Painter of utopian realism
It is not easy to classify painter Frans Diederen (16 December 1946, Hoensbroeck) in a certain school. His painting is figurative, but he is certainly not a fine painter; he paints magical elements in naturalist surroundings, but he shakes off the suggestion of magic realism; he paints a battleship ploughing the Kurfürstendam in its primary condition, but he shakes his head in discontent when it is called surrealism. “I do paint realistically, but I am not a realist – nor any variant of it. I paint the ethics of mortality and you can only do so if you stay close to the reality.”
Indeed: Frans Diederen paints the reality in decay. Decay caused by human intervention, but mainly by the effects of time. Against the background of wearing landscapes, peeling doors, collapsing roofs, cracking walls he places untouched beauty: a medieval lady-in-waiting, a languid blond, a geisha playing music, a contemporary young woman, or the tender fragility of a blossoming prunus. This is how he creates a new, unique reality in every painting, which you could call “utopian realism”. “Realism” because all elements painted by Diederen are taken from reality; “utopian” because the combination of those elements shapes the inexistence, or rather, the unattainability of the reality projected on canvas. That is probably why Frans Diederen does not gives his paintings a title: naming the painting would make the imagination tangible, breaks the unspeakable motives of the maker. “The painting has to speak for itself”, is certainly not an idle phrase: everyone can give it their own meaning.
Frans Diederen has always known he would become a painter. As a child he would always be drawing things. His father – engineer in the state mines, where he was involved in building mine shafts – and his mother have certainly not thwarted his drawing: when he was 16 he took the admission exam at the Academy of Maastricht. But father Diederen made it perfectly clear that he first had to learn a proper trade: you could not make a living out of being an artist. Artists were poor bastards and he did not wish that upon his son. Especially not seeing that he had an extraordinary intellect, which had definitely surfaced by then. He went to the hts (superior technical school) and studied heating technique. He scraped through – you cannot force anyone to do something against their nature – but still he succeeded for all tests. The hts seemed a logical next step after his study. But he refused: he knew he was not going to finish it. He started working in the heating business and that went well: he moved up quickly and made a good living.
After five years – he was 25 by then – he broke away. “I had no idea of what was going on with me: I had top job, I was about to buy a house, something not many lads my age could afford at that time and I saw myself sitting there in my old age, wondering what I had done with my life. And I got really scared: never, I definitely did not want that kind of life. Then I left. Just like that, from one moment to another, just do it, boom. I packed my bags and drove to the Spanish side of the Pyrenees in an old Peugeot. For six months I stayed in a deserted village, all alone. And everything came back: I started to come back to life, I started drawing again. That is where it became clear to me, that the rest of my life had to be like that.”
But after six months his money was spent and he had to go back to the Netherlands. He applied for an allowance, but the employment exchange was of the opinion that with his intellect he should start doing something meaningful. Like studying law in Rotterdam. Frans let them talk him into it and went to university. But not for long: he stopped after a year because he felt it was not his cup of tea. He seriously started to work on his drawing and painting. His then girlfriend, who even was his wife for a while, was his model. But his poor technique and the inadequate material he was using – his first paintings were made with a pot of enamel paint – did not make these attempts very successful. He went to see painter Wim Haanraadts for advice, who referred him to visual artist Pierre Jansen for classes, who taught art in Hoensbroek. Haanraadts did give him one piece of advice which has been decisive for the manner in which Frans Diederen has given meaning to his artistry: “He taught me how to paint in one single sentence: ‘You draw for 80 percent and you observe for 20 percent’, he says, ‘You have to do it the other way around: 80 percent observing and 20 percent drawing’. That is what I started doing and it was just right: the first painting I made based on that approach I sold for 1400 guilders (an enormous amount at that time) to a tinned fish merchant in Maastricht. I was over the moon”.
Life as a bohemian had begun. Sometimes living on an allowance, sometimes on the profit from a painting, reading a lot, especially travelling a lot. To Spain (where he made an impressive portrait of Dali’s only student Bengel), Portugal, Spain, France, Rumania. Often by motorcycle, sometimes together with a friend. Frans Diederen feels at home wherever he goes. But he is scared out of his wits when he has the feeling of being stuck somewhere. After his marriage ended a friend of his offered him a house for sale in an almost deserted village (“35 inhabitants, the youngest was 55; I felt in a home for the elderly”). But it was way too big, 21 rooms, and it needed lots of repairs and renovations, which he did not have the money to do, but mainly: “It was a permanent home and that is quite a millstone around someone’s neck”.
That almost obsessive urge for being unattached also stands in the way of lasting relationships: “I just love the ladies, but I haven’t met anyone who gave me the feeling of ‘she’s the one’. Emotional attachment is not really my thing. Too often it leads to a restriction of my freedom: Frans, do this, do that, you should dress differently. Undoubtedly well meant, but wasted on me. And besides, I think I am quite a difficult person to live with. So, that doesn’t help.
There is no complicated explanation for that need of being unattached: “It is not an unrest, no trauma. It has everything to do with my inquisitiveness: I dive into something, I am wrapped up in it, and then I see something else I want to explore. I want to explore what is beyond the horizon. I do not want to wither in a housing estate. But I do not feel the need for a wild and tempestuous life either: for me a calm and rippling life is a pleasure. As long as I can decide for myself when I leave it behind.”
This fear of attachment has probably also played a role in the fact that, except in 1984, he never exhibited: exhibiting requires a more or less constant production. Discipline is required to attain that and that does not seem the best developed characteristic of the artist. He replaces it by the passion of the artist, who wants to express the abundance of ideas that bubbles up. A passion that allows him, according to his own estimates, to produce about ten paintings a year. That is, certainly with Diederen’s labour-intensive painting method, quite a significant production: “I will have to work very hard to achieve that”.
He has no problem with that, because he feels factually and morally obliged not to disappoint his Maecenases. This requires an explanation. Since 2005 Frans Diederen has been supported by a small group of people – collectors and artists – who are touched by his paintings and who want to enable him to work on the expansion of his oeuvre, undisturbed by material worries. A quite unique situation, which is hard to believe even by Diederen, and which has significantly changed his conditions of life.
He has no problem with it, because he is not attached to his own studio (the living room in his tiny wooden house in the countryside of Zuid-Limburg) to be able to paint. And he has even less of a problem with the fact that he is experiencing his new living conditions as a challenge. He likes that: “I wonder if the peace that has come over my life now will affect my inner need for change. Will my work broaden or deepen? Or will that urge to “break away” surface again?”
It seems that, for now, the broadening is gaining the upper hand. In the less recent works of Frans Diederen, aesthetics are central: “prophetesses”, covered in silk, deep in thought, sometimes Madonna-like, referring to a romantic image of the Middle Ages in a leafy and rocky landscape. Then Diederen discovers architecture; first as a decorative element, but gradually as a supporting, autonomous visual given. The paintings become more theatrical. Vaulted hallways lead to indefinable distances. The prophetesses are lined up rather as priestesses (and even a “real” priest on one occasion), still in exuberant dresses, but stricter, more unapproachable. The buildings start to fall apart. Glowing, swirling fire clouds colour the sky, the earth cracks.
In the meantime the present enters Diederen’s work: the priestess has become a contemporary young woman, her surroundings a dilapidated living room where the marble chimney has fallen to pieces or the paint of the flapping doors has peeled off. Every single one of them are intriguing paintings, suggesting secrets, but not revealing them, carefully and lovingly painted.
For many elements in Frans Diederen’s work the foundation was laid in his youth. He got a – inevitably in Zuid-Limburg in the years after the war – catholic education. His father, like many boys from the very large farmer families who wanted to study, got an education at the seminary. He even “wore the clothes” which meant that he had worn the black cassock with the numerous buttons, the first step on the way to priesthood. A path which he soon left when he met Frans’ mother.
The seminary education gave father Diederen a solid spiritual background which he was eagerly shared with his family. Many times, the family rode the motorcycle – father, mother, daughter on the pillion and son backwards between mother and father –to Aachen to have a look at the destruction, the beggars and war cripples. “It was more like experiencing it”, says Frans, “It was indeed a type of disaster tourism, but without any triumphalism. It fascinated us, it made us go quiet. And when we returned back home and mother asked whether I still loved her I would spread my arms and shout ‘This much and all broken houses’, such an infinity there was of them.
The family also regularly visited the Liège region. Immediately after the war there were still 42 mines there, where father Diederen went to give advice from time to time. Frans still regularly visits Liège, fascinated by the dirt and decay of the lost coal and steel industry.
Later the hot beauty of the Spanish and Portuguese landscape and cities was added to all that. His eyes shine when he tells about Salamanca, the sacral heart of the passionate Spanish Catholicism and according to him the most beautiful city in Spain. “When I enter the Iberian Peninsula, I come home”, he says. Which automatically leads to the question of why he did not go and live there. It was very close: in 1987 Frans had made up his mind: he was going to Portugal for good. Everything was arranged, national health service, dentist, bags packed. The evening before his departure he got a call from an uncle, who had heard from Frans’ mother that he was leaving and who offered him his wooden house on a distant parcel in Grootgenhout at an incredibly low price. “I couldn’t refuse that”, Frans says now. He still lives there…
The traces of all these different experiences can be found in his work: the religious connotation, the spectacle of religious rites, the intensity of the landscape, the fascination for destruction and decay.
In one of his most recent paintings all those elements come together. It is a painting joining the aspects of the German defeats in the two world wars: against a background of a destructive fire the dome of the Reichstag starts cracking, the triumphing chariot tumbled down from the Brandenburger Tor, the corduroy road the Kurfürstendamm once was decays, a battleship sinks into a swamp, burned woods colour the earth black and brown. Destruction, decay, collapse. But left and right new trees and flowers grow. Too obvious symbols of a new, less violent future?
Frans Diederen does not want to hear about the underlying “deeper intentions” of this painting. For him it is mainly a test of skill: imagining what enthrals him endlessly as an artist by painting means such as composition, brush technique, use of colours. In other words, the relativity of human magnanimity expressed in the transitoriness of the symbols of that magnanimity. He fetches two busts: one bronze portrait of Von Metternich, poured in Aachen, with the inscription “Wir fürchten niemanden in den ganzen Welt” and a bust of Emperor Wilhelm II, which he gave to Von Braunschweig for successful shooting practice. “What a nerve”, he says, “what an inflated ego, what a vanity. Terrible. So wrong that it fascinates me, the mere fact that it exists.”
In the reproduction of the downfall of this overestimation Diederen is of the opinion that nothing needs to be “embellished”. Indeed, he talks about painters such as William Turner, Gustav Moreau or Lawrence Alma Tadema with unadulterated admiration, but he does not their tendency to making reality more beautiful, more aesthetical than it is. “I do not put a veil on reality. The illusion of mortality does not have to be strengthened, as far as I am concerned, by “blurring” the image. I am interested in precision, the representation of details in all their subtlety.”
Such a statement could lead to the fact that Frans Diederen is considered a painter who dissects the themes of his subjects with surgical precision on order to join the loose parts to a new visual reality: and that is that. But this description ignores the emotional aspect in Diederen’s person and work: all those precisions and details do not hide the fact that he is really a romantic artist. Romantic in the poetical sense of the word: both his personal life and his paintings are essentially characterised by two emotions. On the one hand, the melancholy for what was lost and disappears in the darkness of memory; on the other hand the desire for beauty which gives colour and warmth to the present. At most you can reach out for both: take it back and posses it are outside human reach. “Many people suffer from Heimweh”, Frans Diederen expresses the feeling, “I suffer from Fremdweh”. Or, as Georg von Lübeck whose text Franz Schubert used for his song Der Wanderer wrote: “Dort wo Du nicht bist dort ist das Glück“.