The artist Frans de Geetere was born François Joseph Jean de Geetere in Oudergem, a suburb of Brussels. Frans de Geetere studied at the Beaux-Arts in Brussels, but rebelled against the academic teaching there. With his partner, the painter May den Engelsen, Frans de Geetere sailed a barge from Brussels to Paris, where they moored by the Quai de Conti by the Pont Neuf and lived a Bohemian lifestyle. De Geetere and den Engelsen were intimate with Harry and Caresse Crosby in the late 1920s; Harry wrote to his mother, “If it is possible for two people to be in love with two people then we are in love with them.” Harry Crosby shot himself after the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Frans de Geetere had an exhibition the following year at the Galerie de la Plume d’Or, introduced by the art critic André Warnod. But that was, essentially the end of his career. The chief influence on Frans de Geetere’s work was the Belgian Symbolists, particularly Fernand Khnopff. The etchings of Frans de Geetere are sombre and disquieting, infused with a miasma of conflicted sexuality and existential dread. His art now feels very modern, resonating, for instance, with both that of Paula Rego and that of Jake and Dinos Chapman. In his own lifetime Frans de Geetere fell so far out of favour that he titled a volume of lightly-fictionalised memoirs, self-published from his barge the Marie-Jeanne, L’homme qui oublia de mourir – The man who forgot to die. There was an exhibition of Frans de Geetere’s art at the Centraal Museum, Utrecht in 2007, and a new book on the artist by Jan Juffermans.
The art of Frans de Geetere is inextricably linked with his time and place (Paris in the 1920’s) and that of his companions, most notably, American expatriate writer Harry Crosby 1898-1929.
Geetere’s artistic vision was a fait accompli before he met the aspiring writer, but their intense friendship based as it was on a mutual loathing of conformity and a taste for the decadent and bizarre served to buttress his attitudes to life and his art.
“…..Frans and Mai de Geetere were accomplices in the liberated manners of the Powels and Crosbys. They had made their way to Paris from their hometown on a barge, which they moored upstream from the rue de Lille at the Pont Neuf. They were artists: she painted and he did a bit of everything-woodcuts, watercolors, miniatures. He had run away from home as a boy, painted murals on the walls of Dutch houses, worked in a madhouse. He and his wife had saved the money for their journey through canals to Paris by painting tulips on coal scuttles, which they then sold along the streets of Amsterdam. ….”
Excerpt from Black Sun. The Brief Transit And Violent Eclipse Of Harry Crosby. Geoffrey Wolff. Vintage Books, Random House. New York. 1977.
Frans de Geetere and his wife Mai met Harry and Caresse Crosby in 1927 and their friendship continued through the most productive years for both couples. When he met Crosby, the artist had already contributed original illustration work to editions of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine and in the autumn of the same year Harry was inspired to write an essay on Frans’s woodcut illustrations of Lautreamont’s Chants de Maldoror, “an hallucinatory prose-poem, remarkable for its cruelty and violence, which had had a measurable influence upon Baudelaire and Rimbaud” :
“The darkness of the forest where he was born, the sombre curriculum of the monks together with the rich darkness of ecclesiastical music, the spark of revolt kindled at the Academy of Brussels and whipped into a flame of hatred by the frescoes his father compelled him to paint in the neighboring churches, his first escape (if artists can be said to escape), the year of hunger whitewashing the walls of houses (le soleil contre le mur blanc) and, at nineteen, night duty as guardian in a maison de fous, these were, for M. Frans de Geetere, the foundation stones of that strange building men call the soul. In the madhouse he worked at his painting by day, and by night snatched unsettled hours of sleep, and in this environment developed those queer, abnormal faces that stare out at us from the pages of Maldoror. …And if “Lautreamont has liberated the imagination and dispelled our fear to enter into darkness” as Mr. Jolas so significantly remarked, M. de Geetere with a smoldering rage and fearlessness of creation followed the poet into darkness–“into the occult beyond” to quote Mr. Jolas again, “where new and demonic visions” (I am reminded of Beardsley and Redon and Alastair) “people our solitude.”
Excerpts from Black Sun. The Brief Transit And Violent Eclipse Of Harry Crosby. Geoffrey Wolff. Vintage Books, Random House. New York. 1977.
Both Crosby and De Geetere worked prolifically through the latter half of the decade. The artist producing illustrative work, original paintings, pastels, drawings and prints, most notably a series of lithographs depicting the marathon six day bicycle races at the Velodome D’Hiver in Paris.
If the artist’s work tends toward the disturbing and the macabre it is a reflection of both the works he choose to illustrate and the schools that informed his art, namely the late 19th century Symbolist and Aesthetic movements. Even the treatment of relatively benign subject matter is shaped by these important literary and artistic influences.
The original work ” Reclining Woman” is a fine example of the Symbolist aesthetic, in that beyond it’s seemingly straightforward figurative depiction, it aims to resonate with the viewer on a deeper level.
“Symbolist Art strove to represent something other than self evident physical reality. It was Romantic up to a point; it was often allegorical; it was dream-like or fantastic when it wished and it occasionally reached into these remote areas delineated by Freud in his explanation of the unconscious”
Symbolism. Michael Gibson. Benedikt Taschen. 1995. Koln.
De Geetere was influenced to a great extent by the Belgian school of Symbolism and perhaps by the great Belgian Symbolist, Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) Tellingly, both artists’ preferred motif was that of the female figure. In Khnopff’s case an idealized form of his sister on whom he projected his own inner desires and fantasies.
Unlike his companion Harry Crosby whose life and work reflected an increasingly manic, self destructive impulse, De Gettere chronicled the dark facets of his own nature without actually ceding to them.
If Harry Crosby is a totem for the dangerous excess and frivolity of the decade then the creations of de Gettere offer the perfect figurative backdrop. In poetic synchronicity, as the Wall Street crash of 1929 signaled the beginning of the end for expatriate life in the City of Lights, Harry Crosby acted on his self destructive impulses, the bizarre circumstances of his death an exclamation point to a short, sharp life.
As the milieu that so richly informed his art was slowly removed de Geetere drifted inexorably into relative obscurity.
Signed lower right.
Circa 1925 – 1930 Paris