Hans Theys is a twentieth-century philosopher and art historian. He has written and designed dozens of books on the works of contemporary artists and published hundreds of essays, interviews and reviews in books, catalogues and magazines. All his publications are based on actual collaborations and conversations with artists.

This platform was developed by Evi Bert (M HKA / Centrum Kunstarchieven Vlaanderen) in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp (Research group Archivolt), M HKA, Antwerp and Koen Van der Auwera. We also thank Idris Sevenans (HOR) and Marc Ruyters (Hart Magazine).


Raoul De Keyser - 2008 - Nouvelles pommes de terre / nouveaux fragments [FR, interview]
Interview , 8 p.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montagne de Miel, June 26th 2018


Hans Theys

Uncovering the Weapons
Interview with Raoul De Keyser

Six o'clock in the morning. Yellow elbows are tumbling out of some blackbird’s beak and echo in my head like illuminated islands with unimaginable, ever-changing contours. I can't sleep, because last night I met Raoul De Keyser (°1930). And I forgot to ask him something about the Matisse clippings. And I have to commit everything to paper before I forget…
    Two days ago, I saw some of his paintings from close-by, something which I've been putting off for as long as I could, in the conviction that some encounters, or attempts at understanding, are best postponed for as long as possible, as it's a question of leaving sufficient unprocessed beauty for the days and nights ahead. The paintings had just been brought to Antwerp and someone had unpacked them for me. They were sitting on the floor. On all fours, I crawled from painting to painting, enraptured by their incredibly light facture. “An exercise in white!” I thought. “A complete retreat of the armies and an uncovering of the armaments! But then without pathos… Like a poet who, with three transparent words, captures all the power of literature and at the same time dares to show its fragile skeleton…”

Not giving in to the hopeless task of conveying something of my emotion to you, and for once renouncing my refusal to compare works of art with other things, I quote to you some randomly chosen lines from Nescio's work: ‘En de heuvels waren te laag en niet steil genoeg, hoe kon je daar moe van worden? En moe moest ze worden of ze sprong uit elkaar van kracht, in scherven van dichteresje en vrouw en courtisane. Bovenop keken ze in een dalletje met hellende zwarte en gele en groene rechthoekige veldjes en denneboschjes en eiken hakhout er tusschen op de hellingen. En daaroverheen in de vlakte, uren ver met niets markants erin, alleen een recht brok rivier, dat breed van hen wegliep, tot waar i zich in een bocht verloor. Daaraan, heel klein, de roode afdaken van steenbakkerijen en hun schoorstenen, hoog en toch verloren in de wijdte…’ [And the hills were too low and not steep enough, how could you tire of them? And she had to get tired or else she would shatter into poet, woman and courtesan. From the top, they looked onto a valley with sloping oblong fields in black and yellow and green, and pine forests and oak coppices scattered on the slopes. And over there in the tiny valley, hours away with nothing striking in it, only a straight chunk of river that moves squarely into the distance, until it loses itself in a bend. Next to it, the red miniature roofs of brickworks and their chimneys, high and yet lost in the greatness of the landscape.”

Swiftly painted, white, transparent veils which – through their superposition – show the thinnest realisation of what a painting can be. Paper-thin paintings that celebrate painting. No iconographical endeavours or, indeed, demolition of the power of the image in a disintegrating texture, as in the case of Tuymans, not even a tactical move to tip a bad drawing into a painting, as in Swennen's case. Just painting. So thinly, that a possible image only stands on the thinnest of legs, because it only arises from the overlapping of the slightest fake planes. So thin it is. With here and there an omitted or added stain, sometimes greasy, but mainly thin. What guts! I thought. What power! Who could go even thinner? So cheerful! So bouncy! So free!

And after examining the new paintings, I rode a borrowed bicycle through the city, alongside the young sculptor Michael Wiesner. The world was clear. Somewhere on the second floor, a young mother opened a window, causing an angular stroke of light to strike a notch into the facade on the other side of the street. “Your sculptures are clean,” I exclaimed above the traffic noise, “but they have no bottom or back. That's ok, but you have to know it… You could also give them a back and perhaps display them with some kind of support, the way African doors are exhibited. You should take a look at Giacometti's white marble bean. I think that's displayed on some kind of support.”
    “So what are you going to talk about with Raoul De Keyser?” Michael called out above the overexposed spectacle. “He doesn't want to speak to me,” I yelled. "He doesn't want to be interviewed anymore. He's tired of it. He's just been interviewed and he was sick of it. But I have continued to insist. And finally he gave in. He doesn't want to be interviewed, but he is willing to talk. Provided it doesn't go on for more than 20 minutes. And he doesn't want to explain what his paintings are about and how they were made. And he doesn't want to answer any questions about other artists… I don't blame him.”
    We quickly cycled through the shattered city, swerving between cars, other colour spots and abruptly tumbling shadows and holes of light. “But what are you going to talk about then?” asked the young man. “I don't know him,” I replied. “Either he takes his work very seriously, as a kind of mystical mission, or it must be possible to ask him whether he shares my view that the two yellow spots on the edge of the painting Ready are funny and how they got there. And if he doesn't answer, I'll tell him that Bacon would have thrown them on the canvas. Which is not true, of course, because the spots are far too large and too precise, but they do have a function similar to that of Bacon's white gull droppings, because they seem to have been pushed in front of the painting and evoke an additional pictorial depth. If that doesn't get him talking, I don't know what will.”

The chat that was not allowed to be an interview

It is evening time. Raoul De Keyser sits in a secret room on a chaise longue, because he recently hurt his back. In front of him, against the wall, hangs a beautiful poster of a blue female figure by Giacometti. In addition, there are ten postcards and two posters of De Keyser’s own work. On top of the pelmet is a white cloud by Luk Van Soom. There's also a limited library for daily use. I recognize the book Beeldarchitectuur en kunst by Jean Leering, Goethe's Italiaanse reis, Matisse at Villa Le Rêve by Marie-France Boyer, a book by Paul Léautaud and books about Seurat, Henry van de Velde, Warhol, Giacometti and Picasso.

- I saw your new paintings yesterday. Together they form a light-footed exercise in white. They are very funny.

Raoul De Keyser: Yes, that's what is sometimes said about my work.

- For example, the two yellow islands on the edge of the painting 'Ready'. They're funny, because they say something about creating a painting, whereas they should actually be silent. There's something inappropriate about them, because they want to exist in spite of everything. They want to be there without meeting the expectations and customs. They are 'potatoes': shapes that are not immediately recognizable… How did you actually get them there?

De Keyser: (Silence.)

- Bacon would have flung them there.

De Keyser: I also flung the lilac work you see there. (He points to one of the postcards on the wall depicting the work Bleu de ciel (1992). And the work behind you. (The work Front, which is depicted on page 77 of the Troublespot catalogue.) I threw the paint tube at it… You have to watch out for jumping carps if you do this.

- Did you use a rag for the underpainting?

De Keyser: I did. Just as I manipulated the end result in this painting with my painter's rag because I thought the grid was too beautiful. (He points to the painting Lok from 1995, Ludion, p. 66. The title is translated there as Decoy, so that the reference to the French word 'loque' (rag) is lost.

- What are jumping carps, if I may ask?

De Keyser: If the tube of paint first touches the cloth with its tail and subsequently tilts, it can end up strange… You can also get a notch as a result… You see, we must always remain alert.

-To react appropriately when the painting creates itself.

De Keyser: When your opponent relinquishes something, you have to make sure that you take advantage of that. Many things are not predetermined in advance… For example, secondary matters can become primary issues… The painting Crook, for example, is based on a drawing, but the angle in the drawing was different.

- What does the word 'Crook' mean to you?

De Keyser: When you hit somebody with your elbow… I should look it up again in the dictionary…

- (Leafing through the dictionary) It says here: ‘A bend, curve or hook… Anything hooked or curved. A professional criminal…’

De Keyser: (Smiles)

- With every artist, I wonder how their viewpoint arose from a sensitivity that preceded their work. But in your case, this question seems to become absurd, because the visual rhythm of your work is so closely linked to the texture of the paintings and you are always looking for some sort of ambiguity: the blue stripes in ‘Closerie V’ do not represent a sun-blind, but they do evoke an image of it. Do you, in this case, remember such a preliminary visual sensitivity or do you think that your ‘personal form vision’ has been completely created by your experience as a painter?

De Keyser: I think it was entirely the result of painting.

- Without your work, of course, I would not be able to talk about your visual sensitivity, because there would be nothing to look at. And your paintings are real painter's paintings, in the sense that they are the fruit of painterly contemplations about painting. In my opinion, however, your original view of the world must also have disintegrated into different fragments in the past. Or some coloured stains must have behaved very autonomously at times.

De Keyser: You're giving me food for thought. (Laughs)

- Giacometti tried to draw the billowing matter underneath the picture we are projecting on it. On this poster, we see a woman's swelling or hollow forms, captured in airy, blue circles… The work moves us, because we recognise those twists and turns without remembering where we've seen them before… Two weeks ago, in Paris, with my son Cyriel, I stood looking at a thin, moon-fishlike head for a long time. “That head seems to be moving,” Cyriel said. And it was true. When we came out, I saw three people who had a narrow head resembling the body of a moon-fish. The third person was a woman with large black glasses. The glasses did not in any way detract from the effect.

De Keyser: It so happens that I have a book about Giacometti here… (He produces a booklet that was wedged between the chaise longue and the wall.) It contains a clipping with an image that really moved me… As far as we can still talk about being moved in these day and age…

- Every day, we must remind the know-it-alls of our time that there are non-sentimental emotions that can be evoked visually…

De Keyser: Behind you, on the bookshelf, there's an exhibition folder with another picture of the same sculpture…

(Together, we look at two black and white photographs of L'objet invisible, one of Giacometti's wooden, African or Etruscan-looking, female figures dating from the 30s.

- In Paris, I was most moved by the images from this period. I think they're just stunning…

De Keyser: (Nods.)

- But you can see that the woman's body seems to fall apart. Each body part seems to behave autonomously. You, for example, would only paint the front view of her left thighbone and let it drift around in the painting.

De Keyser: You're making me doubt my own mind…

- What attracts you in this sculpture, I suspect, is precisely the fact that the woman seems to fall apart. She is only visually held together by the frame of the backrest behind her, just like you add an extra corner with two thick white stripes in the bottom right of one of the large paintings in this exhibition.

De Keyser: You say she seems to fall apart… I rather think she looks assembled. Like a stack… What would you call a horizontal stack?

- Good question… Do you mean that we can look at your work as if we were watching horizontal stacks?

De Keyser: (Smiles.)

- What do you call the indefinite shapes in your work that are reminiscent of potatoes, but then potatoes that sometimes take the shape of frayed flags, like here, for example? (Untitled, 2006; included in the 2006 Zwirner catalogue).

De Keyser: I have no name for it, but the stain you're referring to is a rocking swing to me.

- In two paintings, we can see red corners at the top, which indicate the size of the canvas before you stretched it.

De Keyser: Yes, I stretch my own canvases. Being the son of a carpenter, I want to keep in touch with things… Also, it's sometimes good that you can still see those red corners, because they help to lock the painting… You call my current exhibition a ‘light-footed exercise in white’. For me, the exhibition consists of two parts. There is the smaller, light-footed work, but there are also the two large, unyielding works… I don't mind working very quickly, but that swiftness involves precision. Sometimes it shouldn't take long, sometimes it just wants to be made.

- You are now talking about the speed of Léautaud, who wanted to write every text in one go, but not without trying it a hundred thousand times, until the text had stylized itself…

De Keyser: I remember once I had prepared an underpainting to which I only wanted to add an over-angle line. It took months, because I wanted the line to hardly touch the canvas and because I was afraid that I would spoil my underpainting. It had to be done in one correct movement, like jumping over a ravine… But sometimes I also want to put down a funny, wavy or stiff line, of course… And over the white… I painted the foundation of these paintings very lightly to emphasize the light-footed, mobile aspect, so that you wonder why some surfaces don't fly two metres away from the canvas. They hang together very loosely…

- Now you catch yourself saying it!

De Keyser: (Laughs.)

- Dirk De Vos wrote that you create paintings with surfaces that have a non-figurative, but concrete effect, like revolving props of film sets. I think you live in a world of unconnected scraps…

De Keyser: Are you sure you didn't study psychology? (Laughs.)

- I am sorry, but your time is up.

Montagne de Miel, February 22nd 2008