Born in Rotterdam in 1945, Marcelle Hanselaar grew up in The Hague. She was born in the Spring following the last, desperate months of the War, when Dutch citizens had been starving and freezing. As she was growing up, ‘everything was socially defined by the stance of what people did in the War; to this day people are very aware of this’. She felt ‘suffocated as a child’ by her parents’ expectations of good manners and immaculate appearance (somewhat exaggeratedly echoing the demands of the wider society). Reacting against this prim, puritanical upbringing, ‘in the sixties I dropped out big-time. I am all for good manners but not at the cost of suffocating the raw, irrational part of the soul – which has to be acknowledged and contained, not suppressed.’ In her art, Hanselaar seeks to reconcile the illusory human veneer of social conformism with the raging vulnerabilities within.
In her twenties and thirties Hanselaar travelled widely, with trips to countries like India and Afghanistan, during which she encountered dangerous, threatening ‘situations where you find yourself becoming very calm. There is nothing you can do; no running away or smart talking can help. It just happens. There’s something about bodies which are centred which is absolutely wonderful. In my 2008 self-portrait, I am centred, as are indeed many figures in my paintings. I am a peaceable person but I’m intrigued by the human potential for violence, individually and collectively.’
A self-taught artist, she studied briefly at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague; then after the years of adventure and self-discovery abroad, she settled in a studio in London in the early 1980s. She still lives and works in London.
‘My Self-Portrait with exploding chest was painted when I was in the throes of separating from my then lover. I could not express myself – not to him, and not to anyone, so I painted that sense of sheer unbearableness spouting out of me. The portrait is itself very simple, the paint transparent, rubbed into the white ground and occasionally scrubbed with sandpaper. Everything for me was raw, the bare bones, both emotionally and as an exercise in painting.
I began etching in 2000 and that has influenced not just my imagery in a kind of cross-pollination but also my use of paint – for instance, scratching with sandpaper into the paint is a direct influence from scraping lines etc. on an etching plate.’
Hanselaar’s head, shoulders and torso are positioned quite low in the composition, the brilliantly bleak ‘sky’ (or ‘ground’) quite prominent as it lours above (or beyond). ‘The top light in my paintings is because my easel stands under a skylight.’ An icy white irradiates the top and much of the sides of her hair; the orange-red here is quite realistic – photographs of the artist do show her with ice-white hair with orange ‘sideburns’. The orange coiffure and lips here correspond tonally (and unsettlingly) to the explosive splash of bloody red paint emanating from the chest. Her saturnine features appear sculpted into at once adamantine yet curiously incorporeal shapes of shadowed stillness. The artist views her own bizarrely ominous predicament with compassionate objectivity.
Other self-portraits from 2009 show the artist in gauzy nightdresses and a dark, hirsute, rough-edged top, her hands clasped with self-protective unease at the top of her legs. Portraits of solitary young males from about the same time – a pre-pubescent boy draped only in barbed wire coils around his waist; a naked gauche adolescent with a barbed wire border running above him – describe young male beauty in a state of raw vulnerable grief and yearning. In the last few years, ‘my paintings have become more complicated. I got bored with the single figure; I want to make it more difficult. I am shameless now!’
‘I have never been to a war zone but I was very moved by the Arab Spring, such an optimistic beginning which turned to disaster and war. I am not a political animal but latterly I empathetically gravitate more to the world around me – rather than my own world.’ In paintings and etchings from 2012-15, Hanselaar depicts an anarchic cast of characters – shadowy homburg-hatted gangsters with guns, an African boy soldier with a Mickey Mouse ears’ cap, women in burqas, a bride in a wedding dress – amidst teeming, surreally carnivalesque battlefields of orgiastic violence and bestial defilement.
In Don’t Look Now (2013), three poignant figures are isolated against an austere backdrop: a woman shields a young boy from a distant abstracted scene of aerial bombardment and bloody dismemberment; to her left is the hauntingly exposed back of a mournful third figure restrained in a length of glistening wire or rope. The women appear to be dual aspects of the same person, one turning towards the scene of explosive horror with a delicately elegiac yet grave gesture of maternal tenderness, the other withdrawn in mute or quietly howling anguish, ensnared in ineluctable bonds of sorrow.
‘My cultural origins and conditioning are north-west European – and so a dark reflectiveness on what we are, accompanied by a bite of humour, is at the heart of the way I work. I find Max Beckmann’s courage to expose his weaknesses, the underbelly of our hidden selves, incredibly moving and his work has greatly emboldened me. Otto Dix’s great strength lies for me in his etchings, the 1924 series Der Krieg especially [grotesquely hallucinatory images of the First World War apocalypse] and his drawings.
‘Rembrandt and Velásquez – and also Cranach, Hals, Rubens and others – are masters of a sensual economy of composition which I love to try to emulate. For me, the 17th century Baroque was the summit of painting; all is skilfully reduced to its barest element. In Velásquez’s portrait in brown and silver of Philip IVth of Spain, his attire appears thickly embossed yet is painted with just a few brushstrokes; that’s where the magic lies.’
Marcelle Hanselaar’s paintings and prints are in Collections of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; the British Museum, London; and the V&A Museum, London