I SAW MYSELF SEEING MYSELF

By Ann M. Dijkstra, art historian (2014)

 

Marc Maet’s œuvre may be divided into three periods. In the early 1980s, it is akin to the Expressionism of the Neue Wilde. While in the late 1980s, he followed the prevailing international painting trends, in the 1990s, Maet evolved towards a powerful and literary style deeply-rooted in the Belgian artistic heritage. Along with Philippe Vandenberg, Fik van Gestel and others, Maet is regarded as a leading exponent of New Painting in Belgium.1

From 1991 to 2000, Maet’s painting is at the cutting edge between figurative and non-figurative art. In the Belgian tradition of René Magritte and Marcel Broodthaers, the role of words is preponderant in Maet’s painting. Maet quotes from paintings by earlier artists to develop his own visual language. The word ‘language’ is appropriate, because certain symbolic images and words, with varying meanings, recur in his paintings. For instance, a mirror may appear alone, or amidst other objects and words that, by association, will evoke different meanings. Maet also turned to world literature and the writings of major philosophers for quotations.

Introspection

From the early 1990s, Maet’s work reflects on art and its calling, as well as on the politics of the art world. Its reflective and linguistic aspects may suggest an affinity with Conceptual Art, but for him, the image, the medium of painting and the attendant materiality remain foremost.

Maet believes that the act of looking is essential for the visual arts. “Painting begins with looking”, as he said. Maet is fascinated by the first line of Paul Valéry’s poem La Jeune Parque: “I saw myself seeing myself”. Maet uses this line autonomously and ascribes different meanings to it. For him, it refers metaphorically to the interaction between the artist, his painting and the beholder, or who is looking at whom. The artist looks at his painting, which looks back at him, the beholder looks at the painting and it looks back – ultimately, the artist exits the painting and sees himself looking at it. This notion of looking back-and-forth is central to the series of paintings entitled Crystal. An excellent example is Once More Crystal (image 1 on the left). However, in this series, Maet deals with the question of mirror vision by the use of symbolic images instead of Valéry’s emblematic line. The following questions arise: Does the painting have eyes? Does it look back at the beholder and at itself? Or, does the beholder see the painting’s eyes, which make him aware of his? We may ask ourselves if we are dealing with the interaction between the artist, his painting and the beholder, or Valéry’s self-contemplation. According to Valéry, the senses are ideally reflective mechanisms that only register what they are conditioned to and that, if they were in charge, would only be concerned with self-contemplation.[1]

Maet uses both words and images in his reflective process; including the mirror, rose, mussel shell and marmoset. These symbols, similar to those of Magritte or Broodthaers, often stem from the writings of Rainer Maria Rilke, Valéry and Paul Celan. Maet’s sources are not limited to painting.

The rose may refer to poems by either Rilke or Celan. Maet drew the metaphysical term ‘No-man’s-rose’ from the poem Psalm (1963) by Celan, who compares the relationship between ‘no-man’ and ‘nothing’ with that of ‘creator’ and ‘creation’. The notion of man as ‘nothing’ is synonymous with the term ‘no-man’, referring to the Jewish Psalms in which man is dubbed a mere ‘breath’, ‘nothing’, a ‘fleeting shadow’.[2] Maet plays with the legibility and illegibility of the recurring words ‘breath’ and ‘nothing’ in his paintings. His implicit message is that words exist or not. Like the term ‘EST’ in his earlier paintings, ‘no-man’ and ‘nothing’ denote states of being and non-being.

The rose, as word and reference, is important in Celan’s poetry and has both internal and external symbolic meanings. In some poems, the rose bleeds. This is associated with the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’, or ‘possibility’ and ‘impossibility’.[3] ‘Maet uses the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in relation to the image of a rose in a series of paintings entitled No-man’s-rose (image 2 on the left).

In Maet’s painting, the antonyms ‘in’ and ‘out’, as well as ‘yes’ and ‘no’, associated to the image of a rose or mussel shell, also refer to Valéry’s writings on the creative process. The beholder may comment on the exterior of a rose or mussel shell, but not on their interior or origins.[4] If we consider the rose and mussel shell as metaphors for the creative process, we cannot know their origin or how they were created.

In literature, the term ‘No-man’s-rose’ is also considered a symbol for absolute sleep. Rose petals are metaphors for eyelids.[5] In Rilke’s later poetry, the rose is a symbol for existence, the symbiosis of life and death. Rilke stated that the rose is nothing but itself, only its splendour.[6] Paradoxically, the ‘nothing’ or ‘No-man’s-rose’ in bloom is a symbol for truth, the unity of opposites.[7]

For Rilke, the rose, because it is separated from its objective character as a natural phenomenon, may be charged with different meanings. It may also be regarded as a metaphor for the place where poetry originates and creativity resides.[8] While in Rilke’s poetry, the rose may also refer to the creative process, in Maet’s painting, it refers to reflection on it.

Diary of a painter

Maet’s later paintings are clearly the result of reflection on his creative process and on pictorial creation in general. Maet probably read Valéry’s poetry, as well as his more reflective and theoretical writings. Valéry believes that the work of art becomes autonomous when its creator abandons it. He claims that the work of art becomes so utterly absorbed in its reflection that it excludes and denies its creator.[9] Valéry is mainly concerned with the creative process that is reflected in a work of art.[10] In Diary of a Painter II (image 3 on the left), Maet reflects on his creative process by citing symbols from his previous paintings. It is composed of twenty-two symbols disposed on a square grid format. As its title reveals, these recurring symbols possess a direct, literal meaning (ekphrasis)[11] and function as Maet’s vocabulary. Although the format of a diary is usually reserved for an autobiographical and manuscript document, why should the diary of a painter not be composed of symbols? This question arises from the association of title and symbol. The only text which Maet wrote on this painting is his date of birth ‘21.VI.1955’, hence imbuing it with autobiographical meaning and placing it in the format of a diary. The artist is omnipresent in this painting through his symbols and date of birth.

Extrospection

Maet often quotes in his paintings another line from Valéry’s La Jeune Parque: “From gaze to gaze gilded my innermost forests.” As opposed to the line “I saw myself seeing myself”, this second one does not refer to introspection, but extrospection, reflection on the phenomenal or external world. Both introspection and extrospection are vital themes in Maet’s work. He reflects on his Belgian artistic heritage and the world of art. In this context, Maet often quotes from paintings by Magritte. He believes that good painters steal with style and states that without doing so there would be no evolution in the art of painting. Both Magritte and Maet play with the written word and symbolic image. Disrupting convention, time and again they invert the accepted relationship between the meaning of a word and an image. Abstract biomorphic forms, such as those in Foot Heaven (image 4 on the left), suddenly acquire meaning through the juxtaposition with or incorporation of a word. This causes them to lose their purely formal significance and charges them with symbolic meaning. Maet investigates the multiple significances that a word can contain within itself by dividing it into several separate words, such as, for example ‘océ an’ and ‘in ouï’. Different from Magritte, Maet employs ‘mirror writing’. He writes words inversely or one over the other to render them virtually illegible. Everywhere and Nowhere (image 5 on the left) best illustrates this. However, both painters share an intelligible representation of symbolic images: the pipe, rose, bowler hat, candle, pigeon and fish. Words and images recur in multiple combinations in Maet’s paintings thus, conjuring diverse meanings.

Maet was also influenced by the work of Broodthaers, who further developed the conceptual and linguistic aspects in Magritte’s painting, but chose different media to express his ideas. The linguistic riddles in Broodthaers’ work recur in Maet’s. Like ‘mirror writing’, these interfere with the painting’s facile legibility. The Caresser of Clouds (image 6 on the left) well characterizes this. Broodthaers and Maet invite the beholder to take a longer look. Maet’s sign language produces a similar awareness. The beholder must decipher each of the signs to understand the whole. Whereas in other paintings, Maet mimetically associates objects and concepts, in Carrot (image 7 on the left), each hand mimes a letter of the deaf and mute alphabet, and subsequently a concept. Maet sometimes writes part of a word and mimes the rest, rendering the decryption possible only through a system of signs and symbols. Lost Image (image 8 on the left) is probably the best example. Broodthaers’ influence on Maet is evident in the latter’s way of ‘labelling’ objects and changing the meaning of words.

By ‘labelling’, Broodthaers comments on the art world. In Flemish Caps (1999, no image available yet) and texts like “Today I tomorrow you”, Maet comments on its politics. The theme of Flemish Caps is probably the national equivalent of 102 Years of Painting (image 9 on the left). These Flemish commedia dell’arte-like or carnavalesque caps may refer to James Ensor’s masks. Although Maet probably borrowed some of this headwear from Hieronymus Bosch or Jan Brueghel the Elder, the iconic bowler hat (with a snuffed candle symbolizing death) depicted in the centre of the composition refers to Magritte.

Another painting also titled Flemish Caps (1998, no image available yet) depicts five different caps against a mint-green background bearing the inscription “Today I tomorrow you”. The simultaneous representation of images and the inscription attribute a certain identity to the caps, each which have its own shape and, like the dates of birth in 102 Years of Painting, might refer to a specific individual, for instance, a Flemish painter. The title could refer to the ephemeral popularity of painters: today I am in the spotlight and tomorrow, perhaps, you. In Fool’s Cap for a Young Belgian Artist or Curator (image 10 on the left, low image quality), we read the title inversely, in ‘mirror writing’. This comforts the idea that the fool’s cap is for an artist or a curator, irreconcilable characters, who cannot wear the same cap, because they are adversaries and not in league.

The fool’s cap is not Maet’s only device to comment on the politics of the art world. He also inverts the senses of hearing and sight. Eyes are to see and essential to contemplate visual art. Maet makes the beholder aware of the self-evident relationship between these senses only to invert it. He mimes images, senses and words. By inverting the relationship between hearing and sight, Maet implies that curators are blind, because they do not see works of art, but judge these on hearsay.

The subject of hares in Maet’s paintings parodies Joseph Beuys’ performance piece How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965), in which the artist, his face covered in gold leaf and dust, as well as honey, futilely attempted to explain art in an exhibition to a dead hare. Interestingly, it cannot escape us that Maet also uses gold paint. Maet asks both himself and the beholder if art can and should be explained. His recurring abbreviation ‘UTD’ refers to a concept or work of art which cannot be explained.[12] This is clear in Do the images still need to be explained to the hares? (image 11 on the left). With the recurring use of the acronym ‘UTD’ in his other works, Maet answers his own question. UTD (Jester’s Hat) (image 12 on the left) well demonstrates this technique.

Conclusion

How to explain a painting? The answer is not evident in Maet’s case. His paintings invite an intense and extended gaze: eyes that look back, horseshoes with captions, ‘mirror writing’, unsolved rebuses, mirrors which instead of reflecting us reveal what is behind them. Anything is possible in Maet’s vocabulary of signs and symbols. All of his images, words and texts are carefully calculated and linked to what precedes and follows them. Although Maet’s paintings reject a rapid glance, they demand the intense and extended introspected and extrospected gaze that was his own. Marc Maet saw the eye as the mirror of the soul, a bridge between the noumenon and phenomenon, the inner and outer worlds.

 

Author: Ann M. Dijkstra

Translated and reworked by Roberto Polo

[1] P. Valéry, trans. by P. Meeuse, Wat af is, is niet gemaakt, Amsterdam, 1987, P. 12.

[2] P. Celan, trans. by Frans Roumen, Gedichten, Baarn, 1988, P. 175.

[3] Ibid., P. 107.

[4] P. Valéry, trans. by P. Meeuse, Wat af is, is niet gemaakt, Amsterdam, 1987, P. 54.

[5] P. Celan, trans. by Frans Roumen, Gedichten, Baarn, 1988, P. 177.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] R.M. Rilke, trans. by W. Blok and C.O. Jellema, Rainer Maria Rilke. Gedichten uit de jaren 1913-1926, Baarn, 1993, P. 16.

[9] P. Valéry, trans. by M. Van Buuren, De macht van afwezigheid , Groningen, 2004, P. 9.

[10] Ibid.

[11] J. Heffernan, The Museum of Words. The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery , Chicago, 1994, P. 9.

[12] The abbreviation ‘UTD’ appears both in itself and in combination with words such as ‘kop’ (head), ‘ciel’ (heaven), ‘rose’, ‘art’, and ‘pied’ (foot) in Maet’s work. It stands quite probably for the phrase ‘unable to determine’. It can also refer to the scientific concept of ‘underdetermination by data’, the instance whereby the research data at one’s disposal is inadequate to lead to a conclusive result. In Maet’s work the meaning of concepts is not unequivocal because he applies the same concept in different contexts. As such, a concept has no fixed meaning but is changeable.