Jana Euler: High In Amsterdam. The Sky Of Amsterdam (The Stedelijk Museum- Amsterdam)

Hi everyone!

Thanks for checking out CanvasAndCrumpets.  As you may know, I just got back from my Euro Trip and I’ve been posting about the exhibits I saw in order. I recently posted about three different exhibitions I saw in England. You can check them out here, here, and here. After a week of museuming and eating bangers and mash with my English cousins, I flew to the Netherlands.  On my flight I was seated in the middle of a large bachelor party, next to the groom-to-be-himself. If you have the chance to travel with a very drunk bachelor party you absolutely must take it because it was the best flight I’ve ever had. There was also a large party of middle-aged-women wearing shirts that said “F*** off, I’m with the birthday boy” and a rather emo looking high school student wearing a shirt that said “F*** off, I’m the birthday boy.” All of the women were screaming.

And so, I arrived in Amsterdam slightly tipsy and very excited. The city did not disappoint (as always!) At the absolute top of my list was a trip to the Stedelijk Museum. The Stedelijk is where I fell in love with Dutch art, and where I did much of my research for my senior thesis. I’m obsessed with the art, the building, the library, and the now deceased museum director Willem Sandberg. (I’m currently reading a compilation of Sandberg interviews).

On view at the Stedelijk right now is the exhibition, “Jana Euler: High in Amsterdam. The Sky of Amsterdam.” While it is difficult to read that sentence without immediately thinking of Dutch drug policy, it would be remiss to read off the German artists’ trippy canvases as mere mushroom-inspired dreamscapes. Euler’s works are explorations of different genres. She takes the concepts and strategies associates with each and plays with them, bending them inside-out. The Stedelijk describes Euler’s work as being “recognizable not by how it looks, but by its effect.” Let’s take a look at my favorite work from this show and see Euler’s process in action.

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Here is the ethereal Understanding Doubts and Logic (2017):

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For this work Euler airbrushed acrylic paint onto the surface of the canvas and then used oil paint on top. The two layers operate as separate paintings as well as aspects of a finished whole. The airbrushed layer features a multi-limbed and multi-breasted female figure resting in a garden filled with flowers. The oil layer features shoes, nail polish, and fake eyelashes. If you look closely, you’ll also see that there are tiny pictures of men sitting at a table with a bottle of wine painted in thin brushstrokes of oil paint. Stranger yet is the fact that white breastmilk from each of the figure’s many breasts pours into the bottles at the men’s tables. Oil is also used to spell the phrase “understanding doubts and logic” and to connect this phrase to a yellow sun by way of a thin yellow line.

Now, I have a lot of thoughts about this painting and what it might “mean.” So I’ll begin by saying that Jana Euler’s work is not explicitly symbolic. It does not fit into an allegorical box that matches icon with signification. Rather, it suggests a multiplicity of signification for various images across the canvas. It points to potential interpretations without maintaining that it must be read a specific way. And so, my reading should be seen as one angle of many that fit Euler’s multifaceted work.

I see Understanding Doubts and Logic as a blend of two genres: the female nude, and the sort of impressionistic cafe paintings that were popular in late 19th-century Parisian art. The airbrushed painting is the nude, as the naked figure takes up the majority of the canvas. Her head heads several inches below the top of the canvas, and her many feet end slightly before it, or have their toes chopped off by the bottom of the canvas. Because she fills the canvas, the focus of the painting is on her. The viewer’s eyes are free to travel across the surface of the painting, consuming different parts of her body at every turn. We as viewers fill the role of the voyeur in the relationship between viewer and subject in this genre. Euler is keenly aware of this dynamic and playfully mocks it by multiplying the subject’s breasts. Euler seems to be saying, “I know you’re going to look at this woman, so why don’t I give you a lot more to look at!” The artist has also multiplied the amount of feet in the painting. I find this very amusing, as it is clear to all that feet were never the focus of the viewer’s gaze.

Another way that Euler plays into this genre is through the figure’s gaze. In classic female nudes like this and this the female figure looks away from the viewer, allowing him to consume her without confrontation. Making eye contact would break the illusion that she wants to be consumed and is there for male consumption. She would be individualized. No longer staring at an anonymous doll, the viewer would feel confronted by the figure and embarrassed by his blatant ogling. And so, restricting eye contact allows the viewer to consume the figure in peace. Like the academic nudes do, Euler’s figure looks away demurely, allowing the viewer to get lost in her multitude of breasts and legs.

However, the longer we stare at the figure, the more we begin to feel that we are being made fun of. Not only has Euler multiplied the significance of the figure’s gender through the multiplication of breasts, but she has also aggressively emphasized other aspects of femininity. The long, curling eyelashes added over the airbrushed layer of paint are so ludicrously long it would be difficult for the figure to open her eyes. There are many kiss imprints haphazardly stamped on the surface of the painting. The figure’s red fingernails are half the size of her fingers themselves. Her breasts are many different colors, as if the figure is somehow able to be many ethnicities at once and therefore satisfy the male viewer’s many racial fantasies. Euler has created a woman who screams “WOMAN” so loudly that she becomes a parody of what the voyeuristic male wants– and expects– women to be.

This interpretation is supported by the second layer of the painting that I find resembles the cafe scenes in impressionistic France. Men outlined in black paint sit around a table drinking from proportionally enormous bottles of wine. I am reminded of 19th century cafe scenes because of the leisurely, gendered nature of each tableau. I find it comical that the female figure has been so artfully constructed with layers of paint and bright, vibrant colors, while the males are designated to mere outlines of form. While painterly attention to the female body is often objectifying, Euler’s self-conscious multiplication of gendered body parts is actually empowering. Thus, the contrast between the colorful female figure and the haphazard outlines of teeny male figures renders the male characters inferior. Euler further emasculates them by unknowingly serving them wine bottles filled with breastmilk. Droplets of white paint spill from each nipple into a bottle on each table. This is perhaps the most amusing aspect of this painting. Euler has taken the sexist notion that a woman’s role is as a wife and mother alone and used it to turn the power dynamic between men and women on its head. The men are infantilized by their small size, simplistic depiction, and the hysterical fact that they are drinking a woman’s breastmilk.

Here are Lara (my travel pal) and I, very amused at this:

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So what do we take away from Understanding Doubts and Logic? I quite like the interpretation I just presented, though I am not sure how the title fits in. Perhaps the female creature, whose forehead bears this phrase, is somehow all-knowing in her female genius. She can understand both the understandable and what we doubt we can comprehend. I come away from this painting feeling empowered and amused. Euler has turned gender dynamics on their head with a coy smile. Her belittling depiction of men is not a statement that women are actually superior, but a commentary on the way the reverse is so prevalent in our society.

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. The point of this book is that the so-called weaknesses attributed to underdogs are actually qualities that give them an advantage against their opponent. Euler has taken the “weaknesses” of women that the patriarchy attributes to the “fairer gender” and turned them into symbols of power. Breastmilk and long eyelashes signify greatness and strength.

Until next time!

xoxo,

Chloe ❤

Leo Gestel, (Stedelijk Museum- Amsterdam)

Hi everyone!

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).

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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:

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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:

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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 ❤

 

Amsterdam Research Trip

Hallo!

This morning I woke up and was not in Amsterdam and let me tell you- I was disappointed. But at the same time, I was so so SO happy that my thesis research brought me to my favorite city for a wonderful week of museums, mayonnaise, and dancing. (For those who have not visited the Netherlands, the mayonnaise and music scene are out of this world).

Today I’d like to do something a little bit different. Instead of giving you an art historical analysis of an exhibit or a work of art (or even a DIY!), I am going to tell you about my wonderful week. After all, Canvas and Crumpets is about beautiful living, and my week in Amsterdam was the perfect combination of academic research and basking in the beauty of life. I’ll touch on my research, pointing to specific works and explaining how they contributed to my research process. However, I’ll be posing lots of open-ended questions about these works and leaving you to put some of the pieces together. Keep your eye out for a post later this week that answers a lot of these questions. For now, enjoy!

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Day 0: I am referring to the day I landed as Day Zero because I went 34 hours without sleeping and spent a decent amount of it in bed. Additionally, the airline lost my luggage so I don’t know if this day deserves a positive number. However, my friends Sofi and Thijl took me to a Jewish Dutch Deli for breakfast after I landed. This was by far the standout of Day Zero. No, there are no pictures. I was too busy devouring my sandwich(es).

I also went to the zoo in between naps with my good friend Sofi. Here we are:

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Just kidding, here we are:

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I believe this day ended with me asleep by 20.00.

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Day 1: I woke up bright and early to go to the Stedelijk Museum. When I was abroad, I was absolutely OBSESSED with the Stedelijk. This museum is where my thesis topic was born. It started as a research paper for one of my abroad classes, A Social History of the Netherlands. In April and May I spent about four hours a day, five days per week in the Stedelijk research library reading old documents. When I left Amsterdam, I decided to turn this research paper into my senior thesis.

The topic of the original research paper- and my senior thesis- is the art movement Cobra. Cobra stands for Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam- the three cities from which the major members of this group originated. I am specifically focusing on the Dutch members of this group, and exploring how the socio-political atmosphere in the Netherlands following World War II led to the groups’ creation.

My research necessitated me returning to the Stedelijk, this time to perform visual analyses on several different works, rather than to visit the Stedelijk library. The museum feels like home to me, and I was beyond excited to go back.

I first took a look at some Mondrian paintings. The following is a work entitled Composition No. IV, with Red, Blue, and Yellow (1929). On the right is a detail of the viewer’s bottom left corner.

And here is another Mondrian work, entitled Lozenge Composition with Two Lines (1931).

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Mondrian was the founder of an important Dutch art movement called De Stijl. You can read a bit about the movement here. What characterizes De Stijl is an emphasis on geometry and primary colors. At the time of its founding in 1917, the movement was radical. It represented the next step in the breakdown of traditional art-making. Mondrian and De Stijl are important for my research because I am investigating the reasons that Cobra came about in the 1940s. De Stijl was the primary Dutch art style before Cobra, so it’s important for me to understand its theories and methodologies. Only then can I ascertain why the Cobra artists rejected De Stijl in favor of something new and different.

Take a look at these two works. What words would you use to describe them? How are line, color, shape, space, texture, and light utilized? These are called formal aspects, and they’re useful for comparing works.

Next, I went to the Cobra room, where I promptly almost fainted of happiness. The following is an incredible three-dimensional work entitled Cat, by Constant Nieuwenhuys (1948). Constant was one of the Dutch founders of Cobra, and one of the central artists in my research.

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Here I am looking more composed than I feel with Cat.

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I’ll be publishing a post soon where I go into detail about the progression of Dutch modernism through key works, so take a moment to think about how Cat compares to Composition No. IV or Lozenge Composition. How are the formal aspects utilized in different ways? And how does each work make you feel? Really focus on that sensation, as both Mondrian and Constant painted to evoke a sensation in the viewer. Furthermore, Constant actively despised Mondrian’s works. Why do you think this is?

Here is another Cobra work from this room entitled Questioning Children, by Karel Appel (1949).

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Here’s a detail of the three-dimensional work made from paint on wood.

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Appel and Constant worked closely together. What do Cat and Questioning Children share that Mondrian’s paintings lack?

Day 1 was made even more strange by my run-in with the famous Dutch talkshow host Humberto Tan. I was on my way to buy clothes (luggage was still not returned at this point) when he stopped me on the street and asked to take a photo of me for his street blog. I figured he was a photographer. Several screaming girls asking for selfies later and I realized he was a famous figure on Dutch TV. Go figure. Here we are smiling. You can still see the jet lag/confusion in my delirious eyes:

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Day 2: Day 2 was, essentially, the reason I came to the Netherlands. I called the Stedelijk museum several months ago to inquire about the works that would be on view at the museum in January. I was directed to the head of the offsite depot, where the entire Stedelijk collection is stored when it’s not on view. Museums only display a small fraction of all the works they own, so offsite depots are massive! The head of the Stedelijk depot informed me that, because I was doing research, I could request any works from the collection to study during my visit. I chose 7 paintings and 1 print, all by Dutch Cobra artists.

I arrived last Wednesday at noon feeling extremely excited. I had been looking at tiny thumbnails of these works on my computer screen, and I was about to see them in person! The building itself was very imposing, with barbed wire and an electronic gate. My taxi driver actually asked me if I was visiting someone in prison.

Anyways, I walked into the viewing room and was completely stunned for several seconds. The colors of these paintings were more vivid than I’d imagined. They leapt out at me like they were alive, swimming within the confines of their wooden frames. Here’s a snapshot of a portion of the paintings I selected:

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And here I am feeling rather posh between two of my favorite works:

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Now, two of the works that I selected were oil paintings by Karel Appel, painted before Cobra. Sitting Girl and Sailor Girl were both created in 1946. Take a look and answer this question: What styles or artists do these works remind you of?

Sitting Girl reminds me of Modigliani’s manneristic portraits of women with elongated necks. Compare Sitting Girl to Jeanne Hébuterne (1919). Sailor Girl reminds me of Picasso’s simplified, deconstructed figures. Do you see a similar utilization of line and color in Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror (1932)?

I was interested in looking at these two works because I am demonstrating in my thesis that the future members of Dutch Cobra did try out the styles of different contemporary artists. What they found- which is well documented in their published periodicals- was that these styles were not sufficient vehicles of self-expression. They rejected cubism. They rejected all kinds of genres. In order to show that Cobra was a result of the socio-political climate of the Netherlands following WWII, I must first explain that contemporary modes of expression were inadequate for artists struggling with the social and political conditions in Holland.

The following work is perhaps the most haunting of all. Constant Nieuwenhuys painted Concentration Camp (War) in 1950.

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How do you feel looking at this painting? I imagine rather sad, especially given the fact that the title is Concentration Camp (War). Yet the sadness comes from within the painting. It does not feel as if the title were slapped on like a price tag. How does Constant achieve this mood? How does he manipulate line, color, shape, space, light, and texture to evoke sadness? I was particularly struck by the use of line and shape to create otherworldly beings with whom I feel an empathetic and spiritual connection.

I also was shaken by another of Constant’s eerie paintings, The War (1950).

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Are you starting to see similarities in the subject matter of Dutch Cobra art? Remember that 75% of the Dutch Jewish population were killed in the Holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Dutchmen died when German blockades caused famine in the last winter of the war. This was a population that had known suffering and death. It’s not surprising that the Dutch Cobra artists felt compelled to express their pain by depicting these dark subjects.

But what about the style of these works? Are you starting to see trends regarding the formal aspects of Dutch Cobra art? In The War, the outstretched arm of the central figure captivates my gaze. It is very much alive, reaching into the air against a backdrop of fire and decay, though it sits atop a mound of dead creatures. This dichotomy is gruesome yet compelling and utterly devastating.

Here are the last three works I studied. The top left is Constant’s Dead Cows (1951). The top right is Constant’s Scorched Earth (1951). (For all my history buffs out there, think about the term ‘scorched earth’ and how it was applied as a military tactic in the Second World War.) The gouache print at the bottom is Cornielle’s Composition (1948).

The Dutch Cobra paintings really are beautiful, aren’t they? Yet they also manage to be uncanny, sad, gruesome, and desperate, sometimes all at the same time. I think that’s why I like them so much. I am fascinated by their historical context, but also by the tension within each work. It is as if the artist himself couldn’t decide if he was hopeful about the future or resigned to the death of humanity.

After my four hour visit to the Depot I met up with my Dutch language teacher, Lisa. She took me for coffee and then to her work borrel. A borrel is a Dutch party for a specific group of people. You could have a tennis borrel for the members of the tennis team, or an art history borrel for art history students. I met all of the creative people she works with at this fun party! Here we are smiling:

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Day 3: I woke up on Thursday at the Hilton Apollolaan, where I spent two of my seven nights in Amsterdam. The rest of the time I stayed with Sofi. Here I am wearing a coat I impulsively bought the day before from Daily Paper, ready to start the day:

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I headed south to Amstelveen, the city right below Amsterdam, to visit the Cobra Museum.  This museum is entirely devoted to the works of the Cobra artists, including the Dutch, Danish, and Belgian contingents of the group. My intention in visiting the Cobra Museum was to perform visual analyses on the works of Danish artists. After the Dutch artists rejected De Stijl, cubism, and a number of other genres, they encountered the Danish Expressionists. This interaction led to the creation of Cobra and the development of the works like Concentration Camp (war) and Dead Cows.

Carl-Henning Pedersen painted Salomon’s Kingdom in 1939. Take a look:

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Do you see a relationship between this painting and the works by the Dutch Cobra artists? Does Pedersen handle formal aspects in the same way? How does his subject matter compare? I am particularly drawn to a quality of creaminess on the painting’s surface that is missing from the rougher Cobra works… but I see a lot of similarities in color and shape. What do you think?

The following is a painting by Egill Jacobsen entitled Sea (1947).

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And here is an untitled work by Asger Jorn painted in 1949.

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Just by looking at Sea and Untitled, it is clear that the Danish artists (and the Dutch artists, for that matter), were not clones painting identical pictures. The point in comparing works is not to conclude that the whole movement painted the same subjects with same color palette, but to draw connections between works that point to a larger ideology and methodology. Sea and Untitled could not be more different in their utilization of color, but what about shape? There are haunting eyes, formed from small bubbles of color, in both works. When I look at both paintings, I have the uncomfortable sensation of being watched. See what other connections you can come up with!

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Days 4, 5, 6: I only had three days of research which left three days for visiting old friends and enjoying the city. However, as I left the hotel to go to my friend’s apartment, I started chatting with the concierge. And wouldn’t you know it, he agreed to take me on a tour of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous honeymoon suite. Instead of going about and enjoying Amsterdam, the couple spent their honeymoon in bed, protesting the war. They called this the “bed-in for peace.” You can read more about this story here. I took lots of pictures of the suite. Take a look!

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And of course I had to get a picture of myself in the suite. I wanted to lie down on the bed and pose but didn’t think that’d go over too well with housekeeping, so I went for this pose instead:

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My last three days were an absolute whirlwind. I went to my favorite Dutch restaurant, Moeder’s, for traditional Dutch fare with my friend Tiemen. I went back to my old dorm with my old suitemate Ellie who has since moved to her own place in Amsterdam. I cooked dinner with Ellie and our other friend Thijmen, and many meals with my host, Sofi. I reconnected with some friends I lost touch with and we went out dancing to my favorite club, De School. On my last night, Sofi took me to her favorite bar and I got to meet all her friends! Here’s a little collage of my time spent with wonderful friends last week:

I also managed to spend all my emergency money on clothing. If you’re in Amsterdam and in need of some clothes to wear because your suitcase was also left in Dublin, check out The Girl Can’t Help It, a 1950s-style boutique. Also stop in to T.I.T.S. for whimsical, feminist designs and Nobody Has to Know for ageless, genderless, and sizeless clothing.

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That’s all for now! I hope you enjoyed reading about my research trip to Amsterdam. I have been mostly writing exhibition reviews as of late, and it made me quite happy to share my everyday adventures with you all as well. Perhaps I’ll make a habit of it! Like I always say, inject art and happiness into your life at every possible moment.

Until next time!

xoxo, Chloe ❤

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The Demise of Abraham Reiss (National Holocaust Museum- Amsterdam)

Well, it finally happened. My four months in Amsterdam came to a close (with a few tears, and a whole lot of gruyere). I may be back in the Big Apple, but I’m not ready to let go of my blissful semester abroad just yet- partially because I am in denial and partially because I still have a few posts queue’d up! My last couple weeks in Amsterdam were spent scurrying from museum to gallery to museum and back again, as I feverishly attempted to cross everything off my bucket list.

One museum I am extremely glad I visited was the National Holocaust Museum. Amsterdam has several institutions dedicated to the Jewish experience in the Netherlands. I visited the  Jewish Historical Museum, the Portuguese Synagogue, the Holocaust Memorial, the Dutch Resistance Museum, and the Ann Frank House all before the National Holocaust Museum opened in May. Despite the abundance of Jewish institutions in Amsterdam, the National Holocaust Museum feels extremely prudent, and fulfills an important niche in Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter. It uses both history and art to weave together an emotional history of the Holocaust in the Netherlands.

The exhibit currently on display is The Demise of Abraham Reiss, by Jeroen Krabbé. In this exhibition, Holocaust survivor Krabbé imagines the life of his Grandfather in a series of nine multi-media works. Krabbé’s grandfather, Abraham, unfortunately did not survive the Holocaust, and was brutally murdered in Sobibor. This series of works is accompanied by a documentary in which Krabbé himself discusses his artistic choices. I will reference his ideas as well as my own in the following analysis.

The first work is entitled, Spanderswoud, 1904. It depicts Abraham at his prime, a successful diamond cleaver and lover of leisure. Here, he is perched in the grass in the woods, where he likely arrived on his Raleigh bike.

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Notice how the the landscape is heavily decorated with both paint and sand. Not a spot of grass or tree is left unpainted. And yet, Abraham himself is sketched in charcoal. It seems as if the slightest brush of a hand could wipe away the marks that represent him. He looks out at us, the viewers, with an unreadable expression. His body, though at rest, seems oddly stiff, as if he is posing for a photograph he did not want taken. Note the one white tree at the viewer’s right. This tree will become important later.

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The second work, Ostend, 1929, depicts a seaside scene. Here, Abraham strolls down the beach while on holiday in Ostend.

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He does not know that it is his last holiday there. At this time, he can afford expensive suits and vacations, but his investments in American Stock are about to bankrupt him. Krabbé illustrates this sense of foreboding through several visual techniques. Note the way Abraham’s shadow is swallowed up by the surf. Murky blue and green water grab hold of Abraham’s yellow shadow and disfigure it, blending it into the foamy sand. Abraham saunters on, blissfully unaware of what is right next to him. Krabbé also indicates the coming troubles with the rainclouds at the top left. Here is a detail of the storm:

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Note how Krabbé uses overlapping vertical and horizontal lines- a technique called cross-hatching- to create a sense of gusting winds. These cross-hatching lines descend into the water, blurring the line between sea and sky. The water, too, looks hazardous, gradually surging towards the coastline.

Abraham’s black and white form is once more drawn with charcoal, while the rest of the painting is covered in thick brushstrokes and dotted with grains of sand. This isolates him, especially in relation to his family, who are clumped together in the middle of the painting. They are difficult to discern because Krabbé has barely colored them in. They remain white on a beige beach. Perhaps Krabbé meant to foreshadow Abraham’s isolation from his family. Or, the proximity of the wife and daughters to the impending storm symbolizes the catastrophic effect of the stock market crash on the Reiss family. Just how catastrophic this was, is revealed in the coming pictures.

Krabbé also notes that he included a stairway at the top right of the beach. He calls this stairway an ‘escape.’ The addition of an ‘escape’ is poignant because the viewer is aware that Abraham was unable to utilize it.

* * *

The third work, April 24 1942, Jekkerstraat 14-3, was painted from an actual photograph of Abraham, his wife, and his two daughters.

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After the stock market crash in 1929, Abraham lost all of the money he made in the diamond business. His family was forced to move from their luxurious home to a smaller one on Jekkerstraat. This would prove to be fatal for the Reiss family, because they did not have the money to go into hiding once the Nazis started deporting Jews. Abraham’s wife suffered from diabetes, and actually died the day after this photograph was taken. She may not have died in a death camp, but Abraham often said that it was the Nazis who killed her. She died after reading a newspaper headline that stated all Jews were to wear an identifying yellow star. Abraham kept this newspaper, and intended to use it as evidence after the War that the Nazis had killed his wife.

In Krabbé’s painting, imagery plays a vital role. Once more, Abraham is a charcoal ghost, while his family members and the room itself are thickly painted. The room is half a room and half a forest. On the viewer’s left, the room is filled with trees. Do these trees look familiar? Refer back to the first painting, Spanderswoud, 1904, and note how the singular white tree in that painting has multiplied in this work. Furthermore, hints of red have covered its white bark. Then, on the right side of the room, we see decorative wallpaper surrounding a door. The black door leads to a room so red it is quite literally on fire. Everywhere the Reiss family turns, their life is transforming: into fire, into forest, into death.

Perhaps the most haunting details are the whispers of silver sand across the surface of the painting. Take a look:

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The breezes of grey dust cover Abraham, his wife, and only one of the daughters. One daughter- the mother of Krabbé, who survived the Holocaust- is left untouched. We can see, then, that these ‘whispers,’ as Krabbé calls them, signify the inevitability of death descending upon them.

* * *

This is Westerbork, 20 June 1943, the fourth work in Krabbé’s series. It depicts Abraham when he arrives in the Dutch labor camp.

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His charcoal form stands out in the center of this yellow canvas. He still wears his woolen coat and hat, and clutches his bag with one gloved hand. Here, sand, field and sky are one. Swirling yellow sand covers the canvas both figuratively and literally, as sand is a material used in all nine works. The effect is claustrophobic, just as the camp would have been to its inmates. A row of soldiers lines the right side of the canvas. In the far back on the viewer’s left there are tiny figures toiling in the field. They, too, are unpainted, concocted from charcoal and negative space. Their identities are slipping away, much like their representation on canvas.

This was a very heart-wrenching painting to look at. I find the way Abraham clutches his bag to be especially upsetting. The contents of his bag are the last items he brought from home. He probably carries old photographs and family heirlooms. Upon deportation, Jews were told to bring with them only a small bag. Of course, all their possessions would be taken from them, but instructing them to bring a bag created an illusion of safety. If they were allowed to bring their possessions, how bad could their destination be? This psychological deceit I find particularly nauseating. For this reason, I find Westerbork, 20 June 1943 to be one of the most poignant, most emotionally stirring paintings in the series.

* * *

Westerbork, 6 July 1943 takes place several days after the previous work. In this painting, we see Abraham being sent by rail to the next, unknown location. This location would be Sobibor.

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The ‘whispers’ we saw in April 24 1942, Jekkerstraat 14-3 are even more prevalent here. Krabbé has coated the surface of the painting with a tremendous amount of black, grey, and white flecks. As you can see in the following detail, these specks disfigure the faces of the travelers, rendering them identity-less. The man in this detail looks like a mass of yellow paint with black splattered all over. One cannot discern his eyes from the whispers of death. As the whispers become more prominent, and the identities of the figures less distinguishable, one is left with a sense of foreboding.

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Meanwhile, Abraham continues to look at the viewer. There is too much glare on his glasses for us to properly make eye contact with him. And yet, the way he turns to face the viewer at this moment that everyone else piles into the crowded train suggests that he does see us. This moment, this pause, is filled with grace and dignity. One cannot help but admire the way Abraham regards the viewer with quiet confidence, despite the uncertainty of his situation.

* * *

6,7,8 July 1943 depicts the inside of the train during the journey from Westerbork to Sobibor.

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I am uncertain if this is meant to be three versions of Abraham in the three positions he assumed during the journey. The charcoal coloring of all three figures suggests that this is the case. All three figures have balding heads and collared coats with trousers. In this work, the boxcar walls are red and black. If you look closely, you may see the familiar tree motif etched into the red with black paint.And then, in the center, there is a giant X scratched onto the canvas, symbolizing, perhaps, the end. The whispers are black now, floating heavily over all three versions of Abraham. He has closed his eyes, bowed his head, and in one iteration, laid on the floor, but never has he lost his dignity. He stands solemnly, his shoulders relaxed. Even in despair, the Abraham that Krabbé has depicted is noble.

* * *

The following work is entitled, Sobibor, 9 July 1943. It depicts Abraham’s arrival at the Polish death camp.

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This is the first time that we see Abraham’s back, rather than his face. He exits the train car and walks toward the lineup. I find it odd that this work, and the previous, depict the train car to be empty despite the testimonials that these cars were filled way past capacity. I believe that this was done to highlight Abraham’s personal emotional journey, rather than to create a realistic image of what the transportation would have been like. Isolating Abraham serves to place focus on him and his relationship to his surroundings, which are filled with symbolic imagery.

In this work, the landscape begins to turn charcoal like Abraham’s figure. The trees in the background- yes, the tree motif we have seen throughout the series- are drawn entirely in charcoal. These are the famous birch trees that populated many of the forests surrounding extermination camps. They are known for having white bark and peculiar black markings all up and down their trunks that resemble eyes. This gives a deeper meaning to the expression, “the forest has eyes.” In this case, the forest did have eyes, eyes that witnessed what was about to happen to Abraham and his fellow Jews.

It is in this painting that the themes of the series come together. The trees and whispers of death that have followed Abraham throughout his life- throughout this series of paintings- end in Sobidor, where they surround him. Abraham’s charcoal existence begins to make sense. It is Krabbé’s way of representing what the Holocaust did for individuals: it tore away their identities until they were nothing more than blank white canvases. Sobidor stripped Abraham of his identity. His past life became a memory, and then a myth. In the first several works we see, it is as if we are looking back on his life after he has died, and his identity is threatening to wash away completely. Krabbé has captured him with charcoal, forcing his memory back onto the canvas and into the minds of viewers. In depicting his grandfather’s story, Krabbé returns to him his identity.

* * *

In the last two works, the metaphor is completed. Much of the canvas turns to charcoal while the color of the paint desaturates until it is only black and white. This is Sobibor, 9 July 1943 11 am. 

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In this work, Krabbé depicts the de-humanizing act of undressing that the Jews were forced to endure in front of the Nazi guards. I think the sorrow in Abraham’s face speaks for itself.

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The forest is watching too. Note how the forest is almost as powerful a protagonist as Abraham himself.

* * *

And finally, Sobibor, 9 July 1943 11:30 am. 

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The field is empty. All of the Jews from the train, including Abraham, are inside the gas chamber of Sobibor. The smoke that steams out of the chimney is black and dotted with white specks- these are the origins of the whispers that chased Abraham through the previous eight paintings, the remnants of his body and soul wiping away his identity:

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Krabbé explains that geese were used to cover the noise of people dying in the chambers, so that new arrivals would not panic and flee. They are painted in red. Perhaps this is because they are the only figures left alive on the canvas.

* * *

It is not easy to read posts like this. I recognize that, and don’t blame you if you skimmed through this or only made it halfway through. It was even harder to write, and more difficult yet to see at the National Holocaust Museum. But exhibits like this are important. In exhibiting this series, Krabbé returned to his grandfather his dignity and his identity. The more we say his name- Abraham Reiss, Abraham Reiss, Abraham Reiss- the more we triumph over the evil that stripped him of his personhood in the first place. Keep Abraham Reiss and Jeroen Krabbé in your minds and hearts.

The Demise of Abraham Reiss is a poignant example of why I love art so much. It has the capacity to make people learn things and feel things that they could not have had they simply read a history textbook. I hope that these images and my words helped you with both. As always, feel free to let me know if you disagree with something I said, or have something to add.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

 

Soot-O-Mat (Mediamatic- Amsterdam)

Hey all!

Hope your May is treating you well. I’ve been cramming like crazy for my final exams and papers and wishing I had more time to explore during my last few weeks here in Amsterdam. I also just found out that my thesis prospectus was accepted (!!!) I am going to be researching the Dutch Cobra artists, so I am trying to get my hands on as many primary sources as possible while I still have the entire Stedelijk library at my disposal.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had time for fun this past month! A couple weeks ago I went to one of the coolest spots in Amsterdam, Mediamatic. Mediamatic is an unconventional exhibition space that combines technology and biology with visual art.  When I went, I took a look at the current exhibitions, but Mediamatic is also known for its greenhouse, and for hosting lectures, tutorials, and workshops. Today I am going to talk about Soot-O-Mat, created by Dr. Špela Petriča.

Here is a photograph of Soot-O-Mat:

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At first glance, it looks like a series of copper wires attached to lamp shades and whirring boxes, all balanced on a rolling cart.

But now, take a closer look at the lampshade, specifically what is on the base of it.

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That tiny little speck is actually the muscle of a mussel, isolated from the rest of the creature. It is still pulsing, slowly but steadily. Attached to the muscle is a thin strand, which is in turn connected to the mechanism beside the lampshade. As the muscle pulses, the mechanism makes an imprint along the length of the cylinder. Note how most of the imprint curves around the lampshade in a smooth line, yet tiny spikes interrupt the lines every few centimeters. These spikes represent the pulse of the muscle.

After a time, a pattern forms on the lampshade. Take a look:

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Soot-O-Mat epitomizes the mission of Mediamatic: to combine the biological and the technological to create art. But that is not all this work does. I would like to propose my own interpretation of this work, one that is deeply subjective, and may not be in line with your own thoughts. Keep your own interpretations in mind while you follow my train of thought.

When I look at Soot-O-Mat, I am highly aware of the concept of size, for several reasons. Firstly, it seems odd that such a tiny object, a mussel’s muscle, provides the energy to power so much machinery. Secondly, it seems strange that the effect of so much equipment would be so minor- a little blip on a line, a dip in a curve.

Perhaps the strangest sensation that I am filled with, however, is meaninglessness. We are given an aesthetic object, a lampshade, decorated with a mildly interesting pattern. Yet we are also forced to view the mechanism as well. The viewer sees the machinery, its size and complexity, and the energy source: a living thing. Or if one wants to be technical, a body part that used to be part of a living thing. When confronted with this complex system, the final product looks trite. What’s the point of killing a living thing, isolating its muscle and strapping it to a mass of wires if the result is going to be an unwieldy, easily replaceable lampshade?

That question, I believe, is what Dr. Špela Petrič was trying to  get viewers to ask. Soot-O-Mat points out the strangeness of using animals to create consumer goods. A leather jacket doesn’t look like a cow. A billiard ball or piano key made from ivory doesn’t look like the tusk of an elephant. When using shampoo and conditioner, we are completely displaced from the animals that the product may have been tested on. But what if you could see the cow being slaughtered, the elephant shot, or the guinea pig coated in pink liquid? Would you still want to buy those products? In showcasing the process of making, in addition to the final, purchasable object, Dr. Špela Petrič forces the viewer to see the abuse of an animal for human consumption. Perhaps not all viewers would have the same response, but I was left wondering why this was even necessary, when there are so many other ways to make a lampshade look pretty, that don’t utilize a living thing.

Soot-O-Mat is not a PSA about crustacean abuse. In this interpretation, it stands for something greater, for questioning the use of animals in all kinds of aesthetic objects. Are we not an advanced enough species, Dr. Špela Petrič seems to ask, that we can’t make beautiful things without costing lives?

With all that in mind, another part of me wonders if this work could also be a celebration of the power yielded by the smallest of things. A mussel is already tiny. A muscle of a mussel is even tinier. If I saw it on the beach i wouldn’t notice it, and would walk right by as I picked up shells for my growing shell-necklace collection. Soot-O-Mat illustrates the great power of life by juxtaposing a small yet powerful creature with an unwieldy manmade contraption. The fact that such a small thing can even influence the motion of heavy metals is astounding. When viewed together, one cannot help but be in awe of life.

Let me know what you think about Soot-O-Mat! Should biological and technological art be analyzed according to the same standards as paintings and sculptures? Is there a non-vegan interpretation of this work? (I’m not vegan, but I began to feel like one the longer I thought about Soot-O-Mat…) I’m curious about other people’s thoughts, as this was a very unique post for me.

Until next time!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

 

The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood (Rijksmuseum- Amsterdam)

Hey everyone!

Today I am going to tell you about The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood, an anonymous painting that hangs in the Rijksmuseum. It was painted between 1490 and 1495, around 75 years after the events of the painting took place. I was immediately drawn to this painting because I found it’s form very intriguing. The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood is split into two panels that depict the narrative of the great flood that occurred on November 19th, the Feast Day of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. On the right, we see a badly damaged village, and on the left, the town of Dordrecht, which was thankfully spared. The two scenes are connected by the presence of rafts in the top left corner of the Dordrecht scene. The figures on these rafts represent survivors of the flood seeking refuge in Dordrecht.

I find this construction very interesting. The two panels represent two separate spaces, two spaces that could never be seen simultaneously with one pair of eyes. And yet they are linked by proximity, proximity that is visually represented through the role of the tiny raft in the top-left. This motif is what allows these panels to occupy the same space and temporality.

Here is a picture of “Elizabeth’s Day Flood” as it hangs in the Rijksmuseum.

And here are close-ups of each panel. The first picture represents the panel on the left, and the second, the panel on the right. Note the sense of calm in the first work, and the feeling of chaos that governs the second.

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Now I would like to point out several details in these two panels that construct the overarching narrative and reveal telling characteristics of late medieval/early Renaissance Dutch art.

This is a detail from the first panel.

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We see a man in black pants and a brown tunic carrying a heavy load on his back. He is entering the gates of the town. His steps look labored- note how both his knees are bent, perhaps under the weight of his bag. His feet are also turned inwards in a position that feels both wobbly and cautious. He could be struggling to walk, or even bowing in a gesture of humility, as he seeks refuge in Dordrecht from the flood.

Even here, in the in-tact town of Dordrecht, the aftermath of this horrible natural disaster can be felt. The woman in a green dress, who pulls a young boy behind her, also appears to be heading to the city gates. Perhaps she, too, is seeking refuge from the storm. Note how her son has the proportions of a very small man. His face is mature, and his stance, upright. This is typical of Dutch depictions of the human form at this time. You may recognize similar man-children from other paintings of the 15th century. Once the renaissance is in full swing (a movement that was strong in the north as well as in Italy!) we begin to see age-appropriate depictions of children.

* * *

Here is another detail from the first panel. In fact, this is the upper-left corner I mentioned before, where the rafts from a flooded village iconographically link this panel with the next.

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Pardon the glare. If anyone would like to buy me an expensive camera, this problem would be solved and I would also be eternally grateful.

Anyway.

This beautiful winding river is so beautifully Dutch. The river bends constantly, carving circles into the river bed. Bell towers can be seen in the distance, reminding the viewer of distant towns hit by the severe storm. Other buildings along the way are marked in gold leaf. I cannot read what they say but I assume they act as geographical markers, assigning various names to stone buildings. The raft in the corner is a tiny but vital element of this work, as it is the key to linking the two panels.

* * *

Here is a detail from the right side of the left panel. You can see the frame on the viewer’s right.

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Note the figure in the top right. He is naked, and scuttling up a tree. This tiny detail adds a level of cheeky humor to the painting, while also revealing the extent of the consequences of the flood. I’m not really sure how this man managed to lose his clothing, but evidently conditions were bad enough that he felt the need to escape the water by climbing up a tree in his birthday suit.

* * *

And now we move to the panel on the right. This panel depicts a village ravaged by the flood.

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The lack of perspective and proportion is quite comical in this fragment of Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood. Note the pig trying to swim to safety. It looks as if it is standing bolt upright in a vacuum. It is not blended into the scene in a realistic manner- but this is typical of a work painted before the Dutch Renaissance improved painterly techniques. With some suspended belief, one can view this animal as one of many swimming to safety.

There is also a rather bizarre looking dead body floating by in the water. His head looks strangely large given that he is meant to be BEHIND the figure with red pants. If he is behind, then the laws of perspective tell us that he should actually appear smaller. This is one of many disjointed elements of this painting that place it in the 1490s in the Netherlands. However, I find great success in his expression, which reads most definitely as ‘dead.’ His chalky pallor, closed eyes, and slightly agape mouth lend The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood an aura of death.

* * *

Paintings of this time were extremely detailed, as they told non-linear narratives, and needed to contain different plot points within the same work.

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If you look closely, you can see a woman peering out from her door. Perhaps she is surveying conditions of the flood. The placard next to this painting explained that this woman had been left behind, but I do not think this is necessarily true. What this figure does do, though, is add to the sense of fear and uncertainty that envelops this panel. Doorways are transitionary spaces. For her to be frozen within the doorframe suggests that she, for some reason, is unsure about where she ought to be in space… inside her shelter? Or outside, moving towards higher ground?

* * *

The last detail I’d like to show you is simultaneously the most gruesome and the most comical.

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Several animals drown in an unconvincing swirl of white brushstrokes, while a disembodied head floats by. Despite its strange, early attempts at perspective and proportions, this painting still manages to evoke desolation and desperation. The figure in the boat doesn’t even turn around to acknowledge that both people and animals are drowning in the water. Such circumstances would only come about if conditions were truly terrible.

* * *

I hope that this analysis made you realize how interesting and involved a lot of old paintings can be. Many of my friends have mentioned that works from the 15th century are unaccessible and difficult to understand. In other cases, I have been told that such works are “only focused on religion” and “really boring.” But as you can see, The Saint Elizabeth’s Day Flood is really anything but. It is both humorous and bleak, and is a wonderful example of the early stirrings of the Dutch Renaissance. Today, elements of this painting may seem a bit silly- like the man-child or the disembodied heads- but they are indicative of early attempts to place the human form in realistic space. In the next century, The Dutch Renaissance would flourish, and these attempts would turn into successes.

Today I am off to the Van Gogh Museum! More on that later. Until then!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤

 

 

Welcome to the Bright Side (Bright Side Gallery-Amsterdam)

Hi all,

Hope all is well and that you’re finding a way to incorporate art and happiness into your life during these dreary winter months. It is a constant 42 degrees here in Amsterdam. That’s a billion times better than the polar vortex of New York City, but it’s still rather chilly for gallery-hopping. I’ve been making the most of it, though, and am very excited about the cool spots I’ve discovered!

Today I want to tell you about the Bright Side Gallery, a really cool space in Prinsengracht. The Bright Side Gallery prides itself on promoting the careers of upcoming artists, and allowing them to explore their unique perspectives on the world. As a result, the group show that I attended, “Welcome to the Bright Side,” was an interesting combination of photography, paintings, and sculptures. Each artist contributed what they were working on without subscribing to a particular overarching theme. And yet, the exhibit was very cohesive because the works felt fresh and innovative. The artists weren’t restrained by the limitations of a theme or title. Instead, they created works that expressed their thoughts and emotions. The honesty of each work is what makes “Welcome to the Bright Side” feel so cohesive.

The first work that caught my eye was “Untitled.” It was photographed by the artist duo Synchrodogs as part of a project called “Animalism, Naturalism.” Synchrodogs is the name coined by individual photographers Tania Shcheglova and Roman Noven, who create art under the joint name. You may recognize their interesting photographic style from their recent commerical work with Mango, Swarovski, and Esquire Magazine.

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On Synchrodogs’s website, the following is written: “The project ‘Animalism, Naturalism’ is an attempt to keep in mind all basic instincts that come about, reaching for the raw sense of self and intimate relation to the surrounding environment and nature.”

“Untitled” explores the theme of instinctuality by juxtaposing the natural with the unnatural, and the personal with the public, illustrating how human nature interacts with these dichotomies. The nude woman reclined on a rocky landscape is both in-touch with her surroundings and out of place in them, depending how you interpret the landscape. At first glance, one sees a woman immersed in her own pleasure- her arched back, coquettishly bent knee and arms stretched high above her head illustrate this sensual fact. The earth seems to be a part of this pleasure. It juts upward right at the curve of her back, propelling it upwards into an arch. Her feet skate along the rough ground; this action alone draws her knee upward in a build-up of tension. And yet, when one takes a step back he realizes that her landscape is surreal. The pitch-black sky gives this photograph the appearance that it has been shot in space. The rocky earth then becomes recognizable as a craterous moon. Suddenly she no longer appears at home in her landscape. She begins to resemble a paper doll cut-out, trimmed along the edges and pasted on a a picture of the moon. We, as viewers, are forced to question what her relationship is with her landscape. Is it natural to her, feeding her sexual energy in an intimate relationship, or is it alien? Has she been placed there for the viewer to gaze at? If the latter is true, then the scene is a public one, and does not depict a personal exploration of intimacy.

Which leads me to the second dichotomy: private vs. public. The figure is in the midst of exploring her body, an inherently private act. And yet it has been broadcasted for the public to see. Does this compromise the intimacy of her actions, or is the public a factor in her pleasure? Does she enjoy us watching her, or is it merely coincidence that we happen upon her in her reverie? Are we invading her space, taking advantage of her state of nakedness? These are the questions that “Untitled” presents and forces the viewer to grapple with. Looking at “Untitled” is an experience of oscillating between comfort and discomfort, as we question what constitutes nature, and how we define public vs. private space.

 

* * *

Another artist at Bright Side Gallery whose art I particularly enjoy is Martine Johanna. Her two works,”After Hours” and”Solanum,” are aesthetic masterpieces.

Here is the first, an acrylic painting on wood completed in 2016.

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“After Hours” is a sensory delight. The figure’s skin is a dewy, cool purple tinged with hints of fiery orange and glimpses of white. Specks of confetti cover the surface of the painting, leading the viewer to feel as if confetti is raining from the sky. The figure’s blue eyes are coated in a thin layer of gloss. She looks just to the left of us, as if she is staring at some invisible wall, the way one does when one is day-dreaming. Her essence feels mystical because of the unnatural hue of the portrait. There is something magical about her purple skin, the unexplained confetti, and the incompleteness of her form. If you look closely, you can see that the brushstrokes constructing her are very apparent. Patches of color and cross-hatched lines visibly compose her figure, while also highlighting the fact that she is a product of paint.

It is impossible to ignore the figure behind her, shielding his or her face in a shadowed hand. The entire face is covered in darkness, light seeming to illuminate the secondary figure’s nails and fingers, but not his or her identity. Is this meant to be the soul of the primary figure, some kind of physical depiction of her inner emotions? Or is this a character who interacts with the primary figure? My first impression is the former because the two share the same hair color. Furthermore, the secondary figure is too dark to exist in physical space besides the brightly illuminated figure. One can make all kinds of conjectures about why this young woman is brooding- why a physical form has been given to her inner demons. It is all part of the mystical fairytale that Johanna has created.

I was also quite fond of this second work by Johanna, entitled “Solanum.”

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I apologize for the horrendous flash situation in this photograph. I decided including a poor-quality picture was better than not including a picture of this painting at all. It is too beautiful to skip over, and you can look at a less janky picture of it here

“Solanum” was painted a year earlier, in 2015, on linen rather than wood. It features a similarly beautiful brunette, this time in profile, her hand lifted upwards, palm out. The painting is slit down the middle with a clean vertical line. On the viewer’s left, the colors that make up the figure’s body are somewhat realistic. Blue, pink and red are mixed into beige to create her coloring. Her hand is distinctly more unnatural than her chest and face. The fingertips are red, as if they have been dipped in red ink, or a vat of raspberries. (Given that “Solanum” is the name of a tropical shrub, this is not impossible!) Her hand is also more distinctly lined than her upper body, which looks smooth and soft. Her hair tousles naturally around her face, as if a light breeze is passing by.

To the right of the vertical line, the image looks quite different. The figure’s skin is bright blue with a large patch of orange painted on her forearm. Her hair blows backward horizontally. The coloring on this side of the painting reminds me of cameras that read body temperature. There was a popular photo booth filter for this effect back in the day, if you recall. The hotter an area got, the redder the camera depicted that section.  Anyway, this knowledge adds a layer of interest to the already intriguing work. While it is impossible to make rhyme or reason of such a fantasy scene, it is still great fun to imagine what Johanna intended each half of this portrait to represent, and how she felt the two tied together. Perhaps the allusion to heat-sensitive cameras reveals a characteristic of this mythic creature- her skin color changes based on heat. Or maybe, the entire effect is purely aesthetic. If that were the case, I would not be disappointed. Simply staring at “Solanum” is enough to excite the senses. It is an escape into a world of magic. Doesn’t looking at this painting make you wish as if you were an ethereal being as well, drifting through a Pink Floyd light show in outer space?

* * *

Lastly, I would like to talk about Jen Mann’s “Wallflower,” (2014). I spent a lot of time staring at this beautiful work, and noting how it made me feel the longer I stood in front of it and pondered its title, its content, and its grand size.

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Mann has been quoted saying, “In my newest series of works I challenge limitations to acceptable beauty. Limitations are death to creativity.” And yet, when I look at “Wallflower,” I do not see a non-conventional form of beauty. In fact, very little of this figure’s face and body are portrayed. It is a painting of hands, arm, neck and hair. How can one gauge beauty based on those elements?

Ah, therein lies the point of Mann’s wittily titled, cleverly described, and expertly depicted painting. There ought to not be a series of body parts, properly proportioned, colored, and toned, to constitute beauty. A person who simply exists, in all his/her/their wonderful parts, should be considered beautiful. Mann takes the extremities of a person not typically objectified by the media, like the shoulders, hands, and forehead of (what we assume is) a woman, and paints them beautiful.ly She covers the body in lovely shades of pink, swirling the shapes of flowers over the figure’s skin.

And yet, the figure shies away from our gaze. At the risk of sounding a bit preach-y, I propose that the figure shies away because, like most people, she does not realize just how beautiful she is. She is a ‘wallflower,’ as the title suggests, content to linger in the background, on the verge of being who she wants to be. “Wallflower” feels overwhelmingly positive to me. Its colors, shapes, pun-ny title and lovely message brightened my day (pun intended). It also feels like a call-to-arms- not an aggressive announcement, but a powerful painting that reminds us all that we are too beautiful to simply be wallflowers.

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All in all, I really enjoyed the Bright Side Gallery, and I am excited to go back. I’ve found galleries in Amsterdam to be really exciting places, filled with innovative art presented in new and interesting ways. I cannot wait to eat more stroopwafels and see what other art this incredible city has to offer! I’m off to the Rijksmuseum tomorrow…

Until then!

 

xoxo, Chloe ❤