Saskia Monshouwer – Frank van Hemert
Und die Frauen warten..
(and the women are waiting..)
It’s an archaic image that regularly surfaces in literature and art: ‘Und die Frauen warten…’ women waiting for the return of their husbands after the war. We have Medea who took fate into her own hands but in the end had to concede to the Gods wishes, and Mother Courage who follows the soldiers as a canteen woman. In a more modern image from Fassbinder’s film Die Ehe der Maria Braun, we have Hanna Sehygulla searching for her husband. In a grey cotton dress and a grim expression she walks by full railway carriages carrying a piece of cardboard around her neck with her husbands name on it.
To illustrate this image the artist presents a newspaper clipping showing three women wrapped in black cloth. They are waiting in the lraq desert for the return of their men. The image of waiting woman is versatile and moving. Van Hemert uses this image in contrast with the direct aggression of men and against destruction and war. In his studio I am confronted by large paintings depicting sunflowers on colorful backgrounds. “Und die Frauen warten”. I look at the paintings he is showing me. The sunflowers are in one moment flaming yellow and alive, and in the next moment dried up, pointy and static. They spin through a space made of paint; turning away from each other or bending over towards the viewer. If you would imagine the sunflowers as women, you would recognize their change of position, body-movements and frame of mind. The positions of the sunflower/women are as various as the fortunes of the women in the literature and movies from my introduction.
It seems like a roundabout way to convey the image of waiting women by painting sunflowers instead of women themselves. The relationship between the two becomes clear when you look at earlier work by Van Hemert. The series ‘You/Me’ from 1989 shows dandelions. Their meandering stems obscure a second drawing. Against the background of an indefinable space you can make out several entangled bodies. A man and a woman, several men, several women? Only the title hints in the direction of a man and a woman. Van Hemert often uses open or hidden sexuality in his work. The theme, the tension between man and woman, loneliness and the desire for unification is mixed in with the flower motif. Van Hemert connects it to the archaic. He wants to express universal thoughts and ideas. The physical experience leads directly to a higher metaphysical level. The series ‘Mind of Tibet’ from 2002 was inspired by the image of a burning monk. This physical deed of self-incineration is also connected to the desire for wisdom and freedom.
The way in which Van Hemert turns different motifs into themes reminds me of the descriptions by Antje von Graevenitz at the beginning of the eighties concerning the influence of alchemy on art, such as she saw in Brancusi and the hidden codes in his work, In alchemy numbers, ratios, substances and materials play a part. Alchemists strive for unification and wisdom which can be expressed in the wish for absolute unification of man and woman. Searching for the philosophers’ stone can also be interpreted as a metaphor. Von Graevenitz recognized the method of alchemists in the work of Brancusi, and went on to talk about the work of Sigmar Polke. The way in which Van Hemert paints and uses motifs and themes, comes directly from this tradition. A tradition which is interwoven with his passion for painting.
This feeling is especially strong when I look at his work on paper. A collage where Van Hemert uses wide strips of paper to weave a kind of mat draws my attention. The surface is dark, almost black. On top of several sunflowers the squares for a game of hop-scotch are drawn and in them the numbers of one through seven. Experimenting like an alchemist, he unconditionally surrenders to the art of painting. This experimentation and surrender culminates in the series ‘Und die Frauen warten…”. When an artist paints sunflowers he automatically refers to Van Gogh. So this series brings different elements together: war, painting, a mystical longing for unification, sexuality and cosmos.
In his catalogue-text Franz Kaiser rightly places the work of Frank van Hemert somewhere between the abstract-expressionists, for whom the painting of archaic themes were still self-evident, and the work of Bruce Nauman [11). This notion was inspired by a video by Bruce Nauman from 1968 ‘Bouncing two balls between the floor and ceiling with changing rhythms’ , The film fascinated Van Hemert, It made him identify the way in which a painter in his studio develops the physical process between paint and hls most intimate thoughts. In 1969 Bruce Nauman made the film ‘Bouncing Balls’ which can be seen as the sequel to ‘Bouncing two balls between the floor and ceiling with changing rhythms’ . In this film he shows his balls. This clearly shows again the direct connection between the physical, the sexual, the process of painting and Van Hemert’s themes.
The result is remarkable, There is a sense of relief, an experience of beauty, when there is unbridled painting, If there is anything that gives Van Hemert’s work contemporary relevance, it is this faith in the physical process with which he withdraws himself from the rationalization of art, He refuses to submit the art of painting to the social scientific interpretations which currently determine contemporary art.
Saskia Monshouwer, Amsterdam, July 2003