Contemporary Figurative Art > Read fascinating essays on Dutch painter Francien Krieg’s paintings of the aging female figure.
Contemporary Figurative Art: Peepholes Into a Dissolving Life
BY ALAN KATZ
“It’s paradoxical that the idea of living a long life appeals to everyone, but the idea of getting old doesn’t appeal to anyone.” ~ Andy Rooney
We often think that everything improves with age. We like to believe that our elders are wiser through their years of experience. But at the same time we also fear aging, as it puts us closer to death. For the same reason we also fear aging in those we love. Like all living organisms, death is the final result of life. Perhaps we are uneasy when looking at older people because we fear the end of our own lives.
The human body is a degenerating biological machine. It has a general expiration date that makes itself known more intensely as we get older. We feel our bodies slowly fail. Where once we were comfortable seeing our bodies in the mirror, as we age we see someone different that leaves us wondering whom we have become.
It is a trick of nature that our minds can stay young forever, while our bodies fail. The rage, maybe, comes from a youthful mind trying to control an aging process that can’t really be controlled.
It wasn’t for nothing that poet Dylan Thomas wrote these famous words in 1952: ‘Do not go gentle into that good night but rage, rage against the dying of the light.’
Dutch painter Francien Krieg paints older women who have moved on from the pressures of beauty to a place where spirit becomes the means of physical attraction. Her women are struggling with aged bodies that severely limit their quality of life.
Krieg exaggerates the dilemma by choosing the most unflattering angles and points of view for her compositions. She pushes the female body to an aging extreme that challenges the viewer to stay interested.
She is obsessed with the effects of aging skin and how lines and wrinkles are clues to how this individual has lived.
It is somewhat predictable that Krieg has suffered negative reactions to her work, as at first sight one might think she was portraying elderly women without respect. But Krieg is really commenting on beauty in much the same way as film director Sam Peckinpah was commenting on violence.
By throwing aging in our face like a violent western, we have to respond. The response is what Krieg is after. She feels her point is made by the extreme response.
Having said that, her work is very interesting for its focused attention. Krieg paints older women’s declining bodies with compassion, but also with a critical eye. She might take us further than we want to go into observing the decline of the female body, but we feel the horror of it.
She often chooses angles that exaggerate the body as a profound burden for the spirit living inside. That might not have been her intent, but it is the core success of her work.
Yes, men and women’s ideal view of young beauty does get shattered with age, but something else takes place of more importance: The realization that when idealized beauty is gone, the innate inner beauty of spirit has the potential to create an outer beauty with a greater depth. Krieg seems to prefer that road but, occasionally, takes us to the grotesque side where it can seem like an anti-beauty statement. Here, she serves women their ultimate nightmare.
As a child, Krieg was exposed to her father’s obsession with death. He would record voices from beyond life and searched for answers about life after death. In art school Krieg was interested in the mystery of the human body and created sculptural installations from meat that included skin as clothing. She collected preserved dead animals and skeletons of birds.
After graduating from art school, she saw her own body as something she knew well and yet felt disconnected to, because she had no idea what was going on inside.
Eventually, through her paintings of an older woman she met, she found her subject matter in the aging process of life’s physical degeneration — and how it is something that finds spiritual beauty from its acceptance. Krieg found that by getting to know older women with failing bodies, her fears and prejudices about aging changed into something more life affirming.
Krieg also paints miniature portraits of aging women that seem like peepholes into a dissolving life. By making these portraits small, the viewer is enticed to look more closely at every wrinkle and line, as though looking into a mirror. She provides these pictures with large, ornate frames that emphasize their small size.
She also paints mothers and fathers with children, and children themselves in a sincere and compassionate way that carries great feeling. Her love for her own children and motherhood in general has been a great inspiration in her work.
She recently had her second child. She seems pulled between the obsession with aging and life’s decline, and its opposite; life’s beginning, the newness that defines innocence. How the outward physical birth eventually leads to the inward spiritual awakening, as two of life’s defining transformations.
Krieg’s personal vision is consistent and committed. She expresses herself through her art in ways that give her a unique point of view toward the human condition. ~A.K.
Not Above My Couch
BY FRANCIEN KRIEG
From the moment I began painting aging women as a subject, I found I hit a nerve. Frequently overheard comments were shared with me, solicited and unsolicited: “You cannot paint grannies naked,” “that’s disrespectful,” or “that is not hanging above my couch” — which later became the title of an exhibition.
These intense reactions only strengthened my resolve to go deeper into this subject, as such signals indicated that it was clearly taboo. What started from a need to paint tender skin gradually grew into a personal mission to represent older women. These reactions motivated me to go on, and the public became an integral part of my work.
A selection of events resulting from these comments:
One of my first older ladies on canvas was removed from an exhibition due to the arrival of a dignitary. An exhibition on creativity and innovation hosted by a university gave rise to a debate about how far art can go into a public building.
Various art galleries received emotive requests from neighbors and surrounding businesses demanding that my work be removed from the window.
Photographs of my paintings have been banned from social media countless times, with, as an absolute topper, the exclusion from a private Facebook group about nudity in art.
The common denominator of this issue and the reactions it elicits, is that someone who dares to be vulnerable is actually demonstrating strength. I also become vulnerable by exhibiting these works, fully aware of the reaction they are going to unleash. I nevertheless feel I should do it. I appreciate the beauty that lies within this vulnerability.
What my audience wishes would remain hidden from view, namely aging, I enlarge so that you cannot avoid it. There is so much beauty in that kind of vulnerability.
My audience, the viewer, was spontaneously inspired by my work and created beautiful poems. Besides quotes I recorded these poems throughout the book as illustration.
Where Are My Wrinkles?
By Anne Dètry (model for Krieg’s oil painting, “Delicate Flesh”, above)
It is marvelous. You enjoy your youth without fully realizing or appreciating how wonderful it is — not having to bear any real responsibility. Gradually that changes. You can no longer go fishing with your dad or cycling with your mother. You want to look ahead, decide, and, before you know it, be responsible and explain yourself to the outside world. You start a family and care for your own, who invariably grow up as you did.
You work with love, deal with the consequences of your doings, and — at one point — when your kids leave the nest, you find yourself looking after grandchildren. You’re still strong and healthy, you travel the world, learn about other countries and cultures, and suddenly you see your naked body in the mirror. Those perky breasts, flat stomach and buttocks are things of the past. With the wrinkles, impermanence has become apparent. You take another good look and become pensive. This woman’s body no longer radiates strength and her failing is becoming apparent.
My body lets me down! No more backpacks and trekking. I finally have time and money and now it is no longer possible.
I slowly come to other thoughts: all those years of my wild youth, the loving and the birth of my children and caring for them, my job that meant so much to me, my trips around the world.
That body has served me well and deserves love, attention, admiration, and gratitude for what it has given me.
This is natural and self-evident.
One day Francien Krieg comes my way while I am admiring her work in a gallery. How the vulnerability, the fragility, the thin layer of skin and the transience of the old woman’s body could be expressed with so much love and craftsmanship.
She then comes to me, heavily pregnant with her first child, with a blush on her cheeks and asks me if she could paint my old, naked body. I say yes. I pose in my heyday. Why should my body not be proud of itself now?
When I was a young woman I heard Anna Magnani, a renowned Italian actress, exclaim with indignant fury when she saw a poster with her image for a new film: “Where are my wrinkles? Do you realize, gentlemen, what I have endured in life to get each and every wrinkle?”
It made an indelible impression on me.
Francien Krieg immortalizes those wrinkles. ~A.D.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Dutch artist Francien Krieg (b. 1973) lives in the countryside in the middle of The Netherlands with her two children and husband, working full time in her studio.
She graduated from the Royal Art Academy in The Hague in 1998, with a degree in Monumental Art, which encouraged her to think conceptually. During these studies Krieg discovered her fascination for the human body and expressed her thoughts through meat installations and human skin made of rubber.
A few years later, she developed her passion for painting at the Free Academy of The Hague. She now expressed her fascination for the human body in paintings with unusual perspectives of the body.
Quickly her work was discovered by art collectors and art galleries, becoming part of important Dutch art collections like the ING Collection and the former Scheringa Collection. A prestigious gallery in The Netherlands, Gallery Mokum in Amsterdam, notices the quality of her work and initiates a collaboration.
Krieg’s developing career sees her work exhibited at art fairs Scope Basel and Realisme Amsterdam, Robert Lange Studios in Charleston, SC, From Motion to Stillness at Zhou B Art Center in Chicago, IL, Women painting women [r]evolution in Townsend Atelier in Chattanooga, TN, and recently the exhibition Stark Realism at Beinart Gallery in Brunswick, Australia, featuring Effie Pryer and Ville Lopponen.
In 2017, she was nominated for the Dutch Portrait Award and shortlisted for the Figurativas 2017 at MEAM in Barcelona.
Her work has been featured in Austrian art magazine MilionArt Kaleidoscope, and in the family issue of Poets and Artists, curated by Shana Levenson and David Kassan.
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