ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Walter Swennen - 2016 - Ne Quid Nimis [EN, essay]
Ne Quid Nimis
About Walter Swennen’s Work
The primacy of the text (Franz Kafka)
When I was studying Franz Kafka’s novels and short stories in the mid-1980s, it struck me that all attempts to interpret his work seemed to overlook the fact that it can never be reduced to one meaning or conclusion and always seems to speak of an unknowable world and impenetrable texts. At the same time, the text’s form imposes itself as necessary. In this sense, one can consider Kafka’s work to be a continuation of the Talmud and the Midrash. In the never-ending, Jewish biblical exegesis, our interaction with an unknowable world and an intangible God is doubled by incoherent, contradictory, symbolic and unfathomable texts. The texts themselves, however, are not called into question, but cherished. The core of Jewish culture consists of an essentially endless series of interpretations or hypotheses that can be formulated, questioned and tested. ‘When two or three Jews studied the Torah together, God was in their midst’, summarised Karen Armstrong. Strangely enough, all of this can also be read in Kafka’s texts: ‘Don’t misunderstand me’, says the priest to Joseph K. in The Castle, ‘I’m only telling you the different opinions there are about it. You mustn’t pay too much attention to them. The scripture is unalterable and the opinions are often merely an expression of despair about this.’1 In the novel The Castle, in which the suspected swindler K. pretends to be the new village surveyor, the only piece of evidence upon which he can depend is a letter from an unattainable official. The clearest pronouncement about this missive is made by Olga, the messenger’s sister: ‘Assessing the letters correctly is impossible because their value changes continuously, they give rise to endless contradictions, and only chance decides where we stop, that’s to say, opinion is a matter of chance.’2
My study of Kafka’s writings left me with the impression that his oeuvre was not an attempt to express anything more than what was in the text, which was sufficient. Everything is there, in black and white.3 There is no need for anyone else to offer an explanation or interpretation. When I first met Walter Swennen in October 1988, I understood that the same holds true for paintings. If they have something to ‘say’, then it is in a material sense, not in the form of a code that needs to be deciphered.4 Swennen’s paintings articulate their form. Their thinking takes place in the way they are constructed, even if they contain images or words.
The primacy of texture (Viktor Shklovski)
Swennen’s views on the primacy of texture have evolved considerably since the late 1980s. Back then, he was interested in a collection of essays by Viktor Shklovski, which was published in French in 1973 under the title La marche du cheval.5 For Shklovski, a work of art does not provide a translation of an artist’s inner language into one that can be understood by the viewer. ‘In art’, he wrote, ‘new forms appear to replace old forms that have lost their artistic value.’6 But what constitutes this artistic value? In order to explain this, he cites Broder Christiansen who noted in his book The Philosophy of Art: ‘When we experience anything as a deviation from the usual, from the normal or from a certain guiding canon, we feel within us an emotion of a special nature (…) Why is the lyrical poetry of a foreign country never revealed to us in its fullness even though we have learned its language? We hear the play of its harmonics; we apprehend the succession of rhymes and feel the rhythm. We understand the meaning of the words and are in command of the imagery, the figures of speech and the content. We may have a grasp of all the sensuous forms, of all the objects. So what’s missing? The answer is: differential perceptions. The slightest aberration from the norm in the choice of expressions, in the combination of words, in the subtle shifts of syntax — all of this can only be mastered by someone who lives among the natural elements of his language, by someone who, thanks to his conscious awareness of the norm, is immediately struck, or rather, irritated by any deviation from it.’ 7
Furthermore: ‘In order to transform an object into a fact of art, it is necessary first to withdraw it from the domain of life. We must extricate a thing from the cluster of associations in which it is bound. It is necessary to turn over the object as one would turn over a log in a fire.’ 8
From this it follows that you cannot make a work of art without shifting, repeating, multiplying or compressing things 9 in order to achieve artistry. Both the form and the ‘content’ of a work of art are the result of technical necessity and the potential of the material available. 10 Thus Shklovski contends that Dido did not conquer an island by cutting a cowhide into a circle, because this ruse belonged to the narrator’s culture (as ethnologists and sociologists believe), but because this ruse is a ‘priom’: a device that facilitates the telling of a surprising story. (For how else could the narrator astonish his or her own people with this tale?) Likewise, it is nigh on impossible to write a story that does not involve love or murder. (This is an example I concocted myself.) But who do you love, or murder? Someone you know, like the postman 11, neighbours or family members, or a random passer-by? Because the latter is highly improbable, except in The Phantom of Liberty by Buñuel, protagonists will either kill their relatives or sleep with them. Proof of Sophocles’ genius lies in the fact that Oedipus took the life of a stranger who later turned out to be his father, not in the Freudian interpretation of this priom.
If this reasoning were applied to a painting, then all so-called references to the external world (whether it be ideas or perceptible things) could be regarded as mere material which can be used to construct a painting. And this is precisely what Shklovski did. ‘Paintings are not at all windows onto another world — they are things’, he wrote, ‘the artist clings to depiction, to the world, not in order to recreate the world, but rather to be able to use complex and rewarding material in his art.’ 12 Cézanne echoed his words. His paintings were attempts to give form, through colour, to the spatial and optical effects of the perceived world (le ‘motif’). For him, painting was not about the perceived object, nor about his own way of seeing (his specific ‘optique’, which was certainly essential), but rather about the manner in which he transformed his experiences into colour, his own way of doing things, which he described as his temperament,13 or his ‘petite sensibilité’.14
‘A picture doesn’t represent anything. It doesn’t need to represent anything in the first place but the colours’, said Cézanne to Gasquet.15 Shklovski wrote that ‘the outside world does not exist. Things replaced by words do not exist and are not perceived (…). The outside world is outside of art. It is perceived as a series of hints (…) devoid of material substance and texture.’ 16 ‘For a painter, colour is the only truth’, asserted Cézanne.17 And he added: ‘I detest all these stories, this psychology, and all this intellectual humbug about them. For God’s sake, it’s all in the paintings, painters are no imbeciles. But you have to see it with your eyes — with your eyes — do you understand!’ 18
‘The whole effort of a poet and a painter’, says Shklovski ‘is aimed first and foremost at creating a continuous and thoroughly palpable thing, an object with a texture (…) Good and bad in art is a question of texture. (…) Texture is the main distinguishing feature of that specific world of specially constructed objects, the totality of which we are used to calling art.’ 19
What does this mean? What is the significance of these words? Of what do they speak? Firstly, it concerns the idea that the value of a painting is not to be sought in what it represents, but in the manner in which it was created. In the case of Cézanne, it is about the way that he attempted, for example, to model by means of colour, while simultaneously trying to avoid his paintings disintegrating (become inharmonious or incoherent). In the case of Swennen, it involves the specific way in which he combines techniques, supports, materials, colours, inflated drawings, words and letters, and weaves them together in order to arrive at new objects or concrete thoughts.
The aesthetic and the artistic existence of the painting
In the mid-1990s, Swennen discovered a reference to Étienne Gilson’s work L’être et l’essence in Deleuze’s book on Spinoza. He also discovered Gilson’s treatise Painting and Reality, which was based on a lecture series, and the related book that followed some years later, Peinture et réalité. In these works, Gilson distinguishes between three forms of existence of a work of art: the purely physical, the aesthetic and the artistic. As a physical object, a work of art is no different from any other object. As an aesthetic object, it is dependent upon the viewer’s relationship with it. A gallery attendant, a transporter, an insurer, a painter or a philosopher will all have their own individual way of looking at a painting.20 As an aesthetic object, the work of art presents itself to the viewer as a ‘modus’, as a representation, which everyone views differently. Because these representations are infinite, Gilson considers the aesthetic point of view to be a hopeless approach.21 The aesthetic form of existence of the work of art is phenomenological in nature because it tells us nothing about the object itself, but only about how it appears to us (and how this appearance is determined by our abilities and expectations).
To define a work of art (as distinct from any other object) without using aesthetic criteria, Gilson described it as an object that is created by an artist in the context of his artistic activity. This artistic form of existence is therefore determined ontologically, from its cause. For Swennen, Gilson’s distinction implies that the artistic value of an work of art does not depend upon the eye of the beholder. It affirms the autonomy of the artist and liberates the work of art from the expectation that it needs to express or mean something.
In addition, Gilson’s distinction is obviously and inextricably linked with a profound focus on the material existence of a work of art. One of the consequences of taking an aesthetic approach towards a work of art is that people will inevitably equate reproductions or images with the authentic object, rendering the original imperceptible to the eye and diminishing the experience. Thus a leading art historian recently defined Swennen’s paintings, in all innocence, as ‘final images’. Not only are paintings often experienced as ‘images’, but there is also the supposition that the goal of a painter is to make images. Gilson warned of the dangers of reproduction as early as 1957. He drew attention to the folly of reducing paintings to images, and the tendency to absorb the world of art in books. He called this the ‘dictatorship of literature’. ‘A printed word is still a word’, he wrote, ‘but a printed painting is not a painting.’ 22 Moreover: ‘To be part of a book, a painting must rid itself of its materiality.’ 23
Reproductions have always existed. But those who once looked at an engraving of a work of art did not forget that it was an engraving. And the least that can be said about black-and-white reproductions is that they do not pretend to be true to the actual colours. ‘The style of painting is inseparable from the technique’, wrote Gilson, ‘we know that it is inseparable from matter. Eliminating the material comes close to negating the work of art. Any study of styles based upon reproductions of visual works is based upon ghosts.’ 24
This gives rise to the misunderstanding that art historical learning and knowledge of art are one and the same thing. An understanding of art is acquired through practical effort. ‘Is the knowledge of art history’, said Gilson, ‘in any sense of the term, a knowledge of art? It certainly is knowledge about art, but its object is not art, it only is its history. (…) To limit ourselves to painting, it is not rare to see parents of goodwill undertake the artistic education of their children as early as possible, dragging them to art galleries… This is not the beginning of an artistic education; it is the beginning of a historical education.’ 25
Authors such as Giorgio Agamben and Boris Groys have spoken in recent publications about the possibility of devising an approach to art that starts from the makers and the making, although they themselves have not risen to the challenge. ‘Perhaps nothing is more urgent’, writes Agamben, ‘than a destruction of aesthetics that would, by clearing away what is usually taken for granted, allow us to bring into question the very meaning of aesthetics as the science of the work of art. The question, however, is whether the time is ripe for such a destruction, or whether instead the consequence of such an act would not be the loss of any possible horizon for the understanding of the work of art and the creation of an abyss in front of it that could only be crossed by a giant leap.’ 26 I admire Agamben’s work, but the idea of annihilating the aesthetic approach seems somewhat childish. Let us acknowledge, instead, that it would be wise to remember that we are always viewers and that, as such, we should occasionally endeavour to look at a work of art from the perspectives of the maker, the techniques and the materials used.
On his fortieth birthday, Swennen decided to stop thinking of himself as a poet, and to consider himself a painter. The difference being, he told Bart De Baere, that poetry is fundamentally concerned with nostalgia, and thus with the past and transience. Painting, he continued, is about the future. I believe that we should take this statement literally, in the sense that, for Swennen, a painting is an object that needs to be lured into existence through actions. It does not pre-exist.27
For Philip Larkin, ‘… to write a poem is to construct a verbal device that would preserve an experience indefinitely by reproducing it in whoever reads the poem.’ 28 This was not the case for Mallarmé. His poems were trying to conjure new events. But what next? How much further can you go? Paul Celan, whose thinking evolved from Mallarmé’s, attempted to articulate atrocities via such hermetically sealed texts that it was impossible to imagine when reading them, or afterwards, that one had actually ‘seen’ these things. But then? Broodthaers made poems with objects.29 And Swennen starts to write and draw upon canvas. He begins to create paintings. And he discovers and formulates a way of painting that is not focused on the past, but takes place in the present: ‘Done with nostalgia, nostalgia is good for the young. (…) Painting interests me, because it has nothing to do with the past. It is more epic than lyrical. Each painting is a story that unfolds in the present.’ 30 Only now. Just for today.
Later that same year, in October 1986, Swennen wrote a letter in which we read, ‘… succeed in painting whatever; that is the ideal. Whoever lacks experience in saying whatever, can interpret this statement as a witticism. Yet it is my ideal, the most difficult thing imaginable. (…) The key: premeditation is always an aggravating circumstance.’ 31
The idea to try to paint whatever reminds me of Nietzsche’s ‘discovery’ of the eternal return. It is an absurd image, but it works. If you imagine that all of your actions will be repeated infinitely, they acquire an unexpected gravitas, perhaps even meaning. Some ideas seem to strengthen our grip on reality. Of course, you cannot create ex nihilo, but if you can find a way to enable objects to ‘think’ in your place, then you do not have to perpetually steer them…
The idea of painting whatever comes from the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who replaced Freud’s ‘ground-rule’, whereby patients were requested to share with their analyst ‘whatever they thought of’, with an invitation ‘to say anything, without fear of stupidity’. It was an exhortation based on the rationale that the source of a patient’s discomfort is unknowable and unimaginable. We comprehend that this discomfort is intimately bound up with language, because we are speaking beings, but this is precisely the reason why language lets us down as a conscious and focused research tool. The analyst and the patient set sail on a sea of directionless, interwoven stories, shifting and inverting words, until something happens. Because the patient’s conscious use of the language is insufficient, words are considered to be sounds that can have alternative meanings. They become hollow shells, which might lead to new experiences or insights through fresh associations and connections.
Swennen tries to make paintings that remain ‘unimaginable’ until they actually exist. He employs materials, tools, techniques, colours, shapes, inflated drawings, words and letters, and he strives, as far as practicable, to keep them separate from a ‘meaning’, thus deploying them as hollow forms or signifiers. For example, letters have beautiful shapes that are quite independent of the sound they represent, or the meaning that is associated with the sound. A triangle can be read as a flag, as a roof or a hat. A top hat can be read as an inverted ‘T’.
‘Mallarmé’, explained Mannoni in Clefs pour l’Imaginaire ou l’Autre Scène (1969), ‘was undoubtedly a poet, even though he had nothing to say; consequently, the poetry was to be found elsewhere, rather than in what was said. From the very outset, it was an experiment about language, not an existential one.’ ‘What makes literary criticism so awkward in the case of Mallarmé’, he continued, ‘is that the treasure is concealed behind the meaning (as he himself has literally said) while an “ingrained habit to want to understand” compels us to search for meaning behind the words. The treasure is the richness, the jewels and the pearls of language effects in all their unembellished glory — puns, assonance, ambiguity, metaphors, metonyms and so forth.’ 32 And if there is still a clear meaning to be found within the poem, says Mannoni, then that is only in order to render it tolerable as a play with words. Thanks to this recognisable element, the poet and the reader can bid a satisfied farewell to one another, because they are both free to do as they please (create something or discover a meaning).33
In his essay Poésie et pensée abstraite, Valéry recounts an anecdote that Edgar Degas has conveyed about Mallarmé. One day, in a conversation with the poet, Degas had emphasised his admiration for Mallarmé’s mastery by mentioning that he himself had a great many ideas for poems, but was unable to develop them. ‘You do not make poems with ideas, my dear Degas’, Mallarmé had replied, ‘but with words’. Two pages later, Valéry describes how a phrase, which has cropped up in ordinary conversation, has acquired a life of its own in his head. ‘It has obtained a value’, he says, ‘a value at the expense of its limited meaning’.34
According to Mannoni, one should not search for specific meanings in Mallarmé, which would be hidden behind the abstract and evocative use of language, but for the effects created by the word play, syntax, spelling and typography. Whoever clings to meaning will fail to find the treasure. This not only applies to Lacanian analysis, but also to art historians, and especially to the makers of paintings and poems.
Having been in analysis, Swennen immediately realised that his new ‘method’ (to try to paint whatever) was little more than a crutch, because it is very difficult to say or do whatever. Of crucial importance is that this idea provided him with a way of creating work that was wholly conceived from the point of view of the maker (as opposed to that of the spectator), freed from the so-called necessity to express, share or demonstrate something.
At the same time, we know that everything we do is inevitably coloured by the traces of our past, our education and our upbringing, the things we have seen, those we have rationalised or repressed, and the seemingly ordinary things that we might have forgotten.35 All of our words, creations, actions, and even our inactions, speak of something, whether we like it or not. But this is hardly a problem, so long as we do not confuse their story with a so-called meaning or, worse, with an intention or an idea that might have been at their origin.
‘For the artist’, wrote Shklovski, ‘the external world is not the content of a picture, but material for a picture. The famous Renaissance artist Giotto says: “A picture is — primarily — a conjunction of coloured planes.” (…) The realistic painter Surikov used to say that the “idea” of his famous picture The Boyar’s Wife, Morozova occurred to him when he saw a black bird on the snow. For him this picture was primarily “black on white.”’ 36 ‘One of the pictures I did in 1946’, Francis Bacon tells David Sylvester, ‘the one like a butcher’s shop picture, came to me as an accident. I was attempting to make a bird alighting on a field. And it may have been bound up in some way with the three forms that had gone before, but suddenly the lines that I’d drawn suggested something totally different, and out of this suggestion arose this picture. I had no intention to do this picture; I never thought of it in that way. It was like one continuous accident mounting on top of another.’ 37 Time and time again, Bacon does his best to impress upon Sylvester that he is striving to paint likenesses, but without using anatomically correct or mimetic elements. It is difficult, he explains, because you do not know what the searched for elements should actually look like.38 Sylvester’s resistance to this idea is strange, but we need not attach much importance to his attitude here. The bottom line is that a beautiful book exists, one in which a practitioner attempts to explain that it is the act of painting itself that leads to unpredictable results.
‘Things always happen differently to what you expected.’ 39 This statement, quoted occasionally by Swennen, is taken from a book by the German physician Viktor von Weizsäcker, who sought to develop a dynamic theory of medicine and to prove that a great many insoluble medical problems are linked to inadequate questioning which, in turn, leads to obsolete, paradoxical conclusions. A dynamic theory, he seems to say, would take account of the fact that physiological symptoms are dynamic themselves, because they respond (via the brain) to a world that is in constant movement and, in turn, is influenced by the physiological reactions in question. A scientist needs to think like a chess player, he states, a person who, even if he knows the rules, can never predict what will happen, and whose every move has an impact upon his opponent’s possibilities.40 Chess is perhaps an unduly static example and, furthermore, one that immediately conjures up negative connotations in an artistic context. Nevertheless, it encapsulates the idea of ever-changing unpredictability. A better illustration, and one which Swennen has quoted in a different context, is of someone who crosses the street and, in order to avoid an oncoming car, either slows or quickens his pace.41 Unfortunately, both of these examples also describe conscious processes, while Von Weizsäcker, instead, is concerned with the countless invisible, impalpable and unconscious agents of perception that might influence physiological processes. Moreover, he is concerned about the way in which scientists unconsciously distort the subject of their research through the processes by which it is viewed and formulated. Scientists ought to be aware of the fact that they create reality through the way they measure it or think about it.42
Both of these levels can naturally be found in painting. In the first place, at the moment when a painting is created from a series of mutually influencing observations, actions and events (for example, the way in which the paint behaves: flows, covers or dries), and subsequently when an outsider thinks about the said painting and, by reducing it to a simple relationship between cause and effect (original idea and result), for example, misapprehends the work.
‘… Many things are only seen by humans after a learning process, and what we do not learn to see is indeed not seen’, writes Von Weizsäcker. ‘Painters and sculptors know more about this apprenticeship than physiologists.’ At the same time, Weizsäcker continues, painters are unable to depict an epileptic seizure or a person who is suffering, because they do not know how a man moves in an objective sense (in physical or pathological terms). ‘When simply looked at, the body and movement are revealed differently to the artist, the tailor, the gymnast and the physician.’ 43 In these sentences we recognise Gilson’s ideas about the phenomenological or aesthetic approach to art, and the difficulty of seeing things from the perspective of their objective ‘cause’. Painters, gallery attendants, removal men, removal men, insurance clerks and art historians will all see a painting differently.
If you have not learned to look at a painting as a painter, then you cannot see it as a painter. The artistic manifestation remains invisible. This is what Von Weizsäcker teaches us. But, of course, this is no bad thing. You can also look at a painting as a bookworm who has never made anything with his hands. But you would need to remember that a large part of it falls outside your field of vision.
Whoever wishes to learn to see paintings from the standpoint of their makers, will encounter an obstacle, which we will now consider from the perspective of Von Weizsäcker’s ideas about the perception of a world in motion by a moving observer. ‘Many scholarly books have been written about poetry’, said Czesław Miłosz, ‘and those books find, at least in the West, more readers than the poems themselves. (…) A poet who wishes to compete with these mountains of erudition should pretend to have more self-knowledge than is allowed for poets. (…) Honestly, I have spent my whole life in thrall to a daemon, and how the poems he dictated came about, I have no idea.’ 44
Whenever we wish to consider the artistic existence of a work of art (the work considered from the standpoint of the maker and the making), we are hindered by the fact that an artist rarely knows exactly what happened during the creative process.45 He or she, in some cases, might remember something. But independent of the question as to whether or not an experience is mutilated by the memory through the process of classyfying and 'saving' it, there is always the problem that –because it involves a multidimensional occurrence, both in psychological and physical terms (during which the material and the maker are equally active) – the creative moment can never be articulated without conferring a one-dimensional, linear and seemingly teleological character to it. One immediately discerns that ideas, intentions, decisions and criteria seem to have been involved, which might indeed all be present, even if only out of habit, but these play less of a guiding role than you might imagine, especially when, as an outsider, you think about it afterwards.
The painter does not know why he or she makes certain decisions. To make something happen? Or to avoid it? The man who slows or quickens his pace to avoid a car when crossing the street does so because of a collision that has only existed in his head. According to Swennen, Deleuze was interested in the fact that Cézanne noted that a painter’s work mostly took place before putting a brush to the canvas, namely in determining what will not be painted. It goes without saying that a painter who wishes to make innovative work must constantly shy away from things (pictures, compositions, textures, connotations) that will suggest or impose a solution. You do not know what has to happen, but you know what you don’t want to happen. ‘A painting’, says Swennen, ‘changes in relation to a state that has already been reached, not to a state you want it to have in the future.’ You react to what is already there, and hope to elicit an event that will carry you further along.46
Acting tactically (System D)
Herbie Hancock tells us how, during a tight concert in Stuttgart, he played a wrong chord in the middle of a solo by Miles Davis. Terrified, he covered his face with his hands. In that split second, he heard Davis hesitate for one second, and then start to play a series of notes that turned his ‘wrong’ chord into a right one.47
The idea of a multi-dimensional space in which the artist simultaneously moves, thinks and acts brings to mind the challenges faced by dancers, actors, musicians and singers during public performances. For they too are dealing with ever-changing, never entirely predictable factors: the character and potential of their instrument; the interpretation of the score or the text; the renditions by the other players, the architecture of the theatre, the reactions of the public and so forth. The pleasure in being part of a mobile space, which is affected by your own movements, decisions and actions, undoubtedly adds to the lure of any musical, dance or theatre performance, or sport, and perhaps also painting. Not in a ‘gestural’ way, which is what Sylvester seems to do when he compares Bacon’s actions with the speed of a tennis player’s arm (already moving before a decision has been made).48 The resemblance between these several fields is not a matter of speed (or expression), but of a particular way of spatial thinking, which can also be a very slow process, as is usually the case with Swennen.
A painting by Swennen occurs as the result of a limited range of interventions, usually staggered over time, and in which each new action is a response to the results of the preceding actions and events. Born from a strategic desire to provoke unimaginable and unpredictable accidents as part of a multidimensional interaction with the materials of matter and thought, this way of proceeding can only be tactical. The painter has initiated a practice that allows for accidents and manifests itself in a form of vigilance, one that ensures that the opportunities that present themselves are correctly appreciated. Swennen’s paintings are built up slowly, and involve long periods of apparent inactivity, during which time he primarily reviews what has emerged. This slowness is not in contradiction with a tactical approach beyond preconceived ideas or intentions.
A pertinent example of this type of tactical thinking is bricolage 49, as defined by Claude Lévi-Strauss: the accumulation of a wealth of objects, which are hoarded without any knowledge of what they might be needed for. Even though the use to which the stored object is ultimately put might be determined by an earlier function or a number of associated attributes, it is nevertheless deployed in a new and surprising manner. This entire process, in terms of both the collection and the use of objects, is tactical. Levi-Strauss employed this concept to explain the way in which myths were probably composed out of fragments of other, older cultures, where ‘something that used to be a goal now assumes the role of means: the “signified” becomes the “signifier” and vice versa.’ 50 Radical, tactical action sets no store by traditions, functions and meanings. It reacts. It puts things straight. It seeks solutions for self-inflicted problems. ‘My paintings’, said Swennen during a lecture in April 2016, ‘evolve from repair to repair, from patch to patch’. ‘When you paint’, he told Bart De Baere in 1990, ‘you should always respond to the things that penetrate from outside, something that you yourself established but a moment before. You respond to what is already there. You have brought it forth yourself, but it is there, and all you can do is enter into a dialogue with it. So it constantly changes.’ 51
Thinking back to Von Weizsäcker’s image of a perception that influences and even shapes the observed reality (whether it concerns a pedestrian crossing the road, an observing physician, a painter at work or an art historian who scrutinises), it becomes clear that the arts have perhaps always developed in a tactical way. There are several good examples of this to be found in the book How Music Works by the musician David Byrne. He points out that certain people claim that African drums owe their unique shape to the availability of materials, which are inevitably poor, and the limited technical resources. Byrne, on the other hand, believes that the instruments are meticulously developed, constructed, handled and played in response to the physical, social and, in particular, acoustic environment. The percussion music that ensues is unsuitable for our stone churches with their echoes. In these places, however, we have developed a modal music that relies upon long, sustained notes. In a comparable way, Mozart’s chamber music needed to compete with the noise generated by a crowd in a confined space. The only way of amplifying the sound, at the time, was to expand the size of the orchestra, which is exactly what happened. The ever-increasing scale of the concert halls that were built during the nineteenth century led to greater contrasts and the use of timpani in musical compositions (in order to reach listeners at the back of the auditorium). Around 1900, it became illegal to eat, drink or make noise during a classical concert. As a result, musicians could compose much softer passages. In all probability, the solos and improvisations associated with jazz music arose from the limited musical material available and the need to keep people dancing for a whole night. Also in jazz, the banjo and the trumpet started to play a greater role because they were louder. (Throughout this development, it is also evident that musical evolutions may also have triggered spatial modifications.) Great technological advances have been made in recording techniques since the late nineteenth century and these, in turn, have influenced the way that music sounds. Byrne, for example, notes that the midi technique was more suited to the digitisation of piano and percussion, than for guitar, brass and string instruments. As a result, composers began to create more melodies and harmonies using piano chords. Another key influence is related to the emergence of insulated sound studios and the habit of recording the musicians separately, and so on.52
In a comparable way, developments in the art of painting were influenced through the invention of portable, enlarged miniatures, the building of museums, art education, the art trade, photography, reproduction techniques and the invention of new materials. Thus, the creation of art books featuring coloured reproductions and, later, the creation of catalogues undoubtedly influenced the development of modern and contemporary art.53 Watching films and looking at works of art on laptops and smartphones has led to new paintings. With regard to Swennen, we might also suggest the comic book as an influence, but more on this later. The painter stands, therefore, in the midst of a world in movement, a milieu that is affected by his or her own actions and those of everyone else. Yet the reaction to this world does not simply occur within a psychological, actual (as in the exhibition space) or virtual space (of books, television or the Internet). It also occurs, most specifically of all, in the physical space of the painting. It is there that the totality of a world in movement is reprised in a tangible shift, a tangible condensation, a tangible confluence, a tangible obfuscation or revelation, a tangible displacement of the physical, and thus mental, boundaries. Without the development and distribution of comic books, Swennen would not have been able to learn to draw by copying the characters contained within. And if he had not learned to draw by copying comic books, perhaps he never would have developed the habit of drawing with a clear line, or later gone in search for specific techniques through which to transform inflated drawings into paintings in a ‘non-drawn’ way.
The texture itself
If Mallarmé’s poems are not composed of ideas, but words, then Swennen’s paintings are made, in the first place, out of layers of paint that are applied to a support, most usually paper, wood, canvas or metal. It is impossible to compile an exhaustive list of supports, because Swennen, unlike some artists, does not limit himself to certain practices. The first work of art that he exhibited was a beer crate filled with painted bottles. In April 2016, he created a flag by painting upon a piece of rose-coloured fabric; a week later he painted a representation of a brick wall upon a section of a door. Recently, he was given a metal stove cover as a gift because he is fond of painting on them; others have given him failed paintings and wine crates. Ten years ago, he told me that he first used to rub metal stove lids with garlic because he had heard from a restorer that this would facilitate the adhesion of the oil paint. One of Swennen’s stovetop paintings comprises a drawing that was made with an electric, metal brush. And so on…
In recent years, Swennen has also taken to painting with acrylic paint, a medium that rivals oils in terms of the range of fascinating effects that can be achieved. The greatest advantage of acrylic is that it dries quickly. As a consequence, there are things that can be done in this medium that cannot be achieved in oil paint. Thus Swennen has made, in recent years, several paintings that feature a type of stain with sharp edges; a shape that is created by removing a puddle of paint that has started to dry. Because the edges dry first, a sort of contour emerges that can be viewed as an abstract form, or a ‘window’ within the painting. This technique makes it also possible to give letters a differently coloured edge, one that cannot be obtained in any other way: you paint over them using acrylic paint, allow this to dry for a few minutes, and then remove it again. The shorter drying time also makes it possible to take risks that, in the past, were less obvious. Swennen recently obtained a beautiful sky-blue surface by first coating a canvas with Payne’s grey and then painting over it with zinc white mixed with a touch of titanium white. In order to obtain a gradated effect in the original, dark grey surface, he tilted the painting four times: the paint flowed slowly towards the centre, becoming thinner and more transparent at the edges. Swennen likes to let the paint stream slowly over the surfaces of his works because it triggers effects that cannot be foreseen (although he tries to avoid drips, which have an expressive connotation). He told me how pleased he was with the background of the painting To Mona Mills (2015), because he had managed to paint a kind of chaos, which is impossible. He had created it by placing the canvas on the ground and applying paint and water, which he subsequently attempted to mix using a squeegee, all the while taking great care to minimise the amount of water and paint that trickled over the edge of the canvas.
A technique that Swennen has developed for the transfer of drawings or letters onto a painting is to first apply the paint with the brush, or directly from the tube, onto a plastic sheet. Using this sheet, the image is then printed onto the painting. The first painting in which this technique was used contained a crude representation of a spruce-fir that had been applied with a painter’s knife. Because he wished to add a letter to the uneven surface, which would be nigh on impossible using a brush, he first painted the letter onto a sheet of very thin, flexible plastic film. Using a wad of fabric, he was able to press this film into the chinks of the underlying paint. Not only are the effects of this printing technique always different, they are also inexplicable if you don’t know how they were made.
Another specific texture in Swennen’s oeuvre stems from his fondness for painting with a painter’s knife, a technique that he borrowed from Claire Fontaine, with whom he took painting lessons for three years, beginning in 1962. Fontaine painted schematised landscapes in the style of Nicolas de Staël in which a tree, for example, is depicted by a rectangular green surface that has been smeared onto the canvas with a knife. From her, Swennen learned that paint can be applied with the knife and then subsequently worked with a paintbrush.54 In Swennen’s paintings, the painter’s knife is often used to create a layer which clearly distinguishes itself from the other layers and, via its deviating texture, demonstrates the collage-like, interwoven structure of the painting. In addition, this thicker layer, no matter how it is applied (whether it is dabbed, patch by patch, or smeared in a sweeping gesture), can also provide a diverting optical effect. In Blitz (2015), a broken yellow stripe, reminding some of lightening, visually comes to the fore. Because this stripe was applied with a trowel between two parallel strips of tape, it bears a close resemblance to the actual tape, which gives rise to an attractive sculptural reversal that is as deceptive as it is funny. For another recent painting an effect was created by repeatedly cleaning the painter’s knife against the canvas using broad, sweeping gestures. Executed in different types of red, the result was immediately reminiscent of Diana’s red tunic in The Death of Actaeon by Titian (National Gallery, London). Later, as is Swennen’s wont, he tempered this stunning effect by applying a layer of white.55 The work was called Transformations (2016), referring to the habit to whiten shop windows during a renovation.
To date, Swennen has only used the painter’s knife to apply oil paint, principally because he has not yet found a satisfying technique to thicken acrylic paint. This brings us to another textural difference in his paintings, which has nothing to do with the manner in which the paint is applied, but with the employed paint itself. In addition to the difference between oil and acrylic paint, we must also take account of the numerous additives that can lend the paint a glossier, duller, coarser, smoother, more fluid or viscous texture. The addition of oil makes the paint shinier, whereas white spirit deadens its sheen. One of the new qualities of acrylic is that you can dilute it with water and use it to make transparent layers (glazes), which enable the artist to gradually build up his paintings in a quest for the perfect value of a tone. In some of Swennen’s works, coffee was added to the white background in order to render it more mottled. Sometimes, he has added ink, gouache, cigarette ash or dust from the vacuum cleaner to the paint. (I quote from memory, this is by no means an exhaustive list.) When, in 2006, he started to paint on top of another artist’s abandoned paintings (paper collages on canvas), he attacked them with a broom. As a result, small scraps of paper ended up being mixed into the semi-abraded paint.
As a final example of the textural differences that Swennen makes use of in his paintings, I would like to discuss the work entitled Pirate (2007), which is based upon a gouache that he painted when he was ten years old. The work consists of three individual panels. The two panels on the left-hand side are made up of two different ‘backgrounds’ that were waiting in the studio. There are always ‘backgrounds’ (‘des fonds’) in abeyance. Often, they are so beautiful that you hope the artist will leave them untouched. In this particular case, he felt so inclined, and came up with the perfect solution upon noticing that, when placed together, the two works were the same length as the right-hand panel (a piece of board with unusual proportions for a painting). When we take a closer look at the latter, we notice that certain sections of the ‘drawing’, such as the lines that suggest the lapels of the jacket, are not painted, but created by leaving them unpainted. This does not hold true for the pirate’s shirt collar, however, which is a touching invention of the young boy. The contours of the top of the boots, on the other hand, are indeed ‘drawn’, while their surface is spared: another pleasing reversal, which reminds us of the fact that Swennen studied etching at the academy. The drawing contains a somewhat awkward but poignant spatial suggestion, which is enhanced by the splayed legs, the semi-obscured right arm, and the sabre that runs behind the legs. We also discern three solid surfaces, which together provide an additional, haptic or pictorial space: the yellow hilt, the white area of the face and the pale blue ‘background’, the latter of which was painted around the figure afterwards. Finally, there are the small black discs that float before the pirate, and which were applied to the places where the board, in the area occupied by the figure, contained knots; yet another example of haptic, pictorial depth. Swennen told me that these black spots reminded him of bullet holes, which also allows us to perceive the figure as a paper human target on a shooting range.56 Thanks to the material reason for the placement of the black disks, however, we understand that this final ‘image content’ is not what lies at the basis of the painting’s construction. It is the result of a series of successive decisions that are linked to the creation of a beautiful matière, the transformation of an existing drawing that possessed certain physical (and emotional) qualities, the application of graphic reversal techniques in terms of transferring the drawing, the creation of a haptic effect through the addition of areas in white, yellow, light blue and black, and the completion of the painting by uniting three different panels.
Figuration and abstraction
In 1990, Swennen explained to Bart De Baere that he had struggled for some time with the concepts of figuration and abstraction, but had reached the conclusion that it was a false problem ‘because a painting is always an image of a painting. No matter what it depicts, it is always about a painting.’ 57 Nowadays, I struggle to understand what he might have meant by that first sentence. I think we can say that things were still confused. In a text from 1994 58, written after several conversations with the artist, I argued that Swennen created paintings in which figuration and abstraction could meet, and which abolished the so-called differences between the two approaches. In 2007, I refined this further by suggesting that this encounter was made possible through the un-modelled, perspective-less space that is specific to Swennen’s paintings.59 I still believe this to be true, even today, although I would no longer express it in such a way; simply because the terms are too restrictive to help us think about painting. They prevent us from seeing, in the first place, that Swennen weaves textures, and that it is the materials he uses, be they rectangles, drawings or letters, which primarily determine where to apply paint. That these drawings and letters might also mean something, and can evoke images, narratives, thoughts and feelings within the viewers (and Swennen), and at the same time form part of the painting’s genesis, is equally important. But the terminological distinction between figuration and abstraction causes us to forget that it always boils down to material additions. All that the distinction between figuration and abstraction means, ultimately, is that one thing is recognisable and ‘says’ something while the other does not. But colours, shapes and textures can also say something; they just seem to speak less loudly.
Some painters try to obtain balanced compositions, while other painters try to counter any balanced composition that comes too easily. Swennen endeavours to lure into existence compositions he could not possibly have conceived in advance, by applying both intrinsic and external parameters. If we look at Spider (small) (2014) and Spin van Marius (Marius’ Spider, 2014), two paintings based on a square drawing by Swennen’s grandson Marius, we see that the first time he transferred the drawing to the square cover of a cooker. The second time the part of the canvas that falls outside the square surface was painted blue. How unexpected to find this surface at the top of the painting! In Stolen Name (2016) the vertical lines and then the west-sloping lines of letters were overpainted. (Hence the image of the compass needle.) In Le diamant de Juju (2016) a drawing is festooned with those short lines used to add force to an extraordinary apparition in a comic strip. Some of these little lines are used as borders of the last layer of paint. In the painting In the Kitchen (2016) the proportions of the canvas don’t correspond to the proportions of the imitated drawing (a found object). Consequently, the reproduced drawing overlaps with the painted, red border, which follows the proportions of the canvas. The resulting effect reminds us of careless printing. Thus, many compositions comply with laws or agreements which fall outside the field of aesthetics. But not all of them. In Mature (2016) a certain yellow colour appears three times: once as the imitation highlight of an abstract, oval form, once as an oval form and once as a strip of colour. When I point to the amusing highlight and the equally amusing recurrence of the colour in the strip of colour, the painter tells me that Claire Fontaine believed every colour used should reappear somewhere else in the same painting. The oval, he added, was the simplest, non-angular form he could make if he wanted to obtain a nicely edged area with a painter's knife.
In Scrumble 2 (2006), the painter’s knife was used to hide the bad parts of a painting (a dirty criss-cross of different coloured lines).60 The resulting composition is reminiscent of the way in which gallery walls are repaired after an exhibition: all of the holes are filled and hidden under a smooth, rectangular plane. Because this ‘composition’ is controlled by an unpremeditated, but ultimately inevitable structure, Swennen calls this an ‘autogenetic’ composition.61 Thus we see how the particular state of a painting (coloured criss-crossing lines that form dirty junctions), combined with a certain technique (the application of paint with a painter’s knife), can result in a non-random, new composition.
Many of Swennen’s paintings consist of enlarged reconstructions of found or self-made drawings, of which the figurative elements are usually described, even by the artist himself, as ‘images’. I suspect he does this because, of course, they are not drawings: they are not drawn, but reproduced with paint. Some authors think that the drawings are derived from comic books, but this is rarely the case. Nor can you say that they resemble ‘comic-book drawings’ because, after all, not every comic book is drawn using clear lines. The drawings used by Swennen nearly always possess great linear clarity (without shading or shadows), and often feature solid silhouettes. One of the overriding characteristics is their lack of perspective or modelling, so that they seem to exist within a flat space. If the drawings depart from this formula, then it is because the very first paintings are an exception to this ‘rule’ (see for instance the reproduction on p. 164) or because the used drawing was found and contains a particular flaw. For example Nan's Still Life (2015), which is based on a drawing by Swennen’s wife, in which the splitting of the word ‘français’ into syllables indicates that the draughtsman was thinking instead of looking. (As a comment, Swennen added a blunt shadow.) Some drawings come from book covers, game boxes, stickers, packaging and so on. Others are derived from doodles or related, small-scale works on paper.
Certain writers enumerate and organise these drawings by theme, in much the same way that others add up the number of metaphors in the work of Mallarmé. Of this, Mannoni writes: ‘The mistake of thematic analysis lies in (…) the fact that images are approached in the first place, as a signified, and only afterwards as a signifier, when it’s too late.’ And a few pages later he adds: ‘We cannot imagine how thematic analysis (…) can give an account of irony.’62 Some exegetes see, for example, an image of a king holding a lit cigarette in the vicinity of his genitals. Others see a flat drawing based on a playing card that has been embellished with the depiction of two moving objects: a burning, glowing cigarette and a plume of smoke. Some people see, for example, a ghost. Others see a figure whose non-painted eyes offer a glimpse of the painting’s background. As I mentioned above, in a note, Swennen says today that he might add ‘images’ to his paintings to satisfy the viewer, so that he can go on painting (just like Mallarmé who, according to Mannoni, introduced recognisable images into his work just to be able to play with words). This remark, however, ignores the role played by the drawings and letters in the creation of the painting, as coincidental but essential indicators of where to apply the paint. In this sense, it concerns very literal ‘signifiers’: empty shapes that can be filled with colours and textures.
Of course, none of this means that the drawings cannot, or may not, mean anything to the artist and viewer. It is precisely this unusual convergence of forms, textures and meanings that lends Swennen’s paintings their richness. What it amounts to, however, is the complex interweaving of all these layers, and the continuous attempts to do this in a new way for each painting. Each painting is trying to be different; each painting strives to disclose, once more, how it is made; each painting endeavours, at the same time, to remain beyond our reach.
Swennen mainly uses black, white, grey, yellow, light blue, red and variations of red, such as orange, English red and brown. Very often he mixes these colours with small amounts of other colours to make them slightly impure. ‘There are no primary colours’, he once told me. In practice, this means that if a type of paint contains a shade that is reminiscent of the primary colours, it will suffice. In retrospect, you could say that Swennen mostly paints with the colours of Mondrian, although he has replaced dark blue with light blue. I write ‘in retrospect’ because this was probably not the intention, and perhaps more the result of a desire to ude mainly the primary colours (or shades that resemble them). Sometimes, when finishing a painting, he spoils the applied colours. Two Egyptians (2015) was finished by adding colours directly from the tube, mixing them with water and afterwards cleaning the canvas, scrubbing more around the figures. The red spot resembling a love bite was an unforeseen result of this action. A few years ago, Swennen set himself other boundaries by defining a colour spectrum, the shades of which he would always use in the same order. This spectrum was hung on the studio wall in the form of a strip, to remember the order. It is typical of how he works: he defines rules, endeavours to apply them and then cheats. The use of a limited number of colours lends great consistency to his oeuvre, which makes a vivid and uncluttered impression. It is precisely these limitations that facilitate an impressive, but readable diversity.
Words and letters
In earlier texts, I pointed out that when Swennen was five, his parents decided to speak another language and send him, accordingly, to a different school. This meant that, from one day to the next, his world became incomprehensible. In all probability, the spoken language must have made an absurd and hostile impression upon him. And at school, the written language probably seemed very strange, or at least at first, when he was unable to link the written characters with a familiar sound or meaning. These circumstances have had an undeniable impact upon his relationship with language, but I do not think they provide a sufficient explanation for his virtuosity.63
‘The Belgian is afraid of conceitedness’, Simon Leys writes in an essay on the ‘belgitude’ of Henri Michaux, ‘especially the conceitedness of spoken or written words. Hence his accent, and the famous way of speaking French. The secret is this: Belgians think that words are conceited.’ 64 While Leys has a point, he is also mistaken. What seems to characterise the Belgians (and not only French-speakers, but also the Flemish with their supposedly droll kind of Dutch) is probably common to all people who speak or write a language which, in a different geographical location, is linked to a dominant culture (with its specific social, economic and political influence). This place need not be nearby, like France and the Netherlands in the case of the Belgians. I suspect that some English-speaking inhabitants of North America, in centuries past, deliberately rejected the standard linguistic norms in their use of the language, just as today, Canadians, Australians, and English-speaking South Africans and Indians will resist the influence of American English. Wherever an element of language is associated with social, economic, political or cultural dominance, a deviant version will emerge. This is certainly true in the ghettos of the United States, also in Brittany, Alsace, Provence, the French Basque Country and French-speaking Canada. A deviating use of language expresses a different set of values.
When Swennen speaks, you sometimes hear that his Belgian accent becomes more pronounced. In sociolinguistics, the act of switching to a language variant that deviates more from the norm is described as downward divergence. It is used, for instance, to emphasise the pedantry of your interlocutor. Swennen, who is fascinated by argot (as in French translations of American crime novels, for example), is annoyed by the fact that his French-speaking acquaintances listen to French radio stations. Deviating language is not irrational, it just gives shape to a different set of values. What Leys noted is a phenomenon that undoubtedly exists in China as well, but which we cannot hear. You can only probably hear it in your own language, just as you can only truly grasp literary works that are written in your mother tongue. And herein lies the truth of Leys’ remark, for a poetic language can only be appreciated as a deviation from a standard language. Every literary language is perverse, capricious or, at the very least, unusual.
What Swennen does with words is wonderful. He allows them to collide and merge, he isolates or suppresses them, turns them upside down or mirrors them (or mirrors only the letters, which remain in the usual order). He deploys all of the techniques described by Freud and Shklovski: shifting, inversion, duplication, repetition and condensation.65 He uses words for their sound and for their shape, and he uses them because of their meaning. He lets them turn and tilt, he uses and abuses them, he tells lies and he says what he thinks. Language has become form: a collection of unreliable sounds that can always mean something else, as in our dreams, but also an almost endless collection of typographies and characters (Roman, Cyrillic, Chinese…). We see the words, and we read them. We think we see words, but in fact we see coloured surfaces that no ‘abstract’ painter could ever imagine or justify. Connard (2014) contains three invectives, in which some of the letters are upside down or mirrored. ‘I thought that if I made the words a little less legible’, Swennen told me, ‘I could buy the painting a few seconds of extra time during which it could prove itself. Because when people recognise an image in a painting, or read a word, they walk straight on past. Now, the husband will pause for a few seconds to decipher the words, so his wife will have just enough time to poke him in the ribs with her elbow and whisper: “Look at the beautiful colours!”’
Whoever looks at these fragmented remains of our languages might consider them to be a form of resistance to rationality and related, life-threatening moral forces. This would reflect the views of Freud, who believed that fulfilling sexual experiences were incompatible with the conditions of civilisation, making it mandatory for our unconscious urges to resort to secrecy (for instance, by hiding the truth in illogical jokes). If we look at portmanteaus such as ‘famillionaire’ (Heine quoted by Freud) or ‘beggar-millionaire’ (Shklovski) they might indeed seem illogical but, in my view, they are constructed according to laws which are also used by ‘rational thought’, or any other form of productive thinking. They are the result of the same ‘condensation’ that leads Francis Bacon to tell Sylvester that Michelangelo and Muybridge have become one and the same artist in his mind. Ultimately, even the laws of nature, which are amongst the highest fruits of rational thought, are forms of condensation, because they bring together at least two different physical units in the form of an equation. It does not matter how you arrive at an idea or a formulation, so long as the thought or formulation bears fruit.
If we do not consider these language games to be an irrational opposition to reason and morality, but as an unreliable, stubborn, irritable, stained, tainted, messy, quirky, idiosyncratic and independent way of thinking that, above all, is inextricably linked to the material concepts of the painting, then we see a connection with the philosophy of Max Stirner, from whom Swennen recently gained a new maxim: ‘Mein Widerwille bleibt frei’ or ‘My disinclination remains free.’ 66 In contrast to general reasoning, Stirner defended the right to a personal ‘unreason’ which was real to him, because he himself felt real. Heralding Gombrowicz’s plea for immaturity and opposition to Form, he wrote: ‘The thought of right is originally my thought; or, it has its origin in me. But when it has sprung from me, when the “Word” is out, then it has “become flesh”, it is a fixed idea. Now I no longer get rid of the thought; however I turn, it stands before me. Thus men have not become masters again of the thought “right”, which they themselves created; their creature is running away with them.’ 67
Swennen’s recalcitrant language can also be set against the background of Lacan’s belief that we are made of language, and that language has alienated us from both our bodies and the world. Man would be a ‘language-being’ (‘parlêtre’) with a hopeless, irreparably distorted sexuality, exiled in a world of unreliable, manipulative words, which cannot touch the core of reality, le réel. Reading Lacan is a wonderful, amusing adventure, and it is not without significance that Swennen has been influenced by him, but I prefer not to delve into this here.
About flat paintings and pictorial space
The lack of modelling and (correctly applied) perspective in the drawings used by Swennen would seem to suggest that he wishes to create flat paintings. Strictly speaking, this is not the case. His paintings are not all-over or polyfocal. Nor do they evoke a flat image that seems to hover in front of the canvas, as wished for by Greenberg. So what does, in fact, happen? The drawings themselves are flat, constituting one of the planes that are combined into a painting. Sometimes these planes seem to situate themselves at different distances from the viewer, thus creating a pictorial space, but at other times not.
In his book on Bacon, Deleuze distinguishes between the optical and haptic use of colour. Optical use of colour segues from light to dark, includes shades (values) of the same tone, and is used in what Greenberg called ‘sculptural’ painting (which reached its apogee in the seventeenth century). Haptic use of colour does not involve shades of the same tone, but juxtaposes different colours in the knowledge that their ‘cold’ or ‘warm’ character will create an impression of lightness or darkness, and closeness or distance.68
Because Swennen’s paintings lack perspectival elements and do not rely upon the optical use of colour (values of the same tone, shadows), unless as a joke (for example, the shadow of a letter, or the shadows in found drawings which are usually selected because they contain a flaw), one might say that his work is an innovative variation on the artistic traditions that consciously renounced ‘modelling’ (by way of lighting effects) as an approach to reality, and that ‘went on reducing the fictive depth of painting’.69 Greenberg noted that such a deliberate negation of the ‘realistic’ approach had only occurred twice: first in Byzantine art and, secondly, as a result of the radical, late-Impressionist paintings (including those by Monet) that can be considered as the first ‘all-over’ paintings. According to Greenberg, painters such as Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Braque and Klee were the first to adopt this approach, with Mondrian following later. But since it aimed ‘to reaffirm the flatness of pictorial space’ 70, the approach was only fully realised, in his view, in the work of the painters that he personally championed such as Pollock, Rothko, Newman and Still.
Some people claim that Mondrian strove to make ‘flat’ paintings: works in which, to the eyes of the viewer, the blue and red surfaces do not appear to recede or advance but, thanks to the addition of a black or grey grid, all of the coloured fields appear to situate themselves at the same pictorial depth. I do not know if this was actually Mondrian’s intention because I have not read his writings, but it is undeniably true that the red and blue do indeed seem to be at the same depth in some paintings. For Greenberg, however, Mondrian was but a precursor, whose work but signalled all-over painting: ‘Dominating and counter-posed shapes, as provided by intersecting straight lines and blocks of color, are still insisted upon, and the surface still presents itself as a theater or scene of forms rather than as a single, indivisible piece of texture.’ 71
Greenberg did not appreciate paintings in which certain areas stood out and thereby resembled a ‘figure’, or those in which patches of colour were strewn around in a contrapuntal way. Nor did he like paintings that seemed to retreat into the wall, like a window. He preferred paintings in which the ‘pictorial effect’ was uniformly dispersed and appeared to hover in front of the canvas.
If we use Greenberg’s criteria as a way of better understanding Swennen’s paintings, we find that the artist does, in fact, play with all of these elements. The absence of modelling and (correctly applied) perspective might create the impression that Swennen wants to make flat paintings, but they often contain prominent elements that seem to leap to the fore. He does not use modelling or perspectival depth, but evokes pictorial depth through the haptic use of colours (tonal contrasts). In a conversation that was published in 2007, he says: ‘I have always found the condemnation of illusion and depth to be deplorable. Even a blank canvas has depth. The good thing about painting is that you can decide whether or not you want to utilise that depth.’ 72 In April 2016, when Swennen and I looked at an unfinished painting that contained four different shades of white, it seemed obvious that one of these, an ivory-toned hue, came more to the fore than the others. I asked Swennen if this was intentional, and whether he had observed the effect. Twice he answered negatively. If anything, he was annoyed by the question. Didn’t I know that paintings are flat? And that they have a texture like puff pastry?
The point is that Swennen will always oppose the habit of confusing the result of a practice with a so-called intention. It is not because a finished painting contains a certain image that this image found itself at the origin of the painting. The same applies to texture and pictorial space. It is certainly enlightening to see Swennen’s paintings from the stance of Greenberg, but at the same time we must realise that what we see has never been pursued by the painter as part of a programme. He has always tried to paint whatever. Rejecting any kind of programme in terms of content or personal expression,73 Swennen has devised a free way of working in order to come up with unprecedented paintings. Even if we have the impression that he is ‘playing’, this is not the result of an intention. His paintings are not anti-perspectival or anti-modelling in a programmatic way, but they are, in a very concrete sense, pro-painting. They are not the result of intentions, but the results of a number of parameters that he uses to construct his painting-objects.
What are these parameters? Actually, it mainly comes down to habits. In 1990, he told Bart De Baere that his drawings remind us of comic books because he learned to draw by copying them. For the specific ‘space’ of his paintings, it seems essential that Swennen uses a clear line and makes line drawings that do not suggest volume (the opposite of Chinese painting). But he himself will never call it a clear line. He will never formulate it as an objective. It is simply a habit that can be put to good use.
To me, Swennen’s paintings reflect 74 upon the possibilities of flat paintings and pictorial space. This thinking is free. It is not bound to intentions, stylistic principles, or a programme. It stems from the radical principle of painting whatever, from a number of habits and from a tactical approach that allows for provoked accidents.
In Swennen’s work we find moving cars, smouldering cigarettes, falling men and sprinting athletes. I always see these figures as funny allusions to the impossibility of representing movement in a painting.
Malcolm Morley -– a painter whom Swennen admires (for instance because of the white borders, which indicate that he does not depict three-dimensional space in his work, but two-dimensional images)75 – describes his paintings, which are based on models, postcards and other pictures, as still lifes.76 Gilson considers the still life to be a genre ‘in which painting reveals its very essence and reaches one of its points of perfection.’ 77 He describes The Intervention of the Sabine Women by David as an unsatisfactory attempt to suggest movement. But probably, he continues, this was never the artist’s intention. Accepting the immobility of paintings, he probably sought to evoke an illusion of movement through a play with lines: not the depicted people move, but the composition. This effect is even more pronounced, says Gilson, when we compare David’s painting with Velázquez’s The Surrender of Breda. ‘In this masterpiece’, he writes, ‘there is hardly a trace of motion left. Time seems to have come to a standstill. Human beings themselves, however well painted they may be, are only second in importance to the patterns of the lines and to the balance of the masses.’ 78
When I recently asked Swennen to elucidate two paintings that contain the image of a propeller, he said that they were still lifes, because they were based on an existing fan. In Schroef (2014), we discern a number of white spots along the edge of the blades. Why are they there? Ruminating upon the existence of left- and right-handed propellers, Swennen had the idea of covering the image of a propeller (an outline drawing) with a white drawing of the same object, but mirrored. Not happy with the result, he erased the second outline. At the points where it intersected with the first outline, which was still wet, the paint could not be erased, so the white spots remained. Why a propeller? Probably because the object that ended up in Swennen’s studio has a pleasing shape. Perhaps because it reminded him of his father, who was an engineer and worked in the docks for a long time. Perhaps because the propeller is an invitation to engage in bricolage. Finally, because a propeller is essentially a moving object and paintings cannot depict motion. The movement is not depicted, but it is contained within the painting, which bears traces of an obliterated gesture.
The imperfect perspective
The irreverent way in which Swennen deals with perspective is reminiscent of the tricks that Rogier van der Weyden employed in The Seven Sacraments Altarpiece and The Descent from the Cross. In the first painting, the central figures are much larger than the others. If we compare the size of Christ with the architecture, he would, in actuality, be five metres tall. The result of van der Weyden’s trickery is an impression of great proximity that, in an incomprehensible way, seems quite obvious.79 In the Descent, the entire narrative takes place within an altarpiece cabinet that is approximately a shoulder-width deep. Yet this scene plays itself out in five successive layers: closest to the viewer is the apostle John, who supports Mary. Behind Mary, already a little deeper within the scene, we see the body of Christ, which has been passed to Joseph of Arimathea and is already being carried away by Nicodemus. Behind these men stands the cross and, deeper still, the servant who, on top of a ladder, has freed Christ and lowered him. While this servant should, by rights, be situated two metres further behind, the nail that he holds in his right hand advances out of the altarpiece cabinet.80 This use of perspective to create a phantasmagorical space probably had a symbolic function related to a specific world view.
According to the art historian Dirk De Vos, there was no clarity of meaning to the symbolism of the Middle Ages. ‘Everything could be used or interpreted in multiple directions. Indeed, the multifaceted world was God’s Being in multiple disguises. If we read the philosophical, theological or moralistic tracts, or the mystical writings, then we are faced with a profusion of images and symbolism, as the only means by which to communicate the unspeakable. (…) As the mastery of this technique advanced, insight into the world became increasingly complex and ambiguous, which would ultimately lead to divine revelation.’ 81 ‘Erwin Panofsky’, writes De Vos, ‘has called this “disguised symbolism” because of the underlying events that the depiction does not immediately divulge. Through too literal detective work into these symbols, however, this term often leads to a system of iconographic statements that actually negate the spirit of the visual revelation.’ 82
No one knows the technical and stylistic origins of the oil painting techniques used by the Flemish Primitives. Sometimes it seems as though these painters were possessed of a sudden urge to depict polychrome sculptures in a flat manner, at other times it would seem that the similarities between these two art forms is more related to the desired ambiguity of the paintings. According to De Vos, the paintings probably originated out of the flourishing studios of the Flemish-French miniature painters, whose ‘nature and perfection can explain for (the beginnings of) panel painting.’ 83 He points to formal factors such as the ‘illusionistic, anti-decorative and anti-hieratic evolution of the miniature: the small size, for example, that implies a clarity that intensifies the possibilities of imagery; the fact that a miniature always resembles a “window” as a result of the prominent frame, which serves to highlight the illusory nature of the image.’ Anyway, whatever its origin, ‘the independence of the painted image has finally manifested itself in material form. A portable “wall unit” was created, especially designed to house a painted representation. It is a form common to fifteenth-century painting: a filled and mounted panel, as smooth and flat as a mirror, set like a piece of glass in a window frame, a kind of flat viewing box that allowed the visual enchantment to be carried from room to room.’ 84 In other words, these paintings were not born of a desire to detach frescoes from their architectural supports, or as a way of creating flat reproductions of polychrome sculptural groups, but as ingenious illustrations from books turned into monumental paintings. Could it be a coincidence that something similar happened with Walter Swennen? Perhaps the specific, flat space of his paintings, in which coloured surfaces meet words and drawings with clear lines, spring from the doodles of a distracted reader? This is probably too strong. Yet there must be a grain of truth in it. The amazing freedom of his works, on a material, compositional and ‘non-programmatic’ level, can, in part, best be explained from the perspective of the freedom within certain comic books, the doodles in the margins of ponderous writings and the scattered words and phrases that are left over from the reading of an inspiring book.
Finally, I would like to share some nonsense about the perspective-less, pictorial space of Swennen’s paintings, starting with some reflections by Daniel Arasse on the invention of perspective in the fifteenth century. According to Arasse, perspective cannot simply be considered as a symbol for a world without God, as Panofsky has proposed, nor merely as a prerequisite for a place that facilitates action (as Pierre Francastel posited). In Arasse’s opinion, perspective, which was originally called ‘commensuratio’, was used to shape the world to the scale of the human figure, a world that was measurable. For that reason, perspective was often used to give form to the mystery of the Incarnation: the infinite God becoming measurable and tangible. He points, for example, to a pillar in an Annunciation by Ambrogio Lorenzetti that is dated to 1344. This pillar, a common symbol of Christ, is rendered with perspective at the base, but while it ascends, it gradually merges into the Divine gold leaf of the background.85 In the perspective-less space of Swennen, it seems, no Incarnation is possible. Fortunately, Lacan would sigh, since the Incarnation is the source of all misery.86 And we remember that Freud, according to Lacan, was drawn to the God of the Old Testament because He stood for the Word and an invisible, masculine Law, in contrast with the feminine Reality, which is round and made of flesh. In Swennen’s work seems to be no place for the feminine reality: everything seems to be spectral and thin, like a pneumatic, spiritual adventure (cosa mentale). Everything? No, in this ghostly world, there is something that offers resistance, like a gallstone. And that something is the painting.
Turning the nonsensical into an enigma
In the collected wordings Hic Haec Hoc, Swennen describes making paintings as transforming the nonsensical into an enigma.87 Before we take a closer look at this statement, we would do well to recall what Mannoni wrote about Baudelaire: that it was his destiny to ‘incessantly touch upon obscure questions, without promising explanation.’ 88 This is reminiscent of Swennen’s remark that the art historian Paul Ilegems was correct to describe him as ‘a pain in the neck’. Just as the enigma is a challenge thrown to the people by a god 89, so Swennen presents us with paintings as aporias, works that compel us to accept a kind of ‘deferred meaning’, of the type that Mannoni found in Mallarmé’s poetry. ‘From the first reading,’ Mannoni writes, ‘there is a promise of meaning, there is the mystery of the twenty-four letters: as long as the sentence is incomplete, we supposedly still have multiple meanings... this state, in which we are more undecided than lost, continuously coalesces and disintegrates as we proceed. This is called the reading. Only Mallarmé makes this a state without end...’ 90
What does an experience of the nonsensical actually entail? Swennen’s first exposure to meaninglessness probably occurred his parents decided, from one day to the next, to speak a different language as a way of breaking with the wartime past. Many a child has been forced to learn a new language. But how many people, during their childhood, suddenly found that they could no longer understand their parents? The experience must have been abysmal.91 Yet it seems that Swennen survived this situation by not taking it seriously, by giving it a twist. Disconnected letters, sounds, words and meanings may have engendered an ever-shifting inner world, a realm that few discover.92 This is what I suspect, for the very reason that it lays the foundations for a second crucial experience of ‘meaninglessness’, namely his discovery that the ‘non-representative’ elements of a painting (‘between the terra cotta saucer and the signature’) do not ‘mean’ anything anymore; it is only a ‘painting’. A pleasurable, endless activity suddenly opened up to him, one that extended beyond language and meaning.93 94
Objects have something to say, not because they speak to us, but because we start talking to ourselves when we see them. We consequently experience them as meaningful. Works of art can also have meaning; only the significance does not have to result from an intention of the artist. The meaning does not derive from the things, but from a human need. Meaning watches over us in the depths of the night.
Mannoni noted that the point of a joke makes the wordplay (out of which the witticism is born) bearable.95 We seem to find it intolerable when words are confused. The disorder makes us feel uneasy. Jumbled words lose their meaning. A world that is named with meaningless words seems just that, meaningless. But if we weren’t able to tinker with words, we would become trapped in them. The psychoanalyst tinkers, the poet tinkers, the painter tinkers. But they rarely admit this. And quite often, they do not know it themselves.
In his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud endeavours to show, in elaborate detail, that jokes are established in the same way as dreams, driven by the unconscious. Via a subtle detour he tries to lead us towards new evidence for the existence of the unconscious, which is something that he regards as a given, as he admits at the end of the volume. If we set Freud’s topological meanderings aside (the question where the drives are actually located, how they are repressed, which site is ‘occupied’ by the psychic energy and through which gaps this energy escapes in order to satiate a still forbidden lust), then we understand that he views the joke as a statement that initially seems to make sense, then turns out to be senseless, but ultimately possesses a deeper hidden meaning. This meaning, which differentiates the joke from the games of children and the noncommittal jest, would reside in the fact that it disarms rational criticism and allows for the utterance of obscene, aggressive, cynical and sceptical thoughts because of a witty formulation (that briefly makes sense and subsequently turns out to be nonsense).
According to Freud the joke always targets the prevailing morality, the principles of which prevent us from giving free reign to pleasure because all forms of society call for the delayed gratification of our personal desires. The beauty of Freud, in my view, is that he doesn’t merely stop there and seems to want to upend the entire world. ‘What these jokes whisper,’ he writes, ‘may be said aloud: that the wishes and desires of men have a right to make themselves acceptable alongside of exacting and ruthless moral values. And in our days it has been said in forceful and stirring sentences that this morality is only a selfish regulation laid down by the few who are rich and powerful and who can satisfy their wishes at any time without any postponement…’ 96 To introduce his chapter on the hidden purposes of the joke, he reminds the reader of Heinrich Heine’s witticism, in which the latter compares Catholic priests and Protestant clerics, respectively, to supermarket employees and independent shopkeepers. Freud writes that he had hesitated about including this joke in his book because he realised ‘that among my readers there would probably be a few who felt respect not only for religion, but also for its CEOs and management personnel.’ 97
According to Freud the joke is directed against authority figures, sexual rivals and institutions such as marriage, of which he wrote: ‘One does not venture to say aloud and openly that marriage is not an arrangement calculated to satisfy a man’s sexuality...’ 98 The reader is left with the impression that it always must have been Freud’s motivation to defend the right to be different: the right to be a poet, a painter, a homosexual or a Jew. Freud is a blessed crook. The whole of Freud’s psychoanalysis is a sort of joke, aimed at the formulation of social criticism but which, at the same time, bypasses any authoritarian or moral resistance. Still in the chapter on the underlying purposes of jokes, Freud analyses a joke about a deaf Jew who is told by his doctor that his lack of hearing is due to an excessive consumption of alcohol. The Jew decides to stop drinking. When it transpires that he has fallen off the wagon, he admits that his hearing had improved when sober, but he decided that he was better off drinking because he heard such terrible things. And Freud concludes: ‘In the background lies the sad question whether the man may not have been right in his choice. It is on account of the allusion made by these pessimistic stories to the manifold and hopeless miseries of the Jews that I must class them with tendentious jokes.’ 99
Although the joke has a higher purpose, according to Freud, the remarkable thing is that its origins lie in a childlike desire for gratification, which takes the form of a lust for words and a hankering for nonsense (the condensation of words or the exploitation of similarities, for example, would save psychic energy in a way that is tantamount to experiencing lust). ‘But the characteristic tendency of boys to do absurd or silly things’, Freud writes (he is silent about girls), ‘seems to me to be directly derived from the pleasure in nonsense.’ 100 Children (just like adults ‘in a toxically altered state of mind’ 101) would love to play with thoughts, words and sentences. Later, a price is paid in the name of reason, and ‘only significant combinations of words remain permitted.’ 102 Thus the desire would stay buried and seek gratification through joke-telling, thus facilitating the expression of criticism.
This does not sound convincing. Rather it seems that jokes are made possible, and have been drawn into our existence, through our disproportionate need for meaning. When our meaning-seeking brain falsely detects a sexual or other interest in a combination of sounds or shapes, we find this combination funny. Ultimately, we laugh at this rummaging brain and, by extension, at all of the institutions that have emerged from our dangerous need for precisely-defined, specific meanings: rules of games, sports clubs, social rituals, fashions, schools, churches, political parties and so on.
Through its disturbing character, the joke is related to the Greek oracle, as described by Giorgio Colli in Naissance de la Philosophie: ambiguous, elusive pronouncements by an apparently malicious and cruel God. Oracles are passed on to us by seers. Often they take the form of riddles. Only the wise can solve or interpret these conundrums. ‘For the Greeks’, Colli writes, ‘the wording of an enigma carries in itself tremendous hostility.’ 103 The gods reveal their wisdom through words, he writes, ‘hence the external nature of the oracle: ambiguity, obscurity, allusiveness, uncertainty’.104 For Colli, the divine origin of the oracle is a sufficient explanation for its obscurity. But why must God’s word be obscure (ambiguous, uncertain and allusive)? Does God have a speech impediment? Or is it simply that the words, being fundamentally skewed and of human origin, are unfit for divine thoughts? We know the true words of the Christian God; that is a fact. But why is the word of our almighty and infallible God so ambiguous, contradictory and confused? There are several answers to this question. Firstly, the holy books would never have survived, nor have inspired so many people, if they were unambiguous. The inconsistency and muddle-headedness of spiritual texts is a prerequisite for their viability and efficacy. Secondly, the word of God is contradictory and confused because it was aimed at preventing us from believing that we know God. Gods are useful as an instrument of power when their words can only be understood and translated by a select few. Also, spiritually minded people see gods as images representing the unknowable nature of the world and the inadequacy of knowledge. A knowable God cannot be a God.105 Only as an unknowable construction God can guide us towards humility and a constant awareness of our imperfect knowledge. Societies were made possible through the invention of unknowable gods. Man does not stop being an animal when he learns to speak, but when he keeps remembering that his perceptions are relative, that his words are inadequate and that his thoughts can never claim to be based on a universal truth. Thirdly, therefore, the words of gods are nebulous in order to remind us that our own observations, words and thoughts are muddled and relative.
Gradually, however, the enigma was uncoupled from the divine oracle and came to assume the form of a person-to-person intellectual challenge. And later still, says Colli, it gave rise to dialectics. A dialectical conversation in ancient Greece always departed from two contradictory statements (The Being is and the Being is not). The opponent was invited to side with one of these propositions and it was subsequently demonstrated that his position (no matter which side he took) was untenable. The challenger, who formulated the contradiction, always won. For Colli, the dialectic culture of the ancient Greeks was destructive because it undermined all forms of certainty or conviction. Yet it seems to me that in order to overcome prejudice, stupidity, demagogy, dictatorships, absolute monarchies and religious mania, this destruction is indispensable. The predetermined ‘victory’ of the challenger in the dialectical conflict depended not upon his arguments, but upon the fact that it sprang from a contradiction. No single reality can be approached only from two perspectives. In almost all sciences, progress is the result of a cross-fertilisation between approaches that previously pretended to be exclusive. Does this prevent us from adopting positions? Certainly not, but is it so hard to remember that each position is fundamentally relative? ‘Heraclitus had no criticism of the senses’, wrote Colli 106 ‘on the contrary, he praised sight and hearing, but he condemned the tendency to transform our perceptions into something stable that would exist outside of us.’
‘The essence of the enigma’, said Aristotle, ‘lies in putting together apparently inconsistent and impossible things.’ 107 As Shklovski demonstrated, the same can be said of a narrative that is crafted through the use of prioms: the devices that permit unexpected twists. It is also true for the dream-work and joke-work, which seem to speak about a hidden knowledge that guides our behaviour. And Lacan’s ‘le réel’ also speaks in riddles.108 Attempting to guess the nature of Schopenhauer’s Will or Freud’s Unconscious is ridiculous if one believes that these Things actually exist. But the puzzling itself, the playing with words and images, the rearranging of sentences and the weaving of alternative narratives can turn an unmanageable life into a manageable one. Not because the neurotic has been tamed by his psychiatrist, as the Lacanians believe, and not because the true nature of his or her desires has been revealed, but because a fruitful interaction with a shifting (internal or external) reality requires a constantly self-renewing language game.
Swennen, who undoubtedly discovered a ‘right to nonsense’ in the writings of Lacan, does not believe in the existence of the unconscious. ‘All we can say is that there’s thinking’, he says.109 In Swennen’s paintings, there is thinking. Ça pense. Colours, shapes, textures, letters, words and figures are woven together to form a new, concrete thought. Not in order to report on a reality that is located beyond the painting, but in order ‘to be’: to be visible, to have been made, to have been thought through action, and thus, as an enigma, to indirectly give an account of the miracles of thinking (through action).
‘Basic research is what I am doing when I don’t know what I am doing’, wrote Wernher von Braun in The New York Times.110 ‘There is no idea, however ancient and absurd, that is not capable of improving our knowledge’, wrote Feyerabend.111 Some tribes or nations in the Brazilian rainforest did not need western science to achieve peace, as Claude Lévi-Strauss has demonstrated, but a collection of concepts, images and associated rituals that, in their own way, led to harmony.
Swennen gives form to concrete thoughts that reveal the prioms and the collage-like structure of all thinking. The young Swennen wanted to become a philosopher. He eventually became a painter to be able to think in a free way. Or so I see it. Everybody is free to think differently.
Montagne de Miel, 30 June 2016