The elephant in Paradise

Anton Vrede – The elephant in Paradise

‘Now the bee takes his honey then he sets the flower free’

Captain Beefheart

On the windowsill of his studio there are figurines of elephants, ethnography and Buddhas. The first thing he does when he comes in: puts on an LP. And then makes coffee. Music clothes the loneliness of the studio. ‘You just perform, you cannot burst for joy, it just takes toil, hard work and toil.’ The voice of Stuart Staples is just as rainy as the weather on this March afternoon.

“I love beauty with a sharp edge,” says Anton Vrede.

On one of his uncompleted paintings, a gorilla, a frog, a hare and a penguin are doing a round dance. I could never happen in reality, but when he paints it, it does anyway. Elephants float through the sky, hares use the neck of a giraffe as a slide, swimmers bring leopards along with them. Down becomes up, light becomes heavy, air becomes water, and vice versa. The animal world of Anton Vrede is constantly changing, and always stays the same, just like the pleasure with which they are painted or drawn always stays the same. That morning he had collected some etchings which Fieke Billet have printed for him. He lays them out on the floor, alongside the production of the previous months. The whole studio is filled with prints, the fragile, dancing lines and playful flecks of colour of which are placed with the studied negligence that is the result of many years of looking and drawing. “In my work, I can concretise my dream world,” he says. “And I can banish my worries at the same time. Life is so complicated. Everything has been given a certain lightness for me. Without being woolly. The workers found a balance, lightness as a counterbalance to seriousness, as a result of which they more or less cancel one another out.”

“Is that a way to relativise yourself?”, I ask.

“I think so. Myself, my environment, the world.”

The animals in his work are more than just an interplay of colour and form, although this is played with big stakes. In his work, Anton Vrede falls back on ancient symbols which occur in myths, fairy tales, fables and legends from all corners of the world, and which have not lost any of their power after all these centuries. In a weakened form, they are still recognisable in contemporary cartoons, comic strips and children’s books. “It was only when I became an adult that I discovered how brilliantly cartoons like Bugs Bunny are made. I have tried to imitate the agility of these in my work, although the best I can do is approach them: it remains a motionless picture.” He refers to other contemporary influences. The songs of Captain Beefheart, for example, which are filled with surrealistic approaches and puzzling archetypes: ‘The Christ child its face replaced by an elephant’s head, intricate lace cups each ear and bands the trunk’ (A Tin Peened Reindeer). The picture is less absurd than it may appear at first sight. Anton gets out an article, which is accompanied by an etching by Rembrandt, as an illustration. Adam and Eve, shortly before the Fall. An elephant watches the scene in the background. In Christian iconography, the helpful elephant is the symbol of Christ, the only one who can raise up the fallen man. The elephant’s head which Beefheart attributes to the Christ child can just as easily refer to Ganesha, the Hindu god of wisdom. Of all the animals which Anton Vrede presents in his work, the elephant is the most visibly present. Thanks to its beautiful, immediately recognisable shape, but also to the many qualities attributed to it: “The elephant is an indulgent animal, sensible and tolerant. He was admired for his strength and was the much-loved mount of heroes, kings and gods. I also use the ape often. He was treated with respect in ancient Egypt, and in Oriental mythology. In this, he acts as the messenger of the gods, who carries out their orders, even though he does not always understand them. He appears in my work as a kind of Jester, who can do things which I could not let another alter ego do.” The hare is another character frequently featured in the work of Anton Vrede. He is a resourceful animal that outsmarts bigger and stronger opponents, and above all is also a widespread fertility symbol. “The Easter Hare announces the arrival of spring. In the past, winters were winters, and spring was a feast. A rebirth: everything starts growing and blossoming again, and after the quiet of the winter, a mass of new impressions comes at you. The allegorical meanings of other animals are still open. They can be allocated by the viewer as he or she wishes, and can differ from person to person. In his paintings and drawings, the penguin is a strange bird, which contrasts, in black and white, with the tropical colours of the other animals. The animal could refer to the famous British paperback publisher, he suggests, half jokingly, and thus to intellectual knowledge, but

for himself the animal is all about life in the Netherlands: “You try desperately to immerse yourself in Dutch society, and then you sometimes feel just as stiff and clumsy as a penguin.” In art, also, he has a particular weakness for the outsiders, the penguins between the peacocks and paradise birds. Among the many artists he admires, he gives the names of colleague painters such as José M. Capricorne and Winfred Dania, Jan Roëde and Gerrit Alberts. And Kees Timmer, who like him painted animals, and whose animals were given increasingly human characteristics. All artists who occupy a position at the edge of the official art world, and forge their own path, away from the dominant mainstream and trends. “I have always loved their work, but I’ve recently started recognising a lot of myself in them. A bit contrary, a bit awkward. Despite tragic personal circumstances, the work of both Jan Roëde and Gerrit Alberts is always happy and jolly. I understand their rebelliousness, and I also feel the immense sadness in their paintings. But it is represented so stunningly and poetically that you also experience a huge love. Love for life. A lot of contemporary art is just about design, packaging. There’s no passion. A work of art must have a spirit. Only then can it offer comfort.” Anton Vrede once said to me: “Art is a powerful medicine.” He himself experienced this, he testifies. “My work has protected me from deep ravines.” Anyone who dreams always has to watch out for nightmares. The old paintings and drawings of Anton sometimes had something oppressive about them, due to their fullness. They were stacks of animals and people, forms which slid into one another and sometimes gave one another little space, colours and lines which all demanded attention. The scenes were also telling. Birds were attacked by cats, tigers stretched out in order to jump out at the viewer. His work has become visibly more peaceful. “The fears of the past have disappeared. I wouldn’t say that I have painted them away, but by making them visible in paintings and prints, I came to the conclusion that the anger and aggression I face are not something for me.” There are no snakes in his work, he says, because he experienced them as representatives of evil. Now he sees things differently: if a snake bites its own tail, it symbolises life that has no beginning or end. He is also recently been using notably more egg shapes in his paintings. They are smooth and flawless, full of promise. The ultimate symbol, just like life itself, vulnerable and imperishable at the same time. The turnaround in his work is all connected to his family life. Last year, his wife Marianne and he had a son, who they named Alwin. “Domestic happiness ensures that you are more secure in the world,” says Anton. “It saves you a lot of trouble and unpleasantness, which distract you from the things that life is really about.” In the months before the birth of his son, he felt a great need to make figurines. He used his trusted characters for this: the elephant, the penguin, the hare, which he modelled from wax, around a skeleton of twigs from his garden. He discovered that something remarkable happened when the characters from his paintings left the flat surface: “The story is still the same, except now it has been placed in space. It has been given more air, which has meant that it lives more, but – marvellously enough – it has also meant that the paintings have come more to life. When cast in bronze, the figurines are emphatically present, despite their small stature. They have been given something unyielding, especially when viewed next to the airiness and lightheartedness of the new etchings. Anton always goes through his prints once more. He looks at the new etchings as if he still has to get used to them. “What my work is about? In any event, not about a paradise that I lost. It is about an ideal, dream world, which is all around me. If I turn around, people are beating each other to a pulp. I know this is happening, but I don’t see it. Because I choose not to see it. My name is hare.” Paradise lasts only as long as we are looking. It is conceivable that, when we turn our gaze away, the peaceful round dance in his work is broken. The animals no longer maintain the pretence and fly at one another’s throats, according to their old habits. The round dance changes into a dance of death. The shaky balance can be broken at any moment, because old instincts rise up. Look carefully at the work of Anton Vrede, and now and again you see a scared look, when one of his animal actors briefly steps out of its role.

Paradise also has a sharp edge.
Pieter van Oudheusden