Seemingly paradoxical, nineteenth-century society and culture are characterized by both an increased internationalization of cultural and artistic practices, and a growing importance of nationality. The role of national administrations and institutions, and the impact of ideas of national culture and identity in art theory, criticism and history cannot be underestimated.
The dissertation 'In search of a national s(c)ul(p)ture, The local, national and international identity of sculptors in Belgium (1830-1916) resulting from this research project elaborates on the social and cultural phenomenon of ‘national schools’ during the nineteenth century, via the less studied field of sculpture, and with Belgium as a case. The role, importance of and emphasis on certain aspects of ‘national identity’ evolved throughout the century, while a diverse array of criteria were indicated by commissioners, art critics, or artists, that supposedly constituted a ‘national sculpture’. Through the study of the trajectories of Belgian sculptors abroad, as well as the presence and reception of foreign sculptors in Belgium, the role of nationality and national culture in the creation of a ‘Belgian sculpture school’ are unveiled.
Throughout this entire project, special attention was paid to the national ‘imaging’ of sculptors by fellow-artists and contemporary press, and the contradictions between discourse and practice of national schools. In the dissertation, the national identity of style, medium, and iconography of sculpture created, exhibited or commissioned in Belgium are scrutinized. With questions of national identity as a red thread, this dissertation sheds a new light on the development of sculpture throughout the century, and the different criteria that supposedly constituted a ‘national sculpture’ in Belgium throughout the nineteenth century.