As you may know, I usually write exhibition reviews on temporary exhibitions. When I was abroad in Amsterdam last spring, I wrote an average of one post per week, usually on an exhibit that would close within a few months. I always perused the permanent collection of whatever space I was in, but it never occurred to me to devote a post to any assortment of permanently-owned works.
My thesis research brought me to Amsterdam again this past January. I was on the hunt for works by the Dutch Cobra artists (you can read about my trip here). 1/3 of my trip entailed viewing works by these artists in the modern art wing of the Stedelijk Museum. As I walked through the chronological galleries, I was fascinated by the way Dutch painters encapsulated the progression of European modern art. And so, today I am going to take a closer look at one of these painters in particular: Leo Gestel.
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Leo Gestel was one of the leaders of the Dutch modernist movement. His painting style ranged over the years, though he was especially influenced by cubism and post-impressionism. Take a look at the following painting entitled Reclining Nude (1910).
This painting was made in 1910. Some of the most famous post-impressionists- Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat, and Paul Cézanne- died in 1890, 1891, and 1906, respectively. Yet their influence is unmistakable. Note the geometric treatment of each brushstroke:
One of the defining characteristics of post-impressionism was the mathematical attention paid to the brushstroke. Seurat was famous for ordering his brushstrokes so that certain patterns of closely painted colors would trick the eye into mixing the colors together, and perceiving a different shade entirely. Such was the magnificence of a work like A Sunday on la Grande Jatte (1984). Note how different the colors of the figure’s hair look in the zoomed-in image vs. the whole painting. Up close we can see blue, green, orange, yellow and red bits of color sitting next to each other within the confines of her hair. From far away, the eye doesn’t completely blend the colors as it does with a Seurat, but there is a fair degree of optical mixing. I feel a sense of blue, green, and brown when I look at the figure’s hair from far away, which supports the notion that Gestel was interested in scientific, painterly tricks.
But if he was interested in optics, why not devote his attention entirely to this process, as Seurat had, and Gestel’s contemporary- Paul Signac- was doing? Perhaps there was something to accomplish in failing slightly. In other words, there can be great significance in the act of failure to represent, or to fall short of representation. Paul Cézanne’s landscapes often oscillate between two and three dimensionality. His Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Bibemus Quarry (1897) illustrates this phenomenon. Notice the flattening effect of the rectangular brushstrokes. Try to make sense of the orange space in the middle ground; are these cliffs dividing a lower and a higher plane? They seem to be collapsing in space, allowing these two planes to fold in on each other.
I believe that the partial optical mixing that Gestel employs was inspired by a Cézanne-esque failure to fully represent a scene. The genius of Cézanne (and Gestel, in my humble opinion), is the ambiguity of space that this failure creates. Both artists’ paintings leave questions for the viewer about the significance of this ambiguity.
In Reclining Nude, Gestel places colors tightly together, but fails to mix them completely. The background is a vibrant splash of pink, green, and blue. The bedding is composed of rich gold and yellow with bits of pink and green. These colors hint at sumptuous fabrics and gaudy wallpaper. Are we supposed to infer that she is a courtesan, because she exists within a sumptuous and gaudy world? Or do these ambiguous spaces reflect her beauty? Are we meant to envision this woman as existing within an Eden of lovely colors and patterns that reflect the color of her spirit? These are the questions that ambiguity leave behind.
Also note how Gestel uses color to draw attention to her gender:
Like the hair on her head, the hair on this figure’s body is painted with ‘unnaturalistic’ colors- purple, yellow, and green. It is already marvelous that a work in 1910 featured a woman with pubic hair. Doing so contradicted the Hellenistic ideals of beauty that characterized female nudes for thousands of years. On this figure, her gender and its natural accouterments are viewed as vibrant and colorful- just like the rest of her body.
Now, it is impossible to ignore the positioning of the figure. She lays on the bed, naked, with her entire body visible for the viewer to consume. And yet, she hides her face in her arm. And so, she remains anonymous to us. What is the purpose of this positioning? First, it is important to look back on all of the early modern nudes that Gestel would have been well aware of. Perhaps the most famous, Manet’s Olympia (1865), challenged the traditional depictions of the courtesan as a Venus figure, averting eye contact with the viewer and allowing him to take in her idealized body. Olympia was extremely controversial at the time, as her piercing gaze confronted the viewer for his voyeurism. Her unidealized form blatantly revealed her occupation as a courtesan without shielding her behind the moral legitimacy of Greek myth. She appeared as an actual prostitute in 1865 would, and she did not pretend to enjoy the encounter.
Olympia paved the way for more honest depictions of prostitution and less idealized images of the female form. So where does Leo Gestel fit into this, and how can we understand the Netherlands within this narrative?
The Netherlands, though famous for legal prostitution today, was extremely conservative in 1910. Society was divided into distinct pillars- the Liberals, Catholics, Protestants, and Social Democrats- and people kept within their pillar. Paris was the land of courtesans, Moulin Rouge, and debauchery, not Amsterdam. Keep that in mind as we analyze the significance of this figure’s nudity.
There is celebration in the colors utilized here, and in the pleasure Gestel takes in filling in the contours of the figure’s body with paint. And yet, her hidden face is anything but celebratory. She is either extremely distressed or fast asleep.The alertness in her leg tendons suggest to me that she is awake and in a state of distress. Were she asleep, her legs would relax, and her muscles would not appear so engaged. Pre-Manet nudes depicted hollow-eyed Venuses who graciously accepted voyeurism. Manet and his contemporaries put forth confrontational nudes, in charge of their own sexuality.
It is here that I am faced with a dilemma. It seems unlikely that Gestel, especially given his interest in post-impressionism, would turn back the clock 100 years and paint an idealized, nude, Venus. And yet, the way he blatantly positions her gender forward while hiding her face seems strikingly old-fashioned.
And yet, there is no power or confrontation in this figure’s body language to suggest her agency. She hides her breasts and burrows her head in the pillow. This is clearly not a work after Manet.
So what, then, are the implications of Reclining Nude? Is she a Venus or an Olympia? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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I hope you enjoyed this sampling of Dutch modern art. The Netherlands is a truly fascinating place, and its journey from Rembrandt to van Gogh to Gestel is absolutely fascinating. I can’t wait to share more.
Until next time!
xoxo, Chloe <3