Reviews Short Documentary

In the Shadow of Jozef Peeters (2020) – 2 stars

Directors: Ritchie Vermeire & Lennart Gosman

Running time: 20mins

I would have thought the idea of the white male painter with ‘his’ women forever beholden to the genius of the master was a concept somewhat past its sell-by date. However, this is the central theme of Ritchie Vermeire and Lennart Gosman’s short documentary In the Shadow of Jozef Peeters. The film gives us an overview of the life of an artist who the filmmakers assert to be one of the founding figures of Belgian abstract art – leaving those who came after him forever working in the Shadow of the film’s title, including his children, whose efforts to preserve his legacy take up a third of the movie.

The technique that Vermeire and Gosman employ is pretty much off the shelf art documentary with little experimentation: talking heads, still photos, shots of Peeters’ work, and footage inside the family apartment which Peeters worked from. Given that the subject is 20th century abstract art, the palette that the filmmakers use is curiously sombre and drab – while the cinematography and editing are competent, but unspectacular. For example, the apartment which the movie focuses on is in the centre of Antwerp, on the banks of the Scheldt but, apart from the opening shot taking us from the riverscape to the apartment block, we get no sense of this city as a living, breathing locale.

The meat of the film sees us guided through Peeters’ life, efficiently but uncritically, highlighting career developments and family relationships – but pulling punches when it comes to anything edgier. It sees a pioneering abstract artist propped up by his partner Marries Pelagie, who works as a teacher to support him. She continues to work after giving birth to a girl, Godelieve, and a boy, Maarten, while Peeters becomes a ‘home parent.’ When Pelagie is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1937, the kids are sent to boarding school, and Peeters looks after his ailing spouse. In the desperation of a pre-safety-net society, the artistic genius is forced to demean himself by producing commercial pap merely to bring in the bucks – until the post-war welfare state is created, enabling him to give up art and become a full-time care-giver. When in 1955, his wife dies, Peeters is told by his daughter, who works – inevitably – as a teacher: You do your painting, I’ll do the laundry and the housework. With his daughter now maintaining the apartment, the genius can return to the comforts of abstraction – before his genius is recognised by a group of young artists on the up, and Peeters is lionised as head of a Movement. In 1960, this sees an important retrospective exhibition of his work organised but, tragically, he dies the week before it opens.

All this is conveyed to us in a gushing, hagiographic, authorised biography tone. There are two prominent lacunae though. First, Peeters’ experiences in the First and Second World War go unmentioned – surely an artist’s time under two German occupations might have been of interest to the viewer. Then, there is a glaring lack of analysis regarding the sacrificial role of women in the eventual success of Peeters as an artist. In particular, Godelieve, his daughter.

In the concluding legacy section of the film, this becomes most jarring. Godelieve stays on in the apartment and turns it into a memorial to her father’s art and life – right down to insisting that the disability aid fittings and furniture Peeters installed to help his wife during her illness should remain intact. This is great for its potential as a future museum, but does not bode well for Godelieve’s autonomy as a functioning human being.

The role that Godelieve fulfils is later summed up when a speaker says admiringly of her: she only lived for her father’s art. We later learn that Godelieve died in the apartment, and bequeathed the apartment to the city authorities, and we are shown footage of a tour guide showing a tourist party around the shrine: the apartment is now a Sight on the Antwerp Tourist Trail. But at what cost?

To what extent is it healthy to compel children to sheepishly cower in the shadows of their parents until death? Shouldn’t they be allowed to live for themselves? The question comes to a head when there is a dispute between Godelieve and her brother over the estate. The filmmakers uncritically allow speakers to praise Godelieve for her obsessional focus on keeping the flame alive in contrast to Maarten who we are told has swanned off to America, taking his share of the paintings – but after being battered over the head by the filmmakers’ relentless adherence to the Party Line, your reviewer’s reaction couldn’t help but be; good on you Maarten and I hope you managed to get a good price for some of the paintings.

Following on from this, the treatment of Godelieve underlines quite a troubling approach to gender throughout the film. All of the talking heads, bar one, are male. The exception is a woman friend of Godelieve, and the main source for the family legacy section – suggesting that family life rather than art is more of a woman’s thing. And even she, bizarrely and inexplicably, is accompanied by her husband. The ‘experts’ and artists are all men in this film made by men. One other woman does appear; the tour guide in the footage of the apartment – a suitably menial role. On the evidence of In the Shadow, it appears that high art in Belgium is a definitively male sport.

At the same time, the film does not do an especially good job of showing why Godelieve’s choices were supposedly the right ones. A mistake documentary-makers often make is that they assume that their subject is inherently of universal interest simply because it is of interest to themselves. Unfortunately, Vermeire and Gosman fall into this trap. The importance of Peeters as an artist surely has to be the reason for making the film – and the subsequent voyeurism of the examination of the family psycho-dynamics and the overdetermined reaction by a daughter to a father’s death would only be of interest, and that would be pretty marginal and only to a certain kind of prurient viewer – if Peeters’ art were any good. Unfortunately, the filmmakers make little effort to establish their case as to why it is.

All we are given are sententious statements as to Peeters’ importance as a ‘founder’, a few tantalising glimpses of the paintings in the apartment and briefly an ‘expert’ showing us how one of Peeters’ linocuts unfolds. When the filmmakers permit us a brief view of one piece, the only facet they draw our attention to is that Peeters had used his dead wife’s comb to make incisions in the paint – well, thanks for that.

My suggestion would be that the filmmakers might have made a better case for the importance of their subject in two possible ways. They could have added a substantial section, maybe making the film half as long again, where an art historian would take the viewer through some of Peeters’ key works whilst presenting an argument as to why they were innovative and/or important. Or, if the filmmakers still wanted to keep to the 20-minute format, instead of the camera showing us the talking heads for inordinate passages of the film, it could have panned away to give us close ups and long shots of the art works.

I know that there is always a dilemma when making a documentary to not totally alienate the people who are the filmmaker’s sources. However, I would suggest that in future work Vermeire and Gosman should not suspend their critical faculties to the extent they have done so in In the Shadow. They surely did not have to be so fawning and adulatory and merely dump the great artist myth as an unexamined blob into the viewer’s lap.

I am guessing Vermeire and Gosman had some sort of tie-in with the Peeters’ museum and the Antwerp tourist trade and that In the Shadow is a sort of promotional device for a museum that gives us the artist’s life and work captured in one location. Will the museum bring in the crowds once we emerge from the pandemic? A similar format over at Ostend for the James Ensor museum seems to work – so probably yes. Will the psycho-mythologising of In the Shadow add to the numbers? Sadly, probably yes. For this viewer, if a Peeters’ exhibition came to my home city, I would give it a look to see how his art works in a neutral space away from the shadow. As to the museum, though, after undergoing this assault from Great Man Theory, I would, myself, give it a miss.

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