Belgian artist Jan Fabre blitzkrieged St Petersburg this Winter with an exhibition that attracted crowds and controversy. He told our International Editor Simon Hewitt that his next show – at the Venice Biennale – will be spiritually different.

Jan Fabre never stops. His 200-work show at the Hermitage, Рыцарь Отчаяния – Воин Красоты (Knight of Despair / Warrior of Beauty), closed on April 9. His new sculpture exhibition in Venice opens at the Abbazia di San Gregorio on May 11.

The room likely to interest Russian visitors most contains canine skeletons dangling from the ceiling, wearing shiny, conical party hats and interspersed with spiralling strands of coloured glass. More dog bones lie on the floor. The same installation appeared at the Hermitage, albeit with stuffed animals in the place of dog skeletons, and caused a furore.

The museum was inundated with complaints. There were calls on social media for the exhibition to be boycotted or closed down.

According to Dimitry Ozerkov, the Hermitage’s Head of Contemporary Art, the campaign was carefully co-ordinated via Instagram, with most of the messages posted by people living nowhere near St Petersburg and who had never seen the show.

All the publicity did ticket sales no harm: over one million people visited the show. But, when I asked Jan Fabre if he welcomed the controversy, he went up in smoke.

‘People were accusing me of hating animals!’ he exclaimed incredulously. ‘I adore animals!’

The stuffed animals on display at the Hermitage, he explained, had been found by the roadside in his native Antwerp after being run over. By transforming them into the stars of a large, colourful installation entitled The catacombs of the dead street dogs he was ‘celebrating’ them.

An unorthodox – even macabre – way to confer posthumous glory, you might think. But Flemish art has a history of the zany and the grotesque, dating from the apocalyptic visions of Hieronymous Bosch to James Ensor’s carnival scenes (Pierrot & Skeletons, Masks & Death) and the bizarre compositions of René Magritte.

Belgium, explains Fabre, is ‘a Surrealist, Monty Python sort of a country.’

Fabre’s first contacts with the Hermitage date back to 2008, when Ozerkov and his boss Mikhail Piotrovsky flew in to inspect the Fabre show at the Louvre. But it was the Hermitage’s unparallelled collection of works by Flemish artists, acquired by Catherine the Great, that fuelled Fabre’s desire to collaborate with the museum. He was glad he did. ‘I love working with the Russians,’ he states. ‘They’re so helpful, and more open-minded than people at the Louvre. And far less snobbish!’

I first met Jan Fabre in Kiev in December 2014, when he was Jury President for the Pinchuk Centre’s Future Generation Art Prize. Fabre’s solo show at the Pinchuk had opened in February 2014. ‘It was an exciting time to be in the city’ he muses: the Maidan demonstrations were in full cry, and Kiev was in lock-down. ‘Nobody came to my show’ he recalls. ‘Nobody dared!’

Fabre first visited Eastern Europe in the 1980s, when he was working with the composers Henryk Górecki and Eugeniusz Knapik in Poland. With Fabre’s father a committed Communist and his mother a fervent Catholic, Poland was a natural first port of call. Fabre’s memories centre on the Church, though not for religious reasons.

‘Church was the only place where artists, composers and writers felt safe from the prying ears of the State’ he remembers. ‘We’d all go to mass, then meet up at the back of the church afterwards to talk.’ Fabre’s own faith – an important element in his artistic output – was boosted by his encounter with Polish priests, whose moral strength and political courage he greatly admired.

In December 2014, when we met on a freezing evening in the Pinchuk Centre’s swanky top-floor lounge, Fabre was wearing a black overcoat. I presumed he had forgotten to take it off. But he was still wearing it when we met in Venice this April, on a sunny afternoon.

Fabre’s face, emerging from his upturned collar, looks fit and tanned. He is fit enough, at any rate, to have spent an hour cycling around a velodrome in Lyon last September for a performance entitled  Une tentative de ne pas battre le record du monde de l’heure établi par Eddy Merckx à Mexico en 1972. Merckx turned up to commentate. Fabre wore a suit and tie.

Quirky clothing is what you might expect from an artist with a penchant for shiny green beetles and large gold tortoises, but Fabre is less eccentric in conversation – if you except his charming habit, when speaking in English, of calling you ‘Gentleman’ (an over-literal translation of Monsieur).

We spoke on a plush-cushioned settee in a first-floor lounge overlooking Palladio’s great church of Santa Maria della Salute, opposite the Punta della Dogana where the Pinault Foundation is hosting The Wreck of the Unbelievable, part of a giant Summer helping of Damien Hirst (the other part is in the Palazzo Grassi, up the Grand Canal). It blends kitsch with parody and has a Mickey Mouse covered with barnacles lurking near to a sexy nude fighting a multi-headed sea monster.

Fabre wrinkles his nose. ‘Damien is a colleague’ he ventures courteously. ‘I went to the opening. There are some nice sculptures…. It’s a good concept, but gigantic – all about power. With British artists it’s all about glory and the victories of the British Empire. Flemish artists put man at the centre of things.’

In this clash of giants – the Abbey and the Punta are just 100 yards apart – Fabre has taken the opposite approach to Hirst, and radically toned down the ebullience of his Hermitage show. His works occupy two floors of the 15th century abbey, a venue carefully selected for its spiritual ambiance. A giant beetle in green Murano glass surveys the cloisters from a tall plinth where you’d expect to find a Saint or Virgin. The upper ledges of the cloister walls are ringed with blue glass pigeons in tribute to the feathered brutes who rule the roost on St Mark’s Square. Fabre’s pigeons are mischievously accompanied by blue-glass bird-droppings.

Upstairs – with the exception of the carnival dogs – the  mood is less humorous and more reflective. One room, overlooking the Salute, contains nine glass Planets in varying tones of light and dark. Another room is taken up with a large Canoe, whose paddles end in blue glass hands – each pair of hands modelled on those of refugees Fabre knows in Antwerp (from Congo, Morocco, Turkey and Afghanistan, he specifies). The room looks out over the Grand Canal which, chuckles Fabre, is  ‘full of refugees too – tourists.’

Blue glass skulls line the corridors, with skeletons of small birds (e.g. woodpecker) and animals (e.g. squirrel) emerging from their eyes and mouths. A giant headless Monk, in a white cowl made of pieces of bone, looms at the end of each corridor ‘in tribute to Brueghel.’ Astute lighting creates dramatic shadows.

The understated presentation bears the hallmark of a skilled curator with nothing to prove: Giacinto di Pietrantonio, Director of the Modern & Contemporary Art Museum in Bergamo (which will host Fabre next year; he has also been commissioned to adorn a city church with a new mosaic).

Fabre’s show is, in a vaguely retrospective sort of way, entitled Glass & Bone Sculptures 1977-2017. Is it about nostalgia?

‘Not at all’ he retorts. ‘The title is factual.’

He pauses, gazes out over the Grand Canal, raises his coat collar, and adds thoughtfully:

‘But art is about vulnerability. We need to feel wounded.’


Please click here to download a PDF version of Simon Hewitt’s article.