Clouds, clouds, I never get used to them. Why do clouds have to be so baroque, so gaudily and artlessly lovely?
Banville, The Blue Guitar
I hate you, ye cold compositions of art!
Though prudes may condemn me, and bigots reprove,
I court the effusions that spring from the heart,
Which throbs with delight to the first kiss of love.
Byron, The first Kiss of Love
Presence of mind
And realism quadratura
Have a party, undisturbed,
In a street, the pavement open.
Jules Deelder, Stadsgezicht *
Perhaps, lovers of abstract art secretly think that the canvas on their white wall is actually a realistic representation of the abstract interior of their own living room, evidently more reminiscent of a furniture store showroom than of the common world we live in?
When the Dutch author W.F. Hermans picked up his pen, in his hands always a sword, to support another artist in his fight, something really special must have been going on. Constitutionally he was meant to be a troublemaker and even ready, in case there was no one around to yell at, to just spit himself. To gang up with another, wow! Hermans making propaganda…
That’s precisely what he did when he wrote his essay Long Trousers as a Milestone in Culture . The painter Carel Willink had just before that written his own essay entitled Painting at a Critical Juncture . Merely the fact that in those post-war days the Americans with their victory over Hitler not only imported the Marshall Plan, but also infused Paris with their Abstract Expressionism and took over its art market, might already explain Hermans’ conspiracy with Willink.
Hermans was a declared Francophile. The Second War for him had not been so much a political issue, which might have induced him to take part in the Resistance against the Boches. After all, he had only been writing during the war years. The war for him meant primarily the decline of Paris as the centre of arts and culture, which it had been for so long, this in favour of New York which from now on controlled the art market and the way art was going. The Abstract Way, that is.
Willink wrote about the link between the invention of photography and the decline of representation in ‘fine’ painting. He pointed out that painters began to use photographic pictures to support their memory or simply as substitute for nude models. He mentions the two Dutch painters Breitner and Witsen.
However, according to Willink, the advent of photography, coupled with press and other media flooded with ‘image’, had ensured that “the eye of the city dweller had become so oversaturated with real images depicting an ever changing environment, … that it lost its primary feeling for reality.” Real reality is loosing its value. Perhaps an insight, that anticipated the ideas of Baudrillard and Eco.
This new image reality is an ‘asphalt reality’ – thus Willink. The photographic picture as such has nothing to with art, though everything artificiality. The supersaturated ‘sophisticated people’ are demanding ‘abstract and deforming art’, considered as ‘a world beyond the visible things’.
Willink and his fellow Magical Realists – the name given to this Dutch art movement – recognized the end of realistic art, however refused abstractionism and its turning away from reality. Magical Realism, by contrast, produced paintings that “confront man with the never reassuring, never fully knowable appearance of the human world. Art is concerned with ‘both the alienating thing as well as with the sudden sweetness of things’. Bringing this to the man suffering from ‘asphalt reality’ – it is the task of the artist.
To be able to defend Willink, W. F. Hermans had to wriggle intellectually quite a lot. He would certainly have disapproved of the painter’s sympathy for Jung’s indeed dubious ‘archetypes’, after all an abomination for the author who translated Wittgenstein’s Tractatus in Dutch. The idea of a ‘never completely knowable world of appearances’ must have made him shudder. However, Hermans’ photographical fanaticism and Willink’s plea for the photo as a painter’s help were closely related. So: The sword girded and waging war against all those who wanted to drown the Realists in the new wave of USA abstract modernism splashing the Dutch dikes.
Hermans was at least consistent. His sympathy for realistic painting is reflected in his own ‘realistic’ verse. The poem Street Theatre – yes indeed, another street, very close to the ‘asphalt reality’ in Jules Deelder’s poem quoted by me as a motto, the street as realistic theatre par excellence – begins with these magnificent lines:
Too steep that bridge. The drivers beat their horse’s back
With iron pipes that echo.
[Te steil die brug. De voerlui slaan het paard
Met ijzren buizen galmend op de rug.]
Willinks realism is ambiguous and perhaps for that reason ‘magical’. This may be illustrated by the special way in which he used his own photographs to support his manner of painting. One can compare this with Breitner’s use of photo’s – this great Dutch painter was, methinks, somewhat more frivolous than his fellow artist Willink. His photo’s, however, were full-realistic. Breitner enjoyed his models, like the other fellow artist Delacroix, in more ways than one. What women!
Hermans would have disagreed with my reading of Breitner’s photographic realism. With Christianity’s “exclusion of the nude from the daily reality and the growing complexity of their clothes” – so he claimed – to continue to depict nudes removes the picture “one step away from reality.” Even Breitner’s horny nude photography would on this reading be… abstract. An element of sophistry is present in Hermans’ argument. However, he’s right if he meant to say that ‘the pose’ often dominates nude photography and that this might be called ‘unnatural’. However, this is not all too much the case with Breitner’s ladies.
Willinks photography is of a completely different order, informed as it is by his painterly principle: To produce a frisson. Although his essay dates back to 1950, his Magical Realism was present since the early 30s. However, I could not find any text by him, dating from that period. If at that time he had already introduced the notion of visual alienation, Willink would have been the precursor of Brecht’s famous theatrical version of Verfremdung – the combination of realism and theatre as well as an attempt to forcefully move the observer away from his everyday ideological experience.
This Brecht connection, then, would not have been well received by Hermans, who did everything to protect Willinks Magical Realism from any association with “the true communists in this country who warm to modern art.” Comical, by the way, is also Hermans’ own plainly Hegelian, but also Marxist tinted argument, claiming that the experimental, abstract modern artists could “in their era not have painted otherwise than they did.”
Let is turn to Willink the painter and the photographer. In a precious booklet Willem van Zoetendaal collected a series of photos of heavens, made by Willink from inside his home on the Ruysdaelkade in Amsterdam. Shifting Skies is what the painter himself called them. Searching for that frisson which belongs to the Verfremdung of his paintings-to-be, he not only produced amateurish snaps, but deliberately printed them ‘heavy, dark and with stark contrast’. On these pictures the city itself, with its ‘asphalt reality’, disappears in the dark.
That weird vertical light sweep on the right was indeed the result of damage – a leak in the harmonica shaped bellows of Willinks Kluns camera, a folding linen contraption that moved lens and the light sensitive plate apart.
These pictures with their extra dark skies beside him while painting, the painter could unabashedly portray a street in full evening sun, with people waving to an airship balloon, which nonetheless paradoxically passes under impressively dark storm clouds. This is alienation.
Perhaps in the reader’s mind’s eye pictures by the 19th- century man Constable appear, a great painter obsessed with clouds. However, his use of them is completely different from Willink’s. Constable invented a whole new pictorial genre: The Cloudscape. Like an artistic meteorologist painting them live, he recorded on the back of each canvas the exact time and date. His delight was in mere clouds, for Willink however they had a deeper ‘meaning’. Which does not prevent some of Constable’s images to be of a full fledged Verfremdung. But, admittedly, these images may approach true abstraction.
Carel Willink loved cats, so did W.F. Hermans. Both made self-portraits or had their portraits made. Painter and writer seem to have been rather vain men. Hermans could be furious when someone else published a picture of him that did not suit his narcissism. However, this photo he appreciated.
Perhaps, painter and writer were family?
Willink Self Portrait
Sierksma, 22.2.16 Haarlem
* Dutch original:
[Tegenwoordigheid van geest
en realisme in ’t kwadraat
vieren onverstoorbaar feest
in een opgebroken straat.]