His name was Jules, he lived in Switzerland at the beginning of the twentieth century and as a day labourer, like all day labourers at that time, he would have probably been completely forgotten if he hadn't ended up in a psychiatric hospital. Jules, son of an alcoholic and suicidal cobbler, developed a persecution complex, speech disorders, a horror of dirt - the list was endless; the final diagnosis, schizophrenia. To calm him down the doctors would put him in baths for hours on end. But even in the bath he scratched his body until it bled. To prevent the self-inflicted wounds from becoming infected, large areas of his body disappeared under a layer of red iodine.
Strangely enough, it was the stinging iodine that led Jules to an absurd thought. ' What should I do with my hands, now that my head has disappeared?' he asked his doctor. The patient convinced himself that the iodine had shrivelled his head and that his eyes and teeth had, out of necessity, moved themselves to his body, to his wounds. His head could do nothing. He could only see with that battered body, with the patches of pain, and especially with the hands that simply wouldn't stop scratching.
One day, out of the blue, at the age of 43, Jules suddenly began to draw on pieces of brown wrapping paper. Fish with lizard snouts emerged from his pencil, horses and wrestlers with scales, a comical figure in a cloud-like boat, and, of course, bodies with detached heads. Schizophrenic or not, he drew clearly defined, fairytale-like figures in a continuous line, without perspective or background, but often strikingly well-balanced within the picture plane. He didn't have to combat a fear of voids by filling the page in a fit of territorial obsession, as his compatriot Adolf Wölfi had done. He was quite happy for the brown paper to stay brown. Within a couple of months, Jules had produced hundreds of drawings. And then it ended. He would still sporadically pick up a pencil, but what he drew was nothing in comparison. Seventeen years later, at the age of 62, he died of a lung infection.
But why this curious life story? Because the Rotterdam artist, Paul van der Eerden, identifies with this kind of Outsider, or ' psychotic' art. One can even detect a trace of envy for the ' headless' way the insane have of seeing and imagining; their irrational and uninhibited drawing, not preceded by any thought process to speak of, but which, both visually and with originality, is still able to penetrate the essence of visual experience. A knowledge of art history and technique would only end up creating a barrier to this sensibility. Here, stream of consciousness is given a free rein.
A Jules-like painting hangs in Van der Eerden's home. It is such a simple, awkward work, that a Brussels market tradesman sold it to him for about four dollars. It shows a Madonna in a blue gown, adorned with a white veil bearing a vertical motif of hundreds of tiny, identical figures. The simplicity of the way these figures have been ' piled' up is reminiscent of late-medieval triptychs, with the Mother of God placed up high, looking on as angels guide legions of the ' meek in spirit' to heaven, far away from hellfire and damnation. Perspective, foreshortening, anatomy - the anonymous artist didn't have a clue. The painting could have been made by a child, but then a child who had thought about life, security and death in adult terms. Since one precludes the other, there only remains the adult, who still dares to open up to things in the unbridled manner of a child - without the censorship of what is or is not allowed - and to give them form in a completely personal and often moving way. Whether for pleasure, or out of inner necessity, or desperation, the artist hasn't paused to consider the long tradition of heavenly Madonna visions. Quite simply, 'That's how it should be, because that's how I am'. Universal criteria for beauty surpassed by personal experience.
' Anything that smacks of ornament has to be banished from my work,' says Van der Eerden, looking at his Madonna. He was emphatic and would repeat this self-admonition a number of times during our conversation. As if the temptation of this deadly sin were lying in wait like a sniper. 'To take a theme based on a vague fact and then to milk it dry, is out of the question for me. Repetition has to do with dishonesty. And if there is anything I detest in work, it is dishonesty. My exercises in repetition always fail. Only when I deliberately spoil a page does anything special come out of it.'
For Van der Eerden, every drawing he makes has to come close to the authenticity of the ' sick' Jules. No deception, no cowardly routine, no tricky drawing techniques, no aesthetics, no vague allusions to fashionable notions, and especially no concept that explains in advance what Van der Eerden doesn't even explain in retrospect. What he does want is the ever different, crystal-clear images that are generated by the internalisation of all the other images he has ever encountered at home, in books, or far away, in the street. The image has to surprise him and others. This means that laziness too is absolutely forbidden.
' The austerity of so-called ' Outsider Art' suits me. I have often asked myself why I am able to look at this kind of art for so long and why I continue to love it. Some people claim that ' Outsiders' show a hermetically sealed world that is inaccessible and incomprehensible for the ' sane'. This is a misinterpretation: It can definitely be grasped, because I recognise elements in their work, I experience a bond with them. Considering that ' grasping' is an important factor in art, I look at Outsider Art the way I look at any other kind of art.'
' The painting of the Madonna with the blue veil is possibly the most beautiful image I have in my house. It moves me in a steely way. It has an unavoidable intensity. This is precisely the quality I strive for in my own drawings. My work is geared towards forcing people to look with concentration, I want my drawings to suck them in. An artist can only demand concentration from the viewer by rendering an image with a high degree of intensity. Technical ingenuity is subordinate to this. The line makes the work and it has to be able to hold its ground indisputably.'
The first encounter with Van der Eerden's drawings can be sticky. He draws ' unsophisticated', two-dimensional scenes using traditional graphite and coloured pencils. This awkwardness cannot, therefore, be ascribed to unfamiliar materials. However, it can be ascribed to the misleading simplicity, the range of imagery and especially to the resolute lines with which he renders people, animals and things, which at first glance seem far removed.
In drawings by Van der Eerden, a house with windows becomes transformed into a mask, a human body is compiled from carefully truncated limbs, eyes are stacked up on substantial buttocks, wall-high owls keep night watch in a blue room, while on another sheet a boar takes great pleasure in throttling a sow. There is no shortage of characters: the mechanical human, the serial killer, the
' man of many faces', a prostitute made out of nipples and a vagina - there are no illusions about humankind. Van der Eerden has concisely articulated this attitude to life, written it down and framed it:
' Lost: Nothing; Reward: None; Delivery; Nowhere.'
However disturbing many of the drawings may be, their suspense is not spectacular, but distant and unrelenting. Nothing may appear more beautiful than it really is. Just as Agota Kristof in her books casually allows a couple of children to do everything that God has forbidden, Van der Eerden unrelentingly strips the images that come to him. To achieve this, his signature has to be controlled and pointed, and the lines devoid of drama. There is no use of faltering lines, now thick, now thin, in an attempt to communicate something like ' sensitivity'. Rather, the coldness of the statistician who chooses fact over fiction, instead of the dramatist who wants to exceed reality by kicking up a song and dance. It is sometimes almost impossible to see that he has filled in an entire background using the grain of the finest wood or the ' scales' of the smallest fish. As if this monastic work were only intended for the expert viewer.
He often works in blue, the cool ' office' blue of faded carbon paper and ballpoint pens. The minimal image seems to be held in check by a minimum of colour. Over the last few years, a ' softening' orange has been added. Orange, because Van der Eerden loathes this colour as he does other indeterminate, composite colours, which reveal the uneasy absence of aesthetics. Weak and nagging colours - that bluey green and pinky orange. They fly in the face of the chiselled outlines. Although they are used in small doses, they still repulse much like discoloured meat. Because they are so soft that they do not eclipse what it is all about: the lines. Yet a candid carmine red or a distinctive cobalt blue might, because these represent something - passion, mystery. They draw you in to the joie de vivre of Matisse or Hockney, they come suspiciously close to the dreaded decorative.
The format of the drawings suggests the artist follows a rule regarding the image's scale and the frame that belongs with it. Whether it is a lined page of a diary or an A3, it is underpinned by an irrational obviousness. One of these diary pages conflicts with the pressing contemporary need for a large, shrieking presence driven by the fear of being overlooked. Van der Eerden's sheets almost encrypt themselves out of existence - at least for those who are visually lazy. If you are not lazy, however, you soon realise that there is no escape, that such a small format forces a narrowing of the gaze. ' Those who think get slower', someone once said in the newspaper. And that's right. Haste is fatal here too, because there is more than you see at first. Some drawings are both an interrogation and an insinuation. Suspicion is constantly engendered: ' What is it you see in that head and what is so haunting it can't bear the light of day?'
' True accuracy is fatal', the poet-painter Jan G. Elburg once said. Apart from a statistician, there is also a sniper in Van der Eerden, who time and again aims to hit the target with a single shot. This scoring does not involve the accurate brushwork in which Elburg and his Cobra contemporaries so excelled, rather it hints at a sense of alienation, of claustrophobic enclosure, discomfort, that miserable desire which he once observed and which can only be expressed through slight shift in tone. A drawing has several meanings, because ' good art should be broad', according to Van der Eerden.
The most ' deadly', drawings, composed in ' layers' as preparatory studies, appear in the twenty-part series l ' Exécution du Testament du Marquis de Sade. Just as in the books, there is torture: hanging, tying up, choking, throttling, skewering. One limb is no sooner amputated than the genitals from one masked horror disappear into another bloody torso. The horrors are unwrapped like rarities in simple scenes. One torture runs into rape, and comic-book characters lend a hand between the acts.
It is clear that the perversities of the Marquis de Sade are being poked fun at by means of the cartoon characters. But then again, perhaps not. It's awful, but images like these must be familiar to many of us. From the newspaper and from our own souls - and that's something we would rather not think about. Just like death; it only happens to other people in the Balkans or Rwanda. And that is the illusion that is dismantled here in an almost childlike fashion. Everyday figures play their sick or deadly games without batting an eyelid. But then it becomes apparent that they don't provoke any repulsion. Instead, like a biochemist peering through a microscope, you observe the precise lines with which they are portrayed. The viewer does exactly what the artist wants: look with concentration, if necessary at repulsive perversities.
Paul van der Eerden (46), butcher' s son, went to the Academy for Fine Art in Rotterdam. There was no art at home, no art books and no parental encouragement to germinate the creative seeds. One thing was clear to Van der Eerden: he didn't want a nine-to-five job. He borrowed numerous comics from the local library or from an older brother. Both primary and secondary schools were a necessary evil. Now and again there was a visit to Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam and, little by little, the world grew through history books on subjects like Ancient Egypt. Apart from these there are few other memories. There was chaos and life was a long, unhappy dress rehearsal, as he described it himself.
In order to verify, as it were, the images and texts in the history books, he soon began to travel. First to the countries of Eastern Europe, then Peru and Bolivia. Now, many years later, he prefers to work for months on end in other cities - Paris, Florence or Istanbul. Yet no traces of these cities are to be found in the drawings he makes there. He is only concerned with being there, walking, looking, registering and, perhaps ten years later, something might emerge on paper that was registered back then. What finally issues forth ' has to be unpleasant, but not merciless'.
There was little teaching in those days at the Art Academy in Rotterdam. In the 1970s it was all about ' self-expression'; acquiring technical skills was a secondary concern. Occasionally a tutor would come along with the right book, for instance on Nicolas de Staël, who played out a systematic battle in flamboyant colours, or on the visual poetry of Cy Twombly, whose canvases with paint and fragments of text seem so haphazard and ethereal that, as with a Japanese Haiku, they can be easily ridiculed.
The lack of pretension in Twombly' s drawings and paintings - however cultivated they may be - is not so far removed from what ' Outsiders' make. Albeit that Twombly, in many respects, offers his viewers far more space, an ocean of literary and visual associations, which ' Outsiders' often negate with their tight, anchored and limited scenes.
In the 1980s, Van der Eerden began to draw in a Twombly-like way. ' Painting was never my thing', he said. ' I piled it on in a kind of fiddling about with materials. Drawing in pencil suited me much better: It's more natural, personal, harder and clearer. The influences of others made my line hesitant. In a way it had its own identity, but not enough.'
This interpretation of Twomblian beauty, acquired at the academy, and later through exploring Japanese paper with soft chalks - with which the Rotterdam artist Arie de Groot manages to suggest an infinite universe - was later abruptly and coincidentally swept aside. Van der Eerden got hold of the catalogue Primitivism in 20th Century Art , the legendary exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1984. Leafing through the pages a sculpture from the Mumuye tribe caught his eye. It proved to be an unprecedented eye-opener, as if what he had always being searching for - to be an honest and good artist - suddenly fell into place.
' That African statue was unavoidable. In contrast to the more mythological sculptures of Oceania, African sculptures are marked by an austerity, sharpness, strength and earthiness. They go far beyond ' pure form', they have an essence which is honed down to the point of destruction. Many African sculptures owe their unrelenting quality to the concentrated skill and the complete surrender of the maker. The same power and intensity can be found in the work of Outsiders, in Spanish Baroque sculptures, and in the fifteenth-century, uncompromising paintings of Rogier van der Weyden. Goya also refused to make things more beautiful than they are. And Morandi engaged in this battle with every still life he painted. Artists like these had to be completely uncompromising in order to achieve such rigour.
' It is this same quality of strength and honesty that I want to see in my own work. I want an icon to appear on a small piece of paper which will wrong-foot people. This is why I have to be incisive and precise in how I communicate my vision of reality - a reality that is far from pleasant. You could compare it with Joseph Conrad' s book The Heart of Darkness. Simple, clear and merciless. Through making a drawing you can prove that you exist and in this burden of proof, I refuse to accept any kind of sham.
' You should be what you make. That's why I like artists like Bruce Nauman and Donald Judd, because they have taken those same uncompromising decisions about form and material. With regard to drawing, people like Bill Copley, Philip Guston and Robert S. Crumb are major influences. Artists who couldn't and cannot escape themselves. They do exactly what they unconditionally have to do. They are the dictatorial rulers of the A4.
' I will try to explain this using a recent drawing. Here I have a simple, female figure. In fact no more than a lump with six orifices: ears, nose, vagina and anus. People who have seen this drawing have remarked on its brutality. This amazes me. I experience contemporary society as particularly ' brutal'. There is a serious lack of contact and empathy, we treat each other coarsely, we are calculated in how we ' love'. If I have anything to say, it would be to show this harshness in a confronting manner. And if people find such a small drawing so unpleasant to look at, I wonder how they endure porn programs or those dreadful Jerry Springer shows on TV, in which relations between men and women are depicted in an unprecedentedly miserable way.'
A drawing may therefore be distantly derived from a TV program, a fresco in Florence or a suspicious meeting in New York. Or just as easily from a scrap of fabric or an insignificant, barred window. Once inspected more closely, or enlarged, they become transformed from a flat or two-dimensional play of lines to an impenetrable network on an A4 suggestive of a global communications system. Even geometry is not without feeling, Van der Eerden seems to be saying with this kind of drawing.
' The bizarreness of the bizarre is not interesting. For me the bizarre means the unexpected and incomprehensible, something that raises its head from the depths of the unconscious. You don't have to have any imagination for this, no magical moment, no mythological sensibility, but you do have to open yourself up to impressions and inspiration. I am not afraid to admit fears or desires, I don't censor myself, I try to be vulnerable, however cliché that may sound, and however difficult it may at times be. I want to draw what others suppress. Someone like Buster Keaton who, in a quasi clumsy manner, in one of his last films, got his cigarette stuck in a lighter, is for me an example of both a sovereign and a vulnerable artist.
' But in terms of the bizarre, I want to be as lucid as Rimbaud in his poetry. I don't feel the need to impose emphatic limitations on myself. An image pops up, it emerges as if it had already been slumbering. I often only later discover that it fits together and sits in the picture plane in the right way. And this is necessary, because a wealth of ideas in an unsteady form means nothing. Sometimes I make rough drawings which suddenly turn out to fit together perfectly and finally form a triptych with each other. You could call this coincidence, I prefer to call it intuition, concentration and utter individuality.
' As well as images, arbitrary sentences also come to my mind, such as
' The white man's fear of the big, black man' . I just accept a sentence like this, I write it down, I don' t philosophize about it and I certainly don' t psychologize it. Simply because I'm not equipped to do so. And then a month later the same white man might appear on a piece of paper. Or one day I might draw four women hanging by their hair, which I might have seen on a fresco in Padua.'
On the subject of language, in Van der Eerden's studio staccato German sentences suddenly sound out. German? They sound German at least:
' Aber waaromst doch nicht?, Das Volk auf!, Herman auf!, Ein pikketanussie geht er immer in!, Teil funfs, Scene eins' They make no sense, and yet there is something of Beckett in their nonsense. Nebulous words, caught in the street, overheard in a pub, whispered in the bushes. Or not? The maker of this project, entitled Das, has no idea. This one-act play originated in Istanbul. Van der Eerden: ' It just came up and I wrote it down.' He calmly read the words and recorded them on tape. Not nagging German, but measured, and even-toned, just like his drawings. Don't ask him why.
The latest series of drawings was started in Istanbul, a series of 47 drawings entitled True Identities. Not 40 or 50, but precisely 47, because that's when the energy ran out. The idea of ' heads' was already an old one, but the time hadn't been right and the sense of necessity had been missing. If he has learnt anything in all the years of drawing, it is to wait. But why this series?
' It goes on until it stops,' says Van der Eerden. (This might have been one of Johan Cruyff tautologous football commentaries.)
On one of the sheets in True Identities there are nine identical heads with hairdos like buttocks. Another head with lank hair, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the famous portrait of Shakespeare, comes as a sudden surprise. No, Van der Eerden had never thought of this, but looking again, the likeness wasn't so strange after all. It transpires that he reads Shakespeare constantly. Like the poetry of other Britons like Milton or Blake. He knows them by heart, like old friends.
None of the True Identities is a true identity. Everyone has their own thoughts on the subject. And that was the intention. What lies behind a bare face with two apparently torn-out ovals where the pupils should have been? Why does this head consist only of coloured-in orange blood vessels? Why that recurring schizoid quality in a face? Why would someone ' weave' a portrait only out of black loops?
' I don't believe that the eyes reflect the soul. It is simpler than that. I am a straightforward voyeur. If I notice a head in the street, I wonder what that person is thinking. I am also asked that sometimes. Often I am not thinking about anything. People who spend years in a psychiatric institution looking into themselves probably don't think about anything either. That's why I can be so amazed that things can suddenly go wrong. Well-behaved boys, who have never done anything extreme in their lives, can suddenly become murderers or puppets in the hands of those in power.'
Whether it is the 365 drawings - made, one-a-day, throughout 1993-1994 - exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, or the series Sad Alchemy (35 parts) - in which fear, melancholy and sexuality engage in a battle - every sheet bears the theme 'I', but then, ' an 'I' without an autobiography,' as Van der Eerden puts it. Finally, the 'I' ends up in the same state of amazement with regard to the inner and outer world as the ' you' that observes it.
' No, my drawings do not offer the viewer any comfort,' says Van der Eerden.
' On the contrary, those emotions should invoke the old, religious art of Fra Angelico. People may experience a kind of beauty in my work, but I would prefer them to be unable to withdraw; I want them to feel uneasy. One thing I know for sure, I have never made anything in order to please.'
Marianne Vermeijden in:
True Identities, Éditions Maasz, Rotterdam 2002
©Marianne Vermeijden 2002