"I don't consider myself an artist [...] I have handy hands" (Nicole van Goethem in conversation with Anna Luyten, 1999)
Nicole van Goethem (1941-2000) was an Antwerp graphic artist and animator who won the first and only Belgian Oscar in 1987 with her début film, Een Griekse Tragedie (A Greek Tragedy). She worked on several animated film productions in the 1970s and 1980s before going on to make three short animated films of her own, A Greek Tragedy (1985), Vol van Gratie (1987) and L.A.T. (posthumously, 2002). Van Goethem won a whole slew of awards with her début arthouse film, making a name for herself at home and abroad. As an Antwerp artist, she also worked on commission and provided illustrations for countless books, magazines, and advertising campaigns. On top of that, she was commissioned by all kinds of organisations to create short animated commercials for them. Humanitarian and social initiatives clearly inspired Van Goethem, and she appears to have been sympathetic to feminist causes.
Nicole van Goethem was born on 31 May 1941 and grew up in Antwerp. She attended school as a child under the tutelage of the nuns of Sint-Jozefstraat at Les filles de Marie-Paridaens, a renowned French-speaking girls' school where ‘little Nicoleke’ stuck out like a sore thumb. She claimed to have been a naughty pupil who was sent home on more than one occasion. However, one of the sisters recommended to her mother that she should just let Nicole draw. That advice did not fall on deaf ears. In secondary school, Van Goethem studied decorative arts at Saint Mary’s Technical Institute in Antwerp, where she won first prize in a drawing competition organised by the school. After secondary school, she decided to study flute at the Royal Conservatoire Antwerp and performed as a member of the Baroque ensemble, Consortium Antiquum. It was around this time that she also began taking evening classes at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp and began seeing Rudi Renson. After university, in 1965, Van Goethem spent a nomadic year travelling through Spain and Morocco. When she returned, she ended up a staple feature of Antwerp nightlife, working as a hostess in clip joints. That period lasted six years, during which Van Goethem picked up neither pencil nor brush.
However, in 1971 Van Goethem resolved to pursue her artistic ambitions. Collaborating with her boyfriend, Rudi Renson, she created drawings, posters and silkscreen prints for sale. According to Van Goethem, it was when she was 30 that she began making a living off of drawing. However, no evidence of projects from this period have come to light. She held her first Foire Internationale de la Broche in 1971 – an exhibition of sculpted wooden figurines (brooches), which she and a friend made as a joint project. Several of the characters in her future films would be based on these figures. From around 1974 to 1978, Nicole worked as a graphic artist for the feminist women's magazine Mimo. It was also at this time that she designed posters for National Women's Day for the first time, commissioned by the feminist group VOK (the Women's Consultation Committee, later known as Furia). She would continue this tradition every year until the 1990s. Her dedication to women's organisations earned her the award for women's cartoons in 1979.
In the seventies and early eighties, Van Goethem collaborated on several animated films and series. Around 1974, she worked in Paris for two years as an inker and colourist on the successful animated film Tarzoon, Shame of the Jungle (1975) by Picha, a Belgian cartoonist and animator whom Van Goethem had met a few years prior at a ‘competition’ in Brussels. Her collaboration with Picha marked the advent of her first encounter with animated film as a medium. She spoke glowingly of her experience collaborating with him and how it had had a tremendous influence on her. Van Goethem’s predilection for comical and not infrequently sexual subjects (Vol van Gratie) and the design of her characters are reminiscent of Picha's work. Nicole would work with Picha again in 1977, this time on the animated film, The Missing Link. During this period, she was living in Brussels. Van Goethem worked a few more times as an animator's assistant in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For example, she collaborated on several Tony Cuthbert animated films in London as well as on a never broadcast pilot episode of the Belgian-American animated series The Snorks (1982) for NBC by the Dupuis production company. Van Goethem also collaborated on the animated film John the Fearless (1984) by Jef Cassiers, the first Flemish feature length animated film.
It was while she was working on Picha's The Missing Link, that she decided to write her own screenplays for the first time. The upshot is that the three screenplays at the basis of her three arthouse films (A Greek Tragedy, Vol van Gratie, and L.A.T.) had already been drafted as early as 1977. However, it would be many years before Nicole would continue working on these screenplays. That was because between 1977 and 1980, Van Goethem was forced to return to the Antwerp nightlife to make a living. Around 1980, she was unable to work for a spell due to an accident. During this time, Nicole followed the advice of friends and continued to work on screenplay for A Greek Tragedy, submitting it to the film committee for approval in 1980.
Nicole Van Goethem began working on A Greek Tragedy, the first short animated film of her trilogy, in the middle of 1983. A team of twelve worked on the production at her Ercola studio in Wolstraat for a year and a half, including her niece, Rudi Renson, and Jan Sanctorum. A Greek Tragedy was comprised of 2,500 cels in total. The six-minute, ten-second animated film about three caryatids and their self-liberation from their eternal labour propping up a temple was completed in January 1985. Van Goethem's début film was immediately selected for the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France, one of the world's most prestigious animated film festivals. At the festival, she walked away with the Grand Prix and the Audience Award. These awards were only the first in a long line to come. In 1985, she also won the Belgian State Award and first prize in the Brussels Film Festival. A year later she was awarded a Golden Spike in Valladolid, Spain, and won the Sabam Award for her film in 1987.
In February 1987, A Greek Tragedy was nominated for an Oscar at the Academy Awards, the most prestigious award ceremony in the international film industry. On 30 March, the Academy Award for ‘Best Short Animation’ of 1986 was presented to Linda Van Tulden and Willem Thijssen, the producers of A Greek Tragedy, in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The victory came as a total surprise. On 30 March 1987, Nicole Van Goethem became the first and for the time being, only, Belgian Oscar winner. The result was that the hitherto unknown Nicole van Goethem gained instant fame at home and abroad. However, after the Oscars, she was abandoned by several of her friends and sank into depression. She was also deeply uncomfortable with attention by the press. Not long after the Oscar Awards, she made it clear that her victory bore little personal value and that it had neither changed nor improved her life: ‘And Oscar or no Oscar – Nicoleke is still all alone in the world with her sorrow and will remain destitute and penniless in a lousy, two-bit flat tomorrow, the same as she was yesterday.’ Her feelings about the Oscar would change though; in later interviews she mentions being proud of her Oscar. She also stressed that the award had yielded loads of new commissions and that it had made it easier for her to obtain subsidies.
The positive impact of the various prizes Van Goethem was showered with between 1985 and 1987 is evident from the variety of commissions she started to rake in at the time. For example, as of 1986 she began illustrating the book Onze Sociale Zekerheid [Our Social Security] (1989) authored by the then University of Antwerp Rector, Josse Van Steenberge. That commission was the first of a host of collaborations between Van Goethem and Van Steenberge. Not only did she illustrate books, but she also created illustrations for De Morgen in the late 1980s. Her time wasn’t just occupied as an illustrator during this period; she also worked on several film projects such as Human Rights Article 13, The Spectator (1986 to ca. 1990), a film commissioned by the Volksverzekering (DVV), and the unfinished Castagnetten [Castanets].
The Oscar and other awards Van Goethem won not only earned her myriad commissions, but also gave rise to a solo exhibition. Nicole van Goethem’s début exhibition, Nicole Van Goethem - Drawing the Film, was hosted at the M HKA Antwerp from 12 December 1987 through 7 February 1988. That made her the first Belgian woman to have a solo exhibition at the museum. The exhibition Drawing the Film also exhibited later at the Cinémathèque Québecoise in Montreal, at other Belgian institutions (Ado Gallery Antwerp and the Genk Cultural Centre), and at the De Brakke Grond Flemish Cultural Centre in Amsterdam. The exhibitions also created an impetus for the first publications on Van Goethem and her oeuvre. A catalogue to go with Drawing the Film and sharing the same name was made, and a booklet called Storyboard. Nicole van Goethem, of hoe belandt een oscar in oud-Antwerpen? [Storyboard. Nicole van Goethem, or – how an Oscar wound up in Old Antwerp...] was published to accompany the exhibition at the Genk Cultural Centre.
After winning an Oscar, there were several occasions on which Van Goethem mentioned wanting to make a cartoon series for children. As far as anyone knows, however, that never came to pass. She did, however, finish her second arthouse film, Vol van Gratie [Full of Grace], in 1987. This animated short about two nuns who visit a sex shop to buy 'candles’ involved an impressive 6,000 cels. Like A Greek tragedy, the film's screenplay had already been written in 1977. Personally, Van Goethem thought that Vol van Gratie was better than A Greek Tragedy and the scenes, according to her, were a good deal more impressive. Nevertheless, her second film was not nearly the hit her first was. Even she admitted that the same animator rarely wins big twice in a row. She also mentioned that the subject of Vol van Gratie was considered offensive by some.
Van Goethem mainly spent the last decade of her life as a graphic artist and animator working on commission. She also illustrated several books. These usually had some connection with a social theme. Among others, she illustrated books by the Flemish politician Leona Detiège (Taking care of tomorrow: a pension guide for the self-employed and When a woman's work is done: a pension guide for women) and University of Antwerp Rector, Josse van Steenberge (Pushing Boundaries and Social Security Illustrated). In addition to that, she worked on commission for a variety of magazines, such as the literary magazine De Brakke Hond, the Tijdschrift voor Ruimtelijke ordening, Omgeving en Stedenbouw [Spatial Planning, Environment and Urban Development Magazine](TROS) and the women's magazines Elga (1990-1992) and Feeling (1992-1993). She created illustrations for the Antwerp police ‘Ik flik? Bangelijk!’ campaign in 1994. Lastly, she was also responsible for designing New Year and Christmas cards, posters and brochures commissioned by the University of Antwerp, Kinepolis and Electrabel, among others, as well as a calendar commissioned by the Vooruitziende Socialistische Vrouwen [Progressive Socialist Women] (1996).
Van Goethem was also commissioned to create animated films, such as Marilyn for the Flanders International Film Festival (1991). Later, she was commissioned to make another animated film by the Refugee Integration Consultation Centre (OCIV) and to create Trash for Kinepolis. The last decade of her life was spent toiling on her third and final arthouse film, L.A.T. or Living Apart Together, the screenplay of which dated back to 1977. This film was different in that she hoped to use 3D effects and spoken dialogue for the first time. Ultimately, L.A.T. demanded over ten years of effort. A possible explanation for the ages it took to make her last arthouse film and the tremendous gap between the production of L.A.T. and her two previous films, is that the last ten years of her life were packed with nearly back-to-back commissions. What’s more, in a 1988 interview, she also admits to having been terrified of screwing up her third film. That could explain the delay in its finishing.
Unfortunately, on the eve of L.A.T.’s completion, Nicole van Goethem died unexpectedly in Antwerp on 3 March 2000. She was only 58 at the time. Two years after she died, Rudi Renson finished the final seven minutes and thirty seconds of L.A.T., after which it went on to screen at the Annecy Film Festival. After her death, the book Getekend. Nicole van Goethem [Nicole van Goethem, Illustrated] was published, and in 2003 and 2006 Van Goethem's final two solo exhibitions were organised posthumously. The Nicole Van Goethem, het ANDER werk [Nicole van Goethem, the OTHER work] exhibition was held at the Elzenveld in Antwerp, while Nicole van Goethem 1941-2000 Animatiefilms & Grafisch werk [Nicole van Goethem 1941-2000 Animated Films & Graphic Art] displayed in Antwerp's Indian Caps. But that was it. Until now, there have been no other exhibitions or publications on behalf of this Antwerp graphic artist and animator. Finally, in 2020 – two decades after her death – this unsung artist will, for the first time in years, enjoy the limelight once again with an exhibition at the M HKA Antwerp, the site of her very first solo exhibition.