I’m more interested in making stories
New Master Delphine Somers paints stories in her work and uses renaissance references to tell contemporary struggles. We went with her to visit the show AL GAL at Cultuurcentrum Mechelen, which presents work by cartoonist Gerard Alsteens, created during his 60-year career. As we were enjoying his many works, we talked about satire, politics, the importance of being playful and the future.
Can you tell me a bit about you?
I’m a painter. I've always painted. I started when I was 14 or 15, but I never went to art school. There are moments when I do a lot and there are moments when I do less. If I think about what it is that I’m painting, I think that I’ve always been a bit more interested in making stories than in the actual act of the painting. I was thinking about how to describe what I do and I ended up with the term: social magical realism.
What did you think about the exhibition?
I really loved it. I knew GAL’s satire and caricatures from Knack, but I didn’t really get hooked on them. But now, seeing them all together with the crazy mixture of things that were there, I was actually really touched. He doesn’t make a real distinction between things: there were all sorts of references - to Belgian art, to comics, to jokes - amid the hard political themes. There was a very playful energy, very poetic and very Belgian. There was this quote and I thought he described it well: ‘Art, design, culture. That is what I want. Everything which is different. But conservative politics stand in the way. That is why I became a political cartoonist.’
He’s actually very free. He’s angry and he can’t be truly free, because of these politics, but he’s free in the objects he uses. I was most touched, very simply, by the oysters, because they are so playful. He started with what there was and then he played with it. This freedom is in his work, in this exhibition and even in the way he seems to think. Even his satire is poetic - the images are so clever.
So are you hopeful for the future?
My current paintings are set in the near and distant in the future. They’re based on the Book of Miracles from the Renaissance. They’re little paintings/pamphlets that announce signs of the apocalypse. They’re very funny but also very poetic. I had the idea of continuing this now, with the thematic stuff that’s going on in the world right now. My idea of the future? I can only hope that all the problems we are dealing with now won't have to be dealt with anymore. Painting is a way of assembling the ideas I have and turning them into little stories and little wishes for the future.
Painting is a way of assembling the ideas I have and turning them into little stories and little wishes for the future
Are there any similarities between you and GAL?
I made this big painting of Brussels where you have the different communities, and it’s realism in a way but there’s also a magical element to it. There’s some surrealism to it and I see this in GAL’s work also, maybe in the way he looks at the world and the way he experiences it. I felt quite at home in his universe. There’s a layer of anger towards everything that’s oppressing or structuring and at the same time he’s a total kid who just wants to play around. That’s the energy I felt in the exhibition; play and painting are a way of structuring thoughts. It’s almost like a metabolism, a way of processing.
Play and painting are a way of structuring thoughts. It’s almost like a metabolism, a way of processing
Who are the people in your paintings?
They’re based on contemporary archetypes you see in the city. They all sort of exist, but their traits are slightly exaggerated. They’re not people I know. There are networks within their own traits and ways of looking at the world, and I exaggerate and play around with them.
What are you working on now?
Now I’m finishing the series of the Book of Miracles. I’m also thinking about a new painting about how culture becomes a part of your being, how it structures the way you look at things. It’s sometimes so hidden that the things you desire, your demons, the way you deal with certain things, things you identify as character traits, are actually cultural traits. I’m trying to define in which way Flemish culture has shaped me and who these different creatures are that are actually part of me. I’m making them sit around a table where they can have a conversation.
Culture becomes a part of your being: it structures the way you look at things
Can you share your rituals for creating?
I go to my studio and put on my crusty old tracksuit. My ritual is making tea and then drinking a lot of it. I also put on podcasts. It’s painting time: lock yourself into the space with the soothing voices of podcasts. The space is the ritual too.