Henri Van Herwegen, the Belgian artist known as Panamarenko, has died at the age of 79 after being taken ill suddenly.
Panamarenko was born in Antwerp into a family of boat repairers, and at the age of 15 went to study art at the Fine Arts Academy there. His first major work was a flying machine called Das Flugzeug (German for aeroplane). He would be fascinated by flying machines, both fantastical and perfectly operational, for the rest of his career, whether as actual constructions, models or drawings. A year after Das Flugzeug he broke through internationally with an exhibition in the state art academy in Düsseldorf.
Later works included a Zeppelin called The Aeromodeller, Archaeopteryx, a chicken disguised to look like the prehistoric flying dinosaur, and Pahama Novaya Zemblaya, a submarine, a sort of underwater flying machine.
In 2005 he became the first living Belgian artist ever to be given a retrospective exhibition in the Fine Arts Museum in Brussels. It attracted 72,000 visitors, and afterwards he announced his retirement, claiming he had made enough of his objects, and no longer had enough room to stock them all. De Standaard recounts an interview he gave to the paper in that same year, when the question of inspiration came up. He was asked if he believed in such a thing.
“Yes, it exists,” he replied. “Without it, everything is just DIY work. You start off with an idea, and something gets added on along the way. Then, while you’re busy trying out things and changing everything, you suddenly find something that makes all that ironmongery into something beautiful. Personally I have no idea where it comes from. It’s as if beauty falls out of the air; it’s all there of a sudden. If you ask me, it’s all about desire. You have to want really badly to build a submarine to be able to make something that has the poetry of a submarine in it. To make good work, you first have to be lazy for a time, with nothing at all to do. That’s when you begin to think and play with ideas, and then something can grow out of that.”
Panamarenko would have turned 80 next year, and plans are already under way to mark the anniversary with a major exhibition in Campo & Campo in Borgerhout, a district of his native Antwerp, titled, in a reference to the Phineas Fogg he so embodied, Around the World in 80 Years.
“Without a doubt, Panamarenko is the most inspiring living contemporary Belgian artist,” the advance publicity reads. “His world of wonders occupies a space between pure science, technical ingenuity and childlike enthusiasm.”
Jan Jambon, Flemish minister-president and culture minister, paid tribute: “Henri Van Herwegen was one of our most outstanding visual artists. A high flyer we will not forget in a hurry. I wish strength to his family and friends.”
Fellow ministers Benjamin Dalle, Wouter Beke, Hilde Crevits and Matthias Diependaele all issued statements, as did former culture minister Sven Gatz, now in the Brussels regional government, who called Panamarenko “a powerhouse of the imagination; a poet of all that can (or cannot) fly, sail or ride.”
Cartoonist and artist Eva Mouton posted to Twitter: “In a world that seems to be getting colder, we need dreamers. One of those dreamers is now dead. But what Panamarenko leaves behind is a Universe of wonder. Let us quietly be grateful for that.”