A PORTRAIT OF FÉLIX ROULIN AND HIS CONTEMPORARIES
PAUL DELVAUX, KING PHILIPPE AND QUEEN MATHILDE OF BELGIUM AND PAO, A LADY FROM LAOS.
By Pick Keobandith, Founder and International Director, Inspiring Culture.
Here in Brussels during this chilly month of May, the great sculptor Félix Roulin is bringing warmth to the room. And magnificently so. At 90 years old he is still talking about travelling and making large scale sculptures. He loves Life, Beauty and Art. Deeply humane, his works are about memory within their material substance. They represent a reality that is missing in the virtual world surrounding us. Roulin thinks of matter as touch. As sensuality. It is about “hard and soft, rough and smooth, cold and hot…” He works on the contrasts in his materials and patina to a level of perfection like a goldsmith working in bronze. Columns, pillars, doors and porticos are borrowed from architecture and merged with human elements. His recent work is mellow, a eulogy of human form, strange mysterious smiles adorn his oval faces.
We are going to take a closer look at the creative process of this master sculptor of bronze when he made the portraits of the painter Paul Delvaux, the King and Queen of Belgium and Pao, his first Asian model.
Félix Roulin has always had a natural inclination to make portraits; this also happened to be a compulsory part of his training as a sculptor. In recent years his curiosity has driven him constantly to imagine, draw and create three dimensional portraits. He never aims to achieve a photographic likeness but wants to capture the essence of each individual sitter, showing their unique depth and complexity. The human figure is central to his work and the female figure even more so, becoming the ultimate force behind his work.
It was Félix Roulin who decided that he wanted to make a portrait of his friend the painter Paul Delvaux (1897-1994), who had also taught as a professor at La Cambre. Although he was already very old, the latter made the effort to sit for him in a little restaurant next to the Paul Delvaux museum. Here Félix set up his tools and the necessary materials to work. The first day he made some quick reference sketches in black biro. On the second day, encouraged by his sitter, he quickly finished a portrait in clay that was slightly larger than life. The painter’s expression was difficult to catch as one eye seemed to wander off now and then, so he placed a tiny ball of clay on the left eye like a punctuation mark. In this way he finished the face and moved to the next stage which was to create a mould of the form in negative. This step led to the bronze sculpture now in the Paul Delvaux Museum in Coxyde.
Paul Delvaux is a painter whose style lies somewhere between surrealism and expressionism. In Belgium he is best known for his work combining groups of women in architectural or railway settings, and his skeletons…
The idea for the portraits of the Belgian royals came from a request made by a friend of Félix, who was counsel of the Senate. She asked him if he could do a portrait of King Philippe. Months passed and nothing happened even though he had filled a sketchbook with ideas to work out how to do it. Yet the kind of royal portrait that he had been asked to make was like a document to complete other portraits of dynasties and people of importance. Suddenly infuriated he added the queen and this was how his royal couple came into being. He regained his creative freedom as he followed his own instincts in this portrait of the King and Queen. The material chosen has Belgian colours. In his sketchbook the King and Queen are very young and beautiful with jewels like the time when he first met them. Other sketches portray the king wearing a helmet with a lion – the national emblem – drawn on top and the queen wears a bright crown. Their soft expressions are the result of studying a large number of photos.
In a solo exhibition at the Château de Seneffe in 2018, Félix showed a bronze model of the seated royal couple. They are the personification of happiness. The pregnant queen places her hand on her abdomen as a sign that the royal lineage will prosper “Long Live the King!”
Pao Ketsavanh Vongsay Panyathip is a young woman from Laos met during Roulin’s travels to Vientiane, Laos in 2019. Later, when she was visiting Brussels the sculptor seized the opportunity to make her portrait during the winter of 2021. It was not easy. She is a very beautiful woman. He was not able to capture her immediately. This would not seem to be because she was his first Asian sitter. He has travelled in China, Japan, South Korea and Laos. He also has grandchildren with mixed lineage from Africa, India and Japan. All ethnicities interest him with their different characteristics. Was he thrown by the perfection of her non-classical beauty ?
Finally this spring saw the completion of Pao’s bronze portrait.
Félix and his assistants had the privilege of being first to see it. At the beginning of 2022 the sculpture was in its raw cast form before he treated all the imperfections. It has been reworked, polished and finished. Then at the end the first patina that was added turned out to be much too dark. Pao has a light skin tone. She is not African or mixed race. He wanted to keep the metal very light and the hair dark. Finally he added a little wooden pedestal painted dark for emphasis and contrast.
Félix hopes his sitter will like her portrait. He is delighted with the result and considers it worthy of a place in a museum.