Ever since I was a child, there was a voice inside me that told me I was not like the rest,’ says Katrien De Blauwer. She’s speaking from her studio in Antwerp, a hidden room in a small apartment she shares with her husband Serge. It’s her ‘safe space’. One side is piled high with magazines, unfinished work, paper and cardboard. Her desk is an old wooden bureau filled with notebooks, pencils and fragments of more magazines. The remaining walls are covered with a mosaic of images that have, in some way, spoken to her. She spends every day here, creating collages that give new life and expression to images that would otherwise lie discarded and forgotten. ‘It’s a daily obsession,’ she says. ‘I need to make them like I need to breathe.’
For Wallpaper*, De Blauwer collaborated with photographer Esther Theaker and fashion content director Isabelle Kountoure to create a special series of works for our fashion story, seen on the previous pages, as well as the limited-edition cover for this issue. This evening, the team are celebrating the collaboration with a soirée at Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire in Paris.
This October also sees the launch of a De Blauwer retrospective at Ffotogallery in the Welsh seaside town of Penarth, curated by the gallery’s director, David Drake. Talking her into her first solo exhibition in the UK was not as easy as it sounds, he says: ‘De Blauwer is a very private person. She’s produced artworks on an almost daily basis for more than 20 years, but only recently has she begun to share and exhibit her work.’ She describes herself as ‘a photographer without a camera’, using found and archival photography to create suggestive visual metaphors, ones that reflect ‘my own subconscious as it bubbles to the surface’.
Katrien De Blauwer’s original artwork for our limited-edition cover (available to subscribers)
During our interview, De Blauwer speaks, without prompting, of her troubled childhood. ‘I was born in a small, sleepy town,’ she says. ‘There was nothing to do.’ She grew up in Ronce in Flanders, near Belgium’s border with France. She was raised by her ageing grandparents and saw very little of her parents. ‘There was no time or place for art,’ she recalls. Later, in her teenage years, ‘another lady took care of me, but then she got sick and I had to take care of her. So again, no time for art.’
Her father’s absence left a mark – it’s maybe why her images are almost totally devoid of the male figure. ‘I focus on women because I was always surrounded by women,’ she says. ‘When I was a little girl, I missed my father a lot. I’m a woman, so I understand a woman’s body. Men are absent in my work because they were absent when I was young.’
As a teenager, she took to cutting out images she spotted in the books or magazines she came across, keeping them in private diaries in her bedroom. ‘They were tiny little magazine fragments,’ she says. ‘Very naïve and very girlish.’ At 18, she moved to Ghent to study painting, then on to the Royal Academy in Antwerp to study fashion. The course required students to create mood-books for fashion collections. De Blauwer discovered she was ‘very bad with patterns and making clothes’, but naturally skilled in collaging together disparate and residual images. Placed together and skilfully cut in the right way, and with blocks of colour adding new tonal multivalence, a new narrative would suddenly emerge – not unlike the metamorphosis that takes place in a dark room.
As she further explored collage, De Blauwer found she could corral images of the female body – their faces rarely visible – and express the emotions she was experiencing. ‘My art became my therapy,’ she says. ‘It confronted me with myself.’ She’s fond of the quote by the writer Anaïs Nin: ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.’
Self-portrait of Katrien De Blauwer
There’s a paradox here. The images she uses are not her own, even as they reflect who she is. ‘My work is very intimate,’ says De Blauwer. ‘It comes from my inner world and asks questions about my personal life, my body, my sexuality. But, at the same time, it’s anonymous. I’m using images I have found. I did not make them, but I’m giving them a new meaning.’
She recently watched, for the first time, Une Femme Mariée, Jean-Luc Godard’s portrayal of a married woman having an affair. De Blauwer saw something recognisable in the film without at first being able to identify it. On reviewing her older work, she realised she had used stills from the film without being aware of the connection. The discovery delighted her. ‘I want my images to be anonymous,’ she says. ‘I take stories from others. By cutting away faces, my personal story becomes everybody’s story.’
Drake’s exhibition at Ffotogallery will include work from all stages of De Blauwer’s career, from her earliest notebooks to her newest works, in which she has introduced elements of painting alongside photography. ‘The almost daily routine of making new works is essential for Katrien’s well-being,’ Drake says. ‘She has a unique way of using juxtapositions and compositional elements to create emotional and intuitive art. There’s a melancholic undertow to some of the work, but there’s also humour, sensuality and poetry and, at times a hint of aggression, too.’§
As originally featured in the September 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*234)