Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie en Rose’ drifted from the radio on the cool cloudy evening of November 7th 1953 from a small apartment in Arnhem, Holland as Crail Moansburg arrived in this world, his breech birth a possible nod to an unorthodox future. This somewhat final stage to a relationship that had started seven years previously due to a chance meeting between an American GI Father and a Dutch Italian Mother on the set of ‘Theirs is the Glory’. Unfortunately Crail’s Father, hailed as a hero during the Great Flood of February 1953, promptly disappeared to California on hearing of his impending fatherhood.
The early 1950’s was a difficult period for Europe, many still bearing the physical and mental scars of a long, cruel and antagonistic Second World War. Just a few months after Crail’s birth, Crail and his Mother (Ankie) move above a strip bar in Spijkerkwartier, Ankie sometimes stripping in the club and occasionally sleeping with the owner to subsidise the rent. Her best friend in the club, ‘Auntie Rose’ helps look after Crail as Ankie slowly descends into the murky world of prostitution or ‘special friendships’ as is the preferred explanation for Crail. This sexually charged environment, together with the seemingly endless supply of attractive females from next door’s riding school, begin to seep into Crail’s later works, possibly as a delayed cathartic reaction to the hedonistic hotchpotch of horses and hookers.
“My mother always kept her long polished nails. She said: even two years after the war we still payed everything with coupons. With long nails you can fold and rip the coupons from the page.”
In a childhood mired by trauma and disappointment: his Mother’s long term lover died when Crail was just 15, upon asking her hand in Marriage. Crail’s artistic pretensions were remarkable by their unremarkable nature. Crail’s first tentative steps in the art world were in his 1972 enrolment at the Royal Art Academy in Arnhem, where, as a fresh faced 18 year old, despite a voracious appetite for learning the technique of art, his lack of focus combined with an emotional instability leads to his hasty departure just 12 months later.
“Where I’d like to go with my work? No idea. I have nobody as a role model, nobody I can mirror myself from. I have to figure everything out myself.”
In 1974 he helps to set up a disco ‘Cartouche’ which fails. He learns an invaluable lesson: principles change the moment money and power are involved. In 1975 he starts work at the coffeeshop ‘THC’ with Fred Meijers. This coffeeshop is still open to this day, under the same management. In 1978, he throws caution to the wind and drives a MG to Morocco, spending an 18 month sabbatical, introduced to Arabic music and allegedly indoctrinated into a Sufi community hidden deep within the Atlas Mountains. Having caught the travelling bug, he briefly returns to Holland but in 1981 moves to Paris to work with the Barnabas horse circus, a childhood ambition made reality. The undeniable influence of the ‘Aesthetics of the Circus’ as a recurring trope within Crail’s work cannot be overestimated.
Tragedy struck again in 1982, after a sustained period of healthy bonding, when Ankie was mauled by a wild leopard during a trip to West Africa, unfortunately witnessed in it’s entirety by a horrified male companion. Serving as an impromptu catalyst, Crail then returns from Paris opens a nightclub in Arnhem in the Spijkerkwartier with money left by his mother. He soon builds a surrogate family, an eclectic assortment of bohemians, thespians, oddballs, artists, radicals, performers, pimps and hookers. Many Art historians agree that the emotional heart of Moanburg’s work is within the confines of his Spijkerkwartier club. His ‘hands-off’ approach to running the club allowed him the privilege of documenting the club activities using his innovative mixed-media approach to art production, combining traditional and contemporary processes, resulting in an substantial oeuvre of original artworks and screenprints from this highly creative period in Crail’s life, although little remains as most pieces were given away or simply lost.
From 1994 the city of Arnhem starts enforcing regulations to get the prostitutes out of the Spijkerkwartier. For the first few years Crail is left alone because his club isn’t problematic, but eventually the local authority pressure is too great and in 2000 the nightclub closes. Ever mercurial, Crail flies to California, eventually picking up temporary work as a movie set builder in Hollywood, routinely avoiding the risk of deportation… until his eventual deportation 19 months later.
“A sincere environmental movement feeds itself to the fishes.”
Moansburg’s first incarnation of a screenprint studio, hidden within a military bunker in The Hague, opened late in 2001. Financed by Crail’s part time kitchen work, the first few years took their toll on Crail, both emotionally and financially. But pretty soon the genie was out of the bottle and within a couple of years, Crail had given up the vegetable peeling, moving to bigger and better things at his new studio at the Karl Marx Factory, where to this day, he and his merry team of helpers and misfits are shaping Crail’s somewhat singular vision of the world and it’s inhabitants.