After the world-famous Van Gogh Museum, sitting deep in the beating heart of Amsterdam's tourism machine, the venue hosting the biggest series of paintings by the colorful and tortured Dutch artist is the Kröller-Müller Museum. The complex is named after Helene Kröller-Müller, who started the surrounding Hoge Veluwe park – a beautiful natural reserve with lots of plants, animals, and even sand dunes that feel nothing like Holland – together with her husband. In the 30s, when the couple couldn't afford to keep the park anymore, they handed it to a foundation and donated Helene Kröller-Müller’s entire stock of art masterpieces to the Netherlands. Today, the park and the museum in it are both national attractions, drawing art and nature lovers alike to the funnily-named Otterlo.
Given it only takes a couple of hours from Amsterdam to get there, the whole experience is perfect for a day trip. And if you add the rich public art collection around and inside the museum's garden – ranging from Auguste Rodin to Jean Dubuffet, Richard Serra to Joep van Lieshout -- it kind of zips the art and the park together.
As I mentioned before, the highlight of the Kröller-Müller collection is a series of Van Gogh paintings, some from his darker oeuvre – including the notorious Potato Eaters – and some from his brighter Arles years. Apart from that, amongst more modern art classics, there are other less-known perks like a few obscure Dutch pointillists, the delightfully sinister works of local female painter Charley Toorop, and, of course, the temporary exhibitions. The museum is currently featuring a solo show by eclectic Belgian artist Jan Fabre who is most famous for his daring and extremely long theatrical works, featured at both the Venice Biennale and Documenta. At the museum the corpus shown is more centered on his plastic art.
A title like Hortus/Corpus is perfect for Fabre's retrospective at the Kröller-Müller. First of all because, the venue is itself a sort of natural hortus with its expansive sculpture garden, and secondly because the body seems to be the artist's main inspiration, both in his performative works – featured in the form of small videos -- and in his installations. Specific organs like the brain and the genitals are especially portrayed in sketches and sculptures, but Fabre's very own face also appears on multiple occasions. At times this presence feels a bit unnecessary and borderline grotesque – the half-man half-animal busts in the park are funny, but the life-size reproduction of a double-denim wearing replica of the artist lying on a bed of gravestones in his post-orgasmic fluids, erection still out, leaves you a bit perplexed.
Fabre's imaginary is generally very explicit and it plays on compositions that powerfully suggest life, death, or both. He often relies on symbolically-charged elements that he uses as enveloping patterns, like the omni-present beetles that cover his skulls – which in turn hold dead animals in their mouths – or create trippy compositions. If some of the resulting images are pretty effective, in other cases the contrast between the pattern and the subject inside is too generic and random (e.g. his pin-covered astronaut sculpture).
A virtuous example in which Fabre's imaginary is put to good use is a large-scale installation, originally commissioned by Queen Paula of Belgium. The artist reproduced a section of the royal palace's ceiling, put it upside down – including the chandelier – covered it in dead beetles, and laid a hyperrealistic sculpture of a dead black slave face down over it. This provocative take on the country's colonial past is the only example of political critique in the show and it also represents my personal favorite, not necessarily because of its social consciousness.
The problem I had with Fabre's retrospective is that, as a whole, the show seems to oscillate between a macabre, epic symbolism – often quite trite -- and a playful surrealism – easily boring. According to the exhibition's booklet, the artist (who closely curated the display as well) wanted to create different atmospheres in order to dissipate his own persona, but wound up resulting quite obsessed with it instead. The cemetery installation I described above is the – literal – apex of this self-indulgence, a void provocation that makes the one political piece stand out even more.
The above is not to say I thought all of the show was bad – if anything the sheer compulsiveness of the beetle-collecting and beetle-composing shows a keen interest in entomology that I'm sure underlies a deeper fascination with philosophical issues like Kafkaesque metamorphosis and so on. Thing is, after the first impact, the easy symbolism is no longer so thought-provoking and the sensuality of the pieces – which I'm sure a performer like Fabre kept in mind throughout – becomes repetitive. The videos that connect the show to the artist's career feel a bit out of context, and if a good retrospective is always varied, this one feels a bit too all-over-the-place.
Fortunately, Hortus/Corpus has the museum's collection, its garden, and the park to back it up. All together they make a perfect reason to take a train, a bus and a bike. But do pick a sunny day, otherwise you'll be trapped inside with the beetles and Fabre's penis.
~ Nicola Bozzi, a writer living in Amsterdam.
(Images: Jan Fabre, untitled installation; Photo Courtesy Catalina Iorga; A snap of the deserted area in the Hoge Veluwe park; Photo courtesy Nicola Bozzi; Chapters I-XVIII, 2010; I had to demolish a part of the ceiling of the royal palace because there was something growing out of it, 2008; View of the museum's garden; Photo Courtesy Catalina Iorga)