ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Damien De Lepeleire - 2010 - It Never Hurts to Have a Giacometti at Home [EN, interview]
It Never Hurts to Have a Giacometti at Home
Conversation with Damien De Lepeleire
De Lepeleire’s studio is currently located in a modest little house situated in the back of a garden in the Brussels municipality of Saint-Gilles, the district in which he grew up as the descendant of a French-speaking father from Ghent and an Italian mother with roots in Rome and Naples.
On the ground floor, next to the front door, stand the unsold works of the previous decades, as a breeding ground for the new work that is being created above. In the actual studio, which is suffused with light thanks to a window that spans the entire facade, we are introduced to an apparently random encounter between a host of different objects. These include African masks, beautiful, asymmetrically growing houseplants, magical sculptures by Michel Frère and Pascal Courcelles, and portraits of several personal heroes such as Maradona, Mohammed Ali, Mike Tyson and Bouli Lanners that have been clipped from magazines. Furthermore, we find watercolours, collages, cut-outs and oil paintings by De Lepeleire himself: hundreds of objects and images that reinforce each other.
Between these objects we also see ‘Pop Up Art’: cut-out images of Greek, Italian, African and Chinese sculptures, amongst other things. By cutting out reproductions of such sculptures, De Lepeleire seems to reinstate their original spatiality. As a group, they are reminiscent of André Breton’s Etruscan, African and Surrealist art collection, on display at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, but also of Rodin, who painstakingly rebuilt an eighteenth-century castle in his garden in Meudon in order to better appreciate it, and also invited the art critic Paul Gsell to view his antique sculpture collection by lamplight. Hans Belting tells us in Das unsichtbare Meisterwerk ‘The Invisible Masterpiece’ that Paul Gauguin copied Manet’s Olympia in 1891. This copy was acquired by Degas who kept it in his studio until his death. During a visit to the Antwerp Academy in the company of De Lepeleire, I was surprised at his enthusiasm about the presence of a plaster replica of one of Michelangelo’s Slaves. This ardour was aroused not so much by the copy itself, but by the fact that the students would encounter it on a daily basis.
Quite separately from this, we can also consider the pop ups as paintings. Damien De Lepeleire is first and foremost a painter. He would never have been able to make the pop ups if he hadn’t developed an exceptional talent for seeing depth where there is none. In this sense, the pop ups are variations of painting series such as Hooligans (1992), in which collages cut from porn magazines take the form of faces, or Femmes découpées (Cut-out Women) (1996), which are pornographic images from which De Lepeleire excised the female bodies using a Stanley knife. Likewise, De Lepeleire would never have been able to create the Chinese Landscapes series, in which two types of paint merge with each other, if he had not previously learned to appreciate the unpredictable nature of watercolour painting. Blocked by the closed world of the photograph, De Lepeleire intervenes with scissors or a knife. He cuts. The surface opens up and becomes depth, the object comes to life.
Damien De Lepeleire: It never hurts to have a Giacometti in the house. My pop up collection is also related to the idea that you don’t have to be rich to have a masterpiece at home. Matisse and Picasso both had a cast of a Michelangelo Slave in their studio. I have a Pre-Columbian masterpiece that stood on Peggy Guggenheim’s mantelpiece.
- There is also a connection with your belief that perfect reproductions don’t exist, by which you mean that any reproduction can be sufficiently suggestive: an engraving, a black-and-white photograph or even a photocopy.
De Lepeleire: A French writer once said that he drew immense strength from a postcard of a work by Picasso. A painting appeals to the viewer because of its size, material, colours and image, whereas a reproduction denies the material aspects and strengthens the power of the image. Which is why I love black-and-white reproductions that are obviously not faithful depictions of the art object. To me, they seem truer and even more powerful than colour photographs. Moreover, reproductions of sculptures are always false because they only represent one viewpoint. But if you cut out photographs of African sculptures, they have great evocative power.
- You have also become a collector.
De Lepeleire: When I started cutting out reproductions of sculptures, I was certainly acquainted with Praxiteles and Phidias, but not with Lysippus. Nor did I know the story of why Hercules kills a Centaur, for example. Christie’s recently sold an African mask that I adored for 350,000 dollars and another was depicted on the cover of an important book. Tracing, viewing, cutting out and collecting these images is a way of honing my vision. At the edge of the Forest Park in Brussels there is a beautiful statue of a seated boy, which I admired as an adolescent. It wasn’t until I visited the Archaeological Museum in Naples a few years ago that I discovered it was a Roman copy of a Hermes sculpture attributed to Lysippus. Whenever I visit the park now, I’m always tempted to explain to passers-by that it is a copy of a 2,500-year-old Greek masterpiece.
Let me give you another example: in this beautiful catalogue you will find a double-page spread with thirty-two reproductions of Pende masks. It is an exceptional layout for a book of this kind. Yet it is very useful, because it helps you to appreciate the similarities and differences. If you know which mask is important to you, you can compare it with the others and learn to look better.
- You inherited five Salampasu masks from your father, who lived in Africa.
De Lepeleire: My father remained in Congo after the country had gained independence. He rejected colonialism, but he brought ten masks. Of all his possessions, these are the only ones that I kept. We cannot collect African art without remembering that the Belgians, among others, plundered the African continent. We have lived beyond our means for years on the back of Africa’s immense resources. When you look at my sculpture History of Perspective, in which I placed three Pende masks of different sizes on the same line, you will understand that I’m interested in the theme of perspective, but also in African history and the political consequences of our historical and cultural amnesia, whether it concerns the Greeks, Africans or Maoris.
A few years ago, my friend George Nuku, a Maori artist, visited the Museum of Art and History in the Cinquantenaire Park to find out how five heads of his ancestors could be displayed in a respectful way… The Tervuren Museum has about 500 Pende masks! You may think it scandalous, but it is also thanks to our academic curators that these artefacts have been preserved. The main issue is how our museums will evolve from colonial to ethnographic institutions.
- You have recently drawn some maps of Africa.
De Lepeleire: The idea of reproducing geographical maps is related to the Pop-Up collection. The first map that I copied was of China. Every pencil line suddenly acquired extraordinary importance, without this being visible to anyone who wasn’t familiar with Chinese geography. Every time I copy a map, I focus my gaze and can see the lie of the land with unprecedented clarity. Before I started this work, my geographical knowledge of Africa was relatively poor. I was shocked.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that it’s only a reproduction of reality and that a map is nothing more than a projection. We never stop making maps and plans. When we are abroad, there is always someone who will explain the way to the grocery store with the aid of a hand-drawn plan. The lack of accuracy is utterly charming, yet the person making the sketch is trying to depict an objective reality. The same is true of the way in which we look at African masks. In reality, there is no such thing as a Pende or Punu mask. What we have instead are infinite variations and cross-fertilisations that elude our ethnocentric classification systems. I do not want to make political statements through my work, however. I just want to show things anew and encourage people to ask questions. When it comes to subjects that I haven’t truly mastered, I always feel humbled. I learn a great deal by unravelling these questions and by being curious.
Christine Bluard, who works at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, once confided that she isn’t very impressed with my collection of Punu masks. The external beauty of an African mask interests her far less than the story it tells. We must not forget that a mask worn by somebody is more than just a relic or an art object.
The same can be said of Chinese landscape paintings. We live, so to speak, in a world in which we share as much knowledge as possible, but few people realise that a Chinese painting gives form to a very different way of thinking about representation, the artist’s hand and the line. Crowded and graphically complex sections are alternated with areas that remain untouched, resulting in compositions that look amazing to Western eyes. You can describe them as unstable or disharmonious, yet Chinese artists perceive a duality in everything. An object can be both black and white. A mountain in the mist can either disappear or appear. Tree trunks support branches and the branches bear leaves, but each individual leaf is just as important within the overall composition. Chinese painting originated from writing: poets and philosophers wrote with a brush. So it’s always about a conceptual landscape, even when it depicts a known view or a specific tree. The painter has seen the landscape, remembers it and paints it in a stylised way, while also trying to stay as close to nature as possible.
In a conversation with David Sylvester, Giacometti said that the Greeks made conceptual sculptures because they added volume to the heads. ‘If I don’t walk around a person,’ he says, ‘then I don’t see that a head has volume. When I stay in the same place, I don’t see any relief. My sculptures reveal how I see things. The Greeks are lying.’ In the same interview, he says that he sees everything as small. When he sees a man crossing the street, he sees a little man. When I read this, I thought my collection was just right, that it was very ‘Giacomettian’. Besides, the first sculpture that I cut out and propped up was Giacometti’s Cat.
And I’ve just thought of something else: I’m rescuing both sculptures and books. By cutting out and propping up the images of sculptures, I am bringing them back to life.
- Would you like to say something about your most recent ‘Chinese Landscapes’?
De Lepeleire: They are the result of my work with watercolour and ink. For a long time, I only painted in oils. I was principally interested in adding and subtracting matter, it was my passion. One day, however, I felt that a lack of agility was hindering my evolution. Working with watercolours unlocked a new sense of spontaneity, not only in terms of the subject, but also with regard to the materiality, in the sense that it’s impossible to undo a watercolour once it is finished. You are obliged to accept your limitations as a painter and surrender to the fact that the end result isn’t what you’d envisaged. For the same reason, this way of painting takes you to places that you could never have imagined.
I started working with oil paint again for my recent Chinese Landscapes, but in a different way. The paintings are executed on the canvas in three phases. Firstly, I mask the areas that I wish to leave white. Then I cover the canvas with a very thin layer of oil paint. Finally, in an act of magisterial desecration, I use a brush to apply an industrial lacquer that not only attacks the oil paint but dries much faster, and this is what determines the final form. The entire painting is made with liquid paint, wet-on-wet. The drawing cannot be exact. It is produced gradually, because the paint continues to seep. It is a question of finding the right balance between the two liquids. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
- How did you arrive at the exposed borders around the painted surface? They used to be pure white but you’ve recently started to colour them.
De Lepeleire: I borrowed those edges from Paul Klee. It is a kind of graphic design, a device that allows for infinite repetition that I first saw with Klee, but which is also found in Chinese landscape paintings. These are the places that make it easier to get in and out of the painting.
- In the interview ‘The Viewer Doesn’t Do Shit’, Walter Swennen explains that this is how Malcolm Morley shows that he isn’t painting a landscape, but a portrait of a picture postcard depicting a landscape.
De Lepeleire: Morley is one of the painters whose work really energises me. Another important painter, for me, is Christopher Wool. I recently read something about his latest paintings: that he succeeded in liberating abstract expressionism from the connotation of the ‘über-artist’, who would freely express his most sublime emotions. In my Chinese Landscapes, the exposed borders indicate that it is not only about grand gestural paintings, but also about images of paintings.
Poussin, Corot and Cézanne wanted to discover what nature could teach them. But nature is often ugly and hard. When you paint a tree exactly as you find it in nature, then you make an ugly painting…
Because the paintings are created in just a few movements, I become the viewer of my own creation. Nothing could be further from the truth than the idea that I know better than the masters. I accept that I don’t understand everything. That’s why I’m constantly faced with new challenges. It’s extremely fascinating. I have rediscovered the felt-tip pen, for example, through my introduction to the drawings of Amélie De Brouwer, an artist who succeeds in transcending the anonymity of the medium and giving her drawings a recognisable signature. I started using felt pens like watercolours or inks: without wanting to retrace my steps. It was ages before I succeeded. Until I took a canvas that was still wrapped in cellophane and I started drawing on it with a black marker. I suddenly saw that it was beautiful. And it was a beauty that I could never have foreseen… I learned to paint with ink by watching Xiao Xia while he was working. To think of all that came out of it! It’s not something that I could have ever predicted.
During a studio visit, Ann Veronica Janssens looked at one of my Henry Moore pop ups and told me how much she loved his work. She gave me permission to admit my love for this artist. Moore is one of my favourite artists, just like Anthony Caro, who started out as one of his assistants.
It’s about giving yourself permission. For a long time, I shared a studio with the painter Xavier Noiret-Thomé, a great iconoclast who mixes all kinds of techniques and raw materials. That gave me the courage to combine oil paint with lacquer paint in the most recent Chinese Landscapes. Another example is the creation of the Black Mythology series, in which I tried to use oil paint and canvas to imitate the effects I’d obtained in the ink and watercolour works made after black-and-white photographs of Renaissance bronzes. In the latter paintings, the light reflected by the bronze sculptures is imitated by leaving certain parts of the paper blank. But that didn’t work on canvas. Then I remembered my predilection for heavily materialised paintings, such as the works of Eugène Leroy and my friends Michel Frère and Pascal Courcelles, and I understood that if I worked with a very thick layer of oil paint, the paint would reflect the light in the same way as the bronze. The highlights in these paintings change throughout the day. I love the effect. It is a game with painting and sculpture, a visual joke that I enjoy. I do think that I should sell them with a feather duster though, so that the buyer can dust them from time to time.
One of the greatest influences on my work is Prince’s music from the late 1970s and early 1980s. I love art that references art, but I’m also extremely fond of artists such as Reiser, Vuillemin or Sempé. Many people have given me permission to do what I do. Bukowski, Cassavetes, Scorsese or Coppola: all artists who take risks with whatever they can. Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, but also Lucio Battisti or the French singer Christophe.
- That brings us full circle to the beginning of the conversation: that it is good to have a Giacometti at home.
De Lepeleire: For sure! Not forgetting that the people with a genuine interest in art have always been in the minority, and that numbers are not the point.
Montagne de Miel, 24 November 2010