RIJKS Masters of the Golden Age
Kiss the Painting
I purposefully did not select a painting from the Gallery of Honour that is looked upon as a highlight. I chose River Landscape with Ferry because it inspires me as an example of the free spirit that characterised the millions of paintings that found their way into households in the 17th century.
Salomon van Ruysdael’s painting is a product of his imagination. Most likely he had made a sketch of the ferryboat and sensed the atmosphere but, like his contemporaries, he conceived and painted the work completely in his studio. Just like Avercamp who painted ‘Ice Scene with Hunter displaying an Otter to two Fishermen’ in his studio in the summer, based on his observations in winter.
The end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance marked the birth of individualism and the rise of studio painting. Servitude gave way to free citizenship. The world was being explored and scientific discoveries made. A broader vision of life was taking place.
Painters in the 17th century were no longer paying homage to nobility or the church. They were thinking for themselves and developed their own fantasy and interpretation of the world.
In their studios they made paintings in small formats that were sold in shops, markets and by lotteries to hang on the walls of small houses. They were affordable and from 1550 to 1650, millions of paintings were made in the Netherlands and Flanders. This enormous output is the reason why these Flemish and Dutch paintings are now found in museums in both major cities and small towns all over the world. When I’m abroad, I always visit the local museum to have a look at these beautiful paintings.
What fascinates me is the clash that took place between the strict technique and restrictions of the Middle Ages and the freedom of mind unleashed by the Renaissance. One without the other leads nowhere. Like notes without rhythm in music. It is when the opposites of strict technique and freedom of thought and expression clash in a Cambrian explosion of art that creation happens. As it did in the Golden Age. And, as it does with me.
When I started to paint self-portraits 35 years ago, everyone was saying that painting was dead, because of the rise of photography, conceptual art and so on. But how could painting be dead when I was enjoying painting so much? Surely painting can only die when a regime bans it and freedom of expression is suppressed.
After years of experimentation and painting without technical knowledge I found myself painting a self-portrait that struck me as being particularly beautiful. I wanted to do it again, but I couldn’t. I realised I was not a master of the paint, but a slave to it. The paint had to do what I wanted so I began to paint in one colour. In the Rijksmuseum I saw a painting that was half-finished; the unfinished part was visible in one colour, which was where I was with my own work at that moment.
I found that the work process of the Old Masters involved three stages. First a drawing, then application of light and dark, then the application of colour. I followed this method.
I find ‘River Landscape with Ferry’ so beautiful! I love the transparent deep browns and the opaque whites, the grey city that disappears in the distance. It is so easy to imagine yourself sailing away in one of these boats. I have to control myself not to kiss these kind of paintings.
Like Van Ruysdael and other 17th-century painters, my work also comes out of my imagination. I have painted almost 4,000 self-portraits and they exhibit great variation of styles. I don’t do this deliberately. I’m not eclectic. I don’t use mirrors. It’s too restrictive ; like having a photograph or model in front of you. My self-portraits are in my head. I look inside my head, I think and I paint. Yes, I am strict with subject matter, format and technique but beyond that everything should be possible.
Contrary to what some people may think, I do not psychoanalyse myself at all. I simply have the irrepressible urge to paint and what comes out I suppose is like a melody that springs up in the mind of a composer.
When I started painting self-portraits, I was drawn to the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. I look at existence and come to the conclusion that, for me, the meaning of life is doing a self-portrait.
Interview by Ken Wilkie