on Art

1. About finding (April, 2022)


My blog is about art, about visual art.  Art is an essential part of my existence. When I think, I often do so in images. Not everyone is convinced that such a thing is possible. You think in language. Yes, of course, but I also think in images, even in abstract images. 


A process of thinking is often focused on problem-solving. In the visual arts, in drama, dance, poetry, or in music, a problem can be: the lack of a challenging topic; or the not yet satisfying balance in a composition; or the uncertainty about a right instrumentation or composition. 


Everything starts however with the basic process of finding. It happens to you, or it doesn’t. Picasso put it in this way: I don't seek, I find. Finding is the encounter with brainwaves. Sometimes those waves come smoothly. Sometimes they stay out and that leads to desperate artists. A continuous lack of inspiration at authors is called a 'writer's block', a mental block to write. There is no satisfactory idea or content available. Painters and sculptors have comparable problems, nevertheless not such a terminology. You could speak maybe of a 'painter's block', or about a 'sculptor's block', although, I associate the latter more with a block of stone or wood.


Art is to me, apart from all physical labour, above all a mental process that depends on the power of thinking and reasoning and that starts with finding. You can compare finding with inspiration. “Finding something” is a blessing, but it also has its bad sides. Once you've found something, there is no imperative need to look further. The intriguing process of searching could stop. Several artists stopped developing after they thought they had found something. Rutger Kopland, one of my favorite Dutch poets, published in 1972 a poetry collection titled: “Wie wat vindt heeft slecht gezocht” (“Whoever finds something has searched badly”).  I think that’s a hopeful thought because it brings us back to the ongoing quest. A thought maybe at odds with Picasso's thesis, but on closer consideration perhaps not quite.




2. The paintability of white (May, 2022)


How hard can it be to paint white? This question takes me back to my own drawing lessons. In this case lessons from the Dutch painter Jan Roeland. Jan Roeland is one of the great post-war painters of the Netherlands. He was born in IJsselmuiden in 1935 and died in 2016 in his hometown of Amsterdam. The "Kunsthal" in Rotterdam honored him posthumously with a fine retrospective exhibition. He painted highly simplified tables, everyday objects and also very stylized ducks and tulips. His work can be seen in various museums. Yes, Jan Roeland, at the art academy in Amersfoort he taught me how to improve my drawing. I remember it very well. He built a kind of white stage on a table with white drawing paper, a white background too, and a couple of big wads of white paper. He illuminated the scenery with several spotlights. A very still life. We, the students, had to draw it, in pencil. Well, white paper on a white background in a lot of white light. More white is not possible. Jan started to paint himself, leaving us muddling along for the time being. In those days he painted tables, very stylized tables. Phenomenal to see him doing that. Now, when I visit an exhibition with work by Jan, there is occasionally a work to see where I think: I have seen how he did this one. 


I carefully drew some contours, very restrained, afraid maybe to hurt the white. Occasionally Jan came over to look. "It's nothing yet," he said. 'You have to look, look closely before you draw”. Yes, thanks a lot, but how do you draw white on white paper with a black pencil? After he had let us mess around quite a bit - I wasn't the only one who couldn't get it done - he gave the tip to look through our eyelashes. “Almost close your eyes and look what you see”. Damned, that helped, you really saw some dark tones. Photographers would have understood that earlier, they know the importance of the diaphragm. Back to work. Jan came by again. "It's nothing yet," he said. The subdued "IJsselmuider" could be quite direct, learned that perhaps in Amsterdam, where he lived. 


Long evenings it was, working on a still life that didn't want to become one. Jan passed by again. "You know," he said, "you try to draw what you know all the time. You know that the paper is white, that the background is white, that the light is white. What you know prevents you from seeing it.” That gave food for thought. He was right. If you forget what you know, and just look, then you see a lot of gray in that white, in some places even black too. Contrasts, shadows, depth, a fanfare of shades. Now it went better. I finally understood something about white. And I understood even Jan's work better, those simple forms, which are not so simple at all if you forget what you know and just try to see. I understood something of his struggle to get the minimal and functional of an object on the canvas. The many layers of paint he needed for that. I also understood the despair that arises from time to time. It's a key experience. 


3. Two neat gentlemen  (May, 2022)

Another anecdote about the Dutch painter Jan Roeland, who was one of my teachers at the Art Academy in Amersfoort. There would be a short film, a documentary, shown on television about him and his work. The broadcast was on an evening when he was teaching at the academy. We are talking about the early seventies. Video already existed, but for home use no usance, still too bad and too expensive. Jan came to me worried: “Jos, tonight is that film about me.  I would like to see it. I don't make it to be home in Amsterdam on time. You are from Amersfoort after all. Don't you know someone I can go and see after class?” Well, my parents lived in Amersfoort, close to the academy. We went together to the “Kleine Spui”, the street where they lived in the old town. My mother was quiet and subdued. My father eloquent as ever. "Do you want to sit here, sir? Do you see it well that way? Would you like coffee, or rather a cognac, or a glass of wine? Isn't that beautiful, isn't it, such a film about you on television? How can I be of service to you?" That all seemed unstoppable, even though the film had already started, and the neat Jan Roeland – clearly a bit annoyed – said fairly immediately: 'I prefer that you are quiet now, so that I can see the film.'  Well, that worked, even with my dad! 



4. Still life (May, 2022)


What a beautiful word that is. It's quiet and it's alive. In a still life, painters try to realize a still moment through the arrangement of coherent or less coherent objects. They look for a successful composition. Sometimes they have a message, for example those detailed floral paintings in a beautiful vase. Here and there a leaf with a hole, a gnawing beetle, a fallen leaf. “Beware”, says the still life, “life is finite, I still look beautiful, but the decay is already there”. 


I myself occasionally paint a still life. I call them “approaches to still life”. Actually I paint the mutual relationships more than the objects themselves. 


A still life is not so much about depicting, as precisely as possible, not about the reality that you have in eye as a painter. It's not about perfectly copying the beauty of a collection of jugs or bottles. It's not about reproducing the perfection of a vase with beautiful flowers so faithfully. There is nothing more beautiful than that vase with flowers itself. The painter's task is to make a painting that transcends the motive given, not so much in beauty, but as a concept. Georges Braque (1882 - 1963), the inventor of Cubism, was very good at making such interpretations.


The Italian painter Morandi, a great painter (he was two meters tall) who lived from 1890 to 1964, was also a famous still life painter. He could paint groups of vases or bottles in an almost unimaginable way in breath-taking compositions with tender, dusty, restrained colors and fascinating arrangements. Bottles and vases. His paintings are pieces of balancing art, of fragility and connectedness, of intensity and tenderness. Morandi painted objects, but not for the objects sake. He painted relationships between objects, respectful, nevertheless drastic reductions. Morandi attacked the objects and what remained was silence, deafening silence.