Frans Claerhout, the world-renowned Flemish artist, has died in his sleep at a Bloemfontein hospital after being admitted with pneumonia two weeks ago. Claerhout (87) continued to paint daily during the last few years of his life at a home for retired Catholic priests. Claerhout started painting in 1958 and held his first solo exhibition three years later. At first, Flemish artistic influences were evident in the colour and atmosphere of his paintings. Besides using bright colours, Claerhout was also known for sketching peculiar donkeys. And there was a very specific reason why he painted these animals. Claerhout said: “I am expressionisties. If you paint a horse, you cannot make it funny or long tail or ear, maar a donkey…you can make it long ear, you can make them blue or yellow. It’s like a boerebok, you can give him a long beard and its tail up…but everyone wants a donkey. Maybe I’m a kind of donkey.” Claerhout lived to make other people happy. And he was always smiling, even in the winter of his life – with a head of snow white hair and often no false teeth in his mouth. Claerhout said: “The nature and the soul – that is a gift…like writing or singing. And I am happy because it was a need to be myself…but then you are happy that somebody say: Ooh, I want it, I like it. I am very happy too that so many people have joy in life through my paintings.” Inspired by faith His faith in God always inspired him. Life is beautiful, he said. One must enjoy it fully. Towards the end, Claerhout only worked with charcoal and acrylics. And although he was overwhelmed with requests, he didn’t paint as regularly as he used to. Claerhout: “They must have a little bit of patience too, hey! Ja ja…A real paint in acryl – if I make one a week, it’s all right. Sometimes I make two, but drawings, sometimes it doesn’t go.”
This was a man – happy and content – just to be himself. Claerhout: “Look here, you must try to be happy where you are. Happiness is where you live. Be not afraid if there’s some difficulties in any line. Talk or receive help, but try to…show your person.” Father Frans Claerhout continues reading his poem, The Sun-catcher: “Die son sal skyn in jou hart as u die steun gee aan die struikelende mens…” Father Claerhout also authored several books, including four works of poetry. His artistic legacy includes 22 sculptures, but he only kept a few of these for himself. One of them was The Sun-catcher, which resonated with his philosophy: “If you can catch the sun, you will never die.” He will be remembered for his expressionist style of art and for his love of God and life.
FransClaerhout was born at Pittem in the western part of Belgium in 1919. After completing his studies in priesthood, he came to South Africa as a Catholic missionary in 1946.He was fascinated by the people and the primitive huts of the black villages.He had to complete various language courses before beinwhere he lives. His palette inclines to warm, almost sombre tones, although it has brightened over the years with flashes of clear blue and yellow illuminating the general ochreumber glow. He often distorts and elongates his forms for emotional emphasis, but retains the overt visual character of all his subjects. The goat is characteristic of the whimsical atmosphere of his larger scenes: The lopsided little village, the isolated urchin accompanied by his entire worldly wealth, the goat and the bundle are all depicted in forthright stroke of earthy, opaque colour. During the sixties, Father Claerhout began to give added attention to drawings and monotypes, usually studies of single figures. Forceful blocks of colour and spontaneous, almost hasty, line contribute vitality to the little sketches.
Claerhout had no formal art training but came from an artistic family and he belonged to a local art society in his student years. He visited Belgium and toured its museums in 1957 and, on his return, began to sketch and paint with total dedication.
In November 1961 he held his first solo exhibition in Johannesburg. The influence of Flemish art on his painting was evident both in atmosphere and colour. It was only later that the clear blue sky of the Free State and the green, brown and yellow of vegetation as well as the bright colours preferred by the black people left their mark on his painting.
Although he remained fascinated with brush and paint, experiencing oil-painting on a rough, impastoed surface as his greatest challenge, Claerhout also experimented widely with other media. Modelling in clay and wood-carving, wall-paintings, montypes and linocuts, stained glass set in concrete windows and a prolific stream of drawings in charcoal, pen-and-ink or crayon have made him a well-known and popular figure on the South African art scene. g sent to the Orange Free State in 1948. He initially worked among the black people living in and around Bloemfontein.
Frans Claerhout blends wit and compassion in his quiet sympathetic style which owes much to Flemish Expressionism. His subjects are the people and the village scene around the mission-station.
His fondness for paintings and sculpting objects about him on the various mission stations at which he served, have lead to an international clique of Claerhout fans who flock to his infrequent exhibitions.
He says that his faith and his painting are indistinguishable: “my belief inspires me,” he avers. Indeed when I queried whether he would continue painting in heaven, slight, ascetic man allowed himself a broad smile before noting: “Of course I shall. I shall paint what I see,” his arm describing a wide arc as if encompassing the very vastness of God’s Kingdom. “And I’m sure that what I shall see I shall enjoy as they say we all enjoy heaven!”
A hardly arguable point, especially with this man of such strong convictions.
His sculptures are rare, in fact he has done only 22 and he says that he isn’t certain if he has the strength to do more. His style is characterized by his habit of painting the people and animals with whom and which he came into daily contact. Claerhout’s donkey paintings are internationally renowned.
I asked him why he had taken to using more colour as he got older and his answer was interesting. “If you can catch the sun, you can never die,” he says. But is he concerned with death as his age advances and his health hovers? His answer is oblique – “The answer of life is not death,” he says, “it is love. If you have love it does not matter what happens to you.”