Martine Thoelen’s paintings are characterised by an intriguing coherence. It seems as if an attic full of memories has opened up, from which she has drawn inspiration ever since. The word “memories” should not be understood literally or in the biographical sense of the word. These are not representations of her personal memories. Instead, her paintings refer to a mood, a sense of the passing of time, a lament about things past which Goethe described as “Verweile doch, Du bist so schön” (stay a while, you are so beautiful).

Stylistically too, the sense of coherence is far-reaching. We can clearly see that the artist has worked with paint on these canvases, we recognise the pastuousness and transparency of the paint, can see the brush strokes. This is quite a statement in these digital times. Photo, film and video in the arts can be beautiful, compelling, moving even, and perfectly suited to capture the moment. But these contemporary media have no body, no physicality. In many cases, the images merely consist of pixels that light up.

Martine Thoelen’s paintings, however, were created with tangible matter. You almost feel like touching the paint to see whether is dry. Paint puts things “within reach”, even more than a sculpture. We see colours sparkle and almost feel their temperature. That is how tangible they have become.

Paint creates so much more than a pure representation. It also provides us with an expression so that we can resonate along with what is depicted. We slip into the painting, as it were, and explore it compassionately. We penetrate the intimacy of what is observed. There are people who have described a painting as a framed window that has been opened out onto what it shows. But it is more accurate to think of it as a safe in a wall in which a world of experiences has been stored for safekeeping.

Martine Thoelen’s work is a rehabilitation of manual dexterity and the pleasure of the execution. The aforementioned expressiveness of the brush stroke as well as her penchant for mixed, tertiary colours have underpinned the tender melancholy that has been her hallmark since 2013.

Blue and Blue II for example broach an existential issue, namely the quest for an identity. Who am I, what type of person do I want to be? Both works represent a petrified form, which, on closer inspection, turns out to be a doll. This is relevant, because toys are the first instrument that children are given to experiment with identities. They can cast these toys freely into various roles. A cheerful Pierrot can become a bloodthirsty mummy in an instant, for example.

Blue and Blue II thus take us back to a childhood during which our identity was still plastic and during which everything was, in principle, still possible. But there are several personalities concealed within each and every one of us: there are countless life designs we could have chosen if our existence had not propelled us into another direction. Blue and Blue II are an appeal to us, the observers and spectators, to not permanently suppress this childish instinct to play. Instead, they incite us to try out parts of our self (again), which have never come to the fore before. A doll may be a model for a rigid, prescribed role, in which we completely overlap with ourselves. At the same time, it can also be a surface on which we can project and live out our own personal desires.

Het afscheid and Afscheid – the titles and the themes are almost identical – go one step further. They have been painted in a chiaroscuro that is reminiscent of the Baroque era (including the light that falls in from outside, which is so typical of this era) in muted colours. The atmosphere of these two works is undeniably ominous and inhospitable, and this is also reflected in a related work, called Porcelain doll.

What’s more, Het Afscheid and Afscheid could be considered as a more dynamic version of Porcelain doll. It’s not that the porcelain doll has come to life. Instead, it looks as if she has set an external energy in motion. In Afscheid, she has been catapulted into space as it were. She floats like a satellite through the thin sunlight of the stratosphere. In Het Afscheid, the artist suggests that she has “fallen down” or been “cast away”. And because she chose to use these seventeenth-century Baroque colours and a very emotional approach, you can almost imagine the doll sitting in a corner of a house in a Jan Steen painting.

When we look at these works, we experience a certain vulnerability. We feel lost and cast away. In other words, these are metaphorical paintings of the human condition. We too have been “thrown” into this existence, albeit not of our own volition and not like an inert doll. This is typical of the human condition. Or to quote the philosopher Martin Heidegger: “I am lonely whether I like it or not (…), and although I did not choose my existence, I am responsible for it. Although I am powerless, I am still free.”

The fact that the image in these two works is upside down is also important pictorially speaking. It questions the traditional mechanisms of observation and representation. Here Martine Thoelen forces the spectator to focus on the representation of the identifiable theme, as well as paying attention to the resources of this representation, which we already mentioned, namely the colours, the spread ability of the paint, the trace of the hairs of the paint brushes.

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How can a painting of a doll be a reflection on the human condition? Can you interpret a work of art any way you want? How is meaning created? That is a subject that the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce studied. He identified three steps in the process of meaning. The representamen is the material object, such as a rag smeared with paint for example (or a sheet of paper printed with letters, or the lamp in a traffic light). Then there is the designatum, the idea that is expressed by the symbol (for example: “this painting represents a doll...”). The third step is the interpretant, the signification in the broader, more detailed sense (“… which reminds us of the past”).

Moreover, and now things become really interesting, an interpretant can have ramifications, leading to other meanings with a broader scope (“nostalgia”) and new interpretants. You can always add on another interpretation. In principle, you can do this endlessly. In practice, the options are limited by the historical and cultural context.

The higher the number of meaningful interpretations, the more layered the content of a work becomes. In another intellectual tradition, namely the French one, thinkers focused on this using a fruitful concept, namely “intertextuality”. The starting premise is that all artworks (visual, literary, film...) contain references to other artworks. Some are intentional, while others have unconsciously crept into the work because both the maker and the spectator share a cultural legacy, a civilisation, a horizon that we can never leave behind. A good way of grasping this idea is the notion of the “palimpsest”. All the text has been scraped off this medieval parchment so it can be used again. If you look carefully, you can still see a glimpse of the underlying text.

It is this insight that Martine Thoelen uses as a theme in the Palimpsest I – IV series, a work consisting of clay and glaze tiles. The artist has written a series of flamboyant characters on the various tiles which have been tied to each other with intricately interwoven rope. For this, she based herself on a treatise by Archimedes which was discovered on a palimpsest under another text. By spreading out Archimedes’s text across multiple tiles, the “meaning” has become fragmented, across different surfaces.

Consequently, Thoelen succeeds in developing a stimulating metaphor for the impossibility of ever achieving a final, definitive reading (an ultimate interpretant). The ropes epitomise the interlocked chain of meanings and interpretations which, in principle, is endless. We cannot read the signs themselves as text. We do not recognise any words, just traces. In short, Archimedes’s palimpsest is archi-écriture – as Jacques Derrida called this type of original language which cannot be recovered. This extraordinarily rich and almost conceptual series could be considered an implicit overture to Martine Thoelen’s work. It is a framework within which her work takes on its full significance.

After all, her work is laced with silent tributes and subtle references to art history. We have already encountered baroque painters in Het Afscheid. The sensitive The branch I and The branch II tie in with the iconography of branches in art, from Japanese cherry blossoms to still life as well as a reference to Thoelen’s compatriot.

But let us use her Bird’s nest and all the works that have followed from this to understand the process of cross-references. Bird’s nest was made because the artist was moved by a flight of birds in a rigid formation. When she converted this personal experience into an art work (see also Liberty and Study Hand), she developed one leitmotiv: a stylised bird that multiplies into swarms with different configurations. The bird has become an abstraction, a mathematical and figurative motif which spontaneously brings reflections on rehearsal and repetitiveness.

Bird's nest, a sphere-shaped whirlwind of birds soaring up into the sky..

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After these rather conceptual explorations, let us look at Martine Thoelen’s paintings and the evolution of her body of work which is apparent. Let us leap back in time to 2011: at the time, her works were still largely populated with cool, sensual bodies. Simulacra which we know from the media. Gradually, the artist seems to tire of them. In her canvases from 2012, the figuration is almost completely dissolved. In Through the eyes of Ian IV, we can just make out “cut off” branches on the edge of the painting (which subsequently miraculously pop up again in The branch I and The branch II). In other works from the series Through the eyes of Ian (I – V), the fog virtually renders any visual reference impossible.

You can sense that this heralds a new artistic approach. In The subdued mood from 2013, one of the first paintings Thoelen painted in the tonality of melancholia, the artist applies the painterly, tactile approach which we already mentioned in the beginning of this text.  In this work, the new artistic questions she asks are solved somewhat surprisingly and surrealistically by combining powerful men’s feet with soft cotton balls. A slight intertextual reference resonates in this “unexpected answer”, as Magritte would have called it, and also refers to his “Le modèle rouge” in which living feet and cool leather gently touch each other. Both works have the same theme in common: the universal, tactile experience of the contrast between hard and soft, which our feet are especially sensitive to and which paint has always been able to capture so well.

The powerful cycle from 2013, called The boy playing with plastic I to VIII, which may be the point – or better yet: the scream – with which this chapter in Martine Thoelen’s artistic evolution fully starts, deserves special attention.

This is a series of paintings of a boy who has no idea what to do with himself. He turns away from the world, lashes out, panics, shuts himself up until he almost stifles himself, screams but is not heard, cries and then turns away again. The prevailing mood is one of oppression, of despair, of calling but not being heard. The boy lives through the entire gamut of emotions that a teenager experiences as he deals with questions of identity, the fact that he is “thrown” into being, the awareness of the transience of things (“Verweile doch”…).

The melancholic serene paintings that follow after this painting (Blue, Porcelain doll, Het afscheid...) and which we discussed above can be considered as an answer to the question posed by the Boy series.

One of these answers stands out more than the other, namely Rolling the dice, in which Martine Thoelen does not choose the empathic path, but instead presents a more mythological answer. In Rolling the dice, she seems to want to show us that a life is just as random and capricious as the outcome of a game of dice. Chance plays tricks on us. As if the gods are playing a cruel game with us – completely in line with the archaic Greek mythology – because the gods are jealous (phronos) of people with a good life, they strike them down with their destiny.

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Finally, there are the recent canvases by Martine Thoelen. These bear witness to a growing self-assurance. You could almost say that the sun has broken through in her work. A thousand tears may still have been painted in blue, but in spite of this, the tears have been melded into sparkling pearls which form the collar around the woman’s neck. Who is she? We have no idea for the time being. Maybe this canvas is a cut-out of a hypothetical young lady from a good patrician family. You can imagine the background, which has not been painted, yourself: a rather formal, bourgeois interior, a bowl with fruit, a piano possibly. The most important detail, however, is the extremely sensual mouth, a signal that communication is possible – the boy has found a conversation partner.

De roos van Brugge is the perfect culmination of this walk through Martine Thoelen’s work. Several strands are combined here. Here again, the question about identity arises (who is this, who am I?). The Bruges lace serves as a mask. The woman behind this “rose” covers her face, but unlike the figure in the Boy series, she does not do this out of frustration or anger. She plays a game of showing and not showing. She reveals a little, but not all, so that there is yet something to be discovered.

If we dare to consider an even broader scope or interpretant, then De roos van Brugge is a metaphor for the insight that you cannot know everything. You cannot know everything there is to know about people or about life. In spite of this, we have to make choices, and only those who are fearless enough (see the woman’s frontal gaze) to defy this notion can enjoy a full life.

In short, with De roos van Brugge, Martine Thoelen shows us that truth in the philosophical sense of the word is an interaction of revelation and concealment. Like in the baroque chiaroscuro, we are not afforded full clarity. Something will always remain in the dark shadows. Or to quote Martin Heidegger one last time: revelation and concealment are inextricably linked, and that is the Geheimnis of Dasein.

In light of all the above, we cannot end with a conclusion here. As Martine Thoelen’s work continues to evolve and her career takes new twists, others will find new ways of reading her work, previous works will come to be seen in a different light and new interpretations will be revealed. We can only look forward to this process with curiosity.

Filip Huysegems