Konstantin Meunier – an artist who glorified the proletariat
The life of the Belgian master Constantin Meunier is not eventful. But his creative biography is unusual. He began as a sculptor, attending a class at the Academy of Fine Arts in Brussels and the workshop of Sh. O. Freken, a follower of classicism. Then for many years engaged in painting. Only at the age of 50 he returned to sculpture – a unique case in the history of Western European art of that era.
At the same time, Meunier continued to work as a painter, creating major works in 1890–1900s. The master found in painting compositional solutions, which he later transferred to the sculpture. This helped him immediately achieve significant results in sculpture. Meunier broke with the distant art preached by academic artists. Equally resolutely, he turned to the images of working people – the proletarians and miners, who became the only heroes of his works.
In 1887–1895, Meunier lived in the small provincial town of Louvain, where the position of professor at the Louvain Academy of Fine Arts gave him the opportunity to support his family. That life can be judged by a letter addressed to the well-known critic O. Mouse: “Could you tell me when I can get for my Shakhtar?” Unfortunately, at the moment I am not rich at all. Sorry, dear friend, I’m bothering you, because the most disgusting thing for me in the world is talking about money! Unfortunately, they need a lot to be engaged in sculpture and to … eat! ”These words were written in 1887, and two years later at the Paris World Exhibition“ Hammerman ”- the first of Meunier’s large sculptures – received the Medal of Honor. But, despite the award, the master could not find a job in Brussels that would ensure his existence.
He turned to the subject of work earlier in painting than in plastic, in 1878, after a trip to Val Saint-Lambert and to factories near Liege, but the most famous canvases were created later. One of them is the Port (1886). On the background of the dark brown mass of the steamer with a red pipe, the figures of loaders stand out. Two of them are resting, their poses are free and independent. The figure, standing with his back to the viewer, can be easily recognized in the later created famous “Loader” statue. In the left part of the canvas stretch bluish-blue distance. The gloomy sky, the steamboat smoke is the background for the red and blue clothes of the working people. The general mood is harsh and restrained. These are the heroic days of the working man. Loaders work at the limit of power, but there is no seal of hopelessness on their faces. Cloth Meunier is not limited to the framework of the domestic genre. And at the same time the artist chooses poses, gestures, peeped in the thick of life. But they reveal above all the plastic beauty of man, emphasize his dignity. The episode of everyday work turns into a symbol of significance of labor.
In 1886, by order of the Belgian coal trade union, he painted six decorative panels, in the size of nature, with the image of miners and coal miners. Their example is Miner with a Spade and Liège Miner, written in a grayish-black tone, without a landscape background, widely and freely, where only silhouette and volume play a role. Impeccably found confident and calm posture. In the images there is no portrait characterization, they are perceived as a generalized type – and this is one of the important features of Meunier’s art.
His search for painting can be traced to the development of the plot most often encountered in his life – the return of the miners. The motive of the procession becomes the favorite method of the artist, allowing you to easily solve multi-figured compositions, create a feeling of continuous movement of the heroes, as if pushing the inner-picture space. Mining series – from among the greatest successes of the master. It embodies the hero, fully expressing the idea of a man of labor. It was formed as a result of a visit in 1881, together with the writer K. Lemonnier, in the coal areas of Borinazh.
In the early version of the canvas “The Return of the Miners”, the feeling of fatigue that has become an endless chain of workers is emphasized. Dark rainy day. The land is covered with mud pools. A narrow strip of the sky gradually tightens the smoke of the factory pipe. Slightly bent figures of miners are drawn against the background of a hill. Life seems hopeless, as does the brownish-gray color, not disturbed by a single bright spot. The faces of the miners are hardly distinguishable, it seems that they will continue to wander, dull and tired. In later versions, the artist seeks a different solution. In the painting “Return from the mine”, the canvas format has changed to vertical, the horizon line is lowered, the figures are pushed forward and dominate the landscape. A mining village with red rooftops and smoking pipes becomes the backdrop.