Mattias Vendelmans’ eponymous gallery is showing its inaugural exhibition, In Youth Is Pleasure, dedicated to portraits of children by European artists. Sophie Goodwin talks to the Flemish curator about the narrative behind his work, and his long-term plans for the creative space.
BY SOPHIE GOODWIN | SEPTEMBER 2023
François-Joseph Navez, Two boys, circa 1822; © Vendelmans, London.
"There is no specific genre at Vendelmans, but I stick to a specific time period." Mattias Vendelmans, art dealer and gallerist, is endlessly fascinated by the painterly style of the mid-19th to mid-20 century, particularly "the turn of century sweet spot".
Three to four group and solo exhibitions will take place each year at his newly-opened London gallery, "blowing away some cobwebs and trying to showcase the richness of this period". Prominent figures will feature, but Mattias' eyes light up when he talks about new names, like the Alice Frey show he presented at Cork Street earlier this year.
His inaugural exhibition, In Youth Is Pleasure, is named after Denton Welch’s novel, which follows the mind of a 15-year-old boy, Orvil Pym. It's beautifully curated, and speaks to the hypnotic allure of historic childhood memories.
"Why do I find myself intrigued by these portraits?" Mattias muses; "I researched heavily into portraiture, from a social, not just an artistic, point of view. At that time, the lives of children changed drastically. The notion of childhood, as we know it, was invented during the 19th century."
The body of work on show explores children in nature, and their relationship to pets. "When you give an animal to a child you are issuing a responsibility to take care of another being. This was a totally new idea." The first piece he acquired was by the Belgian artist, Hubert Malfait. "As I am Flemish, I related immediately. It depicted a frustrated farm boy dreaming of bigger and better things." Originally called ‘Stafke from Astene,’ it was renamed ‘The Dreamer’.
European school, Girl with doll, canary and cat, circa 1845; © Vendelmans, London.
However, it's the first painting you see at the entrance, which confronts you and sets the tone for the exhibition: Girl with puppet, canary and cat. The cat is being squashed by the sitter’s feet as she stares knowingly. "You know immediately you shouldn't take the exhibition super seriously," Mattias explains. "Artistically everything is often viewed negatively and overly contextualised, which is important, but for me it's more about the magic of the experience, wanting to live with something and not thinking about monetary value all the time." Indeed, many works from In Youth Is Pleasure are by anonymous artists, so it's difficult to attach a price tag. "That’s missing the point," he says. "It doesn't mean they are worthless in meaning and appearance."
Completing his BA in Belgium and MA in Birmingham, Mattias moved to London in 2019 to complete an internship at Sotheby's. Of Sotheby's, he is emphatic: "I loved the experience so much, and learned a tremendous amount. I found working at an auction house to be the best school. I gained valuable insight into how deals are made, and knowledge of the marketing side."
He gained a 360-degree view of what it means to sell a picture, from pursuing it to consigning it, but knew the experience had a shelf life for him. "The specialist roles were few and far between, I had to do my own thing." His time at Sotheby's was preceded by a project management role at Carsten Höller in Stockholm, where he managed public commissions, catalogues and solo-exhibitions at Palazzo Strozzi and Henie Onstad Kunstsenter in Florence and Oslo respectively. Catalogue production fascinated him the most: "I learned how to make a catalogue happen in agreement with a museum, which is now my most favourite part of compiling an exhibition. I like writing the text and thinking about the narrative as a whole."
Henrik Blomberg, Portrait of a boy, 1929; © Vendelmans, London
A comprehensive and articulate catalogue will accompany every exhibition at Vendelmans. "I'm commissioning texts by some very smart people," Mattias says. "In Youth Is Pleasure by Jennifer Sliwka (the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and Michael Diaz-Griffith (director of the Design Leadership Network and author of The New Antiquarians) and Jennifer Higgie for Alice Frey."
Mattias' previous exhibition, pre-Conduit Street, was held at Frieze's no 9 Cork Street, but he decided to step away from the pop-up model. He noticed sales didn’t take place in the first few days, buyers wanted to return at a later stage with their art advisors. "I saw an immediate value in establishing my own unique space, creating a community so the buying experience doesn’t feel rushed, pressurised and purely financially oriented."
The small gallery (which he will run for three years) is charming, and despite having undergone a significant transformation, many of the original features remain. "The windows have character and you can’t replicate the slanted walls under the roof." Conduit Street is fast becoming an art hub, there is another gallery, Ione & Mann, on the first floor, which has also just opened, Omer Tiroche nearby and Pilar Corrias also opening just opposite.
Danish school, Boy with sabre, circa 1800; © Vendelmans, London
After In Youth Is Pleasure, the gallery will be showing large-scale, colourful 1920s ceramics by French-Danish sculptor, Jean-Rene Gauguin (the son of Paul Gauguin) in a London first. ‘It’s almost camp, I love the vibrant colours and the fact that it’s an artistic collaboration between two Gauguin brothers. He was the sculptor and his younger brother, Pola Gauguin, the painter.’
Characteristically, it's the context Mattias finds most intriguing. "Sadly, he didn't have any contact with his father past the age of four. When Paul died in 1903, Jean-Rene inherited some of his paintings, which he sold for a tidy sum. He used the money to travel all over to Europe, to Greece and to Rome, educating himself as a sculptor. I like the fact he turned his paternal tragedy into his artistic freedom."
Mattias is also planning a retrospective of Pelle Swedlund (1865-1947): "A fabulous symbolist artist from Sweden who moved through Europe in the 1890s and 1900s and left behind a body of deeply melancholic and modern landscapes that still feel so fresh today." He is working with Hurtwood Books to publish a catalogue raisonné of his life, and work to coincide with the exhibition. This will be the first solo show dedicated to Swedlund since 2003 and the artist's London debut.
"The best thing I can bring to the table is my point of view," Mattias concludes. "I try to only do things that interest me. If people want to buy Francis Bacon they are not going to come to me anyway, so I might as well do something I feel passionate about."
Mattias Vendelmans, pictured at Vendelmans, London © Stephen James
In Youth Is Pleasure runs at Vendelmans, 6 Conduit Street, until 23 December 2023
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