Allegories of our time

Is Laurence Durieu (°1972, lives and works in Meise, Belgium ) a new contemporary genre painter? She started painting about ten years ago and found her own way around 2020. ‘A Family Affair‘ is her very first solo show, a title taken from a 1971 hit by Sly & the Family Stone. Large-format paintings, hyper-detailed pencil drawings and, more recently, small paintings let us look inside living rooms, with or without people and always with animals and plants. Scenes from everyday life, but not really everyday. Her work is very accessible and at the same time enigmatic, as if all those details form a kind of rebus of symbols. The intriguing compositions are compiled from photographs of her own family and home.

Often, people sit around a table, a family whose members are fairly self-contained in what they are doing. There is usually a fig tree in the room and an improbable number of animals. Birds fly in, sit on a shoulder, perch on the table. Swallows, jackdaws, orioles, cats, bees, beetles, a rat, a hedgehog and more animals go about their business completely freely. Windows overlook the outside world. Ploughed fields have advanced up against the house. In other paintings, fields are flooded or on fire. Tensions are not absent and the scenes can appear chaotic, absurd and even surreal, but domestic intimacy is not lost. The importance of family and the bond with animals, close relationships between people, our dealings with animals and nature, species that are struggling, the loss of biodiversity, climate change: the scenes may be composed with characters and elements from her own home, but they can be read as an allegory of our times.

Happy days, it always pops into my head when seeing the paintings. Not that Laurence Durieu ever thought of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Happy Days. In the first act, Winnie is stuck up to her waist in a pile of sand. Next to her is a bag of daily items and a revolver. Brushing her teeth, she performs routine daily tasks. The sun burns above her head and her husband Willy reaches for an umbrella, which then catches fire. ‘Another happy day,’ she says each time. In the second act, she is buried up to her neck in the pile of sand, she keeps talking and at the end she sings a love song. The title Happy Days is sarcastic and death is addressed, but also the old couple’s love for each other. Contemporary interpretations see the play with the burning sun as a prediction of the climate crisis and how most of us just get on with our lives. 

There are quite a few parallels to Laurence Durieu’s paintings. They range from a personal symbolism of everyday objects to window views, indicating that something is wrong with the world. People have no clue and often the animals seem to sense the danger. Not so happy and yet happy, because it is also about love, happiness and family ties.

An Afternoon in 2050 (2020) is the first painting with which Laurence Durieu resolutely took her own direction. Young people sit relaxed around a table. Birds fly by, one of the two cats sits on the table and the jam jar has toppled over. The open window looks out onto green fields. Will it all still be there in 2050? It is a hopeful vision of the future, but alienating. Especially by the young man holding a sprig of thyme overhead. Bees love thyme; two bees have come to it. They are getting scarce, as is the swallow flying above them. The figure with the raised arm and white collar may look like he stepped out of a historical painting, but he is holding up an arm for the sake of composition. Without the raised arm, there would be a void, the unity and harmony of the composition would be disturbed.

Major sources of inspiration are childhood and art history. From a young age, she had a strong connection with animals. At that time, the tame jackdaw Milou would come and sit on her shoulder. Her paintings draw on the tradition of genre paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries: the colourful households of Jan Steen and kitchen pieces by Pieter Aertsen, but also the domestic intimacy in the interiors of Johannes Vermeer. Laurence Durieu looks with fascination at old masters, including the Flemish Primitives and Italian painting. She borrowed a blue by Botticelli for a pull in a painting of hers. The trigger to insert open windows was Paul Delvaux’s painting La joie de vivre (1937): a gloomy room with a couple and an open window looking out on a woman in a lush garden. In her paintings, a bit of the opposite happens. There are cosy living rooms and the views through windows indicate threat from outside.

Since 2020, things have been moving fast. Laurence Durieu is a full-time artist, she started painting around 2010 and took classes at the academy for a while, but is mostly self-taught. She works out ideas in sketches and turns them into drawings in a larger format. Not all drawings become paintings, because in the meantime the idea may have evolved or she gets other ideas. Recurring motifs are tables, birds and other animals, windows and also the painting-in-the-painting. An afternoon in 2050 returns as a calendar image in the painting Unboxing (2021). Boxes on the table are unpacked. Is it the boy with the party hat’s birthday? On the calendar on the wall, a date is circled in red and a few days after it have already been crossed out. Those who are curious can google 26 November 2021. Actually, you can already see from the boxes that it has to do with shopping frenzy and unnecessary consumption.

Laurence Durieu’s art addresses one and other. Almost secretly, because the viewer does not always notice it immediately. In the painting Hungry (2021), characters sit around a table full of junk food. Birds bicker and a painting hangs askew due to their fluttering. It is a miniature version of her painting Waiting for better times (2020) with a boy absorbed in his phone, the virtual world, and so real contact between people is lost. Back to the family meal. A rat runs up against a chair and the cat claws at it. A boy plays with a ball and a window of the sideboard is broken. Behind the window, the ploughed field reaches up to the house. Intensive farming is a major culprit for the environment and many bird populations. A man with a bird on his shoulder is about to bite into a burger that has a wasp on it, which might sting him. In front of the table, a dog growls at us. The world is tilting, but only animals seem to realise it.

Hungry is one of her three paintings, which were selected from 370 entries for Open M exhibition in M – Museum Leuven in 2022. The theme of that edition was ‘transhistoricity’. Laurence Durieu reached out to make connections in her file. She pointed to a fly in a 16th-century painting by Dürer and the wasp on the hamburger, a connection she made afterwards. Meanwhile, the painting got a sequel of sorts. In Hungry 2 (2022), a meagre meal of tinned food is on the table. The outside world is completely flooded: a reference to floods in Belgium, but also the rise in sea level that has been going on for a long time and one day the sea water might advance up to her house in Meise. On the table, a cat is lounging, the father looks at his useless banknotes, a boy in bare torso plays guitar, another boy wears a hat. The world is disrupted, but domestic life endures.

The many details, the use of colour, the setting and the characters, whether human or animal: time and again, Laurence Durieu makes the eye travel through exciting living rooms.

Christine Vuegen