Painter’s muse gets long-awaited recognition from unlikely source


On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the death of Flemish artist Rik Wouters, two poets have teamed up to create a graphic novel on the life of his wife, Hélène Duerinckx, who had a huge influence on his work

The woman behind the man

The title of the mesmerising graphic novel by Peter Theunynck and Lies Van Gasse is a reference to the famous sculpture by Rik Wouters, known as “Het zotte geweld” (the wild thing), modelled on his beloved wife and muse Hélène “Nel” Duerinckx.

The authors of Nel, een zot geweld are both poets. Theunynck previously wrote the biography of the turn-of-the-20th-century Flemish author Karel van de Woestijne, and van Gasse was an illustrator, making them the perfect duo to create a graphic novel about Duerinckx, an exuberant woman who left a visible mark on art history.

Her husband, a world-famous Fauvist painter and sculptor from the same period as van de Woestijne, lived a life scarred by poverty and the First World War. But he was equally consumed by the determination to make art and by his love for Duerinckx, who was the inspiration for most of his work. She was the woman behind the man, his muse and his life. Nel, een zot geweld tells their tale.

“When I read Eric Min’s biography of Wouters, I was enthralled by Nel,” Theunynck says. “She was such a strong woman, who played a vital role in her husband’s life and, therefore, in the art scene.” 

An intimate world

In the Flanders of those days, “women tended to be quiet Catholic girls,” he continues, “but Nel was a woman who wanted to make something of her life”.

Theunynck initially wanted to make a movie about her life, so he started working on a script. Realising that the odds of actually turning it into a film were slim, he contacted Van Gasse, who had previously worked with him on the graphic poem Waterdicht (Watertight), for which he wrote the poem and she created the illustrations.

Nel wasn’t a demure wallflower, but she wasn’t exactly an independent woman

- Lies Van Gasse

Van Gasse, who has a personal affection for Wouters’ sketches, did a lot of research. “I’ve always been drawn to his style and the fact that he was able to create such an intimate world with so little,” she says. “I was also intrigued by Nel. She wasn’t a demure wallflower, but she wasn’t exactly an independent woman.”

Duerinckx supported her husband unconditionally, Van Gasse adds, but she was also opportunistic. “Wouters’ idealised her in his work, but in our book, I was able to show the other side of this woman who means so much to art history.”

The fluent and playful story is brought to life by Van Gasse’s evocative illustrations, which seem to be taken from the 19th century. Reminiscent of Wouters himself, the images are often dark, emphasising the subjects’ despair and intensity. They portray Duerinckx as a survivor, a woman whose emotions and sacrifice burst from the pages.

“I wanted to reflect Wouters’ works in my own images,” Van Gasse explains. “I tried to create a style that evokes him but at the same time stays true to myself. Referring to existing work is fun, but, on the other hand, Wouters is such a legend to me that it was daunting to create this book, because it also feels like an homage of sorts.”

More to come

It took Van Gasse two years to finish the illustrations for the book. “It’s a creative dialogue between her work and that of Wouters,” Theunynck adds. “What’s interesting about it is that certain important events that weren’t chronicled by Wouters have now been brought to life. Where we lack certainty and facts, the imagination of the artist can help fill in the missing elements.”

Certain important events that weren’t chronicled by Wouters have now been brought to life

- Peter Theunynck

Nel, een zot geweld is not a biography of Duerinckx, he continues, “but rather literary fiction in search of the truth. Eric Min, Wouters’ official biographer says that much in the preface to the graphic novel: ‘When the biographer keeps silent, the artist must speak’.”

Theunynck appreciated that kind of freedom when creating the story. “My previous biography is an academic document based on facts,” he says. “With Nel, I was able to provide my own interpretation when it came to certain aspects of her life that weren’t documented. It’s a mix of creative fiction and non-fiction.”

The authors are now considering more illustrated biographies. “I’ve always been fascinated with painters and sculptors,” Theunynck says, “and ever since I was a child, I've been frustrated that I couldn’t do those things myself. I’m a bit like Nel, who was fascinated with the art world but lacked the talent.”

Until she met Wouters, he adds. “He became her hands and eyes. It is very similar to my relationship with Lies. I wrote the text, and Lies has wonderfully captured the images that were in my head.”

Nel, een zot geweld (★★★★) is published in Dutch by Wereldbibliotheek

Image courtesy of Peter Theunynck & Lies van Gasse

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