ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Damien De Lepeleire - 2003 - A Diamond Cutter with a Sense of Humour [EN, interview]
A Diamond Cutter with a Sense of Humour
A few words on the watercolours of Damien De Lepeleire
I would like to say something about the watercolours of Damien De Lepeleire (b.1965) while taking as a departure point a famous fictional character who is anguished by an unfamiliar hotel room. (The first thing De Lepeleire does when he arrives in a hotel room is to move or remove the paintings.) At present, I’m sitting opposite the artist and leafing through some of the minuscule books that he has published in recent years. On each page, I find a date and the picture of the front cover of a book.
Damien De Lepeleire: I started painting watercolours while on holiday. Looking back at it now, I find it hard to believe that I spent fifteen years as a painter before discovering the freedom and economy of watercolour painting. All you need is a sheet of paper, a glass of water, a brush and some paint. You once remarked that a painter always needs to have fifty canvases in his studio in order to resist the tendency to overpaint his existing work. You don’t paint over a watercolour. The result has a great freshness.
The first subjects that I painted in watercolour were still lifes based on the beautiful pages and images from the books that, here and there, I used to pick up for a song. I published some of these watercolours in the book Too Good to be True.
I would occasionally come across books on Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse that were published during their lifetimes. Nobody buys these kinds of books anymore so they tend to be cheap. Either the writing is too old-fashioned or people feel that the black-and-white reproductions are unreliable or misplaced. One day, I realised that most of these books had probably been read by the artists in question. Then I discovered phrases hidden away, such as: ‘the black-and-white images in this book were handpicked by Mr Matisse’. Suddenly, those books became much more precious to me than almost any of the colourful reference works you can buy nowadays.
No reproduction is perfect. That used to be common knowledge. If you lived in England or Flanders and didn’t have enough money to travel, you would acquaint yourself with Michelangelo’s work through engravings based on drawings by copyists. You knew that you were looking at a copy. We tend to forget that today.
One day, I started copying Picasso’s paintings, because it helped me to see what he had actually depicted. I suddenly saw, for example, that he’d made a painting of a woman holding a fish in the air with one finger. ‘So that’s possible too,’ I thought. It gave me greater freedom with regard to the so-called subject of my paintings.
At the same time, I immersed myself in the study of Chinese painting. In the Chinese tradition, the copy is not considered inferior. As Peter Swann points out, you did a painter the greatest honour by acknowledging that his work was indistinguishable from that of his master. All painters copied the work of the masters. Whoever had enough personality of his own would eventually become visible, despite the copy.
The Chinese painters, who were all philosophers, poets and calligraphers, approached the problem of the subject differently to their Western colleagues. They took a very early decision to depict life, such as landscapes. Everything is contained within the brushstroke and in the life that manifests itself in that brushstroke. I love their conviction that it is enough to draw another mountain. They have confidence in their subject, and do not grapple with the question of what it is they actually want to say. Through copying the robes of the emperors, on which you always find images of dragons with five fingers (which symbolise the emperor and his absolute power) and wonderful, beautifully stylised clouds, I came to regard these images as abstractions. In the West, we had to wait for Kandinsky to appreciate these kinds of images.
Every time my sister visits, she asks me why I don’t make beautiful paintings more often, such as the work hanging on the wall. (He points to a beautiful, mottled, red-orange canvas with undulating and unpainted horizontal stripes.) You call them open paintings. You have the impression that I often make closed and difficult works in order to demonstrate that I know all about painting. You think it strange, because I always look for generosity in the work of others. But there is no contradiction. You can be generous by being vulnerable, by daring to fail.
You can never know whether a painting is open or closed. A few years ago, I happened to see some paintings by Howard Hodgkin in New York. I covered my eyes, that’s how bad I thought they were. But nowadays they are my favourite paintings. The same goes for Derain. What beautiful paintings! You have to look at his black still lifes…
In 1990, you told me that Michel Frère found something valuable in every painting. You’d visited the Brussels Museum of Modern Arts together and had been struck by the fact that Michel knew all the paintings, could reel them off before you entered the room in question, stood in front of each canvas and pointed out a different detail each time, all of which he found fascinating. Sometimes it was the curve of a hand, at other times the effect of light, the choice of subject, the juxtaposition of two colours or even the width and varnish of the frame (as in the case of Permeke). Ever since you told me this story, I’ve tried to look at paintings differently and to wonder what each work has to offer me.
I love Derain and his so-called ‘failed’ career. In the beginning, he works with Vlaminck. They are both young, maintain an intense correspondence about painting and make vivid works. They are at the forefront of the avant-garde. Then they meet Matisse, who is eleven years older than Derain. In 1905, Matisse invites Derain to spend the summer with him in Collioure. They make beautiful paintings in the town. You sense that Derain drives Matisse to become Matisse. Derain, however, continues in his quest and encounters Picasso. His paintings sell well. He drives beautiful cars. Colleagues, gallery owners and collectors believe him to be a master. Michel Frère told me that a Derain was more expensive than a Picasso in those days. In 1914, Derain goes to the front. After the war, it seems as though his paintings are out of step with the times. He loses interest in the avant-garde. During the Second World War, at the invitation of the Nazis, he makes a trip to Germany, where he visits the studio of Arno Breker, amongst others. He dies in 1954, maligned by everyone.
What fascinates me about this painter’s oeuvre is that it doesn’t follow a linear trajectory. It’s the same with Picabia. It’s encouraging to think that an artistic career might be convoluted and interrupted. We don’t know why Derain resumed painting in a more traditional style after the First World War, but I can imagine that he found the avant-garde wanting after such an experience. Maybe he just did what he thought was essential. In short, you could say that I love Derain because he didn’t keep making Derains. You have to be strong to withdraw from the expectations of the audience…
- New forms do emerge in art, but they do not make the old forms superfluous.
De Lepeleire: Painters always work in the dark. They don’t have any other choice but to explore the limits of the so-called ‘ugly’. They cannot allow themselves to be held back by the fear of losing the appreciation of their contemporaries, even if it feels like self-sabotage.
‘It is our noticing them that puts things in a room, and habit that takes them away again and clears a space for us.’ This sentence is from a story in which the narrator of À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower) describes how painful it is for him to stay in an unknown room, because all the objects are imposed upon him: the pendulum clock, the lofty ceiling, the bookcases and, in particular, the mirror that stands across one corner of the room. Habit has not yet obscured the presence of these furnishings. It seems as though the constant tick of the pendulum, the high ceiling, the reflections in the glass-fronted bookcases and, especially, the eyes in the mirror grate on his nerves and clash with his old self, which is slowly giving way to a new person, one who will feel content in the room that is no longer new.
‘The very nature of love,’ said Gerard Reve, ‘is that it gives itself into bondage’. Proust’s narrator cannot love. His fear of loss is so great that he cannot attach himself to anyone. That is why he attaches himself to beauty. On his way to the new and frightening hotel, he admires a blue blind and is intoxicated by the colour. He loses himself in the sunlight that lends a rosy flush to the cheeks of a peasant girl in the morning or casts a languid glow over the waxed oak of a train compartment.
The sunlight is ever present, yet it is always different. Watching the changing sunlight is an exercise in loss. It is a safe exercise, because the source is inexhaustible.
‘Afterward I gazed tirelessly at her large face,’ says the narrator about his grandmother, ‘as clear in its outline as a beautiful cloud, glowing and serene, behind which I could discern the radiance of her tender love.’ The narrator’s beloveds only possess exteriors. Sometimes they are transparent. Of the interior he understands that it has nothing to do with the outside, is unknowable and can change at any time, as if each person were no more than a series of successive, short-lived figures that have little to do with each other.
It is said that Picasso claimed that Derain had never returned from the First World War. His experience of combat had changed him forever. You could say this about any experience, as Proust does, whereby adaptation to new circumstances amounts to a tiny bereavement, so that we are constantly gnawed at by death. Fortunately, writes Proust, because it accustoms us to the idea that we will disappear for good. Yet his entire oeuvre testifies to the fact that someone who is constantly alert and awake cannot get used to death. He can only work on it day and night, exhaust himself, fight for hours, weave nets, calculate, reason, formulate, encircle, enclose and yield.
‘A good book is something special, something unforeseeable’, writes Proust. While on the one hand we shelter our heads and nerves as much as possible from new impressions (long live the copy!), on the other hand we are looking for the new, the surprising and that which makes us astonished at ourselves because it wrests or wrenches old images and new feelings from us. (Existing forms help us to forget death, new forms teach us how to die.)
Damien De Lepeleire makes watercolours of diamonds, amongst other things. All diamonds are copies. They have defined, invariable shapes and must be colourless or have a precisely defined hue. In this way, they are the opposite of the fanning forms and misty colours of a watercolour. At the same time, the watercolourist also tries to be as precise as possible. The watercolourist is a diamond cutter with a sense of humour. Every drop of paint that spreads like a cloud over the glistening wet paper is like a diamond with a colour flaw. The watercolourist celebrates making mistakes. He surrenders himself to the capricious nature of things, even though he still dreams of being able to steer them.
Painting in watercolours is like moving into a new room. You never know beforehand how high the ceiling will be or at which angle the mirror will stand. The paint tears you away from your old self. The paint also draws the painting away from its old form. The painting goes out and becomes someone else. Suddenly, we no longer see an image of a diamond, but an ordinary spot, a haze, a dancing coil, a flower, a Chinese dragon, an inexplicable motif, a painting that we have never seen before. In this way, it is the painting that tugs the painter along his path. Colour and shape take the lead. The ideas come afterwards.
A diamond is actually nothing. A piece of cut stone. Six months ago, I dined with ten or so diamond traders and their wives. They were cheerful about the strange and inexplicable fact that people kept on buying diamonds, despite the threat of a new war in Iraq. ‘They’ve probably found a way to eat diamonds,’ one of the wives said. They were dying from laughter. They were right. For who is foolish enough to buy diamonds? All of us, perhaps. Each in his own way. Just like Proust. Just like De Lepeleire, who draws private, unforeseeable, miraculous, curved, funny and moving scenes from wet paper, which enchant us just as much as the everlasting and ever-changing cinema of the sun.
Montagne de Miel, 5 April 2003