What drives an artist to the discovery, the probing of his own creative originality? That is, or should be, a different story for each and every one of them. For Ronny Delrue that story starts in the mid-eighties with the discovery of a slum dwelling. That dwelling, the architecture, the surroundings, and the apparent contradiction between calm and tension among them, would incite him fully to develop his very own artistic gifts.
Until then Delrue had followed well-trodden paths: he took courses at the Gent Academy of Fine Arts and afterwards at the Antwerp National Higher Institute. His artistic quest was confined to painting after old master like Titian, Rubens, El Greco and others. Like painter’s apprentices in former ages, he was looking in his way for experience, insight, a personal voice.
The old lock house 4 on the canal Bossuit-Kortrijk, which connects the river Leie with the Scheldt stream, became the first catharsis. Ronny Delrue bought the slum-dwelling in the mid-eighties for its fine view. But there was still another, unsuspected attraction. The artist went to look at it at every possible moment, in the rain, in the sun, with the eye of a painter. The house became a source of inspiration, a sculpture in a beautiful landscape, the link between the inner life of the artist and the exterior world.
Delrue no longer needed anything else to look at. Photographs of the building site, the back of architectural drawings, sketches of the rebuilding, the old doors, were all exponents of the past. They would also become the exponents of Delrue’s present, of his painting.
The lock house became a sign, a subtle signal between figurative and abstract, between anecdote and transposition. Joseph Beuys had once worked in a similar way. Beuys had found his artistic story thanks to his war memories, fictional or not, as a pilot of felt, fat and other survival material. Delrue found his story thanks to the fourth little lock house in a row of eleven, a house with a peep-window, wich permitted the old lockmaster to look out at the boats in the lock. But that locks man will also have stared at other things. The old house itself couldn’t really be saved: it is now used as Delrue’s studio. A new house was built around it, as a protecting cocoon around the essence, in this case: the gaze at the external world.
Delrue’s story may be on a smaller scale than that of Beuys. But every artist starts with his own catharsis to look at the world around him, to see through it, and then, after purification, to fall back on himself.
Delrue, too, witnessed and witnesses that process. One catharsis is not sufficient, it is the start of a lifelong process. In his personal life Delrue was confronted with the death of both his grandmothers, two beloved persons by whom he observed what could happen with the magical, mythical force of the eye. The breaking, dying eye versus the living, seeing eye. The meeting between eyes and gazes, noses, bodies. The tense moment just before such a meeting, the kiss, death. Death functions here as a signal of light. For Delrue everything in life comes and goes. It is a process of living and decaying in an inevitable harmony which carries no disgust or aversion in itself, but only self-evidence: one has to live in an intense way, while being at the same time conscious of transience.
Drastic happenings, a Gulf War for example, can change insights. Eyes can turn into craters. No longer the fiery or breaking sphere, but craters caused by the power of others. The power of warmongers, each of them always wanting to carry his dogmatic point, with the crown as symbol. Or the power of the painter, the king in his studio, the crown on art. In this period the motive of the notched crown appears in Delrue’s work, the leaf-gold (colour of richness), the austerity, “You may be the greatest king, but your time will come too”. The fossil, symbol of transience, becomes a central theme: the face, the body disappears, the skeleton remains. Only the crown is left over.
A trip to Mexico gave even more meaning to this theme: the abstract symbol of Teotihuacán, temple of the sun and moon, appears. Or the landscapes with human bones: were they kings or slaves? The light of time sweeps everything away.
Ever since Ronny Delrue started painting on canvas. Earlier he used ‘old’ paper (the sketches and drawings of the lock house), then Japanese paper or paper on canvass. Now he need to fall back on the past has gone. Every trace of the anecdotal disappears gradually from Delrue’s work. Something which is also noticeable in his use of colour: where earlier he was very conscious of colour in his work (‘brown’ for earth, ‘red’ for anger, ‘gold-leaf’ for richness) the more recent work has gradually become more white and light. Sometimes the colour is even cut away, hidden because the light descends over it, again the Light of Time. But if a colour is noticeable, as a dot, a speck, a wipe, it is highly concentrated. A landmark in time.
Ronny Delrue feels that he has only in recent years been able to give himself fully as an artist. His word has become more abstract, more transparent. The symbolism remains, but is moved into the background. The central theme is now the quest for a fundamental art of painting, a quest one can only commence, but never finish. In that sense the circle closes a first time for Ronny Delrue. Once he started painting after old masters, now he does what the old masters in former ages too cared about: the essential handling of materials, but also of emotions, reason, the universal image. Behind the peep-window of the lock house hides elusive eternity.