Hélène Delprat

*1957 in Amiens, Frankreich

Hélène Delprat, Chambre funéraire dans la demeure de Bort-à-Tchino [Burial chamber in the house of Bort-à-Tchino], 1983, vinyl, pigment and paper on canvas, 219 x 154 cm, Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst Aachen, loan of the Peter and Irene Ludwig Foundation © Hélène Delprat / Photo: Carl Brunn

The view into the burial chamber in the House of Bort-à-Tchino (1983) offers a peculiar scenery: in the centre of a dubious tomb lies laid out a pale deer-headed figure, the arrow that obviously fatally shot it still protruding from its body. As if they had just come out, two dark figures move away from each other to the right and left of the entrance to the chamber. They are also mixed creatures, but with a wolf’s and a cat’s head respectively on their human bodies. Both hold a bow loosely in their hands and carry a quiver of arrows on their backs, which could well correspond to the murder weapon. The figure on the left bares its teeth menacingly and gives us another penetrating look as we pass.

Hélène Delprat (*1957 in Amiens) constructs an immediately ominous scene here that conveys the feeling of having been involuntarily made a witness to a crime. Thus the burial chamber, designed in cool, dark colours and with ominous signs, becomes the scene of the crime, and the bright stag figure, standing in stark contrast to it, becomes the victim of an atrocity committed by the two sinister figures – who, to make matters worse, have caught us in the act of voyeurism.

Considering, however, that the artist here mysteriously takes up Mongolia’s first literary work, this first impression may shift: The Secret History of the Mongols (c. 1227-1240) tells of the life and lineage of Genghis Kahn (and all Mongol peoples). According to legend, at the beginning of this lineage, at a mystical time, stood the blue-grey wolf Bort-à-Tchino and the white hind Gua Maral.[1] In the epic, no more than the first paragraph of the first chapter is devoted to the two, which tells of their settling on the banks of the Onon at the sacred mountain Burchan Chaldun, but not a word is said about their further fate.

What then is Hélène Delprat trying to tell us with this sombre scene? How could this drama between the primordial figures come about? Are the two dark figures not responsible for the death of the doe, but walking attentively up and down the entrance to her final resting place? After all, she is already lying on a barque and the old Norse ritual of a ship’s burial could be implied. Moreover, the artist has also used ancient Egyptian motifs, according to which a jackal-headed god like Anubis received the dead in their grave in order to escort them from there into the afterlife. Is this “just” playing with our archaic fears? Finally, the artist often chooses titles with a rather loose connection to the works. They are meant to contribute to the atmosphere of the paintings, but not necessarily to provide a description of the actual content of the picture.[2]

It is also known that Hélène Delprat was fascinated by hunting rites and the story of Diana and Actaeon, especially during her study visit to Rome (1982-1984), from which this work also derives. [3] This famous hunt of Roman-Greek mythology is said to have been re-enacted by the priestesses of the goddess by chasing a man dressed as a stag, covered with dog-head masks. Is it not rather a stag lying there anyway? Has he committed sacrilege against the gods? On the other hand, the Kerynite hind of the hunting goddess Artemis or Diana was also famous for its antlers. Furthermore, it might be obvious to connect the motif of the burial chamber with the immediate impression of the Roman catacombs.

This work shows wonderfully how in Hélène Delprat’s work the (mystical) motifs intertwine associatively without slipping into the esoteric or even the kitschy, because they refuse a superficial reading. So is the wolf’s gaze possibly not a threat at all but the deliberate breaking of the fourth wall to expose us as an audience in front of a stage and the scene as a fictitious play?

For Hélène Delprat, none of this would be unusual – on the contrary. For she is adept at the game of ambiguities and is known for “drawing on literary, (art) historical as well as cinematic and pop-cultural references […] to develop her own abysmal and excessive cosmos, in which the humorous merges with the sombre and the ornamental with the figurative.”[4]

NR

[1] The names of these two ancestors are still transliterated very differently today.
[2] Cédric Vincent: Titles in Perspective. In: Galerie Christophe Gaillard (ed.), Hélène Delprat – Works & Days, pp. 50¬-57. Paris 2017.
[3] Gérard-Georges Lemaire: Une menière noire. In: Galerie Adrien Maeght (ed.), Hélène Delprat – Initiations (unpaginated). Paris 1985.
[4] Kunsthalle Giessen, announcement of the exhibition “Hélène Delprat. With my voice I’m calling you” (07.03. – 31.07.2020): https://www.kunsthalle-giessen.de/2020_delprat.html