Karin Hanssen pushes at glass ceiling in Flemish art world


With a new book and an exhibition at a Brussels gallery, it looks like Flemish painter Karin Hanssen is finally receiving the critical attention that has long eluded her and many other female painters of her generation

Photo courtesy Visual Poetics

“A women’s season”

An ambitious exhibition and a masterful career-spanning book are simultaneously pushing Flemish painter Karin Hanssen into the spotlight. Will Hanssen, now 54, finally receive the appreciation she deserves?

With figurative, narrative paintings in subdued colours with people that show little and often no emotion, Antwerpenaar Hanssen (pictured) has for a quarter century been steadily building an oeuvre that’s immediately recognisable.

The individuals in Hanssen’s paintings often have their faces averted. “Because I don’t portray characters but extras in a social spectacle,” she explains. “Since they’re exchangeable, I leave their identities blank. Hence, the spectators can project themselves in the paintings. For the same reason, I don’t like to depict existing persons because that’s a form of history painting.”

At first glance, the works look like unremarkable scenes lifted from everyday life. Yet, when you look at them more closely, you sense their ominous undercurrent. They’re enigmatic tableaux that leave a chilling, disturbing aftertaste, one that partially springs from the empty spaces in the paintings. That much becomes clear when you leaf through The Borrowed Gaze, a beautifully edited, 240-page book that offers an overview of Hanssen’s artistic output over the last three decades.

But the underlying tension in her oeuvre becomes even more apparent when you visit her A Room of One’s Own solo exhibition, currently on view at the Roberto Polo Gallery in Brussels. “I want my paintings to be layered,” the artist tells me while she shows me around the exhibition, which spans three floors. “I keep on working on them until I tap into that ominous layer. Since they are very simple at the basis, they would look very trite otherwise.”

Riffing on Woolf

Focused on works that Hanssen created between 2008 and 2014, A Room of One’s Own is named after the 1929 classic essay by Virginia Woolf in which the British writer examined the position of female writers in the then male-dominated world of literature. Hanssen came across the seminal essay some years ago. “Round the same moment, I discovered a copy of LIFE from the 1950s or ’60s with two photos of a woman sitting in a fancy interior.” 

I don’t think there’s a difference between male and female art

- Painter Karin Hanssen

The interplay between Woolf’s essay and the two magazine photos inspired the artist to paint 22 works. At the centre are two large canvasses, “Living Room” and “Recreation Room”. These two works are each surrounded by smaller paintings that present a close-up, so to speak, of the master shot.

Still, they’re much more than just cutouts. “When you isolate a part of an image, it gets another meaning. This show is built around the idea of space, framing and the influences of the context on the meaning of an image.”

In her groundbreaking essay, Woolf pointed out that women write differently than men. Is that also true for painting? “I think their art is perceived differently,” says Hanssen. She gives the example of a German painter. “When Gerhard Richter paints a child, people assume it’s layered with meanings. When a woman does so, it’s easily viewed through the lens of motherhood. I don’t think there’s a difference between male and female art, no more than between Flemish and international art. Good art surpasses identity.”

A pasture full of cows

Although Hanssen today has an oeuvre and age that merit a solo show in a museum, she still hasn’t had one. “I wouldn’t decline the offer, of course, but not many women painters get that chance.” But a number of male painters of the same generation as Hanssen, and some even younger than her, have had their museum retrospectives. “I’m glad you noticed that,” she says, the roar of her laughter filling the gallery space. “Because it sounds pitiful when I make this remark myself.”

The high profile exhibitions are seldom granted to women

- Painter Karin Hanssen

The position of female artists is a point of concern for Hanssen. In 2011, she created the Facebook page Contemporary Women Artists in Belgium to push their work into the limelight. “I hesitated a long time because I didn’t want to give the impression of creating a pasture full of cows that don’t get enough attention. I persevered because I really wanted to counter the stereotypical arguments of ‘We don’t know them’ or ‘We can’t find them’.”

With concurrent expos by Flemish and Brussels artists like Berlinde De Bruyckere, Ana Torfs, Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, Kati Heck, Arpaïs Du Bois and many more, some people have called this autumn a “women’s season”. “The fact that people call it that proves my point. Because it has always been a men’s season, right?”

In thinking about this issue, Hanssen realised the lack of gender equality is a complex, partly generational problem. “Yet there is unmistakeably a glass ceiling: The high-profile exhibitions are seldom granted to women. And yes, there are more women curators nowadays, but the Flemish museum directors are mostly all men.”

The Borrowed Gaze is published by Lannoo / Robert Polo Gallery

Until 16 November at Roberto Polo Gallery, Lebeaustraat 8-10, Brussels

With a new book and an exhibition at a Brussels gallery, it looks like Flemish painter Karin Hanssen is finally receiving the critical attention that has long eluded her and many other female painters of her generation.

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