MARC KENNES - A few introductory remarks

Marc Kennes has been active as a visual artist for more than a quarter century. He was born in Wilrijk in 1962. He realised he wanted to become a painter at a young age while living near the Rupel River. He took lessons at the Drawing and Painting School in Niel and at the Royal Academy for Visual Arts in Mechelen.
In the early 1980s, he studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp and at the National Higher Institute of Fine Arts in Antwerp. During this period many people declared that painting, especially figurative painting, was doomed to die out. Marc Kennes graduated in an era of minimalism, video art, performance, conceptual art and many other avant-garde movements.

That pessimistic judgement about painting was incorrect. Painting never died. A rebirth did not take place; it was more of a rediscovery and a further development. Figurative and expressive painting had numerous, very talented followers worldwide. The younger generations created art movements in Germany (Neue Wilden), Italy (Transavanguardia) and Belgium. Marc Kennes was a part of that.

You could say that he deliberately and courageously breathed new life into the figurative tradition and that he did so from the greatest possible conviction and perseverance. It is not surprising that Marc Kennes joined a select group of artists associated with gallery De Zwarte Panter, led by Adriaan Raemdonck, in 1988. He participated in a group exhibition, which was followed by eight individual exhibitions. The long-standing relationship between De Zwarte Panter, its manager and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp continued. The artist’s work fit into the gallery manager’s expressionist and pictorialist vision of modern art.
Memory is a necessary part of the image formation process for Marc Kennes. This memory can take the form of his own recollections (Requiem for M series – 2011), of Greek myths (Medea series) or of biblical stories. I want to discuss an oil on canvas triptych entitled “The Temptation” from 1999. It belongs to the University of Antwerp’s Art on the Campus collection. This triptych is situated in a series that he based on the story of Judith. Judith was part of the Tribe of Simeon, a heroine of the deuterocanonical book named after her in the Old Testament. When her hometown of Bethulia, a town on the Judea border, was besieged by the Assyrians she entered the enemy camp with a ruse. She seduced and murdered the general Holofernes, upon which the besiegers fled (Judith 8:1). This story was a source for literature (Dante, Chaucer) and for fine art (including Donatello, Botticelli, Caravaggio, Mantegna, Giorgione, Lucas Cranach, Michelangelo, Jan Massijs and Jan Cox, a main figure in the history of De Zwarte Panter). Marc Kennes portrays Judith in an abstract manner on the left of the triptych and Holofernes on the right. In the middle, temptation is suggested by the moon and the sea. The ratio of figuration to abstraction is very interesting. If you look at Marc Kennes’ work from a distance, you see what it depicts, but at close quarters it is abstract and looks like an early Willem De Kooning (1904-1997). You recognise a good painting when you get up close and see all those nervous brushstrokes.
In a recent series Marc Kennes investigates the relationship between painting and the music of the Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975). On a recent visit to his atelier in Borgerhout, the artist painted to the sounds of the Russian master’s Fifth Symphony, which has many references to the difficult time and place where it was composed: alienation, repression and insurrection. Some passages were in a truly diabolic form. The choice for Shostakovich does not surprise me. Intense music and intense painting incorporate conflicting emotions. There are also formalistic parallelisms. Marc Kennes builds up his paintings by applying layer upon layer of oil paint on the canvas. He pays just as much attention to mixing and choosing the colours as he does to applying the paint to the canvas. The multitude of colours that he used in his latest series’ is surprising; it results in a large quantity of tonalities. Shostakovich builds up passage after passage with modulations, resulting in several tonalities. The rhythm changes in the symphony are converted into colour and shape.
But there is more. Some sociologists and philosophers allege that music plays an equal, if not a greater, role than images do in our perception of the world and of whom we are as human beings. This was supported by the French philosopher Alain Badiou in a recent book about Wagner. Marc Kennes powerfully points to this merger of a regime of images with a regime of music. He creates a special form of cross-over and synaesthesia between visual art and music.
Classical music and visual art: it is a remarkable relationship. Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) developed a theory about how he came up with abstraction and involved many art disciplines such as theatre and music. Surprisingly, the German topical painter Neo Rauch often listens to Claude Debussy while painting. Marc Kennes is in good company.
I have come to a conclusion. For Marc Kennes, artistic quality is inextricably linked to emotional sincerity and truth: a feeling for the non-homogeneous world.

Ernest Van Buynder, chairman of the University of Antwerp’s Art on the Campus, Edegem – March 2013.