Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The man who forgot to die

Frans de Geetere, La Toilette

I seem to be specialising at the moment in failing to get to exhibitions I really wanted to see. One of these was a very rare chance this year to see a range of work by the Belgian artist Frans de Geetere (1895-1968) at the Centraal Museum, Utrecht. I failed to make it to that, but I have managed to locate a copy of the accompanying book, Frans de Geetere: Een opvallende passant in de Utrechste kunstwereld, by Jan Juffermans.

Even though it’s in a language I don’t understand, I’m enjoying possessing this. It locates Frans de Geetere very clearly in the tradition of Symbolists such as Fernand Khnopff and Odilon Redon. The book is very evidently a labour of love, and the author has gathered a great deal of information and many images that would be impossible to find anywhere else.

Even though I have 40 etchings by de Geetere, I didn’t until now know his full name, François Joseph Jean de Geetere. He was born in Oudergem, a suburb of Brussels. Frans de Geetere studied at the Beaux-Arts in Brussels, but rebelled against the academic teaching there.

Frans de Geetere, Mes Communions II

With his partner, the painter May den Engelsen, Frans de Geetere sailed a barge from Brussels to Paris, where they moored at the Quai de Conti by the Pont Neuf and lived a Bohemian lifestyle. De Geetere and den Engelsen were intimate with Harry and Caresse Crosby in the late 1920s; Harry wrote to his mother, "If it is possible for two people to be in love with two people then we are in love with them."

Harry Crosby shot himself after the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Frans de Geetere had an exhibition the following year at the Galerie de la Plume d'Or, introduced by the art critic André Warnod. But that was essentially the end of his career.

The etchings of Frans de Geetere are sombre and disquieting, infused with a miasma of conflicted sexuality and existential dread. His art now feels very modern, resonating, for instance, with both that of Paula Rego and that of Jake and Dinos Chapman.

Frans de Geetere, Soir

In his own lifetime Frans de Geetere fell so far out of favour that he titled a volume of lightly-fictionalised memoirs, self-published from his barge the Marie-Jeanne in 1962, L'homme qui oublia de mourir - The man who forgot to die.

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