Hugo Heyrman's 'Pictural Option'

"Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?"
(John Constable, 1776-1836)

Round about 1974, it seemed possible that Hugo Heyrman had within his grasp a brilliant career as a conceptual artist. He was regularly selected to participate in important exhibitions of contemporary art which were organised from the end of the sixties.

In 1967 he took part in the Objart-exhibition with a remarkable giant-sized Honda - Benly Motorcycle, made in styropor copied from a Dinky Toy Model and painted bright silver, black and red.

In 1970 he was invited together with Filip Francis, Panamarenko and Wout Vercammen among other to the “Antwerpen – Actueel” exhibition which brought together the cream of the local avant-garde in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts. The same institution caused some sensation the next year when it cancelled a one-man-exhibition of Heyrman’s work because (said the organisers) the works submitted did not conform to the required standards of artistic quality. The fierceness with which the progressive front reacted to this ‘act of censorship’ bore witness to the importance attached to the incident.

The rejected display (three round mobile plastic discs marked respectively “bright red”- dirty green” and “dazzling white”) was intended to be shown later the same year in the second Triennial at the Hallen of Bruges, but due to problems over its placing, it appeared only as a reproduction in the catalogue.

In 1971, the third edition of the youth exhibition “Facets of young Flemish Art” was organised by the Ministry of Culture. Heyrman entered seven screenprints of front pages of the Daily Mirror – a digest of one week’s world news. When three years later the third (and final) Bruges Triennial sounded the last post for the most advanced artists, Heyrman of course was among them. At the opening of this “Informative exhibition of contemporary Art in Belgium” which took place on 22nd June 1974 in the Bruges Beurshallen, a coach was to be seen on the Beursplein : the “mobile cinema”, with which the Artworker Foundation had only recently finished a “Continental Video & Filmtour”. A programme of experimental films and video tapes was shown and also some video pictures of the instant show produced at each pre-view of this sort. The combination of a kind of mobile mini film museum with a live display of worldly entertainment treated as a happening, establishing on various levels an ironic confrontation between culture and technique, art and the mundaneness, action and reporting, all unmistakingly bore the mark of the initiator of the ARFO artists collective, Hugo Heyrman.

At the same time, Heyrman, as an individual participant in the Triennial, had had a “multi-media object” carried out in a area shaded by four trees on the same Beursplein: a mosaic inspired by a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, called “Man of Vitruvius”, which can serve as paradigm for the proportion theory of the Renaissance, anchored to the metaphysical. Above the mosaic, tied to a bunch of balloons serving as a video-elevator, a camera swung to and fro in the summer breeze, continuously recorded images of the mosaic and of the passers-by in a varying “constellation”. In the entrance hall of the exhibition the visitors were able to view the performance on monitors. Here also Heyrman embodied contrasts and analogies in a complex combination of meanings. The technique of mosaic and the theme refer to the classic tradition where hierarchic structures and universal norms are applicable, even if one can see the “Man of Vitruvius” the worndown icon of an atrophied cultural heritage. Sophisticated electronic appliances transmitted very fleeting images of this locus classicus, the somewhat unstable camera, rising slowly, resulting in a continuous sliding about of the perspective, creating an effect at once very relativizing and disorienting. Finally the mosaic structures reminded one of a grid of a computer chart so that one could also recognise the theme of culture in confrontation with technique. Heyrman was doubtless one of the most interesting young men of the new generation of artists “with ideas”. The still young and wayward historiography of the arts of the sixties hardly out of the “here-and-now”, in particular illustrated the collaboration between Heyrman and Panamarenko who, respectively as Happy Spacemaker and Multi-millionaire, caused some disturbance in the prim-and-proper sleepy seaport of those days by their absurd exploits and happenings. In a climate dominated by Provo, Pop and Fluxus, the fore mentioned duo, together with others such as Wout Vercammen, Bernd Lohaus and the Japanese Yoshio Nakajima, formed a highly frivolous group happily engaged in demolishing the out-moded institutions of Arts and society.

The part played by Hugo Heyrman in these collective events is still to be defined. The sequence of the appearance of ideas is difficult to determine but it would be useful, in order to study the external development of the particular artists to be able to assess clearly the contribution made by each [1]. Especially in the case of Heyrman this accuracy seems essential if one tries to understand the “breach” occurring in his artistic activities around 1974. That year witnessed his outward “reformation” towards a seemingly more traditional form of painting. He won the prize open to young Belgian painters with an entry of 6 paintings depicting the Belgiëlei-Mechelsesteenweg crossroad in various atmospheric conditions, after the style of 19th century urban scenes. This abrupt change of course was not without ambiguity, so that reactions to it varied. In the progressive camp this gesture, seen as that of a deserter, caused resentment. In more conservative circles there were sneers at the so-called return of the prodigal son, while it was noted with some malicious delight that the creation of impressionistic atmosphere fell short of the technical level of his historic predecessors. In the context of Heyrman’s later development as a painter, it seems unimportant to associate these views with hyperrealism or impressionism, or to discuss the question whether they set themselves apart from Kitsch only because of their “serial realisation”. The following year the Gallery “De Zwarte Panter” exhibited some twenty similar paintings under the title “to perceive the perception”. It then became clear that it was not a matter of reproducing old clichés from Grandpa’s iconographic collection out of his attic. The series of 28 paintings, executed between 1973 and 1976 was finally classified under the title “the streetlife cycle”, marking the start of an enormous programme which was intended later to be completed by the cycle of water, of light, time, etc.

Heyrman himself wishes to consider this series as springing from an “individual mythology” and one can indeed interpret it as a form of “Spurensicherung” wherein moments of perception and images remembered are recorded in the form of paintings in a dialectic process of experience involving space and time. In the romantic pose of “the man in front of the window” – probably a metaphor for introspection – the artists observes the changing starlike pattern of vehicles and people in the passing of time. More than a nostalgic contemplation, his philosophy is, rather, recording and reflecting. But if he uses the camera if he prefers to paint at night while images advance across the video monitor, he does not make a series of instant exposures just as a camera catches images in separate individual shots, but a synthesis of what the artist himself calls a model of reality. There is no question here of “naturalistic intimism” (“A corner of nature glimpsed through a temperament”) and consequently no going back to an animistic “return to Nature”, so there is certainly no connexion between the cliché-confirming intention of hyperrealism and the speculative exploration of reality which Heyrman pursues. He does not want to achieve pictural transcriptions of visual impressions, but more an analysis and recording of an observation process whereby - apparently -  the retrieval of the image by electronic apparatus is simultaneously integrated. By analogy with various camera shots, separate views and images are worked out in close-up side-by-side with series of panoramic street views.

“To perceive the perception” is considered by Heyrman as a first cycle of a whole series of which each picture is a step in a dialectic development. The two following cycles are those of water and light. They form collectively The History of matter told by the matter itself. This title conceals a reference to an analogy, to be found in the painting technique, with the representation: especially in street scenes with puddles where the uneven surface of the ground almost merges with the background of this picture. The series of views of the Belgiëlei was still done with traditional oil paint, but he now uses a synthetic acryl paint, with water as binding agent.

While being painted, the canvas is no longer placed vertically on an easel, but horizontally, so that the constitution of the image stands out organically from the stratification of the paint. Moreover, the fluidity of the medium is ideally adapted to the natural reproduction of liquid substances and reflections of light: while the texture of the transparent acryl glazes with its many nuances gives a pictural subtlety to the paint skin, which differs from the striking sobriety of so-called photorealism.

The cycle of water and of light were made respectively in the period 1977-1980 and 1980-81, followed by The cycle of time (Impressions of Ireland), made in 1981-83 and The nature of reality, made in 1983-84. These 4th and 5th cycles are classified together under the title ‘Time and Nature (prehistoric times)”. The Irish landscape pervaded with history inspired Heyrman to make this new series of 28 paintings in which the space/time theme is developed. The level, at first limited, of the repetitive street scenes and the enlargement of fragments of “commonplace” reality, are now succeeded by broad studies of nature, rolling landscapes seen under a radiant rainbow, by mountain ranges veiled in mist, fields reflecting festive colours or moving dramatically under the rising storm.

It seems like the re-appearance of the spirit of Romanticism. These paintings exert a strange fascination, even if they also pose a challenge because they boldly attack what modern art has acquired. The allusions to a romantic iconography and the carrying to extremes of the suggestion of reality, constitute an inexorable threat to all holders of modernistic principles. The suspicion seems not unfounded that Heyrman, like Gerhard Richter, painted these Romantic landscapes with subversive intentions, as if he wanted to distance himself voluntarily from the precepts of the avant-garde. Besides, he declares himself unable to accept the prevailing restrictions imposed on artists: why abandon the “painting” medium while the slogan “everything is possible” is an article of faith cherished by the avant-garde? [2].

Heyrman continues to explore the possibilities of painting; this also appears from the last series of paintings to date, presented under the theme “the vision is finer then the view”.

The surf breaking along the Irish coast is the central motif of a series of pictures putting forward the artistic representation of the theme “movement and energy” as the order of the day.

The waves break on the rocks along the coast and fan out in foam. The visual representation of the movement of this mighty mass of water which releases its energy in a myriad of liquid particles is a paradoxical task. Heyrman is familiar with the rules of the psychology of perception as well as with the classic solutions given in painting to the problem of the representation of movement, so he succeeds in perfectly reproducing its optical functioning. Thanks particularly to his somewhat unorthodox technique using acryl paint, he manages to attain the punctum temporis so accurately and in such a way that he can simultaneously represent the splashing of water and of the drops, the fanciful configuration of the foam is instantly recaptured [3]. However, he does not try to achieve a trompe-l’oeil effect. The representation does not form a replica of a retinal image, nor does the painting act as a illusory duplicating of the reality of a reflected image.

In the painting process itself the “image” appears as an analogue to reality, by provoking coincidence. By demonstrating that recognizability can increase while the fidelity of representation diminishes, illusion is deconstructed. In what Heyrman himself calls a “transformative vision”, the “moment” is not fixed, but remains “active”, in a space/time continuum where the spectator is also involved.

Heyrman at a particular moment chose painting, without retracting his previous opinions. He does not wish to recognize a breach between his activity as “Happy Spacemaker” and his exploration of painting. He never disavowed the Utopian idea which was his guide when organizing happenings. Nevertheless there was a certain turning point in his work around 1974, which resulted in a growing revolt against an institutionalized avant-gardisme.

He chose not to allow himself to be taken back into a system which, in any case, induced a neutralisation of the freedom impulse [4]. With ARFO, he sought to achieve a direct communication in a socio-cultural context, in which the traditional concepts of artist, artwork and art dealer are questioned.

If Heyrman was “reformed” around 1974, it is in the sense of an introspection. When entering one phase of his “hidden life” an evolution took place, which is typical for what was called the “silent generation”. This process of introspection through isolation - typical for what was once called the “post 68” syndrome - did not mean that he exchanged Utopian activism for a narcissism devoid of illusions. Heyrman is probably right when he typifies his work as a form of individual mythology, a qualification which is more often applicable to the work of Panamarenko. If one understands this as a kind of particular story which bases an oeuvre as an alternative, or better still, a simulated form of applied science/ philosophy, one indeed notices a relationship. One could, in this context for instance, compare Panamarenko’s study of aerodynamics - which up to a point, has a force of conviction – to Heyrman’s preoccupation with the perception psychology of James J. Gibson, whose “Ecological Approach to visual Perception” partly forms the theoretical basis of his pictural options, or to the language philosophy of Wittgenstein whose “offside” placing of metaphysics he gladly subscribes to, probably because he finds the confirmation there of his rejection of every non-intrinsic interpretation of his work. The fact that he gives his work a mythical dimension – and also refers to Nietzsche – can seem contradictory, but –taking into account Nietzsche’s critical “perspectivism” – does not have to be so. However, for Heyrman, the principle of “individual mythology” does not mean a free cultivating of a personal fantasy. Painting is for him more than producing paintings, because the work process is more important to him than the final result. As pictor ecologicus, he is faithful to the Utopian project of the avant-garde, because for him art and life are inseparable [5]: “in painting, I can represent matter in its ‘forms of life’/ colour, as the aroma of existence /- metamorphosis, more mobile than movement / I give ‘reality’ a new image, but no name / (H.H. 1985)”. [6]

Jean F. Buyck

August 1986

[1] A hint can be found in the catalogue of the Panamarenko retrospective exhibition which was held in 1978 in Berlin, Otterlo and Brussels. However, the two famous felt dolls “Molly Peters” and “Feltra”- two life-size pin-ups - were produced in the catalogue of Panamarenko works. From the remaining sketches and the preliminary studies, the part played by Heyrman in their creation is far greater than their insertion in this catalogue would suggest. Heyrman himself finds a discussion on this subject irrelevant, as these two works stem from a period in which both artists closely collaborated. However in the context of Art History, it is nevertheless a question that goes much further than to know the why and wherefore.

The same thing applies to an even greater degree to the development  of  “Utopian  Thought” about which Piet Van Daalen observed that Heyrman “pushed it consciously in a definite direction” (Catalogue Panamarenko, p. 51).

[2] Heyrman’s “pictural option” can be situated at the centre of an international trend seen in the middle 70’s which broke away from the reductionist ideas of Minimal and Concept Art (see among others exh. Gerhard Richer, Bilder 1962-1985, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf 1986, int. by Jürgen HARTEN).

[3] See among others, E.H. Gombrich, The Image and the Eye, (Phaidon) Oxford 1982, particularly the essay “Moment and Movement in Art”, pp. 40-62.

[4] His opinion that the idea of a happening was incompatible with a museum “retrospective”, made him decide not to participate in the exhibition “The Sixties-Art in Belgium”, held in 1979 in the St. Pieters Abbey in Ghent.

[5] “Ethik und Aesthetik sind Eins” (L. WITTGENSTEIN, Notebooks 1914-1916, OXFORD 1969, p. 77) Cfr. Also C. VAN BRUGGEN, “Gerhard Richter. Painting as a moral act”, in Artforum, May 1985, pp. 82-91.

[6] See J.F. BUYCK: “Hugo Heyrman: Pictor ecologicus” (int. catalogue) Hugo Heyrman, Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp 1984.