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).


Walter Swennen - 1994 - Comment écrire sur Walter Swennen ? [FR, essay]
Text , 4 p.


Hans Theys

How to write about Walter Swennen?
(Academic tergiversations)


Say that it isn't quite the same thing to write about a painter as to write about paintings. (Say that it is only the paintings that matter.)

Say that Swennen often paints on the unprepared side of the canvas and that he attaches a lot of importance to the edges of his paintings.


Mention that Swennen has never felt the urge to own a dog; but he nevertheless still thinks with feeling of Charlotte, who was bonkers, and of Romulus, a real lord of the dustbins, who made the family laugh so much that he was forgiven for pissing all over the flat, which is quite a nuisance if you are used to walking barefoot.

Talk about peanut-butter sandwiches. Say that Swennen makes them with mint sauce and sambal oelek. Wonder if it is known what St Augustine, Rousseau, and Stendhal had for breakfast (reread the Confessions of St Augustine and Rousseau, reread Vie de Henry Brulard).

Say that what counts for Gombrowicz is to know whether an artist likes 'pineapple-strawberries' or not. Explain that this doesn't mean that an artist has to tell us what he eats.


Quote the little passage where Swennen says that in the early 1960s he filled his time with essential and complicated things: the existence of God and how to seduce a girl. Say that he wrote poems to the music on John Coltrane's first album (Little Old Lady). Say that his cat's name was Pollock and that he thought you had to lie on your belly to paint. Say that his mother, in her youth, had probably been in love with one of her uncles, a painter from Hasselt (still lifes, landscapes, portraits). Say that only twenty years later did he realize that it is easier to paint in an upright position. Say that it was in his family's flat, riding on his father's shoulders and his face disfigured with warpaint, that the painter Filip Denis discovered, at a gallop, the print of a small still life by Denis Siméon Chardin, placed above the sideboard (and a stuffed squirrel sawing a log of wood).

Talk about those Australian painters who only knew the works of the European surrealist painters through black and white reproductions.


Write that late one night at the preview of an exhibition Swennen unwillingly had an argument with an old friend, who wrote poems and to whom he had with ingenuous enthusiasm lent a collection of essays by Gombrowicz. Say that Gombrowicz's show of self-centredness shocked her and that Swennen tried to explain that it was exactly this he admired about Gombrowicz: this clear and proud sincerity. That it takes a superior courage to declare in public something that as long as it remains private is nothing but silly complacency.

Say that all definitions of intimate things have to be formulated in a language used by everybody.

Say that 'young Parisians preferred to say steed rather than horse, which explains their admiration for Messrs de Salvandy, de Chateaubriand, etc.' (Stendhal)


Talk about those violin studies by Bartók, which you have to listen to in an order of increasing difficulty and not in an order suggesting a narrative, or emotion, etc.

Quote Shklovsky, who says that all the artist's work — whether he is a painter or a poet — eventually comes down to creating a textural object… an object with a different texture, and who also rejects 'the idea that the form of art, i.e. art itself, were a means of expression translating the thoughts of the artist from his interior language into a language the public can understand.'

Repeat once more that it is stupid to distinguish between form and content in a work of art.

Say that according to Kundera, Max Brod couldn't but betray Kafka's work, being a man of ideas who wasn't able to understand the passion for form.

Say that Kundera feels that Stravinsky was exaggerating when he wrote that music was 'unable to express anything: a feeling, an attitude, a psychological state', but that he seems to agree with the idea that the raison d'être for music cannot reside in its ability to express feelings.

Say that the notion that there isn't an interior world is a little instrument of war that Swennen has developed for his own use against psychology, which he considers essentially totalitarian.


Say that Swennen regards art as a question of sympathy.

Mention the names of Zoot Sims, Hank Jones, Bix Beiderbecke, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Sonny Rollins, John Tchicaï, Lester Young, Slam Steward, Monk, John Lewis, Billy Kaël, Art Tatum, Jeanne Lee, Billie Holiday, Schwitters, Bernard Buffet, Utrillo, Malevich, Malcolm Morley, Soutine, Poe, Artaud (letters to Jacques Rivière), Stephen Leackock, Chester Himes, Jim Thompson, Mac Coy, Westlake (sometimes), and François Weyergans.

Say that Stephen Leackock is the remarkable man who at the age of eleven and armed with a rifle chased his own father from the family home, threatening that he would do him in if he ever came back, and who in a short comparative study of the bicycle and the horse notes that when one sits on a horse, the first thing one notices is that (I'm quoting from memory) 'the position of the pedals does not permit proper circular thrust.' (Say that he also adds that steering a horse when free-wheeling is an extraordinary experience.)


Talk about alcohol (or mention Malcolm Lowry).

Talk about Schwitters, except to say that Warhol too had already pinched everything from him.


Show that in the meantime I have reread Vie de Henry Brulard ('Spinach and Saint-Simon were my only lasting tastes, after, however, that of living in Paris on an annuity of a hundred louis and writing books. Félix Faure reminded me in 1829 that I had already told him so in 1789.')

Say that Swennen hasn't read Vie de Henry Brulard.


Say that James Baldwin, on coming home in the morning with David, made them some peanutbutter and bacon sandwiches. Say that Ianka Fleercakers loves chocolate spread and bacon sandwiches for breakfast.

Say that Damien Delepeleire one day told Swennen that according to Jan Vercruysse, Richter is 'the Claude Lelouch of contemporary painting'. Say that personally, Swennen thinks that Cioran is the Sacha Guitry of philosophy in France.

Say that the word snobbery is used by people who are jealous, to talk about those who have understood that they only exist through others.

Say that Swennen once pointed out that in the past one spoke of the people, then of the working classes, and now of the general public. Relate this observation to Richard Senett and Foucault's analyses of the Western culture of confession.


Quote this sentence (quoted by Eva Grabbe) in which Swennen says that he knows 'that sarcasm or plain mockery is the way artists cope with the institution of art. Making it comical - which in fact it already is'. Say that MB, when he wanted to convince anybody that something was good, often said: 'It's funny, isn't it?'

Montagne de Miel, August 2nd 1994