The extraordinary work of Belgian artist Walter Swennen (b. 1946) is deeply rooted in language. At a very early age, he developed a great sensitivity to the spoken and written word. This was a response to his parents’ decision, when he was five years old, to abandon Flemish and switch to French, from one day to the next. This marked the start of a lifelong investigation of how language – including visual language – can convey or obscure meaning.
Swennen’s paintings, often a blend of lighthearted absurdity and philosophical frivolity, are all some variation on this theme, though they vary considerably in style. This results from the associative method he uses, which makes his work akin to free jazz. He paints without any fixed goal or direction. ‘My only goal is to finish the painting’, he says. ‘You start, and you respond to what’s there. People who write about painting forget that it is generally nothing more than a meeting between the painter and the painting.’
Swennen began his artistic career as a poet. As an adolescent he was fascinated by the poetry of the Beat Generation and Paul van Ostaijen, but it was not until he graduated with a degree in psychology that he turned his passion into his profession. In the 1960s he became friends with poet and conceptual artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924 - 1976), with whom he collaborated on several legendary ‘happenings’. At the age of 35 Swennen turned to painting, although poetry would continue to play an important role in his work, alongside the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, which he had explored while studying psychology.
As a painter Swennen went his own way right from the outset. Not conforming to any style or movement, he concentrated on building an idiosyncratic body of work full of humour, contradictions and literary references. The objects he paints are familiar, the letters and fragments of text legible, but despite this familiarity his work never fully reveals itself. He invites us to look slowly, puzzle out and explore how a message can be conveyed in language and images. Or rather: how language and images always fall short as messengers. With wit and originality as his key weapons, Swennen exposes the inadequacy of language, often wrongfooting his viewers.
The exhibition is part a recent tradition at Kunstmuseum Den Haag of regularly showing work by Belgian artists. Following on from artists such as Luc Tuynmans, Berlinde De Bruyckere, Jean Brusselmans, Rinus Van de Velde and Marthe Wéry, this time the museum will be shining the spotlight on an artist who has long been something of an outsider in Belgian art.
Swennen’s work is popular with art aficionados and artists, and has been embraced by a growing group of fans in recent years. In collaboration with Kunstmuseum Bonn and Kunst Museum Winterthur, Kunstmuseum Den Haag will present his first major retrospective in the Netherlands. Featuring over 65 paintings, the show will bring together an extraordinary cross-section of Swennen’s work dating from the 1980s to the present day.
A bilingual (German and English) catalogue entitled Das Phantom der Malerei / The Phantom of Painting will be published to accompany the exhibition. It includes essays by three curators from Kunstmuseum Den Haag, Kunstmuseum Bonn, where the retrospective was previously shown, and Kunst Museum Winterthur, which will host the exhibition after its run in The Hague. Published by Hannibal Publishers, the catalogue costs € 39.95.