A mystery for science

Contacted in 1996 by the Leunens family, members from Artmetal, an international group of metal artists based in Washington, were impressed by the works of Guillaume Leunens. Without the use of soldering or repoussé techniques, Artmetal members wonder how Leunens applied metal on aluminum. The president then invited the family to exhibit Leunens’ works at the groups Washington convention which was taking place a few months later. In the meantime, members gave their ideas on Guillaume Leunens’ technique. Dr. Mark Parmenter, a metallurgy Engineer to the NASA, advanced that he would find the technique in 15 minutes if he could see and touch some works. The family therefore brings 6 works to the convention and after three days, no hypothesis was issued.

Later, Artmetal members continue experiences on their own to try to reproduce the same technique. After two years of research, they had still not found the technique of Guillaume Leunens. The General hypothesis suggests that he learned his technique during his imprisonment in the German work camps during the Second World War. Probably an old technique that is lost after the death of Leunens.

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The poetry of metal

The painter Guillaume Leunens is a man of a febrile sensitivity. He embraces his time with undiffused enthusiasm. His work is a song and a tribute to what essentially characterizes our time: metal, whose use is major in our modern civilization. Rather than suffer positively the reign of the metal, Leunens seeks a way to enter the system, as to point out the threats which are latent.

A craftsman an a technician, but also gifted with a generous temperament, Leunens somehow wanted to exorcise the metal – in this case, aluminum, and handle it in a more poetic, sober and nobler way than other metals and render it more conducive to man by revealing the beauty within it. Such design led him, after years of research, to invent a new language by which matter is infused by the human spirit.

It is a natural evolution of an artist who, after, not without originality, having traveled the traditional roads of painting, chooses to take on those trails that are still unexplored and discover a new world: the night and the stars, for which the grain and the characteristics of aluminum agree admirably. He drew effects that leaves audiences speechless.

Large aluminum canvases which opposed the varied range of gray, ranging from the silver to the dark evoke irresistible worlds in gestation or opposition. The lines burst out with a generous spirit; the grainy greyscale plates take on broad or shredded forms which are reminiscent of universes in permanent evolution. The lyricism of the line or the mathematical game curves, or the deep veins, imposes on aluminum a meaning that transcends it: an almost mystical fusion with the cosmos that is here depicted.

Next to these large aluminum canvases, there are many metal « monotypes » , whose style is identical, but which are mounted on sheets of paper. They were performed according to Leunens’ secret technique. The results are surprising because every « monotype » produces a power of emotion and beauty due to the mastery with which Leunens handles the metal: asperities, inequalities, light, all converge to render the poetic virtue of aluminum. Nuanced, light or deep grey, combine in a subtle game to give unexpected grace and seduction.

What impresses is the profound unity of inspiration which leads to creations of an inimitable style, all without repetition since it is based on a tireless observation of reality. It seems not unreasonable to conclude that Leunens is one of those rare precursor painters of an art to express the world in gestation on major trends and which expressed with matter most suited to enclose the maximum warmth.

Flemish painter

Born on September 14 th, 1914, in Halle, Belgium, Guillaume Leunens was removed from the family home, as were his brothers and sisters, by social services for parental negligence. The children were placed in orphanages, with the Catholic brothers for the boys and with the nuns for the girls. At age 16, Guillaume fled the orphanage and sought refuge with his maternal aunt. There, he began to work in a foundry: his first encounters with metal. In his free time, whenever paper and pencils were available, he was taken by the irresistible urge to draw that had lived within him since his childhood.

In 1939, the Second World War broke out and Germany declared war on Belgium. Sent to the front with the Belgian army at the German border, he lost his best friend by his side in a grisly manner. The image of the latter, the head gone, continued to haunt him until the end of his days. After Belgium had abdicated, he was captured and sent to a German camp to work in a foundry. In the evening, he drew on everything he could find to change his thoughts. Following the bombing of the foundry by the allies, he was transferred to another camp in Austria.

On his return from the war, the horrors and the memories of dead mutilated bodies that he picked up day after day haunted him and had transformed him deeply. Never again would he return to work in a foundry: « I have cast enough bombs for the Germans. » He began painting and, although he is primarily self-taught, he took evening courses at the École des Beaux-Arts of Brussels. Once his mind was satiated, he would return home and paint into the early morning hours. His inspiration would come to him from the dark of the night, where quiet reigns.

However, life as a nocturnal painter does not preclude work, and in the morning, he would leave to work at the same chocolate factory as his wife. The salary was much lower than in a foundry, he could barely manage to pay for the canvases and the paint for his works. When money was too scarce, he would then opt for jute, chipboard, cardboard and various recovered materials to paint.

Around this time, he sold his first work, the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus in her arms, for 500 Belgian francs. This sale infused him with the sacred fire to continue painting and pushed him to pursue his career. On Sundays, he would paint in the country side, and then with various local artists. His paintings from this period are essentially old farms and landscapes.

He exhibits a few times a year in the clubs of artists. In one of his exhibitions he meets Magritte with whom he binds friendship for a few years. He likes experimenting, passing from the figurative to the abstract via surrealism. His influences include Permeke, Breughel, Picasso and Van Gogh. Criticism is laudatory and Leunens is in high demand in art galleries. Stemming from Flemish Expressionism, his art evolves towards abstract art and his meeting with Servranckx allows him to discover his own path.

He obtained a scholarship from the Belgian Government in 1957 to study Spanish artistic techniques in Majorca. There, he meets a wealthy aristocrat French woman that he will marry after divorcing his first wife. With his new wife, he is now able to dedicate all his time to art.

In 1958, Guillaume Leunens breaks from his vision of nature. It is from this point that, as one critic reported, he is able to capture the essence of the absence of light. In many experiments with painting, using heated iron and aluminum, glass or copper and even with ingredients such as ink, wax, crushed coffee grains, he stretches dark yet vibrant surfaces, whose dark aspect is rendered even more enigmatic with pale lines or coloured dots. In his best artworks, Guillaume Leunens already manages to evoke his fascination for the total night.

In 1960, he began working with the metal, being convinced that our modern time requires its own pictorial means. He then transposed his paintings onto metal, a material he has known since his youth. Aluminum canvases receive primitive geometric shapes, circles, distended squares, rectangles, diagonals, parallel lines, transversal lines, trapezoids in perspectives and diamond shapes, truncated and shortened cones. They reveal a poetic essence; despite the apparently dry geometry, they confer a strong dose of human warmth to the prosaic aluminum.

He then undertook many trips in Europe, the United States and Canada. He participated in the universal exposition in Montreal, in Canada to represent France. His works are found in public collections in eight countries and have been exhibited in a dozen others. Towards the end of the 1970s, he retired from the artistic life. He stopped doing exhibits and painted only for his pleasure, such as nature views from a small village in Gras, where he would spend the summers. He preferred to spend his time in this little town of the Ardèche, in France, where he occupied a summer house set within the foundations of an old castle. There, he cared for his garden of flowers, and wrote poems in his Flemish mother tongue. He died in 1990. Guillaume Leunens remained a Flemish artist at heart; he has never renounced his homeland even if he had exiled to France.

The art of metal

Metal and fire, the material and element he got to know during his first practical job experiences as a foundry worker, caracterize the originality of Leunens’ work. It would have been a logical consequence that the choice of that material would lead him to participate in the new efforts made by the iron sculptors. Yet, Leunens did not take this direction, because when he started his experiments, he was already a painter. When he wished to abandon traditional ways of painting, which he came to consider obsolete, he nevertheless always respected the pictorial means of expression as he developed new techniques which, to his sense, were better adapted to the style of the modern world.

Guillaume Leunens begins his experimentation with metal in the 1960s. He uses a large sheet of aluminum on a wooden framework as a canvas. He developed several methods to paint with metal on aluminum. Most probably, he found his technique while he worked in foundries in the Germans workcamps. The result is spectacular, among his finest works. He also creates sculptures with floor bases or wall bases, with the same technique. He even succeeded in artworks of metal on canvas and metal on paper.

His techniques for metal on paper and metal on canvas are his best kept secrets that he has never shared. In the workshop where he creates his artwork, nobody is allowed to enter. He enjoys painting the woman, the mother and her child and the conception of life, probably because of his youth without his mother. He is also obsessed by space and everything that this entails. He has an avant-guardiste vision. He is known as the painter of the night and space.

After participating at the World Exposition in Montreal in 1967, while he exhibited in New York, two professors of Harvard University asked him if he would, with his technique of metal on aluminum, perform two works representative of healthy and cancerous cells and provided him with images of cells they had captured on slides. He creates two great works, one for each type of cell, and the professors were greatly impressed by the similarity of Leunens works with real cells.

During the mid-1970s, he began to use another technique on his works in aluminum: monotypes that reveal the harmony of lines. Leunens also uses this technique on paper, demonstrating his versatility as an artist. « Monotypes » are the result of a surprising and fascinating new personal technique: the hands of Leunens the artist painter forces metal (aluminum) to behave as an oil color. However, the « monotype » name is given incorrectly according to some, since it suggests a link with the graphic art which is totally absent. In the work of Leunens, the paintings are undoubtedly abstract and another name should be used.

Hardworking, Guillaume Leunens would create an artwork for days, then when the work is complete, he looks at it and if it doesn’t measure up to his standards, he would destroy it and starts over again or just simply invent another technique. His determination, his patience, but especially his passion for his art and his vision of the universe are the main qualities which have allowed Guillaume Leunens to fulfill his dream.

He always fought for his art, pushing his own boundaries; he always wanted to do better. He was at the forefront during his lifetime and is always today. He also took with him all his secrets. On his death bed he said: « My son, several have tried to imitate me, but nobody has ever succeeded. There are still going to try but they will not succeed.  » His works will continue to vibrate all the emotions that this passionate man of night and life was able to infuse his art.

His inspiration has been fuelled by his experiences as a worker-artist in the Belgian Brabant. He was fascinated by fire and metal, the day in the factory; at night, these images were pursuing him for his creative efforts. In these moments, the mastery of man over matter finally pushed him to the artistic triumph.