When Karl Marx quipped that history occurs twice, ‘once as tragedy and again as farce’, he was referring to Napoleon I and his nephew Napoleon III, but might the same be said of Expressionism and Neo-Expressionism? The tragic decades of the early 20th century versus the bloated 1980s, when money and paint were sloshed around? In this comprehensive survey, entitled ‘An Exhibition is Always Part of a Greater Whole’ at the Reina Sofía (it has since toured to the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven), René Daniëls was rightly presented as an exceptional artist whom tragic circumstances denied the possibility of transcending that particular decade, until now.
In 1987, in the midst of a stellar career – his work had been included in Kasper König’s ‘Westkunst’ in Cologne (1981) and in documenta 7 (1982) – a brain haemorrhage at 37 left the Dutchman unable to speak or paint for 20 years. As a student, Daniëls was influenced by Georg Baselitz and Sigmar Polke, but was staunchly critical of the art market’s effect on painting. Amidst the over-emotional brush of most painters at the time, Marcel Duchamp was his antidote. Punk was also influential, but poetry more so, and he referred to his paintings as ‘visual poems’. ‘ALZUMEAZUME!’ is a word that recurs; written across the top of a 1984 painting of the same title, below it stands a magician performing a trick. Magicians and good artists have much in common: both can make things appear inside empty boxes and generate amazement without revealing the effort. The bow-tie, Daniëls’ versatile signature motif, appears variously as a schematic perspective of an exhibition or performance space, often containing a microphone stand motif, or a coat stand, waiting for the performer or the art work to arrive. All is painted in a transparent candy-wrapper palette, with a loose and energetic attack that allows false starts of previous paintings to show through. Everything bubbles with ambiguity and irony, suggesting a serious kind of joke that will be fully explained once the viewer traces the path that connects Daniels’ pictorial language to what he called ‘that former no-man’s-land between literature, visual art and life’.
‘Alzumeazume’ turns out to be an anagram of ‘la muse s’amuse’ (the muse amuses itself), and this opens up paths of interpretation, as the exhibition also included a series of three works all entitled La Muse Venale (The Venal Muse). Here, a double canvas of swans in a lake (1979) and two paintings of mussels and eels (1979–80 and 1980) appear at first pictorially unremarkable until one uncovers a hidden allegory of the task of the artist. Daniëls takes the title from a poem in Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857) in which the poet wonders what his often brilliant muse will come up with next – something great or just a cheap circus trick to earn a crust? In painting a seascape of dancing monster mussels and wriggling eels, Daniëls asks the slippery question of the role of painting beyond a pricey consumer item in a voracious art market. Here, he looks to Marcel Broodthaers – another appreciator of mussels who worshipped Stéphane Mallarmé, adored René Magritte and could ironize like no other about the exhibition space and the death inflicted by the art market on the art work.
Flicking back a page in Les Fleurs du Mal, from ‘La Muse Venale’, is the poem ‘Les Phares’, which translates as lighthouses, beacons or headlamps. Baudelaire’s phares are the great painters of history, ‘beacons burning from a thousand citadels’. In Daniëls’ 1983 painting Chimney in the Clouds – Palace of Evil Arts, the phare appears as a magician’s hat turned on its side that has become a dazzling car headlamp lighting his performance. Is Daniëls wittily communicating the task of the modern painter performing under the glare of the painters of the past? Will it be a dead hare he pulls from his hat, or a bunch of fleurs du mal? These flowers, according to Walter Benjamin, were necessarily evil; the muse (the poem or art work) was venal since it had to prostitute itself, like the rest of society, in the speculative market capitalism established under Napoleon III. Perhaps the news from inside the hat isn’t good, but just as Benjamin lifted the empty mollusk shell of the 19th century to his ear and heard comforting noises, if you hold your ear to Daniëls’ painted shells, you might just hear the Sex Pistols.