TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT Summer 1990

FLIGHT INTO WHITENESS: BRAM VAN VELDE

IN 1923, BRAM VAN VELDE made a painting entitled Neige (Snow), or, sometimes, Paysage de neige (Snowy landscape). He was 28 years old. Something quite frightening happens on this canvas, like a definitive leave-taking—a goodbye in that terrible dimension of “forever.” Three men are walking in the white that takes up most of the surface. Two of them have turned around to stare at the viewer, as if for the last time. The third is walking toward a cramped village in the distance, at the bottom of a valley. Maybe the young man who painted this image didn’t really understand it yet, for he would continue to use the figure for fifteen years more. But one is tempted to read into Neige the premonitory representation of a double abandonment. First, abandonment of self, because if the painter of the impossible later acknowledged by Samuel Beckett was to emerge, it was necessary that Van Velde die, at least as he appears in a photograph of 1914, and in the deft self-portrait as virtuoso painter of 1915: the young dandy. The second abandonment was the abandonment of the figure, and with it of any way of painting without risk, a safe harbor from which the older Van Velde would never cease to flee. “Art,” he said, “is risk. What’s the point of doing something that one is capable of doing?” Or, again, this terrible critique of the too happily resolved painting of a colleague: “It is a painting in which there was nothing to go wrong.”1

Risk comes expensive: when Van Velde painted Neige, more than 20 years of poverty, loneliness, and distress were awaiting the young man, including the miseries of occupied Paris during World War II. These decades, however, would bring forth the other, radically new painter who would follow nothing but the path of his gaze into the inexpressible. “I am a being without language,” Van Velde asserted; “I can say nothing, I have no words. It is terrible to live when one has no power over words.” In order to discover that painter in all his splendor, one must look at the gouaches and oils of the late ’30s. No more art, no more craft; painting, only painting, springs forth from the whiteness of the canvas, or, better yet, from that of paper. Forgotten are the landscapes, the still lifes, or even the masks such as the artist painted in Majorca in 1933, which themselves echo the three masks he did in watercolor at the same time as Neige, during a stay in the community of Expressionist artists in Worpswede, near Bremen. “I had to be free,” Van Velde would say, “to be without a role, without craft. Painting demanded it.” What craft is revealed, though, as early as 1924, in Das Weib (The woman), or, more obviously and with more virtuosity, in the many still lifes done in Paris around 1930.

Van Velde grew up in Zoeterwoude, near Leyden, the Netherlands. As a young man he apprenticed at a house-paint company owned by Eduard H. Kramers, a collector and connoisseur, and Kramers, recognizing the artist’s promise, first put him on a stipend, then convinced him to improve his craft and his education by going to Munich, then to Worpswede, and finally, in 1924, to Paris. It was therefore in Paris that the radical painter clearly in evidence in the untitled gouaches of 1937–38 and on eventually came to light. In these works, and even more so in those of the war years, Van Velde exchanged the knowledge he had acquired, and its promises, for the essential, the purely existential, dimension of painting. His art and the choice it engages, of course, belong to their time, which has passed. The drama of “I paint my misery” has evaporated from the art world today, as if the fascination with success had blown away the fascination with failure. Only the possible, or, better, the doable, makes sense today. With Van Velde, though, life—or existence, as one would say during the postwar years—takes place literally and with obsessive repetitiveness on the canvas, and life, as it is understood in this painting, is the impossible, the undo-able, or, in Beckett’s fine term, the obstacle. “Earlier on,” Van Velde felt, “painting was on the side of the positive, of the do-able. I needed to deal with what was not do-able.” Looking at his mature works one gets a feeling of ceaseless effort toward the same end, out of any possible reach: to engender a necessity where none had existed before. Existence equals contingency, and contingency is perhaps more blatant within the limits of what is called painting than it is anywhere else. Why these forms? Why these colors? The naked surface on which they have come to dance, after all, wanted nothing, absolutely nothing.

These questions, which exist in any painting of worth, are attached in Van Velde’s art particularly to the role of white. Which white exactly? Not the color that comes out of a tube, but the noncolor of the surface not yet stained by pigment. Most of Van Velde’s work allows here and there some traces of this white—the white of the void. This is surely why Van Velde liked to paint on paper (though financial reasons must also have played a part, because for many years he was truly impoverished). Another reason may have been that gouache allows all sorts of transparencies and fluidities that oil on canvas would clog; but above all, paper is just so much whiter than canvas, as can be seen in all the remnants of bare paper, virgin of color, in Van Velde’s gouaches, their lack of pigmentation boring holes of radical blankness in the image. These voids carry the weight of the painting in its totality, and there clings to them a sense of the arbitrariness, the existential contingency, of the very gesture of painting. Surely this white has been left there to signify, without words, what Van Velde was seeing when he said, “To paint is a way for me to approach the nothing, the void.”

It is not surprising that such a painter should have found in Beckett both a supporter and the writer of a commentary that was not so much a critical reading as a kind of echo in the parallel register of literature. Claire Stoullig has emphasized “the shadow cast by the texts of Samuel Beckett on the work of the painter,” adding that those texts were most often a matter “not of an exegesis of the painting by the writer, nor of a demand for recognition of the painter, but of a meeting between ‘he who uses words’ and he who uses them ‘as if they were a weapon.’”2 It would be a mistake, however, to overlook the light that the writer brought to the art at the same time that he shadowed its interpretation. Beckett’s words, after all, belong to the history of this painting, and the recognition of this simple historical reality does not imply that any preeminence whatsoever has been accorded to language and to literature over visual art. The fact is only that the writer and the artist enjoyed a long-standing synchronism.

Beckett was introduced to Van Velde in 1936, by Geer van Velde, the artist’s brother, himself a painter. During the war years the writer was practically Bram’s only support. In 1945 he devoted a text to the two brothers, Le Monde et le pantalon (The world and the trousers), on the occasion of an exhibition they shared at the Galerie Mai in Paris.3 Two more essays on Bram would follow: in 1948, the magazine Derrière le miroir would publish “Peintres de l’empêchement” (Painters of the mist) for an exhibition at Paris’ Galerie Maeght4; and an imaginary dialogue between Beckett and the critic Georges Duthuit, published in English in the Paris magazine Transition, would complete the series in 1949.5 It is certainly not as an art critic, and still less as a theoretician or a historian, that Beckett described his admiration for his painter friend, but as an artist who used that admiration to understand himself, to discuss, through the work of the other, “l’etre artiste” (the artist’s being). “My case,” wrote Beckett,

since I am in the dock, is that Bram van Velde is the first to desist from this estheticised automatism, the first to submit wholly to the incoercible absence of relation, in the absence of terms or, if you like, in the presence of unavailable terms, the first to admit that to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and to shrink from it desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living. I know that all that is required now, in order to bring even this horrible matter to an acceptable conclusion, is to make of this submission, this admission, this fidelity to failure, a new occasion, a new term of relation, and of the act which, unable to act, obliged to act, he makes an expressive art, even if only of itself, of its impossibility, of its obligation. I know that my inability to do so places myself, and perhaps an innocent, in what I think is still called an unenviable situation. For what is this coloured plane, that was not there before? I don’t know what it is, having never seen anything like it before. It seems to have nothing to do with art, in any case, if my memories of art are correct.6

Having never seen anything like it before, Beckett sees accurately, and what needs to be seen is that what is missing in painting today—precisely because what is missing belongs to an earlier time, perhaps—is some metaphysical meaning that can be given to failure as well as to success.

Other artists besides Van Velde, of course, addressed similar issues at around the same time, and, like him, found echoes of their concerns in literature and philosophy. Thus Wols, the German painter also exiled in Paris, was able to endow his canvases with something more than craft or virtuosity of the brush—a form of total ontological engagement that converged with the contemporary speculations of Jean-Paul Sartre, who saw this clearly and chose the painter as an admired friend. The strange, quasi-organic forms of Wols’ paintings are visual correlatives of the chasms of thingness that Sartre evokes in La Nausée (Nausea, 1938). Unlike Van Velde, Wols reveled in words, but the tone of the aphorisms he wrote is not that far from the rare utterances of the Dutch artist. “Often,” he remarked, for example, “I see what I am looking at with my eyes closed; and everything is there, beautiful and exhausting.”7 The link between this invisible internal whole and Van Velde’s obstacle or “blind eye” may not be direct but it is present. Like Beckett clarifying Van Velde, Sartre, in a formula that existentially folds vision and being back on each other, would say that Wols “applies himself to seeing—therefore to being—more profoundly.” Jean Fautrier too belongs to this strange and disjunct family of loners, though he was more of a technician of materials and surfaces—more of a painter than a philosopher. Yet he too wrote statements dramatizing the art of painting and giving it an existential weight, as when, to conclude his essay “Parallèles sur l’informer” (Parallels in informel, 1958), he remarked, “Painting is something that can only destroy itself, that must destroy itself, in order to reinvent itself.”8 And he too would find a scribe, Jean Paulhan, whose book Fautrier l’enragé (Fautrier the enraged, 1962) includes this definition of the painter: “He seems to have no other concern but to give to the earth its weight, to night its darkness. . . . To cruelty, its tenderness. To the soul, its portion of density.”9

These writers’ works show similar themes running from each painter to the other, a similar dialectic of the possible and the impossible, the expressible and the inexpressible, the visible and the invisible. Though Van Velde was isolated, then, he was not absolutely alone; he stood at the margins of the School of Paris of the period, several of whose postwar representatives have not fared as well today in comparison to him—their work is too finished, too pretty, too knowingly or too craftily constructed in the informel or tachist manner. Back then, however, the painting of Van Velde was, in Serge Guilbaut’s term, “invisible,”10 and it isn’t until today, after a long purgatory, that it can take its place in the history of pictorial forms in which, beyond or perhaps despite the views of the time, it will henceforth be inscribed. The specifically existentialist dimension of this work did not prevent it from picking up and developing in its own way the formal traits of Modernism: the young Van Velde was direct heir to Expressionism, and he incorporated the lessons of Cubism and even more so of Henri Matisse when he went to Paris. Furthermore, without eliding any of the motivations rooted in the philosophical values of their time, we now associate Van Velde’s mature works with those of Arshile Gorky and Jackson Pollock. They have the same sense of violently avoiding any finished or polished form at the same time that they reveal a mastery of the two-dimensional painted surface. As Guilbaut has written, theirs is “a way of organizing chaos, of adjusting, as Cézanne would have, the elements that gush out from the canvas, to end up in an unstable equilibrium.”11 Beckett was only partially mistaken to see in Van Velde’s painting proof of the vitality of the School of Paris, at just the same time that Clement Greenberg, in New York, was announcing the end of its hegemony: Van Velde’s work was worthy of comparison with the young Americans of the time. Far from representing the School of Paris renascent after the ruptures and ashes of war, however, this was rather, as Guilbaut has again observed, the most severe critique of it. The result was that this painter’s work was seen in neither Paris nor New York.

It is a strange pleasure, in the end, to paint as Van Velde did. It is a reciprocally strange pleasure to look at the result. For what is a pleasure that is nourished by the impossible, by failure, by obstacle? Pleasures, nevertheless, exist here, and on every side. Van Velde’s art is like a paradoxical dance that in spite of certain appearances is not the dance of death: it makes visual pleasure out of uncertainty and risk. That is why it is impossible to resist the fascination of the accidental forms, capsized colors, tentative transparencies, trickles, and spontaneous iridescences that make up this unparalleled painting. It was undoubtedly this fascination that led Van Velde to say, in an extraordinary, self-reflexive formula, that painting “is an eye, a blind eye, which sees what blinds it.”

Daniel Soutif is a writer who lives in Paris. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

Translated from the French by Hanna Hannah.

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NOTES

1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Bram van Velde come from Jacques Putman and Charles Juliet, Bram van Velde, Paris: Maeght éditeur, 1975.
2. Claire Stoullig, “Bram van Velde, Un certain état de la fortune critique,” in Bram van Velde, exhibition catalogue, Paris: SPADEM and Éditions de Centre Pompidou, 1989, p. 13. The two phrases Stoullig quotes are taken from “Propos de Bram van Velde,” in Charles Juliet, Rencontres avec Bram van Velde, Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1973, pp. 17 and 42.
3. This text was recently republished as a small brochure, Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1989.
4. This piece, translated under the title “The New Object,” would serve as a preface to the exhibition at the Galerie Kootz, New York, in 1946. The text is quoted in its entirety in the Pompidou catalogue, pp. 169–70. Empêchement is usually translated as “obstacle” or “hindrance,” but the English version published by the Galerie Kootz uses the word “mist.”
5. This piece was republished in French for an exhibition at the Gallery Michael Warren, Paris, in 1957.
6. Samuel Beckett, “Three Dialogues,” Transition no. 5, Paris, 1949. Republished in Beckett, Georges Duthuit, and Putman, Bram van Velde, New York: Grove Press, Inc., and London: Evergreen Books, Ltd., 1960, pp. 10–13.
7. Wols, “Aphorismes,” in Wols en personne, Paris: Delpire, 1963, p. 57. Quoted by Maurice Frechuret, “L'Impossibilité de peindre,” in L’Art en Europe, les années décisives 1945–1953, exhibition catalogue, Saint-Étienne: Musée d’Art Moderne de Saint-Étienne, 1987, p. 63.
8. Jean Fautrier, “Parallèles sue l’informel,” 1958, republished in Jean Fautrier, exhibition catalogue, Paris: Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1989, p. 15.
9. Jean Paulhan, Fautrier l’enragé, Paris: Gallimard, 1962, p. 16.
10. Serge Guilbaut, “Bram van Velde en A Amérique, la peinture invisible,” in Bram van Velde, SPADEM and Éditions du Centre Pompidou, p. 26.
11. Ibid., p. 29.

“Bram van Velde,” a retrospective of the artist’s work curated by Claire Stoullig, opened at the Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, the Netherlands, last year, and traveled from there to the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, the Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderna, Valencia, and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.