(Below text has been taken from Monography Gérard Grassère 1915 - 1993 written by Hans Lutz The Netherlands, 1993 For personal reading only.)
"All life is transformation, transposition from the rough to the fine. disruptions arise because man is unbalanced, not able to transform. I consider life a jungle, where you shouldn't try to cut paths, you should surrender to it, then naturally you 'll. find your way in its." There is the philosophy of Gérard Grassère: as man an artist, as an artist a human soul.
Grassère was born in Heerlen in the year 1915 of Belgian-Dutch parents and has created a large collection of paintings, gouaches and murals. His work is a reflection of a sensitive mind which tonality is being determined by the confidence in the ultimate balance between man, nature and culture. That confidence is without doubt the result of permanent investigations into the relationships of existence. Grassère represents a generation of Dutch artists who, in an emotional way, figuratively or abstractly, visualize these investigations and therefore can be considered as contemporary Dutch Expressionists.
Just before World War II Grassère studied in Antwerp at the Academy of Fine Arts with a.o. professor Isidoor Opsomer. In Flemish Belgium he got acquainted with the work of such painters as Constand Permeke, Frits van den Berghe, Gustave de Smet, Jules de Sutter and Albert Servaes, all important representatives of Flemish Expressionism. Although here, as well as in German Expressionism, it is the expression of the human tragedy that predominates, in Flemish Expressionism a certain Latin cultural influence can be found also. This influence is specifically present in the expression of joy of people. objects and landscapes. In this way the "delightfulness and awfulness", as Gérard Grassère verbalized it to me, just before his death in 1993, become a pictural synthesis.
Gérard Grassère was always aware of this dualism in man's existence. It is for this very reason that, after the horrors of World War II, he purposely choose to express his fascination by the joyfulness that springs from direct observation of the phenomena or their transformation onto a level of an acceptable validity. In addition it can be said that his understanding of human tragedy has given that joy an emotional depth: 'man is the only living creature aware of matters of life and death".
The greatest part of Grassère's work was created in Utrecht. There he met his second wife, the sculptress Len Peperkamp, and there he developed a close friendship with the painter and cosmopolitan Otto van Rees. This friendship has been of great importance to Grassère. Van Rees, who had returned from Paris where he had been in contact several years with Picasso, Alexander Calder, Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, Ilya Ehrenburg and many other artists and writers, was the only Dutch painter who gave form to Cubism in an authentic way. However, Van Rees had left Cubism in it's dogmatical form already before the friendship between the two men developed. It was about this time that a certain monumentality developed in the compositions of Grassère. This can be noticed in the way in which sources of inspiration crystallize into more or less repeated basic forms and configurations. They have a function as poetical motives for series of paintings. Examples are the series "Elegy in Space", "Configurations of Sounds" and "Broken Circles". These leitmotives, expressed in several moods and recognizable in the application of the paints and the colourscheme, give their binding, pictural monumentality to such series.
Grassère's sources of inspiration show deep means of empathy in the world of emotions. characteristic is a series of paintings from the early sixties, inspired by a collection of poems called "Balance" by the South African poet Elisabeth Eybers. In these poems feelings of pain and sorrow are transposed onto a level of general recognizability. Grassère, impressed by this, made twenty paintings about which he said: "It's no question of making paintings as illustrations to the poems. the paintings have become purely independent objects. However, I was so fascinated by the tragedy of this woman, by the intense human depth in her work, that I was compelled to transfer his messages into symbols." Whilst here a seismographical sensitivity for the world of human emotions is being expressed, in other series of paintings the perception of sounds, tones and music is being elaborated. Like this, noises of overflying jets enter his work in the appearance of a repeatedly returning abstract movement of form and the musical composition of Louis Andriessen "The State" becomes Grassère's inspiration to express on his canvasses his belief in the possibility of a better world.
Grassère, believing in the necessity of a holistic unity of man, nature and culture, for whom respect for "otherness" next to "ownness" formed the bases for living and acting, has chosen for an independent and individual position in post-war arts. Though it would have been understandable by his vision and his way of painting, Grassère did not take side with the demonstrating Abstract-Expressionism of COBRA, as a protest against the amorphous imagination of a society that was brusqued by the war. Neither did he recognize himself in those movements in post-war arts in the Netherlands that wished to conserve the traditional values of the classical, figurative art as primer concept of their painting. The particular point of view that Gérard Grassère has expressed in his work, can be considered as a pictural contribution to the gradual growth of a world-society in which cultural pluriformity and joy with the miracles of nature will be natural phenomena.
Once Picasso said: "The art of painting is no esthetical audicity but a form of magic, that is destined to be an intermediary between that strange, hostile world and ourselves. it is a means for us to take possession of the power over life because of the fact that through it we can give form to our horror as well as to our desires…."Another artist from the 20th century, Amedée Ozenfant, saw in the arts and science the art of illusion. The meaning he gave to this was an universal one and was that art and science should have as a purpose to create phantasies that help to relieve reality. Dedication to this makes it possible to come to the experience of another more comprehensible reality, which is the work of art or a theory. Both are attempts to become familiar and to get closer to that uncontrollable, alienable general reality. Nevertheless forms of hypotheses that ask for proofs, but with the work of art needing no other proof than an emotional and probably an intellectual sensation of the person looking at it. Gérard Grassère understood that in this respect he, coming from Heerlen in the Netherlands, did not differ essentially from an artist making a totem-pole, in New Guinea or Africa. Not because our cultures do not differ from each other but because we, human beings, in our relationship to life and universe are that more equal than different. this also is the essence of the last series of paintings that Grassère was able to create.
Brita Bakema, 1993
(Head of the "Centrum Beeldende Kunst Utrecht")
Continuity and Growth
The art of painting of Gérard Grassère has been described and praised in every aspect. His capability to create form in colour, composition, structure to his commitment in doing things during his life, has fascinated many thousands of people during his long life as an artist. An admiration that was expressed by many orders from home and abroad, by countless buyings from authorities and private individuals.
Admirations and a large list of orders and sellings do not say real things about the qualities of an artist. How often did not it occur in the past - and it occurs still today - that artists with an excellent feeling for publicity anticipate on the fashion of the moment. Artists who are listening to laws of supply and demand and investigation of the market in their production, rather than by the passion to transfer exclusively the own belief, emotions and perceptions in an absolutely own point of view.
If there is one side of the artistic calling of Gérard Grassère that is generally recognized and acknowledge, then it is just the self-will by going his way. The manner in which he always has chosen for modes of impression that were relevant for himself, for themes that were important for him, say everything about his integrity as artist. Of course he has been influenced by the world around him, as he was by his teachers and the idols of his youth, but it were influences that he always - and in the course of the years more and more emphatically - treated in a fully own way.
The work of Grassère can hardly be divided in exact periods. There are some themes that, in a certain succession, play a role in his work, but in new subjects one could see things from the past. If it should be divided, then only in rough lines: the mechanical period begins at the end of the fourties till 1957, the theme Balance has his high point in 1963; the "Transformations of Sound" have been produced between 1968 and 1979 but also after that period they are still existing. Inbetween Grassère made between 1973 and 1976 matter-paintings. From 1980 on colour-and form-influences from Spain played a role and themes as "Broken Circles" and Elegy in Space come up.
So work growed during the time that on the one side is a reflection of the actuality of the moment in which the human being Grassère was heavily interested and on the other side there was the growing completion that passes the individual commitment. That's way the artistical work of Gérard Grassère got a general validity.
The fascination for the power and complexity of machines and the opposition against the violent monotony from the arliest Eindhoven period; the reaction of the overpowering noise nuisance in Transformations of Noise; the care for the self-fouling human nature, that even comes to the universum: the partly "incidental" series referring to Louis Andrieseen's composition The States and the poems of the South-African Elisabeth Eybers: the immovable belief in the creativity of man as the only way in the world going to the fall which comes up in Broken Circles: the regard for not-western "strange" cultures. All these themes in the work of Grassère are no single choices. They form the chapters in a book that shows a great inner coherence. A book in which at the end, everything fells together.
In his monography the way back was followed. In some facets that will occur restrained because of the fact that Frans Duister already gave in former book about Gérard Grassère extensively and clearly a lot of information. Now we shall pay more attention to the fact what happened since that time in the work of Grassère.
The last months before the death of Gérard Grassère on July 1st, 1993 were characterized as a period of reflections. Grassère did not work anymore, since it was physically no longer possible for him. The time which was left to him was given a positive meaning, as he did so often during his life. Looking back, thinking over, reflecting, talking with him wife (the sculptress Len Peperkamp) and others who stood close to him, he wondered which experiences and happenings had been very important for him during his life. He made the balance. It says a lot that his involvement with the Papuans - and certainly the trips he made in the seventies to the Australian New Guinea - came above all as the most important. It was at that time that Grassère got involved by the circumstances under which people had to live in a hardly discovered culture. It had such an influence that he organized a benefit-exposition of 49 paintings and gouaches and He destined financial results the money to buy waterpumps for the papuans in the surrounding of the river Ramu. It was the time of solidarity, of engagement, from the artists too.
More important for his development as an artist was that he got more and more fascinated by the culture of the tribes, that, it's true, for a part lived in the Stone Age, but notwithstanding could put impressions in their masks and sculptures. At that time he made a few paintings in which one can see influences of the elemental Papuan-art. But mostly expressive influences came to the fore. Only a little or nothing can be found back of the deep mystical meaning of the sculptures.
After being a couple of months with the Papuans things change evidently. This experience made a deep impression on him, that, as could be concluded afterwards, influenced his life.
He observes very precisely how this primitive cohabitation has been formed. He describes that rarely the own harvest was eaten by them but this harvest was changed with special occasions, how self-evident it is that personal properties form part of the general property, how there are many identities with our Western cultures, and how naturally the Christian rituals, brought there by mission were enclosed in the magical ways that form the social order for thousands of years already.
Reporting his experiences he states:
"The supernatural forces are not only represented by masks, paintings, woodcarvings or jewels, they are embodied as well. They form, in the most precisely sense of the word, means to reach or to have the holyness, so that one really has contacts and can live under the protection thereof. They are holy objects. Art forms the idea that it is possible to form power. Art was never brought up just for art. In the deepest meaning it only can be understood when one realizes that it has a certain function in certain religious convictions.
The art is a religious art.
Therefore one accepts that the oldest art is of magical-religious origin, that's to say the eldest artistical form was destined to influence higher powers."
Observations, written down in 1974 and referring to the Papuan-culture. After almost twenty years they get a much ore extensive meaning if Grassère again takes the theme of other cultures and places things against the background of discrimination, coming fascism and xenophobia.
In the beginning he translates his experiences in New Guinea to his personal artistic calling. The lack of inhibition of the people, being close to nature, the magic to the culture, become his own creed. Stronger than ever he is convinced of the fact that he has to go his own way. The paintings from that time look like incantations with which he secures and protects, in heavy structures, expressive colours and complex compositions, his freedom as an artist.
As Grassère in his work of the last years of his life uses this theme again, it has lift out his strictly personal involvement. It still handles a personal vision, but the "message" gets a further reach. The necessity was evident for Grassère: "We live in a time in which other, unknown and as intimidating experienced cultures, come closer to us. We cannot switch off with violence and fundamentalism. The only way to find an answer is to have an open eye for it and to respect the "stranger" and integrate both cultures. We have to find a balance with for all cultures our own place.
He was convinced that right here there is a particular task for artists: "We artists can make visible where others (still) are blind. We can give opportunity to people in our living together to find experience in foreign and unknown cultures. We find as a task to sort out triviality of the daily news programmes the deeper meaning of an culture." He himself executed this order with all energy in him.
The conviction to have a social assignment as an artist certainly stimulated Gérard Grassère strongly in the second half of his life. Sometimes he liked to moralize but he had so many artistical means to prevent that his art got "preachy". More important is the fact that his commitment resulted in a sinire care for human beings matters.
A quotation from an interview I had on the occasion of his seventieth birthday speaks volumes:
"Whole nations have disappeared through lack of creativity and everything makes clear that the humankind of today again came into such a period in which prehistoric information that is in us, the possibility to find creative solutions for the problems that we deal with, lays down under the anxiety to be free. The theme of the "broken circle" will make clear that for me the only possibility to survive is to enforce an opening where our human creativity can find a way out of narrowness, conservatism, force of arms, violence, drugs, egoism, far for life.
Following this, the way on which we, most literally, foul our own nest, frightens me: we are not only busy making the environment unlivable, we even attack the universe. Is this a message, a moralizing artistical calling? I cannot do anything else: in all my work human being is central and if this human being is being intimidated (or intimidates itself) then I have to opposite against this. An artist has the duty to cry."
The paintings from the series Broken Circles were cries. He made clear in those paintings that coming free from creativity is a difficult and often painful struggle. He has dozens, probably hundreds of paintings on this theme and in almost no painting the process of freedom is self-explanatory. The pulsating colours tear off with brute force from the dangerous black circles. The violence with which this occurs makes looking at this often a depressing experience. It rarely happens that Grassère puts down his message as "easy". But the recompensation for the fight can be found outside the circles: freedom, freedom without limits.
This comes also to the fore in the works made in the same period that got as title: "Elegy in the Space". Herein is also hidden a message: fear for environmental pollution, but this time Grassère does not choose to make an indictment. He confronts the visitor with the poetry of space and so makes visible and feelable the abstraction, that is "the space" for most.
The Elegies show an aspect of art of Grassère that one often meets in less engaged work. This work was made in Spain. a number of years Gérard and Len lived both in Spain and in Utrecht. These periods in Spain were very important. The totally other surrounding worked as a rest- and reflection place, not in the literally meaning for they worked certainly as intense as in Utrecht. The other lifestyle had a purifying influence. Mind and eye got other impulses, getting their translation into beautiful, sensitive paintings, more or less of the landscape. In the meantime grew, almost unconscious, new insights, new approaches, that often got shape in the Spanish workshop. They could certainly, after returning to Utrecht, to found in the work that was made in Spain.
Spain gave the opportunity to get up the oscillation of the artistical clock to the other side; it was there they had the chosen freedom and here the inner necessity to fight for that freedom.
Gérard Grassère did not only give the defense for (spiritual) freedom in a certain period of life artistically but gave even practical matter. At the end of the sixties the bond he had with music - sound to say it more exactly - already for many years - got a new dimension. Sound as a source of inspiration was discovered earlier by him - and with him by many other artists. From a certain point of view one could consider the twenty paintings on poems of Elisabeth Eybers as sound-paintings: poetry is except contents sound as well. It was delpening when Grassère made a number of paintings, inspired by the songs of Herman van Veen.
The "painting on sound" seemed to have an attractive influence. Grassère teached this as teacher on the "Instituut voor Beeldende Expressie" in Amersfoort and on the creative institute for nurses in Breda. He got a certain reputation as an unorthodox but inspiring teacher.
Looking back it is so normal, but at the time, the step Grassère did in the direction of therapeutical effects of the "sound-painting" was hazardous. His "sound-transformations" were in principle considered as purely artistical experiments. The experiments with basic schools and schools for children with learning and educational problems, were done in consultation with pediatricians and psychologists and the results showed that there was more. For, Grassère thought, if it is possible to change "real" music into colour and form, why should it not be possible then to transform bad, annoying, irritating sound.
He began a series of experiments by registering the sound of: a jetfighter, thunderbolts, sirens of the police, the ticking of the alarmclock and the crying of a baby. He had the sounds listened by the students at school and asked them to make pictures of the sound. the results were surprising in two ways. The longer the students worked with the sound-transformations, the less became the irritation caused by the sound. At the same time the "transformation" had a curative influence on the loosening and developing of the creativity of the makers.
Grassère collected the results of his experiments and wrote down his philosophy behind the experiments. "In our more or less technocratic life we have to experience the influences of noise in relation with prosperity. this sound may have a disturbing influence on our nervous system. For example we talk about flatneurosis and are afraid to see aggression growing." The documentation was offered to the Minister of Culture, with the intention to give a "recognized" status to the idea of sound-transformation.
Meanwhile he took every opportunity to demonstrate the therapeutical working and the experts were impressed: "The transformation-painting raised our personal desire to do something ourselves": this was written by the District Health Care, Valkenswaard after an experiment with children of a special basic school in Bladel. We see in the transformation-painting, it should be modified however, an extension of existing (psycho)-therapeutical technics. It seems for us a real method to loosen creative means with children and adults. It seems to be a good idea to take up this method in the total set of "artistic education".
The exposition in De Krabbendans in Eindhoven, where visitors could hear sounds that inspired Grassère for his transformations of sound, became a success. After more than ten years it appeared that transforming the sound has improved with intrinsic importance.
The triptych made by Grassère in 1985 on the occasion of the composition "The State" of Louis Andriessen seems to be more than the "illustration" of the composition. It is an interpretation of the world of ideas of the Greed philosopher Plato (the writer of "The State") that in many aspects give more right to the ideas than to composer did. In the composition the accent on the indignation of the composer is about the lack of polity of that time. Grassère came to the range of ideas of Plato by his way of thinking: by dialogue. He does not paint a pamphlet by supporting an idea, but creates space for the idea that can be filled by the visitor.
(Mental) space, freedom, commitment, dialogue. These are understandings that stipulated the work of Gérard Grassère more and more. This has everything to do with character, forming and experience of life.
It is tempting to look for the starting years the first elements of later development and scientists of the human soul will no doubt find these elements. Grassère passed the first part of his youth in a harmonious surrounding. His father, a Belgian mine-engineer, had a certain standing in Heerlen where at the time the growth from a farmervillage to a mine-town began. His mother, born in Heerlen, brought the sphere from Heerlen in her home and it was a close harmony family in a small town. His mother played the violin, liked singing and did this well and took care in that way for the "weight" of the father. The talent of drawing of the young Gérard was expressed carefully and not so obvious but the fact that he got the chance was rather particular.
After the death of his father and a short time later the death of his mother - he was at the age of 16 - he moved to Eindhoven, where he got a guardian. There he made his first paintings. By this his future was set; he became an artist. He got a good reliable education and it was quite normal for a man coming from Limburg, living in the distance to the country "above the rivers" was certainly at that time too long.
The education took place at the "Hoger Instituut voor Schone Kunsten" in Antwerp, Belgium. There he got acquainted, by his teacher Isidoor Opsomer, with the Flemish expressionism (influenced by Permeke).
Returning to the "Brabantse" Kempen it was difficult to neglect the influence of this expressionism, but even at that time already his commitment with people manifested. The confrontation with the conditions under which people worked in the surrounding of Eindhoven where industry was settled, brought him to the fact of making a series of paintings on which the monotonous power of the machines could be seen. During World War II this theme was changed for still-lives and symbolic tinted paintings where people and especially children had a central place.
His move to Utrecht in 1950 was the reason for a breakthrough in Grassère's artistical development. he became friends with Otto van Rees, one of the first painters of the Cubism in the Netherlands. Van Rees had, in spite of the fact that he was already in his last artistical days, a great influence on Grassère. His work went to a more poetic-abstract monumentalism, a more clear theme and the control of his sensitiveness. At the same time he got involved by the moving cultural way of life in Utrecht. He was one of the founders of "de Progressieven", a group artists that offered resistance against the existing cultural order. After expositions in the Centraal Museum and Slot Zeist the group fell apart: the only way that bound the group was resistance and artistical there was no coherence between the members.
He remained active outside the direct painting. he organized expositions for colleagues, was asked to take part in different buying-delegations, gave introductions and made some wallpaintings for hospitals in the Eastern part of Holland.
In 1957, after the death by an accident of Otto van Rees - he moved into the house and studio of van Rees. This was very important in his life: from then on he could more than ever concentrate on his work and on traveling. He visited several times the Dordogne where he - commissioned by Dr. J. Vismans - painted the interior of the Roman church of Meyrals. He went to Switzerland, Aruba and Curacao, to New Guinea and Spain, always fulfilled with artistical curiosity and personal interest for the human being in those other surroundings.
In some aspects Grassère was an individual. Not in social life, which he enjoyed intensively and with much pleasure but as an artist he was certainly an individual. He was not concerned about tendencies. He demanded room for himself in all sentences. In that room he manifested as an passionate artist who, from his engagement, was looking for the balance between ideal and reality: between message and artistical form. One can find these things in his work, whatever theme it may concern.
At the end of his life he found with a certain satisfaction that "everything came together in his most recent work". This was a correct conclusion, but in the context of the coming end it was a meaning that suggested if this was (finally) the first time and that was not true. The most particular thing in the work of Gérard Grassère is, that in very new theme all foregoing experiences came together. One cannot find caesura in his work, every new work was the summary of everything foregoing. His work growed in width and depth but always there was an organic coherence. Not only in the always recognizable vibrating handwriting but also intrinsically where the new work always had the elements of the past. In this way it was a new important complete work coming into being that - soared above place and time - addresses itself very urgently to future generations.
Hans Lutz, 1993