Willy Kessels was born in Dendermonde, Belgium on January 26, 1898. He came of age when his parents became casualties during World War I. An interest in architecture led him to further his education at Ghent’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts; however, he never completed his academic studies. Finding work as an architectural draughtsman in Flanders and Brussels in the early 1920s, Mr. Kessels expanded his artistic repertoire to include furniture design and sculpting. After his sculptures received favorable attention during the Paris International Exhibition of Decorative Arts in 1925, he became a member of the Primavera artistic club, which introduced him to several Modernist painters and photographers. His friendships with Le Corbusier [Charles-Édouard Jeanneret] and Albert Malevez sparked his passion for photography, which soon became his all-consuming career focus.
By 1929, Mr. Kessels was being celebrated as the founder of the Modernist photography movement, and within a year was receiving commissions from the socialist publisher, L’Eglantier (The Wild Rose). His photographs, which were featured in French painter Louis-Albert Guislain’s 1930 text, Decouverte de Bruxelles [Discover Brussels], introduced Europe to a “New Vision” of the world, replete with unsettling camera angles, nudes, photomontages, and modern buildings that were all glimpsed amid manipulations of light and shadow. His viewfinder championed the ‘bird’s eye view,’ which while clearly a Modernist technique, was also nevertheless a scion of its Pictorialist father. Mr. Kessel’s portrait of the “Grand Place” in Brussels is a triumph of this perspective, highlighted by stirring contrasts of darkness and light. His 1933 large-format series of mining family still-life portraits, which were produced for the documentary film Misere au Borinage, are remarkably similar to the stark Depression-era works of photographers employed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration.
Mr. Kessels delighted in subjective experimentation, and many of his photographs of the late 1930s are innovative works that exploit solar energy as a creative lighting source, consider the aesthetic appeal of double exposures, and examine the sociopolitical impact of twentieth-century photography. During World War II, his friendship with Flemish nationalist Joris Van Severen, led to Mr. Kessels’ fascination with Fascism and cinematic propaganda. Van Severen’s capture and subsequent murder by Belgian nationalists resulted in the collapse of his right-wing Verdinaso movement and marked the beginning of the end of Mr. Kessels’ run as the darling of the European intelligentsia. His questionable wartime activities came back to haunt him after the war, and resulted in his arrest and four-year imprisonment. Upon his release, he returned to his beloved Belgium, where he seemed determined to bury his Modernist roots and focus his lens on the more politically benign landscapes surrounding the Scheldt River. Willy Kessels died quietly in Brussels on February 10, 1974, a virtually forgotten man.
Unfortunately, history seems to have a long memory, and Mr. Kessels’ alleged Fascist activities are still affecting present-day exhibitions of his revolutionary Modernist works. For example, a proposed retrospective in the city of Charleroi in 1996 was closed to the public by the Belgian government. Hopefully, this trend will be reversed in the twenty-first century as several collectors have eagerly purchased several of his photographs in auctions held in New York, London, and Paris. Willy Kessels is arguably Belgium’s most important Modernist photographer, and his works should be freely judged on their artistic and historic merits, not censored by contemporary political correctness.
2006 Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 860-862.
2007 From Art Nouveau to Surrealism edited by Nathalie Aubert (Oxford, UK: Routledge), pp. 103-106, 108-109.
2011 Imaging History: Photography After the Fact edited by Bruno Vandermeulen and Danny Veys (Brussels, Belgium: ASA Publishers), pp. 52-53.
2018 Self-Portrait: Willy Kessels (URL: https://www.mfah.org/art/detail/68859?returnUrl=%2Fart%2Fsearch%3Fculture%3DBelgian%26show%3D50).
2018 Willy Kessels, Belgian Modernist (URL: http://www.anamorfose.be/willy-kessels-belgian-modernist/chapter/1).
2018 Willy Kessels, Brussels: View of the Grand Place, 1937 (URL: https://www.mutualart.com/Artwork/BRUSSELS--VIEW-OF-THE-GRAND-PLACE--1937/E70A8838D5301854).
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