The drama in Robert Devriendt’s oeuvre

A little over a year ago Belgian artist Robert Devriendt (1955) visited us at our offices in Brussels for a face-to-face conversation about his internationally recognised oeuvre, his recent exhibition, Making Connections in Bruges’ Groeninge Museum, acting as a pretext. Best known for his intricate and detailed depictions of scenes that possess somewhat tense, tormented even, characteristics, Devriendt creates minute paintings that reveal a knack for enigmatic scenarios, suggestive mysteries and open-ended dramas. Here, in a candid and extended interview, we talk intrinsic violence, implicit sensuality and looking at things impulsively.

This article was previously published in last year’s Dream edition, and republished for the ocassion of The Missing Script, Robert Devriendt’s current solo exhibition at Albert Baronian.

 Maybe we can start by talking about how the idea to have the exhibition came about? 

There was a writer a few years ago that described me as a ‘new Flemish primitive,’ and I remember thinking I was not so primitive. However, I live in Bruges, so maybe there is a link between the 15th century paintings and my work. So I gradually began to think it would be interesting to show my work in the Groeninge Museum, which houses 15th century art.

How does this exhibition fit within this museum?

The Groeninge Museum is very important, and they have an excellent collection of very realistic early oil paintings, such as Van Eyck and Memling. As my paintings are based on the “daily reality,” it was very important to combine this aspect of my work with the realistic 15th century works. The art here is very contemporary in a way, the people in the paintings just wear different clothes and operate within different, or sometimes equal systems, but they are human beings. Whenever I’m walking through a museum and looking for fragments and details, I try to see it as contemporary art. For me the date of a painting does not make a difference.

There was a writer a few years ago that described me as a ‘new Flemish primitive,’ and I remember thinking I was not so primitive.

So how would you then compare 15th century art to more modern art ? 

For me, art exists when someone is looking at it. I don’t think I can understand a painting as though it is from the 15th century. I always look at it from my of own eyes, and see if can I do something with it, but I do not look at it in a historical way… there is also a lot of very contemporary art which is not contemporary at all, because it does nothing to me. It’s very simple, does it change my life and can it give me energy? To me, questions like those are very important. Whether it’s the sky in an old painting, or a contemporary video — it’s all the same to me, and it’s about whether I can do something with it.

Can you talk to us about the work that you are showing for this exhibition?

I am showing the most important works for me from the last three or four years. I also chose them because I will do something in the future aligned with it, it also puts into perspective and points a bit to the direction in which I am going.

Which direction is that?

I think over time my paintings can more and more be seen as a kind of movie which is not finished and which will never be finished, ever. A movie with a lot of gaps. I like the action, the drama… for example, when I walk around in Brussels, I feel that I am missing something, so I have to use my imagination to feel good. Or, perhaps there is too much of a reality I cannot project my feelings onto, so I have to use my imagination. Also, for me, the word drama means the tension between different, strong feelings, yet it’s not only the negative side of drama. When I ask myself why people like movies and stories so much, I think it is to run from pure reality, and through painting I can make another reality.

What influences your choice of subject matter?

I strongly believe in a kind of impulsive way of looking. Sometimes, I sit in a room and I am aware that I am looking at something. I do not make the decision to look at something, it’s automatic, and it is very important to follow the way your eyes are going, in this sort of  impulsive, primitive way of looking.

Perhaps there is too much of a reality I cannot project my feelings onto, so I have to use my imagination.

What would you say was your starting point? 

When I start with a work, I put a few images together. For example, if I’m working with people then I try to look at them from another angle. Then maybe I start to feel different about it, and bit by bit a kind of logic reveals itself. It is not only about the subjects, but also about colour, about abstract feelings or shapes and having a balance, which is typical for me.

When did you decide to start painting?

I was in school until I was 15, and I wanted to escape, so one evening I called my parents and told them I wanted to stop and go to art school. In the meantime I had followed an art course over the post. It was an American course, and had to send the work to Rotterdam.

That made you want to continue painting?

Yes, because by the time I was twelve years old, I already knew Willem de Kooning and Dutch American and Philip Guston. I saw certain things, books and images which I kept with me, and sometimes when school was too heavy I looked at those images of paintings. These images were a way to experience a different reality. I felt I had to go to the art school, I had no choice, I did not intend to go there to earn money, it sounds very romantic, but I just needed to go there.

Can you talk to us about the title, ‘Making Connections,’ how did it come to being?

A Belgian art critic and teacher living in New York [Michaël J. Amy] had written an article for a book of mine, and the title was Making Connections — so I did not have to look for long. The title is about connections between the paintings and the people looking at the paintings. Everything is about making connections. It’s not a very romantic or dramatic title…


How does the title speak of the works in the exhibition?

The title only says that there are links between the paintings. You could look at the paintings as if you were a detective. You can ask yourself what happened, and what you cannot see. For me, someone who is looking at paintings or art is a voyeur and also a detective, someone who wants to find things, who wants to understand. What the viewer imagines says something, not only about the paintings, but also a lot about him or herself. Maybe it’s a classical way of thinking, but art is a way of communicating. One of the reasons why I started to paint is because I could not say things very clearly or perfectly, but with images you can try to communicate, only try.

When and how did you decide with Filip Demeyer, the curator, to set up the exhibition?

It was something Filip and I did did together, I do not know who started. We had actually talked about the exhibition for three years. When you have a show in a museum like this though, many people have to agree. But I still had a lot of freedom to do what I wanted. 

So Filip and you worked together on the production?

Yes. For example, once Filip said something about an installation I had made, and I slept on it and thought about it, and then changed it, because in the end he was right. But, when I am doing an exhibition, I am always talking to people, even with the person doing the cleaning. It’s not about whether they find the works good or bad, but about where they think something should go. If you want to succeed in something, you always have to talk to other people, even when you are sure of what you want to do. You need to talk to someone who is not thinking about it so much, and who will just respond instantly and naturally.

Did you select the works in the show?

Yes, it was me. I think ‘curator’ is a title I did not know yet in the 70’s, and I now it’s like a system, and you always need to have a curator, but I’m not sure if you really need that for a solo exhibition.


What, for you, is the role of a curator?

There are always people who stimulate you, and there are also always people putting you down. A curator is very good when he stimulates you – you feel good when you have a talk with them. I don’t like it when I start to sense a sort of hierarchy.

While choosing which pieces to put together, what story did you hope to tell?

A lot of things go into our minds all the time, but I have a theory that everything that goes in has to find a way out one way or another. Usually I don’t talk about the subject or meaning of my work because maybe it’s up to the audience to figure it out.

… is the meaning you give to the subject  integral, essential element during the making of the artworks?

Of course. I always say that I think that making art is like making a movie, and maker, or director, is a character with a post-romantic trauma. I even know where this character lives. I have a very big garden and in that garden, which is like a forest, there is a cabin where the person with the post-romantic trauma lives. When he goes into town, he looks around and sees things, such as on screens, and he comes back and puts those images together in a particular way. For me, the subject or meaning of a work changes every day. Then again, it is very important that the audience takes responsibility as well. I will try to explain. For example, here [Making Connection, 2015] you see an explosion and you see two people, a man and a woman in the left part of the painting, so maybe this is one kind of connection. Then you have another kind of connection with the world at large, and you can ask yourself what the link is between the couple and the explosion. Maybe you can also ask yourself if the kind of explosion [in the painting] is in every individual, in every relationship? Or whether two people can find shelter in each other. But whenever you look, there are a lot of possibilities.

Where do you get inspiration for your work?

From everywhere, I don’t think there is a limit. For example, in this work [I Am Not An Image, 2015] I thought of the Hitchcock film ‘Rear Window’. Then again, when you see people in the shower like that, is it possible not to think about Hitchcock? Maybe there is a link with Hitchcock, I am not sure. In general, I like to paint because there is drama, but it’s challenging to paint a dramatic atmosphere. It’s important that I can disappear into an image and only after a moment realise that it’s not reality. I do not want to paint so quickly that you can see only the paint, because then there is no illusion…

Your paintings are very filmic, very photographic…

Yes, it’s like going inside the thoughts of the woman [in I Am Not An Image, 2015], don’t you think? The connections between the different images and between the viewer are very complicated. From the very beginning I knew I wanted to have the image of someone filming, so that gives it a little narrative, somehow associated with the movies we have seen. Maybe the way we look at other things is influenced by movies. Sometimes I paint things out of my head, from things I have seen, but most of the time I paint from photographs, but they are manipulated.

What do you hope people going to the exhibition will get out of it?

I think they will see fragments of drama. You could see here for instance [Le Rendez-vous Fatal, 2010-2011], that a man and a woman are somehow connected in the series, and you can sense an atmosphere of crime, of a hunt. Someone who sees this and then sees the machine gun will feel a sense danger. Maybe you’ll see the car burning on the street from an accident. Maybe they had an affair. But then again, maybe the woman was a member of the mafia, and that’s his car you see burning. Or maybe it is her car. Maybe she is the one doing something wrong, or he is. You don’t know and you have to find out for yourself.

Do the images have a specific mood?

Yes, there is violence, and sensuality is also very important, and if there is sensuality then there is automatically violence. My work is about coping with dramatic feelings. An artist can always explain what he is doing in one sentence, and I say it’s a drama. When you are too romantic, you can’t live a normal life. Or, when you cannot bear reality, you resort to some kind of romantic strategy to survive.

The Missing Script
Until Saturday 4th March
Albert Baronian, 2 Rue Isidore Verheyden (1050)