cathedral in Ghent. This book contains a photo of the working model. In order to outline the work, we have taken a large quotation from an article that appeared earlier this year in the magazine "Kwintessens"14.
"He was given the order by the religious community of the city who wanted to celebrate the silver jubilee of the bishop of Ghent and have collected the funds for the two windows. In his opinion, the work had to fit into the continuity that is so typical of orders placed by the church. Firstly, it involved the present to the bishop of Ghent for his jubilee; secondly, the patronage of the religious community who offered the window for religious reasons and thus restored a lost tradition; and thirdly it involved the iconographic conditions which have been laid down by a commission appointed by the bishopric (not to be confused with the Commission for Landscapes and Monuments). Despite his habit of asking for 'carte blanche', Herman Blondeel was able to come to terms with these conditions in their entirety. They created a link with the history of art, but left room for a contemporary interpretation. It is not repeating or stealing something from the past, but adding something personal - a reinterpretation. He does not make the same mistake as the neo-Gothic 'Saint-Sulpice' painters who indiscriminately copied the iconography and even the design of the Gothic stained-glass windows. Blondeel takes the religious feelings of his patrons and his own to heart. On an iconographic level, he tells two stories which are however devoid of the standard iconography of the "Apocalypse". The symbolism has been lost. As is his custom, he has worked out the story in an abstract manner while keeping it accessible to everyone. The 'scene' is based on 'intentness' or the belief that every man must possess in order to live a healthy life. This intentness is expressed in the upthrust of seven strong red lines which stop at a line of text panels. This contains the symbolism of the number "seven". They are supported by grisaille and silver nitrate (yellow). The texts from the "Apocalypse" are applied on coloured surfaces. They are redbrown or the colour of dried blood. The texts form the borderline; they outline the main lines of living man. Above this border begins the "Heavenly Jerusalem". This heavenly section is located within the bow of the Gothic window. The bow is only filled with opaline glass, white glass, pearls etc... Here you can find the symbolism of the number 'Twelve'. The second window contains the lives of the Pope and the bishop, symbolised by two upward lines. It does not express thoughtless devotion to these two characters, but suggests their passion. This work is of great importance to the young Blondeel and not without reason: it is a great honour for someone born and raised in Ghent to receive such a splendid order for the Ghent cathedral. So much so, that he was able to set aside his natural reluctance for standard traditional elements out of respect for historic continuity. The work will take three years to carry out. The design stage took one year, the actual work will take two. The windows will be finished in September 1996. Seen within his oeuvre, this order may be considered as a search for conventions on content and their re-interpretability."
During 1995, he also worked with Herman van Meer on a number of council flats in Hasselt. This work consists of thirty unprocessed red panes of glass straight from the supplier, which have been painted with a layer of grey reflective paint. This work is dominated by ideas such as the ordering of space.
Joost Caen, Johan Valcke, Hedendaagse glaskunst in Vlaanderen. Le vitrail flamand contemporain, (Contemporary Glass Art in Flanders), VIZO and VVG (Vlaamse Vereniging van Glaskunstenaars, Flemish Association of Glass Artists), Brussels, 1993.
J. Valcke, Jos Knaepen en Herman Blondeel, glazeniers (Jos Knaepen and Herman Blondeel, glass artists), in Scheppend Ambacht (Creative Craft), nº 6, 32nd year of publication, Delft, 1981.
Johan Valcke, Armand, Herman, Sander Blondeel. Kunstglasramen (Armand, Herman, Sander Blondeel. Artistic stained-glass windows), ESIM and De Ceder, Brussels, 1985.
Jan Pieter Ballegeer, Bedenkingen rond het glasraam (Reflections on the Stained-glass Window) in Belgisch Kreatief Ambacht (Belgian Creative Craft), 18th year of publication, nº 6, Brussels, 1982.
J. Valcke, Jonge glazenierskunst in Vlaanderen (Young Glass Artists in Flanders), De Gulden Sporen, Kortrijk, 1987.
J. Valcke, Herman Blondeel in Kwintessens, nº 1, 4th year of publication, Brussels, 1995.
Johan Valcke, Armand Calders, Jean-Marie Geron, Yvette Van Den Bremden, Gloed van glas (The Glow of Glass), ASLK, Brussels, 1986.
1 Joost Caen, Johan Valcke, Hedendaagse glaskunst in Vlaanderen. Le vitrail flamand contemporain (Contemporary Glass Art in Flanders), VIZO and VVG (Flemish Association of Glass Artists), Brussels, 1993. The eighteen glass artists are:
Walter Berckmans (º1966),
Herman Blondeel (º1956),
Sander Blondeel (º1958),
Pia Burrick (º1959),
Joost Caen (º1959),
Luc Cailliez (1954-1993),
Katrijn Callebout (º1961),
Patrick de Jage (º1942),
Joke Demeyere (º1962),
Marie-Paule Grusenmeyer (º1958),
Armin Homolka (º1962),
Camille Jacobs (º1963),
Hilde Leenknegt (º1955),
Suzannah Olieux (º1945),
Christine Vanoppen (º1962),
Jan-Willem van Zijst (º1945),
Mieke Verwaetermeulen (º1962)
and Eric Wampers (º1951).
2 J. Valcke, Jos Knaepen en Herman Blondeel, glazeniers (Jos Knaepen and Herman Blondeel, glass artists), in Scheppend Ambacht (Creative Craft), p. 194-195, nº 6, 32nd year of publication, Delft, 1981.
5 J. Valcke, in Scheppend Ambacht (Creative Craft), nº 6, 1982, photo on p. 195.
6 Johan Valcke, Armand, Herman, Sander Blondeel. Kunstglasramen (Armand, Herman, Sander Blondeel. Artistic stained glass windows), ESIM and De Ceder, Brussels, 1985.
7 Johan Valcke in Scheppend Ambacht (Creative Craft), p. 195, nº6, Delft, 1982.
8 The Veyt chapel is the original housing place of the world famous "Holy Lamb Retable" by the brothers Van Eyck.
9 J. Valcke, Jonge glazenierskunst in Vlaanderen (Young Glass Artists in Flanders), De Gulden Sporen, Kortrijk, 1987.
10 Johan Valcke, Gloed in glas (The Glow in Glass), p. 235.
11 J. Valcke, Jonge glazenierskunst in Vlaanderen (Young Glass artists in Flanders), De Gulden Sporen, Kortrijk, 1987.
12 We put a "blue window" on display in Kortrijk for the "Jonge glazenierskunst in Vlaanderen" exhibition (Young Glass artists in Flanders), December 1987 and in 1988 during the happening entitled "Vlaanderen leeft" (Flanders is alive) at the Floraliënpaleis in Ghent .
13 See brochure ...
14 J. Valcke, Herman Blondeel, p. 29-30, in Kwintessens, nº 1, 4th year of publication, Brussels, 1995.