Review

Christian Dotremont: Painter-Poet in Brussels

Tommy Thiange 9 June 2022 min Read

Until August 7, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium and the Archives & Museum of Literature in Brussels host an exhibition called Painter-Poet dedicated to a Belgian artist, Christian Dotremont, one of the founders of the CoBrA movement. The special aspect of his art is that he considered writing in a graphic way. Dotremont looked for the meeting points between the scriptural approach and visual arts. Thus, after several years of experimentation, he created his first logograms. These are graphic poems that became his trademark. The present exhibition is an excellent opportunity to discover this atypical work.

Words and Images

The invention of logograms is a result of a long process. First, Christian Dotremont was interested in writing (he published his first poem at the age of 12). Then, around his 20s, he joined the Surrealist circle in Brussels. Under the influence of the famous Belgian painter, René Magritte, he started to think about the links between words and images (think about The Treachery of Images). Magritte was not the only influence: the 4-handed creations of Paul Éluard and Pablo Picasso also impressed him. But it was in 1950 that he had a revelation. While looking at one of his texts upside down and vertically, he saw aligned columns of meaningless signs, and he realized that writing is a graphic universe in its own right.

True poetry is when writing has its say.

Christian Dotremont

Extract from the visitor’s guide.

Based on this observation, he experimented alone (look below at his luminous writings) and also with other artists. In 1948, just before CoBrA, he embarked on word-painting with the Danish painter, Asger Jorn, where they spontaneously mixed letters, shapes, and colors. This practice lasted all his life with his many artist friends: Karel Appel, Corneille, and Pierre Alechinsky.

AdVertisment

Logogram

In 1962, Christian Dotremont created the first logograms. They consist of two parts. At the bottom of the page, he wrote a text or a poetic sentence (often with a pencil). It is a free language where he played with words, their meaning and sound (that’s why we have chosen not to translate the title of the works). The rest of the space is dedicated to the graphic transcription of the text. At first, it was mostly small formats on which he used pastel, ordinary ink, and then mostly Indian ink applied with a brush. It should be noted that Dotremont’s logograms are not calligraphy.

[It’s not about seeking] beauty or ugliness, but verbal-graphic unity.

Christian Dotremont

Extract from the visitor’s guide.

Even if we respect his opinion, we must admit that the result remains very aesthetic. In a movement of spontaneous creation, the words make the poem find another life in their graphic forms. The dozens of logograms that make up this exhibition show the richness and scope of his work. A life of creation where the difference is expressed in the repetition, where variation finds meaning in the constancy and obsession appears through coherence.

AdVertisment

Christian Dotremont also liked to vary the support of his works. As an amateur photographer, he sprinkled ink on some of his photographs. Like he said, he loved the cracks of the dried black liquid. He also left traces on all the objects of his daily life, especially when traveling: train tickets, library card, newspapers… He tested the reaction of the ink on various media.

AdVertisment

A Sick and Loving Nomad

In 1953, he learned that he had tuberculosis. It was the end of CoBrA, but above all, the beginning of an illness that would follow him all his life. At times, it forced him into immobility. Frustration gave him the desire for space. So, in response, the format of the logograms widens.

This forced sedentary does not fit with his personality. He had a strong taste for travel, especially to the North where he fell in admiration of Lapland. The discovery of these vast white territories transformed him and influenced his art. It is also there that he created the logosnows, that is to say, logograms in his own land art style.

Sometimes, when I draw a logogram, I have the impression that I am like a Lapp travelling on a fast sled on a white page, and that I am greeting nature as if it were passing by, through the very form of my voice or my song, or both combined.

Christian Dotremont

Extract from the visitor’s guide.

AdVertisment

And more than traveling, it is wandering that he loved and considered highly poetic, an ideal alternative to his sick life. His suitcases are the symbols of this interest, and they can be seen in the exhibition. At the time, those contained everything he owned and, of course, the logograms.

Love also inspired him, especially with women from the North. They followed one another, and passionate love made him go through contrary and sometimes thwarted emotions. But always, it inspired him to create. He dedicated logograms to love.

Love and illness marked him forever. By the way, these are also the central themes of his only published novel, The stone and the pillow.

AdVertisment

This retrospective allows us to discover a man who built his work on the border that separates words and images. His obsessive character can be felt at the sight of these dozens of artworks covered with writing. For sure, in this case, definitely no boredom, but rather an impression of persistence that leads to beauty. Being caught up in these scriptural loops only increases our empathy for Christian Dotremont, determined to find the magic that slips between the words and the images. In conclusion, it is a major retrospective, considering he is a not-so-known artist, but it is definitely what he deserves.

Exhibition Details

If you liked what you’ve seen so far, visit the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (Brussels) between April 28 and August 7, 2022.

Tickets are available online and at the door.

Christian Dotremont, À bleu mentir qui vient de près, 1978, King Baudouin Foundation, deposit at the Archives and Museum of Literature, Brussels, Belgium. © Olivier Guyaux – L’Atelier de l’Imagier.

Bibliography

1.

Boudart, Laurence, Florence Huybrechts and Michel Draguet, Christian Dotremont, peintre de l’écriture, MRBAB / Silvana Editoriale.

2.

Reuse, Pieter de, Christian Dotremont, traces de logogus, CFC édition.

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