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Charming, gifted and cumbersome

 Haags Straatnieuws (The Netherlands) 04 June 2019

‘The most famous artist of The Hague is also its most famous photographer’, Haags Straatnieuws wrote in 2004 when local artist Gerard Fieret was honoured with an exhibition in the Communal Museum. Sadly however, Gerard Fieret died aged 85 on January 22nd 2009. Haags Straatnieuws looks back on the achievements of his life and career of The Hague’s most famous homeless man.  - By Vera de Jonckheere

Three days after his 85th birthday, sculptor, poet, photographer and 'pigeon guardian' Gerard Fieret died of lung cancer. Gerard was born in The Hague on January 19th, 1924, where he lived until he he died on January 22nd 2009. He spent the last last years of his life in a small room in the Van Limburg Stirum House. His well attended funeral took place on January 28th at St. Barbara's church in The Hague.

The man who, with two buckets of grain hanging on the handle of his bike, fed pigeons at fifteen regular spots in the city has finally left us, but for many Hague citizens his image will remain in their eyes forever.

Gerad Fieret resembled his tame grey pigeons in nothing. Intense and wondrously colourful were the days of the man who quit drinking and smoking so he could instead buy pigeon food with his money. Words which described his striking personality were as common as they were confusing. Capricious, unsuited, unpleasant and dingy were regular adjectives but creative, gifted, funny, generous and amiable were also often descriptively employed. The lonely eccentric, for whom the expression 'bite the hand that feeds you' was literally a daily practice, nevertheless always found guardian angels on his path.

'Save Fieret!'

Actress Wieteke van Dort knew Fieret's for much of the 1970's when he lived in a shelter belonging to the Communal Cleaning service in the Weissenbruchstraat. "He regularly visited our house from his garage and he always brought something along for me" she says.

"During his visits he would dictate his poems and I would always store them on our computer. Eventually we published eight volumes this way. Beautiful poems I would say. Gerard shared that opinion; he looked upon himself as a sublime genius artist. Unfortunately he also was a tormented and obsessed human being. Fixated by the thought that everybody had taken away everything from him, he regularly had bursts of anger, being troubled by his demons he was at those moments."

"But he had many admirers, most of whom were woman. On the streets I was regularly stopped by woman asking about him."

Fieret's presence often lend Wieteke's husband to petulantly say 'is that stinking man joining us at the table again?' Yet Theo also showed compassion when he saw Gerard sitting cold and stiff in front of Albert Heijn.

"I would then get the car to take him and his bike safely to his home. He remained a bit of a pitiful old man, an image he exploited just as well" says Wieteke.

At the end of the 1990's Fieret was forced to leave his completely collapsing 'home'. The neighbourhood was none too pleased with the pigeons pooing and cooing. In project developer's language: insights changed on what to do with the plot.

"André Lüske created the Foundation Save Fieret, that then protested in a playful way." Says Wietke. "Pierre Bovens did all the paperwork and Ineke Bons was the treasurer. They organised a very successful exhibition in the Haagse Kunstkring (The Hague Art Circle), complemented with an work especially created by Hans Steijger.

Frans Senf and Cornelie Jochems took care of him. Until he was committed to an elderly home he was allowed to live in a port-a-cabin on the land of Cornelie's family. Together with Henk Augustijn I made two films on Gerard. 'The Route' and 'The Pictures', but at a certain moment our friendship became to demanding for me.

Borough of anxiety

According to Wim van Sinderen - conservator of the Photo Museum The Hague - Gerard Fieret possessed the exceptional gift to let people experience the total palette of love and hate in less than an hour. "With Gerard you could have share a lot of love and sorrow in fifteen minutes. We (The Communal Museum The Hague and later Photo Museum) have taken Gerard in our arms as well as having denied him entrance to the building in those years."

On one occasion he was denied entrance to the museum after he signed a series of pictures boldly with a thick marker pen and a stamp, to prevent further stealing. "You could love this charming man enormously or shoot this irritating bully that could really get under your skin" says Van Sinderen.

Very little is known about Gerard's childhood. He once revealed that he came from a mixed-race background with his mother coming from Voorburg and his father from Rijswijk. Little Gerard would have been, smart and eloquent and would probably have been branded as highly gifted.

His eloquence caused a strained relationship with his mother and he was sent to live in the infamous Catholic home for boys, Groenestein, which was also known as the "Borough of anxiety' due to the later discovery that many children who attended there were sexually molested.

Just before and after the Second World War Gerard Fieret studied at de Haagse Koninklijke Academie voor de Beeldende Kunsten (The Hague Royal Academie of Creating Arts) to qualify himself in drawing, painting, graphical shaping and photography.

Sensual and roguish

From the late 1950's until the late 1970's Fieret put all his energy into photography. In an almost maniacal flow he produced black-white pictures. Women, children, himself, animals and the streets were all subjects. His log of 'Life in Kaleidoscopic Totality' sufficed one of the most original oeuvres of post war Dutch photography. Colleagues envied him for his unstoppable, unconventional way of working as much as for the beautiful models who eagerly cooperated with him. Girls of Schoevers (Secretary Education), students of the Vrije Academie (Free Academy), complete strange women of the street. They all posed eagerly for Gerard, with or without clothes.

The rough images could be sensual and roguish, but also raw and confronting. There was a small distance between the photographer and his subjects; the use of simple small picture cameras and complicated, mostly chaotic processing techniques brings about an atmosphere of authenticity. Gerard loved his models to be natural and uninhibited, therefore he rarely gave instructions. The push on the button wasn't a coincidence, but everything in front of the camera was. "See how strong the compositions are, nothing is left to coincidence, I'm not a painter for nothing, yet that is something completely different than dry booklets of photography with the pretention of art" he said.

Gerard defied all laws, not just those of photography. Over-exposure, under-exposure, hard contrasts, blurredness and photo's of Fieret more than once showed cracks, stains, scratches and rips. It will surprise nobody that Gerard also didn't process according to the rules. The film would end up in too hot or cold developing fluid and then he would throw it in fixer for an undecided time. You weren't able to ask him for pictures without rough pixels.

Pity.

Yet as sudden as he had started taking pictures he quit in order to dedicate more time to poetry and painting. In 1992 the poète maudit was honoured by the community of The Hague with the Ouborgprize, the city's prize for Creating Arts, however It was mostly his pigeons felt the benefit of the extra ten thousand guilders. Their 'keeper' didn't care for material matters.

The intense commitment to his winged friends started out of pity for postal pigeons. When they would come in exhausted and late after many flying hours some of their pigeon racers would kill them. Gerarad wanted to prevent this cruelty at all costs. "He would take pitiful postal pigeons to his home to treat and feed them. His pity exceeded further and further to all pigeons that crossed his path" says Wietke van Dort

His photographical work was described by the judges, amongst whom Rudi Fuchs, as "quirky and without any pretentions to satisfy. The images seem to follow the pattern of his daily life exactly and are to be read through his perspective as 'visual poems'".

Gerard archived his artwork just as unconventionaly as he produced it. Hundreds of pictures were stuffed in closets and jerry cans or he kept them in between garbage or pigeon pooh on the floor. He would sell them to collectors or gave them away piles at a time.

In his final years Gerard gave most of his work to the Photo Museum The Hague, which showed a big retrospective of his work in 2004. Lately the appreciation of Fieret's pictures internationally, as well as in financial terms, is increasing. In his farewell speech in the hall of cemetery St. Barbara, Wim van Sinderen wished the future biographer of Fieret a lot of luck: "It will be a thick, hilarious and life worthy book." With pictures!

 

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