The entry in the Larousse Grand Dictionnaire Encyclopédique describes Somville as "A Belgian painter of an expressive and monumental style, concerned by the realities of the contemporary world". Another possible description might be: "Brussels French-speaking artist, inspired by the foremost national, or international, exponents of the realist position and movement; amongs the best best-know contemporary artists
". And, paradoxically, one of the most contested, often by those who know his work least. To Roger Somville it offers a double challenge: to the social "establishment", in his political ideas; and to the artistic equivalent, in his conception of art. A heavy load to carry for one man
However, Somville's position remains stedfastedly consistent, rooted as it is in genuine opinions.
Born in Brussels in 1923, Somville lost his father, a worker in marquetry, at an early age. He and his mother faced a precarious material existance. His uncle, a lithographer and early Marxist, was a source of ideological influence. He took drawing lessons at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Brussels (1940 - 1942), and then went to the higher National School for Architecture and Decorative Arts of Brussels - La Cambre - (in the architect Lucien François' atelier). It was here that he would meet the painter Charles Counhaye, who was to show him the way to expressive and monumental art (1942-1945).
Somville has a fundamentally generous nature: as a young man he became involved in - and was intensely influenced by the great social movements and conflicts of his day: the rise of Fascism, the Spanish Civil War, the workers' movement. He read Marx and Lenin; he admired Bertolt Brecht, Serge eisenstein, Erwin Piscator, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Chaplin, and Eric von Stroheim. His sensibility would lead him to take the part of the underpriviledged and those least able to defend themselves: a stand had to be taken against man's exploitation of man. And a painter's weapons in the revolutionary cause are his paints and brushes.
2. An advocate of realism
The essential aim is to transpose the phenomena of social reality into the pictural medium, and for his transposition to be comprehensible to the greatest number. It is therefore necessary to use traditional terms. In 1946, he created the "Centre de Rénovation de la Tapisserie de Tournai", with his friends Edmond Dubrunfaut and Louis Deltour, and also the group "Forced Murales". In 1951, he founded "L'Atelier de la Céramique de Dour", with his wife, Simone Tits.
Somville adopted Aragon's thesis, which was that "the central question in art had never been one of the battle between pure invention, which did not exist, and observation, which is indispensable but rather one of the sense of the oeuvre as opposed to its futility". He wrote the manifestos of the Realist Movement in 1958 and 1966 and developed his thinking in his two books: Pour le réalisme, un peintre s'interroge (1970) and Hop-là les pompiers, les revoilà! (1975). He wrote two unpublished works: Notre temps (the "mural" at the metro station Hankar) and Peinture, novation, idéologie.
Now this was at a time when abstraction and avant-garde experimental art where at their fashionable and market high. Somville, never one to be found on the sidelines, was in the thick of opposition. His sources are to be found in the work of the great Flemish masters and of the giants of epic painting: Rubens, Goya, Géricault and Picasso. His friends were to be Siqueiros, Guttoso, Pignon, and Lorjou.
3. Means of expression
Mural painting, aimed as it is at the widest possible audience, was a natural choice for Somville to make. His work was to range from tapestry, of which "Le Triomphe de la Paix" (80m2), is doubtless the most well-know, to murals, which include the extraordinary work "Notre Temps" at the Hankarmetro station, and the mural at the University of Louvain-La-Neuve on the theme "Qu'est-ce qu'un intellectuel?", which he realized with the "Public Art Collective" which he founded in 1980. His desire to create finds expression in paintings that can be by turn wildly violent or strict and austere. In his drawings and etchings - both techniques that he uses with masterly strength and charm - he can be satirical and ironic.
Somville's political position is the result of his personal sensibility. Generosity, love of life, happiness and love all drive him to defend these human values by a political choice. Thus happiness, the implied other face of the coin, is represented in his work and as a result, his themes alternate as well. They can be part of the collective epic: these are the great compositions which tackle world events: "Non à la guerre", "La Résistance" (1950), "Mineurs" (1953), "La Répression"(1961), "Socialisme pour L'Espagne", "Les réunions syndicales", "Vietnam" (1966), "Les Peintres" (1971-1977), "Comité de quartier contre les missiles" (1983), 'Un intellectuel" (1981-1986) or again, the extraordinary "Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau" (1968 and 1987). Alternatively, his energy is expressed in caustic drawings: "La Diarrhée intellectuelle", "Les Vernissages". Other themes are intimate in tone and celebrate Woman, "Hommage à Rubbens", "Les Baigneuses"; the "Nus"; the "Modèle et son peintre" and admirable portraits of his wife Simone.
5. His works
Somville's work is rooted in a refusal of what he considers to be a futile aesthetism. However, his work is not therefore naturalist. Rather than copy reality, he takes it as his source, reconstituting it and transforming it in new, pictural terms. Forms adapt themselves to the expression of a conviction, emotions, a character; they burst their limits, change their shape. The explosion of colours serves a desire to express the pulsating of an inner world, over and above the message. They thunder out, sometimes on the verge of a deliberate vulgarity, or, on the contrary are gaiety and passionate love of life itself. This is a long way from the anecdote or the "tour de force". As Emile Langui says, "we are in the presence of a painter, in the absolute sense of the word". His work as a painter, theoritician, lecturer and activist and his efforts for peace (he represents Belgium on the World Peace Council) are completed by his teaching life. At the Academy of Watermael-Boitsfort, which has become renowed under his direction, he has trained numerous artists, independent of any artistic dogmatism. He directed the school from 1947 to 1986. Somville's painting is known beyond the confines of a small coterie: retrospectives have been devoted to his work in Brussels, Paris, Moscow, Cologne, Sofia, Mexico, Berlin, Saint-Denis, Bobigny, Clermont-Ferrand (France), Liège, Budapest, Havana, Rome, Numazu (Japan), etc ... Among the collective exhibitions in which Somville's work has appeared are the "Mostra Internationale de Bianco e Nero" at Lugano (1960), the "Biennale Internationale d'art à Venise (1962), the "Bienalle Internationale de la Tapisserie" at Lausanne (1962 and 1965), "Figuration et Défiguration" at the Hedendaagse Kunst Museum in Ghent (1964), the "Salon de Mai" in Paris (1977), "L'Art Belge depuis 1945" at the "Musée des Beaux - Arts André Malraux", Le Havre (1982), the "Salon International d'Art" at Basle (1985) and other including exhibitions in Amsterdam, Utrecht, Antwerpen, Ostend, Ljubijana, Fechen, Rijeka, Heidelberg, Venise et Paris. His work is to be found in numerous museums In Belgium (the Modern Art Museum in Brussels) and abroad (Mexico, Dresden, Faenza, the Hermitage in Leningrad, Sofia, Paris, and Lund). Among the various important prizes he has been awarded the "Prix de la Critique" with Hans Bellmer, in 1968-69. Here then he stands: an outsize personality, of prolific gifts and abundant creative force, with an almost prophetic voice. For the evolution of contemporary art seems to be one of reconciliation with reality. Many of Somville's critics have already revised their opinion to his work; many others will have to undergo this painful operation. For today, the artist compels our recognition, and his work, our admiration.