THE GOLDFINGERED MAGICIAN
Her name is Irene van Vlijmen and most people have never heard of her. This really great artist has left us an enormous and unique body of work: oil paintings, pen drawings, gouaches, frescos, mosaics, etchings, lithographs, carpets and jewellery. It is high time now you may get acquainted with this very special woman who has contributed so much to 20th century art.
Happy and carefree youth
Irene was born on 23 November 1939 in the Limburg town of Weert (The Netherlands). Together with her two sisters she grew up in a harmonious and artistic family. Undoubtedly Irene inherited her creativity from her mother, who was an accomplished photographer. They acted their own little plays and played music. Irene played the violin well and was a member of the local symphony orchestra. Like ever other girl she had her friends. But it is striking that she would like to be alone with her own dreamy thoughts. She liked animals very much and as an adolescent girl she already had her own horse. She attended grammar school in Eindhoven and in the evening she went to the School for Industrial Design in that same place.
A great talent is being formed
After grammar school Irene studied art at the Stadsacademie [City Academy] of Maastricht, the very first beginning of her career as an artist. At that time she also took painting summer courses in Spanish Segovia, where she got to know that splendid Spanish language which she had already taught herself at home. After that three years of Amsterdam Rijksacademie [State Academy] followed, studying with Professor Röling, to be succeeded by one year at the Antwerp Koninklijk Hoger Instituut voor Schone Kunsten [Royal Higher Institute for Fine Arts]. And then her great wish came true: in 1965 she left for Spain.
Spain, land of her dreams
Irene had always been in love with Spain. The good climate with lots of sun, a country with a grand culture, the Mediterranean atmosphere and the melodious language, all these things held a great charm for her. Spain was to become her adopted native country. In Madrid she started studying at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes San Fernando. There she specialised in the monumental arts, especially the painting of frescos. After a strict preselection and as the only foreigner she was allowed to participate in a great national exhibition in which all the Spanish painters were represented. And in 1966 she had the first exhibition of her own, which was opened by Princess Irene. The Spanish press was wildly enthusiastic. In 1967 Irene married the Spanish estate agent and property developer Alfonso Fernández Nieto. They got three sons, one of whom moved to America. The other two boys run a charming hotel and restaurant in the hills above Malaga.
An industrious life
In the following years she made frescos in the Netherlands and in Malaga. Also she began to design jewellery, something she had always wanted to do. She made the design and had it then executed by the famous Spanish jewellery designer Rodolfo Navarro. As she was curious to know if this jewellery would catch on with the fairly critical Spanish public she took part in the great jewellery fair of Valencia/ fairs of Valencia and Barcelona [???!!] and it became an enormous success. Up to the present day Rodolfo still makes jewellery designed by Irene. In the mid-seventies she had a request from an American art consultant to start selling her paintings and jewellery in California. For a couple of months she commuted from Malaga to California and in the meantime did some study trips as well, among other places to Scandinavia.In 1984,1985 [??!!] she had an exhibition at the Arco art fair in Madrid showing fresco panels, paintings and jewellery. This was a resounding success and she made the front pages of all the influential Spanish papers. In 1983 the first book about her work appeared written by the Spanish poet Salvador López Becerra. The number of exhibitions moved up rapidly now. These were in Spain but also in New York and at the Modern Museum of Art in Santa Ana and the Nelson Rockefeller Collection in Costa Mesa, the latter two in California. In 1985 a book about her was published in the series Great Spanish Painters. As the only non-Spaniard this was a great honour to Irene.
Irene’s magnum opus
It was in 1988, when Irene had an exhibition in Santa Ana, that she met the wealthy Japanese businessman Yasuhiko Sata. This very special and enthusiastic person was very much impressed by Irene’s work and the two of them became friends for life. He told her that he had bought a beautiful old castle in the Côte d’Or in France, the Château de Chailly. He intended to turn it into a top luxury hotel. But for the north tower he had something else in mind. And Irene got the honourable commission to carry out that peculiar intention. She was given carte blanche. And thus the Dôme du Cosmos came about, the acme of exuberant beauty, nowhere else to be found in the entire world. This was Irene’s magnum opus, a monument of intense reflection, of silence and wonder, of bliss, of contact with the divine at the highest level. All religions fuse here. Playful shapes, little fountains and an incredible abundance of shades and tints in frescos and mosaics make that you know yourself surrounded by the totality of the cosmos. This is experiencing supreme beauty. The Dôme du Cosmos is a jewel of plastic art and a donation by Sata to future generations as it is not yet open to the public. It is the finest project ever done by Irene. She worked on it for well over two years and it contains 300 square metres of frescos and 250,000 tiny glass mosaic tiles.
Meanwhile Alfonso had built a gigantic manor farm in Castilian style. It was a finca in the hamlet of Chinchilla de Monte Aragon in the province of Albacete. A lonely, quiet place in wild and rugged scenery. The building complex consisted of many rooms, a courtyard with stables and outhouses, a tower with a private chapel, a library and a large studio for Irene. El Ojuelo even had its own power station that might supply a sizeable village with electricity. Irene was absolutely happy here. Here she could work undisturbed at her creations or prepare them. In practically all the rooms she made the most beautiful frescos and mosaics but she also designed the tables, the furniture, fireplaces, a fountain and carpets. The Pyrenean-Romanesque private chapel too was designed by Irene. Apart from the many frescos she created here a beautiful Madonna in mosaic: La Virgen de Ojuelo. In 1991 she got the honourable commission from the Limburg hotel tycoon Camille Oostwegel to decorate the interior back wall of the private chapel of the Château St. Gerlach with her frescos and mosaics, with the Madonna of St. Gerlach as the dominant figure. In that same period she beautified the Karel V Grand Hotel in Utrecht. This was an age-old property originally owned by the German Order and here too Irene has left us impressive mosaics, ceiling paintings and frescos and two large hand knotted heraldic tapestries.
It is a sign of great and compelling craftsmanship that Irene made all her paints and varnishes herself. Dazzling are the tens of large glass jars with pigments, among which two precious age-old authentic Caput Mortuum pigments from Egypt. There are hundreds of little baskets full of tiny mosaic tiles in all sorts of colours. These glass “small stones” come in two sizes: 1 by 1 centimetre for 24-carat gold and 1 by 2 centimetres for all the other colours. There is only one address at present where these are made: a small, very old glassworks in Venice. The glass blower adds a certain pigment to the molten blob of glass and turns this into a flat “pancake”. After that the two sizes are cut with a glasscutter. Each tiny mosaic tile is a unique specimen. In Antiquity and the Middle Ages they were able to produce as many as 1500 colours. Now this has come down to a mere 120. Irene was the only one in the whole world who still made mosaics in the artisan way following age-old methods. Thanks to her enormous stock she could work with 350 colour combinations.
Road without end
And then it became 2001.
Irene and Alfonso were on their way to Madrid where a major Picasso exhibition was being held when Irene felt unwell. After many medical examinations and operations she was diagnosed with an incurable disease. Now six years of ever heavier physical suffering followed. But Irene’s greatest sorrow was that she would never be able to work again. No more creative outbursts, no more going up the high scaffolding to paint her frescos, no more up the ladders with buckets full of heavy mortar to make her mosaics. She had been commissioned by Mike Sata to decorate a grand peace monument in Nagasaki with her frescos and mosaics. But that was not to be. On 1 September 2007 Irene van Vlijmen passed away. The great shining light of her creative power was extinguished. And she began her long, long journey towards immortality.
Irene will stay with us
All over the world Irene van Vlijmen has left her masterly creations. A generous wealth of poetic shapes and colours originating from that inexhaustible Mediterranean source, an endless range of fantasies, a constantly changing abstract blend of surrealism and expressionism with which she has enriched art worldwide. This book is homage to a really great creative power. Homage to a beautiful, kind-hearted woman. To Irene van Vlijmen, the goldfingered magician.
Pierre Bogaers / Dutch Poet