Walter Swennen - 2020 - Pestkoppen en spinazie [EN, essay],
A Pain in the Neck and Spinach
Nonsense and enigma in the work of Walter Swennen
I have attempted to describe Swennen’s work before, so why again? Well, because this work and his thoughts about it continue to evolve. Studying it is analogous to crossing a road and suddenly finding oneself in the path of a swiftly advancing sports car. You quicken your pace while the driver simultaneously adjusts his or her speed and trajectory, with both parties hoping to avoid a collision. When, in the summer of 2016, I stated that part of a certain painting had probably been removed with white spirit, Swennen dryly replied: ‘I never use white spirit.’ Arriving at his studio the following week, I discovered a note with my name on it, wedged behind the bell. Unfolding it, I read: ‘Back in 10 minutes. Gone to the shop to buy white spirit.’
How should we view Swennen’s oeuvre? First of all, we have to look at the paintings themselves, of course, because they alone comprise ‘the work’. But perhaps we can see more of these paintings if only we knew how to look at them? I am thinking, for instance, of a prominent art historian who has taken to counting the frequency with which aeroplanes, cigarettes and skulls appear in Swennen’s paintings, thereby hoping to draw substantive conclusions about his state of mind and buried intentions, without once alighting upon the idea that there might be a purely visual reason for using a motif. A capital ‘T’, for example, allows for a new distribution of colour while hiding the fact that Swennen actually makes Mondrian paintings. And the image of a car might speak of the impossibility of depicting movement in a painting. Below, I also cite the example of a chequered motif, which could allude to any number of familiar objects, but thanks to its simplicity, also says something about the woven structure of paintings.
Hornets and enigmas
In the interview ‘Hic Haec Hoc’ (2016), Swennen relates that the art historian Paul Ilegems (b. 1946) once called him a ‘nuisance’ and a ‘pain in the neck’, which he feels is an accurate assessment. Why? When we think of Socrates, who compared himself to a hornet in the neck of a sleeping horse, we see a connection with the enigma and the aporia: the inquisitive, challenging thinking that grinds to a halt and leaves the philosopher defeated. ‘When I create a painting’, Swennen once told me, ‘I transform nonsense into an enigma’. I believe Swennen’s paintings can be regarded as a form of philosophical thinking that follows on from the work of Broodthaers, who created poems with objects. Swennen’s paintings are concrete poems but also philosophical aphorisms that originate from his training as a painter under Claire Fontaine (from the age of fourteen) and as an etcher at the Brussels Academy, his encounter with the writings of Freud, Lacan and Viktor von Weizsäcker whilst completing a degree in psychology, and his subsequent study of English language philosophy, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Spinoza.
Spinach and other nonsense
Yesterday, I asked Swennen what I must not omit from this essay. Were there any new insights that might deepen the enigma? ‘I’d like you to mention the jokes about spinach, which can be found in two footnotes: one by Kierkegaard and one by Freud’, he replied.
In a postscript to Philosophical Crumbs, Kierkegaard tells of a man who puts his hand in a bowl of spinach and, upon noticing his absent-mindedness, declares: ‘Ah, I thought it was caviar.’ In a footnote to the fourth chapter of Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud cites a joke about a man who sticks his hand in a bowl of mayonnaise and then rubs it onto his hair. When he notices the amazement of a fellow diner, he explains: ‘Ah, I thought it was spinach.’
In this particular case, Freud considers the joke to be funny because the listener initially suspects that the nonsense conceals a deeper meaning (as with the Italian pun ‘traduttore, traditore’ [translator, traitor]), whereas it simply gives rise to yet more absurdity (the explanations given for the men’s confusion are just as nonsensical as their avowed actions). In ancient Greece, dialectical issues were developed to challenge people, which always led to them having to admit that they couldn’t know anything for certain. Only the perplexed think consciously. Did Swennen invite me to include the spinach-footnotes because he wanted me to present his paintings as enigmas that are intended to plunge us into a state of perplexity? Or did he wish to increase the enigma surrounding his paintings, to shield them against superficial interpretations and the illusion that one can find a hidden, deeper ‘meaning’ beneath their apparent nonsensical nature? Both, probably. Or neither.
The paintings themselves
If we consider Swennen’s work from the perspectives of art history and technique, a number of things immediately stand out. We see that all of his paintings, which rarely contain modelling (the suggestion of volume through the representation of light and shadow), reflect upon, or are amused by, the absence of actual space and movement in a painting. He departs (secretly) from the findings of Mondrian and (openly) the Abstract Expressionists, but also from numerous other painters whom he admires for various reasons (e.g. Malevich, Buffet and Malcolm Morley). Perspectival or ‘realistic’ depth is replaced in his paintings by what one might call ‘pictorial depth’: the virtual, visual or haptic space that is created by juxtaposing, for example, a receding blue and an emergent red, or by superimposing different textures, with the coarser ones tending to come to the fore.
Looking at the painting Blue Fills Gap (2015) with a view to finding a ‘meaning’, one notices that the red, diamond-shaped motif in the foreground could allude to the rattling grille of an elevator, the structure of certain stained-glass windows, the arm of a desk lamp or a pantograph. But it is also a motif that is simply created by the drawing of intersecting lines and, as such, also says something about the laying down (painting) of lines. The motif is also red, which makes it seem the closest of the three layers to the viewer. The pantograph also reminds us of a boxing glove springing out of a gift box in a comic strip, and of Système D (the impossibility of writing the Bible of the bricoleur). As a result, the motif also seems to say something, in a very literal sense, about the manner of painting.
How did this painting arise? Nobody knows, because Swennen ‘feels he is lying when he reconstructs the genesis of a painting’, but it might have been as follows: the canvas was first placed on the floor and sprinkled with a diluted solution of acrylic paint and East Indian ink. It might have been tilted. Perhaps it was messed around with in a different way. Then the canvas began to dry, with an unpredictable end result. This created a ‘hole’ in the centre which needed to be repaired. Using a large brush, this was plastered over with pale blue paint and ‘closed’. Finally, the red ‘motif’ was applied, as an extra safeguard against the dark hole, or as an evocation of a church window, or as a comical reference to a pantograph, and perhaps all these things at once, or none of them at all. Because ultimately we stand before a painting as if it were a sphinx: protecting us from the abyss or, on the contrary, not.
Atavistic identity compulsion
Yesterday, Swennen told me that his father loved words like ‘ancestral’, in all likelihood for its ability to evoke an inner sense of nobility, and that he would have contrasted it with atavique (atavistic), a term used to denote primitive qualities in less noble people. Swennen has a similar predilection for certain words, such as Broodthaers’ use of insincère or the word traquenard (trickery) that he underlined in his copy of Freud’s book about jokes. The elder Swennen’s socially acceptable, snobbish vocabulary is at odds with the son’s aversion to lyricism, regarded as a sentimental eulogising of the harmonic coherence of all things, one that goes hand in hand with an ‘expression’ of a supposedly inner consistency.
Swennen does not believe in the existence of a personal ‘identity’, let alone one that could be deemed ‘national’. Undoubtedly, all forms of nationalism boil down to the manifestation of a narcissistic need for an inner ‘core’, ‘cohesion’ or ‘meaning’, which is understandable to a degree, although not when the yearning is used to distract people from more pressing concerns.
Communities are defined on the basis of exclusion. Swennen does not feel he belongs to any one community but to numerous overlapping groups of people with similar interests (tall men, bearded women, readers of dictionaries). Born a Fleming, he was forced to speak French at the age of five due to circumstances beyond his control. He is not Flemish, not a native of Brussels, not a Walloon, not a poet, not a philosopher, not a painter, and not a prize animal. When he was recently awarded a prize by the Flemish community, he donated the money to the PVDA/PTB [The Workers’ Party of Belgium], ‘because it’s the only political party that has not adapted its structure to the division of Belgium into linguistic communities’, he told me. Paul Ilegems was right, Swennen is a pain in the neck.
Montagne de Miel, 28 January 2020
Translated by Helen Simpson