The beast within you
Which works of art from the KMSKA collection inspire artists today? And why? Tom Liekens (1977) creates monumental works that centre on an anthropomorphized nature. He curated a print exhibition this autumn at the Jakob Smits Museum in Mol and had a solo exhibition of new work at Galerie De Zwarte Panter in Antwerp in November.
Interview by Wenke Mast
Photograph by Diego Franssens
‘All my works start out as prints: I etch my designs straight out – they’re the blueprints for my paintings. I also make large collages of woodcuts, which I combine with engravings and structure prints. I’ve developed a unique process for myself, which allows me to work graphically but on a monumental scale. I often do a woodcut version of a painting or vice versa. That variety is something I need. When I’ve been painting for a while, it’s good for me to focus on printmaking. And when I’ve made so many woodcuts that it feels like my arm is about to drop off, I feel like painting again.’
You studied painting at the academy but taught yourself printmaking.
‘The Frans Masereel Centre (meeting place for printmakers–WM) invited me to do a residency. I literally printed the woods around the centre: inking up tree bark, running branches through the etching press, that kind of thing. I took all those prints and made big collages with them, in which I reconstructed the woods outside. That’s where I got the taste for it. I then started making woodcuts. The fact that I wasn’t too skilled at the technique at that point made it interesting. All I knew was that what you cut away turns out white, and what you leave behind prints black. I had to find my way again, fight a new battle. I’ve been doing it so long now, though, that I’m as adept at printmaking as I am at painting. My signature style in the two techniques is slightly different, but equally strong.’
Autumn will be all about printmaking for you. What can we expect from the exhibitions in October and November?
‘MONO at the Jakob Smits Museum focuses on artists who use printmaking to create unique works rather than editions. Contemporary artists are set against the graphic work of Jakob Smits and his contemporaries. There will be work by myself and Fred Bervoets, but also Floris Jespers and even an etching by Ensor. I made a lot of woodcuts last year for the Dog Years exhibition at Galerie De Zwarte Panter – all figures with a dog’s head. The people from the Flemish TV programme Iedereen Beroemd (‘Everybody Famous’) asked me to come up with a response to Van Eyck’s Lamb of God altarpiece. I chose the panel with The Pilgrims and the figure of St Christopher, who was often represented as a dog in the Middle Ages. I worked that into my response – a pilgrim-like figure with a dog’s head. The idea then started to take on a life of its own.’
The relationship between people and nature is an important theme in your work.
‘I’m fascinated by the way plants, animals, landscapes and so on are represented in the history of art. By Baroque animal painters such as Frans Snyders and Jan Fyt. They projected human traits onto the animals they painted. It was a way of expressing fear, jealousy and anger and telling us something about humans through animals. That’s also what I’m trying to achieve with my dogs’ heads. Not the kind of kitsch you associate with bad paintings of dogs playing cards. My dogs have a specific, human expression.’
The theme of humanity versus nature has often been the subject of debate. Are we part of nature or separate from it?
‘Charles Darwin gave us the important insight that we’re not fallen angels but ascended apes. We have more in common with other animals than we like to admit. We’re driven by instinct: fear, aggression, desire, etc. So our relationship with other animals could indeed be formulated better. For my part, I have an ambiguous relationship with this theme. I’ve set up a Wunderkammer in my house. You might well think, looking around it, that I’m some kind of fervent hunter, but I'm not. I’m opposed to hunting, but I do have trophies hanging up of animals I didn’t shoot myself. Hunting is a recurring theme in my work. Because it has been an important theme in the history of art for a very long time. From Altamira right through to the end of the 19th century, it’s produced a lot of great works. The same goes for religion, incidentally. I’m not a believer myself, but I can’t deny that religion has given us some fantastic art.’
Which came first: your fascination for nature or your love of art?
‘My father was a chemistry and biology teacher. He also set up a small Wunderkammer at home. My parents often took my sister and me to natural history museums and zoos. But I started to draw and paint very early on too. The two interests have always existed alongside each other. Now they’ve come together in my work.’
So you could equally well have become a naturalist as an artist?
‘That was once my ambition. But I soon found out that there was more to it than wandering around with binoculars looking at animals. I dutifully completed the maths and science strand at secondary school and then enrolled at art school.’
That brings us to your sources of inspiration. You’ve already mentioned Frans Snyders and Jan Fyt.
‘If you love animals and plants and their relationship with human beings, those are the two artists you end up with. Snyders is such a brilliant painter: it’s almost unbelievable how good he is. The complexity of his compositions, the abundance. There’s so much to see and to experience. That’s what I aspire to achieve in my work too. I created my own version of his painting The Fishmonger’s Stall, which is titled Nature morte. I lifted some fish verbatim from Snyders’ painting and threw them onto a mountain. You can also recognize the seal and all those crabs. The fact that I’ve taken away the market context gives it an alienating element.’
Are there other artists from our collection you find inspiring?
‘I can remember spending hours looking at The Oyster Eater – an immensely good painting. The handling of the paint is as fascinating as ever. Lots of Ensor’s paintings still hold up. You can feel that somebody made them. With Snyders, it can seem superhumanly good at times. Totally so with Vermeer. You look at the work and you can’t imagine that anyone ever actually painted it. It’s like it just materialized by itself. In Ensor’s case, you can feel how he toiled over it. Not every element has been done with the same skill, but in the context of the work, it’s exactly right.’
'I think Alechinsky’s The Last Day, his last work in oils, is fantastic too. Wasn’t it a tribute to Ensor, incidentally?'
Are there any of your contemporaries you find inspiring?
‘I could name lots of artists: Nadia Naveau and Nick Andrews, for instance. I absolutely feel an affinity with Caroline Coolen – a fantastic sculptor. Like me, she has a strong interest in nature, culture and art history. The conversations I have with her are always inspiring.’
MONO, Come up and see my prints ran from 25 October 2020 to 10 January 2021 at the Jakob Smits Museum in Mol.
Dog Years ran from 21 November 2020 to 17 January 2021 at Galerie De Zwarte Panter.
This conversation was first published in the autumn issue of our museum magazine ZAAL Z.