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‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’ – that is what art does. Phyllis Novak

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Houthuesen, Albert - by Jonathan Evens

The Spirituality of the Artist-Clown. The significance of the clown in the life and work of Albert Houthuesen
 
by Jonathan Evens
 
Among the major artists of the twentieth century, Chagall and Rouault were notably moved by the spirituality they saw in the pathos and joy of clowns. Chagall spoke of clowns, acrobats and actors “as tragically human beings … like the figures in some religious paintings” and saw the circus as an arena where the spirit and imagination could take flight and soar. Lionelli Venturi, the art historian, wrote ‘when Rouault painted clowns the grotesque became lovable [1]while a review of Rouault’s work in Time magazine suggested that he painted clowns in a glow of compassion in which they “ceased to be merely pathetic … and became Christ-like.”[2]
 
In Britain, ‘the Fool’ became a major theme and life focus for the mystical painter, Cecil Collins. For Collins, the Fool represents “innate, inviolate, primordial innocence which sees clearly” with our purpose in life being to recover that direct perception; the vision of the Fool. The Fool “is interested … in love and its manifestation in that harmony and wholeness which we call beauty” but because he is in “a state of creative vulnerability and openness” the Fool “is easily destroyed by the world.”[3]
 
Albert Houthuesen, a contemporary of Collins and an ardent admirer of Chagall and Rouault, deserves to be seen with these three artists as a great painter of the spirituality of clowns. Yet, by comparison, he is largely unknown. Richard Nathanson, Houthuesen’s biographer, says that “Chagall and Rouault were both artists he loved”: “Chagall, for the richness and originality of his work, the way he drew upon Russian folk art and Jewish tradition, and was able to be completely himself. Rouault for the spirituality in his work, with its influence of puppets, and the abstraction yet human reality this gave his figures and portraits.”
 
The significance of the clown in Houthuesen’s life and work was, however, an entirely personal one. A clown portrait that moved and impressed him was Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Pierrot, in the Louvre. For Houthuesen, Watteau understood the other side of life; and portrayed it in a way that Boucher or Fragonard did not.
Nathanson says that Houthuesen had a natural empathy with clowns. And would spontaneously enjoy and be inspired when he saw a wonderful clown. Certain clowns stood out for him: Marcel Marceau; George Robey; Little Titch; Charles Cameron; and the Hermans - a family of Russian-Jewish musical clowns he saw in Doncaster towards the end of the war when he was recovering from a severe nervous breakdown. They helped inspire his first real clown studies.
 
Houthuesen studied at the Royal College of Art with Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Edmund Burra and Ceri Richards, but worked in virtual isolation all his life. His pictures are in Tate Britain, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Ashmolean, and the British Museum, yet he has rarely been exhibited. The single most important explanation for this solitary artistic existence - and the role of the clown in his work - is the childhood tragedy that befell him when he was just eight.
 
Seated in his father’s attic studio, he had made a small drawing of a horse which greatly impressed his father, a sensitive, gifted artist. It was a moment of joy shared by father and son. His wife who had bitterly resented her husband’s decision to leave the security of the family piano business and devote himself to painting, entered the studio carrying their fourth child, a six week old son. He turned to his wife and said, ‘He does it better than I do.’ The thought of another artist in the family was too much; she took off her shoe and plunged its heel into her husband’s head. He died three weeks later.
 
The family left for London. Houthuesen’s mother did everything to prevent his becoming an artist. His only way of vindicating himself and the responsibility he felt for his father’s death was through his art; to draw and paint ‘as well as I can’. Inevitably a sense of tragedy permeates his work. But there is also great joy and richness of imagination and colour, combined with the iron resolve to also carry his father’s torch. Even before this terrible incident, he knew he wanted to be a painter, but what happened gave his art a spiritual depth, a sense of the transience of life, an entirely different sensibility and purpose to the stylistic, intellectual innovations of the day; the continuing, widespread notion that art should be seen as a constant process of innovation and change. As Houthuesen said ‘‘The more you see of your own time, the more you are able to go beyond it.”
 
It was forty years before Houthuesen told another person, his wife Catherine, about his father’s death. It was this that helped ‘unleash’ his relentless, extraordinary series of seascapes and the increasingly rich colours that helped his work reach out to a wider audience.
 
Clowning, like painting, was in Houthuesen’s blood. Houthuesen’s father, a talented musician, could be a tremendous clown at the piano and his father's first cousin Johan Buziau, became the most celebrated comic actor in Holland. His brilliantly original, outrageous, often poignant humour is evident in the extraordinary range of roles he performed. In Nazi occupied Holland, he subtly mocked the Nazi imposed Head of Government and, each night, brought the house down until collaborators explained the meaning of his parody. He was placed under house arrest and never performed again; becoming nervous, ill and dying in the late 1950’s. 
 
Houthuesen said "anyone who clowns a great deal is the very one who, in another sense, thinks in a very serious way. It is a comment on despair. And but for this, the world would go completely mad." Houthuesen perhaps equated Buziau’s story with that of St Philemon, the greatest clown in Rome. During a break in the gladiatorial games, Philemon appeared alone in the centre of the Coliseum. Seeing him amid the carnage brought a huge roar of laughter from the crowd. He looked up at the Emperor and said, “I am a Christian.” The audience collapsed in laughter at this absurd notion. Finally there was silence. “I am a Christian.” he said again. And everyone realised he was in deadly earnest. The Emperor ordered him to recant or be sacrificed as a Christian. “I am a Christian”, repeated St Philemon; and was sacrificed. In Houthuesen’s lithograph Of the Company of St Philemon, the young clown is illuminated by a crucifix of light.
 
Houthuesen said that human beings "stand in mystery" and that through the poetry of the Bible - which he described as "an amazingly imaginative idea of the world, based on truth" - we are trying to express about our life "what is so terribly difficult to understand." In speaking about Houthuesen’s sense of the mystery of life, Nathanson emphasized how wonderfully down-to-earth Houthuesen was; that every aspect of his work is a direct manifestation of his own experience and observation of people and the world.
 
‘“We walk in mystery,’ is a simple statement of wonder – that the beauty which surrounds us cannot be explained. He saw a universal meaning and connection in everything. This is mirrored in his paintings of fruit wrapped in tissue paper. Their mood and movement echoes seascapes with the surf crashing over the rocks, ‘eating the world away’. There is a tremendous sense of completeness in his work – evidence of his determination to do utmost justice to his subject – no matter how slight the work or fleeting the moment depicted; to do it ‘as well as I can.’
 
His religion lay in his veneration of life - the beauty and mystery of nature and human beings – and in his desire to pay homage, as humbly and nobly as he was able, to the act of creation. He sought always to share his joy and understanding and his ‘little gift’ with others.
 
Houthuesen venerated Christ but only once or twice directly alluded to the haunting, terrible image of the Crucifixion. In his tragic, magnificent still-life Crown of Thorns, in Tate Britain, it is brutally present. Perhaps the violent nature of his father’s terrible death made it impossible for him to paint this subject; although it was one he could all too vividly imagine. For Houthuesen, Christ was ever-present and an absolutely real individual with this incredible imaginative ability to communicate, very simply, the deepest universal truths. Christ, for him, exemplified the way humans beings should think and behave. This focus is a very effective way of getting people to think again about Christ. All Christ did was to speak tremendous sense and we should focus on what he did and said.
 
Houthuesen said that for many artists it was 'out' to be interested in things like the Bible. He spoke about "people who are groaning and dying of thirst" who "simply won't turn to the jar of water that is to hand", meaning the teachings of Christ. Although Houthuesen never thought in these terms, it may be that the equation of spirituality with clowning which we find in the work of Houthuesen, Collins, Chagall and Rouault is a reflection of the fragility of belief in an era of aggressive secularism. As Collins argued, the Fool or Clown is easily destroyed by the world.
Collins once painted an angel comforting a Fool who has been broken by the world. Houthuesen found his angel in Catherine, who, “unlike his mother, recognised and encouraged Albert’s talent”[4] . She supported them both, through the long years when Houthuesen’s work went unrecognised, by teaching Art at St Gabriel's College, a Church of England teacher’s training college.
 
Houthuesen said “a person’s development is a very long and mysterious process”: “Very, very gradually, through wisdom and experience, you become freer. You can’t pinpoint a particular stage of development. You weep more, you laugh more, you are older and somehow you have changed. The world is such an incredible place. And for an enquiring mind it is so mysterious and wonderful that there is no time to be bored. It enthrals me from the moment I awake. When one says one hopes to make one’s work more cosmic, it sounds arrogant; but it’s only what painters are trying to do all the time. They are all conscious of these intense infinities in Nature, in everything, everywhere.”
 
Or as Collins would have phrased it, the vision of the Fool has been recovered and the Artist-Clown sees “love and its manifestation in that harmony and wholeness which we call beauty.”
 
*******
 
For comprehensive information on Albert Houthuesen, visit www.houthuesen.com which shows his development over sixty years [each work is accompanied by the artist’s words] and an extract from the 1976 BBC film on his life.       
 
Richard Nathanson can be contacted on richard@richardnathanson.co.uk
[1]L. Venturi, Rouault, Lausanne, 1959, pp 21, 51
[2] ‘The Glow of Compassion’, Time, Jul. 27, 1953
[3] C. Collins, The Vision of the Fool and other writings, Golgonooza Press, 1994, p 119
[4] Walk To The Moon, BBC Omnibus Production, 1976