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The Prints of David Maes

Text from Catalogue for an exhibition in Chamalières, France, December 1998- January 1999

At first David Maes’ etchings may seem austere; neither landscape nor decor competes for our attention. Maes is concerned only with humanity, with the human body. This consuming interest, which is based on a commitment to simplicity, is sometimes mistaken for austerity. Maes’ people are not generally defined with precision. The features of their faces, in particular, are, with rare exceptions, left undelineated. (One exception is the portrait of a young woman whose face, bounded by the triangle of her folded arm, is imbued with discreet eroticism. Even here, however, anonymity is preserved by the generic title: Portrait.) The dry point needle, which he regularly uses in combination with other techniques, accentuates the silhouettes, outlines the curves and hollows of the body and captures its movements, even its least perceptible hesitations. Maes draws, paints, and etches men, women, and children, usually nude. For him, nudity is not an artifice, but the most direct route to human individuality. « Every human body emits a characteristic energy, » he says, and what matters most, he believes, is to seize hold of this sensual presence.

Despite its simplicity, Maes’ work has the capacity to disturb us.Woman and Children, an etching with a companion piece in oil, can be seen either as an almost banal bathing scene or as a vision of tension and anguish. Three children are splashing in the water; in the background, a woman is leaning towards them, arms outstretched. Is this a moment of relaxation shared by mother and children? Or, with arms outstretched (« All the better to hold you with, my children ») is the woman trying to capture them? One moment she seems to be an attentive mother, the next a contemporary ogress from whom the children are, timidly and awkwardly, trying to escape. The ambiguity of the image lies in the to-and-fro movement between these two ways of seeing.

Beneath their apparent simplicity, David Maes’ etchings are open to several interpretations and sometimes reveal dark and deep areas of human nature. However they never dwell on the tormented and complacently morbid universe of certain individuals. On the contrary, the etchings display a sort of optimism and confidence in human nature. Walking Man, a recurrent figure in Maes’ work, is, above all, a man holding himself upright. Only a man, one might say, but a man moving forward. Alone and imperturbable, he imposes his presence. What David Maes draws our attention to is the dignity man acquires through the burden of his destiny. The walking man goes forward and nothing else matters.

The themes around which the etcher’s needle circles endlessly sometimes border on the mystical. The Voice, a dry point with a composition resembling that of a diptych, is an illustration of this tendency. In the lower left-hand area, a man advances, forehead thrust forward, slightly bent over. Only the upper half of the body is visible. To the right and above, is a suspended figure: a voice, a whisper, or an angel (as suggested by the title of the painting, Man and Angel, which was executed a few years earlier and which has a similar composition). This tutelary figure, who in the etching is not as explicitly named, bears witness to the fact that, despite his solitude, man has not been abandoned.

Other traditionally religious themes appear occasionally in David Maes’ etchings. In particular, he has long been interested in the crucifixion. In Three Studies of the Human Body of 1993, he approached that subject in a totally original manner, by relating it to a ritual which has long fascinated him: bullfighting. The title, deliberately neutral, does not at first suggest the world of the bull ring. Nevertheless, the pose of the figure in each of the three etchings has its parallel in the torero’s repertoire of stances. But into each print, in the midst of this play of comparisons, slips the figure of death. Carried in triumph on the shoulders of one of his companions, the torero is reduced to a skeleton; his body, its cape removed, is sundered, crucified. In the final image, poised to place his invisible darts, the body of the bandillero is arched, bow-like, from suffering. The overall composition recalls once more the world of bullfighting because the juxtaposition of the bodies in the three etchings echoes the semi-circle of the arena.

David Maes’ etchings, with their multiple layers of meaning, transform themselves beneath our gaze. In a recent work, Daphne (I), depicting a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he has made this transformation visible. Before our eyes Daphne is changed into a laurel tree - and then, as we watch, the tree changes back into a woman. Because of its capacity to record successive ‘states’, the medium of etching is ideal for representing the stages of a metamorphosis. By contrast, unless the artifice of photography is exploited, the stages of a painting are condemned to disappear under each fresh stroke of the brush. It is not until the seventeenth state that the image of the woman becomes truly stable. From that point onwards, we can observe her evolution. She crouches and her outstretched arms blossom. Exhibiting each of the states makes it possible to demonstrate the metamorphosis in the same way a film can demonstrate the opening of a flower.

This particular transformation seems long. Time passes slowly. The metamorphosis becomes palpable, almost conscious. In another work, Daphne (II), David Maes cuts the process short. There, he merely juxtaposes two instants in a vertical diptych. The metamorphosis is reduced to a single shock. A body submits itself to gravity and falls. (For once, the body is not strictly human but takes on, perhaps under the weight of our gaze, something of the animal.) Above the falling figure, a vegetable form spreads out. The opposed movements of the body and the plant further reinforce the violence of the shock, the irreversible character of the change. The manner in which David Maes treats the theme of metamorphoses shows that far from wanting to enclose his work within the limits of a static universe, he is determined to explore the whole range of possibilities.

Marie-Hélène Gatto
Curator, Bibliothèque nationale de France