Walter Swennen - 2020 - Tout sur les damnés [EN, interview]
All About the Damned
Conversation with Walter Swennen
Swennen shows me a painting he finished yesterday. In the foreground, transparent ‘white’ letters form the words MIN SORG ER MIN BORG, a phrase by Kierkegaard that means: ‘My sorrow is my castle.’ Swennen recounts that Kierkegaard once wrote that he derived the phrase from the English expression ‘My home is my castle’. And indeed, the painting also depicts a castle and the head of a snake or a dragon. ‘Or the Loch Ness monster’, says Swennen. ‘It was a kitsch painting.’ He also notes that ‘min’ and ‘org’ are both repeated in the phrase, which makes it look like a concrete poem. Next to this painting is a smaller work representing a hat which, because of the oval shape around it, makes us think of a flying saucer that has been circled on a photo. We also read the word ‘Goodbye’. Swennen explains that this kind of hat is called a ‘pork pie hat’, that Lester Young often wore one, and that Charles Mingus, after the latter’s death, called one of his compositions Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. We then look at a portrait that bears the words ‘Avil Blue’.
Walter Swennen: The drawing is derived from a comic book. We were drowning in comic books in the fifties. Parents and teachers had their misgivings. They were worried about the potentially adverse side effects. The painting is based on a freehand ink drawing that I made after a picture from a Brick Bradford adventure. Avil Blue is his opponent, the bad guy. When I was an altar boy, in a rather ugly church, I was surrounded by mosaics representing saints. The saints and their respective attributes were all depicted in gold-coloured, ogive-shaped niches. Their names were recorded above the arches. The ogive shape in the painting comes from the original drawing, which depicts Avil Blue in the pointed cockpit of his aeroplane. When I saw the formal resemblance with the saintly mosaics of my youth, I was able to complete the painting by adding Avil Blue’s name.
We are looking at a painting representing two ‘smokers’. One of the smokers has a haircut that reminds me of Lucky Luke. Is that deliberate? Swennen confides it’s a quiff (une banane de rocker). He adds that the painting was originally black and contained a shape reminiscent of a bridge, painted in a different black to that of the background. To create the painting we see today, Swennen overpainted the original work with zinc white (the most translucent white) and added the figure of the left-hand smoker, using his finger to draw him in the wet paint. The pinkish surface and the drips in the middle of the canvas only appeared afterwards, looming up through the drying, white top layer. The last addition to the painting was the black cross in the top left-hand corner. ‘Something was missing, but I didn’t know what’, says Swennen, ‘so I just made a cross over it’. We also see, scratched in the white, the Chinese translation of the word ‘Untitled’. Finally, I would like to point out that the cigarettes were painted differently, as a reminder that we are dealing with a painting, and not an image.
Swennen: I recently read something remarkable about the philosopher Nicolas Malebranche (1638 – 1715), who took it upon himself to demonstrate that Christianity is the only true philosophy. To this end, he endeavoured to provide rational explanations for all the dogmas. One of the sticking points was the still pressing problem of the Last Judgement. How do we account for eternal damnation, which certain people receive, when God is supposed to be mercy incarnate? Malebranche explains that the Last Judgement is Christ’s job. But because Christ is both God and man, he has a partly human and therefore limited mind. Because he is part of the world, he cannot be omniscient. He must judge each person individually, therefore, but his time is limited. He doesn’t have enough time to think about everyone. Well, the people that he cannot think about are the damned.
- He couldn’t have explained it better.
Swennen: Yes, it’s a watertight argument. And it made me curious about Malebranche’s writings. You immediately wonder what he has to say about transubstantiation. (He muses.) It rained all day yesterday. I noticed that I couldn’t see the rain when gazing at the white walls of the school across the street, but that I could when looking at the dark windows.
- The issue of Christ and time resembles the problem of the art critic who wants to keep track of your rapidly growing oeuvre. The paintings she, he or they cannot explain are doomed.
Swennen: Which reminds me of Céline, who said that commerce is the cancer of the world. And advertising, I would add, is its metastasis. Today, you can ‘reinvent yourself’ or ‘reappropriate’ your life by drinking Coca-Cola.
- The world keeps unfolding.
Swennen: Yes, we are extremely fortunate in that respect.
Montagne de Miel, 29 September 2020
Translated by Helen Simpson