Walter Swennen

Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp

To do: Quote the little passage where Swennen says that in the early 1960s he filled his time with essential and complicated things: the existence of God and how to seduce a girl. Say that he wrote poems to the music on John Coltrane’s first album. Say that his cat’s name was Pollock and that he thought you had to lie on your belly to paint. ( . . . ) Say that it took him twenty years to realize that it’s easier to paint in an upright position.
—excerpt from the catalogue W. Swennen

Walter Swennen is probably one of Belgium’s best kept secrets. His paintings are tempting and seem extremely simple to comprehend. Once you’ve seen the clear, often childish images, they are forever lodged in your memory. A painting like Untitled (Juju), 1985, depicts a blow-up of a pacifier to nearly grotesque proportions. Just pulled out of the child’s mouth, it seems that the object itself is slobbering. It is as if the huge drops of saliva from the baby become tears dripping out of the rubber. Floating on a thick layer of black, this big pacifier looks abandoned, dazed. Another example of Swennen’s reversed world is Zonder titel (Légume triste) [Untitled (sad vegetable), 1985], in which a carrot is crying for the music it hears coming out of the blue: just one simple note makes the carrot cry.

As in Juju, the power of Swennen’s style is such that you are easily persuaded the carrot has no other recourse than to be overwhelmed by this sentimental music. Yet Swennen’s paintings can’t be compared with plain cartoons. The anecdotal image is of course the eye-catcher, the reason why you are attracted in the first place. But this is often a Siren’s call: a snare, an elegant detour to draw our attention away from the fruitful soils of abstraction that lie beneath these frivolous figurative images.

In Untitled (Crocodile), 1992, Swennen works in the opposite way and buries the head of a crocodile under a more or less transparent abstract painting as if to prove this proposition. Five monochrome rectangles drift over this abstract/figurative painting. Despite what one might expect this mixture of styles yields a perfectly balanced image. There is no question of a struggle: an absolute equilibrium between abstract and figurative art is nearly achieved.The trouble is that Swennen’s paintings are so appealing that we think it is suspicious to like them. After all, it is more exciting to search for hidden beauty than to look at the obvious.

Jos Van den Bergh