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By Patricia Boccadoro

VIENNA, AUSTRIA, 30 AUGUST 2011 — The Belgian choreographer, Jan Fabre, is also one of Europe’s leading avant-garde visual artists. Born in Antwerp in 1958, he studied at the Institute of Decorative Arts and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts before writing his first works for the theatre. Early on in his career he also produced his first series of insect drawings, becoming fascinated to the point of obsession by the works of the entomologist, Jean-Henri Fabre, whom he claimed was his great-grandfather.

It’s possibly news to many that the man known for his provocative choreographic dance works, where nakedness, crude sex and violence have become his trademarks, is also a sculptor, designer and illustrator of talent whose creations have been shown in Venice, Berlin, Budapest and Sao Paulo. His most famous accomplishment is the decoration of the ceiling of the Salle des Glaces in the Royal Palace of Brussells which he covered with myriads of jewelled large-sized beetle shells.

Jan Fabre: Dancing the Hour Blue
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

However, the story really took off in 2006 in Antwerp when an exhibition of Fabre’s sculptures and film works was shown at the city’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts alongside creations by artists who had inspired him, from Lucas Cranach to Peter Paul Rubens, the irony being that this most radical of artists has always drawn his inspiration from the traditional.  It was followed by a more ambitious project two years later in the Louvre Museum, Paris.  Fabre presented L’Ange de la Metamorphose, a theatrical installation that brought together sculpture, painting, photography and drawing as well as several of the artist’s own live performances, the idea being to throw new light on the collection of such painters as Jan van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosch. The curator there referred to the project as a "mental drama". Now it is the turn of the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna to continue the adventure.

An exhibition of some thirty of the artist’s works borrowed from private and public collections across Europe from the series The Hour Blue, most of which were completed between 1986 and 1992, were on view this summer in the Picture Gallery (until 28 August) of this austere building. What, one might ask, can Fabre’s highly contemporary works have in common with such masters as Bruegel, Rubens, or Durer?

Jan Fabre: Lime Twig Man
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

It is not an exhibition as such, as Fabre’s works have been carefully placed around the museum. Thus the first piece that came to my notice was The Lime Twig Man, a work completed with a blue bic ballpoint pen on paper, which hung, not cheekily as one might have expected, but respectfully next to Pieter Bruegel’s The Peasant and the Nest Robber. It shows the artist himself in a bee-keeper’s hat and gauze veil, a castle visible behind one shoulder. The title of the work comes from sixteenth century emblem books, where the lime-twig man catches cuckoos, a symbol of idiocy, but in doing so is beset by gnats and flies, (foolish thoughts), which he traps with a sticky fly-swatter. Medieval symbols such as skeletons, animal claws and solitary peacocks haunt Fabre’s drawings, resulting in such fascinating creations as Three Claws, completed as always in blue ballpoint pen on paper.

Fabre’s Man with a Feather and Eagle Squab and Arm with Snake keep company with Rubens’ 1617 canvas, The Head of Medusa depicting Perseus’ killing of the monster, Medusa, whose hair was made of snakes and whose gaze turned men to stone. In another room, there is a gigantic ‘wall’ of blue, which one can like or not like, and which is in fact royal-blue ballpoint pen densely worked on silk and entitled Flying Rooster. It dominates but does not overshadow works of Rubens, works which rest separated by some four-hundred years.

And while in another of the latter’s more sombre paintings, the Apostle Paul frowns down from across the centuries, I fell with relief upon three rather lovely works by the Belgian artist. Three variations of Puddle on Paving Stones, gossamer-light shadows of blue upon white worked as in most of his exhibits, in bic ballpoint pen on paper. His works appear to float in space, in a dreamlike atmosphere, where nothing is real, nothing is tangible. On the triptych, De Roos van het toezien, huge birds surround a gigantic skull, while in one of my favourite works, Dancing the Hour Blue, a real winged insect sits in the centre of a mass of seething blue pen marks. It isn’t glued in place, but has merely alighted there.

Jan Fabre: Dancing the Hour Blue, detail
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

All these works are related to the writings of Jean-Henri Fabre, who studied the moment of transition between night and day when nocturnal creatures sleep and diurnal beings awake. And exhibited alongside masterpieces from the museum’s permanent collection, they actually do initiate a conversation between the historical, the temporary and the eternal in a way in which the works of Jeff Koons and the Japanese artist, Murakami, placed in Versailles did not. Koons and Murakami were unwanted intruders, whereas here in Vienna the rooms in the museum where no pictures by Fabre were shown seemed empty, lacking the elements of timelessness, peace and poetry that the Belgian creator’s works brought with them. 

Jan Fabre: De man die de wolken meet
(The man who measures the clouds),
Silicon bronze with a golden patina 
113.4 x 0 in. / 288 x 0 cm.
Cast in an edition of eight plus two artist proof

We are also brought closer to the limitless imaginative world of Fabre and far from challenging the timeless masterpieces, his pieces add to their beauty. Nevertheless, I could not help repressing a smile when leaving the museum. Turning around to look up, I glimpsed a sculpture, a life-size bronze cast of Fabre’s own body positioned boldly on the roof. Said by Fabre to be a tribute to his brother who died when he was a child, It was entitled, Man Measuring the Clouds. But just who was he talking to up there?

Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor at Culturekiosque.

Headline image: Jan Fabre

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Dispatch From Versailles: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

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