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).


Vincent Geyskens - 2012 - Gedrag, materie, agressie en seksuele driften [NL, interview]
Interview , 4 p.


Hans Theys

Behaviour, matter, aggression, sexual urges
Vincent Geyskens about his studies at the academy

Vincent Geyskens: I studied painting at the Academy between 1990 and 1995. What struck me most in my study days, is that we never learnt about contemporary Belgian art. Fortunately, we shared the campus with the students of the fashion department, which breathed an international and contemporary spirit. I remember for example Veronique Branquinho, one of my fellow students. At ten o’clock we had a sort of break and we all went downstairs to smoke and drink bad chocolate. That is where our interest in other things grew.
          But in painting classes, our frame of reference was the same as that of our teachers. My first teacher was Bruno Van Dijck. He thought like his own teacher Jozef Van Ruyssevelt and his teachers. Then you had Ludo Lacroix, who had connections with the circle of the Black Panther. And then there still was Pat Harris. He was anchored in the British tradition. His examples included Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach, but not Francis Bacon. That was a tradition that suited me well. I had studied classical languages at secondary school and I had no artistic reference frame whatsoever.
          The first years were devoted to a strange canonization of modernism, the interiorization of Cézanne and cubism. Van Ruyssevelt, who was already dead when I arrived at the Academy, must have radiated a tremendous artistic creativity, but surprisingly everything that went on now was confined to existing genres, even the titles of the works. This subdividing in genres is unknown in other academies. A link to contemporary painting was entirely absent, and thus everything we learnt about modernism was reduced to a sort of didactic material, instead of being turned into a way of thinking. 
          The three different ways to approach art we learnt about, all related to a fundamentally romantic approach of the artistic calling: the artist who loses himself in his work, who is in direct contact with matter, who works from his guts and who has a tremendous fear of anything that has to do with a theoretical approach of art.
          For me, everything was new. For example, I had never before been in a classroom with girls, though I had actually studied Germanic philology for one year. Our class was international. There was a Frenchman, a Mexican, three Germans, an immigrant from Spain and a Korean girl from France. The sort of class one can only dream of now. I myself had never had any preliminary art training. I departed from zero. I took evening classes drawing from a model in order to catch up. In the second year I already knew what sort of work you had to make in order to pass. A self-portrait in grey tones with backlighting was invariably a success. A particularly abstract landscape was also appreciated, especially when the paint was thickly applied. They also said so: we support hefty painters. Hefty painters got extra marks.
          In the third year everything changed, because suddenly Fred Bervoets became one of our teachers. Up till then we had known two sorts of teaching: a legitimate form of teaching at the Academy and an illegitimate form in the master-pupil relation with Fred Bervoets, whom we met in pub The Jesuit, and to whom we showed our work. Bervoets infected us with a tremendous enthusiasm. After a conversation with Bervoets you flung yourself into your work. After a conversation with one of your teachers you just wanted to do nothing at all and that was a feeling that lasted some time. There was a tremendous difference in generosity. Sometimes I think that the same will happen now: that real teaching will once more move to pubs and studios. In a pub you can have a relation with an artist that is based on trust and that departs from a sort of shared concern with your work. In a school that is possible too, but if teaching at school becomes too formal because of academic initiatives, it is hard to maintain trust.         
          When Bervoets entered school to teach, something interesting emerged, which was the result of the fusion of these two approaches. As I moved from the third to the fourth year, a sort of awakening came over me. On the occasion of Antwerp ‘93, Bart Cassiman had organized the exhibition The Sublime Void with work from René Daniels, Juan Muñoz, Luc Tuymans and other artists. I couldn’t identify with this work—I didn’t understand it. That’s how that summer—I was moving a fridge—I had a conversation with Bruno Van Dijck, and I told him we didn’t have any reference frame for our work.
          At that time, we also had lessons from the art historian Paul Ilegems about contemporary Belgian art: Lili Dujourie, Thierry De Cordier, Walter Swennen, Denmark, Luc Tuymans, etc. Suddenly the art world detached itself from a ghostly alcoholic context: we were confronted with a very narrative and emotional concept of the artistic calling that seemed something that was entirely outside contemporary society. Everything was locally oriented and outside the local nothing existed. Bervoets was the top. But because of what Ilegems told us in his lessons, I wanted to interview the people he mentioned for my end-of-term essay for art history. I wanted to understand what made their work so interesting, because I simply didn’t see.
          The first artist I interviewed was Luc Tuymans. The interview lasted six hours. For me it was shocking to find that he wasn’t busy with art the way we were: he used it for things that had nothing to do with the materiality of painting or with painting as such. At the Academy, the subject matter was considered irrelevant: it was all about the way you did things. In Tuymans’ case, it was completely the opposite. He attached great importance to the subject and to immersing oneself in its context. He talked about artists such as Mike Kelley, about whom I had never heard. After Tuymans, I interviewed Denmark and later still Bert De Beul and Walter Swennen. With De Cordier I exchanged letters.
          We never had visiting teachers in the studio. In these almost reactionary surroundings I started provoking my teachers. I made paintings that had almost no paint on the canvas and in the fourth year—we were allowed to make free works then – I painted nothing but academic skulls on canvas measuring 80 by 60 centimetres – all of them the same size. I couldn’t accept the freedom I was offered, because it was a fake freedom that had to be fashioned obediently: everyone painted very large canvases that were filled in a very gestural way. But that wasn’t because of Bervoets’ influence. He had always insisted that we had to create our own world. He didn’t think that we had to look for stylistic features—instead, we had to look for our own subject matter, our own framework, our own approach. He told me that I was the first conceptual painter the school had ever produced. He didn’t see my work as painting, but as thinking about painting.
          With hindsight, a large part of my work involved overcoming my academic education in order to return to the materiality and the physical element of painting. Gradually I came to question Tuymans’ dogmatism, his thin application of paint and the significance of the subject and the image. I deliberately started to look for that which transcends the mere thinking about images. Today I find it possible to identify myself with large parts of my education and with the work of painters such as Walter Sickert, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, Howard Hodgkin and Eugène Leroy: departing from the body, these painters came to handle matter in a brutal manner. If I do so now as well, it is not due to some limitation from my part.
          I try to construct a reference frame that lasts longer than fashionable criteria, because I hate well-informed artists who subject themselves obediently and without hesitation to the prevailing standards of contemporary art. It’s hard to find an avant-garde nowadays. As a young man, I was fascinated by Antwerp modernism, by Jespers and Joostens—the surroundings from which Bervoets sprang—but with models such as Richter and Kippenberger it is hard to do anything at all. Their points of view are so radical they cannot serve as a foundation on which to build. The difference with bygone days is that now this historic dimension has penetrated the schools, but that has resulted in a new sort of obedience. Students seek to be trendy. Everybody paints Richter, Tuymans and Flash Art. The students are really free now, but it’s a freedom that resembles the freedom of a shopping centre, and conservative ideas about taste are rampant. That is true also of our most eminent artists. Half of them end up in the ‘Spiliaert hall’: the hall with the greyish, melancholic, sentimental work. A truly great artist is not interested in sentiment, but in behaviour, in matter, aggression, sexual urges. Bacon, Duchamp or Willem de Kooning. The current fear of colour, of bad taste, is shocking. Everything must be black and white, because that is always true, documentary and objective. In my paintings I want colour and I want to ignore taste.

Montagne de Miel, 18 October 2012