Saturday, January 28, 2006

Reading the art book in the train to Amsterdam made me miss the stop and I ended up in Almere a god forgotten city in the middle of nowhere, not the place to be around midnight. A freezingly cold wind on the platforms and a tight control at the entrances. Passengers were treated like potential criminals. I managed to get back to Amsterdam though.

The book was by professor Henk van Os on Belgian art. He mentions the portrait of Marguerite Mons by the (neo-)impressionist Theo van Rhysselberghe (1862-1926). It depicts a sad-eyed girl of perhaps twelve years old dressed in black (as her mother has died recently). It is an excentric composition and the black contrasts well with the pale blue, pink and gold colors of the door. You have got no idea what she is thinking, but her gaze keeps your attention. It seems that her father did not like the painting and requested Van Rhysselbergh to make a new, more traditional portrait. Artistic vision is not always appreciated.

At the moment there is an exhibition of the work of Theo van Rhusselberge at the Paleis der Schone Kunsten in Brussels

Thursday, January 12, 2006

I am watching a documentary 'The Songhunter' about Alan Lomax (1915-2002) the etnomusicologist who travelled through the world to record folk music, realizing that these forms of traditional music would disappear soon with the rise of commercial popular music and mass media. He has recorded more than 10.000 songs. At the end of his life he signed a contract with Rounder records. The Alan Lomax collection consists of 100 cd's .

I admire people who have a mission in life, trying to document endangered forms of culture or nature. It reminds me of Roman Vishniac (1897-1990) who photographed Jewish life in the shtetls and cities of eastern Europe during the 1930's. He felt that this life would be destroyed by the nazi's. He worked with a hidden camera through an enlarged button hole. To blend in, he posed as a vagabond peddler and to avoid arrest by police as a psychotic. He was imprisoned 11 times. 'A Vanished World' is the name of his book.

Just like Lomax saved voices and songs, Vishniac saved faces.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Henri Cartier Bresson (HCB) was first photographer that really touched me. Now there are two exhibitions of his work in Amsterdam: his photography in FOAM and at the same time his drawings are exhibited at the Descartes Institute.

True to my own art, I have started with the drawings in the French institute. Hardly any visitor was there. What fascinates me is that he started as a painter, subsequently switched to photography for most of his career and finally returned to the art of drawing. In the 1970's
when the photographer got had problems with his knees, he decided that his travelling days are over and devoted himself exclusively to drawing. With great concentration he makes drawings of the view from his apartment overlooking the Tuileries, animals skeletons in the Natural History Museum, and worked with nude models at home. Although he never approaches the level of his photography, the master of the moment has a sensitive drawing style with searching lines. Also in his graphic work he shows a good feeling for a balanced composition.

His camera was his sketchbook, a book of instant drawings. HCB said: 'Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing a meditation'. Photography deals with the decisive moment in one quick camera click, while drawing is a slow process of line by line. A different approach, but with the same eye. He is called 'L'oeuil du Siecle' or 'The Eye of the Century'. This is not exaggerated. When you glance through his photo albums you learn more about recent history than during six years at highschool. Also, he almost has lived for a century: 1908- 2004.. As a photo reporter for Magnum, he was travelling constantly and was always there at the right moment. Or should I say the 'worst moment'? He was on the spot at the time of the murder on Gandhi, the Chinese revolution, the building of the Berlin Wall. He covered also happy events like the coronation of King George V in 1937.

HCB never made use of a telelens. He managed to come close to the subject without being noticed. He somehow remained invisible. He was always eager to prevent his own portrait from being published so that he could remain anonymous and that people acted naturally. I think this the role of the artist: to be a close observer of real life without intruding the scenes.

HCB also did a lot of portraits of writers and painters. He was in search of "the inner silence of the models ('Le silence intérieur d’une victime consentante'). This image is one of my favourite portraits. a photograph of Ezra Pound. He took the picture in Venice, 1970. The American author was old, sick and in an introverted mood. For twenty minutes the two men were sitting face to face in complete silence until the decisive moment was there. There is a beautiful side light on the face which would make even Rembrandt jealous.
Perhaps attracted by these silent images the exhibition was visited by a group of the deaf people. The guide assisted by a sign language interpretator told an anecdote about HCB, when photographing Matisse. The painter was kind of camera shy, all the time hiding from the camera. To open up the atmosphere HCB showed a painting of himself. Matisse was not impressed and said he found it 'as interesting as a matchbox'.

Line by Line. The Drawings of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Thames and Hudson, 1989