painter and his canvas:
on rootstocks and vines...
In the article below, I want to introduce the reader to a series of
works painted by Freddy Schoofs (°1951) under the heading 'Ecce homo'
Let us come straight to the point, with a figure that turns its back
all humility, the artists bows before what, judging from the folds before
his feet, must be a canvas that rises before him.
Those folds make it also clear how that two-dimensional canvas, in its
rising up, is transformed into a three-dimensional lighting haze. From
the point of view of the mediumthe folds and the haze are two
poles of a scale of elements with which the canvas is built up. The
folds develop into the full three-dimensionality of feet and
lower legs. The contours of these extend into transparent bands on the
right side of upper leg and arms. These are still circumscribed,
but the upper arms on the right and the left gently merge with the
borderless density of the background. In between, on the other hand, the
hazy circumferences harden into outspoken rough lines, scars even,lashed as independent elements over angular, borderless
surfaces and bands, the wounded scorch over the chunky volume of
Those lashes on the back, together with the rosy shine of the vulnerable
flesh that shimmers through, irrevocably conjure up the idea of
flagellation - or self punishment, Which lends a new meaning to the
background. That lighting wall is in the first place the white,
virgin canvas, at the sight of which the painter shrinks. More
generally, we can interpret it as a kind of primeval screen, where man is
supposed to stage himself, as an ether for the epiphany of man.
When returning to the whole, we cannot but be struck by the strong, but
contained movement that fares through that apparently motionless figure:
its stately standing, its humble bowing, the resigned movement of the
ECCE HOMO II
Departing from this first bowing figure, Schoofs made a second one.
The hazy, mystic light of 'Ecce homo I' hardens into an
impenetrable two-dimensional canvas, on which is scribbled the jumble of thoughts in that head
that is bent forward
The multiplied contour of the figure evokes the impression of a movement
not so much from the left to
the right, but rather a back and forth, like that of the
Jews before the wailing wall, if not an accentuated hanging down of
the arms in defeated despondency.
On top of that, the transparent density of the
light in 'Ecce
homo I' is contrasted with what is the utter counterpart of appearance:
the ghostly written word. The line of that writing is also prominent in
the contour of the figure, where it is
contrasted with smaller surfaces without clearly delineated borders
within that circumference. The horizontal movement of the writing
contrasts sharply with the lines that fall alongside the body as a rain
of tears from eyes that remain hidden from view.
The muted shimmering of the colours in 'Ecce homo I ' shrinks into
an - albeit rather lively - palette of whites, greys and blacks, that is
accompanied by subtle contrasts of warm and cold. Also the contained
solemnity of the movement in 'Ecce homo I' is replaced with the contrast
between the more nervous movements of writing and bowing on the
one hand, and the resigned downward movement of the arms falling down
alongside that sagging body on the other hand.
A totally different organisation of the medium in view of a totally
different, but equally moving content.
ECCE HOMO III
In 'Ecce homo III', the artist proceeds to a further transformation.
Colour is completely replaced with a scale of black and white. The
dense, mystic haze of 'Ecce homo I' is transformed into a
forest of lines - no longer the scribbles of writing, but the unfolding
in the third dimension of a geometric grid of horizontal and vertical
lines: the labyrinth where Icarus threatens to get entangled, rather
than to escape from it. Such
linearity is one of the poles of still another scale, the
opposite pole of which is the - this time not broken but
gradient - grisaille of the body, whereas the white surfaces between the
lines function as mediating values.
The way in which the figure is inscribed
into a geometric pattern, cannot but remind of da Vinci's Vitruvian Man,
which is inscribed in a circle and a square. The two positions of the
arms have something of two stills of a film and remind of the da Vinci,
who wanted to ascend to the heavens on self made wings - although he
actually had to propel himself into a valley. With Schoofs, the figure
is turned backwards, and the wings are no longer those of someone who
proudly wants to ascend to heaven, but rather those of an albatross
that does not succeed in raising from the ground, and therefore contents
himself with propelling himself forward. Under that grandiose bow, he
flaps his wings against his body and becomes entangled in the web of his
own movements, the echoes of which are the curved counterparts of the
geometric grid of lines on the background.
Whereas, in the preceding versions, the light came from the left, it now
comes from the right. And this intervention is the prelude for a next version.
ECCE HOMO IV
In that new variant, the figure disappears into the shadow of a blinding
light that shines form a sharply delineated rectangle, of which only
the double-square ascends above the shoulders. Between these
two poles, the background is a mediating middle-tone.
Again, the artist builds up an entirely new
medium consisting of a scale, where, next to the opposition between light and dark,
also colour plays a central role again. In the wake of this
change in medium, also the content changes drastically: the figure is still
bending forward, but it now rather seems as if it closes its eyes before
the blinding light that it holds firmly between its arms, with a
movement, the force of which is endorsed by the tense,
erectile position of the body. On the other hand, the figure has
something of someone who is about to make a forward leap into the depths
of that blinding light, like Empedocles into the volcano. Totally
different from 'Ecce
The figure is here no longer opposed to a dimensionless world before it.
Rather is it separated from such world through the frame of the lighting
rectangle. And the whole proceeding) are concentrated into that tense
central axis, as into a column around which space is curved.
ECCE HOMO V
In a next variant, the artists intervenes on the plane of the position
of the body. The figure continues to turn its back on us, but it is
shrunken now - squatted
- and clenches its fists in despair in its neck.
In the beginning, one thinks of some biped with
truncated back and short legs. Until it appears that the trunks
prolongs itself in a transparent abdomen, which transforms the figure
into a crouched human nude. That transparent abdomen seems to be the
after-image of an upward movement, that is echoed in the after-images of
a movement of the trunk back and forth from the left to the right. The
hazy abdomen and sides harden into a muscledhunk of meat from
which the vertebrae of the backbone protrude. The impatient movement from
the left to the right and from below to above is curbed thy those fists
clenched in the neck. The power of that gesture is still enhanced in
that it is inscribed into a rectangle of the same proportions as the
The light comes from the right again. Just like in 'Ecce homo I', the
subtle changes and the transparency of the background are contrasted
with the grainy, broken structure of the back. The transience
from the one pole of the scale to the other ranges from the bands at
the bottom and the right and left sides of the trunk, which are
transparent, but delineated by an outline, over the big, light,
angular and borderless surface on the left side of the back, over the
already more broken and darker structures on the right above, to the
sharp opposition of full round and beamlike formations on the right
It is as if the humbly bowing figure has involutionary recoiled into a
pre-human shape, ontogenetically into a kind of foetus, phylogenetically into a kind of bipedal amphibian. In the side panels of
the triptych, of which this work is the central panel, the figure
elevates itself from such pre-human condition:
On the left side
(Ecce homo Va) it stand up with a canvas in its hands on which it
appears upright. On the right side (Ecce Homo Vc) it seems to
disappear into the darkness in the heights (above), with a subtle
gesture of the forearms. The upward
movements on the left and the right only enhance the concentrated
force of the
squatted figureon the central panel.
ECCE HOMO VI
In a last variant the artist departs from the flagellated back of 'Ecce
homo I' again.
This time, the figure fills the whole frame, which lends it the allures of a colossus.
With the light coming from the right so emphatically, the dialogue
between the figure and the background is suspended. All the
attention goes to the tall, beaten figure, withdrawn within itself.
No trace of slashes on that broad back. But the memory of it shimmers
through in that plastery white of the right leg that changes into a haze
wrapped like gauze over the rosy flesh and beneath which cuts
shimmer through. In the shadow on the left, that subtle gauze is
transformed into a more dense, protecting, rather feltlike envelope, as
of a uniform, that is prolonged downwards into a nude leg from under what
seems to be a fold in a trouser. The transition from impenetrable cover
on the left to transparent gauze on the right is enhanced through the
transition from covered above to naked below. Through such play from
revealing and concealing, the figure gets a totally different freight.
Where it wants to wrap itself in a coat like under a shield, it appears
to be transparent on the right and naked below.
By this double movement, the image is divided into the four quadrants
between the arms of the cross, more clearly pronounced here than with
the other figures.
Needless to remind that still another mediumal spectrum is used here:
transience from white over light rose, to dark rose and black, and from
the realistic rendering of the white leg below, over the loose
combination of separate lines and borderless planes, to dark surfaces
outlined by one or two sharp lines.
The ambivalence of naked and clad is repeated in
that strange protrusion above the shoulders, of which you do not know whether it
is hair or a hat. It is prefigured in a kind of aureole that is to be
seen on 'Ecce homo II'. What serves as a kind of halt to that
remarkable upward thrust in the colossus, thus becomes the starting
point to a next series of works, where the artist rejoins a previous series of reversed busts: heads on shoulders seen from
Time to have a closer look at the relation
between the images of this impressive series. It appears that they are
related through a network of relations, as in a network of rootstocks,
but one where, onto every knot, another branch of vine is grafted (rhizome).
This procedure is characteristic also of the way in which the other
works of this artist originate. Every image is the starting point of
another. There may be a change in technique (pastel, oil, drawing,
photography, ceramics). Or a change in medium: ever changing scales of
colours, tones and elements (lines, bands, surfaces, brush strokes...)
Or a change in literal subject matter: from a figure that bends forward
to one that squats, from a figure that holds the arms against its body
to one that spreads its arms....
Via all these peregrinations, the artist often stumbles on domains already been explored in a previous network. In close relations
with the series above, the artist made a series of drawings with
charcoal on large canvasses, wherein black and white are treated in a totally
different manner from
'Ecce homo II' and
'Ecce homo III', and where the depressed confinement of the
self-enclosed figures has made place for an apparently light feeling of
This remarkable procedure originates in the
combination of an astonishing technical prowess on the one hand, and an
unstoppable urge to create on the other hand. These two factors fuel
one another: the more the artist works, the more he comes to master his
techniques, and the more he masters his techniques, the lower the
threshold to tackle another canvas. The urge to create ever new pictures
with ever new techniques and ever new mediumal structures, betrays how
much the primary motive to create originates in the sheer joy of
challenging himself with ever new tasks. Not that
content does not matter. In many cases, it is precisely the technical
mastery that warrants that the artists mostly finds a surprising
expression for an unseen content. But he leaves this new content as soon
as he has found it, and is immediately out at discovering a next image
on a next knot of the rhizome. Although one often wonders if
there is something to be perfected at all: mostly, the images are so
coherent and so closed in themselves, that it often seems as is there
nothing left to deepen. Which does not mean that the artist never
returns to a theme already explored during one of his
Such rhizomatic procedures can lead to difficulties with the reception
of these works. Since new images are obtained through opposition to older ones, they cannot but differ profoundly from the
point of view of content. The elevated atmosphere of 'Ecce homo I'
is transformed into the curbed yearning of a pre-human being in 'Ecce homo Vb',
and the desperation of 'Ecce homo II' into the determination in 'Ecce homo IV''.
The onlooker cannot get in touch like that with such totally different worlds, all
the more so, since the rhizomatic procedure is rather misleading: apart
from that one contrast through which they derive from one another, the
images rather strongly resemble each other and thereby evoke the
expectation of the familiar. What goes for the soul of the onlooker,
goes even more for his eye: also from the point of view of the medium,
the images often use a totally different scale. Whoever has adapted
himself to the contained richness of colours and the shimmering tonality
of 'Ecce homo I', just cannot switch like that to the totally different, linear
'Ecce homo II' and 'Ecce homo III', or to the liveliness of the
colour palette in 'Ecce homo IV'. In musical variations, the problem is
solved through gradual transition from one world to another. In Schoof's' rhizomatic
networks, we are literally 'von Klippe zu
Klippe geworfen'. The effect is further enhanced in that the artist
often makes series in which phases of one and the same process are
depicted, like withMuybridge -
a filmic procedure that he admires in Rubens*. Except when they
are part of an integrated whole, the sheer addition of images that are
wholly closed in themselves and wholly perfect, often lose the power they would exert when displayed as single, separate works in their own
right. The continued switching entails a kind of indifference. The best thing to
do is to entrench oneself in the contemplation of one single work, and only
to proceed to the discovery of another work after the elapse of some
Needless to remind that the enormous contentual and formal richness
Schoofs' rhizomatic approach is totally opposed to the often
monomaniacal production of so many a contemporary artist, who continues to
make paintings with the same technique and the same medium, and hence
cannot but tackle a restricted array of subject matter: the trade mark
that makes him recognisable on the art market and that never betrays the
expectations of the spectator... Great artists, on the other hand, are
many sided, and cannot but surprise there onlookers with every new work....
Above, we wrote that the incentive to create comes in the first place
from the challenge of setting ever new goals. That motive is enhanced by pure competitive
spurts elicited by the confrontation with works of other artists. As far
the series 'Ecce homo' is concerned, we think of works like Jan Fabre's
'I let myself
drain'' (2006), Odd Nerdrum's 'Twilight'
(1981), the already better 'Bent over' by Luc
Tuymans, the eloquent backs from the series ''Man of Suffering' from Berlinde de Bruyckere' (2006),
not to mention the '(Pseudo) Self-portrait as Jesus Christ' from
Thierry De Cordier
But that should not make us blind for the fact that Schoofs' works - on
condition that we give our souls the time to accommodate to them -
always turn out to be the offshoots of a number of deeper rooted themes.
Just like any other mortal, also Freddy Schoofs is driven by a fundamental
view of life in the world that he shares with us. Even when it is
certainly not the only true method, also the purely formal technique of
the rhizomatic variation is an exquisite means of letting that deeper
lying attitude come through. With artists who depart from a pre-established
theme, that deeper layer can only resonate by using the
intended subject matter as an alibi (just think of King Bouduain and the infantile
experiences of Luc Tuymans).
Schoofs departs from purely formal challenges, the necessary room
is left that can be occupied by more fundamental contents. The
conscious variation of materials and mediumal structure finds its
counterpart in an unconscious variation on a restricted number of
Let us have a closer look at the themes that show up on this level. Let
us give free rein to our personal phantasm...
All the paintings from the above series feature the relations of the
artist to his canvas - to painting: he humbly bows for it, he shrinksbefore it in desperation, is about to
make the decisive leap into the painting, wraps himself in the canvas.
We get the impression that the artist recoils before the grandeur of the
challenge. But the layer of self-castigation that is laid over this
humility, betrays that something else is also at stake here. For,in'Ecce homo III' and 'Ecce homo IV', we get the impression that he
himself wants to appear in the canvas that rises up before him, where -
according to the now familiar Schoofsian scheme of variation in
- he would appear frontally then. And not surreptitiously sneaking from
behind his canvas, like Velazquez in las Meninas, but as a canvas-filling,
fully spread Vitruvian man:
The Vitruvian man also lays bare another layer of
that self-castigation: with his arms spread wide in his square, the
figure irrevocably reminds of Christ on his cross- the geometry of the
rectangle wherein the cross on which the figure is nailed.
On the other hand, the back that the artist turns towards the viewer
defines the space where the confrontation of the artist
with the empty canvas takes place: the seclusion of the
studio - the world of art. And that world only dawns when the artist
turns his back to the outside world. That sheds a new light on the
flagellation: those slashes on the back are no longer the traces of
self-castigation, unless in identification with what the outside world
does when it looks down with contempt on what the artist is doing there
on his canvas. At once, the title 'Ecce Homo' resounds as a hit.
It is the words that Pontius Pilatus speaks when he presents Jesus,
crowned with thorns, to the people as the king of the Jews who is in fact
the son of God. Let us remark that the flagellation of Christ is as a
rule depicted with the back away from the viewer. Only on the
flagellation of Rubens in Saint Pauls in Antwerp is Jesus depicted from
the side, with the wounds on his back turned towards the beholder. Schoofs
completes this obvious move.
The flagellation is only the prelude to the crucifixion. It suddenly
dawns on us how much - except on 'Ecce homo III' - all the arms in this
series are depicted alongside the body - as it were the negation of the
outstretched arms of Jesus on his cross: the full development and at the
same time the punishment of the triumphant gesture of the
exhibitionistic Vitruvian man with this genitals in the centre.
'Ecce homo I' (detail)
Schoofs inscribes his figure not so much is a
circle or a square, as rather in a rectangle. The centre of it falls in
the middle - the navel - of the back, not only on 'Ecce homo I', but
'Ecce homo II' and 'Ecce homo IV'. We suddenly realise that a cross is
inscribed in all these reversed figures, and how much the figures are organised
around the arms of that cross. But equally: that they do not show us
their crotch. That is not only avoided, as in the squatted figure in 'Ecce
homo Vb', but seems rather to have shifted upwards above the buttocks.
Only in 'Ecce homo
VI', where the tall figure fills the entire canvas, does the cross over
the canvas coincide with the cross of the crotch, whereas it equally
appears in the back. The shift upwards is as it were the counterpart of
the shift from navel to genitalia on the front in da Vinci's Vitruvian
The theme of the crucifixion runs through the entire oeuvre of Freddy Schoofs.
In 1998, the artist published a study of the many versions of the
crucifixion with Rubens*, where the body of Christ appears in the most
diverse positions. The divine corpse is wrapped in a shroud. Echo's of
that shroud resound in the lighting background where the flagellated
bows in humility, and also in the cloth wherein 'Ecce
homo VI' is wrapped. This wrapping reminds us of the body of Christ that
was wrapped in the so-called shroud of Torino, that thus preserved the
imprint of the flagellated and crucified body of Jesus for posterity -
perhaps an primeval image of painting, like the death mask - the Roman 'imago' -
is the primeval image of sculpture....
The counterpart to the bent posture of 'Ecce homo I' and 'Ecce homo II'
are the figures that are on the verge of jumping ('Ecce homo Vb'',
the figure on the right panel 'Ecce homo Vc', the figure that is on the verge of making a
leap into the blinding light ('Ecce
homo IV'), but foremost the Icarus on 'Ecce homo III', who wanted to
escape from the labyrinth with his father, but propels himself into the
labyrinth of his canvas instead. It is not difficult to see how a second
theme is surfacing here. Just as behind the flagellation the crucifixion
looms up, just so does behind these second series of figures loom up the figure of
the resurrection of Jesus, who joins his father in heaven.
Flagellation, deriding, crucifixion, resurrection: these short flight
of thoughts suffices to make it clear how much these impressive
images are the after-images of more illustrious pre-figures from individual
and collective primeval times. Which only adds to the often
deep resonance that emanates from them...
Not only rootstocks, hence, that spread in the breadth, but also
unexpected vines, the roots of which dig deep into the earth.
So that the silent drama of the artist before his canvas, in that empty
space, where no trace of the world is to be found, also
tells us much about the even more silent drama of man - about the deeper
reason why, after the dawn of the gods - or must we meanwhile say: after
the crucifixion of man who could have been godlike - nothing seems to be
able to appear on those canvasses...
June 2009, translated July 2009
*Marcel Obiak and Freddy Schoofs: 'Rubens in Noord-Frankrijk',
Vlaanderen, jaargang 1989
nr. 2, Lannoo, Tielt.
stefan beyst on contemporary artists
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