Hans Theys is a twentieth-century philosopher and art historian. He has written and designed dozens of books on the works of contemporary artists and published hundreds of essays, interviews and reviews in books, catalogues and magazines. All his publications are based on actual collaborations and conversations with artists.

This platform was developed by Evi Bert (M HKA / Centrum Kunstarchieven Vlaanderen) in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (Research group Archivolt), M HKA, Antwerp and Koen Van der Auwera. We also thank Idris Sevenans (HOR) and Marc Ruyters (Hart Magazine).


Michel Frère - 1990 - Against the Painters of Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today [EN, essay]
Text , 3 p.


Hans Theys

                                                                                                                                           We are arrant knaves all;
                                                                                                                                           believe none of us.[1]

Against the Painters of Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today
Some Thoughts on the Art of Painting, with Reference to Recent Work by Michel Frère.

Anybody who still produces paintings today and actually believes these might have any relevance other than individual or craft-like (be it ethical, artistic or social), is beyond any doubt an imbecile. Michel Frère is no imbecile. He enjoys painting and loves paintings. That's all. He likes Ensor's earlier works, he likes Courbet's landscapes and he likes Auerbach and Leroy. According to Michel Frère each painting has something to offer, albeit some more than others. The subject, the composition, the colours, the brush-work, an interesting detail, a feeling of mystery, charm, wonder or pleasure: the art of painting is a plastic and intuitive matter that cannot be seized in writings[2]. But if we distance ourselves from these indubitable merits of painting, that is, try to look at it from the point of view of somebody who doesn't paint, then what is its essence? What is essential to sculpture, photography, video or film? "They all are images, moving or still, with or without colour, in stone, metal or paint - never the real event or the real thing. One isn't looking for beauty as such, one is practising ART." This remark by Moe Hout[3] is not only an appeal for candour and impropriety, it is also a denunciation of the artificiality and the sterile impotence of art. Simultaneously with the questions about the value of Ethics and Truth (shameless questions that can't escape shame[4]), the problem of the value of Art arises. And lo and behold! Manuscripts laden with variations on the hermetic theme of the artist-thief are snatched away from the great German mandarin's desk and cut up into carnival attributes by stuttering gnomes.

Is, after all, something like cinema still possible, as Godard remarked about Fassbinder[5]? Did Fassbinder create cinema, did he go beyond its frontiers when, in the first scene of In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden, he had a transsexual beaten up in a misty park to the romantic tones of the same adagio Visconti used for the opening scene of The death in Venice? Who was the greatest liar, the Greek Idealist[6], the German text-monger, the Italian aristocrat or the Frankfurter pig? Plato, Thomas Mann, Visconti or Fassbinder? (Michel Frère couldn't care less about questions like these.)

We are all swindlers, crooks and impostors. Civilization is a lie. He who denies the bestial side of humanity or praises the triumph of civilization is either blind or an idiot. All artists are liars and idiots (though it doesn't always suffice to lie and be an idiot to be an artist). Art is deceiving in a subtler (Pessoa) or more blatant (Warhol) way than the others. Being an artist always implies a more or less conscious form of amorality. Every clear-headed murderer criticizes culture in a subtle way. Criminals are the most authentic people, for they reveal the contingency of civilization and reduce everything to its real proportions. Artists are the greatest skunks of all, for they keep leading us away from the essential: the things and the bowels. Every statement is a lie. The only absolute: black milk in the morning (Paul Celan) and the thunder at the end of Der Zauberberg, the systematic extermination of a people and the possibility to destroy all of humanity and the earth. The lie: the 'concern' felt by western authorities when in February 1990 elderly people and children were 'evacuated' to inland Cambodia. Red Cross and Khmers Rouges. The lie: "What if red actually is green, because we made mistakes in the beginning, when naming the colours?" (Godard) (If the spirit is invisible, it's a question of irony.)

As a painter, Michel Frère thinks and feels as much as a senile geriatric covering himself with his excrements. Apart from nameless emotions of pleasure as the shit squelches through one's fingers, apart from the joys of matter and colour, apart from a mere sculptural and pictorial effect, he is looking for nothing. (If it seems to recognize its limits, art is still bearable.) The same goes for his sculptures, e.g. the Dancing Bear, even if their figurative character allows a kind of playfulness that remains absent or invisible in his paintings. (If the humour is invisible, it's a question of irony.) Look at the abominable and yet funny Snowman, with its visceral patina, its blunt and shapeless penis, its two little stumps of arms and its squashy nipples sown on these awkward lumps... Perhaps this is the way shit becomes comical in spite of itself.

Cheep-cheep-cheep. Everything is rotten. The divine chameleon Maurice Sachs[7], who was killed in 1944 by a Flemish Nazi, is said to have been eaten up by wolves afterwards. If this is true he must have pretended to be a wolf during the last few minutes of his life by crawling on his hands and knees and licking the arses of his assailants. How touching! This is the truth of travesty. The genius of the swindler. The humour of the charlatan. The triumph of the lie. Some bones, blood and hair. (If the irony is invisible, it doubtlessly is a question of irony.)

And yet. Let's take this sublime death of Maurice Sachs as an image for art. Sometimes out of the stinking load of filth surrounding us arises a kind of royal grace, an unheard-of, lubricated perversity, as in some sentence by Jean Genet. A kind of live, virile beauty that can tumble down into futility any moment. It's no cinema and it has nothing to do with "the real event or the real thing". It still is a hopeless daubing and a ridiculous combination of tapestry and pastry, but it's beautiful and one feels like eating it. It is a convincing celebration of falsehood. So, sound the trumpets! Sound the trumpets for this deception! For without it, without lying to oneself and the others, nothing will ever be possible. Look at these paintings and experience their morbid charms, for this is all you'll ever get from Art.

Montagne de Miel, February 25th 1990


[1]     Hamlet to Ophelia.

[2]     “The fact is, Phaedrus, that writing involves a similar disadvantage to painting. The productions of painting look like live beings, but if you ask them a question they maintain solemn silence. The same holds true of written words; you might suppose that they understand what they are saying, but if you ask them what they mean by anything they always give you a different answer.” (Plato, Phaedrus)

[3]     In his letter - BEDRICH EISENHOET - or all who wish can valiant BE! (1.1.90)

[4]     He who wants to become who he is can only play himself. Lifted from the stream, from the obvious, he acts his own convalescence. The more he tries to be himself, the more unnatural and impossible this seems to him. His shadow is the shame for an attitude he knows to be the right one.

[5]     “In a certain way cinema is the resurrection of reality. (...) We're making films, but no cinema. That's why it's finished. Fassbinder, who only made films that were bad or not very good, was one of the last to make cinema.” (Godard)

[6]     Plato's Phaedrus (about thruth and rhetorics) is quoted untruthfully by Thomas Mann in the novella Death in Venice.

[7]     The natural father of Jan Sachs, moralist and art-hawker from Antwerp.