Fred Bervoets

Year and place of birth: 1942, Burcht, Belgium Location: Antwerp, Belgium

Painter and graphic artist Fred Bervoets has been a notable figure in the Belgian art world since the 60s. He belongs to a small group of determined artists – including Jan Cox, Pjeroo Roobjee and Maurice Wyckaert – connected to the Antwerp gallery De Zwarte Panter. In the heyday of happenings and conceptual art in Belgium, they continued to stubbornly focus on expressionist painting with a strong Cobra slant.

Bervoets studied at the Royal Academy and the HISK in Antwerp, where he was taught by figures such as Antoon Marstboom, Rik Slabbinck and René De Coninck, all of whom painted in a markedly expressionist style. But Bervoets himself maintains that artists such as Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, James Ensor and Vincent Van Gogh were of far greater importance to him. Bervoets is a storyteller. His oeuvre cannot be said to be homogonous, in the strict sense of the word. The only thing to hold onto in his ‘chaotic universe’ is his personal life and the impressions he gathers every day. He shows the vehemence, loneliness and desperation of mankind, in the image of his own existence. In Bervoets’ vision, mankind is sometimes loving and tender, sometimes caustically aggressive, sometimes ecstatic with joy, sometimes gripped with deeply human sorrow, but always driven by an irrepressible vitality. In his work, he seldom presents a rose-tinted view of the world. Just like Bosch, Bruegel and Ensor, he populates his paintings, etchings and drawings with obscene monsters and distorted shapes, but – unlike the aforementioned painters – he never deploys these in a moralising way. Bervoets has said that he tries to capture ugliness and depict it with a high emotional intensity. His occasionally extreme fantasy images featuring violence, eroticism, fear and alienation may at first glance make the viewer shudder, but these are immediately relativised with humorous and disorientating motifs.

Both thematically and stylistically, Bervoets’ oeuvre has undergone considerable change. It is therefore divided up into series, including by the artist himself. His work from the 1960s is heavily influenced by the Cobra movement. In the 70s, it becomes bigger, more figurative and increasingly populated by snake and intestine-like figures in crowded narrations that bathe in a psychedelic sphere: the ‘Spaghettis’ series. In the mid-70s, his work becomes relatively ‘calmer’ with more delineated figures and objects: the ‘Totems and Cabinets’ paintings. This period also saw the introduction of monumental canvases featuring assemblages of etched and painted fragments. The death of the painter Jan Cox in 1980, who was a great friend of Bervoets, brought about another shift in the artist’s work. It led to the dark, vividly existential series ‘Homage to a Friend’ in which he focused entirely on etching. The artist then developed his typical ‘acid wrong technique’, in which he painted directly onto the etching plate with a rough brush dipped in acid. This resulted in painted etchings or etched paintings, which thanks to their limited edition due to the technique, can be regarded as original works. In the late 80s, Bervoets’ work became markedly more autobiographical. He began to paint himself into his canvases with ever greater frequency, generally in mutilated self-portraits. His wild, intuitive painting and etching style made way for a more rational approach in the 90s, when he allowed softer, more poetic themes to creep into his oeuvre. This does not mean that the artist has found peace. He remains a born storyteller with an impressive creative urge and presents himself as a core character within his chaotic universe.

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