The International Exhibition of Contemporary Medals at the Ghent World Fair was the second of its kind. The first was organised in Brussels in 1910, following the efforts of the Dutch-Belgian Society of Friends of Art Medals, thanks to the benevolent support of the then Ministry of Science and Art, Baron Descamps. As for the Ghent exhibition, it is due to the initiative of Mr. Joseph Casier, president of the Ghent Society of the Friends of the Medal and general manager of the Ghent Universal Exhibition, as well as to the good offices of Mr. Paul Lambotte, commissioner of the Fine Arts group.
Both of these undertakings were successful. In Brussels, seventeen nations participated with two hundred and forty-seven exhibitors; in Ghent, eighteen countries: Germany, England, Austria, Hungary, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Spain, the United States, France, Italy, Japan, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia and Switzerland were represented by two hundred and ten artists, among whom forty were completely unknown in Belgium.
The art of the medal is complex; it is related to drawing, sculpture and engraving, and for a long time now, mechanics has had an undeniable influence on it. Born in Italy, during the great Renaissance period, under the impulse of the painter Pisanello, it was, for nearly two centuries, almost exclusively a matter of sculpture; the artist limited himself to modelling in wax, or sometimes to carving on soft stone, the model in working size and then casting it in metal, in small numbers, by successive castings. It was Italian artists, led by the Neapolitan Leone de Candida, who introduced the medal to the Netherlands in the last third of the 16th century.
The Antwerp painter and blacksmith, Quentin Metsys, was the first Belgian to try his hand at it; we have three or four medals by him, one of which bears the date
The 16th century was the great period for Flemish medals; they shone with unparalleled brilliance with the poet Jean Decond, an amateur of genius, and illustrious professionals such as Jacques Jonghelinckx, of Antwerp, or Stephanus Hollandicus.
The need to reproduce each medal in large numbers to satisfy the ever-increasing number of orders was a fatal blow to this delicate art. It was the reason for the introduction of the pendulum method of striking with hand-engraved steel dies. This method, which required special knowledge unknown to most sculptors, soon made the engraving of medals the domain of the coin cutters, almost all of whom were former goldsmiths, and therefore able to handle the chisel and chisel. These engravers worked according to drawings imposed on them and, as a result, were no more than mere interpreters of the thoughts of others. The last of them, the elegant Théodore van Berchel, contemporary of the French Revolution, is the only one who can claim the title of medal artist in our country; the others are nothing more than craftsmen, more or less skilled in their trade.
The general use at the beginning of the last century of the reduction lathe, which made it possible to combine the old method of casting, slightly modified - the model being worked in large size for greater ease - and the method of striking with the help of dies obtained mechanically by reduction, enabled sculptors to enter the scene. With these artists, and particularly in Belgium, with the Ghent-born Joseph Breamt and the brothers Jacques, Léopold and Charles Wiener, the medal once again became an art form, whose distinction was established in the public's favour, thanks to the happy innovations brought to its technique by French artists such as Ponscarne, Chapelain, Roty and Vernon.
It was under the influence of this ultimate transformation that three great schools of medal makers were successively established throughout the world: the French school, the Viennese or Austrian school and, later, the German school.
The aim of the organisers of the Ghent International Medal Exhibition was above all to highlight, through the exhibition of selected works, the most striking characteristics of these three groups and to show what influence they had on artists from other countries. In addition, they have endeavoured to shed light on the true situation of the art of the medal both in those nations where this art has remained stationary and in those where it has more or less progressed in the 20th century.
By its elegance, its good taste, its poetry, its clear allegories, well adapted to the subject and harmoniously laid out, as well as by the life and expression of its portraits, the French medal occupies the first rank in the world. Its influence is therefore almost general; it even extends to Austria where the Viennese school, despite its coldness, has its own merits and a serious spirit of observation. Bohemian artists, such as Sucharda, as well as Hungarians, do not lack a certain sui generis originality. Unfortunately, in the latter, this originality sometimes borders on the heavy-handed.
The German medalists do not, in general, possess great distinction; but they have a real energy of workmanship and know their trade thoroughly. Some of them, in order to better render their designs, are not afraid to revert to the old methods of casting or direct engraving. It seems that their main aim is to get as far away as possible from the French style, at the risk of producing works which, because of their massiveness and size, are no longer medals, but real bas-reliefs. They also have a weakness for stylisation, which R. Bosselt, for example, is particularly fond of and whose undeniable talent has found imitators in Austria.
It is French art that dominates in Switzerland, Sweden and Portugal; it is increasingly established in the United States, in England and even in Holland, where serious efforts are being made to improve the art of the medal.
In Russia, Denmark, Norway and Spain, it is still in the style of 1850. As for Italy, the cradle of the art of the medal, it is a mint that monopolises, so to speak, all the manufacture of medals.
It cannot be said that there is, strictly speaking, a Belgian school; our artists, whether Flemish or Walloon, have too many ties and affinities with the French school. They differ from it, however, by a greater naturalism in the portrait, as well as by a less inventive spirit and by a greater heaviness in the modelling.
What can be said, and we are happy to have found new proof of this in this 1913 exhibition, is that Belgian medal makers are making great progress, especially in the very difficult art of composing a reverse, and that their number is constantly increasing. In Brussels, there were twenty-seven in 1910; in Ghent, in 1913, there were forty-seven.
Taken as a whole, the 1913 Medal Show was a great success for all medalists and especially for our Belgian friends.
©Livre d'Or de l'Exposition Universelle & Internationale de Gand 1913