Interview with Axel Vervoordt Interview conducted by Dirk Pörschmann, 15 April 2010, ’s-Gravenwezel / Belgium
Where did you get to know Jef Verheyen? Where did the first meeting take place? I first saw his paintings at the house of his friend and patron Jos Macken, an important collector of oriental art who also happened to own quite a few Verheyens. When I saw Macken’s collection — it was in 1969 or 1970 — I was absolutely overwhelmed. I loved the paintings from the first moment I saw them. I asked Macken for the address of the artist, and straight away went to visit Verheyen in his studio. He only had one work to show me, and I immediately bought it. I really wanted to own a painting by Verheyen. His paintings were scarce, as they sold very well despite the relatively high price. In general, he would sell out before the exhibition even opened. But you wanted to know how we became friends. We worked together for a year at least, and during that time we got to know each other better and better. We respected each other, personally and professionally. And our friendship grew and became stronger from this sense of affinity. Do you see Jef Verheyen the person in his paintings? Not really. He was a special friend, and I was able to learn a lot from him. He was well read and cultured, and was always encouraging me to read books, which he was incessantly recommending. He could be wild, but also very nice. He had a big heart, had everything, and was extreme in every respect. His paintings may look light and simple, but for me, as someone who knew him well, they are full of depth and timelessness. For years, I had loved, collected, and dealt in antiquities. And then, all of a sudden, I felt a great need to live with paintings by Jef Verheyen. I found something in his paintings that I couldn’t find in the art that had been my passion till then — space opening into infinity.
What was the difference between Verheyen in life and in his art? Life was a great strain and a tough struggle for him, but when he painted, he was like an angel, able to apply himself to painting, to surrender himself entirely to it without a struggle. He felt a relationship with the cosmos. He talked about that often. I believe that great artists, above and beyond their egos, are the channels for cosmic messages or energies. My feeling tells me that Jef used this for his art. When he was able to paint, his ego wasn’t so pronounced. He sought to get close to the void. But when he put down his brush, he folded back into his ego and resumed his personal struggle with life. It was strange. You could think Jef had two personalities — the being of his paintings and his own being. I believe in the concept of Yin and Yang and the link between extremes. His extreme strength and his wild nature went hand in hand with his great human warmth and with the fragile aesthetic of his paintings. He was not a simple man. He was very vulnerable and quick to take offence. And he reacted strongly. My wife May and I liked him very much, which is why even today it is still not easy to admit that he was a difficult person. He and his works were a whole; they created a harmony that bound both sides together. What was Verheyen’s relationship to collectors and gallery owners like, given that he was so individualistic? Many gallery owners had great problems with Jef Verheyen, as he wanted to sell directly to collectors. His attitude was clear: ‘they’re my paintings. I’d like to know what collection they’re hanging in, and I should be the one making money from them’. He would get the contact information of collectors during gallery exhibitions, and then he would often enough just cut out gallery owners altogether, to avoid paying them a commission. Naturally, this led to great problems. That was already very strange, and at the same time a pity for him, since the aggravation was a drag on his artistic success. I didn’t mind it myself, since I learned so much from him, and he was such a close and valuable friend — you cannot put that in the balance with money. He was an inspiration to me, like a brother, a father, and also a teacher. I’m still profiting from his knowledge
monography of the works of Jef Verheyen