Interview with the artist Jan van Oost
It is always a pleasure to meet Jan, although the opportunities are rare because he lives in Belgium and is often travelling around the world for his work. Jan Van Oost is an internationally renowned sculptor: a Belgian Flemish artist who likes to call himself a pure Romantic, pointing out that his is not a romantic pink, but “dark”, a deep, dark black.
His works evoke a strong visual emotional impact, even if mitigated by a subtle ironic vein that interweaves them, and by an elegance of the forms which make his creations simultaneously hyper-realistic and surreal.
His desecrating, disquieting, mysterious works go into the world of Baudelaire of the cursed symbolism but are also approached by the great Flemish school of Antoine Wiertz, Leon Spilliaert and James Ensor and, even though with differences, also by Edvard Munch. The works of Jan Van Oost are not grotesque, despite the hints of deformity in their elegant realisation.
- JAN VAN OOST 1
The installations are Interesting: just think of the various versions of the opera The Black Widow - whether squatted in a corner, with the face always covered by long black hair, or in the middle of a room, always maintaining a sinuous, mournful, painful femininity.
Very famous are the works dedicated to Salome - The long hand with the skull, a work where the sculptor used as material, five kilograms of pure silver; the beauty and purity of the material enhance the model, in this dramatic case, the concept of death, as the inevitable destination of life. Death in the work of Jan Van Oost plays a central role, almost as an inspiring muse. As the artist emphasises, it is the other side of life, impossible to deny, impossible not to be fascinated by this ultimate mystery.
But the sculptor, in his words, does not rely on a religious expression of faith: he prefers to call himself an atheist, capturing a sense of oppression in the various religions and fleeing from them, while he believes that everything – life, death and beauty – can be traced back to Nature.
We cannot fail to mention, in his great body of work, the drawings that are part of the Baudelaire cycle; to date he has made over 1,300 drawings in his career. Jan Van Oost has had numerous exhibitions in the best galleries, in Paris, London, Brussels, Geneva, Turin, Rome, Naples, Berlin, Tokyo, New York and beyond, a European artist with worldwide sales and recognition.
Jan, could you tell me about when you first wanted to create Art, I’m curious to know if this desire is linked to a particular moment, or if it was born and raised in a natural way to meet with your extraordinary talent.
Jan, in spite of the gloomy romanticism and the obscure symbolism of his works, at times made disturbing by the inclusion of spectral elements in the frame and center of the figures; in private life, he is a very amiable and sociable man, and he responds eagerly and frankly:
- JAN VAN OOST 3
I have designed and created objects all my life, ever since I was a very young child, even before I knew the meaning of the word “Arte”. My parents still keep those juvenile works on paper and I consider those drawings and artifacts, formerly Arte – simply because I am an artist and an artist makes Arte. Artists are born, and a true artist does not need external stimuli, a teacher, a book or something else, and I can add that in any case, the question of whether these drawings and other things are beautiful is not so important.
Jan briefly interrupts the flow of the speech, to sip a coffee: he loves Italian coffee, strong and dense as he defines it - I take this opportunity to try to discover his secrets as an artist.
- JAN VAN OOST 2
Dedicating all your life to an artistic journey means living with a great creativity, but is this creativity manifested as a continuous process with its own logic, or sometimes fragmented, something unexpected that rises in you and breaks the pattern?
He looks at me with a questioning expression: perhaps my English is not the best. Doubts assail me; then he answers:
Walking in a forest, everything that happens, what you see, what you hear or smell, can have an impact in the choice of direction to follow, can push you to penetrate deep into the forest itself. At that point, however, you are aware that there is no horizon and that the light that filters is very meagre in a real black forest. So I could say that I follow my instincts, both questioning and being surprised by all the things around.
An artist is a traveller without a real goal. Perhaps the most important thing during his walk is to be open to all kinds of surprises.
- JAN VAN OOST 4
In this metaphor of the walk, I find the best tradition of great travellers, especially Englishmen of the 19th century who undertook the Grand Tour, who journeyed to Europe, especially to Italy and Greece, fascinated by the artistic wealth of these two countries, but who followed in these voyages also their emotional feeling, right in that period of Romanticism on the verge of Decandentism, in which the roots of Van Oost’s Arte sink, and Jan underlines several times, to be a conceptually classical and non-modernist artist.
In your approach, to what extent does the artist place himself in confrontation with society? And what value does the work of art assume?
Referring to your art, we speak of Individual Humanism, because according to you the individual must develop an awareness, an evolution that must come from within and not from an external imposition on the part of social political structures – is this true?
As I have repeatedly mentioned, the artist’s place is on the margins of society. A remote angle is the place, a detached behaviour the best way, to observe and enable the artist to engrave, to leave a lasting impression: to be aware of the "human condition" is to position oneself "out of control" because a lot of social structure can create inner censorship.
I am a person in conflict, continues the sculptor; in this sense I do not have too many social models to follow, and living outside the box, towards a life outside the box, precisely, follows originality. Certainly to live against the current takes a natural attitude, which should not be underestimated.
Jan, if I return to the function of the work of art, if it is able, through the emotions it manages to arouse, to evoke, to bring out our more hidden and unfathomable areas, is this path as valid for the user as for the artist who creates? And does all this have a therapeutic value, like psychoanalysis?
I am not a therapist, not for others and not for myself. In fact, walking with my dog in a forest is more therapeutic than making art. I can imagine that some people are constantly eager to look for keys, chills or pleasant moments inside works of art, but I can also assure you I have met more people with a greater evolution of consciousness, out of the art world than in it. In reality, the intellect or wisdom has nothing to do with art but above all with the experience of life itself.
But to complete your question, I tell you that by chance, I realized that my artistic errors were more interesting than those works that I thought were perfect.
So, in order to evolve, do the errors count above all?
I know that my "catastrophic" designs are the best I’ve ever created. Even though I myself have not understood their meaning, I am aware that they have made something unique happen, that something happened and continues to happen, I like to imagine it as magic.
I do not believe in psychoanalysis. The worst scenario is living a life where everything is explained and there must be a reason for all our behaviour. A life like a book of explanations, like a page in a manual to explain how to build an Ikea bookcase. Horror, of course! As you can see in museums all over the world, art must be explained, simplified.
Well, I’m happy with what you say: instinctively, when I go to an exhibition, I reject the guided tours that are interesting or the headphones for explanations of the various paintings, to avoid being emotionally affected. Then at the end I purchase the catalogue; only after having been privileged to experience the emotions aroused by the work of art, only then can I get to know it better.
Yes, people are afraid of the unknown. Art is lived with a hypochondriac attitude. They see a work of art and without asking themselves, they ask Google for a bit of clarity. They are looking for answers on Google, rather than theirs, because after all, they are afraid of it. They do not want to get lost in art, they prefer a boring life, but without questions and inner answers, they risk becoming increasingly boring. For many, it is much better to continue to accept the philosophical wisdom of "not knowing" - becoming aware of oneself can be painful, in some cases devastating, or just tiring.
How would you define your work, in three words?.
It strikes deep down, they are not easy works, they are immediately appreciated, they are works that exalt silence, the symbols of sadness, of solitude as a human condition. Silence is very important, it evokes a paradise lost..
One of the focal themes of your work is the symbiotic relationship between Eros and Thanatos, what can you tell me about it?
Yes, it is a visceral relationship: love is the annihilation of oneself, it is death of oneself, it is suffering. In love you have to give everything of yourself, it is very risky, some people flee it, they want to love but up to a certain point, but it does not work like this. There is a tragedy in love, love must be lived by putting one’s life at stake.
In your sculptures, in your drawings there are erotic figures, in the sinuous forms of the bodies that touch each other, that are tied, but then instead of the heads there are their skulls: are they provocative in the emotional shock that they arouse? The skull element is very present, as evidence of that cursed Symbolism mentioned at the beginning.
The horror and the seduction together, are a contingent reason for my works and a fascinating element. I created works thinking of the writings of De Sade and Pasolini, even if De Sade goes to the grotesque. There is a common thread in literature and therefore in art that binds these two emotions, beyond the temporal space of the artists. Two strong emotions that I like and I try to evoke with my work.
He returns to these expressions, his thinking pure and gloomy romantic, which goes beyond the Goethean themes, looking for chills noir to make think of Edgar Allan Poe.
Within his artistic poetry, the works with the Mirrors – the mirror an object, a surface that people use as a reference to the image of what they would like to be – are very important, but the mirrors in Van Oost’s works do not lend themselves to these illusions: they present breaks, holes, which are there as a reminder that no one is whom he deludes himself to be.
Continuing the conversation, the sculptor mentions other artists, like Michelangelo Pistoletto, who have used mirrors in their work, and takes the cue for a digression on the Arte Povera; he quotes Calzolari, Kounellis, he shares the Arte Povera, the Idea, at the center of everything. Although he himself defined his art as “Baroque visceral”.
Van Oost himself is the expression, also in the attention to detail, of his passion for beauty in all forms, in the choice of pure materials, such as silver, and white Carrara marble, or pearls. I remember a silver plate with a pearl on it. I tell him that when I saw it, it took my breath away, made me take a deep breath; it was as if it had opened up a physical and mental space. I asked him why the combination - it’s a decadent work, he replied.
Jan calls himself a dandy, turning to the great Irish writer, Oscar Wilde; he adores him and takes incredible care in dressing; like a true dandy, he loves original tailored clothes and he also loves the bucolic life, the search for a sort of Arcadia, a refined simplicity in contact with nature.
You are a great artist and a fascinating man, it seems you have had everything to live a very interesting, enjoyable life. What is a pleasant life for you?
Then Jan Van Oost surprises me because he answers me with a prism of questions.
I wonder what a pleasant life means: is it a fulfilled life, a life where nothing is missing, or a life of conscience ?
A life full of suspense or a balanced life? A new life, or a life of acceptance? A life that others want to share? A flexible, changeable life or a boring life or a life rich in content?. A simple life? A healthy life? A spiritual life?
All these facets reflect his inner dynamism, the constant search for equilibrium and destruction as a vital process of evolution.
We finish the interview, with the most classic of questions - can you tell me about your next job?
As soon as I return to Belgium, I will finish an important work on Il Paradiso, which follows the Trilogy of Dante’s theme – Hell, Dante ’s Dream a and Beatrice’ s Prophecy. It is truly a great work.
- JAN VAN OOST 5
He says this as he gets up, departing with a slight hug and kissing of cheeks, and I watch him go away with all his charm as a great Artist.
Interview by Ornella Guidi
Translation by Olivia Forsyth Langton - editor
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For the Photos we thank to JAN VAN OOST
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