What comes to mind, when you think of painting? Perhaps some religious iconography, landscapes, bowls of fruit, bunches of flowers? Probably a few naked women, too. Maybe portraits? Maybe even the critically-acclaimed film Portrait of a Lady on Fire? Well, we’ve got bad news and good news. Bad news – we couldn’t find a lady on fire to interview – not yet. Good news – we had a chat with Lille-based Hélène Delmaire instead.
You’ve probably spotted her hand in the aforementioned film directed by Céline Sciamma, maybe even paused to scrutinize the finer details of her paintings. But do you know about her time studying realism in Florence, her idea of beauty, and what monks and screaming monkeys have to do with it all? Then keep reading.
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Some years ago, you mentioned that two of your earliest encounters with art were flipping through your father’s medieval history books and debating with other kindergarteners which crayon depicts skin tone most accurately. Did the generous library of references inspire the ‘philosophical debates,’ did you turn to it looking for evidence that you were right – where did those two interests intersect?
I think they’re complementary approaches today still: on the one hand, ideas and imagination, and on the other, purely formal research. The latter shapes the former. I thought the orange crayon was more accurate because my skin has a yellow undertone. It was quite self-centred of my five-year-old self to think my skin colour should dictate all humans’. I don’t think medieval monks were as literal since they seem to have thought leopards had rainbow-coloured spots and rabbits played the bagpipes. It was the sheer bizarreness of the imagery that captured my imagination. At thirty-three, I'm still trying to let go of slavery to reality in my creative work.
You’ve grown up with four older siblings. How do you think that’s influenced the way you view and portray people? Have they tried taking any credit for their sister’s hand (and art) ending up on the silver screen?
One of my brothers has severe autism and it has had an influence on my whole family. Being born in the midst of my parents’ battle with getting a diagnosis and correct special needs care in a country that viewed – and sometimes continues to view – autism as a psychotic reaction to an unloving mother had a massive impact on my personality.
I still gravitate towards the concepts of incommunicability between subject and viewer; of being trapped in one’s self. And I feel my attraction to classic feminine symbolism stems from a very early need to differentiate myself from him, to build an identity for myself in a space where I did not have much room to take. Choosing to be an artist has narcissistic reconstruction written all over it, I think. He was as proud as my other siblings of my being in a film though.
You then went on to do something people tend to have elaborate, romantic fantasies and clichés about: study art in Florence. How did that go?
There were no schools in France that taught realism. So I went there, to a 19th-century-style atelier. I lived the life of a monk, really. It was a private school and I wanted to go through it as fast as I could because it was a big financial strain on my parents, so I just worked a lot and was too exhausted to do much else.
There were no exams; only teachers who made you advance through the programme when they felt you had mastered the necessary skills. I grew by leaps and bounds technically and built up self-confidence, but people there were extremely reactionary and believed art had died in 1915. It was a bizarre experience. The city itself was beautiful though and ice cream tubs at gelaterias were half priced from November to March. We used to gorge on it while doing speed drawing contests.
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Why choose to set up shop in Lille and how important do you think studio space is for artists?
Lille is my hometown and it was cheap, so I stayed here because for the first few years, I made almost zero money from art. The internet meant I could find an audience without having to go gallery-hunting, which was a great cop-out for my shy self. For a while, I had a studio space at a massive warehouse-turned-self-ran-artist space here. It was one of the best times of my life, it felt like family. Everybody worked together to create art events, concerts – theatre and puppet companies were born there. Being an artist is very solitary – at times you really crave human contact. Having your own space whilst being able to exchange with people from other creative backgrounds is ideal. But it was quite precarious and we ended up being kicked out, more or less.
The lack of studio space is a big issue in many cities. The golden age of squats seems to be over, at least here in Europe. Artists rent cheap places, then gentrification catches up and they need to move elsewhere, until there is nowhere left to go. Nowadays the trend is for cities to create two- or three-year leases for artists to occupy vacant buildings until they are torn down, but it’s hard to build something long-term when you have to be moving all the time. And it limits freedom of expression since you are dependent on public organizations. If a right-winger gets elected, you’re also screwed. My city has a socialist mayor but they don’t operate this way either. It’s complicated. I think it’s easier in countries where room is not an issue. Maybe we’ll all end up creating communities in the French countryside.
To many, you’re best known for your portraits of delicate yet intense female figures. Aside from your earlier theory that women might – all things considered – be the ‘fairer sex,’ why choose this subject?
It’s part personal history as mentioned earlier, but I also have a deep need for the feminine. Female voices in the world need to be heard. Society desperately needs new values: look where competitiveness and the glorification of domination have led us. I am tired of testosterone. If we don’t go through a shift in values right now we’re basically fucked.
Was this idea of ‘peeling back’ the layers of soft skin, shiny hair, fluttery lashes and other feminine embellishments to give audiences a glimpse of the inner turmoil underneath seen as a hard sell, a welcome change or something else entirely?
It’s seen as a welcome change by women. My audience is ¾ feminine. I sometimes wonder to what extent I have internalized the male gaze in the way I represent female bodies but I strive to make them subjects and not objects. I want my paintings to have strong agency. I want to transform attributes that are traditionally viewed as weaknesses into symbols of power. I think many women relate to that.
“I wish I were a better writer as I find poetry explosively expressive, much more so than painting. But painting is good for mute people like me.”
Many artists argue that they can easily see the beauty in a chipped rock, a gloomy sky or a peculiar face. Is the cliché true, then? Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder?
Beauty is proportional to connectedness. When you connect to something or someone, you see their beauty. I bet Buddhist monks find everything beautiful. But we all have our limits. I’ve been meaning to paint factory farms and wondering how to make something so gruesome visually appealing. If anyone has pondered this issue before, please, shoot me an email with your conclusions! Of course, Rembrandt has done it, and so have many contemporary artists. Are Francis Bacon paintings beautiful? I think so. Disturbingly so.
Speaking of eyes, one especially intriguing detail of your portraits are the blocked-out eyes. How did that originate and has the intention behind it evolved over time?
I have a desire for destruction in my art, a lot of pent-up anger, and this is one way to release it while expressing something intangible I still don’t quite grasp myself. I’m both the censor and the censored. People have interpreted it in many different ways and I like that. To me, it’s got to do with the impossibility for certain things to be expressed, both on personal and global levels; with the limits of language and empathy. But these explanations come after the piece is done. I don’t think when I paint, things just happen.
As someone interested in exploring man’s relationship to the natural world through evocative, perceptive portraiture, what do you think of Kinski’s view that ‘the only fascinating landscape on this earth is the human face’?
I think people who view humans as the only interesting thing on earth are the embodiment of the rut we’re stuck in as a species right now. We’ve made the mistake of forgetting we are interdependent, and the effects are showing. Anthropocentrism is a disease that is today in its terminal phase. A human is no more or less beautiful or important than a mosquito or an oak tree. Maybe we should get those people to try magic mushrooms and see what they have been missing out on.
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In portraiture, ‘good’ is often equated with something subtle, ambiguous and akin to the famous ‘Mona Lisa smile’. And then there’s Joseph Ducreux. How do you know when to be subtle and when to be audacious?
You can be both at the same time. I think that as long as you’re honest in what you do, these are irrelevant concerns. What matters is striving to translate what is within you without ego or fear of judgment taking over. Some people have boisterous personalities; others, laconic ones. Just channel what is there and strive to be as truthful as possible. You will never be as good at being someone else as at being yourself.
On the subject of how to do art correctly, you’ve spoken about your creative process before and evoked two pivotal stages: the ‘aha’ and the ‘screw this, I’m done.’ Is there any danger of ever confusing the two, and how do you work past them?
One comes after the other. The eureka moment comes when what you are working on becomes truly aligned with the meaning you’ve been wanting to give it, often without even knowing it. It can take time to get there. Sometimes it never happens and your piece has no soul. You just stop and start another painting over it. But if you do get there, things proceed of their own accord. When the process then starts to feel stale, it probably means you have said what you had to say and can lay the piece to rest.
Besides painting, you’ve also spent some time on the other side of the canvas as a live model. What have you gained from that experience and did any of it resurface while making Portrait of a Lady on Fire?
I felt a lot more naked painting for the film than I did posing. Being a model is a great time to get new ideas. You’re both fully in your body as your muscles ache and you strive to keep your balance, and away as your mind is free to wander for half an hour with nothing else to do. I’ve had many ideas for paintings this way. I miss these out-of-time physical meditations to the point I’ve been considering modelling again just for them.
Shooting Portrait of a Lady on Fire was a lot more intense as I was actively working and it was in front of an objective camera, not subjective eyes. Instead of twelve people doing various interpretations of my body, I was doing the one interpretation of somebody else’s in someone else’s style, and there was only one take, so I had to learn to accept that if I painted something ugly – and I did many times – people were going to see it with surgical clarity. Only the crew though, as they mostly kept the good stuff when editing. But I still cringe at some of it when I see the film.
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You’ve listed some distinguished female authors, including Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, as your sources of inspiration. In your mind, where does effective writing stand in relation to effective visual art? Is it easier to put an idea into frames than into words?
You use the medium that can best communicate what you are trying to express. The medium dictates part of what the piece is about. I wish I were a better writer as I find poetry explosively expressive, much more so than painting. But painting is good for mute people like me. It speaks a perhaps more primitive language.
I think effectiveness stands, in all art forms, at the crossroad of artistic honesty and skill. The process changes depending on the medium but the intent is the same. In contemporary art and throughout art history, different people have, sometimes, taken parts of the role, with a brainy mastermind and an army of skilled assistants. Music and film are also collective works. When you’re a solitary artist though, it’s easy to relate to writers who, in essence, work alone. Sylvia Plath’s journals where she relates her writing struggles and art blocks helped me tremendously at a time when I had no external validation and feared I would fail to make it as an artist. Her Ariel poems now inspire me in their supreme abandon of formalism – something I am yet far from reaching. Skill is necessary only insofar as you are able to take what you need from it and reject all the rest. If you let it, it becomes a straitjacket.
Where should we expect you and your work to head next?
I have a solo show lined up for early 2021 in Northern France, but this year I’m focusing on pushing my style and getting out of my comfort zone. I’ve been meaning to let my work become more political for a while now but I’m still playing with what shape it might end up taking. It’s easy to become cheesy or simply illustrative. I want to do fundraisers for Extinction Rebellion and paint angry monkeys. I’m not sure how realistic that is. I still like naked women and sad people though.
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