thierry de cordier

four landscapes:
'If painting be the food of sorrow..'.


In what follows, I do not want to deal with the Thierry De Cordier who, in 1985, made his entry in the world as a performer on the steps of the Museum in Ghent, and did repeat that performance in his meanwhile famous 'Speech to the World' (1985). Neither with the Thierry De Cordier of the mountain refuges, the tents, the 'chantoirs', the observation posts, let alone 'The Chapel of Nothingness' in Duffel (2007). Neither with the Thierry De Cordier who, in the vein of Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys, intended to turn his life into an 'artwork'. Neither with the Thierry De Cordier who only dares to make drawings when a lot of text is scribbled around them like with Da Vinci, Duchamp of Panamarenko. Neither with the Thierry De Cordier who only dares to paint a seascape when he can do so under the cloak of Kazimir Malevich or Robert Ryman. Even less with the Thierry De Cordier who, as a 'Sunday philosopher', understands all his actionsin terms of the meanwhile somewhat outdated Lacanian 'code à la mode'. Already more with the Thierry De Cordier of some 'surrealistic' objects. And - although the drawn versions are mostly more interesting - even more with the Thierry De Cordier of dolls like the 'Pain Catcher' ('Attrape-Souffrance') in Puycelsi (1988).

Not with the man, hence, that cannot say of himself that 'he has absolutely nothing to do with the twentieth century’.

Whom I rather want to deal with, is the Thierry De Cordier who was already announced in the drawings that were only meant as sketches for all these installations, objects and dolls, who timidly came to the forefront in summary pen drawings on the sheets of a notebook (Drawings 1983-1999, SMAK Ghent), and who now finally proceeded to just paint paintings, even when I do not immediately think of what we got to see in Beaubourg 2004 ('Un homme, une maison et un paysage'), as rather of the impressive - say: masterly - series of landscapes ''Four Greeneries' that were on view in the Gallery Hufkens in Brussels (2009).

Shade never there was so dear...

Not that there is so much to be said about these paintings: it suffices to look at them. It is just what it should be: paint on a canvas that conjures up an entire world. And what a world!

Not precisely a comfortable place to dwell: no trace of human beings. Uninhabited not so much, as rather uninhabitable, inhospitable. In 'The Sea', dark, gloomy waves extend to the horizon, in 'Why not rather paint a seascape?', we look down on a mountain slope, from which an impenetrable cloud descends over a valley. An oppressive world, where we threaten to suffocate as in the confines of a womb. No other way to escape than by trying to return to the very place from where we were dropped in this world. Wherefore, in 'This isn't yet a seascape',the gaze forward on the polder landscape is condensed with the gaze backward on the gate between the legs of a woman, that nevertheless remains barred irrevocably - sealed with a cross. Views on a world, hence, that is in every respect the negation of the perspective that unfolds before the eyes of those who leave the daily paths below to drink from the vast view on far horizons - if not on inhabited heavens.

The figure of the negation of the vast by the confining seems to be endemic in these landscapes. We penetrate the canvasses from the lower halves, which lead us into unfathomable depths. When our gaze lifts to the horizon, however, it is as if space is contracting: the skies seem impenetrable (The Sea), seem to descend upon us alongside the mountain slope (Why not rather paint a seascape?), if not to turn into a protruding canvas (This isn't yet a seascape). There are more shifts in perspective. The view on the seascape in 'The Sea' is not precisely wide, until our gaze is sucked into the hollow of the waves and we suddenly get the impression of looking from the heights upon a mountainside below. Also in 'This isn't yet a seascape', we first look from a modest distance on a kind of polder landscape, wherein we soon read a bush as pubic hair, so that our gaze glides between the legs, where we suddenly look down from the heights upon a valley where a river flows from a split in the rocks, that reminds of the entrance to Dante's inferno. In 'Why not rather paint a seascape?', it is the dense deck of clouds that hides from view the mountainside in front of us and the valley below us, upon which we wanted to look down from the heights. And these many shifts in perspective go hand in hand with shifts in subject matter: transformation of seascape into landscape in 'The Sea', transformation of polder landscape in mountainscape - and 'motherscape' - in 'This isn't yet a seascape', and transformation from a sight on the mountainside into a sight on the clouds in 'Why nor rather paint a seascape?' .

These continuing shifts - this continuous ascending and descending - correspond to continued vain attempts at getting access to the sublime - in German more revealingly called 'Das 'Erhabene'. The sublime announces itself already in the ever renewed attempts at taking a broader perspective from the heights, attempts that are frustrated time and again, so that we end up in the dimensionless disconsolateness of an oppressing jail or womb. That is why these paintings seem to be rather the precinct to what used to appear in fully sublime landscapes: although they do no succeed in revealing the sublime as such, they nevertheless conjure up the memory of it, and therewith the reminiscence of the destiny of man who contemplates it - just remind of the fact that Kant, in the face of the starry sky, did not so much feel insignificant, as rather a free moral being. With Thierry De Cordier, this is not so evident. One of his early drawings on the sheets of a notebook, represents an earthworm wallowing in the mud seen from a frog's perspective (Self-portrait as an earthworm, 1983-1985). In the present monumental paintings, on the other hand, the artist attempts at elevating himself as high as possible above the earth, although he bereaves himself of the sight in the distance there - the beyond behind the horizon and above the clouds. That is why the fathomless black in these works is no longer the black of desperateness. Together with that shimmering white, it rather testifies to the silent mourning - if not to the repressed guilt - of not being able to match the sublime and therefore not being prepared to look it in the face. Precisely because such mourning comes down to recognising the existence of what is lost, does there emanate a sense of devotion from these paintings, that you will search in vain in De Cordier's preceding oeuvre...

The curbed attempts to raise above the earth's crust find their echo in the relentless balancing back and forth on the border between matter and appearance, between paint on canvas and representation. To be sure, to bereave the paint from its mimetic dimension, you have to come very close to the canvas, just like with the old masters. And, equally like with the old masters, you cannot but be surprised once again by the fact that some summary brushstrokes can so convincingly conjure up the illusion of a world. But, with De Cordier, the paint continues to impose itself even from a distance: suffices it to refer to the broad brushstroke that penetrates 'The Sea' from the left. The painter does not stop reminding us of the fact that we are dealing with paint on canvas: in 'Why not rather paint a seascape?' by leaving the foreground unfinished, and in 'This isn't yet a seascape', by adding a kind of painted cord tended horizontally between the edges of the painting. Let us refer, finally, to the parts that function like a kind of curtain on the left side of the paintings - the good old 'repoussoir': the bushes on 'This isn't yet a seascape' and 'Why not rather paint a seascape', and the wave from the left in 'The Sea'. It is as if the painter arms himself against the magic of illusion - mimesis - the spell of which he cannot resist: a far cry from the countless performances, installations, objects and dolls...


It is just what it should be, we wrote. But, unfortunately: not fully. Not so much because the sublime only shimmers through. Precisely such being merely a shadow speaks, and only adds to the truth of these works. Rather do we have to deal with the many traces of the twentieth century nevertheless, despite De Cordier's emphatic 'I have absolutely nothing to do with the twentieth century’.

To begin with, there was that second room in the Gallery Hufkens, were no other paintings were to be seen , but rather a paint smeared CD player from De Cordier's studio: the paintings as a part of a more comprehensive, veritable installation, hence. Granted, the music that resounded from the loudspeakers embodied the very sublime of which the paintings only remind, or to which the text on them only refers (the aria 'Umbra mai fu' from Händel on 'This isn't yet a seascape').

Next, when entering the room, we get to read a text that questions 'what language can say about paintings that are silent'. It comes as a surprise, then, that there is much to be read on these silent paintings. Although that does not bother me too much here. For, otherwise than the paintings of Luc Tuymans, which stay or fall with the accompanying text, the paintings of De Cordier can do without. That is not to say that the texts can as well be removed from the paintings: the body of the text is an integral part of the image, and the content resonates with what is to be seen in the image - think only of quotations like 'Umbra mai fu', or 'Alles drängt sich zur Landschaft' from Philipp Otto Runge, and the quotation about the unfinished and unfinishable from Joos de Mompere. By the way: the reference to Händel and Joos de Mompere learns us that it is not the paintings that - according to a popular adage from Lacan - gaze at us, like De Cordier contends in that same introductory text. If there is another gaze at all besides ours, then it is the rather Sartrean gaze of the masters looking over our shoulders - not to mention the gaze of Moses behind the clouds on the mountain...

More annoying is that De Cordier and his commentators explain the already mentioned condensation of landscape and female body, and of seascape and landscape, in terms of a metonymic series mer/mère/terre (sea/mother/earth). That is sheer mystification. After all, French is not the primeval language, whereas the link between landscape and womb dates back at least to Lascaux, and has in addition explicitly been thematised in many a landscape by Da Vinci, Rubens and Caspar David Friedrich. There is no need of resorting to a metonymic series to explain the relation between landscape and womb; that is only necessary to explain a 'surrealistic' relation, like that - so cherished by De Cordier - between father and pear (père/poire, which, in his West-Flemish dialect, comes down to blunt identity). At the same time, we suddenly realise how much De Cordier has outgrown the obligatory flirtation with Magritte in his new works - from Breton's 'rapprochement fortuit de deux termes' to the good old 'symbol', so to speak. The rather clumsy attempts at condensing landscape and vagina (for instance in 'Paysage en forme de poire') are in that sense a turning point.

Flatly embarrassing, on the other hand, is the choice of the title of the exhibition 'Greeneries' ('Verdures', I suppose after the West-Flemish 'Groensel'), and of the titles of the paintings in the catalogue: 'Spinache', 'Pre-soup ', 'Grand Soup', 'The Sea (Finally)'. That denigratory tone - coming from the peintre-cuisinier and the peintre-jardinier in De Cordier - makes us think again of Luc Tuymans, again with the difference, however, that De Cordier is not out at glossing over his shortcomings, but rather at belittling his mastery

Those 'greeneries' threaten even to spoil the reference to Händel. The full text to his wonderful aria* sounds: 'Ombra mai fu di vegetabile,/ cara ed amabile, soave piu.' (Shade never there was of a plant, dear and agreeable, more sweet.) Until we realise that, in that verse, he may merely have found a suitable occasion to ironically arm himself against this overwhelming music and his own art. After all, the exhibition also has another, more appropriate title: 'If painting be the food of sorrow'... A similar ambivalence speaks from the quotation of Philipp Otto Runge 'Es drängt sich alles zur Landschaft'. Removed from its original context, this sentence contains a deeper truth about the image, and is a such the complete reversal of Magritte's: 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe', whose rather futile slogan is paraphrased in the title of objects like 'Ceci n'est pas une cafétière' (1986), and still resounds in the subtitles of his paintings: 'This isn´t yet a seascape' and 'Could be a seascape'.

In the light of the above, it will, finally, be clear that it is a sheer wish-fulfilment - or rather: a genuine Freudian slip - when De Cordier, in his introductory text, contends that his works tend to the sublime. In De Cordier's 'Sunday philosophy', life is emerging from the primeval soup to end up in humans, who only stand up to stare in the Big Void. Needless to remind that such void is worlds apart from the sublime. To get the latter in view, it suffices to become somewhat more short-sighted, and to realise that man has something better to do before dying than to wallow in the mud with a vacant gaze. It is apparent, then, that De Cordier's new landscapes testify to something totally different from the un-sublime feeling of 'in the end, we all are mere earthworms' - just think of Jan Fabre's earthworm. Gradually, their creator transcends the wallowing in the mud of the above mentioned 'Self-portrait as earthworm', from whose perspective the world cannot but be a claustrophobic void. It is precisely from such imminent shortening of the perspective that the recent landscapes derive their unalienable charm....


Suppose you are a vegetable

(Thierry De Cordier, 1986)

De Cordier is wrong, hence, when he contends that he has nothing to do with the twentieth century - he seems rather to have sold his soul to that devil. Initially, his desire to paint landscapes could only be gratified under the guise of minimalism or conceptualism - just think of the 'After (!) - landscape' that was on display in Kassel 1992, or, more recently, of the 'Dark Windows' ((2002) or the 'Last (!) landscape' (2004) wich refers to Kazimir Malevich. Only in 'Why not rather paint a seascape?' does he come up with old masters like Joos de Mompere and Philipp Otto Runge. His commentators, however, obstinately continue to refer to the twentieth century - to figures like Rothko andBarnett Newman (think of Beyart-Geslin). Perhaps, it is due to such lip service that, next to the three masterpieces analysed above, there was also a fourth painting on display in the Gallery Hufkens, that has nothing to do with the others, nor from the point of view of the image, nor from the point of view of excellence, although it is firmly integrated is the series as a third 'conceptual' phase after 'Pre-Soup': 'Grand Soup'....

And, not otherwise than De Cordier himself do all those go wrong who prefer to consider him as a romantic belonging in the nineteenth century. Already from his 'Speech to the world' onwards - intended to be held on a mountain and hence a 'Sermon on the Mount' - as well as from his 'Attrape Souffrance' (Pain catcher), De Cordier identifies himself not so much with vegetables, as rather with Jesus Christ himself. He painted the suffering Christ in 'Crucifix no more' (1999), and, as already mentioned, also the entrance to the womb in 'This isn't yet a seascape' is sealed by a cross - and that is where the resurrected Christ happened to die. Jesus Christ is not precisely a romantic, let alone a sh.tting earthworm. Even less is he an invention of the nineteenth century: for by now more than two millennia, he continues to govern over Western psychology, especially that of the twentieth century (albeit mostly incognito there), and he will no doubt continue to do so for centuries more. Besides, the sublime is (already since Longinus) after all only the secular form of the former Divine. But does not oblige less therefore...

That makes us surmise that also the referral to the nineteenth century is merely an alibi. Just as the reference to the romantic only has to conceal the figure of the suffering but resurrected Christ - or to put it in profane terms: human beings that feel called to another destiny than dragging each other and themselves in the mud - just so does the referral to the nineteenth century only serve the purpose of circumventing the great masters by substituting them with lesser masters of the 'academic century' - the century of figures like Wiertz in the film 'C'est moi que je peins' from Jef Cornelis and Bart Verschaffel. Also the reference to Philipp Otto Runge - the weaker brother of Caspar David Friedrich, not to mention other giants of painting in the nineteenth century, like Turner, who also are breathing in our neck - speaks volumes in that context.


In his lesser moments, Jesus recommended to give Caesar what is Caesar's. Let us hope that Thierry De Cordier can stop being his own jester rather than simply becoming a sovereign god on his own canvas.

The waiting is for the mountainscapes that are promised to us as the next in the series...

© Stefan Beyst, May 2009