The way you make me move: Recently deceased Ghent-based artist Lucas Devriendt, as recalled by friends, colleagues and students

A few months ago – in early November 2017 – Belgian painter Lucas Devriendt passed away – rather suddenly and unexpectedly – at the age of 62 due to an acute illness. I first met Lucas about a decade ago. Before I got to know his work as a painter, I knew him as a teacher. Besides painting, Lucas spent a lot of his time and energy helping young artists find their way outside of the studio – he was one of the driving forces behind the painting department of LUCA || School of Arts. While I personally never was in one of his classes, some of my friends were, and so Lucas started to become part of my life too. We were never really close, but when you share a number of friends in a town as small as Ghent, where we both were based, you’re bound to mingle sooner or later. And so, over the last decade, Lucas and I spent a lot of evenings together, discussing art and life, most of the time around a bottle of red wine. I also quickly became familiar with Lucas’ paintings. In his very accessible and recognisable figurative style, through contemporary versions of the classic genre paintings – like still lifes and landscapes, but mainly portraits – Lucas focussed on painting itself. His studio played an important role in this: as a location where he constructed small still lifes, where his models posed and he painted, but also as the backdrop for his paintings. The little red table he used in his studio is present in countless works, mostly in the background but sometimes featured prominently – just the table with a cigarette dangling from its side, waiting for the painter to return to work. His love for and use of Polaroid photography also originated from this studio practice, with most photographs functioning as preparatory studies for paintings whilst others were compositions in their own right – such as the photograph of a ripe, yellow pear on crumpled sheets, the last composed photograph Lucas took in his hospital bed, three days before his passing. Lucas did not only look like the Mick Jagger of the Belgian art scene, he also lived the life – very much in the moment, not worrying about what was still to come. After hearing people speak about him at his funeral and reminiscing with friends afterward, I realised that – while I was never in any of his classes – I too was one of his students. Just by living, by leading by example, Lucas did teach me about life and about the world. And so it was that on that Thursday 16th November, I promised myself to be more like him: more generous, open and happy to live in the moment.

This series of first-hand tributes was collected by Thomas Caron, founder of artlead.net
All pictures © Mirjam Devriendt, except Lucas Devriendt Studio with Sunflowers 25th December 2017 © Richard Duyck.

Bert Huyghe: Artist

I can remember very well how I started painting. One day early October, I stumbled upon Lucas Devriendt as I was leaving school. He shambled through the hallway, slightly bent forward, with long, messy hair and a rollie in his curved fingers. He wore a leather jacket and Chelsea boots, was wrinkled and radiated pure lust for life. It was as if time had stopped – something out of a film. From then onwards there would always be Lucas strolling through the hallway and me staring at him. I asked what class he taught and he answered, “Painting.” The next day I enrolled in the painting department. Lucas was my first teacher, and the main reason I started studying painting. He was part of the audience when I played with my band, he bought the ‘zines I published, he sat next to me at the bar of Café Bornhem, was a fellow fan of the Red Devils. He was someone to cue with at the coffee machine down the hall. He was a source of inspiration and positivism. It seemed like he was everywhere. Everyone I enjoy spending time with was also a friend of Lucas and he liked those people back. He was a friend, a mentor and a painter.

Thibaut Verhoeven: Art Historical Researcher at S.M.A.K., Ghent

I first met Lucas when visiting his studio about 15 years ago. We immediately connected in a friendly, non-professional manner and spent hours talking about painting, a mutual passion. Although that first studio visit had a professional intention, our relationship grew into a more personal one afterward. We became close and met regularly with the only intention to help and advise each other through our respective life paths. Although everybody in the art world has many acquaintances, real friends are (in my case) rare. Lucas was one of the truest friends I’ve had and to me, he gave meaning to the word “friendship” in the most general sense of what that word could and should mean. He was one of the most generous people I have ever known. He really savoured life but never choked on its bone, also a very rare quality. As a painter, Lucas was extremely ambitious when it came to the activity of painting itself, but he was only ambitious when it fitted his humanity. He never compromised that – never. His handling of paint – you can’t really speak of a “painterly style” – again completely fit his character: it was extremely sensitive, sensual even, the pleasure that he got from painting was physical, and exploded from every canvas. I spent hours modelling for a portrait that he wanted from me for a show at Vandeweghe Gallery, but he made me come back for even more hours to just “get my look right.” When he finally had it, we celebrated this for hours, with beers, cigarettes and good food. You know the saying, “No work and no play makes Jack a dull boy?” Well with Lucas it was “A lot of work and more play never makes a dull boy,” and I still consider this to be the best bit of advice I ever received.

Leon van Schaik: Professor of Architecture at RMIT University, Melbourne (AU) and Lucas’ PhD supervisor

Lucas’ work as an artist was the subject of his PhD research. In it, he revealed in differing ways the continuities of life. There were continuities of family, as he explored his grandfather’s use of motifs drawn from art in murals in his radiology suite, as well as of the way his father, also a doctor, used a white handkerchief placed on Lucas’ back when he listened to Lucas’ breathing. The white square led to the black square, and to the history of black squares in art – his own Black Plastic. He revealed how Vermeer underlined some of his works. He revealed the gentle continuities in a country that has been swept over and again by the discontinuities of war. My enduring memory is of Lucas giving his PhD progress presentations each April and November, showing his work and choosing his words with deliberate poetic intensity. The sight of him seeking the best words to use gave viewers insight into the way his mind worked. A chuckle always ready to break out as he found the expression he was seeking. On the few occasions that I visited him at home, he found the perfect balance in negotiations between his sons, the cat, the plants, piles of books and his signature roll ups as he served coffee and found references to illuminate his points. His filmed PhD defence is a masterpiece of multi-layered thinking and communication. On the wall beside me as I write this is a tiny Black Plastic, purchased during his PhD, which supports my belief in the continuums of life.

Joeri Smet: Dramaturge at Ontroerend Goed

Lucas and I first met in 1996 at his home in Sint-Lievens-Esse. His son Alexander, my good friend and artistic companion, had arranged for our theatre company to hold a retreat in the gardens and rooms of his spacious family house. In exchange, we painted his window frames. At the time, the house was pervaded with Lucas’s energy – a kind, gracious but also intense atmosphere. As long as I’ve known him, Lucas always arranged and inhabited the space around him with a profound sense of beauty. There was an unbearable lightness to him, yet never superficial. I remember how he explained to me, on a trip to Venice, that the cherubims descending on the virgin Mary in Tintoretto’s Annunciation looked like drops of sperm. This connection between the physical reality and the deeper emotional and spiritual meaning of things was a distinguishing quality in Lucas – both as a human being and as an artist. In his work as a painter, I believe he  was searching for the essence of things at the precise moment when a transcendent truth – joy for life, love of life – becomes a tangible object. I personally have felt the impact of his Black Plastic paintings, dreamt about them, recalled them at moments of trouble and crisis. They sum up what Lucas told the world, namely that even the blackest moments have a shine to them and that there is always beauty and creation to lift us up. As he did, with the purity of his being.

Lotta Mächs: Illustrator

At the long kitchen table – a vase with drooping tulips, an ashtray and a plate of mandarins. We talked and drank strong coffee out of white Boch cups with a floral motive. I was wearing a red knitted sweater that used to belong to my grandmother, crossed my arms and took a drag on my cigarette. He looked up, hawed with his eyes and said, “Don’t move”. His iPhone was always nearby. He photographed, I inhaled. Upstairs, in his studio, we repeated this moment. I sat in front of his painting of an empty canvas, an image in an image. Where his gaze hawed lay recognition. He recognised Diego Velazquez’ 1640 Lady with a Fan. He loved how it all came together. Photographs were uploaded, he re-read some texts, composed the painting, made aquarelle studies and he versed his paintings in words – often late at night, in long Facebook messages. He painted and I sat there, I watched him as he watched me. His cool but kind eyes reflected a desire to share what only he had seen. His gaze was overtaken with pleasure – to look, to see, to paint, to capture that one lock of hair or that dot of light on the canvas. There was paint on his cheek, and in his hair, his quenched cigarette dangling in his mouth. This is what it was all about. The painter.

Tine Guns: Artist

The first moving image I recorded of Lucas was in his studio. He’s sitting in front of a painting, struggling to get it right. “What are you doing?” I ask. “I’m looking,” he shoots back. Another image that is stuck in my head is when we were going to a football field close to the village where he lived. Lucas told me that one night he was struck by the bright lights on the small field and that he would love to paint that. He wanted to film the changing of the lights but he only had his Polaroid camera. So we went there together and filmed the field for as long as my DV-tape allowed. It was a total fiasco. My rudimentary camera recorded the darkness rather than the changing light. But we did experience a beautiful sunset together, so the trip was worth it. To me, both moments perfectly illustrate Lucas’ importance as an artist. We shared a wonderment for the beauty of a local football field, a sunset, a bus stop or even an empty dance floor. For fruits and every day things. To first see the poetry of the world, and only then dig deeper. We talked about art, about time but mostly about love and life. Lucas loved to live, always with a good laugh.

Isolde Vanhee: LUCA || School of Arts docent and editor of Rekto:Verso

I remember Lucas wanting to show me something on his laptop, then switching to his smartphone when the battery failed. This often happened; in search of that one image, not finding it right away, rolling a cigarette, searching again, at the same time gesticulating that I had to take another piece of chocolate, petting his cat Henri on the head. Like no other, Lucas could commit to a conversation and be true to the moment, but in that moment much happened at the same time. The last time I saw him, he was looking for a photograph of the Sunflowers on his smartphone. With Sunflowers, his last painting, Lucas salutes Van Gogh, the painter whose still lifes he made me look at differently, with more attention. No matter how spontaneously unaware the flowers appear to be brushed on the canvas, their portraiture is the logical outcome of Lucas’ love for genres, painterly and other clichés – as well as Ghent’s flower market. The sunflowers stand there, beautiful, smiling, in a white vase on the little red table where oranges, tulips and pork brains lay before. They drop their heads a little, obeying gravity’s call, whilst at the same time luminously luring the eye of the painter and his audience. Sunflowers as a farewell, it can hardly be more like Lucas, who as a person and as a painter, was able to recharge the cliché, to give weight to the everyday ritual with a slight chuckle.

Lucas Devriendt, Zwarte Plastiek, Oil on canvas, 35x35cm, 2016

Siegrid Demyttenaere: Co-Founder DAMN° magazine

I first met Lucas 32 years ago, and there was an instant connection, like a little bomb or double heartbeat. Right from the start I was overwhelmed by Lucas’s charisma. He had this aura around him, immediately giving you a certain comfort and self-confidence. He could turn your doubts into valuable knowledge, which is so important for young creative people. Having Lucas as a teacher must have been a blessing – and I wish I’d had him as a teacher, but in many ways, I guess I did. One of the things I treasure most about Lucas was his ability to see beauty in so many things – it might be imperceptible, but it’s there. This is what I really learnt from him: beauty is everywhere, you just need to look. Appreciating the small wonders of everyday life: a pear, a plastic bag, the light falling on a hand, a sandwich, a worn-out coffeepot. I will remember Lucas as a coming together of many small and great things – impossible to all describe in a few lines. I want to share one final anecdote that always makes me smile. Once we were in Milan, during the design circus of the Salone del Mobile. We visited some churches – Lucas always knew where the good paintings were – soaked up the sights, looked for the most authentic bar in the neighbourhood to sip red wine while looking and talking about the people passing by. Finally, we went back on the metro and a man stopped us, asking for an autograph. We looked at each other, slightly confused. Then the man said: “You’re Mick Jagger, right?” “Right,” said Lucas.

Nicolas Provost: Artist

I met Lucas at the end of the 80s, as my graphic design teacher at Sint-Lucas, Ghent. I was 19 years old. It took him a while to notice me, mainly because I started to skip classes pretty early on. But when he did, he recognised a lost kid eager to find his own voice. He basically put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You’re great, I like you, I’m gonna be your friend and I’m gonna show you some stuff that will blow your mind.” He was the first teacher to see who I truly was and for the rest of my adult life I’ve been conscious of the importance of this encounter – even if it was only over a short period of time. I have always felt blessed to have known this man. He became a spiritual guide during my coming of age. He showed you who you were when you needed it the most. That was his genius. He made me feel like a friend. I could come to his home, unannounced, and we would talk about his paintings, art, music, design and beauty. I liked everything about him. I remember even wanting hair like his. In my early twenties I fell in love with a Norwegian girl and didn’t see Lucas for more than a decade until I moved back to Belgium. He would laugh every time I told him that he was the only teacher that I felt had actually taught me something valuable, about life even. Not many people have this unconditional gift. Last year I wanted to reconnect with Lucas when I saw an incredibly beautiful picture of him painting a sunset somewhere abroad. I imagined rediscovering his friendship and Lucas being part of my life again as I grew older. Which I feel is still possible.

“19th of July 1953 Sunday

By the evening I saw the first sunflower.

Now hydrangeas are springing up everywhere.

And the place is full of dahlias.”

– Nature Journal by Nescio