Hans Theys is a twentieth-century philosopher and art historian. He has written and designed dozens of books on the works of contemporary artists and published hundreds of essays, interviews and reviews in books, catalogues and magazines. All his publications are based on actual collaborations and conversations with artists.

This platform was developed by Evi Bert (M HKA / Centrum Kunstarchieven Vlaanderen) in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (Research group Archivolt), M HKA, Antwerp and Koen Van der Auwera. We also thank Idris Sevenans (HOR) and Marc Ruyters (Hart Magazine).


Walter Swennen - 2007 - De toeschouwer doet geen zak [NL, interview]
Interview , 12 p.


Hans Theys

The Viewer Doesn’t Do Shit
A few words on an exhibition by Walter Swennen

Swennen prefers to talk about painting and paintings with other painters. He calls this ‘parler peinture’ [‘talking painting’]. Other interlocutors annoy him, or at least that’s how it seems. Yet we’ve tried to speak on many occasions. The conversation below is the fruit of the most recent attempt. The new trick was not to sit down, but to interview Swennen standing in front of his paintings, on the eve of an exhibition opening. My laptop balanced on my left arm.

Before I speak about Swennen’s work, I would like to say something about the artist himself. Paralysed by a shyness so excruciating that it resembles pride, Walter Swennen still dreams of finally being understood. That’s why a fifth of his sentences end with the question: ‘You understand?’ Perhaps I notice this more than others because I suffer from the same problem, but also because I’ve spent thousands of hours in conversation with him, primarily talking about himself, his work and his vision of things. Ultimately, I think I already understand much of what he wants to tell me, but at the same time I don’t try to ‘comprehend’ everything. I keep asking questions, convinced that the truth will constantly evade my insight. It’s funny, actually. We’ve been doing this for over twenty years and we still haven’t finished the conversation. Do you understand?

In painting, you might distinguish between two approaches (not because they correspond to a reality, but because they allow us to think about this activity): either you work as a strategist, or as a tactician. The strategist commences with an idea or a fixed image; he understands his goal but never discovers anything new. He will forever be a copyist of images and never make a painting. The tactician, on the other hand, acknowledges that a painting must break free in order to exist. When it gains the upper hand and leads the artist somewhere that he or she doesn’t want to go, it comes into being. There are derailments; unforeseen things happen to lines, colours and textures and the artist is forced to react. The paint is drying. What can we do? When faced with a sea of chaotic textures, how do we formulate an appropriate response? It necessitates an immediate decision, even if it means doing nothing.

In a video I published on YouTube, Swennen can be seen explaining the genesis of a now destroyed painting. He started from a clumsy drawing of a ship, which he’d found on a shop window. He’d taken some red paint and copied it onto a blue background. But then he wanted to get rid of something. He grabbed a rag, wrapped it around his finger, dipped it into white spirit and began to erase. The surplus fabric, set in motion by the intensity of the gesture, brushed against the canvas: an action that dragged transversal stripes or scratches across the newly made drawing. ‘Whenever you see something like this happening,’ says Swennen, ‘you realise that the painting is emerging. And in one and the same movement, you make sure that the underside of the rag leaves similar, unpremeditated traces in all the right places.’

This is what it’s all about. It’s not about images or ‘pure’ ideas. It involves a balancing act on the edge of the surface structure, at the point where it threatens to tip over into a dead image or representation, an illustration of an idea. We resist. The painting resists. We dream of never being recuperated and of rescuing the specific, the anecdotal – or perhaps even ourselves – through a changing form. One that, unlike language in all its variations, is not based on conventions but on an inherent shift, a counterpoint, or a setback.

Walter Swennen’s father sold and repaired commercial cooling systems. They were substantial units that were almost impossible to shift. Silent, stubborn monsters. (Rather like paintings, I think.) Only an ingenious tactician could install or repair them.

(‘When I was a child, my father explained that warmth and cold were the same thing. The back of a refrigerator is hot because cold is warmth having been pushed out. In the end, it’s all the same. I was proud of knowing such a fact. And it’s one I’ve never forgotten.’)

For reasons that need no explanation in this essay, Walter Swennen was compelled to speak a new language at the age of five. The Dutch-speaking child was sent to a school where everyone spoke French. For a long time, he didn’t understand the world around him and couldn’t make himself understood. I love these kinds of stories, simply because they conceal the fact that our mothers wouldn’t have understood us anyway. The parental living room was dominated by one image and a painting. The image was a photograph of a sister who had died before Swennen was born and the painting was executed by an uncle who was worshipped by Swennen’s mother. Ah, some mothers! They’re more attached to the children they’ve lost than to those that live! For they know that childbirth brings death into the world. They suffer from this awareness, which is why they sometimes prefer children who prematurely succumb to their fate.

And thus began the uninterrupted war against controlling images (and static words) by developing paintings. (What interests us here is not the so-called science of the soul, but our marvellous ability to contend with reality through images, paintings, words, theories, attitudes and actions.)

Pointing to a painting that contains a reproduction of a badly drawn woman carrying a jug, Swennen says: ‘Il s’appelle La cruche’. (‘Cruche’ means both ‘an unattractive woman’ and ‘jug’.) He likes to make words collide. In his universe, words bump up against each other, embrace one other, they slip through one another. They leave marks on their respective surfaces, they create new words. (Kotsbleu!) [‘sick-and-tired blue’, is a portmanteau of the Dutch word ‘kotsbeu’, meaning ‘being fed up with something’ and the French ‘bleu’, which also means ‘naïve’]. By disrupting the words, Swennen makes the living room more pneumatic. The black bile dissolves. It’s no easy task, because the words resist. They need to be taken by surprise. You have to crack them open, peel them, pierce them, grind them, unmask them. And the sisters of the words – the images – must also be distorted. Otherwise they lie, weigh us down and stifle us with boredom. We have to make them collide with the surface texture, the paint, the colours, the support, the format and the requirements of the painting.


Walter Swennen: (Pointing to the painting TIM.) I used sauce on this painting.

- Sauce?

Swennen: Filthy white spirit, which I’d used to clean brushes. I mixed it with dust from the vacuum cleaner and applied it to the painting with a scrubbing brush. For what’s a broom if not a large paintbrush? It’s like when you sand the kitchen floor. You sand a little bit harder and faster over the dirty bits: your movements accelerate. Here and there, dirt is trapped in the top layer of paint. The result is reminiscent of expensive wallpaper. Several of the paintings in this show were executed on canvases that I acquired from someone else. The previous owner had covered them with paper collages. I used the existing ‘preparation’ to create different substrates. To do this, I had to make the pasted paper layer totally unrecognisable. I love the way the uneven surface makes the painting vibrate.

- Could I describe the unevenness as a kind of accident? In the sense of ‘an unpredictable event’?

Swennen: Yes.

- At the level of the image – if you will permit me to momentarily divorce the image from the painting – this work reminds me of a projection. It’s as if the word ‘Time’, which we see in the foreground, casts a shadow that creates the second word. But the shadow is white, thereby giving rise to an image that’s inverted, that is comical.

Swennen: Yes, that’s how it happened. I made a sketch of the word ‘Time’ and then projected it using an episcope.

- And the white borders around the letters… Is that intended to create a sense of relief or is it more to evoke the illusion of snow?

Swennen: The white has to create relief.

- And at the top left you needed a corner to close the painting?

Swennen: Yes. I love the movement from bottom-right to top-left, where it’s brought to a standstill. By the way, that’s the corner in which I started the painting… The horizontal marks didn’t come from the scrubbing brush. They’re drips. After I’d finished scrubbing, I placed the painting on its side and allowed the white spirit to dissolve channels in the paint.

- Beautiful little aeroplane. Système D. The work of a tactician.

Swennen: Yes, there was no pre-existing strategy. It was beautiful to see the convergence of the two parts. The aeroplane and the plinth had been around a long time. But they gradually began to approach one another until, quite suddenly, they started to form a sculpture.

(We stand in front of the painting with the heraldic lion.)

- This painting was created and closed by the same action. First you painted a lion, probably by enlarging an existing image and enriching it with a wonderful texture and fresh colours. But then you knock this beautiful image back by adding the red and white rectangles.

Swennen: That’s right.

- The fabulous and funny thing is that you have approached the red and white rectangles at the top as though heraldic elements, while at the bottom they remind one of the thin coloured stripes with which you ‘close’ your paintings by adding them at a border. Moreover, the additional elements seem to float across the image of the lion, thereby creating a sense of depth. Not depth in the Renaissance sense, but in relation to the space of the painting, which we might call the ‘pictorial space’.

Swennen: Yes.

- Did you draw the lion yourself?

Swennen: Yes. It’s based on heraldic figures but is entirely fictional. Red and white are heraldic colours but also typical colours for road signs. At the time, I was shocked by the right-wing politician who had all traffic signs repainted in the ‘Flemish’ colours of black and yellow. The combination of black and yellow creates a symbol, while red and white form a conventional sign. But this is totally unrelated to the painting and more an explanation of the colour choices. Heraldic lions have an elegant and undulating form. They are usually very sympathetic.

- You often talk about sympathy. To you it’s a bridge between people who live in a world that is plagued by the fundamental inadequacy of language.

Swennen: It is.

- The heraldic lion is related to the royal figure with a cigarette, who seems to have been lifted from a playing card. They are stylised, traditional and popular figures that are redolent of power. Broodthaers wrote that he collected the eagle figures in Düsseldorf in order to ‘detach the image from its ideological content’.

Swennen: Yes, that’s obvious. I think this is why I like to ridicule images of lions.

Swennen: The editor-in-chief of the magazine L’Art Mémé paid me a visit yesterday. Whenever I tried to talk about paintings, she spoke about images. I tried to explain the difference, without success. You know the kind of people. You say it takes time to make a painting and she translates that into ‘the painting questions temporality’.
    The painter tries to work in the place where two incompatible things meet: the image (the drawing, the representation) and the painting. It’s an impossible task: either a painting veers towards the image or more towards the materials. The painter tries to keep the painting in balance at the point where the two things intersect.
    Ages ago, I read the analytical philosophers because I wanted to understand their thinking about art. Their views diverge on everything except this one point: the artwork is separable from the support; they see it as two different things. This reminded me of Sartre, who claimed that the painting is imaginary: it doesn’t exist unless it is perceived. In their view, it means you can peel away the image of a painting without inflicting the slightest bit of damage; it’s as though the essence of the painting resides in the image. To put it even more bluntly, it boils down to the fact that they view the image and the painting as one and the same thing.
    I’ve since realised that there’s no salvation to be found in the philosophers, or at least not in the field of painting. They’re like Kant with his theory of existence: they acknowledge that something exists, but they immediately use it to formulate concepts. In his book L’être et l’essence, Étienne Gilson writes that Kant’s notion of existence resembles a desolate mountain river that, newly emerged from the spring, is channelled into the philosophers’ pipes and ducts.
    In another book, Peinture et réalité, a questionable yet remarkable book on painting, Gilson is the first to distinguish between the artistic and aesthetic ‘esse’ [being] of a painting, which have different origins. He therefore offers an escape from the aporia that states a painting ceases to exist when it is not observed. The artistic essence of the artwork, says Gilson, arises from its cause, namely the artist. This quality stems from the fact that the object in question is created by an artist. It’s aesthetic essence, on the other hand, is a distinct feature – one that issues from the spectator’s gaze. To my mind, it’s an unambiguous distinction and therefore useful. It prevents you from having to trace a painting back to how it is perceived by the viewer i.e. as an image. It precludes such absurd statements as ‘the painting is made by the viewer’.
    Philosophers don’t want to know how paintings are made, which is a problem. They’re not interested in anything that doesn’t belong to the order of the image. (Annoyed.) You know, philosophers still don’t understand who actually makes the painting: the viewer or the artist. Well, there’s one thing that I know for certain: whoever makes the painting is responsible for every square centimetre. On this count, the viewer doesn’t do shit. I know that I’ve created these things, but that’s all I’m sure of… Oh well, perhaps I’m not making myself clear enough. But I noted down a line from Aristotle somewhere: ‘If Heraclitus said that, it means that he did not understand what he wanted to say’. Beautiful!

(We move to a different painting.)

Swennen: This painting is called Scrumble. It’s named after ‘oil scrumble’, a type of grey paint that is sold in pots. It’s used to imitate the texture of wood. It’s perfect for this because it’s robust and doesn’t stiffen too quickly, which means it’s easy to manipulate. But the name is also quite special. I painted the ground layer in semi-darkness. This way, I could discern my movements without being distracted by the colours. It was like dancing.

(In what follows, I have chosen to translate the French word ‘fond’’ into ‘ground layer’.)

- In ‘Autoportrait en pirate’, a painting based on one of your childhood drawings, the painting’s ground layer shimmers to the surface at the point where the light hits the pirate’s hair. The same thing happens in the folds of Captain Caras’s jacket, in the painting reproduced on the cover of the publication ‘Le Cow-boy’.

Swennen: Yes, except it’s not Captain Caras but Captain Detzler. It’s the bad guy…

(We’re standing in front of a painting depicting a drawing of a woman carrying a jug. A white spot forms a counterpoint to the female figure).

Swennen: This painting is called La cruche (The unattractive woman / The jar).

- Because the female figure is so badly drawn? It’s the drawing that makes her ugly?

Swennen: Yes. The painting is based on one that used to hang in my mother-in-law’s bedroom. In the old days, the petit bourgeois decorated their bedrooms with paintings that were somewhat daring.

- The white spot was applied with a broad wallpaper brush.

Swennen: Yes. It’s gesso.

- In order to make the drawing of the woman recede, you applied what would normally be used as a preparatory layer in a painting (gesso) to the foreground?

Swennen: Yes.

- Is this another recycled painting? It contains the same irregularities as ‘TIM’.

Swennen: Yes. It’s full of repaired accidents.

- And the sides of the painting?

Swennen: I’m still pondering them.

- I thought you always painted them.

Swennen: No. I think the sides of La cruche are fine. You can see what lies beneath the surface layer… I don’t have anything against painters who leave the sides of their paintings unfinished, but then it has to be a conscious decision. I suspect that painters who don’t value the edges of their paintings are convinced that they only possess a front, that they’re just images.
    A few years ago, I once gave a kind of lesson to painters who had all trained as cartoonists. The edge of a painting is not the same as the frame in a comic strip. The drawings in the latter are surrounded by a virtual world. A character’s arm might extend beyond the frame of the illustration. After a few days, they started to work differently. No longer were they making cut-off images within a larger depiction.
    My ideal is for a painting to contain the entire universe. Titian said: ‘Nothing can escape from the canvas’.
    It’s something that I learned from the painter Malcolm Morley. In his hyper-realistic paintings, the image rarely covers the entire canvas. It’s often surrounded by a frame of white paint, if I remember rightly. So you can never say that the image coincides with the surface of the painting. They are not projections of a reality beyond the painting, they are portraits of images. I remember a painting for which he’d placed an accordion-shaped series of postcards on a table, which he painted in a hyper-realistic way, like a still life. It was never a mere reproduction of a fragment of reality that he’d once witnessed. He disliked being seen as a pioneer of hyperrealism. But it’s even more complicated than that…. Being an Englishman, I also think he’s a bit perverse…
    This painting is called Le congé annuel de H. T. It’s based on an image you once gave me, which I projected in a crooked way so as to elongate it and create a slight distortion. The painting looks dirty because I washed it with white spirit. After working in oil paint, I let the canvas dry for two days. Then I poured white spirit over it, which dissolved the uppermost layer, and I spread the fluid across the painting. The red colour of the ground layer was created by ‘washing’ the red figures.

- This treatment of the image is reminiscent of Malcolm Morley. The straight edge that severs the depiction of the sun is ten centimetres from the edge of the canvas.

Swennen: Yes. The sun is truncated by a frame that runs virtually across the entire surface of the painting… They’re sympathetic guys, right?

- You don’t imitate reflections by adding white but by leaving the ground layer exposed, as in ‘Autoportrait en pirate’ and ‘Captain Detzler’.

Swennen: Yes.

- Although it’s used differently, the same form suggests the eyes and mouth in ‘Spook (Petit fantôme)’. Consequently, the ghost seems incredibly transparent or semi-absent.

Swennen: That painting is based on a row of cut-out ghosts that also had holes for eyes and mouths.

- The painting’s ground layer is beautiful. The black scratches in the green evoke a nocturnal image, further weakening the ghostly apparition.

Swennen: The ground layer is painted with a silver-white that I mixed with green fluorescent paint from a spray can. I hope that the green will retain its power. I subsequently worked the ground layer with the same scrubbing brush that I used for TIM. There were still traces of black paint on the bristles, which were then transferred to the ground layer of Spook.

- There are also areas where white shines through.

Swennen: Yes, those are the places that I went over again with the scrubbing brush. Like when you want to sand a stain from the floor: you work even harder on it… The blue is cobalt green. It’s a very expensive colour. You don’t get much coverage with zinc white. The effect is similar to chalk, the kind of Spanish white that’s used on shop windows. It’s a milky colour. I wanted to make an image with very few contrasts. Do you understand? So that it literally becomes a ghost.
    At the same time, I made that painting over there, with the little man. I wanted to make a painting with an image that touched the edges.

- As if it had worked its way loose from the painting? As if it were falling down?

Swennen: Yes, placing an image without thinking about the composition. The man touches the edge of the painting with the tip of his foot.

- I think he was painted at around the same time as the dancer, because their inaccurate silhouettes are very similar. I suspect they are blown-up versions of smaller figures, the shapes of which obey other visual laws.

Swennen: That’s right. Both figures came from the same box. Originally, the male was just as small as the female dancer.

- How did the painting with the dancer come about?

Swennen: It’s a beautiful form, but I wouldn’t want to end up in the embrace of such a dancer. Her arms are badly drawn. The treatment of the image amounts to an attempt to completely blacken the silhouette. To do that, I had to hold her still with one finger. But she escaped and I left her like that.

- Your sister is a dancer. Was she on your mind when you made this painting?

Swennen: No. But I did think about her when I made Scrumble. Painting in the semi-darkness was a form of dancing.

- The reason I ask is because I know that your paintings often originate from anecdotes or things you’ve read. The anecdote is not presented as the ‘subject’ of a work but serves as a starting point. For example, I remember a painting in which you depicted a coal bucket next to the number 51. You used to tell me that your mother sometimes locked you up in the cellar. This would have been sometime around 1951…

Swennen: Yes. There’s another painting in which you can see the door of the cellar.

- The work with the man in a sombrero?

Swennen: Yes. The man comes from a child’s drawing that I discovered. It might have been done by Julie, my daughter… The door looks like the pair you see in Tintin in America. Chased by kidnappers, Tintin is confronted with two identical doors. All that distinguishes them are the overhead panels. One says ‘Dungeon’ and the other reads ‘Keep’. Tintin outwits his enemies by switching the signs. The bandits run into the dungeon and are trapped.

- Are you sure? I remember you being fascinated by the oubliette during a visit to Beersel Castle. I don’t think your principal fear was of being locked up, but of being forgotten.

Swennen: Mmm. That’s something we’ll have to check.

(We are now standing before the painting with the lion.)

- I guess you felt lucky that the tip of the lion’s tail touched his back?

Swennen: Yes.

- It’s an awkward drawing.

Swennen: Yes. He’s from the same box as the crooked man and the dancer.

- You tend to use images that aren’t well drawn. For example, I remember the drawing of a ship that you’d seen on a restaurant window. A bad drawing is actually destined to become a painting, because it tilts into a non-realistic space (which is the space of the drawing).

Swennen: Yes.

- You also painted the lion on a recovered canvas that was covered with paper.

Swennen: Yes. I love the matte areas in the painting. It’s where the paint has been absorbed by the paper. The surface texture almost resembles dirt, the things that live below the surface.

- The red was applied with a spray can.

Swennen: Yes.

- Here we read the word ‘EAST’. Although it appears to be mirror writing, you’ve actually mirrored each individual letter (rather than the whole word).

Swennen: Yes.

- The painting ‘West’ is made with a palette knife.

Swennen: Yes.

- Like the paint layer in the foreground of ‘Scrumble’?

Swennen: Yes…. Scrumble derives its power from an autogenic composition. The painting gets ugly at the points where the coloured stripes cross each other. There are intersections where the paint mixes and becomes dirty. I covered the weakest spots with grey. Actually, what occurred there is the opposite of what happened in the pink painting. I think the latter is the best work in this exhibition. In that painting, I covered up all the brushstrokes that distinguished themselves from the background, in the sense that they looked like individual strokes. Where the strokes converged, I didn’t cover them up. In this way, the decisions were no longer mine.

- It is a technique that makes it possible to paint ‘no matter what’?

Swennen: Yes, the painting is made by what I have to cover and what I must leave exposed. It’s a bit like when you prepare a wall for hanging paintings: if there’s a damaged spot, apply some filler.

- That’s why you used a palette knife?

Swennen: Yes… All of the failed areas are covered.

- And you cheat at the decisive moment?

Swennen: Naturally.

- You’ve painted some black discs in ‘Autoportrait en pirate’ that correspond to the location of the algae in the wood. The logic of the support breaks through the painting and translates into elements that seem to float in front of it.

Swennen: Yes. The work is painted on a plank that I found on the street. The image is based on a watercolour painting that I made when I was ten. When I painted the black discs, I was thinking of the silhouettes that soldiers use for target practice. The kind that suddenly spring up in order to test the soldiers’ reflexes: they’re walking through a street when the enemy suddenly appears. They have to shoot him or her down in double quick time. I didn't have any preconceived ideas about this, but the other two paintings became part of the triptych.

- They were ground layers that you’d prepared?

Swennen: Yes. They were paintings under construction, but they were so beautiful I preferred not to spoil them. I was delighted to discover that, when joined, they had exactly the same length as Autoportrait.

- Their dimensions played the same decisive role as the position of the algae in ‘Autoportrait’?

Swennen: Yes. I also thought that the ground layers were a bit too good to hide. I was saddled with them to a degree.

- The black ‘spheres’ are related to the white spot that you painted over the pirate’s face.

Swennen: Yes. I didn’t want the character to become a portrait of anyone.

- A third element is the hilt: the yellow crescent that seems to protect the hand.

Swennen: Yes. The yellow area was the last addition to the painting. It’s the final part. If I can count to three in a painting, it’s a success. If you can only count to two, the painting’s dead.

- The yellow moon is also a self-portrait. All that’s missing is a naked muse.

Swennen: Yes.

- The yellow of the sabre has the same function as the red and white rectangles in the painting of the heraldic lion.

Swennen: Yes.

- You need this in order to create the pictorial space as opposed to reproducing an actual space?

Swennen: Yes. None of the Renaissance painters had an understanding of ‘actual’ depth. Uccello painted theatre sets. When he painted a rock, it was a theatrical rock. A fake rock.

- Like Morley’s portraits of images?

Swennen: Yes…. In the end, even the Tuscan landscape was constructed in the same way as a stage set. Perhaps Uccello’s paintings are the result of this artificial structuring of the landscape…

- Did your desire to make flat paintings prompt you to read Greenberg?

Swennen: No. I read him because I wanted to understand the reasons why he argued against depth…

- I used to see your paintings as textures in which abstraction and figuration can meet through the absence of a perspectival space. Shapes and colours converge in another dimension: that of the painting.

Swennen: I’ve always found this condemnation of illusion and depth regrettable. Even an unpainted canvas has depth. The great thing about painting is that you can choose whether or not you want to use that depth.

- The only painting in this exhibition that deviates from this practice is the one with the mountains and the bison.

Swennen: Yes. I made that painting to prove to my wife that I can paint. The image is taken from a puzzle. I think the bison are very successful. (He points to the wide edge of the painting.) And here you also have a beautiful painting.

- Looking at the painting side-on will reveal yet another abstract surface.

Swennen: Yes. And at the same time, you get a toy box. The work is an illustration of De Kooning’s maxim that a painting must detach itself from the wall.

- You wouldn’t have dared to make this painting if the support hadn’t been so thick.

Swennen: Perhaps. And there’s also the fact that the size of the box corresponds to the dimensions of the original example… That’s another good reason… Paintings with deep side edges have been in fashion for several years. Nowadays, they even sell canvases with this kind of border. They call them ‘American’.

- Have you ever used them?

Swennen: No, I took ordinary canvases and added a few extra strips.

- You cobbled them together? Système D?

Swennen: Yes. Système D.

Montagne de Miel, 21 January 2007

Translated by Helen Simpson