ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven - 2012 - A Disaster [EN, interview]
Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven about her student years at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts
Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven: I studied at the academy from 1970 to 1974. When I was twelve, I wanted to be a sculptor—a boy’s dream. My parents wanted to apprentice me to the sculptor Albert Poels, but I didn’t feel like doing work for him till I was fifteen. I was very keen to go to the Academy, but my parents wouldn’t let me. Furthermore, the people who did the study counselling at school and who advised us on a career, thought I was too clever for ‘decorative arts’. I had no choice: I had to go to a comprehensive school. Saint Luke in Brussels wasn’t an option either. I asked if I could take evening classes, but even that was out of the question. After three years in Saint Lutgardis in Antwerp, I chose to bide my time in the Holy Sepulchre Boarding School in Turnhout. After that I enrolled at the Academy in Antwerp, where I started to study graphic design. The entrance exam went very well. Mark Macken, sculptor and then director, said, ‘She’s got talent—we’ll teach her the rest.’ Mrs Prijot wanted me to study fashion with her, but I simply wanted to learn new techniques as I went along with drawing, and I also wanted to work with text.
In short, you could say that for me the academy was really dreadful. Heart and soul I was a free artist and I couldn’t cope with the assignments they imposed on us. And I simply didn’t understand them. Almost invariably I didn’t understand what they expected from me. Teachers from other departments later said that I should have chosen free monumental arts, because I loved to make large works that involved a lot of work.
At that time, photography was not yet considered a real art, but as a subject it was already on the curriculum. During my second year the photography department was founded—an offshoot of the graphic design department. I decided to stick to graphic design, because I wanted to continue drawing, but in fact I learned a lot from the photography teachers Jos Hermans and Paul Ausloos.
We had a few really good teachers. Drawing from a model was taught by various teachers, including Wilfried Pas. That was really useful. He didn’t say a lot, but he taught me a few things that were essential and that served as a basis when later I started to teach myself at the Academy in Ghent. He taught us that you had to think from the middle of the joints, and that being aware of those points you got contact with depth.
My main teacher in the studio was Piet Serneels. Working with him was a disaster. For some reason the man had a problem with me. He comments were invariably discouraging. It became so bad that in the last year I left the classroom when he entered. I regret that now, because much later I discovered that my grandparents, who ran a reception hall, once had commissioned a design for a mural, but they had never paid him. When I discovered this, I was really furious with my grandmother. I was already active as an artist at that time, and on several occasions I had experienced myself this non-commitment for projects that were abandoned in the end. Furthermore, a large draft for the mural hung in father’s study and as a child I couldn’t keep my eyes of it. For me it was a fascinating graphic masterpiece with beautiful shapes and mysterious colours, with the gouache perfectly applied. It is precisely this man I had wanted to meet!
My class started with twenty-six students; in the last year there were four of us left. Much to Serneels’ discontent, these were all women. He called us the goats’ class and often claimed that he was wasting his time and knowledge on a class with women only, because once we got our degree, we would marry, get children and never do anything with art for the rest of our lives. I considered that particularly insulting.
Serneels wasn’t the only one with this kind of views. In Antwerp it was considered good taste not to take women serious in the world of art. In my eyes, all men in Antwerp misbehaved towards their wives. It was no coincidence that my first serious boyfriend came from Aalst, and my husband Danny Devos from Vilvoorde. Then of course, women didn’t have many female artists to look up to in the history of art, or on the contemporary art scene for that matter. Meret Oppenheim and Niki de Sainte-Phalle. That was it. There weren’t any classes on contemporary art, either. History of art was mainly about African tribes, so to speak. And Serneels’ ideal was Paul Klee.
Our teachers were also particularly influenced by the style of advertisements in Central and Eastern Europe. Their admiration was justified. These adds were splendid, but a wider and more contemporary horizon would have been more stimulating. It was taboo to try out drawing techniques that were reminiscent of the illustrations in Avenue, a Dutch magazine that was very trendy at the time.
The year I arrived at school, the artists’ ball had been banned. That was really a pity, for they were famous and I had looked forward to them. There was also this idea at the time that an artist had to drink a lot in order to be one of the crowd. So I started drinking myself, until I got cirrhosis at the age of twenty-four. In fact, I drank mainly to prove myself that I could if I wanted to. And to rebel against my upbringing. Not so much to prove myself as an artist. Until I got this disease, which made me bedridden for three months, in complete quarantine, I had reconciled myself with the fact that I would simply become the wife of an artist. But after those three months I had made up my mind. Right away after graduating I went to work in a restaurant but already in 1974 I exhibited my drawings in Ercola.
I have few fond memories of my last years at the academy. When my work was marked down and I asked why, that caused problems. Apparently you shouldn’t ask that sort of questions. But how could you possibly do better if you didn’t know what you did wrong? For my graduate thesis I wanted to organize a campaign with as point of departure an animation film with clay pigs that grew in a flower pot. My subject was Stresnil, a medicine that is administered to pigs when they are taken to the slaughterhouse. But making animation films was banned in the Academy in Antwerp and Serneels considered a medicine for pigs a disgraceful subject. In the end I graduated on a work about Norwegian legends and myths.
So, the Academy turned out differently than I had imagined. Perhaps people who had Joseph Beuys as a teacher have more interesting stories to tell. My schooling was a rather muddled matter. But that was probably also my fault. Bearing in mind Mark Macken’s promise, for a long time I was convinced that I had learned too little at the Academy. But perhaps that is precisely how it always works: you learn things from the crumbs you pick up here and there.
Montagne de Miel, November 12th 2012