The Flemish artist Father Frans Claerhout was born at Pittem in the western part of Belgium in 1919. Claerhout completed his training for the priesthood in 1945 and was sent to South Africa in 1946 as a Catholic missionary. (His other choices had been Brazil or the Congo) Initially he worked in the Transvaal but in 1948 he was transferred to Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State. He worked as a missionary among the black villages around Bloemfontein, where his congregations consisted of simple and illiterate people living in impoverished surroundings.
During his first year in Bloemfontein, Claerhout made no contact with other artists and his only artistic activities were little illustrative sketches for his mother. He started painting seriously in 1957, rough sketches, somber scenes in dull colours. In 1960 Claerhout moved to Thaba ‘Nchu where he started painting more. He saw Thaba ‘Nchu as an artisists paradise. He had more time to paint, as he no longer had to travel between districts. In November 1961 he held his first solo exhibition in Johannesburg.
In 1979 while in Belgium, he suffered a heart attack. After a bypass operation in Bloemfontein later that year, he experienced what he likes to call his second lease on life. His work became even more colourful – his colours radiating his warmth for and love for South Africa. (Ref)
“I see through African eyes with a touch of Belgium here and there. After all, you can’t put your heritage in a plastic bag and fling it out the window.” Claerhout
Claerhout lived to make other people happy; always smiling, even in the winter of his life.
“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. Life is beautiful, one must enjoy it fully.” (Ref)
Father Claerhout also authored several books, including four works of poetry. His artistic legacy includes 22 sculptures. Claerhout continued to paint daily during the last few years of his life at a home for retired Catholic priests. He died in his sleep at the age of 87 in a Bloemfontein hospital after being admitted with pneumonia in 2006.
By using the money Claerhout made from his paintings, he funded the bulding of 20 churches, chapels and church halls, 8 vehicles for the transport of the sick, pensioners, and school children. built homes in the neighbouring town of Botshabelo, sponsored children’s education, and assisted priests financially in building their own churches.
Aims and Characteristics
I like to paint through the eyes of a child. To a child a mother isn’t someone with 10 fingers, but a kiss, love or a bunch of flowers. – Frans Claerhout
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.
His style owes much to Flemish Expressionism. His earlier palette inclines to warm, almost somber, tones; although it has brightened over the years, under the influence of the open Freestate landscape, with flashes of clear blue and yellow illuminating the general ochre-umber glow. The Free State’s stark clarity and wide open skies and its indigenous population with their love of brightly coloured headdresses, blankets and dresses, nudged Claerhout into broadening his palette- adding more red, yellow, green and blue. Through constant experimentation he mastered the colour of his environment. (Ref)
He often distorts and elongates his forms for emotional emphasis, but retains the overt visual character of all his subjects. He doesn’t paint an actual person but he uses his subjects as a representation, as a basis on which he creates the whole idea. (Ref) His artworks are also characterised by their thick impasto paint, exaggerated forms, humour and compassion. He primarily worked with oil paints on canvas or rough surfaces, but he also experimented widely with other media e.g. modeling in clay and wood-carving, wall-paintings, monotypes and linocuts, stained glass set in concrete windows and a prolific stream of drawings in charcoal, pen-and-ink or crayon. (Ref)
In the 60s he began giving added attention to drawings and monotypes. These were usually studies of single figures, in which he freed himself to some extend from the repetitive mannerisms which were beginning to make his oil compositions all appear familiar.Forceful blocks of colour and spontaneous almost hasty line contribute to the vitality of the sketches. Forceful blocks of colour and spontaneous, almost hasty, line contribute vitality to the little sketches.
To Claerhout the sketch was an easy medium to capture quick impressions and to memorize his tales. However naive Claerhout’s charcoal sketches appear, they flow with understanding of his subject matter. He developed his sketches by rubbing them with oil paint. His tonal values, although dark and somber at times, give a decorative edge to his work. Towards the end, Claerhout only worked with charcoal and acrylics.
His subject matter are the people, animals and the village scenes around the mission station at Thaba ‘Nchu. He found the eclecticism of their lives fascinating – the combination of traditional and western cultures. Thaba ‘Nchu was established as a homeland for Tswana and Sotho people under the 1913 Natives’ Land Act, and was characterized by widespread poverty and underdevelopment. The residents participated in subsistence- and small scale commercial farming ventures which mostly involved manual labour.
His donkey depictions are particularly well known. He also achieved particular renown through his child portraits with impersonal faces to portray the spirit of the child. He looks at the soul of the child, whose colour, race, background or civilization is immaterial. The shining faces always constitute the central theme, enlivened with a pretty dress full of flowers.
With Claerhout art and inner feelings are couple, so it is not surprising that much of his subject matter is religious. Even though he paints the people with whom he works, going about their daily activities, one feels God radiating from them. (Ref) Thus to Claerhout his faith and his painting are indistinguishable: “my belief inspires me.” Father Frans Claerhout often depicts the everyday scenes he observes around him as Biblical Themes. When asked whether he would continue painting in heaven, he replied; “Of course I shall. I shall paint what I see.” (Ref)
Claerhout sees Christ as a man covered in mysticism and he seeks to penetrate him, not as a supernatural being but as a living Christ risen from the dead. Frequently still bearing a crown of thorns, but forever pleading as man and God, moving among his earthly creatures like one of them … (Ref)
His early works were greatly influenced by the Flemish expressionists. Like the German expressionists, the Flemish Expressionists art were a protest art, but Claerhout felt, they had a mystique to their work, which made it more sympathetic than that of their contemporaries. He cites his strongest influence was that of the Flemish Expressionist Constant Permeke, whose paintings from the 1920’s and 30’s, like Claerhout’s, were concerned with peasants and the land they tend.
Permeke’s work was not religious, but it was his ordinary subjects, everyday characters doing their daily chores; big hands, big breasts, that Claerhout admired. Claerhout got to know his work through books and he actually met the artist once. Permeke’s style is characterised by powerful contours, dark colours and simplified forms executed in a highly expressive manner. His figures are deliberately distorted and his colours warm. (Ref)
When Claerhout held his first solo exhibition in Johannesburg in 1961, the influence of Flemish art on his painting was still evident both in the colour and the atmosphere of these works, and it took a while before the clear blue skies of the Orange Free State and the greens, browns and yellows of its vegetation left their mark on his paintings.
Expressionism to Claerhout is painting only the necessary – I draw mouths, hands, faces, not feet and toes. He does not paint the actual person, but he uses them as a representation, as a basis on which he creates the whole idea.
The Donkey Camp depicts the community headmen’s residences clustered around the chief’s residence, protectively built to include a ‘kraal’ for housing the animals. Drawing inspiration from the scenery around the Mission Church, Claerhout used expressive brushwork and muted colours to add to the rural character of ‘The Donkey Camp’. The heavy, abstracted figure of the farmer tending to his donkeys as the early morning mist starts clearing, is rendered in a rich earthy brown, emphasising his role as a man of the land. Donkeys, a treasured possession in the rural community, were commonly used as pack animals, for ploughing the fields, and for personal transport, and became one of the trademark subjects in Claerhout’s oeuvre, symbolising a simple, sober way of life. The two donkeys, encircled by the camp’s fence and patiently awaiting their next assignment, are symbolically central to the composition, their role essential to the day-to-day survival in this tough environment. (Ref)
Analysis of his Paintings by Previous Students
In the Donkey Cart Claerhout depicts a rural scene of a woman and child on a donkey cart. Claerhout also made many other Mother and Child portraits.These portraits, often virgin and child, echo the unhampered existence of African women, the natural bonding between mother and child without social restrictions. To him women are the core of families.
Although this image could be a depiction of the “karretjie people” found in South Africa, the red halo around the baby’s head immediately tells us that this image depicts a biblical theme, that of Mother Mary and baby Jesus, rather than just an ordinary rural scene. The predomination of blue also gives the painting an overall feeling of spirituality, especially with the contrast of red and yellow which makes the painting glow.
The loose brush strokes, bright arbitrary colours and the heavy black outlines used in this painting shows the influences of the Expressionists and Fauvists. The figures and the donkey’s forms are simplified and distorted to emphasize the emotional content of the painting. The background colour and the predominating colour is bright splashes of blue and turquoise, reminding us of the traditional Christian depictions of Mother Mary where her cloak always used to be blue. The red of the donkey is repeated in the woman, the baby, halo and splashes in the right hand foreground forming a binding element in the painting. As the baby’s blanket is the only white in the image one’s eye is drawn to the baby.
By depicting a biblical scene through ordinary people from the villages around him, Claerhout brings his spiritual vision down to earth. One feels that it reflects his spiritual mission of bringing the gospel to the poor through his own good works.
Like in most of his other art works Father Frans Claerhout depicts in The Sun-catcher his personal spiritual beliefs. Father Frans Claerhout writes in his poem, The Sun-catcher: “Die son sal skyn in jou hart as u die steun gee aan die struikelende mens…” “The sun will shine in your heart if you give support to the stumbling person. The Sun-catcher, also resonates with his philosophy: “If you can catch the sun, you will never die.”
In the Sun Catcher Father Frans Claerhout depicts a seated woman with what looks like a sunflower. His brushwork and lines are loose and expressive, giving the impression that it was quickly sketched but observed with accuracy. The figure is simplified into its simplest elements, appearing almost childlike in its simplicity and in the economy of line used to depict the shapes. Rounded shapes dominate and is repeated in the sunflower, the woman’s belly and head, emphasizing both the thematic and visual focal point. The viewer’s eye is lead back and forth between sun and the woman’s belly. He uses flashes of blue, green and yellow to illuminate image. In this image he also distorts and elongates his forms for emotional emphasis, like he does in his other works, but he still retains the overt visual character of all his subjects. The forceful blocks of colour and spontaneous, almost hasty, line contribute vitality of the sketch.
Claerhout explained this particular series as follows: “The series of Christ and the other person is a meditation of Christ and People. What Christ is, cannot be found in research by the human mind. He was human – with and for man. I feel I do not know much about him, but what I know and feel, that I like.”
To Claerhout faith is to be delightfully underage, expectantly.” Christ is to him the same in all his encounters with people, but each time different. A Man for all seasons. He stirred the heart of all people and in this series are a few [of these people]. For the people that we know through the Gospel, who met Christ, He was man, prophet, something grand, an outcast, a sinner, love, forgiveness; always an emotional sensation, visible and palpable. Almost all thinking people need other people – it is the beauty but also the tragedy of man. The medium here is paint. Color – line … the meditation is bound to the Evangelical text, it is the source … I hope that, with reference to the Gospel text, the 21 paintings will bring us love and growth. The last picture is the secret of faith: Christ alone. Who is the other person, me, you, us? “
In this series of paintings Claerhout’s figures are especially distorted and elongated for emotional effect so characteristic of the Expressionists. Colour is applied in loose expressive brushwork with thick sketchy outlines.
Through these artworks discussed we can get a clear image of Father Frans Claerhout’s spiritual beliefs. Most of his artworks depicts biblical themes but he uses the people and ordinary lives of those who surround him to depict his spiritual vision. Christ and the Other series perhaps most clearly expresses his belief that Christ must be experienced by each individual, in their own way.
Christy Lee Folkey – Meeting Fr Frans Claerhout
Roberts on Art
Dirk and Dominique Schwager, Claerhout – Artist and Priest (1994)
South African History Online
Henry Taylor Gallery
Tributes to Ff Frans Claerhout