Originally, I intended to paint only a single picture from the fairy tale Hänsel and Gretel, of the birds of the forest picking Hänsel’s bread crumbs. Upon closer examination of the text, I was drawn to the vivid imagery of the fairy tale. The artistic power, in which the Brothers Grimm repeat, vary, and contrast the central themes and motifs, inspired me to paint an entire series of pictures (and therefore a whole exhibition) about the fairy tale.
In previous years, my paintings often suggested what seemed to be an act that had happened, on the basis of descriptive elements, although this was never truly transparent. During the last years, I have shifted my focus towards narrative painting. In order to be able to adopt a more interpretive attitude, it was important for me to work on a topic that was as widely known as possible, and so I came to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Their most popular tales are certainly among the few stories that meet this criterion even today, at least in our culture.
Before painting the pictures, they were staged by me using a model, in the same manner as I have done ever since I studied stage design in the class of Karl Kneidl, which very much continues to influence me in my artistic approach to this day. In this way, I separate the process of finding an image, from the actual process of painting. I playfully try out, change and realize my ideas of a possible picture with the help of the model. Deception and reality play an important role throughout this procedure, as it surfaces in my paintings. This theme also keeps cropping up in the fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm. The parents deceive their children and lead them into the forest with the excuse to collect wood. The children, who overheard their parents’ conversation, respond and likewise deceive them by secretly
scattering pebbles, in order to find their way back. In this sense, the most prominent image of the tale is certainly the childlike depiction of paradise found in the house built by the witch from bread, cake and sugar, with which she lures children so she can eat them. It is a motif that has become an integral part of our picture culture and imagination.
The birds pick up the breadcrumbs that Hänsel had spread, so that the children cannot find their way back to their parents’ home – a metaphorical image that has been in my mind for a very long time and actually led me to this fairy tale to begin with. The theme of the marked path, which is wiped out and leaves the children lost in the forest, fascinates me. In earlier pictures, I often painted the path into the picture as a predetermined route that runs from the viewer’s position into the pictorial space. This fixed track, which must be followed, limits and thus defines the free space of the picture, sometimes with a veiled or even impossible destination. In the current pictures of Hänsel and Gretel, I took up this motif again, especially in the painting in which the parents lead their two children into the forest, into the interior of the pictorial space. The path is set by the parents, and Hänsel tries to mark it by dropping bread crumbs.
Of all things, it is the seemingly innocent birds of the forest that pick up the crumbs and prevent the return of the children. The forest in this fairy tale seems to me to be a kind of labyrinth, enclosing in on the figures. It is the uncanny dark home of wild animals and birds, where the children are alien and unable to survive. Hänsel and Gretel get lost in the forest labyrinth.
In the artistic confrontation with the fairy tale, I have tried to look at each scene individually, but nevertheless in the overall context. I intended not to fall into using a scheme, as it was the immense wealth of images in this story that had initially captivated me. Special attention was paid to the treatment of the figures, which I have detailed only as much as I needed to, in order to maintain a certain interpretive openness.
Even after two years of intensive work with Hänsel and Gretel I am still impressed by the intricacies of this fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. It was important for me not to restrict this complexity.
My special thanks goes to my wife Esther and my daughter Henriette, who were at all times willing to pose as models for me, as well as my assistant Jorge Cruz, who supported me in countless tasks.
Brussels, December 2018