The FarewellTo the Bozar to visit the Constant Permeke retrospective organised to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of the great Flemish expressionist’s death. We last saw a Permeke restrospective back in the 1990s, in Ostend, and I remembered cheerfully colourful early work succeeded by high horizons, hard-to-light sombre and scabrous canvasses and monumental nudes in blacks and browns. This excellently curated and presented exhibition corrected some of my assumptions and confirmed others. Permeke is quoted as saying ‘I paint not what I see but what I believe I have seen.’ In fact, Permeke increasingly painted monumental archetypes; his farmers, for example, have hands and feet bigger than their heads, for what mattered more was hard physical toil (no room for thought!). His women, whether pregnant or in domestic pose or labouring in the fields or in the throes of grief, are massive because the women of the farming and fishing communities he fell in love with were true moral and physical giants, carrying the world and all of its hardships on their shoulders. (His depictions are also reminders of the abject, bare-foot poverty of such a recent past.) Where my memory had failed me was in the colours Permeke used, by no means limited to the blacks and browns I had remembered. In particular, he painted huge, bright landscapes of the farmland around him at Jabbeke in vivid greens and yellows, splayed the red roofs of the village across one canvas, and limned his nudes, when they were not in fiery reds or translucent whites, with shades of green. Touchingly, the exhibition begins and ends with his beloved wife, Maria Delaere. We see the young Marietje from behind in 1907, a shawl draped around her narrow shoulders and hinting at a svelte waist. And then, at the end, we see her on her 1948 deathbed (picture). We have seen her in between, bearing child, providing food and, in Permeke’s representations of Niobe, in howling grief (they lost two of their six children). She did not have long to await him (he died in 1952). What this retrospective does particularly well is to give us a sense, through his work, of the man behind the artist. In the end they were indissociable, the one from the other.