‘BRUEGEL TOPS ANY HOLLYWOOD BLOCKBUSTER’ (Jan Fabre on beauty – The Utopia Parkway Files, part 5)


He has put a giant tortoise on the beach and decorated a royal ceiling with green beetles. He is also the first living artist to have had an exhibition at Le Louvre (Paris). But first and foremost Jan Fabre is a warrior at the service of beauty. As Fabre’s new theatre monologue is titled The servant of beauty, I just had to bother the renowned Flemish multidisciplinary artist with my questions on beauty, on the eve of the premiere of the last part of his trilogy with actor Dirk Roofthooft. ‘Sometimes perfect legs become utterly useless.’


You’ve always called yourself ‘a warrior at the service of beauty’. Now you’ve written a new theatre monologue: The servant of beauty. That almost sounds as if this could be your definitive statement on that matter. 

Jan Fabre: ‘I don’t hope so. I’m too young for that. I hope that I’ll write my ultimate text when I’m 96 years old. This new text is an homage to beauty. Actor Dirk Roofthooft is playing a puppeteer, who is at the service of his master: beauty. The goal of the puppeteer is to become invisible. He wants his puppets to be more important than he is. Isn’t that what every artist is wishing for? That the work becomes more important than the artist? Evidently, there’s an extreme duality to that: the louder artists are shouting that they want to be invisible, the more visible they become.’

Who or what has been really influencial while you were forming your views on beauty? 

‘I’ve gone through different phases. First of all there have been my parents. Their empathy for life has made me discover beauty. As a teenager I was impressed by Antwerp painters such as Karel Verlat and Alfred Ost, both rather unknown today. I admired their suggestion of movement and the subjects they choose to depict. Later on I’ve been greatly influenced by Marcel Duchamp and by the French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre. His work has made me fall in love with science. With the poetics of science, to be more precise. Great scientists always take a great leap into the unknown, just as artists have to do. And then there has been the Rubenshuis in Antwerp, of course. My father frequently took me there to see paintings by old masters such as Bosch, Bruegel and Van Eyck. Right up until today those painters still teach me things on beauty.’ 

Could you name one thing that once was beautiful, in your opinion, but that has since then lost its attraction?

‘There’s one thing that I’ve always been very loyal to and that is beauty; or art. Even now. Karel Verlat or Alfred Ost aren’t exactly famous artists, but I can still see the beauty in their paintings. I still understand why their work made a big impression on me when I was younger.’ 

Some of the artists I’ve interviewed so far admit they use beauty as a means to purvey other difficult issues more easily.

‘Beauty wears the colour of freedom. Beauty is not just about aesthetics, because then it is solely some sort of make up. Beauty is about the convergence of a sense of ethics and aesthetics. Those two have to merge. You can’t have one thing without the other.’

What would you call ugly, as opposed to beautiful?

‘Right-wing thinking. Because it enervates individuality. Beauty has to break away from any sort of ideology. There need to be stings to it.’ 

Have you ever created something really beautiful, that was sneered at by your audience? 

‘It has happened a lot. Just think about the ceiling I have created for the Royal Palace in Brussels. I’ve had numerous letters of people who accused me of being a traitor. All right-wing. Even though there was a critical aspect to that work: on Belgium’s colonial past. Creating that work of art was almost a political act. But the opposite has happened too. A year later I put that giant tortoise on the beach of Nieuwpoort: Searching for utopia. People in the street actually walked up to me to congratulate me on that one. I vividly remember an ice cream man, shouting to me from his car: ‘Jan Fabre, your sculpture is great! Here, have an ice-cream!’ As an artist you have to do the things that you have to do. You cannot give in. To nothing, and to no one.’ 

Could you pick one object from daily life that is really beautiful, in your opinion? 

The human body. I’ve been watching Dirk Roofthooft for hours, lately, for the rehearsals of ‘The servant of beauty’. He is almost like a child, on stage. He really enjoys performing and creating art. That makes him beautiful, to me. He then becomes a very sexy man. There’s a great veracity to his acting. He is like a blossoming flower. Yes, he has a belly, a big scar, and a bald head, but nevertheless he undoubtedly is a beautiful man.’ 

‘I’ve worked with beautiful dancers, with a perfect body. But if they don’t glow from within, they become ugly. Their perfect legs and great technique become utterly useless. I want my actors or dancers to glow. Then there’s a sort of truthfulness and eroticism to what they do: it’s about surrender and concentration. When actors or dancers are really absorbed by what they do, they start to glow and they become beautiful to watch.’ 

Who or what comes really close to perfect beauty? 

‘There have been several paintings, books or pieces of music that come close. What has made a big impression on me recently is a book by Richard Dawkins: The greatest show on earth: the evidence for evolution. I’ve really devoured that one. Impressive. That book really fired me up.’ 

Have you recently been surprised by the beauty of a work of art? 

‘I was in Vienna, just recently, as I’m preparing an exhibition in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. They have a Bruegel room. Well, I’ve been standing in front of The fight between carnival and lent, for an hour or two. Studying it, with somebody who knows all about Bruegel. It blows your mind. The intelligence of the artist. The suggestion of movement and time. His imagination and subversiveness. The allegory of symbols and stories. It tops any Hollywood blockbuster. Impressive.’ 

Can you tell me something about ‘Chapters I-XVIII’, the new sculptures you’re exhibiting in Paris at Guy Pieters Gallery? 

 ‘I’ve made 18 bronze and 18 wax sculptures. Busts, all of them. You get to see the young Jan Fabre and the seventy year old Jan Fabre. All of the sculptures have animal ears and horns. Like Pinocchio. Horns resembling antennas. I see it as an investigation into the self-portrait. The self-portrait as a longing towards what is strange and different. It’s an investigation into physiognomy. The bronze sculptures, perfectly polished, are almost like death masks. Because every self-portrait is a death mask, in a way. All these sculptures are stemming from a post-mortem stage of life.’ 

These sculptures are making you very ‘visible’, as an artist. It is almost the opposite of becoming invisible, as the puppeteer in ‘The servant of beauty’ wants to. People buying one of these sculptures will have Jan Fabre in their home. 

‘No, they will have a sculpture of Jan Fabre. There’s a difference. They will never be able to buy the soul of the artist. They just buy the packing. This has nothing to do with vanity. These sculptures are part of an investigation into the human body. And where do you start? By looking in the mirror. You discover who you are and by doing so, you discover a part of the world. You look in the mirror and you see how you change as a person; how you become vulnerable. Everybody is in a perpetual state of change. But of course, by making these sculptures I’m also making fun of myself. You’ll see the stubborn Jan Fabre, the rude Jan Fabre, the devilish Jan Fabre and the stupid Jan Fabre. There’s some sort of irony involved, of course.’

Jan Fabre interviewed by Hans-Maarten Post for Utopia Parkway, at deSingel (Antwerp), March 4, 2010.

One Response to “‘BRUEGEL TOPS ANY HOLLYWOOD BLOCKBUSTER’ (Jan Fabre on beauty – The Utopia Parkway Files, part 5)”

  1. oh la la… what a great blog… you are flying now to my ‘links’ section… enjoyed your interview with jan fabre… he was one of the first artists that I had the opportunity to interview…. but in more theatrical context…

    glad i’ve found your blog… made my day…

    keep up the good work… best

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