During his education at the Ghent Academy for the Fine Arts, Minne became friends with the symbolist authors Grégoire Le Roy and Maurice Maeterlinck. These young symbolists had an extraordinary influence on the young artist, who at that time had already distanced himself from academicism.
Minne made his debut as sculptor at the Ghent exhibition of 1889 and his participation was vehemently opposed by the press and the public. His progressive form language found an audience only at the exhibitions of the Brussels avant-garde circle, Les XX. He was present at these exhibitions from 1890 to 1893. Minne became acquainted with the Brussels art milieu, where he became friends with Emile Verhaeren. He also caught the eye of the French symbolists already early in his career. In 1892, Sâr Péladan invited the artist to his famous Salon de la Rose-Croix.
In Ghent, he tried to form a front against a conservative public. As member of the association Wij willen, he confronted the local Cercle Artistique et Littéraire, which followed a conservative path. His native city indeed was not especially well disposed to him. In 1895, his entry for the Ghent exhibition was even rejected. Despair led him back to Brussels, where in 1895 he registered for the sculpture class given by the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. Instructor Charles Van der Stappen supported his pupil and found him an atelier. Via Verhaeren he also came into contact with Henry van de Velde, at that moment one of the protagonists of Belgian Art Nouveau. And Van de Velde’s international contacts led Minne to the influential German critic and collector Julius Meier-Graefe, who would confer European fame on the modernism of Minne. Around the turn of the century, Minne exhibited in avant-garde milieus in Germany and Austria. He was worshiped at the Viennese Secession; Ver Sacrum, the periodical publication of the association, even dedicated an entire number to his work. He also enjoyed wide fame in France and exhibited among others at the Galerie Durand-Ruel and the Galerie L’Art Nouveau of Siegfried Bing.
In the summer of 1899, Minne went to Sint-Martens-Latem, probably on the advice of his friend Valerius De Saedeleer, who he knew from his academy years in Ghent. Together with Karel van de Woestijne, he would become the intellectual leader of the so-called first Latem group. Minne was the only member of this circle of symbolist artists who remained faithful to the village throughout his entire life, with the exception of the war period.
Minne experienced his Welsh years as oppressive. The continuous uncertainty concerning the fate of his sons at the front paralysed Minne and his wife. He did take part frequently in the group exhibitions organised by the Belgian government throughout all of Great Britain. Like his friends De Saedeleer and Van de Woestyne, he could also count on the support of the De Graaff-Bachiene family, a Dutch couple living in London who owned works by Belgian artists in exile.
In the period between the wars, the sculptor enjoyed great fame on the Belgian and international art scene. Numerous exhibitions were dedicated to his work. And in 1931 he was elevated to nobility.
At the beginning of his career, George Minne was close to the symbolist world of his friends Grégoire Le Roy and Maurice Maeterlinck. Minne created the illustrations for their work. Their attention to sorrow and melancholy, their mystical tendency, their longing for death was also his. Minne gave expression to these existential issues already in his earliest sculptures. His works with the motherhood theme testify to this primary human suffering. Despair and suffering were already present in the movements of Minne’s sculptures. His examples were the figures of mourning on medieval church doors. More generally, Minne went in search of primitive art forms already in the 1880s. The Middle Ages of course served as example, but he also borrowed elements from the form language of ancient Egypt.
Based upon the simplification of forms, Minne devised his sculptures in function of sparsity, gauntness, the austere. Minne elongated the body, moulded the proportions to his will. In the context of European symbolism, it is remarkable that Minne-almost without linear influence-arrived at similar solutions. His volumes are also tightly defined, strictly described. This tendency to synthesis is characteristic of all of Minne’s sculptures from the 1890s, culminating in the figure of the kneeling youth. All of this explains why the pioneers of Art Nouveau-Henry van de Velde in Belgium, Siegfried Bing in France and Julius Meier-Graefe in Germany-have such high esteem for Minne’s sculptures. Years later his friend Karel Van de Woestyne saw him as follows: “Minne was the persuasive, almost inspirational example of the spirit that elevates the traditional into sublime perfection and who conferred upon the representation, whatever the actual content might be, a definitive, generalised form.”
Afterwards Minne returned to classical sculpture. In the years before the First World War, the sculptor rediscovered the living model. Naturalness and relief come to the foreground. He continued along this path during the period between the wars, retaining a preference for classical sculpture.
Minne’s work during the war period remained limited to hundreds of charcoal drawings in which the theme of mother and child appears almost without exception. The biographical bias present in these drawings is clear; Minne’s sons fought at the front in Ypres. The artist and his wife lived in continuous uncertainty. He almost compulsively continually returned to the same subject. The figures primarily received form on ordinary drawing paper, ranging from an average format to sometimes life-size sheets. The walls of his house in Llanidloes received the same iconography.
** Robert Hoozee, e.a., George Minne en de kunst rond 1900, tent. cat., Gent, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, 1982.
** Piet Boyens, Flemish Art, Symbolism to expressionism, Tielt – Sint-Martens-Latem, Lannoo – Art Book Company, 1992.
** Johan De Smet, Sint-Martens-Latem en de Kunst aan de Leie 1870-1970, Tielt – Zwolle, Lannoo – Waanders, 2000.