Ronny Delrue

Questioning The Portrait

Eva Wittocx

2002
But the picture? What was to say of that? It held the secret of his life, and told his story. It had taught him to love his own beauty. Would it teach him to loathe his own soul? Would he ever look at it again? No; it was merely an illusion wrought on the troubled senses. The horrible night that he had passed had left phantoms behind it. Suddenly there had fallen upon his brain that tiny scarlet speck that makes men mad. The picture had not changed. It was folly to think so. Yet is was watching him, with its beautiful marred face and its cruel smile. Its bright hair gleamed in the early sunlight. Its blue eyes met his own. A sense of infinite pity, not for himself, but for the painted image of himself, came over him. It had altered already and would alter more. The picture, changed or unchanged, would be to him the visible emblem of conscience.

In Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the central character expresses his longing to enjoy eternal youth and beauty. His wish is granted, but his countenance is no longer the mirror of his inner self. Instead, his portrait mirrors his soul. It is the painting that gradually grows old and debilitated, and which bears witness to his sanctimonious behaviour and crimes. Dorian Gray’s portrait turns into a hideous, sinister mirror of his perverted character, confronting him with the deepest stirrings of his soul. [1]

Throughout the history of portraiture it was believed that a successful painting not merely resembles the features of the person portrayed: the depiction of the inner state of mind, the psychology and the soul were considered equally important. The act of recognition is a dual act. Recognition of the physical features allows us to name the person portrayed. However, ‘naming’ someone is not synonymous with ‘knowing’ someone. To know someone means that we know something about his or her character, what kind of person hides behind the face.

From a historical point of view, ‘portraiture’ was long considered subordinate to other genres, such as history or religious paintings. [2] Until the Renaissance, faces were often portrayed only vaguely, without personal features. Not until the fifteenth century do we find references to real persons, and then only as a subordinate presence in the painting. Only with the rise of Humanism, when the cult of humans as individual beings comes into existence and spreads rapidly, portraiture becomes an independent genre. The first portraits are usually small and decorate the palaces and houses of the wealthy. What was initially considered important, was likeness, the ability to recognize a person from his or her psychical features, even if the emphasis on mimesis meant that the model was rendered less beautiful of flattering. In the sixteenth century portraiture gradually became a genre in its own right, with its own parameters and requirements regarding pose, dress, attributes, etc. Mannerism introduced as sort of melancholia and started to attach some importance to the background. Gradually portraitists acquired a certain extent of freedom. They introduced an element of elegance (see e.g. Rubens’s numerous portraits of the wealthy).

Already during the Renaissance it was generally accepted that a striking likeness to the face was not the only standard by which the portrait was to be judged. The resemblance had to be psychological or rhetorical as well, i.e. the likeness had to refer to the deepest inner self. A true artist was supposedly able to read underneath the features of his model. He was an expert at reading people’s faces and produced portraits of the soul. Portraiture, in other words, had to transcend the mere ‘depiction’ of features and reveal something about the psychology of human beings. How else could it be explained that we appreciate a portrait without knowing the person portrayed? We recognize a general quality in the portrait, something which transcends the mere reproduction of facial features. In every person something individual is linked to something essentially human.

Portraits of The Self

Ronny Delrues paintings and drawings are not portraits in the strict sense. Delrue does not produce works that present a good likeness or psychological portrait of people. What he does create, are inner portraits of the mind or soul or humans. His point of departure is usually his inner self. From what goes on in that inner self he composes a portrait, purified, devoid of details, on paper. He records various emotions, frames of mind or thoughts directly in his work, i.e. he registers his own experiences. But because of their abundance and because of the intensity of the act of recording, they transcend their idiosyncratic nature. The hundreds of diary notes, the dark canvases depicting intangible landscapes, the isolated figures in front of empty horizons – they tell us something about humans in general. The figure of the artist becomes a mere parenthetic remark, while that which is depicted becomes universally relevant. The works become portraits of humans confronted with a wide range of complex, confusing feelings, caused by events in this world. In 1974 the Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka described portraiture as the skill to offer a view of something more profound. ‘When I paint a portrait, I am not concerned with the externals of a person – signs of his clerical or secular eminence, or his social origins. It is the business of history to transmit documents on such matters to posterity. What used to shock people in my portraits was that I tried to intuit from the face, from its play of expressions and from gestures, the truth about a particular person, and to recreate in my own pictorial language the distillation of a living being that would survive in memory. I depend very much on being able to capture a mental impression, the impression that remains behind when the image itself has passed’. [3]

The drawings are Delrues most direct record of his ideas. He refers to them as ‘diary notes’, because they are closely linked with the particular emotion of a certain moment. He draws them on a simple A4 sketchpad with pencil, ink or watercolour. Usually they are spontaneous, unpremeditated, drawn with a few strokes, without reflecting about the composition or colour scheme. Like in a diary, their title is simply a record of the date, a reference to when and where (day, month, year, place) they were made. Sometimes the artist draws dozens of them in a single day. They could be considered the ‘substrate’ of his oeuvre: they contain numerous elements, idiosyncrasies or structures that are explored more extensively in other works. In the drawings the head is always centrally depicted, usually full-face. Sometimes we note standing figures, elongated or reclining, half erased or duplicated. The head that confronts us is usually similar: a sort of pear shape turned upside down, curved at the top, smaller towards the chin. It never appears in profile. There are no particular facial features. The head is reduced to a single stroke of the brush, to an outline or a blotch of colour. Mouth and nose are banned from the pictorial surface; the ears are suggested by two curved lines. They eyes, however, are often present, but there is a certain ambiguity about them. Their glance is emphasized because mouth and nose are absent, but what stares at us so penetratingly are mere empty eye sockets that projects themselves upon us, that pull at us, absorb us, draw us inside the head in which the isolated figure is locked up. [4]

A black shadow with a core of red in his head seems to ponder a serious matter. An elongated figure, its head quadrupled, drops arcuately to the ground. His blood seems to drain away slowly; his feet are as if rooted in the ground. Two pivot like figures seem to have fused; they look twisted, their head an aureole. A hollow figure like a pencil, its neck endless, the head crowned with a spiral, a storm? A head round which satellites seem to orbit. Or are these silent balloons, the text lacking? (diary notes 28.11.1997, 22.11.2000, 15.04.2000, zonder titel 1999, 15.07.1997, 13.04.2000-14.04.2000) These are merely a few attempts to describe Delrues innumerable drawings. The figures are always injured, ill-treated, as well as motionless, as if they are frozen. The freakish shapes are like fossilized snapshots of the artist’s feelings. Every instant they seem subject to change, as if the instant creates its own, particular mode of expression, engaged in an eternal struggle with abstraction. As if the cranium has opened and we witness directly the restlessness of the image. The drawings are born from ethereal gestures, almost from a sort of automatism. But not the sort of automatism the surrealists used to express the abundance of their infinite stream of actions and their refusal to think things over. The automatism we are confronted with in this instance has to do with a direct, unconscious recording of what goes on in the head. Delrue does not premeditate what a drawing will look like, thus allowing the images to originate ‘spontaneously’. The urge to eliminate deliberate contemplation and structure when drawing is also obvious from the fact that the (right-handed) artist sometimes draws with his left hand. This is more difficult and takes more time, and should therefore result in a different, more spontaneous sort of linear stroke. From these hesitations and mistakes other shapes emerge, which sometimes amaze the artist himself. Abused, silent, the figures tell us what goes on in the (artist’s) head. Throughout his oeuvre, Delrue paints or draws self-portraits, with few exceptions. On the occasion of the exhibition Yellow in Geel he portrayed a number of mental patients who are treated at the local hospital. Organizing intensive workshops with the patients, Delrue tried to gain insight into their world of psychoses and delusions. The portraits of Hugo or Karel (from the series Sensitive Minds) show us how tormented these people are, how uneasy they feel inside their own body. What fascinates the artist is the boundary that separates image and ‘interiorization’. Portraiture as digging into the psyche – not as the art of mimesis. That is true also of the portrait of Christine Remacle, a handicapped woman with whom the artist worked together during the project Brugge 2002. In this instance, too, we notice the inner conflict, the distress of the body, recorded in various colours and shades of grey on the canvas. [5]

The Elimination of The Personal

What makes a portrait different from a still life, a flower painting or a landscape? The latter allow the eye more easily to wander across the canvas, to study details and the entire composition at ease. Confronted with a portrait, our attention is drawn in first instance by the face, and more in particular by the eyes. We never study first the persons clothes, jewels, or the interior in which the model is portrayed. In this respect, our perception of living subjects differs greatly from that of objects, from images of lifeless things. In the case of a (self)portrait, the pervasive presence of the senses causes the whole to transcend the object status. Above all the presence of the eyes causes the image to communicate, allows us to engage a dialogue with it. A subject portrayed full-face, staring into our eyes, bears witness to self-assurance, status and prestige. If, however, the model is portrayed looking sideways, we are inclined to look into the same direction, following the subject’s glance.

Painting empty faces with hollow eyes, it is as if Delrue wants his images to retreat from this world. The wish to communicate with the world outside is tempered by a composed closing of the eyes.[6] Because the eyes are turned inwards, a tension builds between absence and suggestion, between surface and depth, between detachedness and introversion. The reservedness stirs the imagination of the public – a public who dares to looked at the image unreservedly, straightforwardly. Who closes the eyes does not look, but allows himself or herself to be looked at. The appeal from the eyes we have just described is no longer there, which allows the viewer time to study the odd, twisted lines, the blotches of colour, the playful lines surrounding the head. Maybe by closing the eyes one becomes even visible. In another reading of the heads, they could be interpreted as masks; the empty eye sockets then become eyeholes. The wearer of the masks looks, but cannot be looked at, presenting us a mirror image of something, while hiding what is real. All that is narrative, is reduced. The figure is isolated, becomes independent. Standing by himself in the centre of the pictorial plane, the human being is essentially himself. When all particular features are left out, when the character is situated nowhere, nothing happens. All is reduced to universal existence. As such, Ronny Delrues portraits are portraits of human beings. Delrue does not portray acquaintances, models, not even himself. He creates portraits of humans confronted with a multitude of confusing and complex emotions, responding to events in the world outside. The drawings are a direct record of Delrues own thoughts. Almost at once they transcend the personal level, in particular because any reference to a specific individual is left out from the start. Delrues diary notes are universal. They allow us to look into our own mind, like the portrait of Dorian Gray allows us to look into the perverted soul of humankind.

The raison d’être of the drawings does not simply reside in their relationship with their author (as one might be inclined to infer from the term diary note). They are there for the public to look at. They do not tell their story spontaneously – no image does so. The works only come to life when the viewer engages a dialogue with them, questions them, analyses them. The images are like mirrors in which we can put ourselves to some test, challenge ourselves, search for a point of view. The presentation of the drawing therefore matters greatly to Delrue. The drawings stand alone, but acquire meaning through their multitude, through visualizing a stream of images. The multitude is evoked by presenting the drawings differently. In 1997, at the exhibition in Willy d’Huysser Gallery, they are presented austerely in blocks, each block representing a day of creative work. In Van Laere Contemporary Art Gallery (Antwerp, 2001) they are presented on a time line, which enables us to follow the chronology and the developments of the visual language. In the CIAP in Hasselt the artist opted for a more free presentation: he distributed the works rather arbitrarily among the rooms, taking into account the particular character of each room. The works seemed to move throughout the exhibition rooms, up and down, in series, queuing from left to right, even reaching for the ceiling. In 1999, at the exhibition in the Vereniging van het S.M.A.K., the artist tried to evoke a sort of brain pan or even a strait-jacket, filling an entire room with a jumbled collection of drawings, confronting the public with a claustrophobic multitude of images. For the public, the sum of visual impressions outweighs the separate works. Usually Delrue prefers to present the drawings in series, as variations on a theme. Actually, every installation should be regarded as a single work. The individual drawings are almost mere illustrations. As the exhibition closes, the ‘work’ is dismantled and the drawings can be used in other situations and contexts. This seems in line with Delrues reluctance to frame the drawings, for this would isolate them, create a distance. He therefore prefers to attach them directly to the wall with tape, without trying to hide the traces of the tape. The drawings should ‘live’, discolour, become stained, display the traces of their existence.

Reflections on Life

Unlike in the case of the drawings, which originate directly, spontaneously, reflection and distance play a part in the paintings. Delrue does not consider art to be separate from daily life. Events that play a role in society, news items, reflections on the danger of power, on the relativity of life, on violence, corruption, transience, etc. influence the artist’s thinking. Often a trite event, an news item, a photograph in the newspaper, some reflection on developments in society or in politics inspire a painting. However, the process of painting, abstracting, associating and composing seems to cause the initial idea to evaporate – as it should. The paintings are not about some anecdote, are not mirror images of world events. They are merely a pretext, the starting shot. The artist will leave the anecdotical event far behind. What preoccupies Delrue is consequently immaterial when we contemplate the paintings. Yet the ‘pretext’ does seem essential for the artist, providing a stimulus to start the process of painting. Painting probably also functions as a ‘painting away the agony’, as a way to channel the artist’s preoccupations.

In works from the early 1990s, the subject matter of the paintings is expressed directly, allowing an easy interpretation of the work. There is a general fascination with the phenomenon ‘time’ and its influence on our memory and experiences. In the series Crown and Crater (1991) the theme of transience is linked with that of power. The schematic, almost monochrome white canvases show us how ‘time’ deals with so-called historic figures. The relativity of ‘identity’. Almost abstract portraits are provided with attributes, characterizing the function of the person portrayed, rather than his or her individuality. King of The Blind (1991) is almost entirely abstract, apart from the contours of a head and crown. The crown itself shows traces of gold. These works are about the transience, abuse and relativity of power. About the fact that a crown, palace or title lend people greater status. The same theme underlies the paintings of South-American temples, ‘monuments to eternity’, built to worship a ruler or god. In these paintings, too, Delrue tries to achieve a proper balance between the abstract pictorial plane and recognizable elements. The white that dominates these paintings is in Delrues view synonymous with light, with matter becoming mind. The light dehydrates, crushes everything, causes everything to become dust, but also reduces, freezes, fossilizes everything. In the series Traces and Fossils we note people and object amidst a sea of white, unrecognizable, but also timeless and suggestive.

Transience and memory are also the point of departure for a series of portraits of persons buried at the famous French cemetery Père Lachaise. Many people buried here where once famous, their tombstones witnessing, their desire to vanquish time. Despite the epitaphs and titles on the tombs, their graves, too, have been forgotten and become invisible as time erodes them. The busts and decorations that were to commemorate their immortality fall to pieces. Even a few decades after their death, nothing is left of the fame of the deceased. Ronny Delrue chose ten of these famous persons buried at Père Lachaise to paint their portrait, but he has painted out their face and their features. With several layers of dull white these eminent personalities have been reduced to the mere contours of a head, a few shades of paint, the linen of the canvas (which, indeed, plays a part) and a few suggestive blotches of colour in the background. The features of the face, mouth and chin of some of the portraits, like that of Ferdinand Pierre Bridault, emerge from underneath the paint. Other portraits are entirely without them. Thus Delrue demonstrates the transience of power and fame, notwithstanding the impressive titles written on some of the tombs. Such as on the grave of Charles Antoine Joseph Simon Minot’ né le 27 Octobre 1847, décédé le 13 juin 1901; Officier du libérateur (Vénézuela) – Officier du dragon d’annam – Officier de l’ordre de Cambodge – Officier du Nichan – el – Anouar Tadjourah – Chevalier de la légion d’Honneur – Officier d’Instruction Publique – Chevalier du Mérite Agricole – Chevalier de l’ordre Leopold (Belgique).

Delrue has actually created some ‘antimonuments ‘, stylized cylinder-shaped heads on pedestals of various dimensions, or lying on the ground. Made from a porous material like plaster, they seem to reconcile themselves with their mortality. The heads are like three-dimensional realizations of the heads on the paintings. If the two-dimensional paintings still left the possibility that the head had just turned away, now it is obvious that Delrues figures are without senses that could link them to this world. These rare three-dimensional excursions provide the artist with the opportunity to lend his ‘painting’ more profundity, to question the process of painting, to return to painting with more insight.

Reduction of The Subject Matter

The theme of transience and the passing of time is present in a rather straightforward manner in the works just discussed. Around the mid-1990s, however, direct references, such as we find in the works about tombs or the symbols of power, become rarer.[7] The titles of the paintings are now reduced to dates, as for his drawings. The works become more open, they are more about unspecified universal issues, less about particular themes or persons.

There is an element of continuity: Delrue keeps painting both portraits and landscapes. Both genres express a certain sentiment or world view. In that sense the landscapes are ‘portraits’ of a mood. Sometimes it is hard to tell portraits and landscapes apart. In a work like 1995, IV, 1, e.g. , we recognize the contours of a bust, shoulders and a head – at least so it seems. The shape of the hill, its location and proportions seem to correspond with those of a torso and head. The image emerges white onto white; only a dark contour shines through the upper layer of paint. The head as a pile, there is even no hint of neck, hair or features. There is nothing to make us think of a (specific) human being: only our being familiar with this sort of composition leads us to this conclusion. Comparing this work with a similar one, such as 1995, II, 1, we hardly note any difference. Here, too, a sort of pile has accumulated; the same whitish grey shades. The latter work, however, the artist refers to as a landscape. Though resembling closely the portrait of a face, the work is a mountainscape.

In the mid-1990s the artist starts to use colours that look dull, soiled, dark. Increasingly he mixes black paint and Indian ink with the colours. Whereas the white used to be experienced as a purifying element, now the greys force back the image. A multitude of dull shades cover the canvas, layer by layer, as if it wants to hide its history. There are bilious shades of green, earth colours, dull greys, sooty browns, and other shades, all suggesting that the once bright colours have been mixed with black, all soiled. Underneath the dark green of 1993, VIII, 1, e.g. we note traces of yellow and bright orange. The black contours round the oval shape barely suggest a figure. Abstraction and figuration compete 2001, III, 1. The darkening of the palette is not synonymous with a reduction or simplification of the colour scheme: every shade of grey, black or brown, is different. Every painting has to find out for itself which shade is appropriate, which hue matches the adjacent shade. The grey the artist applies is not a monochrome or unambiguous colour, but results from the superposition of the various layers. These can often still be traced at the edges or the sides of the canvas, where intermediate layers and dried-up droplets have escaped the final layer.

Play of Technique and Matter

For his paintings Ronny Delrue departs from a preconceived idea (often inspired by his drawings). Yet he finds the process of painting too important to subordinate it entirely to this idea. His works are also the result of the practical confrontation with the material character of the paint. The image results from mistakes, overpainting’s, unexpected effects with invite to proceed along new lines. Layer upon layer, the canvas is covered, overpainted, smeared with paint, crushed, closed with paint. Finally, only a vague core remains, as the various layers do not ‘seal’ the pictorial surface: some shapes and colours shine through the final layer. Actually, the successive layers engage in a dialogue, provide a window onto each other, comment each other. In 28.11.2000 we note a figure with a long dress, its pose emphasized by a vertical pattern on lines; in one hand the figure holds a red shape. The figure is shrouded by a mist of semi-transparent horizontal brown lines. Through the head – not overpainted – red shimmers. Horizontally confronted with verticality, as if abstraction tries to force the figure in the background. Precisely this layeredness attracts the viewer, invites to decipher. The layeredness also brings about a three-dimensional effect that is distinctly different from the usual perspective. The layers are poised between far-off and near, between illusion and concrete reality, between transparency and reflection. Some motifs, certain brush strokes acquire a figurative meaning. The bodies and shoulders of many characters in Delrues work – paintings and drawings – are filled in with vertical lines. They are like a striped pattern on a shirt or coat, but also lend a sense of direction to the composition. They fill the pictorial surface, but because of their emphatic, dark presence they are also reminiscent of the bars of a prison cell. As if the figures are locked up inside their own body or inside the pictorial surface. Because the stripes seem ‘added’ – they do not follow the curves of the body – they can be interpreted as referring to a being locked up, to introversion, to non-communication with the viewer. In many drawings (including the mural in the S.M.A.K.) (T28s) there is this fascinating tension between surface and body, image and motif.

Usually Delrue completes a painting in several sessions.[8] It is essential that the layers are left to dry, that the artist can judge the effect of superposition, that he can erase, repeat, scratch out certain elements. The paintings need to ‘mature’. Delrue works on them intensely, step by step. In between they are left as they are, sometimes for weeks or even months. He distances himself from the work, recommences, adds something, removes something, leaves the work once more to rest. As if painting were a fight in slow motion: attack, retreat, reflect, react. Finishing the painting requires an intense effort.

These moments Delrue describes as moments ‘when I have the feeling that I do not create the work myself, but that the work originates by itself’. [9] Delrue does not work on one painting at the time, but brings about a dialogue between the paintings. He juxtaposes them with other, earlier paintings, sometimes even with empty canvases, studies if the confrontation is viable. Sometimes he isolates a work, hangs it in another room, waits to see how the work responds, until, finally, there comes a moment the work is ‘saturated’.

Appearing – Disappearing

The paintings are exercises in causing thing to disappear and appear, exercises in rapprochement and maintaining one’s distance, in far-off and near, in seeing and non-seeing. Delrue describes this as ‘thinking that you are sure where you will end up, only to arrive in some other place’. [10] Precisely the artist’s attention to the idiosyncrasies of the paint creates this distance between starting point and finish. Yet, this ‘deviating’ from the premeditated idea has not turned into a system of its own. The paintings as such are not preconceived: the concept, combined with hesitations and overpainting’s are what underlie the work.

As the artist overpaints various layers and images, it is as if time accelerates. Delrue also overpaints his own, earlier work, reprocessing it. The artist also resorts to another sort of existing images: he uses portraits he has bought on flee markets. Attracted by the aspect of wear and tear, discolourings and damage, the artist will further process these portraits. He erases the features, rendering the person portrayed unrecognizable, reducing him or her to an anonymous shadow. For I try to remember your face / 2002, II, 2 he uses a pencil to scratch out the portrait of a person long deceased, found on the attic in the house of a friend. It is as if the detailed pencil lines cause time to slowly erode the character portrayed. For Odiel Deleu and Helene Decuypere (1995) he uses the forgotten portraits of the grandparents of an acquaintance. The characters appear like grey stains in their golden frame, as if the canvas has been touched by fire. Also old photographs he buys in jumble shops the artist covers with black ink or pencil. The faces of these people become blurred, disappear. Delrue encloses them with black contours, as if they are locked up in their own body.

As Delrues fascination with the material aspect of painting grows, so does his interest in experiments with various sorts of paint and ink. He mixes his acrylics himself (paint from tins result in a plastic like surface, according to Delrue). By mixing the paint himself, he can obtain the right degree of transparency and saturation, or he can create certain effects (crusts, crackles, lumps). He tries out new supports, such as tracing paper, Japanese paper (which allows a more graphic approach) or whitewashed canvas. The choice of paint, canvas, stretcher and their technical and material potential all play a part in the composition. When painting on Japanese paper, it is impossible to apply thick layers of paint. Unlike on canvas, on paper the composition and the hues become blurred, because water is added to the paint. To create a large surface, Delrue staples or glues several sheets together (which results in the same layeredness of the canvases). In some works we notice cross-shape: the seams of four sheets of paper glued together. Because of this cross, the figure portrayed is pushed away from the centre towards the edge of the composition. In February, 1997 we notice the outline of a crouching figure, who leans away from the centre. Round the pale, almost translucent figures there is a light grey primer, through which the white of the paper shines in some places. The white stain round the head of the figure depicted in March, 1997 looks like an empty balloon from a comic. The whiteness of this ‘cloud’ contrasts sharply with the head, which has been filled in almost entirely with black. Under the large head, only half visible, there is a much smaller portrait. It is up to the public to find a meaning. Are we confronted with a duplication, with an embryo, with the core or the shadow of the large black head?

Realism or Expressionism

The way Delrue manipulates the paint is linked closely with the subject. A large portrait, measuring 2 metres by 2 metres, a close-up of a head without senses (M.A. 2001, XI, 1). The tension between the head and the background, hesitating between abstraction an figuration, coincides with the play of the brush strokes visible in the paint, with the various shades that gradually merge. Also in M.A. 2001, XII, 1, a similar work, the light layer underneath shines through the paint and the head. The same wet, dark grey lines are painted over the entire pictorial surface (including the portrait). It is as if the motifs have been interwoven, and appear alternately above and underneath, visible and masked. The dark head seems to empty itself, and yet it is heavier than ever. With these works Delrue finds a balance between meaning and the potential of the medium.

It seems only logical that form and content are linked inextricably. Early in the twentieth century we notice the traces of confusion and social change in the work of the German artists of Die Brücke. Distortion, unnatural colours, heavy black lines: these were all transformations of the injuries modern times inflicted on the subject. The hard colours tear up the figures, cause them to disappear in the cruelty of a frightening world. The heavy contours imprison the characters into an expressionless stare, their bodies ripped apart by the paint.

Also Delrue injures the pictorial surface by overpainting it, lacerating it, scratching it, scraping it. The recalcitrant canvas is covered with crusts and cracks, bears witness to history. But despite these ‘wounds’, these works do not cry with emotion. These are not expressionist works. The tattered canvases – for all their layers – resound with arid emptiness. This poverty could, of course, be interpreted as an ‘expression’, but not an emotional one; rather, we are faced with an expression that is derived from the logic of the artist’s feelings. Like an iconoclast Delrue believes that images should be pushed back or reduced, purified. The abundance of images in this world makes our mind stumble, interferes with our mental faculties. In the recalcitrance and fragmentation of the composition the irrationality of our society can be read. Adorno considered art a reflection on the fragmentation and irrationality of modern times, ‘the expression of a subject, who, because he can no longer talk, talks through objects, through their alienated and injured shapes’. [11]

While in Delrues recent work landscapes function as background for the portraits, the early landscapes are more autonomous, like indefinite spaces. Often I wonder whether they can properly be called ‘landscapes’. They are pictorial surfaces, with the upper layer providing some depth. The earliest landscapes are small. Their pictorial surface is close to the public, but often without depth. They represent combinations of colours, a play of layers we interpret as high horizons, blotches we see al hills, light areas we interpret as the sky, brush stroke we read as tree trunks (1996, III, 3). The layers of paint we interpret as crossroads, like in the series of small canvases 1994, X, 9; 1994, X, 10 and 1994, XI, 1, which though they are almost entirely covered with paint, contain recognizable references.

Their desolate character is reminiscent of the landscapes by the symbolist painter Leon Spilliaert. With a few lines Spilliaert suggests the sea, horizons, rows of trees. In his work we feel the presence of the uncontrollable forces of nature. He painted the world around him with such intensity that he transformed it into an often ominous image, fraught with emotion. Delrue, too, etherealizes a world of often perverse emotional intensity, by simplifying it, by using composed, smooth colours, by the simplicity of the composition. Like Spilliaert’s large landscapes, those by Delrue are fraught with a dramatic or psychological tension. And in that sense the landscapes are also ‘portraits’, mirror images of a mood.

Landscape versus Portrait

Also from a historical point of view the genre of the portrait and the landscape are closely related. Like the portrait, once the landscape, too, was subordinate (as background) to historical or religious scenes. In the fifteenth century it acquired a more important role as the setting for portraits. The landscape served to intensify the mood of the person portrayed. A green landscape, rich fields or orchards conveyed the wealth of the model. Certain flowers, trees or plants referred to the person’s character. The weather reflected his or her state of mind. The psyche of the person portrayed pervaded the entire work. The idea that the portrayed is part of the work not only formally, but also with regard to the content, is also present in Delrues recent paintings. In 1999, V, 1 we notice on the left a large figure dressed in a black cloak. His physical presence, however, is interwoven with the landscape surrounding him. The head, filled with the same dull grey as the sky, is almost lifted from its body. Near the bottom the black grey of the coat shines through. It is as if the background passes through the person, as if he is not entirely ‘present’. Both the figure and the background have undergone an intensive process, as can be inferred from the numerous layers of paint, which vibrate into various directions and with different intensities, amplifying or cancelling each other.

In 2002, V, 2 a figure dressed in a black suit stands off-centre, the head in a mist of grey. The background (a landscape) is rendered with some detail. Diagonals evoke depth, there are hills, a foreground, clouds. Like in many drawings, the head is surrounded by a cloud, an empty balloon, a foul mist that may prevent the figure from thinking clearly. In this instance, the landscape is indeed a mirror image of the gloomy mood of the figure off-centre. The work is reminiscent of the paintings by Edvard Munch, in which the tormented soul of the people portrayed pervades the entire surroundings. Typical is Munch’s psychedelic Scream (1891), in which everything vibrates and every particle of dust seems to cry out with fear. In Delrues work there is also the artistic painterly element, an aspect that always plays a part in the genesis of the work. No attractive brushwork is to be expected, nor are uniform hues. Instead: looming layers of paint, paint confronting paint. The vertical brush strokes seem to cause the clouds to drop from heaven. The river seems to meander through the landscape, because of the water added to the paint. But maybe everything – apart from the figure – is mere abstraction, mere paint on canvas? Now everything is up to the viewer, whom Delrue expects to contribute actively to the work. The artist invests the viewer with the responsibility to engage an intimate dialogue with every image, to question the images, to engage a game of question and answer. Deciphering the works is made easier by the fact that Delrue hangs the drawings and paintings according to a deliberate scheme, creating a rhythm of pictorial perceptions the viewer is free to link and interpret. There is not a single, unequivocal solution. The images are like silent mirrors, offering an opportunity to challenge ourselves. The sombre paintings and capricious drawings transcend the personal level. They express profound emotions that are common to all times and refer to the unspeakable beyond the world of appearances. The French thinker Maurice Merleau-Ponty has pointed out that we can never really ‘know’ our own body, i.e. we cannot ‘contemplate’ our own body, for there is no critical distance between ourselves and our body: ‘If I see something, it is not me. My body is no object’. [12] Because there is no distance, there is no perspective from which we can see ourselves. Our own dimensions, our scale, our proportions can only be studied in a dialogue with some ‘other’. This argument is valid also with respect to the ‘window’ through which we want to look at our own thoughts. To learn something about our ‘interior’, we need to confront our feelings and images with those of someone else. Confronting Ronny Delrues work, the viewer is given an opportunity to wander inside his or her own head, to compare his or her own feelings with those visually recorded by the artist.

[1] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891.

[2] The historical background of portraiture outlined here is very concise and therefore incomplete. The reader will find more in various reference books, such as Itzhak Goldberg. Dans le visage; le portrait and other essays in Portrait, Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris, 2001. Also Bart Verschaffel’s article, Kleine theorie van het portret [Concise Theory of The Portrait], in : De Witte Raaf, No. 81, 1999, p. 1-5, is quite illuminating.

[3] Oskar Kokoschka, My Life, London, Thames & Hudson, 1974.

[4] For Ronny Delrue cutting off ones senses from stimuli also refers to a wish not to be disturbed by the multitude of sensory prompts from the surroundings. Noises from the street, certain smells, loud music, etc., he often experiences as irritating.

[5] These social-artistic projects, in which Ronny Delrue cooperated closely with mental patients are discussed more extensively in Peter De Graeve’s essay Resigned Features.

[6] The subject matter referred to here is treated at length by Dirk Lauwaert in his essay De slapende en de vampier [ The Subject Sleeping and The Vampire], in: Artikels [Articles], De gelaarsde kat, Brussels, 1996, p. 68-75.

[7] The artist keeps noting the date on the back of the paintings, i.e. when he started the work and when charges were applied.

[8] By exception Delrue finishes works in sessions of a few hours.

[9] Interview with the artist, August 2002.

[10] Ronny Delrue in an interview with Jan Hoet, Dirk Schutyser and Ann Demeester, in: Mise en atelier par l’artiste [ Mise en Studio by The Artist], Ghent, 2000, p.5.

[11] Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedeman (eds.), 1970, London, 1997, p. 176

[12] Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s theory about the experience of our corporality face to face with art is discussed in: Arthur C. Danto, Action, Knowledge and Representation, in: The Body/Body Problem, Berkeley & Los Angeles, California, 1999, pp. 63-81.

Top