Erik van Lieshout’s films are often riotous, comic affairs. Always putting himself in the frame – along with his subjects, collaborators, antagonists and even passers-by – he’s a kind of agent provocateur. He annoys, provokes, and sometimes goes too far. How far can you go? Now 54, Van Lieshout’s latest work focuses on fellow Dutch artist René Daniëls. While retaining Van Lieshout’s talent for embedding himself in situations (often of his own making), and for all the incidental, hilarious interludes, this film, René Daniëls 2021, filmed over a year, has a largely different tenor to previous works.
In 1987 Daniëls, then an influential young Dutch painter, suffered a haemorrhagic stroke. He was 37. His career had lasted barely a decade. For a long time, Daniëls was unable to work, and still can barely speak. Slowly, he has learned to paint and draw again, using his left hand. He is now aphasic, and partially paralysed on his right side.
Communicating by way of smiles and thumbs-ups, laughter, cryptic drawings and occasionally written words, you’re never quite sure what’s going on with Daniëls. But it would be a mistake to cast Daniëls’ art in the past tense. Not only does he still sporadically paint and make drawings, his art also remains influential and is regularly shown. A prolific painter, his work always bristled with ideas, visual puns, unexpected conjunctions, an impure mix of figuration, abstraction, cryptic signs and an overriding humour and surprise. His paintings have a light, deft touch, both funny and serious at the same time. Younger painters now who don’t know Daniëls’ work might be as surprised and captivated by it as I still am.
Daniëls once described his work as “a combination of visual poetry and painting”. Like Van Lieshout, his art can be as provocative as it is tantalising. One large, fairly recent painting, filling a wall in Daniëls’ bedroom, shows a planet with another sweeping round in its orbit. Daniëls often signs his work now with a similar planetary conjunction, alongside his name, initials and date, which he carefully records.
In his earlier works there were often paintings-within-paintings, schematic shapes that themselves described walls hung with paintings – which also, somehow, resembled bow-ties. There were playful portraits – a man juggling balls, another whose beard has been caught by the wind and covers his face, and a portrait of the poet Apollinaire with a fish for a moustache. Another has Apollinaire as a ringmaster. There’s a bed floating on the ocean and a skateboard in a landscape. Rats ride more skateboards, in an art world rat race. There are amplifiers on the floor (maybe they’re also sculptures), and a stand in the middle of the room is festooned with microphones. A stage, then, for some kind of performance. Daniëls often returns to this image in his more recent drawings.
Among the last works before his stroke, Daniëls painted spring trees blossoming with words (one had a ghostly bicycle trapped among the branches). There were references to Mondrian and to Munch, to early Sigmar Polke; lampoons of the art world and comic pictorial battles between European and American art. His art was zesty, impish and often very beautiful.
The film opens with a toy robot wearing a face mask, twirling and careening about, before falling over, lights flashing, the legs continuing to churn. The camera follows Van Lieshout and Daniëls, sitting ruminatively at Daniëls’ home in Eindhoven and in Van Lieshout’s studio in Rotterdam, which he has hung with his own homages to Daniëls’ best-known paintings. Seeing them, Daniëls looks bemused. Van Lieshout’s versions, some of which now also hang at Maureen Paley’s new London space (and in a room at Rochelle School, a mile or so away, where the gallery has its archive), are roughly handled, and mix coloured acetate, oil and acrylics. Van Lieshout says he made them in order to understand Daniëls’ work better. I think they function as a way for Van Lieshout to signal his affection for Daniëls, and to point up their differences in personality. But they’re not much help to us. Van Lieshout has also produced a number of pastel portraits of Daniëls, which do capture his presence and vulnerability.
If you don’t know Daniëls’ paintings first-hand, the film is at times confusing. Much as I admire Van Lieshout’s work, several sections of the film, where he talks with younger painters Sam Hersbach and Laurens Stok in their studios, might mislead viewers into thinking that what we are looking at are recent works by Daniëls. They’re not. Van Lieshout is trying to get at the idea of influence, and how a painter’s work lives on and persists in those who come after them. A good idea but one that could have been dealt with better here.
What’s valuable in the film is much more human and direct, and largely about how one can communicate with an artist whose utterances don’t go much beyond yes and no. “How much he understands is anybody’s guess,” says Marleen Gijsen, Daniëls’ carer, who has looked after him since his stroke. “Sometimes,” she says, “It feels like he has been harshly punished for his talent.” Van Lieshout sits with Daniëls and Gijsen, participates in their everyday life, takes Daniëls to cafes and museums, encourages him to draw and paint. They sit and drink and eat and draw together.
As a portrait of Daniëls and his interactions with Van Lieshout and with Gijsen, this film is extraordinarily intimate, sympathetic and touching, and well worth watching. It is not a documentary. There are long shots of Daniëls smiling to himself and gathering objects on the table before him. Daniëls eating and drinking and giving the camera a mischievous look. The conversation is not always as one-sided as it might seem. He asks for a glass of wine, drawing Van Lieshout a wine bottle. There is a very moving moment towards the end, where Van Lieshout tells Daniëls how important his work has become to him, “... And you too, René. The way you are. Would you rather I didn’t say it?” Silence. “It should be a lark too, right?” asks Van Lieshout. Daniëls smiles and looks away.