Issue 31, Winter-Spring 1964
Louis de Wet, a 33-year-old painter from South Africa, of Dutch-Flemish origin, came to Europe in 1953. He lived in Paris for some years before finding a large studio-house in Campden Hill, London.
F. Your work is modem but it isn't in what I would call a conventionally modern style.
deW. In Paris I realized one day that I just couldn't go on painting the way everybody around me was painting. They suffered from an inability to draw and paint the objects, the things which moved them: the women, the beauty of women's flesh, of stuffs, metals, flowers and butterflies. I felt that if textures, matieres, patinas, surfaces, marks, lines and shapes and circles have to do with our experience as modern art protagonists claim then so have the appearances of things. That is, these circles and lines and patinas and shapes occur on objects and things you recognize. Such recognizable objects must penetrate to even the deepest levels of our experience. But I had to to be able to draw them. This had something to do with the envy, the sad sort of admiration one felt when one looked at the work of people like Durer, like Corot. The ability of Grunewald in paint to depict, for instance, the rose in the Issenheimer altar-piece, in Colmar. The ethereal, visionary quality of the rose glowing behind the Madonna doesn't take away from the fact that it is very much an ordinary rose too. I chink that's part oi the vision: that it's so much a flower we know, transformed. It's not some object badly drawn which is sup- posed to be a transformed rose.
F. You mean it's the symbol and the real thing at the same time? deW. Yes, and to be a symbol it has to be the real thing.
F. I think it's fair to say that most of your pictures seem absorbed with death, or with die way flesh gets warped by time.
deW. This is terribly important to me. Deeply, deeply important. This consciousness of death coming... But not so much death, you know. Dying. Quite close to Paris there's a small mediaeval church. La Ferte Loupiere, which has a Danse Macabre on its walls. Now die Danse Macabre arose when the idea that Paradise was going to follow death was disappearing from Europe. Men began to realize they would die. You feel this in Francois Villon. You see it in the Danse Macabre of Holbein. Well, inside tliis church, imdenieath these rather crude drawings, some mediaeval person has written some poetry. One of the lines I'll never forget: Quant mourir fault, c est grant con trainte. Which means, more or less, “When it is necessary to die, it is a great restriction.” And I notice that everywhere. The hours a woman spends in front of the mirror, trying to hold death at hay. The time we take to clean ourselves, to rid ourselves of the dead matter that our bodies secrete, the horror we have for the hair that comes out, for the paunch that develops, for the decaying strength. There is a fantastic nostalgic dc la jeunesse today, and for the thing related to it: the sun, the Cote d'Azur, the guitar, things which are spontaneous and young; and for young habitsEinstein eating ice- cream... It comes into art. I want to paint a painting one dayeach thing I do, drawing or painting, tries to do thiswhich will lock the spectator in a gaze, like Medusa, and turn him to stone for the instant he looks at it, so that he is no longer conscious of time passing, so that for the rime he looks at it he is not dying. That's what I want.
F. This involves concealing the scaffolding of your work, doesn't it? I mean there's a lot of painting today in which the becoming of the painting is as important as the thing it becomes. Your drawings or paintings seem to me to be opposed to this.
deW. Yes, so much in painting today has the quality of getting between the spectator and what he is looking at. What I called the Medusa-like grip of the painting is somehow destroyed by usual techniques: the over-thick paint, the inadequacies of drawing. A painting must transcend its means, so that it becomes the thing it portrays. And I don't mean superficial description.
deW. No. This drawing, for instance (No. 2 In portfolio) can't be said CO be photographic. Yet it comes across alive, I feel, not just as drawing.
F. Yes. So to get this kind of life into your work you had to start all over again, in the early Paris days. And you began to draw rather than paint. Was this a deliberate search for austerity? And were you trying to perfect that technique before moving on to painting again?
deW. Yes. But at the same rime I did something less obvious, in terms of fuiished results: one undertook a study of mediaeval Flemish techniques and a study of die quality and nature of pigments and varnishes. I have written a book on technique, pigments and media. It more or less traces my attempt to teach myself what art: schools no longer teach.
F. This use of Flemish techniquesare you trying to involve the spectator in your vision, to lead him in as Bosch does?
deW. Well, Bosch's vision isn't ordinary enough for the extraordinary to have the kind of value I like. Like Cranach's or Breughel's.
To be a symbol it has to be a real thing. Cranach, for instance, reveals the mysterious, smiling, enigmatic side of women. And the ordinariness of their beauty is wonderful. None of the women is an ideal type, none is excessively beautiful or excessively ugly. Yet just because they're ordinary they're terribly attractive.
F. Cranach's Venus seems a very unidealized creature. She looks as if she'd just taken her corsets off.
deW. Exactly. That's it. I'm looking for the kind of ordinariness Cranach achieved, Breughel too. It's the details, the relating of objects in Breughel which moves me: the birds in the fog, seen through mist, sitting on branches; the thistle blown by the wind unobserved by people rushing past to the Crucifixion. The care he takes with detail is extraordinary. You also get it in a book like L'Histoire d'O.
F. Yes, you said someone illustrated it.
deW. Leonor Fini. But her illustrations don't have much to do with the book. I mean, you could say a tea-pot was round, and be wrong because it's oval, but at least your remark would bear some relation to the tea-pot's shape. Or you could say it was brown when really it's orange, and still make sense. But if you said that tea-pot was square and purple, it'd be a very different matter. That's what Fini's done. L'Histoire d'O is as concretely evoked as one of Colette's interiors, as illustrateable as a description by Malaparte. L'Histoirv id'O has a tremendous respect for the appearance of a woman, of a room. But those illustrations! You see splotches of paint, phalluses like seaweed, people reduced to phantasmagoria.
F. What ideas... what projects have you got for the future?
deW. It s the way that womenbeautiful, attractive, yet ordinary, and different from one another relate to the skeleton, to dying, that interests me. In their temporary beauty they achieve a transient, poignant victory for a while. Also, the compassion, and the severity and tenderness and masculine authority in some ageing men, Another temporary victory. I'd like to do the Dance of Death, with lovely young women and men who are ageing but have somehow won dignity in the process... with jukeboxes, missiles, aeroplanes, those wonderful objects women use to make up with, animals, everything great, vast Dances of Death. beautifully painted, and full of the excitement you get from modem music, from “shake” music, music with a bite. Do you know Night Train?
F. I know Jimmy Forrest's Night Train.
deW. I mean the record by James Brown and the Famous Flames- It's the immediacy, the terrible excitement in the dance, that over- whelms me. It links up with the Danse Macabre. I forget myself in the dance, it takes me completely out of a feeling of dying. When I watch good dancing I get cold in the cheeks. It's weird.