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).


Raoul De Keyser - 2009 - Je suis un créateur, je veux voir les choses et les cerner [FR, interview]
Interview , 7 p.


The current interviews with Raoul De Keyser, done four and three years before his death, were not meant to be. The painter didn’t want to receive journalists anymore. Having written art reviews himself, he didn’t believe in them. Furthermore, it annoyed him that they always started talking about other painters, as if his work wouldn’t be sufficient. “Don’t they understand I am narcissistic?” he asked me rhetorically.

On the other hand, he was longing to talk about his work with somebody who wasn’t blind. The second time I met him, he had created a small solo show in his living room with paintings that were dear to him. He even had made a small catalogue.

However, whenever I tried to talk about the material conditions of his work, he became reluctant to speak. The first reason might have been the fact that painters sometimes really don’t know what they have ‘done’. The painter Walter Swennen summarized this feeling by telling me that “Whenever I tell somebody how I have made something, I have the impression to be lying”. Filming this painter while he was at work, I noticed that some things happen so quickly, that it actually must be impossible sometimes to recount what happened. (Also, a lot of things that happen are not the result of decisions, but of reactions to things that occur, or of attempts to avoid something from occurring.) The second reason for De Keyser’s reluctance, might have been that he was losing his memory, and that he was afraid to be inaccurate himself.

Speaking with De Keyser at that time was also difficult, because his hearing was impaired. Sometimes this prevents the collocutor from being subtle, making a joke, being himself or herself.

The first text is mainly about my first impression that parts of De Keyser’s paintings seemed to be floating apart. And I wondered whether this resulted from an original way of seeing things, or whether it grew out of the work itself. (De Keyser believed the latter.) However, this conversation led him to show me a picture of a sculpture by Giacometti, which moved him a lot, he said. At the time, I could only notice that this sculpture also seemed to be constituted of separate parts. But later I realized that it must have reminded him of his father, who was a carpenter, and that the depicted woman really was a ‘western’ woman, with a handbag resting on her feet, which probably reminded him of his mom.

The second text tries to focus on the painting itself. Here the most important thing he seems to say is that to him painting boils down to ‘putting a line’ on a canvas and finding new ways to ‘cross’ the painting from one side to the other. This remark enabled me to see the evolution in his work (focusing on the different ways of creating ‘lines’) and to make a presentation of his work for the show ‘XANADU’ at S.M.A.K. (Ghent) in 2010, whereby I combined older and new paintings for the first time in De Keyser’s life. He was so impressed by this presentation, that he thanked me by offering me a water colour showing me as an acrobat building the show.

In the years preceding his death I visited him regularly. One day, he showed me his last painting on canvas. On the back of it he had written: “De voltooide onvoltooide” (The finished unfinished one). We were moved.

Montagne de Miel, June 26th 2018


Hans Theys

I am a creator, I want to see things and lock them
A wayward conversation with Raoul De Keyser

One sunny Sunday afternoon, I drove to the secret residence of the painter Raoul De Keyser (°1930) under a blanket of low-hanging white clouds tinged with shades of blue, purple and grey. In the boot, I had brought a festive cake, which I hoped to share with the artist and his son Piet along with the home-brewed muddy filter coffee, which De Keyser would pour from a distiller's flask into the waiting cups. A few weeks before that, De Keyser had allowed me access to his studio, where I had the opportunity to film a series of paintings in a different state of readiness. I hadn't asked him permission for anything else, so when De Keyser began to talk about his work, I felt hesitant, anxious about having seemingly forced myself upon him under false pretences. But I was hardly out of the door when I realized that I should have put the camera down and made myself vulnerable by telling him what I saw, thought and felt, as I always do when an artist takes me in confidence by showing his or her work. Since that missed opportunity to talk to the artist about a beautiful and new series of works, just a few days after their completion, I had continued to dream about a new encounter.

I know exactly what I want to talk about with De Keyser: about the way the texture of a painting can lead to a new pictorial space as a result of provoked, but at the same time unexpected, derailments. But it seems as if De Keyser can't imagine such a conversation. He doesn't want to talk about the texture of his work, he says. Why not? We can only hazard a guess. Perhaps because he has had to answer too many inane questions in the past. Perhaps because he has tried too often to say something useful, but has not found a trace of it in the published texts. Perhaps because he used to write about art himself and had the feeling that he was deceiving the readers. Perhaps because he really believes that there is nothing to say about his work. And perhaps, and this may well be the most important reason, because he no longer remembers everything, or is afraid of remembering things incorrectly. Not only because it is sometimes so long ago, or because his memory is letting him down, but also because things have taken place in such a way that they are not stored by the conscious memory. (The things we remember are impoverished by storing. Things we can no longer remember, such as smells, sometimes come back with full force, because they were stored in an unconscious, more physical way. What about remembering physical events such as the making of a painting?)

We are sitting in his front room. De Keyser, his son Piet and I. There are five paintings hanging and standing around us, which the artist has brought together especially for this meeting. He has also compiled a handwritten catalogue, which is on a shelf along with two paintings. We are sitting opposite each other. We look each other straight in the eyes.

Raoul De Keyser: In 1980, on the occasion of an exhibition at the ICC, someone wrote about me saying that I am a doubter... But that's not the case at all. If you ask me when I put this or that brushstroke, I often can't answer, because I can't remember. It's difficult to describe an action after the event, because it's made up of impulse a lot of the time, of escapes and quick skirmishes.

- You've told me about this painting ('Untitled', 1982, Jacobs: 421), which has been in the front room for a few months now, that it came about being ‘repaired’. Whenever the absorbent substrate absorbed the colour, you retouched the painting until it remained more or less opaque and stable. This resulted in a comical, almost clumsy, facture.

De Keyser: I have used many different types of canvas. This work is painted on lightly prepared, very absorbent canvas. Right at the start, I painted with oil paint, then I switched to acrylic paint for reasons that I can't remember or that weren't very clear, but when I was using acrylic paint, I came to the conclusion that if I used thin layers, the work took no time at all. I wanted to take my time painting. That's why I started painting with oil again and was glad that the paint was absorbed. The paint disappeared into the canvas while I was painting, so I had to touch it up, add to what had disappeared. The paint didn't disappear evenly, of course, which resulted in a rather stubborn painting, because you're always tempted to restore what you lose along the way... The painting is part of a series I exhibited at Richard Foncke in 1980-1982. Together with the paintings based on the monkey puzzle trees in my garden, these were the most important paintings from that period. I called these paintings Zacht apeverdriet, as if you could walk over them... The model of this painting is called Tornado (1981, Jacobs: 402). It has also been ‘repaired’.

- Why did you use the absorbent canvas if you wanted to work more slowly? That also accelerated the drying process, didn't it?

De Keyser: Yes, but the result was different. (He is quiet and looks at me.) I don't want to answer any more questions now. Why don't you answer your own questions? Then I might learn something.

- Because I try to write texts and books that teach us something about the works themselves rather than about the author's speculations. I can't imagine that you would be interested in such speculations.

De Keyser: I don't read about art. I used to write about art myself, but I stopped when I caught myself using the word 'field of tension' for the umpteenth time.

- That's exactly my point. I have never used the word 'field of tension'. I'm trying to do something else. But I'm tired, I have to say. And if you want, I can leave now. It's up to you.

(From the corner of my eye, I can see that De Keyser's son, who is two metres to his left, is starting to smile. De Keyser is silent and looks at me piercingly. I get up and walk towards the painting in question.)

- There used to be a landscape by Jean Brusselmans here. It was a winter landscape. You loved it, because you'd paid a lot of money for it, instead of buying a holiday apartment at the seaside, which is what your wife wanted. What was so special about that painting? I don't know. I saw it just once, now more than a year ago. But if I remember correctly, the trees seemed to be black and the branches were covered in snow. Snow in a painting, I often find that odd. Because you need white to finish a traditional painting. Thick coats of white can make for a comical effect. And thick coats of white on seemingly black branches produce a fascinating image... Is it a coincidence, then, that the painting that is now taking its place also appears to have a black-and-white structure?

De Keyser: (Angry.) That's not black. That's Hooker’s green... I've used a lot of green. Sometimes I was tired of it and couldn't face green for a long time... Piet, can you go and fetch a tube of Hooker’s green for us? Wait, I'll come with you…

(Both men disappear and come back after ten minutes. De Keyser has two new paintings with him. In the meantime, I have looked up Hooker’s green: it is a dark green colour created by mixing Prussian blue and Gamboge, an orange-like yellow.)

De Keyser: I can only find Hooker’s green in acrylic, but I'm sure that it was an oil paint… I brought along two of the four-part De Zandvlo with me. My father made the stretchers for it. Instead of making them 2.5 cm thick, he made them 5 cm thick. It was right here, I'll never forget. I'd been working at the university all day, I came home at five o'clock, and then I saw this. Where is he? I asked my wife. He was already in the café, celebrating his successful day. I went there to look for him. “20 x 30 x 5 cm, that's not going to be a painting, but a box!” I said. But he was satisfied with his work.
    To return to your question about why I used an absorbing surface: the painting is essentially about these traces of this white line. Many of my paintings are an exercise in recalcitrant painting, a purification of lines or surfaces. I used to have a neighbour whose job it was to paint the white lines on the football pitch. He did so with a bucket and a brush. When he was painting, he sometimes had to go back, because the wayward grass resisted... I, too, always searched for forms of waywardness. What is technical competence? Going from A to B. Some do it as straight as possible, others do it waltzing...

- Often, when you place dots or small stains on your canvases, you do so in a space that you left open and you let a thin line of the canvas shine through around the dot or stain. I think that's funny. And you?

De Keyser: Me too.

- You selected five paintings for our meeting. We are now in front of 'Drie hoeken: II' from 1971.

De Keyser: That, too, was painted on an absorbent canvas.

- The mini-catalogue that you prepared for me states that the painting has been tamponed. What did you use for that? A cloth, paper, a sponge?

De Keyser: I can't remember.

- We are now looking at 'Untitled' (1988, Jacobs: 555), which you describe in the catalogue as 'Verzonken hoeklijnen in donkergroen, rechtsboven open' (Sunk corner lines in dark green, top right open).

De Keyser: An old football line that is fading…

- 'Studie voor Kerf' (1989) was made later. We see a white horizontal line applied on top of differently coloured surfaces. It seems as if you've painted the coloured areas twice.

De Keyser: I don't think so. But maybe I did, I honestly can't remember... This painting (Sok, 1971) originally represented a football sock, which I repainted a year later. I've repainted things before. In fact, in 1992, I exhibited in a Berlin gallery a series of works that I called Souvenirs massacrés. They were recurring images, of which I knew beforehand that I would repaint them.

- Here you painted the edge of the painting white afterwards.

De Keyser: Yes, sometimes I do that when the edge is dirty.

- The canvas is very granular.

De Keyser: Yes, I once experimented with all sorts of different kinds of canvas to see how the same Hooker’s green would react to it. I asked my supplier to provide me with as many different kinds of canvas as possible. The result was a canvas of 50 by 50 cm, which consists of nothing but cut out rectangles of canvas that I glued together until they formed a square. Then I painted them with the same colour in the same mixture. Depending on the texture of the canvas, the green becomes darker or lighter. The work is called Studie voor Lamastre.

- What does the title mean?

De Keyser: The titles of these works refer to towns that surrounded us at our holiday home in France: Lamastre, Chambonas, Vanes... When you visited me in my studio last time, you saw that I'd made many small and narrow strips of cloth in a wide variety of formats. That's because I want to use up all the canvas I still have. All the leftovers. My son Piet thinks I should buy new canvas, but I love this kind of voluntary poverty.

- What attracts you to the work of Jean Brusselmans?

De Keyser: His brutality, which is even reflected in his frames and stretchers.

- And in the work of Courbet?

De Keyser: The skin in his paintings and the density of things... I once set myself the task in Vienna to look at human and animal skin in paintings. I wondered which painters had been able to produce the effect that you would rather see human skin than paint. I found seven or eight outstanding examples. Five of them were by Rubens. One of Courbet.

- Last time, we talked about Giacometti.

De Keyser: In a letter you wrote that I may be attracted to the interiors in that photo book. But the picture I love the most is the one where he crosses the street under his coat. That hood! And then, very romantic, that picture of that café visit with his girlfriend. Amazing! At one time, I was the second visitor to an exhibition with his work at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris. There was only one Japanese man in front of me. He had camped out in front of the entrance. I walked straight to the end of the exhibition and then slowly walked back to the crowd. They had used very large plinths, which put me off to some extent…

Montagne de Miel, 30 March 2009