At first glance, this colourful, atypical painting does not appear to be one of this Brussels painter’s masterly works. Created at the end of World War II, it is, nevertheless, of significant importance in the artistic trajectory of Antoine Mortier (1908-1999). During this period, Mortier was in the chorus of the Brussels opera, the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie. The opera in production was Massenet’s Thaïs. During breaks in the production, Mortier observed and sketched the twelve extras holding torches at the back of the stage, poor people who barely earned enough to live on through their odd jobs. Little by little, the sketches began to develop and they became more dramatic. Then, erasing these pathetic figures, Antoine Mortier’s thoughts turned to four great figures: Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill and De Gaulle, “who present themselves as the torch-bearers of a new world and of our liberty”, as the painter was to confide to his friend, the art historian Karel Geirlandt. The overall atmosphere of the canvas remains that of the theatre, but the twelve torch-bearers have been transformed into four saviours of the world, those who broke the powers of the Axis.
This painting reveals Mortier’s unquestionable colourist talents as well as the vigour of his brush strokes that characterise his work. If he focuses on the essential, it is to avoid the canvas being cluttered up with useless artefacts and to lay bare the beacon of hope in a world where everything has to be re-constructed. This work lies at the juncture of two periods in Mortier’s work: that inspired by Flemish expressionism and the period that came to be known as lyrical abstraction, which was to make his name. Two important characteristics of his work are already present in this painting, namely the black that predominates over a careful alloy of bright colours and a simplification of shape that announces complete abstraction. We detect in Les Flambeaux what art history owes to Mortier. Initially presented at Delevoy’s, the great enthusiast of the group known as the Jeune Peinture Belge, the work was subsequently acquired by the collector Gustave Van Geluwe. The painting was shown at numerous exhibitions, although it remained in the hands of the collector’s family for sixty-nine years. Deserving of its place in Belgian heritage, Mortier’s work is now part of the Foundation’s collections.