1. About finding
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
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 aspects 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
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
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 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.
5. Killing your darlings
Something contradictory seems to be going on here: killing your sweethearts. Why would you want to harm what you love? And what does such a thing have to do with art? Artists usually don't make it easy for themselves when they're working on an idea, a thought, an inspiration, an observation, a work of art. Depending on the discipline, manual labor is required and spiritual commitment is necessary. Artists are not easily satisfied. For the unsuspecting spectator, the work in progress often looks rather good already, for the artist it could be totally different. The artist struggles with the conversion of what he or she imagines. If a work has finally succeeded and the artist is satisfied, then the work could become a “darling”, or it could come close to such a qualification. You can also say: the artist is happy with the result. Many artists often call their last work of art their most beautiful work. Incidentally, there are also many artists who consider their next work, that which has not yet been made, as their most beautiful work. They already have ideas for it, but it's still in their heads. It has not yet been realized.
Art has a sacred image. As a spectator, you'd better stay away from it. Everyone who visits a museum is confronted with the presence of attendants. They keep an eye on things. That no one will come too close to a work of art, or even worser, that someone wants to touch it. Those who do so can count on an alarm, or at least with a rebuke from the attendant. That's mostly a good thing. There are always madmen who think they have to destroy a work of art. They “kill” our “darlings”.
Yet most works of art do not go down by deranged museum visitors. The artists themselves are the greatest destroyers of art. For the record: mostly their own art. Many artists do not know in advance exactly what they plan to make will eventually look like. Making art is a process of searching and finding, of trying and doing again. Some artists produce a lot of art in a relatively short time, other artists take a long time to produce their work. This has to do with the flood of ideas, which may or may not yet exist, but especially with the chosen technique, the material and the size of a work of art. During the work, a bond is created between the artist and the artwork. Making art is an activity charged with emotions, even if you don't always see that in production processes or the result. When a work is finished, an artist is not always immediately willing to show it. Although the making of art is inherent in exhibiting it – in principle – artists do not like to release their work directly to the uncontrollable eye of the viewer. What will such a spectator think of it? If the work is appreciated, praised, well, then it's all right. But what if the viewer turns out to be a bleak and not empathetic critic? Pablo Picasso has shown his key work, “The Women of Avignon” to a wider audience ten years after its creation, and after radical overpainting. He suspected, probably rightly, that the public was not yet ready for it. Picasso, by the way, was an artist who had trouble declaring a work 'finished' anyway. He often overpainted parts of work that he had already signed, that he had declared 'ready'. The story goes that he occasionally even changed work in galleries, even if that work had already been sold. Uncertainty plays tricks on artists. Artists can be bothered by elements in their work that they do not like. They work it over and over, often until they finally have 'ruined' the entire canvas. There are also artists who destroy their early work. They see what they initially made as attempts to what they are making now. They consider their early work as not matured. They relentlessly dismiss it. That is a pity, especially regrettable even, because it is precisely from that early work that you can deduce the development of an artist. Often that early work is not bad or inept at all. It is only imperfect in the eyes of the artist. Many artists regret that later, by the way.
It is a matter of balance. Selectively dealing with what you produce, developing a critical attitude towards your own work, is actually a good trait and competence. Sticking too much to everything you produce is not good for many artists. When creating an exhibition, artists are often inclined to show too much. Actually, they should be more rigorous in assessing their work, and if that does not work, a good curator is a blessing. For artists, many of their artworks are 'darlings', nevertheless: 'killing' a few sweethearts could benefit the whole.
The term “kill your darlings” does not come from me. The American author and Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner (1897 – 1962) already used it as a writing advice. The “precious darlings” of a writer, favorite passages, sentences, they can be very beautiful, but do not fit into the work you have in progress. “Kill them” was his advice, “even though they are beautiful, in this context they weaken the whole”. Faulkner didn't invent the term either. The English literature professor Arthur Quiller-Couch (1863 – 1944) said in a lecture in Cambridge in 1916 about writing: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” From the Dutch author Godfried Bomans (1913 – 1971) we know the observation: “Writing is deleting”. As difficult as it is for writers, it is also for painters and for photographers.
I am an example of a sweetheart killer. I have a constant uncertainty about the present result. I never really see my work as finished. I always tend to work on it again. In retrospect, I have helped a lot of my own work to damnation in this way. I kept working on it until I really worked it to death. The only consolation is that I'm not the only one with that disability. A famous example has been described by the French writer Honoré de Balzac (1799 – 1850) in his novel “The Unknown Masterpiece”. Balzac writes about an older artist – Frenhofer - who has been painting for ten years on a masterpiece, the portrait of a woman. When he shows it at long last to two famous fellow painters, his painting turns out to be a canvas with many layers of paint and a lot of incoherent lines. Frenhofer has worked on his painting for so long, changed it so much, that the masterpiece is only present in his head, no longer on the canvas. There was still a foot left that was not covered with new layers of paint and that foot had such a quality that it gave an indication of what the painting could have looked like. Frenhofer wanted to paint life, not to copy static figures. In the long process of perfection, Frenhofer finally has taken his “darling” life. Balzac's novel describes the artist's "not to win battle" for the perfect expression. At least Frenhofer destroyed all his paintings and died.
In the catalogue “Alberto Giacometti. Begegnungen”, released at the exhibition in the Bucerius Kunstforum in Hamburg, at the beginning of 2013, by Hirmer Verlag in Munich, the art historian Eva Hausdorf connects Balzac's novel with the work of Giacometti. In his drawings and paintings, but also in his sculpture, Giacometti struggles with the problem of expressing the inner man. What he sees is not enough for him, Art is not about superficiality, it is about the inner, Giacometti states. He scratches his sculpture until there is almost nothing left of them. They are getting smaller and smaller. His drawings and paintings consist of so many overpainted layers that the ultimately product is an almost unrecognizable image. The artist himself admits, after lengthy sessions and work on a portrait of the Japanese professor Yanaihara, that if he puts one other stroke of paint on it, the image would completely disappear. To lose the image is the constant fear of the artist in search of depth and expression. The painter Paul Cezanne was no different. “Frenhofer, c'est moi”, he said. When has an artwork finished? “Never really”, Cezanne argues, “but perhaps there is a good time to stop working on it.”
6a. Chop and paste
Sculpting is an art form that creates a three-dimensional form. Painters try to suggest space, for example through perspective. Sculpting is usually associated with chopping with hammer and chisel in a hard material, stone for example, or wood. Stone or wood is removed, until the shape that the sculptor has in mind remains. You can also create three-dimensional sculpture by adding material, clay for instance. Irreverently said, you could speak of “choppers” and “stickers”. Sculptors use these methods oft interchangeably.
The common denominator for sculpture is the spaciousness of the work. That definition provides significant bandwidth. This means for instance that the design of a landscape – land art - also could be understood as a way of sculpting. And Constantin Brancusi (1876 – 1957) spoke of architecture as an inhabited sculpture. Nowadays, many spatial art installations are made in which a wide variety of materials is used. You can often walk in or through it. It is about filling in or furnishing space. You could supplement the categories “choppers” and “stickers” in that respect with “builders”. Auguste Rodin, the famous French sculptor (1840 – 1917), was a kind of builder. He possessed whole collections of plaster arms and legs, in all kinds of sizes, which he added at will to the sculpture he was working on at the time. In much of his work you can still see the “sticky edges”. Even when he had his work cast in bronze, he cherished the traces of that process. Later, the Italian sculptor Marino Marini (1901 – 1980) liked to keep the casting traces too in his work as essential expressive elements.
The products of sculptors vary, from large, monumental even, to very small. An example of a very large statue is the statue of Vallabhbhai Patel, one of the most important persons during India's struggle for independence against the colonizer Great Britain. It is made by Ram Vanji Sutar (1925). The statue is 182 meters high, even 240 meters if you include the base. Compared to that the American Statue of Liberty is just a tiny tot. An example of very small sculptures are medals (in Dutch: penningen). The Dutch art historian Louk Tilanus, compiler of an overview of the history of medal art, speaks of them as "handy sculpture". There's a lot to be said for that. Especially when it comes to such beautiful sculptural examples as “Leda and the swan”, by Fred Carasso (1899 – 1969). Carasso shaped his medal in such a way that you can see “Leda and the swan” as a flat, nevertheles three dimensional sculpture.
Other examples of such medals are: “Rembrandt”, made by Piet Esser (1914 – 2004) in a great variety, all of them true sculptural works of art. Or Rodin's countenance, designed by Cor Hund (1915 – 2008). Kept in the right light, you will not only encounter the features of Rodin's face, but you become also a glimpse of the way Rodin shaped his art, impressionistic. Three sculptors, professors of art as well, two Dutch, and an Italian, who lived and worked in the Netherlands, mainly in the twentieth century. Unlike painting, the Netherlands does not have a centuries-old tradition to uphold when it comes to sculpture. In the Netherlands, professor Bronner (1881 – 1972) at the “Rijksacademie” in Amsterdam was, during the first half of the last century, the Dutch godfather of sculpture. In France, Rodin, who died in the early twentieth century, is the inspiration for a whole generation of sculptors after him. Bronner adored Rodin. Both had in common that they barely came to an end in their work. There was always something that could be improved. Bronner with his “Hildebrand monument”, Rodin with his “Gates of Hell”. Of course, there was also a considerable difference in quality between the aforementioned grandmasters. Rodin stands at a lonely height and has radically influenced sculpture after him. Bronner, in addition to being an avid fan of Rodin, was an excellent teacher who trained a large part of the fine fleur of the Dutch sculptors' guard. However, a number of Dutch sculptors went to Paris to learn the trade from artists with meanwhile big names such as Aristide Maillol (1861 – 1944), Charles Despiau (1874 – 1946), or Ossip Zadkine (1890 – 1967). The promising Dutch sculptor Bertus Sondaar (1904 – 1984), left Bronner’s class for a French education. Han Wezelaar (1901 – 1984) stayed in France for a long time and became the intermediary between Netherlands and French sculpture. Charlotte van Pallandt (1898 – 1997) was, among others, taught by Charles Malfray (1887 – 1940). With or without French influence, the Netherlands became finally a relevant sculptor's nation in the twentieth century.
I am especially fond of the work of Charlotte van Pallandt. Very expressive is the portrait she made of her colleague Fred Carasso. Carasso and his wife were her neighbors for a while in the studio houses at the Zomerdijkstraat in Amsterdam. The portrait in question alone justifies a sculptor’s career. Van Pallandt was still working on it when Carasso died. After that she didn't work on the head anymore. That turned out to be a positive side effect at a tragic loss. The portrait is so strong that you can't imagine to change anything.
Oh yes, there are also living sculptors I admire. For example, Eja Siepman van den Berg (1943). It is probably not surprising that she has her roots in the tradition of some of the sculptors already mentioned. Piet Esser was one of her teachers. She won the “Prix de Rome” and the “Charlotte van Palland Prize”. She is a representant of the figurative abstraction. A quote on her site says: “I have always felt passionate about the age-old vocabulary of sculpture. But the true essence of my work lies in its abstract qualities, in a well-considered and subdued idiom.”
6b. Chop and paste
In addition to chopping in wood and stone, bronze is perhaps the material we most associate with sculpture. Many sculptures are first made in plaster, in wax, or in clay. Then the sculptor can take them to the bronze caster. Bronze is an alloy, usually made of copper with a smaller portion of tin. The tin lowers the melting point and makes the material more durable. The bronze eventually gets a beautiful green protective patina over time. You can put it outside without objection, so the material is very suitable for public space. In addition, you can make more copies of your sculpture. Often sculptors only have made a few casts. There is a certain limit to keep an artwork a bit exclusive. That is not always the case. Rodin's sculpture 'The Bronze Age', (what’s in a name?) has been cast in more than a hundred copies over the course of time.
Bronze objects, as an alloy of copper and tin, we encounter in the Near East three thousand years before Christ. Before that time, the copper was mixed with arsenic. Very beautiful must have been the bronze, but also the marble statues of the ancient Greeks. Often they were abundantly and colorfully painted. There is not much left of it. Times change, religions change, and then the old statues are destroyed or melted down. Copies of those Greek statues do we know from the Romans and they are beautiful, let alone the originals.
Although bronze has the status of sustainability, a lot of sculpture is being destroyed and melted down. During the Second World War, for instance, museums in Germany and occupied territories, had to hand in so-called “Entartete Kunst” and the bronze statues were used as raw material for the arms industry. In our time, a bronze statue is sometimes stolen from a park and finds its sad final destination in a melting furnace. Sustainability is a relative concept.
At the moment, sculptors make sculptures from all kinds of materials. Bronze has actually been discarded a bit in modern sculpture. It is seen sometimes as an old-fashioned medium. Contemporary sculptors make works from textiles, wood, waste, plastic, aluminium, and combinations of these and other materials. Sometimes the images come from the 3D printer. Often the sculptures are not isolated expressions, but coherent installations. Very nice examples of that can be seen in the work of the German artist Rebecca Horn (1944), for example her work: "Concerto die Sospiri" from 1997. It consists of pallets, remains of demolished Venetian houses, pipes, of stones, textile remains. the work is sometimes brutal, at the same time often very poetic. You hear sounds of voices and music, different languages.
My sculpture is made of cardboard. I glue layer by layer on top of each other. The glue is made of rods that are heated in the glue gun and therefore liquefy. After cooling, the material is rock hard. I build up by doing so the basic material for my work, the mass, from the thinness of cardboard. Often other materials have been added, such as stone, wood or iron. What arises is a solid and rather heavy shape. I chop, cut, saw in it. Carving is a substantial part of the work process. The final version often gets a layer of concrete and a patina of acrylic paint. The structure of the layers of cardboard, the flowing lines of glue, give a special texture to the work. Of course, I could cast a finished product in bronze. However, I would lose the color and the expressiveness of the torn cardboard. So I choose the uniqueness of the artwork, not the repeatability of the work. You can't put my work outside because of the chosen technique. Weather and wind are not good for it. Inside, however, it is rather durable. An advantage: unlike many bronze sculpture, there is only one example of each of my sculptures. They are unique! But who am I to say that?
7a. The aesthetics of the imperfect
Art evokes the expectation that it must be beautiful and complicated to produce. “It is quite an art”, we say, or, if it has not succeeded so well, or seems very easy: “There is no skill involved”. Art is about the human and superhuman, about abstract reality, about things that surround us, about what our imagination yields. Art makes the contemporary exalted. You have to handle art carefully. Usually a work of art is a one-off product, or reproduced in a relatively small edition. In museums, we are (mostly) expected to stay at respectable distance from art and not to be too noisy. Art with a crack, that is still art, but it is unfortunately no longer worth as much as before. Nowadays there are many programs on television where people can show treasures from their basement and attic to have them appraised. Usually it has no value at all, sometimes it's surprisingly special and precious. An old painting, a beautiful vase, a bronze sculpture. The appraiser looks with a magnifying glass, while the owner looks expectantly, hoping that grandma's heirloom, the acquisition of the flea market, or the gift at the wedding, will turn out to be an unforeseen gold mine. With luck, the appraiser says that it is a beautiful piece, that it is also well made, that there are not that many more of it, but also unfortunately: that it is regrettably no longer in such a very good condition, that there is a crack in it, or even torn, that it was broken once and then glued. Hadn't that been so, well, then... Art should be complete. Not broken.
That's the way it is, art is beautiful and not broken. There are artists who oppose that image. Umberto Eco, semiologist and novelist, wrote an entire book about the artistic history of ugliness. In my Dutch edition, published in 2007 by Bert Bakker in Amsterdam, there is so much ugliness together that you will no longer easily have the thought that art is made because of its beauty. Many artists do not make their art for aesthetic reasons. Often art is a reaction, a warning, or an indictment. The artist wants to denounce something. Artists are very often socially and politically active. They are putting a finger on a sore spot. The British Graffiti artist Banksy is an example of a critical artist who sprays images in public places with templates. His subjects are diverse. They are about refugees, about environmental pollution, about consumer behavior, about interpersonal relationships, and much more. His art is fragile. It arises outside, it is sometimes painted over or otherwise damaged. Banksy has become very expensive in the meantime. He also makes fun of that money-issue, for example by activating a built-in shredder in the frame of a painting during an auction, that fragmented the work actually partly. The message is: the idea is more important than the product. Nevertheless, broken, it does yield even more than in the previous state. This is a counterexample to the thesis that art must be undamaged to be appreciated. Banksy does not have my sympathy. I don't like Graffiti on private or public properties. I think it is a form of vandalism.
An artist who has given an important impetus to a new way of looking at and dealing with art is the French painter, sculptor and actionist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp is the father of installations, conceptual art and minimal art. He lived from 1887 to 1968 and he has influenced the way we look at art revolutionary. Duchamp is a descendant of an artist family. He had two brothers and a sister who were also involved in art. As often happened, his fame has been preceded or initiated by a scandal. His painting of a nude descending stairs was not appreciated by the Salon of the Independents in Paris and later there was also a fuss about the canvas during the Armory Show in New York. A scandal is always an attractive start for an artist's career. Georg Baselitz, the famous German painter knows about that too with regard to his large-penis-portraits. Marcel Duchamp is the artist who elevated a work to art in which he barely had a hand in. He mounted a bicycle wheel on a stool. He answered the question whether that was art by saying that he declared it art. His statement is that it is up to the artist to determine what is art or not. This “ready-made” was an early run-up to Dadaism. Duchamp “made” a few more of those things, a signed pissoir for example, of which it is doubted afterwards whether it comes from his world of ideas, or was previously stolen from an artist friend.
Back to the theme of imperfection of works of art. A core work of art for Duchamp is his so-called: 'The big glass', or 'The bride who is undressed by her suitors'. It is a freestanding work of two glass plates, high 277.5 cm and wide 175.9 cm. Duchamp worked on it intermittently in the period from 1915 to 1923. Before that time he had already thought about the work and made preparatory notes and preliminary studies. We see a bride in the upper rectangle, mechanically, emerging. In the lower rectangle are nine bachelors who covet the bride. These bachelors depict different types, such as a priest, a corpse bearer, an errand boy and a lackey. It is a postmodern fairy tale: Snow White and the nine dwarfs, pressing their noses against the glass coffin, a screen between innocence and dirty thoughts. The whole is designed with oil paint, varnish, lead foil and wire. Even dust that accumulated over time has been fixed by Duchamp and in that way integrated in the artwork. It looks like a device, but it's actually a rather collage-like construction on glass. Nevertheless, it is the start of the post-modern installation-like constructions, and in that sense a groundbreaking concept. Groundbreaking, indeed, breaking too. In 1926 it was exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. On the return trip it broke down. Duchamp has preserved the glass fractures, fixed them between two sheets of glass. He found the fractures a valuable addition to the artwork and named that addition as the aesthetics of chance. The work, which he constantly tinkered with, he declared to be now in the ultimate state of unfinishedness. It wasn't finished yet, but he didn't feel like working on it any further. Now the work is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A perfect example of imperfection.
Marcel Duchamp's window bride reminds me of Penelope, Odysseus' wife who waited twenty years for her husband's return, meanwhile besieged by suitors at her court, who, in addition to her, were also after her money and good and political power. Not a new thought. For me, there were others who were concerned with the obvious connection between Homer and Duchamp. The American researcher Marylin Katz of the American Princeton University, refers in 1991 in her study “Penelope's Renown” to the bride of Duchamp and to the encrypted relationship with her suitors. The art historian Megakles Rogakos obtained his PhD in 2016 at the University of Essex with a thesis entitled: “A Joycean Exegesis of The Large Glass. Homeric Traces in the Postmodernism of Marcel Duchamp”. Rogakos investigates to what extent Duchamp had Penelope and her suitors in mind when he was working on his Great Glass, and he also includes the work of James Joyce “Ulysses” in that question. Rogakos concludes that Duchamp's work can be regarded as a moralizing story about archetypal themes, such as violence, drugs and lust as parts of male initiation, referred to by Duchamp as “the beauty of indifference”. The researcher relies on several cryptic references to Homer in Duchamp's notes to this work.
Duchamp's work has had quite an influence on the artistic thinking of our time and on contemporary artistic expressions. He is considered a forerunner modern art. He was an exponent of a “Zeitgeist” in which art was viewed differently than people were used to before. Duchamp defined himself on the basis of an idea, rather than a visual representation. That is to say: the visual representation is subordinate to the concept he wanted to express. He still needed means of expression, but no longer in a traditional sense. Imperfection was one of the stylistic instruments.
7b. The aesthetics of the imperfect
A fine example of what I call disrespectfully, but not without respect, “Doll’s-House-Art”, referring to Duchamp's flat glass case, is described in the novel “What I loved” by Siri Hustvedt. Hustvedt is an important Brooklyn-based writer from Norway. She is married to the equally successful author Paul Auster. Hustvedt's novel tells the story of two artist couples who live in the Soho district of New York. It is about life designs and their relativity, about parents and children and about the disruption of happiness. Bill, one of the main characters, is an artist. Hustvedt describes how he, after giving up two-dimensional painting, devotes himself to the construction of sculpture cabinets. Unlike Duchamp's 'Big Glass', Bill is all about actual spaces. Duchamp's latest work “Étant donnés” is also a physical space where you can look inside through two holes. Duchamp would like to decide for himself how you would see his artwork. The viewing direction is indicated. In Hustvedt’s novel character Bill, two- and three-dimensional images are contrasted. Contrasting images in different styles, advertising included, just like literary texts. These are hysteria cabinets, dream remnants from a marital crisis, and Hansel-and-Gretel cabinets. The cabinets are series. They belong together, they tell a story. They are installations with doors that can be opened and closed. These artworks are “Children of Duchamp”, thematic imperfections.
With really old art, it is more often the case that a few things are broken. The “Venus de Milo”, for example, has no arms. In the course of history, they have broken. We know that image now as an icon. It's just the way it should be. If that Venus suddenly got arms, we would look strange. It doesn't fit into the frame of reference that we've built up.
A little broken are also the oldest paintings we know, that is, paintings that were not painted as frescoes on a wall, but that were made as transportable works of art, usually on a wooden surface. These are so-called mummy portraits. Such portraits were given to deceased persons in ancient Egypt, often wrapped in the shell that they received when mummifying. The idea was that the they had to be easily recognizable in order to get a place in the otherworldly existence. The gods should not be mistaken. The more realistic a portrait was, the better.
An interesting book about these portraits was written by Jean-Christophe Bailly, a French author of poems, plays and essays. His informative book is poetical called “L' Apostrophe muette” (The silent apostrophe), subtitled “Essai sur les portraits du Fayoum” (Essay on the Fayum portraits). It first appeared in 2000 at Hazan publishing house in Paris. Most of the portraits have been found in Fajum, Egypt. That is why one usually speaks of Fajum portraits. It is a frontal image, head and often shoulder part and a piece of the chest. The background is usually kept in one tone. They are made in enkaustik (wax painting) or with tempera. There are about 900 preserved. They often date from Roman times. Many finds have been handled rather roughly, but many of them are still in a remarkably good condition. There were good, skilled painters, probably expensive, and well-meaning amateurs. The Egyptian gods must have had quite a job assigning personal data to the various images. Nevertheless, that is their business. For me the paintings themselves are interesting. As mentioned, they are often on wood, joined planks, smooth planed, pre-treated with plaster. That wood has suffered damage over time. Parts of planks have been torn down and disappeared, edges have broken off, damage has occurred. You regularly see such a painting where quite a few parts of the surface are missing. Often the paint surface is also affected. I actually find them even more beautiful. They become a kind of fragmentary objects. Time has given an added value. The fragmentary character leaves room for imagination. You can think further, beyond the edges. What also strikes me about these fragmentary portraits are the eyes. They are portraits with big dark eyes, eyes that look at you, directly. A black pupil, brown eye color, a tightened lash line, heavy eyebrows. They all look like they are slightly larger than in real life. They remind me of Charley Toorop's self-portraits. The famous female Dutch painter Charley Toorop (1891 – 1955) usually painted herself with such a pressing look. She looks right through you, sternly. Big eyes too. Luckily her portraits have stood the test of time, so far.
I am quite crazy with my work. I tear up drawings, I saw sculptures and I treat paintings with knives. It sounds more intense than it is. The actions are intended to redefine first designs, to reorganize parts of it in different compositions. The original first draft is often too well-behaved, or too simple for me. By tearing in drawings, there is the possibility to combine visual elements new. You can slide and reorganize, only then paste. It is an extra dimension in shaping. With my sculptures it is the same. Yes, it makes it all more labor-intensive, but also more interesting to me. I create things that I didn't see or thought possible in the run-up. I am often surprised by the results of combinations. Sometimes it is also disappointing. So it is with the aesthetics of the imperfect. Sometimes it works, often it doesn't.
"Imperfect" is in my edition of "Van Dale", a Dutch dictionary: "incomplete". You can also look at it differently. In art history and art appreciation, the term "non finito" is used for "the imperfect". Not being finished could be used by artists as a conscious means of style and expression. The following quote refers to its application in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries:
"Yet artists began to insist through their sculpture and painting that they could veer away from a commitment to finish, and that through surface variation and roughness, as well as a lack of complete resolution in their compositions, they could reach other praiseworthy objectives, such as vivacity. It is essential to understand that artists who moved away from the ideal of "finish" had to expect both praise and criticism, often depending on the placement and context of their work. This was especially true in the sixteenth century but remained the subject of a great deal of discussion in the seventeenth century."
Andrea Bayer in: Renaissance views of the unfinished. In: Titian's hidden double portrait. Unveiled after 500 years. Hannibal Publishing, Italy, 2019
The French sculptor Rodin (1840 – 1917) is considered the godfather of the unfinished statue. He used the omission of parts of figures as a conscious stylistic tool to increase the expressiveness of his work. An expressive image like "L'Homme qui marche" from 1907, more than two meters high, consists of a torso of a man with two legs. No arms, no head. Rodin says that he has often been accused of not having a "head" in this image. His reply is: "Do you need a head to walk?" This lapidary reply essentially expresses a new conception within figurative sculpture. Depicting a figure does not mean that it must be displayed in its entirety. Auguste Rodin, like Aristide Maillol (1861 – 1944), or Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1861 – 1919), find the strength of expression in a fragmentary approach to sculpture. Arms, legs, a head, they can be distracting elements in the expression of the image. A well-made torso has great expressiveness. And of course, as I said before, we have become accustomed to statues without arms, legs or a head because of the examples from Greek and Roman culture that we know from excavations and their accommodation in museums.
Remarkable in art history is that a consciously made torso was first made by Auguste Rodin. Rodin made torsos, without neck and head, without arms and legs, as a conscious work of art. He did not consider these sculpture incomplete, no, he made them because he wanted to express the visual effect of a torso, without disturbing or distracting elements. Rodin gave the torso its own place in sculpture. For Rodin, we were very familiar with the phenomenon of torso in the visual arts, because of the sculpture that came up during excavations. That sculpture was usually not undamaged. Heads, arms, legs were often missing. One of the most famous examples is the “Torso of Belvedere” by the sculptor Apollonius of Athens, from the first century BC. Apollonius, however, did not mean that image as a torso. It has broken down over time. Roman sculptors did make copies of Greek Torsi. They saw the power of expression in the ancient examples and wanted to preserve them, or they wanted to practice the art of the Greeks. I think they thought it was a pity that they didn't have the whole sculpture available as an example. Before Rodin, however, no one came up with the idea of making sculpture of only a hull, as an independent work of art. After Rodin, many sculptors ventured to the torso, and they still do. We find torsi in naturalistic elaborations and in more or less abstracted forms. Antoine Bourdelle (1861 – 1929), for example, who also worked as Rodin's assistant. Or Aristide Maillol (1861 – 1944), Rodin's gifted antipode. The Italian Marino Marini (1924 – 1997) also made beautiful torsi, just like the Austrian Alfred Hrdlicka (1928 – 2009), to take just a few out of that line of gifted artists. In the Netherlands we know in this respect the beautiful torsi of Eja Siepman van de Berg (1943).
Sculpture is often beautiful, and often it is not beautiful at all, simply because it doesn’t want to be beautiful. Sculpture challenges, provokes, or amazes us. Sculpture evokes memories or keeps them awake. Sculpture expresses sadness and suffering, tenderness, love and hate, and all other feelings. Sculpture may differ from all what we are used to expect. The surprise is the unexpected outcome. A spectator has to work too. Imperfect is sculpture only if you do not bother to confront your own imagination with the interpretation of the sculptor.
8. About steering coincidence
A lot of art arises by coincidence or chance, at least parts of it. Art is not always pre-conceived or predetermined. A lot arises by accident. Artistic action is determined by intuitive decisions. Karel Appel (1921 – 2006), the famous Dutch Cobra-painter said in an interview in 1955 for the magazine “Vrij Nederland”: "I'm just messing around." Yes, certainly, but with a very precisely determined form of coincidence. Controlling chance is difficult. Very soon it is no longer coincidence, but actually a pre-conceived action.
The aleatoric is important to many artists. They make intuitive decisions during their work in progress. These accidental elements are accepted or rejected by the artist. Often we cannot take note of those mutually influencing processes of action and reaction. They arise in the privacy of an artist's studio. In some cases, such processes are recorded. A good example is the creation of a work by the German painter Gerhard Richter. It concerns his painting “Rot” (“Red”) from 1994, oil on canvas, 200 by 320 cm. The final result is preceded by 32 phases that are photographically documented.
The work, in the very first phase, begins with two red horizontal strokes, interrupted by vertical orange stripes and a blue-black spot to the left of the center. In the second phase, the empty space is filled and some colorful lines are set. With the fourth phase, large spokes are used that are pulled over the wet paint. This deliberately chosen way of working partly leaves desired traces, partly it also creates accidental situations. The painter pulls new paint over the canvas with a spatula. Now from top to bottom instead of left to right. Effects arise, intentionally and unintentionally. Movements with the large spatulas bring own dynamics. Finally, after many attempts, a situation has apparently arisen in which the artist is satisfied. The last version has – for the outsider - little to do with the first draft. I can imagine that many of you could say: well, phase 4, or phase 15, I find more appealing than the final version. It is the artist who ultimately decides. Of course, it could be that the painter regrets the repainting of an earlier phase. That has to be accepted. Different from photographers, there is no possibility of reset in painting.
I make art for myself in the first place. I have an almost uncontrollable urge to make drawings, paintings, collages, sculptures. I often work on more things at once. Sometimes that is because of practical reasons, for example, some works need to dry in the meantime. Usually it is - while working - I notice something interesting for a new work and I have to convert that discovery or idea immediately. I leave the work in progress for a while and for a moment I throw myself into a new adventure.
Where that urge comes from, to go into my studio almost every day to make new work, or to polish old work, I don't know exactly. Maybe that urge is so strong because I have spent a large part of my professional life with other things. Maybe I have the feeling that I still have a lot of catching up in the field of art. It could be, although artist biographies make clear that for many artists there is an unstoppable "drive" to express themselves, again and again, incessantly, even if they have been doing so all their lives. Making art is an ongoing fascination.
I express myself as I think it should be: uncompromisingly. That's a luxury. I don't have to live from my art. My work piles up in the studio. On occasion, people come along who would like to see something. I appreciate that attention. Response give rise to reconsideration, to doubt sometimes. I consider doubt as a prerequisite for art.
No matter how driven an artist locks herself or himself in the privacy of a studio, there is always a need to exhibit the work. Showing the work is a condition for selling it. The main reason however is, I think, the need for response and communication. With your work you show a part of yourself and of course you hope for recognition: What I create matters! It can however also be quite threatening to present your work to others.
A striking example of an artist who struggled with the pressure to reveal his work to a wider audience is the painter Mark Rothko (1903 - 1970). Rothko was an artist who was born in Latvia and who emigrated to America with his parents at a young age. Slowly his work received a lot of attention. He seemed to be most surprised by it himself. He received a prestigious commission to make a series of large canvases for the “Four Seasons” restaurant in the Seagram building in New York. It was accompanied by a multimillion-dollar advance. Rothko went to work passionately but halfway through, during a dinner at that restaurant, he became disillusioned with the uninterested audience he met there. He returned the order and the advance. Later he donated the finished series of works to the Tate Gallery in London. The works arrived there on the day of his self-chosen death.
Taking the work out of the protected context of a studio is in a sense the abandonment of that work to others. Many artists, especially those who were ahead of their time, had to deal with misunderstanding. For many artists appreciation never comes, or too late. That’s why it’s said ironically, that a condition to be famous is that you’re dead.
10. What you have made as an artist, that you would rather not have made, but that you could appreciate in retrospect, if it still existed
A lot of art is old, often very old. It stood the test of time and survived. Often because it has been hidden in one way or another, for example in undiscovered caves, or a lot of sand has been blown over it over time. We still have many remains of different ancient cultures. They show us a wonderful cultural development, but they document also the inhumane slave labor to realize it. There is still a lot to be seen, much has also been lost over time.
People are creators of art and at the same time their enemies. A lot of art has been deliberately destroyed. Art is often linked to people's conceptions of existential ideas. If views change, art that represented the old concepts, is often destroyed. Iconoclasm is the gloomy consequence. Much art is also destroyed by acts of war. The First and Second World Wars are examples of deliberate destruction of cultural heritage. Another example is the destruction of Palmyra, one of the oldest preserved Roman cities in the Middle East, by IS. Now, in addition to the humanitarian catastrophe, we are also experiencing cultural destruction by Russia in the unjust war against Ukraine. UNESCO has stipulated in treaties that deliberate damage or destruction of cultural heritage is a war crime and should be prosecuted and punished as such.
What may be less obvious is that a lot of art is destroyed by artists themselves. Artists develop their capacities and views over the course of their artistic lives. They are looking for the mode of expression that suits them best. In these stages of development, they sometimes see previously made work as not yet successful products.
An example of an artist who has destroyed a lot of his own work is the Irish-British painter Francis Bacon. Bacon destroyed much of his early work because he was dissatisfied with it. He also destroyed much later work because it did not meet his high expectations. Even if there were interested buyers, he did not hesitate to destroy the work anyway.
Sometimes the destruction is an action that in itself is considered art. From the still unidentified street artist Banksy, the iconic statue of a girl with a balloon was auctioned at Sotheby's. After more than a million had been bid, the canvas dropped down of its own accord and fell out of the frame cut into pieces. A shredder was built in the frame. The buyer nevertheless wanted to keep the work. The action belonged to the work and gave it a new dimension and value.
Artists later regret it when they destroyed parts of their work. The Lithuanian-born sculptor Jacques Lipchitz destroyed some of his early work. In a letter to Willem Sandberg, printed in 1958 in the catalogue of the retrospective exhibition of Lipchitz's work at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, he writes about this: "Apparently I was very dissatisfied with it, hence the destruction of those images, which I now regret - an artist must never destroy his work, that serves nothing; one cannot flee oneself. But to understand that, I had to get older!" I have taken this text from the catalogue accompanying the exhibition "Jacques Lipchitz. The collection of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem in museum “Beelden aan Zee” from 30 January to 3 June 2012. Final editing Feico Hoekstra, publisher Wbooks, Zwolle, 2012.
Sometimes works are saved that the artist actually wanted to have destroyed. There is a very beautiful construction of wood and plaster by the sculptor Charlotte van Pallandt. It is a construction in preparation for a self-portrait. Van Pallandt saw a head as an architectural structure. When the self-portrait was ready, Van Pallandt wanted to throw away the preparatory construction. She did not see it as a work of art. However, the artist Peter Struycken managed to save it. It is now part of the collection of the Museum “Beelden aan Zee”. Source: Catalogue accompanying the exhibition "Charlotte van Pallandt. Kunst als levensdoel” (“Art as purpose of life”), Museum de Fundatie, M. Jager, 2019, Waanders, Zwolle.
I do understand them, those artists who discard work that they no longer like. It has to do with development. Development does not mean that it will get better. It's going to be different. You see it with different eyes. I myself destroyed a lot of older work. Yes, I regretted that afterwards. Moments of dissatisfaction can later turn into the opposite. Sometimes I wish I could go back to the first phase. That is not possible, painters and sculptors do not have - like photographers - a reset function in their toolbox.
11. Artistic trinity
Visual art is what people have two- or three-dimensionally shaped or have designed with artistic capacities and intentions. It involves visual expressions of thoughts, feelings, concepts, or ideas. A more precise definition of visual art does this injustice in advance, because defining is restrictive. Art likes to look for boundaries to cross them, by means of a previously unthinkable thought, a step not taken before, a choice for the unfamiliar and unknown direction. A quality definition is risky. Art is not always immediately understood during the period of origin and mostly appreciated later. There is a pitfall here, because not everything that people shape in a visual sense is art. Recognizing and qualifying the value of expressions is often guided by taking note of series of work by an artist, by continuity and by secondary information, for example from the artist himself about intentions and work processes, and by the distance from time.
People give shape and meaning to their existence with visual means. People's visual expressions are diverse. These are images, such as drawings, photographs, stone prints, or paintings. It can be scratched-in images, such as woodcuts or etchings, or images such as those we discover in ancient caves. It can be spatial work, sculptures or installations. The visual work can also be monumental, architectural, yes, it can even be digital.
I realize how privileged we are that we can learn about the multitude of visual art with ease, through images in books, through museum visits and via the internet, for example. Compared to previous generations, we have the opportunity to see and compare what has been produced over time since mankind exists. For people before our time, this was much less obvious, or even impossible. We can look, compare, study, learn. If I look at ancient Greek art, for example, I can observe the development of a geometric way of displaying, to an archaic period and a classical period. The geometric phase took place from 1000 to 700 years BC. There are links with Egyptian art. Human figures are represented with the upper body frontally, the head and legs we see laterally. We know those figures of pottery. The subsequent archaic phase, from 700 to 500 BC, seems a bit stiff, certainly in comparison with the later classical period from 500 to 300 BC. In the classical period, the human figure is represented in the most perfectness possible. It couldn't be hardly more beautiful. You can just see and study these different periods side by side. In their founding days, this was not possible, or not easy. There is undeniably development, a development that we can now interpret more easily than the Greeks themselves could have done in these periods. We often connect development with the concept of quality and quality improvement. In this example you could say: at first the artistic expressions were still inept, schematically approximately. Then it got a lot better, a bit stiff. After all, it's about full, unmatchable splendor. Yes, it is. But, with our current insights into art history, with our knowledge of expressionism for example, I feel very familiar with the geometric representation of people. Actually, I sometimes find it almost more exciting to see those abstracted representations from the early period than those perfect splendor from the classical period. That search for what you need in design to make a symbol, finding first solutions, translating directly into characters. It's beautiful and exciting. At the same time, those images from the classical period are of course very beautiful, at least to be judged by what is left of them. That's not a lot. We should actually do it mainly with Roman copies. An additional problem is that we are used to looking at those statues in the splendor of white marble. The Greeks themselves used to paint them multicolored. We also see these images, often at least, without arms, with a missing leg, or otherwise incomplete. Actually, we even like that, that fragmentation. The Greeks would say: get rid of it, it's broken. We now look at those old statues as examples of high art. For those Greeks they were especially important symbols, symbols of human power and of divine superiority. Symbols that made the incomprehensible tangible. The link between the upper world and the underworld, more religion than art.
Looking now at visual art, there are three aspects that in their context form the core of visual art. I call it a trinity, precisely because of that coherence. It's about: color, shape, and meaning. I realize: they are container concepts. Each work of art has a consciously chosen color, a color composition, a color combination, or a color effect. This is very evident in painting, but colour also plays a dominant role in spatial visual art. Even if something does not have a consciously added color, the artwork is not colorless. The chosen material has a color, or a lot of color, and the influences of time also do a lot with color shades. The form, the second element of my trinity, is also a very defining element. Art is shaping form. The design is closely related to the chosen technique, the chosen material and the processing and application of the material, or materials. In design, size is also a very determining factor. The third element in my trinity is meaning. Every work of art is a carrier of meaning. That meaning was given to it by the artist, or later attached to it by others.
Color is a complicated game of applications, mostly very conscious. Often the chosen material determines the color of a work of art, often the chosen material is recolored. For the record, light is the source of all colors. Also with what we call natural materials, it is about the reflection and the absorption of light. Whether or not to change the colors of materials is the conscious choice of an artist. A lot of thought has been given to colour and various colour theories have been drawn up. Goethe (1782 – 1832), for example, described a theory of colour in 1810, based on phenomena that can be observed directly. Goethe corresponded about his ideas with the early Romantic painter Philip Otto Runge (1777-1818), who also did not leave himself unsaid in the theory of colors. There was a lot of experimentation with ideas about the effect of color. The French pointilists and divisionists, for example, are late nineteenth century painters who built up their work in colored stripes or dots on the canvas. The intention was that the viewer would mix the colors through the retina and the brain itself. Well-known representatives of this direction are: Paul Signac (1863 – 1935) and Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891). Johannes Itten (1888 – 1967) also made school with his views on colors. Itten was a Swiss artist and teacher at the "Bauhaus". He devised a colour theory with mixing systems based on the primary colors red, yellow and blue. The secondary colors are orange, green and violet. Then you have tertiary colors that arise from a mixture of a primary and a secondary color. Itten's color theory was a real painting theory. Digital photographers and designers of printers for computers and other printing devices do things differently. Their work has a somewhat older scientific basis. In 1707 Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727) published findings of his light studies in his study 'Optics'. He observes that colored light is created by the refraction of white light in a prism. White light is created when you reassemble all those broken colors. Newton names seven colors that he sees as primary colors, because they cannot be broken further with a prism. These are: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. When printing images from the computer, we do so with inks consisting of the primary colors Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and with the black ink that is named Key (CYMK). A system of four-color printing.
People can distinguish a lot of colors, up to a million colors. A little order is added to that distinction by variations in tones of colors, in the degree of saturation of them, and by the degree of brightness. When seeing colors, we use cones and rods (for the shades of gray) in our retina. In the event of malfunctions, for example, color blindness occurs.
Form, or design is the second container of my artistic trinity. I consider form, just like colour, to be an essential defining and distinctive concept in visual works of art. Form, like color, is what you see when you look at a work of art. Design is traditionally determined and in part also often a result of technical progress. That technical development is not a linear process. From the very beginning of humanity to our time, there are remarkable highlights and relapses in technical performance. Already in very early periods of human development there are technical highlights. Personally, I am impressed by the work from Cycladic culture, from 4000 to 1100 BC, with its beautifully stylized sculpture. I really like a statue of a harp player in marble, very stylized, very expressive. You could easily think of it as a contemporary work, thereby doing injustice to the sculptor of this early time. We wish we could do it as beautifully as this sculptor. And of course, sculptures from Ancient Greece are unsurpassed. It took us a whole Renaissance to be able to imitate it a little bit. The sculptures of the Greek sculptor Praxiteles, for example, are of such an impressive technical ability that you cannot imagine that anyone will ever rise up who surpasses that. Or the Nike that loosens her sandal, on display at the Acropolis Museum in Athens. Rodin, compared to that, even seems a bit rude and Bernini too pathetic. The Romans used the Greek examples a lot and gladly, but as is the case with examples, a lot is lost. How cautiously searching, yes, also somewhat awkward are then, later, the sculptures of early medieval art. They seem to be rigid and immobile at first, until in the late Gothic and Renaissance they can again show an incredible creative power and technicality. With technique, it's a matter of up and down. You learn it with effort and time and also lose it quite quickly. Of course, technical awkwardness often also has an expressive charm, but of course it was not the desire of the maker to be expressively inept. Technical competence cannot be directly linked to a powerful natural representation. Technical competence is necessary, but in principle subordinate to the idea that the artist wants to realize. That idea is leading and gives meaning to a work of art. You have to be technically able to express what you want to express.
Meaning is the third container concept of my artistic trinity. You don't see meaning immediately, usually. Often you have to trace meaning in a work of art, investigate it, learn to interpret it. However, meaning is an obvious qualitative design element that determines the work of art. In many works of art, especially contemporary ones, the meaning of the artwork is the most dominant aspect, for example in installations. Form and color are secondary to what the artist actually wants to express. The artist struggles with the assignment of meaning. If the meaning for the artist is ultimately clear, that does not mean that this is also the case for the viewer. That makes art difficult to grasp, incomprehensible sometimes. Much contemporary art is not made as an aesthetic phenomenon and often not for eternity. They are exhibition installations, for the duration of an exhibition. After this period, the work is broken down and cleaned up. Photos are taken, or videos are made. The artwork still exists, in digital form. The artworks of the packaging artist Christo are examples of such meaningful, nevertheless temporary works of art. Christo and his wife packed up islands, or the Reichstag. The act is the art, photos the memories of it.
Given meaning is basically an immaterial process. Ideas, thoughts, considerations, are recorded on material carriers. This means that meaning given by the artist is not necessarily visible. Many artists explain their work and its intentions. That works well sometimes, often much less. The visual presentation of ideas is a different quality than their verbal explanation. This is mostly better achieved by art critics or reviewers.
12. The connoisseur
“Visual arts” is not directly a domain in which large groups of people are or become involved. Although museums are often crowded, although school classes are increasingly to be found in museums, although schools regularly offer artistic content in the curriculum, it remains relatively quiet in the galleries. “Visual arts” has an elitist character, or at least the name to be, and the idea of collecting or buying art for the home is not an ordinary thing for many people. Moreover, the idea is fed that art is extremely expensive by reports of exorbitant returns at auctions. Sometimes there is a kind of understanding for high prices, when it comes to 'beautiful' art at least, that is: a “Van Gogh” for example, a “Da Vinci”, even a “Picasso”, or a newly discovered “Rembrandt”. If it concerns less directly accessible art, a “Twombly” for example, a “Pollock” perhaps, or a “De Kooning”, then the auction price is for the general public mainly a confirmation that the art world has left all reason behind. The relationship between product, price and quality is lost. Art, at least part of it, has become a Bitcoin, a football player, an investment, or, like tulip bulbs in Dutch Golden Age, an object for speculators.
Art is a domain that does not concern people too much. Art is an area of expertise and understanding. To be able to enjoy art, you have to study it and learn to experience it, as a wine taster who only knows to distinguish and appreciate the delicacies and nuances after a long time. Connoisseurship is a long-term matter. Learning to appreciate art is also difficult because it is not always art when there is art on it. Those who do not want to be kept for stupid keep their powder dry. That reminds me of a fairytale.
In 1837, a fairytale, called “the emperor’s new clothes” has been published by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen (1805 – 1875). The emperor is a big-head and very focused on his external appearance. He always wants to have the most beautiful clothes. The more spoiled the more dissatisfied he becomes, therefore also extra motivated when a group of merchants comes along who tell him to have the best of the most beautiful. Fabric that can only be seen by the smartest. For fools, it's nothing. They retreat for a few days to turn the fabric into the most beautiful clothes ever for the emperor. At the presentation ceremony, the emperor sees nothing, but he does not want to admit it. He is knowingly ripped off, cheated, but in order not to be mistaken for stupid, the emperor and his entire court praise the excellent work of the crooks. The emperor puts on his new clothes and shows himself in a procession to his citizens. Everyone feels compelled to cheer, for fear of their own predicament. Until there is a child who shouts that the emperor is standing in his bare ass. Then there is no stopping it. Everyone bursts out laughing, the crowd takes over the child's call and the emperor looked like the fool he already has been.
What does this fairytale have to do with art? Art has many functions. Art lives by illusions, even if it dies of disillusionment. Art exhibits, clarifies, changes, despairs. Art makes visible, often before we can really see or understand that. Art history is a succession of misunderstood and mocked artists, only rehabilitated later. Perhaps the most famous case is Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890). No one wanted to have his work. But there are more and equally heartbroken examples. The Impressionists, for example, the Fauvists, or the German Expressionists. A painter like Piet Mondrian (1872 – 1944), hardly had any money for a canvas to paint on. The young Picasso (1881 – 1973): lived 'romantic' in the studio building of the "Bateau Lavoir" in Montmartre, but there was hardly any food, instead of that a lot of sweltering summers, freezing winters, a collegial shared bed and creditors by the scruff. Or Amadeo Modigliani (1884 – 1920), he wanted to be a sculptor, but usually the stone was too expensive, and he was forced to draw and paint on canvas and paper. Even the initially very much appreciated, William Turner (1775 – 1851), had to deal with misunderstanding when he started making his beautiful pre-impressionist canvases. Everyone thought he was out of his mind.
Often art is ahead of time and that is good. Understanding requires distance. Knowing that has made us - postmodernists - cautious. Often, we do not understand what moves the artist, but in order not to be taken for stupid, we do not dare to say that we do not understand it, or that we do not like it. Especially not if there are enough people around us who seem to be convinced of the quality offered. Especially not if professionalism in art is seen as a hindrance rather than a quality.
The German artist Joseph Beuys (1921 - 1986), sculptor, draftsman, actionist, professor, stated that everyone is an artist. There are no boundaries between artists and other people. It is a Beuysian conception of art, of craftsmanship, of political dimensions, which is closer to philosophy than to the arts. Beuys however, would certainly not wholeheartedly support this idea. He would certainly use it as example for a divisional worldview to be deplored. I also do the domain of philosophy injustice, because the way in which Beuys philosophizes is mainly a way in which you explain to a dead hare what paintings are (I am referring here to one of his incomprehensible lectures). You get the idea: I don't like Beuys’ art and that's why I'm on slippery ice. Beuys is a highly regarded artist by many and all that junk that lies in the Beuys museum in Schloss Moyland for example, is estimated by many experts as high-quality art. Beuys himself was often not so flailing too about fellow artists. When the artist Georg Baselitz exhibited a large wooden sculpture at a Venice Biennale, Beuys was the one who denigrated that it might have been the work of a first-semester student at an art academy, probably not even that yet.
The theme of acceptance of art, especially if it does not fit within the framework we tend to think about art, occupies me because it contains two dangers: the danger of doing art injustice because we do not want or cannot yet understand it; and the danger of accepting everything as art that presents itself as such.
Another example. Once I was member of the 'Lippische Gesellschaft für Kunst'. This is an association that deals with the presentation and critical consideration of visual art, in a broad sense. That is to say: photography, sculpture, architecture, etc. are also among their areas of interest. I like that, such a broad view. The main activity of the “Gesellschaft” is to organize regular exhibitions. They have access to a small, but beautiful exhibition space: the former kitchen of a castle in Detmold in Lippe, Germany, a generous gesture of the noble family that still lives there. The “Lippische Gesellschaft” is specialized in choosing good exhibitors. I remember a beautiful exhibition with the work of the German sculptor Laura Eckert. I want to talk about an exhibition which was not so successful, in my personal opinion of course, as an illustration of the statement that you can have a hard time with the acceptance and appreciation of what is offered to you under the heading of art. My thesis is: It is not always art when it says it’s art.
In the summer of 2018, a relatively young German artist named Stefan Vogel exhibited in the castle kitchen in Detmold. The young man has a certain reputation. He studied at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg. He is the prize bearer of the renowned Villa Romana in Florenz. He has numerous exhibitions in galleries and museums in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. He works and lives in Leipzig and Berlin. He paints, makes collages and installations.
The invitation to the exhibition stated that Stefan Vogel is looking for the silent banging of representations and worthlessness, the banging of minimalism and abstraction, and more of similar phrases. His material painting is an interpretation of cartography, it is a place of desire with fragments of memories from texts, photos, earth and traces of work. A high “Beuys content”, I would say. For this exhibition, the artist made an installation on the spot in the kitchen in question. At the exhibition opening, Anka Ziefer, the director of the G2 Kunsthal in Leipzig, spoke. Praising of course, common if you are invited to the laudation of an apparently befriended artist. I can't remember her exact text and I can't find it on the internet either.
Vogel had completely occupied the space of the castle kitchen, his exhibition space. From piles of old pallets, he had built a wall and made a floor. With a lot of plastic wrap he created a kind of window and an interior space. On the foil are texts, probably sprayed with a white kit from a hardware store. In the room there was an open old refrigerator, there was light here and there and everywhere plaster-soaked and hardened cloths, seemingly carelessly thrown on the pallets. The kitchen is not particularly large. Because of this installation, the space was so full that visitors had to slide each other for a long time to enter the installation. Fortunately, there were not very many visitors. You had to be careful where you walked. On the walls hung a few picture frames with apparently folded maps of which the backs were shown.
After the opening framed with music by the 'Ensemble Horizonte' and the laudation of Mrs Ziefer and the invitation of the president of the “Lippische Gesellschaft” to the viewing, the then ninety-three-year-old Princess Dr. Traute zur Lippe, the charming hostess, raised herself, somewhat surprisingly for us visitors, and asked for a brief moment. She liked to invite us to a drink and a snack, as usual, and she also wanted to share an anecdote with us. A long time ago, she said, when she moved into the castle with her now deceased husband, the castle kitchen was a mess room, stuffed with rubbish from top to bottom. It took a while before they had put the room in order and in a state that it can now be used as an exhibition space. When she visited the castle kitchen during the artist's work and saw what he was doing there, she got a déjà vu about that time. The artist nevertheless turned out to be a nice young man, she told us, who explained to her in detail that he was busy dropping plaster-soaked rags in such a way that it was art. The princess told it charmingly and with a hearty smile. I think some people in the audience sensed a slight ironic undertone.
Why I tell this in such detail. The visitors walked awkwardly - I believe - through the densely built space, and some awkwardly shuffling past each other. The beautiful space of the castle kitchen had become a mess room of the highest order. Not much was said. Pensively, some visitors stood with a glass in hand, some a bit insecure, staring around, perhaps still weighing the words of the princess, now maybe with an emerging understanding. A somewhat uncomfortable condition. Unspoken was the question in the kitchen what this had to do with art. Are you supposed to look around with interest and pretend that this work offered you entirely new perspectives on the clashes of entities, as announced in the invitation. Are you supposed to look at the installation with a connoisseur's eye, and making comments here and there, to show your willingness to unlock the inaccessible? Or could you just admit that this was an unbridled mess where the spectators formed the entourage for the “emperor's clothes”. However, there was no child who said that the emperor was naked. Nevertheless, there was a princess who took on this role.
This consideration is not very nice from me, I realize. As an apology: I am not so much talking about the artists, but about the artistic concept. The reader can even blame me to be obsolete, not to be open enough to new developments. Installations for example, are contemporary art works, those who do not understand that belong – referring with a wink to the Dutch author Louis Couperus (1863 – 1923) – to old people, and things that pass by. Maybe I am myself already in the trap of mindless misunderstandings, which I actually wanted to warn about. Indeed, I usually don't like installations. They are often too would-be for me, too meaningless. Sometimes, however, I think they are mysterious, poetic, challenging and – but not necessarily - aesthetic. You see, it is rather personally. The "Concerto dei Sospiri" (1997) by Rebecca Horn (1944), the German sculptor, actionist, and movie producer, is a collection of seemingly haphazardly thrown down copper tubes, funnels, rubble, metal, fabric, yes, also pallets, and more, that comes from dilapidated Venetian houses. Sound, music, accompanies the whole. I think it's an exciting composition. It evokes the atmosphere of decay. The sighing and groaning are visible and audible. It is an inevitable concert. It evokes perhaps also the necessity of looking backwards to be able to see forward.
13. The artist's right not to be understood
Art is about giving meaning and understanding meaning. There are two parties involved: artists and observers of art. These two parties are interdependent, at least from the moment that an artist comes out with art. If the artist keeps everything to himself, there is no external understanding problem. As soon as the artist manifests himself in a public space, there is the confrontation with the observer, and the artist is confronted – willingly or unintentionally – with reactions: benevolent, maybe incomprehension, yes, even hurtful sometimes. The latter is sometimes provoked by artists. A conscious riot has often been the beginning of successful artist careers. It generates attention.
Art that is not understood can be incomprehensible. It can be enigmatic, encrypted, inaccessible. This does not necessarily make it worthless for observers. Personally, I really like some of Cy Twombly's work. I don't understand much about it. I consciously use the quantification "some". This excludes a large part of the work. Often Twombly is too far away for me. I apparently can't get close enough to the work to bond with it. In parts of his work, I develop a kind of understanding for people who rigorously reject it. In other parts I am overwhelmed by the poetic character or interested by the diversity of cultural references.
Artists are engaged in creative processes. Creativity is characterized by finding unusual answers to questions and finding unusual questions with obligate answers, by undermining standard solutions, by denying, or at least questioning what seems obvious. Divergent thinking and acting is a characteristic of many artists. It does not bring them directly closer to their public, nor does it automatically bring the public closer to the work. Divergent thinking often involves non-systematic, experimental approaches to a theme. Logical inferences and practical objections are first disregarded. It is about invention, for example of concepts, ideas, or elements for problem analyses.
Giving meaning presupposes being able to reflect and look ahead. Stop for a moment to be able to move forward. That is what artists do in their unconscious reflective steps. Pausing for a moment is the condition for thinking ahead. For those who are not involved in the challenge of such a process of thinking and deliberation, its outcomes are unusual, often confusing, or, at least, unfamiliar. Art is about finding and creating new ways of expression, grafted on the familiar usually, but unexpectedly different in the meantime. The foregoing nevertheless always influences the still to come, if only in the way you want to oppose it. The Minoan culture, originated about 3000 years before Christ, which is considered the cradle of at least West European culture, is derived from the highly developed Ancient Egyptian art. On Greek tableware, with the red and black figures and representations, we can clearly see that Egyptian origin. The frontal representation of the body is interspersed with the lateral design of legs, feet, and heads. There is a fixed canon in these artistic expressions. The Greeks adopt those rules. Only later will they do it a little differently, for example by just drawing a foot seen from the front, instead of the side. It seems like a detail. It's a revolution. The British art historian Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich describes that process of upheaval in his famous book "The story of art", published by Phaidon Press (1972) by using two vases. On a vase in the black-figured style, signed by Exeklas, around 540 BC, two Homeric heroes can be seen: Ajax and Achilles. They play a game of chess. Their faces are still tightly drawn in profile, as the Egyptians would have done. Their bodies, however, are seen from the side and their arms and legs no longer have that tight formal scheme of the Egyptians. Gombrich suspects that the vase painter really looked at what that might have looked like. Gombrich calls it a moment of transition in art. Another vase, about the farewell of a warrior in the red-figured style, signed by Euthymides, circa 500 BC, shows how expression develops further. The warrior, unlike the parents from whom he says goodbye, is drawn head-on. He has one of his feet forward, and that's how it's drawn. For the first time, the "shortened" occurs in Greek vase art, a kind of drawing technique that allows the artist to make the scenery more realistic. We also see the shield of the warrior from the side. It is a a groundbreaking new way of seeing and depicting
In following centuries, the images of people and animals become more plastic, more realistic, yes, it took a long time. But then it also becomes very different. How beautiful those Greeks could do that, the ideal expression of human beings. Unfortunately, there is not much left of what they made, but what is left says enough. After subsequent turbulent centuries, the Persians, the Romans, the beginning of Christianity, the ability to portray as the Greeks once could, has been lost again. In the Western European Middle Ages, new attempts were undertaken, at first somewhat rigid, but later painting and sculpture developed into new great highlights of painting and sculpture. An agreement system about how to depict and which what kind of symbolisms belongs to that, and thus a closed canon developed. The Renaissance made everything a bit freer for the artists, although the clients continued to strongly influence the art and its design.
Changes are usually not directly appreciated. Artists, however, embrace experimentation and development. Resistance to academic traditions arises as well as secessionist movements. These movements themselves grow into an academic tradition and in turn they block new developments. A well-known secessionist movement was the resistance of artists against the dominance of the “Paris Salon”. The Salon has a long tradition. Under the name "L'Exposition" it was founded in 1648 by Cardinal Jules Mazarin, then Minister of Finance under King Louis XIV, mainly with the intention of giving graduates of the "École des Beaux-Arts" the opportunity to exhibit their work. For two centuries it was the most important exhibition for artists in France who wanted to bring their work to the attention of a wider audience and to be able to sell. In the nineteenth century, the Salon had mainly become an exhibition for established artists.
Even if your work was allowed, it was questionable whether it had been given a place where it was somewhat visible. Innovation was not really appreciated. Later very famous artists were refused by the Salon, such as Manet, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, or Cézanne. The work that was offered, but not accepted, was stamped on the framework with an "R", that is: "Refusé", refused. The latter made selling even more difficult. From 1863 onwards, exhibitions were held in Paris in which works of art refused by the official Salon was exhibited. It is the "Salon des refusés". After the first time, exhibitions were also organized in 1874, 1875 and 1886. As it goes with new developments, the press made a lot of fun of the artworks in the salon of the refused. Soon it would turn out who laughed last ....
Another secessionist movement, there have been many, took place in Germany, in Berlin to be precise. In 1899, the "Berliner Secession", under direction of the artist Max Liebermann, usually organized two exhibitions a year. It was a reaction to dissatisfaction with the selection criteria and choices of the annual "Grossen Berliner Kunstausstellung". Many artists found the official exhibition too academic, too traditional, too conservative. The secessionist movement of Liebermann and his associates flourished for about ten years and became quite influential. Many non-Berlin artists also joined. Then there was criticism. In 1909 Wassiliy Kandinsky wrote that the once leading countermovement had become a pretty bourgeois club with a view that was mainly focused on commercial successes. At the twentieth exhibition in 1910, criticism grew. Many artists who had submitted work were refused. Under the leadership of Georg Tappert and Max Pechstein, a countermovement is organized. This is an initiative for a "Neue Secession". In 1910 the first exhibition took place in Berlin. Soon several artists joined, Nolde for example, but also “Brücke” painters, such as Otto Mueller. The movement did not last long because of various internal conflicts. The Berlin movement itself was another example for a secessionist movement in Munich. Paul Klee and Alexej von Jawlensky were among the founders. Later, artists such as: Erich Heckel, Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde and Karl Hofer joined.
Artists have the right not to be understood. If they are looking for understanding, they run the risk of getting stuck in a familiar, but also trite pattern. Artists run considerable risks in doing so. The artist who makes work as it has not been done before does not make it easy for the public. It often takes a while before a new approach is somewhat familiar and shows itself to be more accessible through comparisons with previous works. New approaches are experiments, and as is the case with experiments, they are not always successful. The artist's quest can lead to appreciation and to a new successful approach. It can also turn out to be a fiasco, for the artist himself and for the public. Understanding is not something that can be assumed or expected in advance. Even for the artist, a situation can arise in which he or she does not or does not yet fully understand what it is about. Art has rational sides, but not fully. For many artists, recognition has come late or too late to benefit from it themselves. There is, sometimes, but usually not a "return on investment".
The right to misunderstanding is not a license to "everything is permitted". In my previous contribution to the blog (No. 12) I talked about "The Emperors’ clothes". Many people, I think, do not dare to admit publicly, that what is presented to them about art is sometimes truly nonsense. You run the risk of being branded as short-sighted and not innovatively prepared. I would like to link the artist's right not to be understood with the right of the public to not have to accept everything that is presented. Mistakes are not excluded. There are consequences to judgment, as the reckless Trojan king's son Paris experienced firsthand when he thought he had the exclusive right to judge beauty.
14. What's in a name?
Works of art often have a name. Often not. Sometimes the name is descriptive, that is: what the artwork represents is described in the title. Sometimes the name is confusing, or challenging, that is, at first glance, the name is not directly linked to what we see at or at work. You have to think about it first. Then you see it, or you get it, maybe. A name has the intention to distinguish a work from other works of art. A name gives a work an identity. It's like people, they have a name. Yes, it happens that there are more people with the same name. With people's names, it's just like with works of art. Yet your name is unique, it is linked to you. Henk Westbroek (A Dutch singer-songwriter) sings about Julia: "Even your name is beautiful, more beautiful than that of everyone with the same name".
In the case of painted portraits or sculpted heads of existing people, the name of the work is directly linked to the person depicted. The name of the person depicted is mentioned and the year of the creation of the work. For painted cityscapes, landscapes, buildings, usually the region or place is mentioned as the name for the artwork. Still lifes are sometimes referred to with the addition of some characteristic subjects in the painting, for example: "Still Life with Flowers", or "Still Life with Guitar".
For sculpted persons or headings that are not directly related to a person, the designation is often sufficient: "Heading 1", "Heading 2", "Heading 3". Usually with a year. In human figures one also sees: "Reclining", or "Standing", or "Kneeling".
With an explicit naming, the maker is all about interpreting exactly what can be seen. There will be no misunderstanding on the subject. It is a "View of Delft", or it is the "Citizens of Calais". The name directs the observation. A dimension is added to the painting or image that gives meaning to the work of art. The artist has a hand in that. She or he steers the spectator in a desired direction. The naming does not always relate to a concrete situation that can be observed. It can also be an emotion, or a concept.
It's complex with that naming. I myself have a lot to do with it. Although I would prefer to leave the interpretation of my work to the viewer, I usually add an indication, or often very explicit names, to guide the perception. I indicate what exactly I wanted to show. Even in my abstract work I give directions. In fact, I deprive my work of abstraction. For example, I have saddled a series of works that cannot be directly linked to a recognizable observation with the addition: "Snow from yesterday". Because of this addition, the previously abstract work suddenly becomes a detail or a cut-out of a piece of soil on which snow fell yesterday, but where due to the occurring thaw, pieces of subsoil have now become visible. The painting has become a landscape because of it. In another series I added "Habitable thoughts". Although "Habitable thoughts" may not immediately evoke associations with very concrete images, I have certainly made a concrete statement through this addition. It is a reflection of thoughts. The thoughts may be confused, at least that's what it looks like in my paintings. Nevertheless, it is not so much chaos that they are no longer habitable. At the same time, the title is a tribute to the Dutch poet and sailor Slauerhoff who once wrote that he could only live in his thoughts, that he found no shelter anywhere else.
The hardest part is the category of my sculptural heads. They are strictly connected to figures from Greek mythology. Usually they are protagonists from the "Odyssey", or from homer's "Iliad". When I start with a “Headline”, I think, "I'm just making a head now. For me, it's about the form, about the volume, about the interior space and about the outdoor space and about the connections of those spaces. That's enough assignment, I think, but no, while working away, a person arises, a name arises. Actually, that name gets in my way, at the same time that name shows me the way. When I start working, I don't know that it will be the person I see more and more clearly along the way. Often I don't even know if it will be a woman or a man. I am working on a head, that's it. Form it will be, but no, it turns out to be a person.
My heads are not portraits. I don't have a model. There are no eyewitnesses. The same problem of Homer. Surviving stories, yes, that is, remnants of stories, handed down by singers, later written down from memories, fragments. That makes it easier for me. The heads don't have to look. Working on a head in my studio, I see for instance the head I made earlier of Laertes, the father of Odysseus. Old, wise, introverted, a long and adventurous life behind him, now almost at the end. His daughter-in-law weaves on his death robe. The new, still unfinished head in my hands changes more and more with each procedure into the head of his already deceased wife Antikleia. I work as if I am forced to create a connection, to lift the loneliness of the old man. The head becomes that of a woman, of an old woman. She becomes the wife of Laertes, she becomes the mother of Odysseus. The texture between the two heads is the same, so is the tonality, I also believe that the connection is visible.
The head of Andromache, another sculpture, is fragmentary. Andromache is the wife of the Trojan prince Hektor, the eldest son of King Priamos and Queen Hekabe. Andromache is depicted sufferingly. She has said goodbye to her husband who faces the enemy, in the person of the invincible Achilles. In the head of Andromache the interior spaces play along with those of the outdoor spaces. You can look from the inside out and vice versa. The shape of the head posture is strongly curved, almost an arabesque. She exudes the sadness of a medieval Madonna. She knows what is coming and what she cannot turn around. A few heads after that, there is no stopping it, out of the beginning form in my hands arises indistinguishably the head of her husband Hektor, prince of Troy, intended heir to the throne, doomed to die in the battle against Achilles. Hektor, it is inevitable, brave and humble, facing his fate.
The more heads that are created, the more connections there are between the figures, the greater the pressure with each new head. Each new headl imposes itself as a new protagonist in the old story. As soon as a figure appears, the head also becomes clearer to me. I am, as it were, guided by the figure from which I can no longer escape. In the silence of my studio I even start talking to the different figures. I see Telemachus, his mother Penelope is a bit further away. "Try something on your own ", I hear saying myself, "Be independent and brave instead of radiating that learned helplessness".
I don't know the characters I make. Their appearance is strange to me and that is liberating. I can go my own way. There is no one solution. I often make series, both in the sculptures, and in the drawings and paintings. I call them "Possible faces". For example, I have a series about Ktimene, the unknown sister of Odysseus who was married off to the king of Same, the king who not much later as a helmsman on Odysseus' boat goes to Troy. On the way back he crashed by the hand of the gods, provoked by his own stupidity. I try to imagine Ktimene. The young sister of a foreseen hero, growing up with another king's son Eumaios, who has become a slave due to sad fate. Ktimene is sister, she also is a wife of the king of a neighboring island. Then she becomes a widow of a warrior who did not return from Troy. We know virtually nothing about her. I look for her possible faces.
In the portrayal of the Ancient persons, it is my greatest ambition to keep the form sincere. The form should not succumb to the narrative, the heads should not become anecdotal. I constantly strive to maintain the sculptural power of the work, to find a balance between content and form. I prefer to display them under the heading "Possible faces”. Drawings and sculptures without the binding factor of the story, although I will never be able to see them without their mythological context.
In the meantime, I have surrendered to the urge to make sculptures without interpretation or reference to a person. I actually call them: Head 1, Head 2, Head 3, etc. I call the collection itself 'Head-Lines'. It is about the main points, about the main lines. It is formal work, in the sense that it is about form and composition. There is no narrative context. Sometimes that is liberating, sometimes it is also a disability. I haven't made many yet.
15. Monsieur Jacques would have raised his eyebrows
In the twentieth century, the Netherlands had a whole series of good sculptors. That is surprising, because my motherland did not have a real sculpting tradition. In the twentieth century, things changed rapidly. I'll name: Charlotte van Pallandt, John Rädecker, Carel Kneulman, Jan Bronner, Han Wezelaar, amongst a lot of others. Most people do not know the name of one of these sculptors, but probably they know a sculpture. Van Pallandt, for example, made the large Wilhelmina statue that can be seen in Rotterdam, among other places. Rädecker made the National Monument that is set up on Dam Square in Amsterdam. Carel Kneulman is known for “Het Lieverdje” (“Sweety”), an iconic image that gained prominence in the provo period of the sixties in Amsterdam. It has been regularly damaged throughout its existence by activists who can't keep their hands off art.
However, I want to talk about Oswald Wenckebach, a Dutch sculptor whose name does not immediately evoke an: "Oh yes, that one!", for most people. However, many people know a sculpture by him. If you go to the Kröller-Müller museum, in the National Park "De Hoge Veluwe", you will find a life-size statue near the entrance of a somewhat corpulent man in a long coat, the head slightly up, the hands on the back, in the hands his hat. That is "Mr. Jacques", or "Monsieur Jacques", by Oswald Wenckebach. I think the statue for the Kröller-Müller museum is a beautiful sculpture. A strong expression, really a solid thing, with an exciting yet modest curve through the rather sturdy figure. The statue is nicely placed there, on the lawn near the museum. Wenckebach made a whole series of this fictive person: "Jacques as a tourist", "Jacques in a political debate", or "Jacques at a funeral", just to name a few.
I think the most beautiful sculpture of Wenckebach is a portrait he made much earlier. It is a portrait of Retha Huizinga, about 40 cm high, in polychrome teak. Wenckebach made it in 1926. Retha is the daughter of the well-known historian Johan Huizinga and the lady Mary Vincentia Schorer. Huizinga was a professor, and among others the author of the standard work "Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen" (“Autumn time of the Middle Ages"), a study of the late Middle Ages in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in the Netherlands and in France. Huizinga was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize for literature. A cultural family, those Huizinga's. Nevertheless, this family - who exactly is not known to me - managed at any time to strip of the polychrome paint layer from that wonderful sculpture of Retha. I refer to the information about this in part five of the series “Monographs” of the “Dutch Sculpture Institute” (2011) about Oswald Wenckebach. What the reason for the scraping was, I don't know. Perhaps the taste changed over time, and it was felt that a beautiful teak statue looked better without paint. Maybe the paint was a bit damaged. Now there is only a photo left of the painted statue, the most beautiful sculpture ever made by Wenkebach, in my opinion. Monsieur Jacques has probably frowned dubiously at this "Autumn time of the Huizinga’s", I assume, meanwhile looking a little worried at the crowds of visitors - some of them possibly with sticky fingers - passing by on their way to the museum. His patina is dear to him, and damaging art is of all times, with all kinds of questionable arguments, and quite topical today, unfortunately. The Dutch poet Lucebert (1924 – 1994) wrote: "Alles van waarde is weerloos" ("All things of value are defenseless") in the untitled poem that begins with: "De zeer oude zingt" ("The very old one sings"). The defenselessness applies to so many vulnerable things, including nature and art. They deserve our protection, not our ability to destroy them.
16. Themes and topics
Painters and drawers make paintings and drawings, or etchings, or they use a different technique for their visual work. Sometimes the chosen technique is very clear, an oil painting for example, or a watercolor, and sometimes the boundaries are difficult to determine. Is this a painting or a drawing? In addition to choosing a technique, or a variety of techniques, a visual artist also chooses a mode of expression. An important choice is whether the work is abstract or figurative. Then there is the issue of the subject. An artwork is an object that expresses something. Often artists are very explicit about what they want to express: a still life, a nude, a landscape, a feeling, an emotion, for example. Sometimes they leave it to the viewer, they don't reveal their intention. The work does not get a title, or only a number in a row. Often artists make more paintings within a theme. A theme can also contain a large part of their oeuvre. Themes can be closed, but often picked up later.
The Italian painter Morandi painted flowers, landscapes, but especially bottles, vases and jars. He is best known for his still lifes of dusty arrangements of such attributes. He lived in a house with his three sisters. His bedroom was also his studio. The sisters took care of the food, washing and cleaning of the house. They had to stay away from his pots and vases. Morandi cherished the dust that lay on it.
The French painter Cezanne often painted a mountain, the Montagne Sainte-Victoire, as well as apples and pears, and portraits. He also made a few paintings of skulls, a severed leg of a lamb, and of a murderer in action. Weird outliers in an otherwise consistent theme.
The German painter Baselitz painted men with excessively large genitals at the beginning of his career. That led to a scandal that brought grist to his mill. Later he also painted his subjects upside down. It seems that he accidentally hung the paintings in reverse. The lack of understanding about this was another boost for his success.
Topics are often hidden as well. The first look is not enough. On a flower still life, insects eat leaves, a worm crawls in a hidden corner. The message is: beware, life can seem beautiful, it is finite. Paintings about saints are full of hidden symbolism that indicates for example possible suffering, the preserved virginity, or a specific theme with which the saint is connected. Social inequality, oppression of certain groups, moralistic subjects, flaunting of pageantry, everything that is conceivable or unthinkable in society is also reflected in art, sometimes explicitly, often in a more or less hidden way. We must then learn to read the painting. Iconography describes what we read. The more complicated a society becomes, the more complex the ways in which artists express it. Art has many functions, not all are immediately recognizable. Art is often judged by the superficial viewer on only one of its possible functions. It often takes a long time before one understands the artist and can appreciate it through this understanding. Often those artists no longer experience that themselves. Vincent van Gogh can speak a word about it, but not only him.