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Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Jan Vanriet: The Music Boy

Photograph, photograph, photograph, photograph. Jan Vanriet, like Gerhard Richter and Marlene Dumas, among others, often uses photographs as source material for his paintings. The Music Boy is a quadripytch based on a photograph of Vanriet's Grandmother and Uncle prior to the Second World War. Vanriet paints the same innocent image - a mother and child, folk music in a family setting - four times in varying degrees of detail and focus, as well as different colour combinations. These different renditions of the same image serve to engender a variety of emotional responses to an autobiographical image which is in some sense universalized through its varied repetition.

Repetition of the image also brings an element of uncertainty to a seemingly innocent image laden with a multiplicity of artistic and literary associations. Use of different degrees of focus and detail - the image fading in and out of focus - raise questions of memory in family and oral histories together with issues of endurance both personally - Vanriet's Uncle died of tuberculosis developed in Dachau - and in terms of the media we use to tell our stories and retain our images - in this cases images based on a photograph (a medium with built-in fade and frailty).

Vanriet repeats the trick in The Contract, a polyptych of the artist’s parents together on the dance floor having survived a concentration camp. He draws out the combination of happiness and hope with suffering and grief which is contained in this image and its history through the variation in his treatment of it. Focusing on particular details, changing backgrounds and colours, using silhouettes and patterns, he evokes nuances and perspectives of memory and consequence. Mauthausen, the concentration camp in Austria where his parents first met, is referenced by a panel where the couple’s feet are superimposed on a red triangle, the badge worn by political prisoners in the camps. The combined effect of the eleven panels is to evoke and explore the nature of the contract entered into by this traumatized yet freed couple.

Vanriet is “a pivotal figure in the world of contemporary narrative painting” (Jan Vanriet, The Music Boy Press Release - Narrative, however, has been a major 'no, no' in much modern art. As a reaction against historical, mythical and religious painting, the literary and the linear were anathematized. As a painter who is also a poet and who collaborates with his novelist wife, Simone Lenaerts, Vanriet is clearly a counter-reaction to this anathematization of narrative in modern art. However, in his art, this not primarily expressed in terms of the linear and literary.

Modernist narratives are multi-layered with contradictory voices creating polyphony. That phrase from a musical concept is relevant to the diversity of voices found in many modernist novels and to the multiple panels of works like The Music Boy and The Contract. Simultaneity, contradiction, polyphonic fragmentation, paradox; these are modernist techniques revealing transcendental negativity; that is, what cannot be spoken and the existence of worlds beyond limits. This world of contemporary narrative painting, inhabited by Vanriet, Richter, Dumas and Luc Tuymans, among others, is one in which “events and ideas are not expressed explicitly, but implied through subtle hints and allusions, creating an ambiguous collage of disconnected fragments and details” (; a world of modernist narratives visualised.

Vanriet’s contribution to this world is an art which makes significant reference to autobiography, history and memory as they feature in the mythical, political and religious stories we tell. Lenaerts is also closely involved and both create using Vanriet’s family history including that of the Uncle who was arrested in Antwerp and transported to Dachau; a “descent into hell which he, once back home, wrote down with his last remaining strength as his life flickered out silently on the flowered sofa, in his mother's arms.” (S. Lenaerts, ‘A Scrap of Time’ in De Morgan, July 2012 -

Martin Herbert writes that Vanriet’s work reveals “a world that glimmers with significance” but, in which, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, we cannot “connect signifier and signified.” We can’t “hold onto the past for lessons,” as we are fragile, “as fragile and fallible as our memories” (M. Herbert, ‘Hide and Seek’ in Jan Vanriet: The Music Boy, The New Art Gallery Walsall, 2016).

This sense is, perhaps, most clear in Vanriet’s Horse series. These paintings update The Contract by featuring a husband and wife - Vanriet and Lenaerts - together in a shared activity; in this case, that of playing a pantomime horse. However, Vanriet removes the costume that would make comic sense of their shared activity leaving just the awkwardness of their unusual posture in settings which reference Edvard Munch’s Moonlight or Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto. Vanriet and Lenaerts play out their shared activity in a role and settings which no longer make sense.


James Horner - Remembrance, Remembrance.

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