Walter Swennen, who is now a very successful painter, is a great family friend of mine. In an era of young beatniks in Brussels in the 1960s, my grandmother and Swennen spent their days in a crowd of poor young artists driven by their need to create. They lived off of very little and were each other’s sources of inspiration. They would introduce each other to foreign art pieces from the United States, and would discuss within themselves late at night over a drink while brewing up new ideas. My grandmother wrote poetry and, being that she was much younger than the rest, around the age of 16, learned and grew from this group of artists who had adopted her into their circles. Various members of this social scene adopted alcoholism and other issues that stemmed from the fundamentals of this very social and experimental community, and therefore did not make it very far in their careers, but left behind great shared memories and inspiration for the others.
Swennen was much more fortunate and has continued to paint since. He has recently come into the public eye after a couple of successful exhibits in Belgium. He is now showing at the Gladstone Gallery in New York City – a very well known gallery. His work utilizes visual aspects inspired by Pop Art and abstract expressionism; some pieces more so one than others. Swennen might not agree to these sources of inspiration, but either way these are the art movements his work is reminiscent of. He also often incorporates poetic writing into his work. To this day, his work portrays the essence of the young group of artists that created and struggled together.
Another large theme throughout his work is an evocation of childhood. Figures seemingly appropriated from cartoons or comic books have been an undying subject of his throughout his career. Belgium is a country overwhelmingly full of comic books, about two comic book stores per block, therefore this imagery, that has been most definitely drilled into Swennen’s head, is unsurprising. Yet it is very effective in evoking recognition and a sense of shared nostalgia for most of his audience.
Swennen works in a way not uncommon to his generation of artists. One could summarize it by saying he lets the ideas come to him, and he does not seek them out. By this point in his career as a painter he knows what interests him and what does not. Some of the things that do interest him, which is evident when looking over his work, are cartoons, poetry, labels and philosophy. Some of these subjects are also commonly found in Pop Art, which is why his work is so reminiscent of this art movement. However, some of his subject matter will not fall into any specific category because he will literally let it come to him naturally. For example, he once based his subject matter off of a drawing made at school by his daughter when she was very young. Swennen is not much interested in the meaning behind his pieces, but is instead very preoccupied with the aesthetics, the process and the stories behind how his subject matter came to be. It is interesting to look at his work and attempt to guess the sources of inspiration for a specific subject in a piece.