jan fabre's 'man who bears the cross'

Jan Fabre did it again: having craftsmen cast himself in bronze, this time as The man who bears the cross (2014). In 2014, a  wax version was on show in 'At the Gallery' in Antwerp, where it was discovered by Bart Paepe, the new parish priest of the Cathedral of Our Lady. On occasion of the exhibition Facing Time - Rops/Fabre, it was cast in bronze and exhibited in front of the Namur cathedral. And now it is welcomed in front of Rubens' Descent of the cross in the Antwerp cathedral. (Photos: see Marc Walker).

Not otherwise than Vic Goedseels, General Administrator of KUL, who wanted Fabre's Totem to be a project 'that was talked and written about', Bart Paepen uses our controversial rebel as a bait to lure people into his cathedral. Whereby the question is who promotes whom. Fabre knows how to have others finance his self-promotion: even after having been granted a solo show in the Louvre, an exhibition in his birthtown Antwerp, in front of Rubens' Descent of the cross, is not be sneezed at!

Even if that comes with the price of being embedded in a religious discourse: just like our Grand Officer in the Order of the Crown had no problems with adorning the crown with the beetles of his Heaven of delight, he has no qualms about providing the pulpit with an allegory. 'Look at this concrete sculpture', writes our trendy shepherd. 'A man bears a enormous wooden cross on his right hand palm. He is not a prophet, nor an apostle, a martyr or a saint. He is someone who does what we invite every visitor of the cathedral to do, regardless of his background or his convictions. Take the cross in your hands, a token of the God that is celebrated here, a token of his love for the whole of humankind, token of the engagement that he asks from all his followers. Take up the cross and balance it. Perhaps you will not succeed in holding it upright. Perhaps it is too heavy or too difficult. Perhaps you should try again later. Perhaps you don't like it. Just let it down then. Who knows you will succeed and feel right. Then it could be that you have found a goal and a meaning in your life". To which Fabre diplomatically adds: 'The man who bears the cross is a quest for equilibrium'. 'Do we believe in God, or do we not believe in God? The cross is a symbol for that question''. On occasion of the exhibition in 'At the Gallery', Kathy de Nčve had a totally different view. To her, the cross balances 'between realism and relativism, between art and religion/science', and Fabre's sculpture is 'not only a metaphor of the spiritual sceptic', but also a 'reference to the impossible possibility to live without art'. ' Does Fabre not 'believe in genuine beauty'?

There are the words - those of Bart, those of Kathy, and those of Jan - and there are, of course, also the things. And, although many a philosopher contends that that it is words that make the image, on an image, not otherwise than on a lying face, we neverthelesse see what there is to be seen.

There is no denying then that Fabre's sculpture bluntly gives the lie to its title. Rather than bearing a cross, the man balances it on the palm of his hand. Under the weight of a carried cross, one does not so much try to find one's equilibrium, but rather succumbs under it, as Bosch, Brueghel, Dürer, or Titian still knew.

titiaan via crucis

The emphasis with which the grain of wood is rendered in Fabre's bronze, is a not to be misunderstood indication of the weight of the cross. And that weight is not compatible with stretched arms, but rather with arms joining together under a bent torso, like with Scotts throwing trees. Fabre's gesture better fits the balancing of a broomstick on the index finger - a play cherished by children, who, when they can no longer hold the stick upright, throw it away like the Scotts their tree. Which cannot but conjure up the image of a middle finger stuck up at the end of Fabre's stretched arm - gesture that is in complete harmony with the exhibition of the sculpture in front of the cathedral in Namur, or with that of Totem in front of the library of the Louvain university, or with its erection in front of Rubens' Descent of the cross.

schotse boomwerper

chaplin als hitler

In expectance of what, in analogy of the descent of the cross, we could call the tossing of the cross, Fabre is parading with it, not otherwise than Chaplin with a floating globe in The dictator. Rather than bearing the weight of the cross, Fabre prefers to play with it - as with all the other symbols with which his works, like that of all bad - merely allegorical - artists, is stuffed.

Whereas the cross - like the globe of Chaplin's Hitler - is bereaved of its weight - and, like the Rubens in front of it, of its redeemer - all the attention goes to the man who tries to hold his body in balance. Although it is not so much the man who catches the attention, as rather his outer appearance: the seams of his fly, the buckle of his belt, the buttons of his shirt and jacket, not to mention those glasses, and that well-groomed hair. Such getting lost in outer appearances is in accordance with the devaluation of the cross to a throw-away gadget. Had spirituality not rather something to do with inwardness - with the soul, rather than with a well-knitted jacket?

But it is above all the - in view of the son of God's absence on the cross - presumptuous self-glorification of Jan Fabre that belies every spiritual aspiration: even more than showing off, self-aggrandisement is the absolute negation of the very humility that adorns every worthy mortal. Fabre just cannot stop having himself cast in bronze. The man who bears the cross has many forerunners The man who measures the clouds (1998), 'The man who gives fire (1999), Searching for Utopia (2003), The man writing on water (2006), The man who cries and laughs (2005), and also prefigurations that remained stuck in wax, like I let myself drain (2006) and Self portrait as the biggest worm on earth (2008), or that, in expectance of bronze, had to suffice with thumbtacks, like Me dreaming (1979), not to mention the version where he has himself carved in marble in Jesus' place on Maria's womb (Pietŕ, 2011).

Against this background, it is all too evident to what poignant situation the presence of this gadget in the cathedral testifies.

Poignant is the evident decline of art. Imagine that trivial concept cast in bronze in front of Rubens' Descent of the cross! Poignant is the equally evident decline of the sensibility for art: rather than on what is sensuously given, the focus is on the brand and the symbol. How else can someone get the idea of associating this sculpture with spirituality, rather than with Fabre's cherished body fluids? How else does someone succeed in reading over Fabre's self-glorification by writing: 'The sculpture and the expression of the self-portrait are such that every visitor can identify with it'?'

If possible even more poignant than the presence of this sculpture in front of Rubens' Descent of the cross is its presence in what should have been the house of God. The very idea of a performance of Fabre's 'warriors of beauty' around this golden calf suffices to realize the chasm that yawns between that miserable figure performing his act with the cross in his glossy jacket and Jesus, chasm that is, if possible, even wider than that between Fabre and Rubens. ...

Anyway: Success, Bart!

© Stefan Beyst, November 2015.



Kathy de Nčve: 'Jan Fabre, the spiritual sceptic'.
Jan Kint: 'Sculptuur van Jan Fabre in de kathedraal daagt uit tot geloof''.

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