Emile Langui (1903-1980)
Emile Langui was born on October 31, 1903 in Brussels, Belgium. His early childhood was spent traveling with his father, who was a wrestler in a small circus. After studying at a training college for teachers, Langui taught at a public high school in Ghent, Belgium. He earned a Bachelors of Arts and Archaeology from the State University of Ghent in 1928 and became a lecturer of art history at the Charles de Kerckhove Institute in Ghent shortly after graduation. He became a curator at the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts in 1936 and was named secretary to the Minister of Public Works in 1938.
A prominent Socialist, Langui used his knowledge of art and culture to become a voice for the Belgian resistance during the war. In 1933 he began writing the “Art and Art Literature” column for the Sunday edition of Vooruit, the prominent newspaper in Ghent. In his column, he discussed art topics such as futurism and cubism through the lens of his own outspoken political opinions. In Koekoek, a weekly supplement to Vooruit, Langui used photomontages to criticize current political issues and spread anti-fascist ideas. At the start of World War II, he became a valuable member of the Independence Front (the Belgian resistance founded by the Communist Party of Belgium). He was arrested by the Germans in September 1943 and jailed on suspicion of espionage, and participated in battles with the Independence Front to liberate the Belgian towns of Ghent, Zelzate, and Terneuzen. During this time, he consistently published newspaper articles advocating the return of Belgian cultural items looted by the Nazis.
In his efforts to repatriate his country’s cultural heritage, Langui worked closely with Monuments Man Lt. Col. Léo Van Puyvelde, his former professor of medieval art at the State University of Ghent and Belgium’s Director General of the Administration des Beaux-Arts. As part of his official position with the Vaucher Committee (the Inter-Allied Commission for the Protection and Restitution of Cultural Materials), Van Puyvelde had submitted official lists of artworks looted from Belgium, as well as further lists containing useful contact information for local experts in the field. Despite their efforts to recover art through official channels, Langui and Van Puyvelde became restless observing protocol and, as a result, often took restitution matters into their own hands.
The dramatic discovery of Jan van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, Belgium’s greatest artistic treasure, by Monuments Men Capt. Robert Posey and Pfc. Lincoln Kirstein, deep inside a salt mine in Altausee, Austria, spurred Langui and Van Puyvelde into action. However, by the time they reached Altaussee, preparations to transport the priceless work of art to the Munich Central Collecting Point were near complete. In their eagerness, they had arrived at the mine without authorization and were turned away. However, in August 1945, both Langui and Van Puyvelde were on hand to welcome the Ghent Altarpiece to The Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, where it was placed on temporary display before its triumphant return home to Saint Bavo Cathedral in Ghent.
Langui remained a committed advocate for the return of looted cultural property for the duration of his life. He wrote numerous articles in the weekly Zondagspost discussing stolen works of art and the repositories in they were found. In 1946 was appointed Attaché of the Fine Arts and Letters department of the Ministry of Public Education in Belgium. In this position, he was responsible for organizing notable public art exhibitions, including the Belgian Pavillion at the Venice Biennale, which made art more accessible to not only Belgians but the entire international art community. In 1956 Langui was promoted to Director General of Fine Arts and Letters at the Department of Public Education, and organized the exhibit “Fifty Years of Modern Art” presented at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. Beginning in 1963, he served as Administrator-General of Dutch Cultural Services at the Fine Arts Division of the Department of National Education and Culture. He retired from this position in 1968 but remained an active member of prominent public art committees until his death. As late as 1975, just five years before his death, he participated in a debate on French television which addressed the protection of European art during World War II.
For his work to ensure the advancement of Belgian art, Langui received many titles and accolades. The Belgian Government named him a Grand Officer of the Belgian Order of the Crown, Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters, and Grand Officer of the Order of King Leopold. He was named Commander of the Order of Orange-Nassau by the Dutch Government in 1962, awarded a gold medal by the Czechoslovakian Minister of Culture in 1966, and named Commander of the Order of the Star by Yugoslavia in 1970.
Emile Langui died in 1980 in Anderlecht, Belgium and was buried in nearby Elsene.