ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Robert Devriendt - 1997 - Allemaal vliezen over elkaar [NL, interview],
Layer after layer
A few words about the work of Robert Devriendt
“Recently I was painting near a pond, when a goose suddenly flew into the air. I had already seen it sitting there, some ten metres away from me. I had seen its head moving through the reeds and now and then I had heard her honking. Suddenly she took off noisily and then dropped into the water. Right in front of me. Dead. I took her home, painted her a few times and then gave her to a taxidermist friend. He would keep her in his deep-freeze for a while because I wanted to paint her one more time. But when I arrived at his house a couple of days later, he had already stuffed her. The news came as a terrible blow. The goose had gone. An emptied thing consisting only of skin is devoid of all expression.”
Robert Devriendt (°1955) and I walk across the Grote Markt in Bruges on our way to his studio. I look at his shoes while listening to his story. They are Bordeaux red.
“I grew up on a farm. As a young boy, I once saw the vet remove a calf from a cow by Caesarean section… I knew that cow. I still remember her name…. First I saw the cow as something full, something complete, but when they started cutting her open, layer after layer, first her skin and then the other membranes: the peritoneum, the wall of the uterus, etc.… she became one large, dark cavity… Nothing but layers of membrane… and that’s what we call reality.”
Under the mid-length, grey woollen coat with its fine herringbone pattern, he is wearing a carmine velvet jacket and underneath that a waistcoat with alternating bluish-grey and reddish-gold checks embroidered with roses. Underneath that is a white silk shirt whose mother-of-pearl collar encloses a loosely knotted white silk scarf, partly concealed behind a second scarf with patches of muted dark-blue, dark-green and ochre. On his left hand he is wearing a ring set with a red stone. I look down again at the Bordeaux-coloured shoes.
“What would you call the colour of your shoes?”, I ask. “Is it mahogany?”
“I’m not very good at names,” he answers, “but it is a sort of Bordeaux red. A bit too matt for my taste. There’s a bit too much white in it.”
“One makes a colour more matt by adding white?”
“There is something misty about these shoes because the top layer of colour contains more white than the ground layer, which is darker. That’s how you paint mist. First you paint a dark sky, for example, and then you paint lighter colours over it. It’s the opposite of a glaze. To paint a red apple, you first paint a beautiful orange and over it a layer of crimson. That way you get a deep, vivid red. The light penetrates it, goes up to the orange ground and reflects. That’s the difference between Jordaens and Rubens. Jordaens’ matrons sometimes look limewashed. With Rubens the grey is created optically through the various layers of colour. Jordaens comes across as much flatter because of the mix of grey and white in the skin colour. There is also a darker red under our skin. A good painter will first paint a dark layer and add an orange tint on top. The grey comes automatically. That way you obtain a mother-of-pearl tint.”
Hanging in the studio are scores of works, seemingly positioned at random, as in a swarm without a centre. They are small paintings on wood or canvas, approximately the size of a hand, though each is slightly different in format. The paint is applied fluidly in thin layers, semi-translucent and not really covering. The majority of the paintings are of scenery or of dead fish, dead birds and dead trees, mostly painted from nearby and from different viewpoints. Some of these works I have already seen as part of an exhibition put together by Marie-Puck Broodthaers in Cologne, like the portraits of a fallen, dead tree which was painted from different angles, giving the viewer the impression of being able to walk around it.
“I love cubism,” says Devriendt. “My paintings are natural, not cubist, but I feel a lot for their use of colour, for their contrasts, light against dark, hot against cold, and for that juxtaposition of different views of things, so that you have to put them back together in your head…”
I also recognize a scenic view of water surrounded by trees.
“It’s a deceit,” replies Devriendt. “It looks like an idyllic spot, but actually I was sitting on top of a concrete sewer from which rats were disgorged at regular intervals by the fast-running water… It also stank to high heaven.”
He shows me another scenic view.
“This one I painted from a boat. I wanted to paint a bank from the water… It is rather romantic.”
He takes a painting off the wall and holds it up to the natural light. It represents a duck’s head with a neck that seems to fan out towards the top.
“Our gaze never allows itself to come to a standstill. Recently I have been looking for an image that flows away and yet is close by.’
We look at a painting of a bird lying on its back revealing tousled feathers on its stomach.
“I’m pleased with those matt, grey, velvet tints.”
His forefinger hovers above the painting.
“It looks as if a wind might blow over it, ruffling all the plumelets so that they lie differently. Paint and image flow, but they nevertheless settle on certain points. For example, on the edge of the beak and on the edge of the wing.”
Then he points to the portrait of a fish with gaping mouth.
“What I like about this is that the mouth has become a veritable crimson cavity. You feel you could get into it; you can get into it with your finger. An urge to destroy comes over you, almost as if I have wrecked the fish. There is emotion… When I walk along the street now, I see fish everywhere. People are fish. Do you know that last video clip by Janet Jackson? You should look at her mouth… Wonderful! What a pretty, beautiful fish!”
He takes a painting from the wall and places it in my hand.
“Take a look at this head,” he says. “That effect of silver and gold, that purple, that mother-of-pearl throat, that pink tongue…. Birds and fish hardly change,” he continues. “They are more or less the same birds and the same fish as in the seventeenth or the eighteenth century, only the context in which I paint them has changed.
When does something become kitsch? I don’t want to be bothered by those sort of time-related questions when I start painting. Which angle am I going to paint this fish from? That’s what concerns me. Things look at us. It’s about the contact we can have with things and you make that impossible if you constrict it or explain it with concepts… Look, these are three portraits of a stuffed eagle. Can you do that? Is that deceit allowed? Or is there only this deceit, this illusion, and should we settle for that?”
I look at the stuffed goose in a corner of the studio. Robert Devriendt follows my gaze.
“It’s become a doll,” he says. “First you see the full animal and then the empty object, as if you have been duped. And then you see the full animal again. It alternates. First you see it and then you don’t. It’s as if you are not seeing an object, but a mirror of your own disquiet.”
Montagne de Miel, December 28th 1997
Translated by Alison Mouthaan