July 12th, 2016
The Camera Selects the Man
Gerard Petrus Fieret was obsessed with women’s legs, street scenes, and pigeons. In a new retrospective, the Dutch photographer’s subversive images reveal the libertine atmosphere of 1960s Europe.
By Wilco Versteeg
Dutch postwar avant-garde art—whether it was poetry, painting, or photography—traveled a familiar trajectory: misunderstanding from pre-war critics and audiences was typically followed by rapid acceptance into established institutional circles. Artists born in the 1920s, such as Karel Appel, Armando, and Jan Wolkers, were influenced in many cases by personal experiences in German labor camps, and the Holocaust was pivotal in their work. A telling example is Lucebert, the self-proclaimed Emperor of Movement in the 1950s, whose verses were described as the SS marching into Dutch poetry.
Enter Gerald Petrus Fieret. Born in 1924, he too was interned in a German labor camp and participated in many of the new forms and methods of expression introduced by his peers. However, the war is surprisingly absent from his work, setting him apart from his generation of Dutch artists. Insistently experimental, personal, and documentary, most of his work was taken in his basement or in other confined spaces. His portraits and self-portraits show a changing society without showing much of the outside world.
Fieret gained little renown in his lifetime. He only came to photography in 1965, at the age of 45, and worked for about ten years, after which he returned to draughts work and poetry. (He died in 2009, paranoid and bitter, in a dilapidated room surrounded by his pet pigeons.) The first international exhibition of Fieret’s work, currently on view at LE BAL in Paris, is well deserved attention for this radical outsider. The exhibition is accompanied by a beautifully illustrated catalog, published by LE BAL and Éditions Xavier Barral, with essays by Wim van Sinderen, Violette Gillet, Francesco Zanot, Hripsimé Visser. The catalog, especially where it touches on Fieret’s Dutch reception, provides essential context in drawing further international attention to his work.
Fieret did not refer to himself as a photographer but rather as a fotographicus—a photographic draughtsman; for him, each print is unique and bears traces of the hand of the master. His photos show a remarkable intimacy in their portrayal of his unpaid models. But those moments are only the start of Fieret’s practice: he also experimented with developing, enlarging, printing (and sometimes re-photographing). His prints are often scratched, dusty, or otherwise touched by the destructive working of time or sheer recklessness. Most of his prints also bear the mark of paranoia—he stamped his work “Photo and Copyright G.P. Fieret,” in addition to his extraordinary signature, to make sure that no one could claim authorship.
Fieret plays a serious, almost psychotic game in his self-portraits. A short 1971 documentary by Jacques Meijer, screened in the exhibition, states that Fieret was on a quest for himself in his work, but that “the camera selects a different man” each time the shutter is pressed. Indeed, Fieret is often on the verge of disappearing in even his most self-reflexive works. In one self-portrait with a nude, for example, Fieret carelessly obscures himself in the final print, effacing the intimacy that created the image in the first place. In other self-portraits, Fieret is expressive, but seems to rely on the camera for his very existence.
Another important theme is his portraits of women in the nude, which, for the time, exhibit a rare equality between photographer and model. Fieret’s struggle with his own sexual identity is manifest in these images. While he was fascinated by female legs, most of the legs in his photos are crossed or closed. The possibility of a sexual relationship is precluded, but the women’s erotic presence is not lost. Too artful to be pornographic, the snapshots show a concern for the sexual expression of women—a counter-image of sexuality in a society in which liberation was quickly becoming equated with exploitation.
While he does not address political and societal upheavals as a documentarian, Fieret’s photographs reflect the evolving social attitudes of the sexual revolution in the 1960s: sex as a possibility instead of a problem; the body as image of pleasure; and the freedom to express sexuality in art and in life. For a Calvinistic country such as The Netherlands, this is no small feat, even though Fieret appears, at times, reluctant to fully explore such newfound liberation. Fieret’s works will baffle audiences: he created, on his own, a visual language that was out of step with his time. Now, thanks to LE BAL, it can be appreciated for what it is: the work of a great voice in Dutch and European photography.
Wilco Versteeg is a PhD candidate at Université Paris Diderot.
Gerard Petrus Fieret is on view at LE BAL, Paris, through August 28, 2016.