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Issue 13. The Forgotten Surrealists: Belgian Surrealism Since 1924

Evelyne Axell. From Pop Art to Paradise

Author: Liesbeth Decan
Published: November 2005

Evelyne Axell. From Pop Art to Paradise/Le Pop Art jusqu'au Paradis , exhib. cat., Namur:
Musée Félicien-Rops, Namur: Maison de la Culture de la province de Namur, Jambes: Galerie Détour, 2004, ISBN : 2-85056-779-5 (paperback)


Fig. 1 : Le Peintre (Autoportrait) , 1970, enamel on Perspex, 147 x 51 cm. Collection Plasticarium, Brussels.

After a seven-year career as a television presenter, actress and scriptwriter, Evelyne Axell (1935-1972) embarked on an artistic career in 1964, having been initiated in the art of painting by René Magritte. It would be a short, but extremely intense career. On a technical level, her work evolved from oil on canvas and panel to enamel paint on Clartex, Perspex and Formica; on an iconographical level, she gradually found her way from a strictly feminine world of experience towards highly sensual imagery. Experimentation was the key concept on both levels. Axell wanted to break the mould, and not just in her art - enthralled by the second feminist wave, she openly proclaimed (and practised) the intellectual and sexual liberation of women. Her hedonistic lifestyle, which was abruptly cut short by a car crash in 1972, has up to now resulted in a highly romanticised narrative of her life and work.


The catalogue Evelyne Axell. From Pop Art to Paradise/Le Pop Art jusqu'au Paradis, published in 2004, accompanied a retrospective of the same name in the Musée Félicien-Rops in Namur, the Maison de la Culture de la province de Namur and Galerie Détour in Jambes. It clearly transcends the quality of earlier publications, such as those of the PMMK in Ostend, the Musée d'Ixelles in Brussels (1997) and the Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles in Paris (2000). This is the first comprehensive catalogue in which Axell's artistic production is portrayed as exhaustively as possible (only the works that not have been located yet or were destroyed by the artist herself are missing); essays by Jean Antoine, Claude Lorent, and specifically Sarah Wilson, offer complex insights into Axell's oeuvre and person.


As in previous catalogues, Jean Antoine, widower of the artist, is responsible for the biography, documented with previously unreleased photographic material. He occupies a privileged position as a direct witness to Axell's life, but consequently her life story is always viewed from one single perspective. The publication of Axell's unrealized plans for the creation of a Musée archéologique du XX e siècle. Département: Age du Plastique (2 e Millenaire après J-C.) (1970) is a major coup for this catalogue. She planned this 'Museum of the Plastic Age' as an 'Axell Tumulus', in which a visitor's trail is set out, incorporating an information panel about the history, characteristics and use of plastics; the so-called original of her 1970 self-portrait La Vénus aux plastiques and its 21st century copy; a separate room dedicated to her erotically tinged paintings on plastic; a display case filled with plastic objects; and finally the plasticized mummy of the artist.


Sarah Wilson's essay offers a balanced portrait of the artist by positioning her carefully within the then dominant pop culture and socio-political context. It thus becomes clear that Axell - starting from Belgian surrealism and British pop art, and through the use of motifs such as the car and the lobster - developed her own style, in which the female nude, often in the form of a self-portrait, played the key role. In view of these 'mixed' influences, and Wilson 's analysis, Axell's art might best be described as 'surrealist pop art', securing her a unique position in (Belgian) art history. In trendy colours, undeniably belonging to the 'pop era', Axell introduces themes such as lust and desire, eroticism and androgyny, which link her work to the surrealist heritage, but also fit in the context of the sexual revolution after May '68.


Wilson offers a subtle discussion of the influences on Axell of her teacher René Magritte and several other surrealists and pop artists (such as Peter Phillips and Pauline Boty). She elaborates for example on (the depiction of) sexuality, by connecting Magritte's 'headless women' or the nudes from his période vache of the 1940s, who undergo the voyeuristic gaze of the viewer, and Axell's auto-erotic (self-)portraits which show a self-confident female identity that strongly differs from, for example, Tom Wesselman's 'willing' Great American Nudes.


Wilson 's analysis of Axell's play with the notion of 'single vs. double' is particularly interesting. She states: " Not man plus woman, but one plus one: the mirror-image double of solitude - which itself doubles as the eternal quest for mon semblable, ma soeur. Either Axell focuses on the single female body (herself) or, alternatively, the body is doubled, reflected" (p. 29).


Fig. 2  : Le Désir , 1969, enamel on Perspex, Formica, 90 x 61 cm. Collection Dejonckheere.


However, Wilson 's essay could have scrutinised further the influence of Axell's specific choice of materials (enamel on Perspex) on the content of her work. It is through the necessary abstraction - those industrial techniques obviously preclude a detailed lineation - that the content loses explicitness, for relatively thick brush strokes are less sharp and consequently softer, vaguer and more abstract than thin drawing lines. The monochrome colour areas that constitute the portraits also have a subduing effect on the otherwise provocative and ecstatic poses of the nudes. So it is interesting to see how this levelling or weakening effect in the paintings diminishes in the drawings, where Axell depicts her subjects very pungently. Indeed, the use of felt-tip pen on paper or calque (as a possible equivalent for indelible enamel paint on opal-coloured Perspex) allows all body parts, especially the vagina, to be represented extremely accurately, which enhances the provocative dimension of the scenes. Compare for example Le Désir [Fig. 2] with its preparatory drawing [Fig. 3], or with Le Pinceau de la Gorgone [Fig. 4], where she retakes the pose of the figure (herself) in the painting, mischievously adding the paint brush as a phallic, auto-erotic attribute, far more explicit than she did in her painted self-portrait [Fig. 1] where she depicts herself both as a naked woman and in her capacity as artist. Indeed, the writings in this catalogue would have benefited from more attention to Axell's considerable corpus of drawings, which provide an important opportunity to reconstruct the genesis of the artistic process.


Fig. 3  : Projet pour Le Désir , 1969, felt-tip on paper, 39 x 24 cm. Private collection.



Fig. 4  : Le Pinceau de la Gorgone , 1972, felt-tip on paper, 63 x 48 cm. Private collection.


For example, Claude Lorent, in his text on the relation between Evelyne Axell's work and her one-hundred-year-older 'fellow citizen' Félicien Rops (both artists were born in Namur ), pays little attention to Axell's graphic œuvre. This may be seen as problematic when he compares not Axell's drawings, but her paintings with the graphic work (not the paintings) by Rops. It is interesting, though, that through the confrontation of both œuvres, which show some similarity in subjects (women, eroticism and modernity), the 'masculine gaze' is contrasted with Axell's 'female gaze'. This gender aspect should also be put into perspective: the strongly differing views on sexuality of Rops and Axell have to be seen - maybe in the first place - in the context of the time in which they were working, respectively the late nineteenth century and the sixties. Where in Rops's work, the unbridled sexual experience of women is represented as devilish, Axell uses it to glorify the finally gained freedom of women and their bodies. As Lorent rightly states, Axell's personal commitment is such that her entire œuvre can be considered one giant self-portrait; in this catalogue, this idea is expressed convincingly for the first time.


Liesbeth Decan is a teaching and research assistant at the Department of Art History at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and teaches the history and theory of photography at the Sint-Lukas School of Arts in Brussels. She is an affiliated research fellow to the Lieven Gevaert Research Centre for Photography and Visual Studies. In 2002 she wrote a master's dissertation on the Belgian artist Evelyne Axell. She is currently working on a PhD thesis about the insertion of the photographic medium in Belgian art since the late 1960s.



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