Walter Swennen - 2016 - Hic Haec Hoc [EN, interview]
HIC HAEC HOC
A few wordings by Walter Swennen, provoked and distilled by Hans Theys
Last week, there was a problem with the sewers and I realised that the smell of liquid manure is like a Proustian Madeleine for me. As a kid, when my mother was going to give birth, I was sent to a farm in Mollem. I liked to install myself in the manhole of the manure container, which was transported on a cart. I felt like a tank commander.
Between Mollem and Merchtem, there was a bend in the railway. You could see the plume of smoke getting closer, before you could see the train.
When my brother Franz and I went to Mollem by train, the compartments were like the inside of a stagecoach. The doors opened directly onto the compartments. There was no corridor. Indians attacked us. They came from Jette, and they chased us to the edge of the town. You could lower the windows using a leather strap, like the strop barbers use to sharpen their razors before shaving a customer. You had to watch out for the burning bits of coal coming from the chimney.
My late sister’s name was Nadia Liesbeth Carola. She was born on 15 July 1944 and she died on 29 August that same year.
I was born in Forest, in 1946, in a house next to the prison, where my grandparents stayed. My grandmother had been the headmistress of a school in Ganshoren. My grandfather had worked for the government. They didn’t have any contact with the Germans, but they were both members of VNV, a Flemish nationalist party. My father was an engineer. He worked for Siemens, before and during the war, in Dunkirk.
We had a double life: with two languages and two families: a visible and an invisible one.
When I was five, my parents switched languages to get rid of the past. From one day to the next I could not understand what anyone was saying. Because of that change of mother tongue, I realised that the world made no sense, and that I shouldn’t let that bother me. Something I still can’t manage…
I got my revenge during a family reunion. I was not yet ten. My father went to sit down at the head of the table, and I pulled his chair away. I thought everyone would laugh, but their sense of humour differed from mine.
After the war, my father must have felt he was the victim of an injustice because all he’d done was his work as an engineer. You can’t leave a port without electricity, can you? He was a very serious person, but now and then he would clown around a bit, just for a few seconds. After that he became serious again. It wasn’t preceded or followed by anything. He must have had a subterranean awareness of the nonsense of existence. Sometimes he’d recite a poem, which I still remember:
he laughs the beast with her yellow face
and it’s not his turn
the station goes tutuut
And the train leaves without him’
We were stunned when he did that. I never asked where it came from.
He would also tell engineer jokes: ‘Physics is when things fall. Electricity is when things rub. Chemistry is when things stink.’
One day, he bought a tape recorder and recorded his voice. When he heard his accent, he walked out of the room and never touched the recorder again.
He had thought that people couldn’t hear where he came from.
I really liked it when my father explained things. For example, the day when he explained to me that hot and cold were the same thing. Later on, I associated that with something I’d read about Spinoza’s substance. One commentator said: ‘We are made of God the way a table is made of wood’.
My father enjoyed solving problems. Not everyday problems, but technical questions. He could imagine solutions people hadn’t thought of.
One time, he saved my life. I was in hospital with a collapsed lung. To cure you they put a tube in your lung to re-inflate it. After three weeks, there was still no progress. The doctor made a new hole to put the tube in saying that if it didn’t work this time, he’d have to saw my sternum and open me up. My sister, who’d come to visit me, had brought my father with her. Annoyed and absent, he looked at the air pump at the foot of the bed. And after twenty minutes, he said: ‘This machine isn’t working’. They gave me another room so they could hook me up to another machine, and I got better.
System D comes from him: it springs from a postwar economy.
My older brother was nicknamed ‘pei ficelle’ (Mr. String). He would fix everything with bits of string, and he always succeeded. System D is in our genes.
Yesterday I was talking to a singer, who told me he needed an audience
in order to sing. I replied that I was unable to paint if someone else was there. It’s as if painting were a clandestine act: you don’t want to be caught at it red-handed.
My mother had great admiration for an uncle who painted and lived in Hasselt. His name was Gaston Wallaert. He wanted to be a sailor, but he was too frail. On the first day of a training course on a boat he broke a leg. His health was poor. He was supported by the village priest. When he was born, they thought he would die. His grandmother, who lived in the country, came to get him, wearing a black cloak. She took him with her and saved him. Above the fireplace there was a photo of my dead little sister and a painting by Gaston called La jeune fille et la mort (Death and the Maiden). I always thought my mother had posed for that painting. She left the matter vague. She must have had an Oedipal thing with that uncle. She was a daydreaming middle-class woman, fantasising about Bohemia. My uncle’s life wasn’t easy. He lost a child, and at the end of his life he went blind.
My mother wanted me to become a painter, but I resisted until I was 35. It was part of a fantasy she had. She made me take painting classes with the painter Claire Fontaine. At the same time, my mother was worried about my future. The Bohemian lifestyle is okay, but not for a whole lifetime.
I have no memories of ever confiding in my mother. Everything that happened to me I kept to myself. She died in 1970, when I was 25.
At the age of 17, I started studying philosophy at the Saint-Louis faculty in Brussels. Because there was no building, they’d converted an old theatre into
a classroom. It was quite baroque, a bit Fellini-esque. The girls were silly and hard to get, they wore gold and Chanel twinsets.
It was the 1963–64 school year. We had classes with Monseigneur Van Camp, whom we called the black widow. He was an avant-garde intellectual priest who made us read Heidegger, and also organised the Saint-Louis lectures. So in the month of March I attended a Michel Foucault lecture. The notes for that lecture were copied by me on stencils. They were recently published in Brazil on the instigation of my friend Jean-Robert ‘Bob’ Weisshaupt, who made his living as a professor in Brazil and describes me as an archivist in his dedication. I met Bob in a café next to the school. Apart from him there was also Robert Yves ‘Boby’ Gérard, a militant homosexual, which was still a dangerous thing to be in those days.
The goal of that school was to spend two years preparing as a candidate. Then you went to the University of Louvain. But after that first year of philosophy,
I enrolled in the academy of fine arts, in the engraving section.
At the academy, there were no morning classes, which made me lazy, but
I found things to do in no time. First of all, I found a job in a bookshop selling old books, on Rue du Trône. My work involved making bibliographical index cards. I worked upstairs with an old gentleman who read his newspaper and made comments. From those days I’ve still got a book that I found in the shop. It’s there in the mysticism section of my library. (Which is quite small.) It’s The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation, by Padma-Sambhava, with a preface by that scoundrel Jung. I was very fond of that book, because it starts with these words: ‘Samaya; gya, gya, gya / E-ma-ho!’. It also has lots of notes. And if you look at it from a distance with binoculars turned the wrong way round, it’s almost Lacan.
Then my father suggested I make some polyester sheets to construct counters. With his partner he had a studio where they had isolated one part. There were some large fans. I had an assistant, an elderly Spaniard. There were Formica tables which acted as moulds for the sheets. First you poured a thin layer of polyester. Then, in a cart, I had to choose stones of every size, colour and quality to make a composition on the first layer which, in the end, was covered with a second.
The academy wasn’t to my father’s liking. We argued a lot. In principle, those studies lasted three years, but during the third year I dropped out and went to live in Louvain, to study psychology there, like my sister Liesbeth, who was a year younger than me. That gave me a chance to rediscover my ne’er-do-well Saint-Louis chums. It was like Pinocchio, who meets his two ne’er-do-well chums, who smoke cigars.
In the late 1960s, my friends in the Accuse group and I went to Amsterdam where we stayed on the Provos’ barge. The first Provo I met didn’t understand why I didn’t speak Dutch, even though I lived in Brussels. That touched me. We also went to London, where I met Bob Cobbing, who was producing concrete poetry. Cobbing was very important for my work, if I may be permitted to say as much. For example, there was the magnificent poem:
During that same visit I saw a Jim Dine show: 30 or 40 works on paper, water colours I think, and ordinary objects which he had covered in silver and bronze. The works on paper were all of the same format and they all depicted cocks. It was called: Souvenirs of London… I’d already seen a Dine painting in Brussels, but this was different…
Becoming a Painter
One day, Jan Sack reminded me of the old saying that art can save you from prison and the asylum. If you wanted to survive without stealing, you could become a painter and if you behaved well, people wouldn’t think you were crazy.
When I was young, artists were considered to be irresponsible, shady people. These days an artist is a businessman.
When I was young I developed a certain disdain for painters. As stupid as a painter, I used to say. When I was a teenager, I myself painted, but it seemed much more honourable to write and to develop ideas.
For me, there wasn’t a huge amount of prestige attached to painting, whereas philosophy!
Old painting always bugged me. Art history was a pain in the arse.
Those images got on my nerves.
One day my mother took me to see an exhibition in a gallery on Avenue Louise. Still lifes with flowers. At a certain moment I found myself just a few inches away from a painting. I saw a part of the painting that wasn't meant to depict anything, between the terra cotta saucer and the signature, where there was no longer any image, and all there was to see was paint. I was bedazzled, it was a discovery, another world, something you don’t usually see.
At the age of 14, for three years, I attended painting classes with the painter Claire Fontaine. I went three or four times a week. She painted with a painter’s knife. She was very fond of the effects of paint and fast ways of painting. At that time the great debate was still raging between the radical abstracts and those who followed the tradition of painting by reducing figurative forms to coloured surfaces. Claire Fontaine used the words: ‘Abstraction, fine, but you’ve got to get to abstraction!’ She painted very schematic landscapes, a bit like Nicolas de Staël and Maurice de Vlaminck. A tree was painted with the knife: there! A green surface measuring 3 by 10 centimetres… Yes, abstraction was in an ‘agonistic’ position at that time… Even though I liked painting landscapes… In other areas she taught me how to make a colour, how to create a thicker paint, how to use different brushes, etc. Then she taught me one or two rules about the incompatibility of certain colours because of their chemical composition…
The first abstract painting I saw in the flesh was by Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923–2002). He was a Canadian painter, a tachist, belonging to the same generation as lyrical abstraction. He puzzled people because he only worked with a knife. The leaves of trees in his paintings had the shape of knives. I’d just finished college and had run away to Paris. I’d taken a cardboard suitcase with a blanket. While hitchhiking I met a man who advised me to stay there. ‘It’s not difficult’, he said, ‘you tell your parents and you come and live in Paris’. Another thing I’ve escaped from… Viktor von Weizsäcker says that our behaviour can be guided by things we avoid: you cross the street and you walk slightly slower, because if you carry on at the same speed, you’ll be knocked over by a car. We often do things to prevent something from happening. You go to work, get off a bus, you know it’s that way, but you set off in the opposite direction, without any hesitation, without having the impression of having made any decision. That’s why you’re never sure about what has really happened when you paint. Have you really made decisions? And why? To arrive at something, or to avoid something else?
It’s like Stirner’s ‘Widerwille’, I find, ‘disinclination’ in English, or ‘mauvaise volonté’ in French, ‘unwillingness’, or ‘lack of goodwill’. Running away is also a way of realising your disinclination. And then there’s the refusal of stylistic devices, the clandestine life, lying, Broodthaers’ insincerity, and Titian’s double life, pretending as he did to paint portraits and traditional scenes, when he was having fun by freely painting Diana’s tunic. He pretended to create images, but he made paintings.
I’d already made a few objects and some paintings. I had a room in my parents’ house which I could use as a studio, and in that room there was a small easel which some friends of my parents had given me. There was a board that went with it. On that board I painted a portrait of Brigitte Bardot and I stuck a cylindrical box of VIM on it and a small thing with a suction cup (which people used in their cars), where you could put just one flower. So Bardot had a vase with a flower on her face. I also made a painting of a very big pink telephone. And there was a crate with beer bottles painted in different colours. Mrs. Rona’s son saw it. He said it was interesting, but not enough for an exhibition. At that particular moment came Broodthaers’s proposal to have a show in the basement of a club between Place Stephanie and the Porte de Namur, but it never saw the light of day. He’d just given some lectures about national pop art, and he liked my objects.
I gave my poems to Broodthaers and he showed them to Marcel Lecompte, who said there were two verses which were good… That confirmed something: that everything I was doing was pretty phoney. I wrote those poems as if I were someone else. I tried to keep those two particular verses and forget about all the rest.
My grandfather used to say: ‘It’s good when it’s painted’.
My masters in painting are Quick and Flupke, who knock over a pot of paint and try to cover up what they’ve done by painting the whole floor. That’s the first example I saw of all-over painting.
In his essay On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense, Nietzsche writes that a painter with no hands can always sing the landscape, because all he’s doing is giving form to an idea. It’s a good plan. ‘How was your show? Very good, I received three standing ovations for the landscape!’ That’s a mistake that we also find in Schopenhauer: the artistic idea would be expressed in accordance with the artist’s talent, be it as painting, or as music… Because it’s the idea that matters, the form is interchangeable. This is the Platonic side of aesthetics. We also find this with Colonel Badiou, who writes crooked French. ‘A painting’, he says, ‘is the trace of the passage of the eternal idea.’ That’s what you have to say to painting students: ‘Understood? Make me two by tomorrow…’
For them the ideal thing would be a transparent medium. Do you know how angels communicate? ‘Mente ad mente’, said Thomas Aquinas, ‘from soul to soul’. They use a very transparent medium… They don’t know any language. They don’t need artists because they don’t have bodies.
The fantasy of writers is a transparent language. Hence, the myth of the ideal, transparent medium where all you have is the referent… But painting is not ideal and transparent. It’s totally impure, it's a mixture… What’s more, the same thing goes for writing. As a boy, I thought that writing was playing the part of the thread between the head and the paper, but there is no transparent medium. It already starts with the resistance of the paper.
There’s also Jacques Rancière, a former student of Althusser. What made abstract art possible, he says, is a certain conjunction of discourse, a certain aesthetic system. According to him, it’s literature that sets the tone. If you have changes in art, he says, they are not inner changes, there are new aesthetic constellations which emerge. He quotes a passage from the Goncourt brothers, where they describe a bunch of flowers. And in that he sees the whole of Impressionism in the offing. As if painters were reading books in order to know what they ought to paint. ‘Everything is in everything, but there is nevertheless a vegetable which gives the taste, and that’s literature…’ It’s claptrap. Speeches on the level of high school. When in fact he knows exactly nothing about painting. Nothing at all.
Obviously, without discourse or speech, there’s no world. As Lacan put it, a child who bangs its head against a table during a family reunion bangs against a pack of words. When you learn how to draw, you talk a lot. You need someone to tell you: look at that. Viktor von Weizsäcker said that what you haven’t learnt to see, you won’t see. It’s true, all that, but I find people go too far. What’s missing is the consciousness that painting is a material thing. When Leonardo da Vinci said that ‘la pittura è cosa mentale’, he wanted to be different from craftsmen and artisans. It wasn’t a plea for conceptual art. Art without form doesn’t exist.
The linguist Émile Benveniste said that the only possible realisation of human communication is the word. He excluded art. Of all the symbolic systems we know about (including road signs), there’s just one which can explain and interpret the others: that’s language.
There’s no language of art. Semiotics sank like the Titanic.
If painting is a language, one wonders what deaf people see in it.
A painting is not a trace. It’s a mark.
I don’t like people who attack formalism.
You can’t create anything without form.
I think that modern painting started after the invention of photography, because photography made representation and the function of the painting as image obsolete. At that particular moment, painters decided to continue with things which they previously did almost in secret, like Diana’s tunic painted by Titian.
Photography freed painters from the obligation to live a double life.
If you think of Diana’s tunic in Titian’s Death of Actaeon, with all those reds of differing densities, sometimes very fluid, you understand that it wasn’t the image that interested him, but the way of going about it. That’s why I say that there’s always an element of swindling in art. I think that painters have always led a double life: that of the commission and that of the painting. They haven’t all been so reverent and so gaga. We don’t give two hoots about the Madonna. When you visit Tate Britain, you can savour portraits of the entire English aristocracy. But for all that there’s never been a painter who said to himself one fine morning: ‘Okay, for once I’m going to do a beautiful series of portraits of the English aristocracy’.
When Titian painted The Death of Actaeon, he was the same age as I am today: 70. If you see the freedom with which he painted Diana’s tunic, you realise he was further on.
Cézanne said somewhere that all of modern painting comes from Titian.
I’m starting to see why he said that.
If they need a yellow spot, why paint a lemon?
Bernd Lohaus said that artistic success is 50% genius and 50% deceit.
Turner is pure kitsch… It’s like Bernard Buffet: they are painters of adolescence. Turner was a cheat. He made calendar paintings. He’d found the trick of the cloth, and he repeated it ad infinitum. On top of this, he was always bullying Constable.
Constable made thick, voluptuous textures. And tremendous light.
To save Turner, I say to myself, with reference to Spinoza, that one could say that each painting is a modus of the substance of painting, even the biggest flop.
While you look at the painting, the painting does its work.
All the categories of psychology, ordinary and scholarly alike, crumble when confronted with psychoanalysis: the ego is hot air, flatus vocis – a mere name.
Psychoanalysis is also 50% genius and 50% deceit. Lacan knew very well that humanity can’t be healed and that psychoanalysis is something that makes this bearable and perhaps even useful.
I stopped my analysis. I couldn’t talk, mine was a case of massive resistance.
There’s an unconscious way of thinking, but that doesn’t mean that there’s an Unconscious. All we can say is that there’s thinking. In its day it was a scandalous idea, and it still is.
As Lacan said: ‘There’s only one symbol’.
The symbolic consists essentially of language, which governs the relation of kinship and social structure. For example; before you’re born, you already have
a symbolic place which is designated by the social structure and by language. The imaginary is the whole life of the mind. It’s what Freud called the ego, or self. In his early period, Lacan was interested in the relation between the imaginary and the symbolic, connections, the father’s name, and so on. He invariably made a distinction between the real and reality, which is our imaginary structured by the symbolic. The real is the unimaginable, what’s impossible to express. It makes a hole in reality. It’s connected with the idea that truth cannot be grasped entirely. It’s what he called the not-all, the pas-tout.
Freud counted on Jung, who was a psychiatrist in a famous institute in Switzerland, to get psychoanalysis out of the ghetto, and detach it from Jewish intellectualism. More precisely, he counted on him to further investigate psychosis and schizophrenia, but Jung preferred to produce a book about the metamorphoses of the soul and its symbols. Freud was looking for causal relationships, while Jung was happy to play with analogies. This is the difference between science and non-science. Somewhere here I’ve got a text by Jung in which he compares the Jewish unconscious with the Aryan unconscious. The latter would always win, because the Jewish unconscious was too old. The Aryan unconscious was still young and wild, it had millennia ahead of it. That text isn’t included in his complete works.
It’s not possible to visualise the things of the unconscious. This is the watershed between Freud and Jung. Jung started from the content of dreams, from the story they told. For Freud, everything was in the words that you used to describe your dream: the dream’s narrative. Lacan borrowed that idea by telling himself that psychoanalysis can only be based on the spoken word. When tells you: I dreamed this and that, you don’t take his dream as a myth or an allegory, but you focus on the discourse he uses to relate about his dream. Lacan linked Freud to de Saussure, by proposing to consider the spoken word (‘la parole’) as a sequence of signifiers. This is the opposite of the idea of the unconscious as a reservoir of memories and meanings. It might be such a reservoir, but we don’t know. The only thing we do know is that you can’t base yourself just on the current meaning of the words used. Derrida pushed this even further by considering everything we write as ‘la parole’. What does this have to do with painting? Nothing at all, because painting is not a language. As Émile Benveniste said, there is no language in painting, because there are no differential signs, there are just qualities.
When I was studying philosophy at the Saint-Louis faculty, Mannoni came to talk about his book Clefs pour l’Imaginaire ou l’Autre Scène (1969). For us this shed light on what Lacan was saying: that there is an interplay with the signifier in the word, that the signified can play the role of a new signifier, that words hide other words. What is put aside immediately is the meaning of words, it’s the relation of the sign to its referent. The meaning doesn’t matter, not necessarily in any event.
From the outset, the whole history of psychoanalysis has been marked by forms of savagery, incredible brawls to win Freud’s affection, and it’s never stopped. This is because the subject of their passion is in relation with their unconscious. It’s dynamite, and it’s quite normal that this explodes all the time… They publish a great deal in rival journals with a limited distribution. They create polemics over words. It’s not very interesting. It’s all a bit Byzantine.
After a psychoanalysts’ conference I was invited to — a conference that seemed to be addressed above all to well-educated ladies — without knowing why, I suddenly had the impression that psychoanalysis was greatly idealised. And when I was asked to add something, I said that, obviously, an artist was concerned with the real and the imaginary, and that, obviously, he was looking for a symbolic reward: money. Because if an artist doesn’t show his or her works, and if the works aren’t for sale, it’s not art.
There is in fact a link between psychoanalysis and painting: what you do changes the ideas you use. You can discover things by accident. Then you try to re-discover them by doing experiments. That’s what Freud did. First he discovered the transfer: the fact that the patient can take the analyst for his father. Then the patient says to himself: ‘If this fellow thinks I’m going to take him for my father…’ People are quick to learn, there is resistance. With Freud that’s fine: he discovers something, it resists, he wants to know why it resists and so on and so forth.
In his book on the joke, Freud says that one of the greatest pleasures is nonsense.
The basis of jokes is nonsense. Children play with words as if they were objects.
We lose things because of our education and it just so happens that art consists of playing with what you’ve lost.
I really like what Mannoni says about meaning in Mallarmé’s poems. He says that it’s important to put something readable in a poem, a small recognizable ingredient, something concrete, a flower for example, so that the reader will say to himself: ‘I’ve read a poem about a flower.’ And if you do that, you are entitled to play with words. So the author is satisfied, and so is the reader; both parties leave satisfied. I think I perhaps put images in my paintings for the same reason: so that everyone finds something to their liking in them.
According to Freud, the meaning of a joke is a construct which must remain hidden for the person it’s addressed to.
Lacan said that people who make jokes and who play with words are unbearable in society.
In The Birth of Philosophy, Giorgio Colli says that there’s always something hostile in the enigma. Basically, the enigma is an act of hostility by the gods against men, because they pose a problem which men don’t understand, but which they must solve if they don’t want to die. According to Colli, the enigma lies at the root of Greek culture which is agonistic: based on combat and intellectual dispute. There are two adversaries and one of them must win. Socratic dialogue is the last version of that culture of the enigma. Enigma drives dialectic, it’s a question of finding a solution and thus destroying the adversary’s arguments. What strikes me is that at the basis of aesthetics there is the conviction that the work of art is an enigma which must be solved, and which we must find the key to. This brings us back to the supposition that there is meaning. Of course, in the wings, we chuckle about it. And at the same time, when I say that I want to paint whatever, I’m taking a short cut, and I’m fooling myself.
Spinoza said that religion has meaning because it makes people obey. The Catholic religion gives meaning to everything, with obedience to the father as the result.
In The Triumph of Religion, a lecture at the Saint-Louis faculty about the question whether being an atheist necessarily prevents you from leading a rational and moral life, Lacan sais that religion gives meaning to everything.
Colli says that wise men aren’t taken in by enigmas. Lacan calls them non-dupes.
This week I re-read Tristan Tzara. It’s very beautiful. The Dadaists didn’t make the mistake of the Surrealists by looking for a meaning in Freud. Dada doesn’t mean anything. Tzara said that thinking happens in the mouth. The Dadaists experienced the return of meaning in its most aggressive form: the public trials of the Surrealists.
There is no meaning, there is just the secret. And the secret is to be found in the making of art.
As Mao Zedong said: ‘You advance and then you look.’
Watching a video in which Deleuze talks about painting, I saw a short passage where he quotes Cézanne, who explains that the painter’s work starts well before applying the first brush stroke. In fact, you first have to get rid of everything that you’re not going to do on the canvas. It’s mental work. I myself call it killing ghosts. After the fact, it seems like a necessary stage, but in the midst of it, you’re ashamed and you have the impression of wasting your time.
My only tactic consists of disentangling myself from what I’ve made.
My work evolves from accident to accident, from repair to repair. I see that somewhere it’s not working, so something has to be done.
The problem with aesthetics — the analysis of a work of art from the viewer’s angle — is that you always end up by finding a meaning, and then you wonder where it comes from. For example, I know that I’ve made paintings that were dictated to me by my daughter Els. But how did they take shape? When you talk about painting, you’re obliged to reconstruct gestures, concordances and circumstances…
When I explain it, I have the impression of lying.
When I explain it, I feel that things happened differently.
You’re not in the eye that surveys, but in the hand that works.
I don’t know how I come to a painting. I say to myself: it can’t stay like that. And I react. I don’t have any model in mind. I always think that others know better what they’re doing.
Van Gogh writes to Theo that when Zola and Balzac put themselves in the painter’s place, they got it wrong.
What interests me with Titian is that in working with glazes, he was obliged to let his paintings dry. For this reason, they were turned against the wall, to prevent them from gathering dust. This discontinuous way of working must have influenced the way he worked, I think. In any event, that’s what happens in my studio. I often don’t see my paintings for a long period of time. So when I turn them round, I see more clearly if it’s necessary to add or remove something or accept the painting as it is. In four weeks, things change, and we change as well. This is way of working is undoubtedly linked to the fact that Titian, who drew directly on the canvas, with a brush, sometimes tried several positions for his figures. For Diana’s arm, for example. I would like to know more about it.
When you repair the holes in the walls of a gallery, you just do rectangles. This always produces beautiful spontaneous compositions.
Titian worked a lot with the knife, which has always been regarded as a minor instrument by painters. Probably because it does not record the hand’s ‘sensibilities’ subtly enough… Apart from that, the knife calls to mind the mason’s trowel, which seems to diminish the painter’s status: from being a practitioner of the liberal arts, he becomes just a plasterer.
When you make mixtures of colours, by dint of adding colours, you always make too much. This is why I’ve had blue and grey periods.
Making a painting is to transform nonsense into an enigma.
The Greeks had gods who devised enigmas to be solved by human beings.
Seeing a painting depicting a blue pig, the housecleaner said: ‘I’ve always liked stuffed animals’.
I find the same form of inversion in that woman who wrote that one of my paintings had been inspired by Krazy Kat, solely because I’d told her that the drawing made me think of that comic strip. It’s as if she invented a ghost which was the painting’s model.
The other day, I said to myself that when Sartre said that paintings are unreal, he reduced them to objects of perception. It’s as if he were unglueing the image from its surface and placing it behind the painting, saying that it’s the painting’s model. He has difficulty in realizing that behind the painting, there’s nothing: that it starts on the canvas and that there’s a sequence, which will lead to an object in which people will read intentions, etc.
The intellectual talks of art like something that’s ‘already done’ (Constable).
He can’t admit that before the painting there was nothing, or not much.
Before the painting, there’s nothing. Or perhaps there’s less than nothing,
as Žižek says.
For the painter, the painting is not the expression of an idea already formed;
it’s something to make.
Why can’t we foresee a painting? The painting is linked to the real and the real is unimaginable.
Painters make paintings to be able to look at them.
In Gilson’s book about Duns Scotus, there are some funny things. Duns Scotus said there was only one thing to do with people who don’t accept contingency: beat them until they admit that you might not have given them a beating.
A painting is made up of contingencies?
Yes. And that seems incomprehensible for certain people.
It’s like those people who can’t see any difference between the edge of a comic strip panel and the edge of a painting. A comic strip panel is like a photo: it is surrounded by a virtual world. A photo suggests things you can’t see. A good painting only shows itself. In the photograph, the medium tends towards zero: you get the impression that there’s nothing between you and the referent.
It presents itself as transparent. But a painting isn’t transparent. It’s impure. Everything is intermingled…
From time to time, to comfort myself, I open Gilson again. With the Thomists, at least, things are clearer… He says, for example: ‘The image takes its being from something other than itself, a painting takes its being from itself.’
With a magnifying glass, you can see that the illustrations in the Unigro catalogues are painted. It’s the painter Filip Denis who taught me that.
In Ghent, on a walk, I saw the Lys with its very flat banks. Beside the river there was a country lane, a bicycle track, and a bridle path. A bit further there was a flying club. Now and then you could see an airplane taking off. There was also a railway bridge and a bridge which the road passed over. So all at once you could see walkers, cyclists, riders, cars, trucks, trains and airplanes all passing. It made me think of those didactic landscapes in a geography book where you look down on a town to be able to show everything all at once… I loved those drawings. They were made with clear lines. Everybody drew like that, with outlines, and the then they were coloured. I loved looking at those drawings through a magnifying glass. What’s that person doing? Oh, he’s unloading corn! But there are also less amusing pages, where there were drawings of so-called Negro types, for example.
When Constable said that you have to look at his paintings close up, people thought he meant that he wanted to be taken more seriously, and studied in detail, whereas what he really meant was that it was important to approach the painting.
If you look closely, you no longer see the image, but the way it’s made.
After I discovered that paintings were made of paint, during a visit to a gallery on Avenue Louise, my mum thought I had an eye problem and she took me to see an ophthalmologist. And indeed the good doctor said that I shouldn’t look at things that closely, that it was bad for my eyes.
It’s by looking closely that I saw the way Titian had painted Diana’s tunic: painted with glazes, containing all the shades of red, from pink to the brightest red, everything a bit faded because of time, the painting’s deterioration and the various restorations.
I’ve always thought there was a contradiction between images and language. But in fact this is just a secondary contradiction, as Mao would have put it. The real contradiction lies between images and language, on the one hand, and painting, on the other.
One day Titian struck me with his saying that ‘nothing must leave the canvas’. That means, for me, that the edge of the painting is real.
Malcolm Morley leaves white edges around the painted image to show that the image does not coincide with the painting. He paints an image like a still life: for example, an accordion of post cards. When he repainted The School of Athens, using a grid, he got one row wrong, but he carried on. ‘I lobotomized Greek philosophy’, he said.
I’ve wondered for a long time why ancient paintings didn’t interest me. I think it’s due to the fact that it’s mainly a matter of images: the virgin Mary, a crucifixion, a chap with an open belly, whose guts are rolled up.
All I read is thrillers and philosophy. School put me right off French literature.
I’m in the process of looking for a title for a show. It’s getting on my nerves. It’s the imperialism of literature. You always have to have a title. I’ve never liked giving titles to my paintings, because would suggest a subject or a theme which would have been at the origin of the painting. That’s why I’ve always given my paintings the title Untitled, adding their name in brackets. Because people give names to paintings, which isn’t the same thing as a title. You have to know what you’re talking about. It’s not very practical to call all your paintings Untitled.
I don’t like Magritte because he painted anecdotes. Because of the literary titles, each painting becomes a sentence of which the second part is an image.
J&B comes from Justerini and Brooks. I like names like that.
I don’t like this language coming from the business world: self-management (the way you manage your capital), self-investment… Or the language coming from military life, like the word ‘communication’.
I’ve always liked the slang used in crime thrillers. I’d really like to make a chronological listing of the vocabulary used to see how it’s evolved.
We’re listening to ‘Ali Baba’s Camel’ by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
We’re listening to Lennie Tristano.
He’s an assertive pianist with an unbelievable touch.
A while ago I knew a man in Brussels called Roberto. Everybody made fun of him. He only drank milk and he lived in a caravan. He sang American rock songs, but he didn’t speak a word of English. He sang the way Christians used to sing in church, not knowing any Latin. He found that the meaning of the words didn’t matter, because, he said, it was always about the same things.
We’re listening to Eddie Cochran’s ‘Sittin' in the Balcony’.
He’s my favourite rocker… My elder brother was a rocker. He was three years older than me. The first rock song we heard at home was Richard Berry’s
Yama Yama Pretty Mama. And my mother saying: ‘Whatever’s that?’ That was in 1956. In a Sarma store in Ixelles, my brother and I found a bin full of 45s. I bought a 45 of Bach harpsichord music and my brother bought Richard Berry. I found it vulgar. I discovered rock a lot later, the way I’m discovering punk and the Ramones today on YouTube.
We’re listening to Frankie Trumbauer’s ‘Trumbology’, with Bix Beiderbecke.
People said Beiderbecke was the Rimbaud of jazz of the 1920s and 1930s.
He’s known for his composition In a Mist.
It’s because the musicians didn’t know when Lester Young was going to decide to wind up a piece that a lot of his pieces ended up rapidly, in chaos.
You’ve already heard the music I want played at my funeral? First, they’ll hear Thelonius Monk’s This is My Story, This is My Song. It’s taken from the album Straight, No Chaser. Do you remember us going to see this documentary about Monk, 25 years ago? Nan was there as well. I really like the scene where his wife was putting empty bottles of Coca-Cola in their suitcase. Taking empties onto the plane! She wanted to bring them home.
And afterwards, at the end of the service, they’ll play: The Everywhere Calypso by Sonny Rollins. He’s one of the greatest, a giant. He’s a musician who takes care of his listener. From time to time he quotes or paraphrases something from the theme to let you know that he’s still in the same piece. As a listener, you feel you’re being accompanied, you’re not lost.
We’re listening to the piece ‘I’m an Old Cowhand’ from the album ‘Way Out West’.
They say that at a particular moment, Sonny Rollins retired and went to live on a small island near New York where, sitting in his little garden, he imitated the boats’ sirens.
Building sites are beautiful. Yesterday I saw three Turkish hunks with moustaches. They were dusting each other off with a jet of compressed air, turning and raising their arms, like three graces… Do you know that joke? ‘They’re not doing a damn thing in that office. I know, because I’ve been watching them through the window for an hour.’
I like it when Žižek says that he’s a true atheist because he belonged to the sect whose God committed suicide.
I’ve just seen Victoria, a film about a girl who meets four good-for-nothings
— Pieds Nickelés in French — who stage a hold-up. When it’s over, they’re all dead and she makes off with the loot, hopping and skipping. Wonderful.
What are pieds nickelés? You know the word from a text by Broodthaers?
It comes from an early 20th century comic strip. The heroes are three hobos called Croquignol, Ribouldingue and Filochard. They were a kind of ancestors of the Marx Brothers. They’re guys who try to travel for nothing, people who get by with unsuccessful schemes and tricks. Things always go wrong, but they keep their sense of humour. They’re nice louts. They’ve got lots of style, but a Parisian style… They are everything but professionals. I don’t know why they got that name. If you say: That guy’s a real pied nickelé, it means he’s a lazy lout, clumsy, cunning, dishonest, and at the same time funny.
Fantômas? He was a very inelligent, elegant crook, who challenged the police and taunted society. He was a criminal with a chic side. He offered ladies flowers, he stole from the rich and never killed anyone. He was a much-loved character among the Surrealists and people like Marcel Lecompte, that generation.
My generation preferred thriller writers like Dashiell Hammett, Peter Cheyney, Jim Thompson and David Goodis; that was something quite different.
At the end of the 1950s, people started to set up bars in their own homes. Before that, they had a bottle of port at home for Sunday visitors. First there was the new idea of the aperitif. Then came the item of furniture, the bar, which you had to fill, needless to say. It was a new vogue which came from America.
One day Bernd Lohaus told me that you can neutralise the perfume of an aftershave lotion by filtering it with French bread. I tried. It’s still just as nasty, but it’s a nice ritual.
One day, unfortunately, I added water to my old man's pastis to hide the fact that I’d been drinking it.
At Stuivenberg hospital, a patient smuggled oranges which he spiked with alcohol, using a syringe.
In our house, if you came home on all fours, nobody talked about it the next day. Same thing for the war.
In stories and legends about the lives of artists, art and alcohol are often associated. That’s where they seem to look for inspiration. As kids, we waited for the tram at Place Sainctelette, on a large empty platform, paved like a huge sidewalk. There wasn’t a single tree or bench. In the middle of that big empty space was a drunk who kept falling over and who was talking to himself. ‘Don’t look, children’, my mother would say, without any further comment about it. She obviously wasn’t at ease with alcohol either, she drank her beer at ten in the morning.
Nan’s favourite scent: Mystère by Rochas.
You remember that plan of Manhattan drawn by Patrick? I immediately saw a cow’s head in it. That’s perfect, I’ve always wanted to be a prehistoric painter… It makes me think of the desert.
New York State is like a funnel. Borders are funny: ‘The Americans confuse maps with territories’, said Ho Chi Minh.
What’s remained most with me from Mickey Mouse comics is that, for each story, they invented another typography for the titles.
Marianne Berenhaut spreads smiles around her, in London.
Gilson tells an anecdote about Ingres. The painter is painting in his studio and there’s a mover who arrives. He packs up the painting he has to take away, fits it on a contraption whose name I’ve forgotten (it’s made of wood with two straps and a support), and when he goes, Ingres says: ‘The idiot, he didn’t say anything about the painting’. That’s so naïve and so right. People are like that. And so Ingres was also like that. Irritated.
English red. Brick colour. I’ve always associated that colour with prisons, because the prison at Forest was made of brick. I remember that when I first arrived in London, I was surprised to see all those brick buildings. It was like a city full of prisons. Later on, the London painter Gerry Smith was surprised by the fact that I knew the names of so many London prisons: Brixton, Fleet, Newgate, Pentonville… I know them through my reading of detective stories. Have you heard of the ‘gin riots’? When the people occupied London and freed all the prisoners? Almost nobody was hurt, everyone was drunk for ten days, until the rebellion was put down and the streets were awash in blood.
Malevich wrote a beautiful sentence: ‘Thanks to speed, we’re advancing more quickly’.
Sergei Nechaev’s motto was: ‘Full speed through the mud’. He was an individualistic terrorist. When I had a studio above the Entrepôt du Congo, my motto was: ‘Head straight for the worst’. I’ve changed mottoes now. It’s become:
‘My disinclination remains free’.
You find the loveliest motto in Stephen Leacock, when an aristocrat who realises that he’s ruined reads his family motto: ‘Hic haec hoc huius huius huius’.
What I like about typewriters is that if you pull a bit on the carriage, you can, as in jazz, put the letter a bit too soon or too late.
As Chief Joseph said: ‘I’m fed up with all these discussions which don’t lead to anything concrete.’
The best hiding place for a knife is between your shoulders.
In his book Asylums (1961), Erving Goffman describes a Moby Dick character, who wears a coat where he can put everything. That fellow was perfectly equipped for running away. If you’ve got everything on you, all you need do is slam the door, don't you? My mother always said: ‘If things go on like this,
I will put on my hat and leave.’
Last winter, I fell in love with Sybil Seely, Buster Keaton’s partner in his early films.
The art historian Paul Ilegems wrote that I’m a pain in the neck. He put his finger on it.
‹‹ I’m not an idiot, I’m a customs officer. ›› (Fernand Raynaud)
Montagne de Miel, 30 May 2016