‘Kempen’ is a transformation of the word Campina, Latin for open field. The ‘Kempen’ was long known as a barren, poor no man's land. Its typical sandy soil was infertile and difficult to work with. Back then the ‘Kempen’ mainly consisted of gigantic heath areas and sand. In the beginning of the 19th century when the ‘Kempen’ were colonized, the reclamation of the wasteland began.
The sandy soil largely determined the maturation and uniqueness of the region. Due to the limited yield of the poor soil, the farmers needed a lot of space and the farms and small hamlets were located far away from each other.
In the 19th century this pristine land appealed to the imagination of writers and artists. Writers, such as Hendrik Conscience created a romanticised image of the old ‘Kempen’ and its residents: idyllic, devout, faithful, active, stable, with danger of vanity, irreligion, weakness of superstition and avarice, and a lust for fighting, smuggling and poaching, but hospitable in a harsh, tough region of heath, barren land, forests and fens, where however, thanks to hard work, fertile fields and meadows were scattered in hidden villages and dreamy hamlets.
Also Jakob Smits was attracted by the unspoilt ‘Kempenland’. The Dutchman was so impressed by the particular landscape that, in 1888, he settled definitely in the township, Achterbos, in Mol. Smits lived poorly while working tirelessly on what he would later call "my simple work, symbolic, poetic and real". He started painting a stylized version of the landscape and farm life, becoming one of the most important Belgian artists of his time. He was given a large touring trio exhibition with Vincent Van Gogh and Rik Wouters. Museum Boijmans in Rotterdam devoted a retrospective to his work. Even in the US they were under Smits’ spell for a while, as evidenced by various major exhibitions. This should not come as a surprise, because his themes such as landscape, religion and mysticism, mother and child, identity and hometown are very universal and still very relevant.
‘ZANDGROND’ examines the continuity of this themes in the visual arts to this day. In the ‘Kempen’, but also far beyond.
a collaboration by de Warande, Jakob Smitsmuseum and stichting Ronald Luyten/ Jakob Smits, Mol