Artists, by definition, are a little eccentric, living in their own worlds, dedicated to their work. I am reluctant to generalize but to me it seems that Belgian artists, at least the more modern ones, are even more eccentric, odd even. I’m thinking Magritte, Delvaux, Brusselmans, Ensor, Broodthaers, Khnopff, Rops et al.
Although the name Hugo Claus is perhaps not as well known outside his country of birth as the ones above, he was a giant in Belgian literary and artistic circles until his death as a result of euthanasia in 2008. He was very aware of this perceived national peculiarity and regarded it as a cause for celebration and pride. He once said, and I paraphrase, that Belgium was laughed at by the French and looked down on by the Dutch, which made it an ideal place to be for a writer.
Claus was primarily a writer. He wrote a thousand pages of poetry, more than sixty plays, over twenty novels and several essays, film scripts, libretti and translations but he also made forays into film-making and the visual arts as this small but nicely presented exhibition demonstrates. There is a lot of ephemera – posters, pamphlets and other printed matter, several hand-written manuscripts, an old 45rpm record of him reading his poems as well as several original works of art by himself and by Karel Appel with whom he collaborated on several projects. It is a well curated exhibition which not only shows a selection of the man’s work but also gives one a flavour and insight into his life and personality.
Claus was a bon viveur, or should one say hell-raiser, who worked hard and played hard. He was a keen player of boules, or pétanque, who regarded the game almost as a metaphor for his life. He said, “I’m a mean and crafty pétanque player. This shows my true nature far more: wanting to win at any price and to create confusion. Not cheating, but using every mean trick. It reveals my character much more than in the books.”
His private life was not without incident or controversy – he was in a long relationship with erotic film star Sylvia Kristel before she left him for British actor Ian McShane. But his most infamous moment came in 1967 when his short play Masscheroen was first staged at Knokke Casino, featuring three naked men portraying the Christian Holy Trinity. The sketch also poked fun at the Holy Virgin, a Belgian saint, and the Three Wise Men. As a result, Claus was prosecuted and convicted on charges of public indecency and ordered to pay a large fine and serve four-months in prison, but this was reduced to a suspended sentence after a public outcry. Three life-size nude figures made from straw and sacking hang from the wall, providing a focal point (or three) for the exhibition.
If, like me, you are not that familiar with the many and varied works of Hugo Claus then I would recommend you find out more and this exhibition would be the ideal place to start your researches.
Michael Hasted 8th September 2018
Hugo Claus, Con amore continues at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam until 16th December.