Jean Schwind (Ghent, 25 December 1935 – Grasse, 1 August 1985) was a conceptual artist, and the first and only Belgian appropriation artist. He was also the most infamous and enigmatic figure in Belgian art of the 1970's.
Jean Schwind is the pseudonym of Jean Warie. His father Roger Warie was an architect specializing in the restoration of large public buildings, and also known for his fine watercolors. Jean Warie studied Romance Philology at Ghent University and from 1966 to 1972 was an academic assistant there. After this stint, he worked as an editor for a publisher of art books. He entered the art scene in 1969 with the exhibition Schwind at the Brussels gallery Fitzroy, of which he was a co-founder. The following year – at a time when governmental censorship was in its heyday – he presented a one-night-only exhibition of brutal, large-format erotic drawings reminiscent of both Dubuffet and graffiti. With the presentation in 1971 of the Collection Schwind – a collection of pastiches of the nouveaux réalistes – he demonstrated just how thoroughly his work differed from other new art. The fact that nearly no-one knew who was behind the pseudonym, only deepened the confusion. He expanded the 'anti-collection' into the Schwind Foundation and made dozens of pastiches of other well-known art that he termed hommages or appropriations, including arte povera works and pieces from Christo, Fontana and Broodthaers. In line with the procedures of conceptual art, he destroyed the majority of his appropriations and only retained photographs and descriptions of them, which in turn themselves functioned as art works. He continued with his Occupations and Sealings of galleries that he had begun in 1970. In 1974, in Antwerp and Bruges, he took part in major survey-exhibitions of contemporary art. He also worked on a Belgian collection, with as capstone a funeral wreath with A notre cher art belge/Schwind on the tricolor ribbon. With a fictitious death announcement, in May 1976, he drew a final line under his artistic practice.
Schwind was a spoil-sport who deliberately violated the unwritten rules of the art world, an evil spirit who unleashed a modern iconoclastic fury. He was not out after recognition, did not even attend his own openings. His acts were of a clandestine nature; of the few photos we have, he is pictured from the back. Like Marcel Broodthaers – but without his sense of diplomacy – Schwind directed his radical critique to the status of art and the artist. With his 'interpretations' of other artists' work, he crossed into the art world's no-go zone and confronted the ultimate taboo: the work of art as a commodity, the sacrosanct fundament of the entire context within which art is shown and collected, from artist's studio to museum. He went much further than the American appropriation art that, from the end of the Seventies with pastiches of 'iconic' works, would offer ironic commentary on the art industry. The Collection Schwind ridicules the notions of artistic genius and the 'unique' work of art, at once fundamentally undermining the canon of trendy collectors. The next step was the Schwind Foundation, a parody on a grand scale of contemporary art's consecration by museums and academia. Here he collided with the 'magic circle', for within the context of conceptual art even his critique was transformed to art. The short but intense career of Schwind is the story of a one-man-war that had to ultimately submit in favor of the art world.
Of all the lives led by Jean Warie, that of Jean Schwind presents the least incomplete puzzle. From out of the mist wherein Warie shrouded his comings and goings, there emerges a figure that calls to mind the Libertines, outlaws driven by hedonism, intense impiety, and contempt for the reigning morality. His declaration – 'I have no biography, unless it is that of others' – may be taken literally. Jean Schwind is the novel that Jean Warie never wrote. In his construction of the personage of Schwind, he pushed pastiche – that eminently literary device – so far that he could step into the role of artist and, when enough was enough, step back out again. Life itself had become a work of art.