Mexican depicts a man’s head, shown in profile; the face is shadowed by the enormous sombrero he is wearing. Rendered in broad brushstrokes, the red and orange of the hat contrast with the blues and grey of the background. Beneath this mass of colour, the wearer is effectively a silhouette, with the detail of his cheek highlighted by a lighter patch of colour. The resulting image is a form of caricature: the exotic hat used to connote the figure’s ‘otherness’.

This is an early work by the Dutch painter René Daniëls, whose relatively short career as a painter was cut short by a debilitating stroke late in 1987. He studied art at the Koninklijke Academie voor Kunst en Vormgeving in Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands between 1972 and 1976. While a student he encountered the work of Georg Baselitz (b.1938) and Sigmar Polke (b.1941) in exhibitions at the Goethe Institute in Amsterstam: ‘in art school I took that in and tried to make a connection with it,’ Daniëls later explained. (Quoted in Duyster, p.18).

Returning to his hometown of Eindhoven after art school, Daniëls gained an international reputation as a leading exponent of new (Dutch) painting. Although his later works were more concerned with creating a form of ‘visual poetry’ in painting (quoted in Duyster, p.73), Mexican foreshadows some of the formal qualities that he was to develop over the remaining ten years of his career. The bold application of complementary colours, the juxtaposition of areas of colour painted ‘in as flat a way as possible’ (quoted in Duyster, p.31), and the use of graphic elements to unite figuration and abstraction, are also characteristic of his later paintings.

Daniëls’s transition from early, largely figurative paintings such as Mexican, to the stylised abstraction of his later period, can be seen in works such as New Dutch Herring 1982 (Tate T11858) in which fish form an all-over pattern across the canvas. From 1985 until 1987, Daniëls made use of simple spatial diagrams and motifs, as seen in Mystic Transportation 1987 (Tate T11914). For its paradoxical combination of playfulness and subversion, his later work has been linked to that of Francis Picabia (1879-1953), Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976). Daniëls sought to embrace a range of influences and privilege diversity in his work. He commented: ‘I think you can divide art history into people who are concerned with the well-founded development of a particular style and artists who keep on taking different routes. I feel at home with the latter group.’ (Quoted in Duyster, p.28.)

Further reading:
Ulrich Loock, René Daniëls / Shirley Wiitasalo, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of York University, Toronto, 1993.
Dorine Duyster, ed, Sputterance: Texts on and by René Daniëls, De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art, Tilburg, 2007.

Maria Bilske / Alice Sanger
May 2006 / October 2008