Antoine Watteau’s imaginary landscapes often feature people (predominantly courtiers) who have just whispered something to someone else or are about to do so… Figures turning towards or away from one another. They are also often shown from the back. What we, the viewers, see is chiefly the interplay of the figures and their gazes, all of those lines that criss-cross each other across the paintings: one person is looking at another person who is looking out at us, while that person is being looked at by somebody else. These figures are frozen in a pose that has them inclined just a millimetre too far, just a millimetre too close, or too far from the other figure. And what we hear - there are so many musical instruments - is quiet, frozen music.
BOZAR asked Dirk Braeckman to find a way of depicting the artworks that could not be brought to the exhibition. Not because Braeckman is seen to be ‘the photographer of emptiness’, but because he is so adept at depicting ‘emptiness’ (memory, memory loss, absence, desire) in all of his photographs. Braeckman hardly ever shows us what is actually there in a photograph. And all we can do is fill in these photographs with our own desires, our own absences, forever feverishly searching for meaning. It is as if the distance between the figures suddenly becomes solid, becomes material. Each of Braeckman’s photographs allows us to hear and see what is going on among Watteau’s figures as they lean in towards one another. Whispering. Music. The ‘negative space’. The silence. Our unstoppable desire to constantly bridge that distance and fill in the silence. - Peter Verhelst
Among 18th Century artists, Watteau is the unsurpassed master of the trois crayons drawing. This technique derived from Rubens in the 17th Century but was tranformed by later French artists such as Charles de la Fosse and ultimately reached its zenith with Watteau. In the present sheet, red chalk predominates while black is used in the hair of all three figures, but as accents only on the figures at the right and left. The white chalk is used for all three figure to highlight both their faces and clothing. In his handling of the red chalk alone, the diversity of technique is extraordinary. Short, jagged strokes and softer passages of hatching are combined to evoke the crisp folds of fabric. In contrast, an undulating line around the neck of the seated girl enhanced by a bit of white perfectly suggests the translucency and delicacy of her ruffled collar. It is difficult, and indeed was unimportant to Watteau for the purpose of the drawing, to tell whether the two children at the left are boys or girls. Again, this is typical of Watteau’s approach to these figures where the precise identity or use of them was less important than the pose he was trying to capture at that moment. As one of his 18th Century biographers, the Comte de Caylus noted: ‘The exercise of drawing had infinite charms for him and although sometimes the figure on which he happened to be at work was not a study undertaken with any particular purpose in view, he had the greatest imaginable difficulty in tearing himself away from it…in general he drew without a purpose…It was his habit to do his drawings in a bound book, so that he always had a large number of them that were readily available. He possessed cavalier’s and comedian’s costumes in which he dressed up such persons as he could find, of either sex, who were capable of posing adequately, and whom he drew in such attitudes as nature dictated…When he took his fancy to paint a picture, he resorted to his collection of studies, choosing such figures as suited him for the moment. These he usually grouped so as to accord with a landscape background that he had already conceived or prepared.’ The figures in this drawing appear with some modifications in at least five painted works by Watteau. The central figure with the child in three quarter view was used most frequently, appearing in L’accordée de village, Assemblée galante (fig. 1) and Entretiens amoureux (Recueil Jullienne, D.V. 116; D.V. 139 and D.V. 124). The child at the far left of the sheet appears, very definitely as a girl and wielding a Harlequin’s sword which is only suggested in the drawing, in the painting Heureux âge! âge d’or.. (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth; Watteau (1684-1721), exhib. cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art and elsewhere, 1984, pp. 365-67, no. 50). Two of the children appear in a small painting on copper entitled La Déclaration which is being sold in these rooms on 30 January 2013 (lot 37). In this painting, as in the three others, the young child from the center of the drawing stares out at the viewer, her gaze all the more arresting because she is the only figure facing us. Watteau has then taken the seated girl in the right side of the drawing and reversed her pose, including her face which instead of facing three-quarter view towards the viewer, now faces almost in profile towards the amorous couple behind her. Here Watteau’s inventiveness is on full display — having taken two seemingly unconnected figure studies from one drawing — he has reconceived them as a coherent assembly in La Déclaration.