Do we ever show our true selves to the world? In the early stages of Francien Krieg’s painting career, she pondered how human beings tend to be a masked species. The act of concealment is deeply engrained within every one of us. In many cases, it is as natural to us as breathing. Culturally, of course, there are variations. Some are taught that bodies should be shrouded and feelings stuffed down. On a global scale, however, bare faces and naturally pigmented tresses are inevitably deemed unappealing. We learn that we must enhance our features with cosmetics and hair dye – among many other elaborate interventions – in order to fulfill society’s standards of presentability.
Contemplating this globally accepted form of brainwashing, one thing became abundantly clear to Francien Krieg. The vast majority of us have bought into the highly romanticized or otherwise glorified version of the human body. Our society does not want to see artfully depicted figures that stray from that idealized archetype. It goes beyond painterly aesthetics, however. People don’t even want to look in a mirror and see the harsh reality of their own chronological age staring back at them. We go to great lengths to project a physical image of ourselves that sweeps truth under the rug. How very intriguing, the Dutch painter thought. What if I were to really tell it like it is?
Francien Krieg’s subject matter has nothing to do with shock value, titillation, or lack of imagination. It is deeply entrenched in the truth zone. The whether we like it or not zone. She doesn’t just paint emotionally saturated self-portraits that zing with compositionally unique angles.
Francien Krieg renders unvarnished flesh that is as reflective of the rollercoaster ride of life as it is of the ravages of time. Her muses offer the beholder an aging process reality check that is both stirring and uncomfortably prophetic. As it turns out, “they” are “we”… eventually. Let’s see what Francien has to say on the matter.
I’m not sure if being my own muse elevates my paintings. However, in a way, making my portraits so personal for the viewer ends up making my whole body of work more interesting.
Anyone who takes a moment to read your artist statement will first be greeted with your photograph. They will immediately recognize that you are an attractive woman. It is only upon digesting your words that the reader will realize that – like so many other lovely ladies around the world – you, too, wrestle with the unpleasant realities of getting older. Instead of lamenting the physical changes that accompany each passing year, however, you seem to be creatively retaliating. Does your art give aging the middle finger?
Extending a middle finger would deny the aging process. I try to artistically demonstrate the reality of aging through a lens of compassion and curiosity. It is a long journey throughout the aging process. It ultimately concludes with death. Everyone wants to become old, but they don’t want to BE old. My paintings acknowledge that aging is a part of life. My work also confronts that truth by documenting it.
Your portfolio seems to push and pull in two different directions. The figurative art in which you capture family and senior muses conveys warmth, intimacy and great reverence. On the other hand, your personal self-portraiture tends to be raw, uncomfortable at times, and occasionally confrontational. Is that a fair assessment?
The aging ladies and family portraits that I work on require a delicate and sensitive approach. Conversely, I feel completely free to paint myself in a more direct and raw way. I see my body purely as a tool to paint how I like. My initial feeling about the human body has never disappeared in my work – it is a bizarre object. I feel close to my body. On the other hand, I know nothing about what is going on inside, and that makes it a mysterious object. When I paint myself in strange angles, I am focusing on the honest curiosity that I have regarding this bizarre thing called the human body.
Your self-portraits seem to ooze rebellion. Is being called a figurative art punk rocker a compliment or an insult?
I think art should rub in the wrong way, or at least touch the viewer’s emotions in some way – positive or negative. If my work accomplishes that, then yes, it is a compliment to be called a figurative art punk rocker.
Lately, I’ve been drawn to far bolder color palettes as a celebration of life. I am using color as a way to emphasize the fact that I feel like a strong woman.
Some feel that the job of an artist is to expose their true, authentic and unvarnished self to the beholder. This particular creative philosophy REALLY seems to resonate with you. Do you use canvases in the way that some people use personal journals?
As a person, I am an open book. I am not easily ashamed or embarrassed. In my work, the directness that I have as a person is apparent. But, my self-portraits are meant to be universal images that people can relate to. I create images about certain emotions that I experience as a human being. Since I’m feeling those things, I have a hunch that others feel similarly. I don’t think I am unique as a person. I just try to make a connection to other people’s emotions with my paintings. I approach conversations the same way. I open up to people about my feelings, and then they feel free to open up to me as well. That is the beauty of openness, I think.
The nude figure has long been your main artistic focus. Some of your poses are especially imaginative, and at times even a wee bit provocative. And yet, it doesn’t seem like you’re purposefully trying to titillate the beholder.
It is certainly not my intention to shock the viewer, since I don’t think there is anything shocking to see. The nude human body, painted for decades by many great masters, always seems to be rendered in the same glorifying manner. I want to show the beauty of a realistic body without being cliché. It is also how I think about life and many situations that occur. I always try to see things from a different angle before I judge someone. So, my poses are quite literally about seeing things in a fresh new way.
When I paint myself in strange angles, I am focusing on the honest curiosity that I have regarding this bizarre thing called the human body.
Do you believe that your painting niche is “ballsy”?
For me, my paintings are not ballsy because I don’t have an issue with nudity. The human body is the purest and natural thing that there is. When we are without clothes, we are without masks. We cannot hide behind anything that makes us look richer, wiser, more interesting or cooler. We are all the same.
When did you just know that becoming a painter of unconventionally portrayed nudes would be your artistic signature?
Earlier in my career, I began receiving recognition for my portraits of older nude ladies. That seemed to become my brand. I’m not fond of being branded, of course. I prefer working on different series because that reflects the many sides I have as a human being. Things are not one-dimensional. People shouldn’t expect an artist to be content working in just one style.
There is an aesthetic quality to your art that makes it seem really interesting rather than vulgar. Sometimes, shapes and lines seem far more noticeable in your work than nipples and other lady bits. Are you stepping outside of the conventional figurative art boundaries for the express purpose of creating a unique visual experience?
To be honest, I don’t think I really know what these boundaries are. I never really studied painting. I went to art school, but I studied monumental art. After that, I started painting and just began experimenting. I cannot say that I am consciously trying to create a unique visual experiment. As a painter, the process of creating is mostly based on instinct or feelings. I just keep moving forward, trying new things and reacting to that. That is what creating means to me.
Conveying your personal truth as a woman seems integral to your body of work. Of all the storytelling devices that you could use as an artist, why has self-portraiture resonated so strongly with you?
It is convenient. I am the most flexible model I could possibly find and I am always available. Since art is always very personal, I am able to express my feelings in my self-portraits. Due to the pandemic, working with older ladies was no longer an option. That is why I began creating many more self-portraits. Additionally, I started making smaller portraits of myself since my children were at home and I had a lot less time available. That forced me to work fast and complete a painting every day. This became a sort of a journal of how I experienced the COVID-19 situation. I experienced various emotional states throughout the pandemic which I think many people can easily relate to.
Is there ever a point in self-portraiture when the vulnerability that you choose to display stops feeling cathartic?
I imagine that people will continue relating to my portraits as long as they find it hard to show their fragile and sensitive sides. On the other hand, who says that I will continue painting these kinds of nudes? Maybe I will go in a complete different direction one day. Since the world is changing around me, I hope that my art will also keep evolving.
When you gaze at a self-portrait that you created even one year ago, what is that experience like? Do you feel “brave” or “bold” for documenting your body and spirit on canvas?
No, not really – I look at them in a different way. It is more about technique, how I handled the paint and all. Sorry. Not the most inspiring thoughts, right?
Occasionally, the reflection staring back at us in the mirror is not one that our brain agrees with. Perhaps we think that we look much better, possibly a little worse, or somewhere in between. Is gazing at your self-portraiture beneficial or detrimental to your emotional health?
A painting is not reality, so I feel detached in a way.
Things always look softer and more beautiful in a painting, though. The hard reality is the image I see in the mirror where my skin starts to hang. I don’t see the same beauty as I once did 20 years ago. Of course, I am also only human. I am not adverse to painting myself in the most flattering angle or perspective.
My more confrontational paintings (from low angles where you look up my crotch) are not really me. Recently, someone asked to see the reference photos for that array of paintings. They were curious about how much resemblance there is to my painted works of art. Of course, I refused. Those photos are very private – I have my borders.
Our global culture is moving toward the mindset that we should actually love the skin that we’re in. Has your self-portraiture enabled you to stop being as critical of your self-perceived flaws?
When I finish one of my paintings, I don’t really see myself on the canvas anymore. It is more the process of deciding my composition, palette, and then actually creating my work of art. When one of my paintings is done, it is done. I don’t think I see my body as having many flaws. I appreciate my body and I feel lucky for having a healthy one. Any physical flaws are very unimportant in life, I think.
Things always look softer and more beautiful in a painting, though. The hard reality is the image I see in the mirror where my skin starts to hang.
You’ve emblazoned a very exposed version of yourself upon canvas many times. Remarkably, you never seem to run out of new ways to document the same body. How do those endlessly unusual poses occur to you?
They occur to me because I continue moving forward in my artistic practice. Rather than thinking too much or waiting for inspiration, I am a person who keeps doing. I start in the morning and work hard. Most ideas come to me while I’m lying in bed at night. I feel as though nighttime is such a waste of my time – it is my least favorite part of the day!
Does being your own muse elevate the quality of your paintings?
I’m not sure if being my own muse elevates my paintings. However, in a way, making my portraits so personal for the viewer ends up making my whole body of work more interesting. The beholder is able to learn a lot about me as a person through the lens of my self-portraiture.
If you utilized art models rather than yourself, would you still feel comfortable creating bolder compositions? Would hiring muses result in art that merely just whispers? Conversely, does taking on the role of one’s own muse yield art that screams?
For over 15 years, I’ve worked with models and still do. Occasionally, I’ve painted older and obese models in strange, unusual angles that could be considered compositionally bold. For me, however, I don’t associate more bizarre angles as resulting in far bolder compositions. There are many ways to be bold that can be also done in a whisper.
I always try to see things from a different angle before I judge someone. So, my poses are quite literally about seeing things in a fresh new way.
Gustave Courbet’s scandalous L’Origine du Monde made the masses gasp 155 years ago. That painting even prompted Facebook to ban someone’s account in 2011. What are your thoughts on this?
During Courbet’s era, the image of the vulva was seen as shocking. In the current period of time that we live in, nudity is readily accessible on the internet and even in old-fashioned Playboy magazines. Comparatively, my work can hardly be seen as shocking. I make images of bodies that are not perfect, but I want them to be seen as strong and powerful.
On the other hand, I would not say that we live in a more open-minded era at all. My artwork has been removed countless times from social media as well as from exhibitions. There has always been lots of discussion around my work, which has always surprised me. But, since I’ve noticed that my portraits tend to touch a delicate nerve with my audience, that has motivated me to continue moving forward.
Art should touch, distress, and even confuse people. I’m on the right track with my work because I have paid attention to people’s reactions. I believe that my portraits have touched a nerve in many people. Some of the images I’ve painted stir feelings within the beholder about their own aging process and fear of death. Art always reflects back on the viewer’s own fear, love, and emotions. We are all different people and we all react quite differently to art.
Everyone wants to become old, but they don’t want to BE old. My paintings acknowledge that aging is a part of life.
As desensitized as our global culture has become to certain imagery, U.S.-based social networks are incredibly prudish regarding artfully rendered nudes. Has your work ever been targeted by the social network nipple/genital police?
My art has been targeted many, many, many times. I stopped getting upset about it, to be honest. If that is their way of thinking, it is sad. In a way, children grow up thinking that there is something wrong with a nude body. Interestingly, my family portraits – in which parents hold their naked children – touch a nerve for many people. In my perspective, that is just so bizarre. Love is the most powerful thing in the world. Why would they want to create something dirty out of my depiction of that familial bond? It is a pity that people get so uptight about this.
My son likes to play in the garden in the nude. Even that prompted others to comment in a negative manner, which is hard to believe. That only makes my commitment to this series of portraits I’ve been working on even stronger. Nothing is wrong with nudity. Furthermore, being nude is not the same as having sex. [Not that there is anything wrong with sex, of course.]
People report the social media accounts of others, even if their complaints aren’t warranted. How are you able to pursue adventurous figurative painting when today’s online culture is filled with endlessly offended ‘critics’? Doesn’t it take a lot of extra energy to protect your accounts?
I refuse to use a flag or cover anything up in my paintings just to please the social media police. Lately, the censorship hasn’t been so bad. I regularly post nude paintings and no longer get kicked off of social media, so for the moment, it isn’t a real issue.
Are you are very fast painter? How do you manage to be so creatively productive even though you are a mother to two young children?
I will admit, I am a workaholic. But truthfully, I paint fast because I have 20 years of experience and I just love to paint. What also helps is that I have a husband who really respects what I do and gives me all the space I need to pursue my work. Of course, I give my children and husband a lot of attention. Without them, I would not be able to work at all. I am happy with my life and I really just have lot of positive energy to make the most of every day!
The Dutch have a far more relaxed and healthy attitude toward nudity than other cultures. Is it acceptable for your children to see your self-portraits or your elderly figurative nudes?
My children spend time in my home studio on a regular basis. They’ve seen my nude body many times in my self-portraits. It’s not strange. The reaction that my children have to my older nude ladies is the same. They’ve grown up with these images. I hope it teaches them that this is what real bodies look like.
Interestingly, my children’s friends react quite differently to my paintings. The front door of my house is connected to my art studio. Whenever a friend comes over to play, they look directly inside my workspace. Sometimes I forget that not all children grow up in such a free way as my own children do. I think that in my village, people probably look at me as a bit of a strange woman, but I am ok with that.
As time has passed, your self-portraiture has evolved to become far more self-assured, matter-of-fact, and even assertive. Have any of the following points factored into this?
- You’ve reached the age where you no longer give a #*@!
- You are more comfortable opening yourself up emotionally
- Artistically, you are portraying a specific role
I think it is because I am now a much happier person than I ever was before. I worry less about the opinions of others. Consequently, I feel far more comfortable expressing myself in whatever way I desire. Also, for a long time, I made paintings with very soft muted colors. Lately, I’ve been drawn to far bolder color palettes as a celebration of life. I am using color as a way to emphasize the fact that I feel like a strong woman.
When people call you “brave” for documenting the transience of your human condition, is that complementary or annoying?
It says more about the person who uses the word brave for my work. My models can perhaps be regarded as brave, but I don’t think that my paintings reflect my own bravery.
Has your self-portraiture helped you to cultivate a healthier emotional outlook on your own mortality?
I think my series “Precious Bodies” helped me more with that process. Those self-portraits are more about the here and now. Now that I am 47, I feel that my self-portraits will continue to be far more focused on aging. I can no longer pretend to be a young chick in my paintings anymore.
Does the fact that you have made a name for yourself as a strong portraitist ever feel creatively limiting?
I feel free to paint what I want, but that is only because I have been working as a professional artist for more than 20 years now. I made a little bit of a name for myself with portraits featuring older women. Before that, I felt like it was necessary to make a consistent body of work to be branded as an artist. Now, I feel free to work on different series. When I focused solely on creating paintings featuring older nudes, people questioned why I wasn’t producing work that would sell more easily. Somehow, I had such a strong urge to keep painting those women that I never listened to anyone who questioned my direction. I knew that those paintings simply had to be made.
Eventually, I do believe that even if you paint different subject matter, you can always find the red line in your work. It comes from within. Somehow, there is always a connection.
Is there any other type of art that you would secretly love to dabble in but can’t because you are ‘typecast’ as a figurative painter?
I would love to experiment if I could find more time in the day. I accepted an invitation to attend Pouch Cove Foundation’s residency program for one month. It was wonderful to have 4 whole weeks to really focus on my work. I would love to do that more often!
Have you ever been afflicted with artistic perfectionism? Does taking extra time to get a painting “just right” end up enhancing the final result or compromising it?
Yes. Today, I work quite differently compared to how I once did. Years ago, I think I overworked many of my paintings. Now, I use an ala prima technique and it has to be right in one shot. If it isn’t, I would rather just start all over again. My paintings are far more direct and fresh with that approach – which I really like – but I accomplish that by spending much less time on them!
If you could use just one color to accurately represent your self-portraiture essence, what would it be?
I like many colors, so deciding on just one is impossible. However, I do have a preference for cool, bluish colors.
What would you want an alien race to understand about your painting legacy?
I hope that when they see my paintings, they’ll feel empathy for the human race. They will probably look at them as bizarre artifacts, however, just like me!