The camera follows the man as he walksalong a gravel path. He is in a park, a place of controlled nature. You might describe him as ‘dapper’ – elderly, but straight; standing tall, like one of the trees he passes. He has a neat grey mustache and blue eyes. There is something determined in his stance, the way he looks ahead of him – not at the camera, not at us – but at a point of destination, somewhere out of the frame.
A perfect analogy for how the man in the film, the painter Raoul de Keyser, saw beyond us. In his early period his subjects were the real, tangible objects of living – door handles and walking sticks – depicted as we might recognize them; as his work developed, his gestures shift to more indeterminate shapes. You can read these later abstracts as symbols for how we feel, how we construct memory (sometimes as shapes coming to us from the haze).
If he were still around, I suspect he would have liked the setting of his current UK exhibition, his work juxtaposed against the classical architecture of Inverleith House, its formal gardens. The paintings are at home in these neat but compact spaces – de Keyser’s work is generally on a small scale; the paintings are about compressed moments rather than grand statements.
I first saw de Keyser’s work at one of my favourite galleries, Zeno X in Antwerp. As an artist who remained in his hometown of Deinze all his life, there is a Flemish sensibility in the work. The Belgian artists of his generation respect painting (I think painting is considered to be a bit old fashioned in the UK at present) but recognise that painting must move beyond the confines of form and technique. Bernard Dewulf, writing in a catalogue produced for the Kunstmuseum Bonn in 2009 said:
about paintings is always wrong and hopeless, but writing about de Keyser’s
work is all the more so. De Keyser paints at the edge of what can be painted,
moving away from that which can be said. More than any other painter, he
compels us to look intensely, time and again. The risk is that we look too far.
But looking is the only thing we can … there is hardly a story, there is
hardly an image, there is no excuse.
But there is an echo of what’s come before. In those early figurative works, there is a nod to the Netherlandish still life tradition, which might be harder to recognise in the mysterious later paintings. But in their small scale, their intimate, introspective stance, they are also about privacy and internalization. De Keyser liked to make analogies to music when talking about his work, and I think too of the women of Vermeer and de Hooch we see playing instruments, their music merging with their thoughts; sometimes we do not see their faces, only their still backs, as we stand behind them. Somehow when we look at a de Keyser, we are seeing the artist from behind, not able to read his expression, or to know his thoughts. But something is transmitted, as in music, something which can’t fully be explained.