Bram Bogart 

The White Paintings

By Erin Lawlor

Insofar as a British audience may be familiar with Dutch-born Belgian painter Bram Bogart’s (1921-2012) work, what usually springs to mind are his dense bright slabs in primary colours, or in pink, deep blue, and black. Bogart was an exceptional colourist who over his lifetime developed a highly personal concoction of oils, pigment, mortar and chalk among other things, to create paint that was eventually almost akin to cement, as well as the adequate structures to support his ambitions. The resulting solidly exuberant coloured works have a sheer all-consuming physicality that once seen is hard to forget.

Bram Bogart: Witte de Witte is part of a new exhibition programme at the Saatchi Gallery presenting the work of artists little-known in the UK, or lesser-known aspects of their work. Thus a first exhibition in February of this year was dedicated to work by Gutai artist Tsuyoshi Maekawa. This second edition, organised in collaboration with Vigo Gallery, presents a selection of predominantly white works by an artist who for many is synonymous with solid colour.

On entering the exhibition, the initial impression is one of an overriding simplicity and gravitas, a sense of calm – Bogart himself spoke of the tranquillity that making a painting in one colour evoked in him - here exacerbated by the simple hanging and harsh stark lighting of the space itself.

It might seem a curious challenge to present Bogart’s work through the white paintings; yet this reduction or even denial of colour provides something of the clarity of an x-ray, allowing a bare-bones reading of the evolution of his pictorial language. Bogart’s very earliest white paintings were produced during the artist’s first trip to the south of France in the late forties – it is interesting that his immersion in the brilliant colours of the south seems to have in part provoked Bogart to turn inwards, away from the bright landscape that had inspired so many others, and rather towards colour and light as absorbed and reflected in the chalky walls, and to the essence of interrogating the materiality of painting-as-wall. 

From this point on, white paintings would come to punctuate the whole of Bogart’s career as a painter and therein lies the scope and ambition of the exhibition: a sprint through almost the full range of the pictorial devices Bogart explored over his mature career. Bogart spoke of his desire, even within the monochromes, of retaining the field of tension, and on closer inspection the tension within the works in the exhibition proves highly varied, functioning according to balance between subject and matter, fore and background, matter and weight, order and chaos.

By the early fifties, and the first paintings exhibited here, Bogart had already resolved many of the issues of pure pictorial construction that seem to have dogged him the forties, reaching a point that Marcel Paquet described as a ‘liberation’. In Signes sur Blanc/Witte Tekens (1952) the paint is still if only barely used for sign-making, with minimal marks scratched or applied in light relief upon the surface, a light-hued blue shape on the right side of the canvas framed by a dribbling line of warm grey. Two years later, in Différentes (1954), white alone is used to draw over the coloured if muted surface below, pushing the ochres back to a distance. The subject, insofar as there is one, is created by a physical and almost sculptural mass of white matter; gone are the however-indecipherable lines and symbols of the earlier years.

 Bram Bogart, Signes sur Blanc/Witte Tekens, 1952. Mixed media on canvas, 50 x 60 cm. Image courtesy of Saatchi Gallery and Vigo Gallery.

The late fifties marked Bogart’s shift into pure abstraction and his developing concern with the material surface of the painting. Dance (1958) is almost purely monochrome, with a partial melding of fore and background, the central forms are set off by the way in which the surrounding matter is scraped away, leaving a mere residue to the outer edge.

There are three paintings in the exhibition from the early sixties - if in Zinc Garden (1960) the main subject - what is almost a weft of paint, inter-crossing lines, vertical and horizontal, in dents and knobbles of paint - is still centred, Fête Javel (1960) a monumental slab of blue is constructed with a sense of the all-over, and corresponds to the time at which Bogart shifted from wall to ground under the weight of his paint-matter. Variété (1961) seems to bear the nobbled and trough-like furrows implied by the laboured ground that, horizontally, a canvas potentially becomes.

By the impressive Witte de Witte (2002), from which the exhibition takes its title, the equivalence and coherence of colour, matter, and form are fully assumed: the matter is the painting. Its little brother, Blanc (2006) functions in the same way. Both these works can be seen to be in affiliation with the stunning Witvlakwit (1974) in the permanent collection of Tate Modern, a large monochrome piece in which a thick layer of paint has been applied to the surface of the support and pulled to the edges, the middle area of the work remaining relatively flat and smooth, with just the borders of each vertical stroke visible, framed by thick, impasto paint accumulations as a surround.

Bram Bogart, Witte de Witte, 2002. Mixed media, 168 x 150cm.

Image courtesy of Saatchi Gallery and Vigo Gallery.

Witte de Witte goes further even than the Tate piece, the calm of its central screen being only rhythmed by the occasional irregularity of matter, a seemingly accidental void or stutter in the pulling of the chalky substance, in an almost complete reduction of not just colour, but form. The gesture, embraced in the fifties and sixties, and even to a certain extent still present in a work such as Witvlakwit, is here almost entirely wiped out. It is meta-painting, a painting which requires no evocation of image beyond its own framed presence: there is a pushing of the material to the edges, a flattening out of the central screen, the shored-up folds and layers of paint creating a thick framing that serves to stage the central void, an absence that functions as pure presence. As an image it is both absolute and absolutely open. If this exhibition offers a survey of touchstones from the essential of Bogart’s mature work, Witte de Witte is the pièce maîtresse, representing a culmination of Bogart’s honing of the materiality of paint and painting: to paraphrase Marcel Paquet, Bogart achieves the tour de force of unifying material, subject and object in one seemingly single flow.

 

By contrast, the latest work in the show, Sunday Mornings (2007), feels almost baroque; Bogart seems to take pleasure in a deliberate interference between frame and screen. There is a cheekiness to the meringue-like blobs of paint escaping back in from the frame, a pleasure too in the pure sensuous matter. There is the confidence, almost playfulness, that comes with resolution, and an absolute freedom.

Bram Bogart, Sunday Mornings, 2007. Mixed Media, 140 x 137 cm.

Image courtesy of Saatchi Gallery and Vigo Gallery.

Five years after Bogart’s death, this brief exhibition presents a stark but essential re-reading of his work. Stripping away the pure physical delight of exuberant and seductive colour, by journeying as this exhibition does through Bram Bogart’s lifework in white is to measure both how ambitious his intention, and absolute his achievement. Laid bare in the white paintings is his journey towards what is perhaps an unprecedented coherence of subject and object, marking his unique contribution to modernism. It is a coherence that relies in part on his capacity for unifying dichotomies – order and the unruly, presence and absence, sheer physicality and the void. Bogart spoke of the emptiness that influenced him in Ohain at the time of painting the first white ‘screen’ paintings in the early seventies – and it is little wonder that his work gained the interest and respect of Fontana, and even the Zero group.

Witte de Witte, more so than in the coloured monochrome paintings constructed in a similar way, by its very whiteness conforms to the notion of screen in the sense of a device that, according to interpretation, can be used either to hide, or to show –  as such it can be seen as staging the void, but also as an almost perfect vessel of projection. Herein lies no doubt the essential difference between Bogart and modernist movements such as the Zero group that sought to minimize the artist's presence in the work – however radical and absolute his pictorial achievement, Bogart was both aware and accepting of painting’s role as a vessel for projection, even expression.

 

Throughout his life Bogart remained absolutely and essentially a painter, a radical painter, with a central and constant faith in his chosen medium, refuting any definition of his work as sculpture. And these white paintings are also a reminder of the painters to whom he looked as constant touchstones throughout his life: Turner, but also - perhaps above all - Permeke and Van Gogh.

If his extreme take on the materiality of paint can be seen to have had its roots in the early and ongoing influence of Van Gogh, with his equivalence of touch and colour, Bogart also embraced the specific role of colour in terms of connotation and even synesthesia: the titles of his most abstract works are as likely to evoke colour directly as they are people, places, or events. He was ever aware of the capacity of colour, by its very presence, to evoke a sense of place or mood. As such, it is almost impossible to look at a work such as Fête Javel without being reminded of Constant Permeke’s slab-like Ostend skies, and of Bogart’s admiration of the way in which through the prism of northern skies and seas Permeke evoked at once both void and place.

After a London spring that has seen explosively colourful exhibitions of Hockney and Hodgkin, and their respective responses to the light of Los Angeles or India, to walk into Bram Bogart’s survey of white paintings is to experience pure northern light. And this sense of light and place is a reminder that, beyond his achievement as a radical stager of paint, he was also a painter in the great Northern Romantic tradition.

Bram Bogart, Variété, 1961. Mixed media, 132 × 110 cm.  Image courtesy of Saatchi Gallery and Vigo Gallery.

Erin Lawlor  is a London-based painter. Recent solo exhibitions include ‘onomtopeoia’ at the Mark Rothko Art Center, ‘Paintings’ at Rod Barton, Brussels, and ‘Paint: Now’ at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Museum, Denmark.

Salon 002: Bram Bogart, Witte de Witte, at the Saatchi Gallery, runs through September 10th 2017. All images courtesy Vigo Gallery.

Bram Bogart & Fête Javel, 1960, rue santeuil, Paris. © Shunk-Kender ® J. Paul Getty Trust 2.t.

Image courtesy of Saatchi Gallery and Vigo Gallery.

Bram Bogart, Différentes, 1954. Oil on canvas, 114 × 84 cm. Image courtesy of Saatchi Gallery and Vigo Gallery

Bram Bogart, Fête Javel, 1960. Mixed media, 247 × 174 × 8 cm.

 Image courtesy of Saatchi Gallery and Vigo Gallery.

 Installation View Bram Bogart, Witte de Witte. Image courtesy of Saatchi Gallery and Vigo Gallery. Photo © Steve White, 2017.