Hugo Heyrman 'Pictor Ecologicus' NEDERLANDS
When Hugo Heyrman was awarded the first prize of the Young Belgian Art Competition in 1974, his entry caused some amazement among the connoisseurs. Six banal town views, painted rather lapidarily, aroused suspicions that he might have intended a wash-out, a provocation so to speak, directed this time not against incompetent philistines, but rather against those who had been arbitrarily monopolizing the concept of art. It looked as if Heyrman wanted to restore the statue of the good old 19th century town view, the evocation of a piece of urban landscape viewed through a temperament, a status which it had managed to keep only in the eye of backward provincials and of amateur painters. In this case, however, it was a sign of courage, as the challenge was meant to unsettle the selection committee or the progressively orientated in-crowd whose patterns of expectation had excluded the vedute long ago. By reverting to a throwback cliché taken from the iconographical repertoire of the traditionalist evocation of atmosphere and mood, Heyrman revealed himself one more as the tender but inveterate anarchist he already had been in the sixties, in the days of the happenings, as the ‘Happy Spacemaker’.
As far back as the formative years at the Academy, Heyrman was already competent in the art of provocation, witness his exhibit ‘the heaviest painting in the world’ (together with Panamarenko). The press labelled these activities of the young Antwerp artist as ‘neo-dadaist’. From about 1965 to 1973 most of his energy was spent on the organisation of playfully and even politically inspired happenings, the focus of action gradually shifting from the street to the gallery (Wide White Space). In a way the ‘public phase’ of Heyrman’s artistic career came to a conclusion with the organisation of the ‘Continental Video & Filmtour’ which kept him busy in the years 1972-73. From then onwards he starts working on a series of paintings entitled ‘Street Life Cycle’, devoted to the intersection of two major Antwerp streets: ‘Belgiëlei’ and ‘Mechelsesteenweg’; it was completed in 1976. Entering this stage of his ‘hidden life’ Heyrman participates in an evolution typical of what has been called the ‘silent generation’. Even though this process of turning inward through isolation, conditioned by the post-’68 syndrome, does not imply trading in his utopian activism for disillusioned narcissism, still from this period onwards he belongs to the neo-romantic movement of ‘individual mythology’. The Street Life Cycle is in this respect a kind of ‘Spurensicherung’ in the mode of a painterly recording of moments of perception and experience of street life as it presented itself to his eye during a long period. Rather than incidental camera snapshots of what actually happened, this series offers a synthesis of what the artist called ‘a model of reality’. The physical reality of a hectic traffic junction is constructed with natural as well as cultural elements which in their mutual interaction undergo a permanent metamorphosis. The topography is altered by urbanistic interventions, while the dramatis personae animating the scene are coloured by the sequence of the seasons, of the hours, and of the weather conditions in all their hues. What Heyrman was after, was not a succession of visual impressions, but evocation of time/space processes and of human action as a historical reality in which the perceiving artist is actively implicated.
The fact that Heyrman also presented this cycle under the motto ‘Perceiving perception’, is all the more evidence of his sophisticated concept of ‘realism’, as a form of expression.
Rejecting the naive 19th century belief in the simple capability of representation, Heyrman equally keeps aloof from contemporary hyper-or photo-realists with which he has been occasionally lumped together. A passionate admirer of the American psychologist James J. Gibson, whose authoritative The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception provides the theoretical underpinnings for his own pictorial options, Heyrman rejects the idea that our perception of reality manifests itself as an image on our retina. Not only do physical or physiological, but also mental and cultural factors determine our perception. To put it very summarily, what we see is also the result of a complex process in which our perception of what actually happens before our eyes is also determined by our remembrance of past perceptions. In short, our way of looking at once implies its history. For Heyrman the ‘ecological’ perception means direct involvement in the environment, in the materiality of the object which he deals with in the following cycles, ‘The Cycle of Water’ and ‘The Cycle of Light’ (1978-1981). Rather than striving for a ‘Wesensschau’ along phenomenological lines, Heyrman explores with the thoroughness almost of a natural scientist the objective relations between certain materials (e.g. stone and liquid) and the vestiges of their mutual interaction. In these cycles, the use of the camera can be surmised because of the image construction with its tilted bottom-base and its partial close-up effect, suggesting a link with at least some techniques of hyperrealism. Differentiation with the cool matter-of-fact registration technique of photorealism is in order, however, because Heyrman combines a telescopic and a microscopic focus; moreover, he manages to confer to the paint surface a subtle quality through transparent acrylglazing with a texture full of nuances. For Heyrman perception of reality as ‘dialogue with retina’ is more important than its registration with technical resources, used merely as aids, while on the other hand the painting has to be structured as aesthetic object according to its internal logic. Experimenting with material and technical data, Heyrman continuously subjects the medium of painting to an analysis which again and again leads to new explorations. While he still used the traditional technique of oil painting for the series views of the ‘Belgiëlei’, he switches to acrylic painting from the ‘Cycle of Water’ onwards. Putting his canvas horizontally instead of the vertical position of the easel painting is the enabling condition for him to structure a picture which organically results from the paint-stratification, the structure of the paint also contributing to an over-all effect which is however to be distinguished from the gestural aspect characteristic of action painting.
The philosophically informed art critic Frans Boenders once dubbed Heyrman ‘the Wittgenstein among painters’, a bold statement whose hyperbolic exaggeration does not prevent it from being essentially true. When the artist tells us in an interview that in his case the creative process moves from the abstract to the concrete, this idea is quite in the spirit of the Austrian philosopher, whose theory of colours Heyrman is familiar with. Taking our cue from Paul Van Ostaijen, Heyrman can be subsumed under the category of the ‘thinking’ artist for whom the rationality of the artefact does not imply an impoverishment of the artistic impulse. In his later works, originated after the fecundating contact with the Irish landscape, Heyrman reveals himself for the rest as a romantic to the backbone. In the cycle ‘The Nature of Reality’, taking considerable risks, he reverts to iconographical schemes from early romanticism, in the same way that he had exhumed the 19th century city view ten years before as a beginning painter. The original small scale repetitive street scenes and the enlargement of banal reality fragments are superseded by vast images of nature, sloping landscapes under a radiant rainbow, mountain ranges veiled by mist, fields vibrating with festive colours or dramatically moved by the rising storm, in short: a hymn to Nature, our Eternal Mother. It looks as if ‘Happy Spacemaker’ Heyrman wants to express his old utopian craving pictorially in this transformation of the Myth of Nature. At the risk of displeasing the artist, who rejects ‘Hineininterpretierung’, it is possible to look at this in terms of a ‘cycle’, as well: the activism of old has been metamorphosed into a pictorial manifesto. In the romantic posture of the ‘man before the window’, the artist looks outside and observes the nearly soundless ballet of cars and passers-by in ever changing constellations. Next to him on an easel there is a newly completed painting whose glowing coloration makes space vibrate, as it were. It is my firm conviction that Heyrman has admirably succeeded in showing that the grand tradition of a realistic vision is capable of being reinvigorated over and over again. By virtue of their powerful pictorial shape, his paintings earn pride of place in the ‘imaginary museum’ which each of us has the privilege of owning.
Jean F. Buyck
* Originally published as introduction to the retrospective exhibition
of Hugo Heyrman’s paintings in the Antwerp Royal Museum
of Fine Arts (1984, October 13 - December 9).