Laura Gascoigne

Why is the smoky, febrile art of Marcelle Hanselaar so little known?

Her work is in the collections of the Ashmolean and Metropolitan Museum, New York, yet her powerful paintings and etchings remain under the radar

Howl of protest: ‘The Crying Game 4: Remnants of Civilization 1’, 2015, by Marcelle Hanselaar

I first became aware of the work of Marcelle Hanselaar in a mixed exhibition at the Millinery Works in Islington. All I remember now about the show, and my review, is that I said she could teach Paula Rego to suck eggs. From the mischievous energy packed into her small figurative paintings I assumed she was young enough to be Rego’s granddaughter. That was in 2003; she was pushing 60.

Born in Rotterdam in 1945, Hanselaar is essentially self-taught. She dropped out of art school in The Hague — it was the 1960s — and ran away to Amsterdam; what she learned about painting she picked up from the artists she lived with. In 1968 she drifted to India, where she lived in a cave as a sadhu, then — deciding that her ‘quest for truth had become muddled’ — she spent ten months in a Zen monastery in Japan. By the 1980s she had gravitated to London, painting lyrical abstracts and supporting herself by gardening. She was in her forties when, in 1992, the death of her disapproving mother — the woman she had always defined herself in opposition to — caused an identity crisis that triggered her first show of figurative paintings, Burying the Hatchet, remembering her mother, all horsey teeth and pearls, at her own age. ‘I had never in my life painted a face or hands.’ She did it from memory.

Fire-breathing dogs in Swiss voile aprons freely interact with – and pleasure – their human counterparts

For Hanselaar, the urge to paint is born of contradiction: a mix of fascination and disgust. She is amused and touched by self-presentation and the way it misfires: step-in corsets that cause the surplus flesh to bulge, charmeuse slips that hang like sagging skin, lipstick that cracks and smears, ‘sexy and ungainly at the same time’.

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