Jeroen Laureyns

 

foreword/artstory 4: hans bruyneel

 

On Wednesday, 10 September 2014, I walked from my home in northern Antwerp to Hans Bruyneel’s atelier in Borgerhout, straight across the stone wilderness of Antwerp. It was the second time I had walked this route and I am surprised every time by how built-up the city centre is. It is like a valley of roof tiles, bricks, concrete and asphalt that runs from ridge to ridge, but oddly enough I still feel most at home here. Don’t put me in the pseudo-countryside of Flanders because the confrontation with the attack that Flemings have mounted on their own natural surroundings would be too great. No, I prefer the stone wilderness of a Belgian city centre, with its charming town houses and abandoned factories over the cornfields, paved roads and subdivisions that couldn’t make a bee or butterfly happy.

 

It is there, in Antwerp’s city centre, that I rang the bell of an old diamond-polishing factory and the atelier of painter Hans Bruyneel. In the middle of the second decade of the 21st century I entered the space where he has worked on large, cinematic, natural landscapes in bright colours over the last few years. At first sight, they couldn’t form a greater contrast with the claustrophobic, urban landscape that lacks nature of the outside world.

 

It’s as if here in his atelier, in the middle of one of the most polluted, noisy and fragmented landscapes in Europe, the artist wants to escape the acute lack of open space and nature by following in the footsteps of American Romantic landscape artists like Albert Bierstadt. They paint uplifting nature in the beautiful colours of a spectacular sunset; man plays a supporting role while the leading part is given to nature. But it is not that easy. Instead of paintings that want to sing the praises of the beauty of the landscape, these canvases are also projections of an artificial and ominous world. A world in which the painter does not invite the observer with a pompous gesture to imagine himself walking around those landscapes; rather he allows the apprehensive observer to stand at the edge of the image.

 

In Marc Holthof’s interview, Hans explains that, like most of his 21st century contemporaries, he does not take the stance of a 19th century ‘plein-airist’ who places himself and his easel in the middle of a landscape. On the contrary, he is part of a generation of contemporary artists who emphatically situate themselves after ‘the end of the lyric landscape’ (Ton Lemaire). “I am not really a landscape artist”, says Bruyneel, “I do not try – as you often see in the 19th century – to render the energy of the landscape, sea or sky through the robustness of my brushstrokes. I don’t do all of that.”

 

In other words, they are not real landscapes; just artificial screens, images of landscapes that appear on on a canvas. Cinematic flights of fancy. Dream landscapes that have left Arcadia far behind and are completely ‘post-nature’: the connection with every physical reality is severed. The projected landscape is lit up with a toxic light that no longer comes from the sun but from beautiful, poison gas clouds that we fabricated. Beautiful enough to walk through in solitude and to bid farewell one last time, but definitely not livable or the fulfilment of the dream that ecological disaster might still be avoided. Perhaps Hans Bruyneel paints the dramatic death-blow to the landscape; a landscape in which BASF is operating the spot lights.