interviews

Towards the future – A brilliant painter with a Rock and Roll attitude

René Daniëls, Untitled, 1980 - 1982. Oil on canvas, 150 x 200 cm. René Daniëls Stichting. René Daniëls, Untitled, 1980 - 1982. Oil on canvas, 150 x 200 cm. René Daniëls Stichting.

‘Everybody loves René Daniëls. He is the brilliant painter, someone who was able to link figuration and conceptual art. At the same time, he also visited concerts, and as an artist he projected a Rock and Roll attitude. He not only listened to records in his studio, he painted them as well; they circle through his work. That feeling, that dynamism and interaction between painting and the world around him, is what I also wanted to highlight. That is why I am so happy with the cover of the catalogue that was designed by the Dutch duo Mevis & van Deursen. It features a black-and-white photograph of Daniëls himself, in his studio in the early eighties, in which he holds up a painting, a painted face before his own face. He gives a small performance for the camera; the catalogue cover is somewhat of a record cover.’

Catalogus René Daniëls, Fragments of an Unfinished Novel, 2018

Catalogus René Daniëls, Fragments of an Unfinished Novel, 2018

The person speaking is Devrim Bayar, curator of WIELS in Brussels. The past few years, together with her colleague Paul Bernard of the MAMCO in Geneva, she has worked on the big René Daniëls retrospective that is on show in Brussels until 2019 and then travels on to Geneva. The Mondriaan Fund awarded a Grant for International Presentations for the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue. Both shed light on the important role that Daniëls plays in the recent history of art, in spite of the sudden break in his career in 1987 as a result of a brain haemorrhage. At the end of the seventies, Daniëls came forward as a pioneer of figurative and expressive painting, which at the time was becoming popular again. With visual rhyming and wordplay, he gave his work a literary and sometimes dreamy logic. Famous examples are the associative remodelling of motifs such as the abstracted bow tie or stylized museum hall with a back wall and two sidewalls as wings.

From the room of the mayor, seldom or never shown before

‘There are many famous and much-beloved paintings by Daniëls that are on show in Brussels, but also some that have seldom or never been exhibited before,’ Bayar relates. ‘This retrospective is more than a repetition of previous exhibitions. We have fetched some works from far away and recovered others from intimate circles, sometimes from very close by, where they remained largely invisible to the eye of the public. There is, for example, a beautiful painting from the office of the mayor of Eindhoven, Daniël’s hometown. It depicts a corner of an exhibition space with two paintings that radiate a tingling musical rhythm and light. Because the mayor is very attached to this painting, it has never been lent out before. His room now temporarily has a different work of art on display.

‘Almost all of the drawings and paintings by Daniëls come from museum or private collections; the painting from this office falls under the René Daniëls Foundation, which manages the works and the archives which were found in the artist’s studio when he has his stroke. The president of the Foundation, Marleen Gijsen, also takes care of the work he creates since his recovery. With the Foundation and Marleen, we have been able to do research worldwide, thanks largely to the Mondriaan Fund.’

Devrim Bayar en Rene Daniëls

Devrim Bayar and Rene Daniëls

‘Like a musician playing variations on a theme, the strength of the oeuvre shows itself in the coherence of artworks. The public fund makes that visible to the public.’

‘Such cross-border research alone,’ Devrim Bayar explains, ‘requires a lot of cooperation, precision and time. The special result is that we have been able to bring together paintings from Europe and America. It concerns works that are so valuable that the cost of insurance and transport immediately exceeds regular budgets, while, and this is what’s so important: the strength of this body of works shows itself precisely in their mutual connection. That strength is what we are able to show to the public thanks to this public grant. The exhibition in Brussels takes up two entire floors. One is dedicated to the many variations that Daniëls painted on the motif of the museum hall, often described as bow tie; variations like the ones that a musician plays on a theme.’

‘Some paintings, such as the star system that is normally on display at Daniëls’ own home, have been restored. Those are investments for today and for new generations.’

René Daniëls, Installation view 'Fragments from an Unfinished Novel', WIELS, 2018. Photo: Hugard & Vanoverschelde Photography

René Daniëls, Installation view ‘Fragments from an Unfinished Novel’, WIELS, 2018. Photo: Hugard & Vanoverschelde Photography

‘The support of the fund affects that which is immediately visible, such as the unity of artworks, but also that which happens behind the scenes, for example in the research into current interpretations of language and text in his work. Or when it comes to restorations. Some paintings were in bad condition; we have been able to restore these for today and for the future. In that regard, it involves long-lasting investments. A great example is the opening work in Brussels: a painting that we received on loan from René personally; the only work that he wanted to have at home as soon as he was able to live on his own again. It is usually up in his bedroom. You see a planet that seems to be moving in orbit around a star. An inspiring painting, with a great intimacy, because it can also be seen as a metaphor for both lives of the artist. We have made a trailer of its transport and restoration, in order to give the public a view of the world behind the exhibition.’

The link between the exhibition and the world outside is further reinforced, as Devrim Bayar points out, through Daniëls’ recent work. ‘In the heart of the exhibition, we exhibit paintings and sketches that he still creates in his notebooks every day. This work, too, expresses who he is, with all the difference between the young man in his thirties who conquered the world, and the man for whom art has become a communicative necessity. Some people object to the later work; we feel that it forms part of who Daniëls is. The title, Fragments from an unfinished novel, is taken from one of his own texts. What we have observed is that his oeuvre, in all its unfinished scope, draws fans, but also a new generation of viewers, art historians and artists. They come from everywhere and check in for tours and visits. The public keeps expanding, and will keep expanding further, later on, in Geneva.’

René Daniëls, Fragments from an Unfinished Novel, until 6 January, WIELS, Brussel and from 27 Februari until 5 May MAMCO, Genève.

René Daniëls, Installation view 'Fragments from an Unfinished Novel', WIELS, 2018. Photo: Hugard & Vanoverschelde Photography

René Daniëls, Installation view ‘Fragments from an Unfinished Novel’, WIELS, 2018. Photo: Hugard & Vanoverschelde Photography