Dreaming back and sailing clear

by Christophe Vekeman

About Once upon, a Golden river and Imagine, an island by Stief Desmet

How to define a romantic? Someone who is continually on the run without being persecuted or having done anything wrong. Contrary to a junkie, a born traveller, a religious fanatic or a workaholic, however, he does not flee from himself either. But what then does he run away from? Romantics flee from the world, the accursed, ever unsatisfactory reality. From that which, in other words, one can never flee. Essentially, it is not true that he flees, he seeks refuge, a sanctuary, in art for instance. To be more specific: in organising exhibitions such as Once upon, a Golden river and Imagine, an island.

For true romantics the worst is yet to come and thus, in Once upon, a Golden River Stief Desmet turns his back to the future and he applies himself and his brushes to what is perhaps not over because it never was in the first place. And maybe this can only come into existence, afterwards, from a futile yearning and from a mild dissatisfaction with the current state of things, with today and tomorrow. And this is not just nostalgia pure and simple. What I mean is that  Desmet reverts to the idyll of former times, when he was a child and as pure as the water in the river Lys, clearly the undercurrent of the works in this exhibition. Scene of the action is Deinze and the whole Lys region by extension, where Stief Desmet was born and bred. Only recently did he decide to move back here with his family, to this flat landscape, in which, even though it has not survived times unspoilt, the former spirit of Ernest Claes’ hero Whitey and of course the painters of the Latem Schools can be detected. 

The paintings in Once upon, a Golden River are characterised  by straightforward and duly unashamed glorification. Desmet sings the praises of what he presents naturally as a better world, a world of pleasure and innocence, full of grandeur and eroticism, life and lust. The artist is not just dreaming away, in these works he is dreaming back, so to speak, to a reality sunk in time, which, again, probably was never real in the first place, and which, by now, has irrevocably become a form of fiction. This is emphasized by the fact that the paintings are not based on old photographs taken in the Lys region, but on photographs which could have been taken there. So, if these works have an anecdotal ring about them, then it is anecdotalism of an appropriately unbalancing nature...

The coarse-grained, pointillist texture of the paintings exhibited in Once upon, a Golden River is also present in the second exhibition, where it serves the same purpose: keeping the spectator at a distance, emphasizing the fact that what is shown will remain out of reach - let alone  easy reach - of the spectator by definition. If one approaches the paintings too closely, one only sees disconnected dots and the image is lost on you. But in the second exhibition, Imagine, an Island, Desmet does not dream back, as he did in the first one, but he sails away, not into time in this case, but into the space of his imagination. The romantic stretches his wings, he works the paddles of his rowing boat to prevent at all cost the world and reality from tarnishing the sublime image of other cultures - other worlds, say - or otherwise taking away its lustre - and to do so in the security of his own head. The artist has placed a small sloop in his studio, rudderless, bone-dry, dilapidated, not exactly the picture of seaworthiness, in which he, the person who stays at home, does steer clear of the world, by dreaming away, across all possible borders and whatever the distance.

To tribal peoples in Africa or New-Guinea for instance, or exquisite geishas and other symbols of pleasure and innocence, grandeur and eroticism, life and lust. In Imagine, an Island, the romantic does realize that the idolization of what goes on at the other side of the world, is as unjust as was the glorification of the past in Once upon, a Golden River, as is apparent from the fact that he does not set out on a journey but sets to work. But this does not seem to bother him or it does not in any way cripple his imaginative power. Quite the contrary is true. 

And what about us? We, in museums, some day in our pretty workaday lives, we sail along with Stief Desmet on the good old river Lys and across the wild oceans, surfing playfully in time, happily afloat to wherever the artist takes us, admiring this high-quality work, which opens our eyes to the fact that art can change us, if not the world. And so we will leave the museum as somewhat different and better people. We will, in our own little ways, have become romantics.

Christophe Vekeman, spring 2015