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).

Carole Vanderlinden

Carole Vanderlinden - 2013 - De la combustion spontanee et autres questions urgentes (Nocturne en mi bémol majeur) [FR, essay]
Text , 4 p.


Hans Theys

On Spontaneous Self-combustion and Other Urgent Issues
(About Carole Vanderlinden’s drawings)

It happened in the unsightly village of A, where large, old trees still stand, despite our nation’s obsession with tree-felling. That one freezing, pitch-black night I had a dream which contained the following images and words, though perhaps not in exactly the same order. Just before the dream I woke up and went and stood at the window. It was a night of oracles when, hunted by indiscernible beasts of prey, agitated, dark-coloured birds flew from branch to branch. A train loaded with steel thundered past, shaking the house for a whole minute. I drank a glass of water and eventually went back to bed.

Who should appear in my dream but Auguste Rodin, occasionally stroking his beard. He looked tired but contented. Not in the mood for talking, he sipped his glass of wine and observed the almost black fluttering in the night. I reminded him of his conversation with Paul Gsell who had confided in him during a walk that he thought swans lacked intelligence. “Yes,” Rodin had replied, laughing, “but they have the intelligence of the line, and that is enough!” Rodin looked away from the night and spoke to me: “Most people think Gothic art is so splendid because it was inspired by religion; as if contemporary art owed its ugliness to a lack of piety…” He was silent for a moment. “I don’t give credence to the doctrine that an idea can enhance an artwork; rather I think that the idea is enriched by the power derived from the exertion, the physical work. Viewed individually all ideas are poor.”

Sitting next to Rodin was Louis-Ferdinand Céline, also enveloped by the night. He wasn’t drinking. “Ideas! The encyclopaedias are full of them! But new forms! That’s where the shoe pinches! A new style! A new kind of musicality! Like the train that has just gone past! The house rattled like a skeleton! Straight to the emotion! No pussyfooting around! Even if you do have to shave a little off, of course, and break a stick so that it looks straight when it’s in the water. You can’t do it without work, Auguste is right about that.”

“Nobody worked harder than Manet,” Zola continued. “His strength was that he was not afraid to allow paintings to exist even if parts of them were imperfect because he had worked on them for too long. He also had the courage to leave things unfinished, or decided not to paint them at all, like the black cat in Olympia, a flat area, a black patch which he needed there.”

“A work of art is an artefact, a texture, a newly-made thing that is added to reality in such a way that we feel it is new,” said Viktor Chklovsky. “Ethnologists think that literature stems from local practices, but actually the opposite is true, as Céline says. A signboard has to fall to the ground upside down for us to be able to read it correctly.” (He emptied a glass of vodka.) “How did Dido manage to become queen by means of the cowhide ruse if everyone was aware of that practice? The work of art comes from the unfamiliar or it doesn’t come at all.” Céline nodded. Chklovsky filled another glass.

Silence fell. I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t find the words. Then all four of them looked at me. “You are not an artist. You are not a writer. But you would like to add something meaningful to the work of an artist who you believe makes very good paintings. Isn’t that right?” asked Rodin. “Do you feel that the form of her work strengthens the idea of it?”

“I think that the form has become the idea,” I said. “There is no idea outside form any more, unless it is the idea of art… And if you asked me what art is today, then I would describe it as a person claiming the right to be who he or she is, how he or she is, wherever he or she is.” “The idea of freedom, you mean?”, asked Zola. “Just as Jacques-Émile Blanche remarked long after my death that the bouquet in Olympia is a contrived bouquet, one you couldn’t buy anywhere. A collection of bright spots which Manet needed in that particular place! First he opposed what I said – I, who saved Manet from street urchins when they were pelting him with stones –, first he looked down on me, but later he repeated my argument of the flat cat!” He slapped his thigh with his right hand. Enfin soit, the freedom to paint bouquets, which you can’t buy anywhere. I understand that freedom.”

“This artist’s drawings are very different from her paintings,” I said. “Not because of their subject matter, theme or format, but simply because they are not painted with paint on canvas. That’s what I mean. Her paintings are made of paint and of painting, of long hours spent looking and fretting, of overpainting, erasing and trying again.”

“The drawings show the same forms and subjects, but they are different, more transparent. The themes are the same, as I have already said, and the subjects too: we see birds and flowers and crooked, constructivist compositions, those sort of things, but what typifies her paintings and drawings is that she has made them and no one else. That she explores the borders of what is possible in her world of thinking, of feeling and of acting, and in that way looks for the unfinished in a field she could master, but in so doing could also squeeze the life out of.”

The four men were silent. In the stillness of the night we heard only the fluttering of indiscernible fowls of the air and gurgling noises coming from Chklovsky, who was now drinking straight from the bottle.  “Is she true to her vision of nature?”, asked Rodin. “Is she true to herself?”, asked Zola. “Is she true to the emotion?”, asked Céline. “Is there anything else to drink?”, asked Chklovsky. “Fortunately I brought an extra bottle with me... As a child I wanted to be a train driver, but now I am a critic. And it is as Chekhov had one of his immortal heroes say: 'They are all serious, they all have severe faces, they all talk about important things. They philosophize, and at the same time, the vast majority of us, ninety-nine out of a hundred, live like savages, fighting and cursing at the slightest opportunity, eating filthily, sleeping in the dirt, in stuffiness, with fleas, stinks, smells, moral filth, and so on... And it’s obvious that all our nice talk is only carried on to distract ourselves and others.'”

He went on talking as he began polishing his boots. There was no stopping him now. “Why are so many family members murdered in literature?”, he asked. “And why is there so much philandering with mothers and sisters? The answer is clear. Because you cannot write a compelling story without sex and murder. The protagonist has to fall in love with someone or murder someone. But, of course, he must know that person. And who do we know, apart from family members? Almost nobody. Behold the writer’s material! It is limited. And it has little to do with depth psychology.” He drank from his bottle in a long draught.

Outside the birds fluttered. Suddenly I heard myself saying: “What a brilliant solution of Sophocles to have his hero kill a stranger, who only later turns out to be his father. Or Camus’ solution. His hero is himself the stranger, and so can kill anyone.” The four men nodded.

Then Zola spoke. “Don’t drink so much,” he said to Chklovsky. “I knew a train driver who ended up spontaneously self-combusting as a result of excessive drinking. I would advise you against such an end.”

“People eat and drink themselves silly,” said Céline, “and they fuck like animals. Who needs morals? The only thing that counts is work. I agree with Auguste about that. Only work counts. Work and the emotion it arouses. It is as Viktor says: we shouldn’t look deeper. A broken stick looks straight if you put it in the water. That is our work. To break the stick. Not easy, but doable. And then go right ahead, like the train in your garden. Stay on the rails and stop for nothing.”

“I have thought a lot about Cézanne”, said Zola quietly, “and I now think that Pierre Loeb is right: the man painted the way he saw the mountains around him. Higgledy-piggledy and broken. Those rocks were in his blood, in his way of seeing.”

Chklovsky had screwed the top back onto his bottle and placed it on the ground behind him. “True to nature!”, Rodin repeated. “If your artist is true to nature, and if she learns to break the stick correctly, as Céline says, then she has done everything she can. Because she can’t do more than that.”

Montagne de Miel, Easter 2013



Translated by Alison Mouthaan