New book with new works from Ruud van Empel - English
The archetypical and the photographic
A rendezvous in the work of Ruud van Empel
Since the presentation of his World series, the work of Ruud van Empel has evoked vehement reactions. His images confuse people. A much-heard response is that people don’t know what they are looking at. The core of the confusion lies in the fact that, with his photographic work, he creates archetypical pictures. But in traditional terms, the archetypical, the mythical and the ideal are reserved for the world of the painter and the sculptor. Photography was primarily concerned with specific and visible earthly reality. Since the documentary photography of Lewis Hine, the 20th century has accepted the fundamental notion that photography ought to orient itself critically to reality. Although Van Empel does not conceal in any way whatsoever the fact that his images are completely constructed – they are meticulously assembled photomontages made with the aid of the computer – the combination of brightly coloured and very detailed photography on the one hand, and archetypical thinking on the other, does generate a certain shock.
In the World, Moon, Dawn and Venus series, which are represented in this book, Van Empel seeks primal images of innocence and beauty. His images arise in a way that strongly resembles old-fashioned photomontage. In his computer, he has a stock of thousands of photos of elements that he photographs himself, such as ‘models’, ‘flowers’, ‘water line’, ‘water lilies’, ‘trees’ and ‘insects’. He photographs nature in rural settings, parks and also frequently in botanical gardens. Van Empel uses only digital cameras. From the collection of pictorial components, he constructs photo collages, which he assembles in a most refined manner with the help of Photoshop. These digital montages by Ruud van Empel possess a photographic persuasiveness greater than that we know from photographic history, such as the work produced by the acknowledged grandmaster John Heartfield. They are believably real.
At the end of the nineties and beginning of the new millennium, in his quest for archetypes of innocence, Van Empel moved through a minefield of emotionally charged visual traditions with which he frequently clashed, evoking explosive reactions. These responses were often emotional, extremely negative and downright blunt. The assumed associations with existing visual traditions were totally unfounded. Van Empel not only had intentions totally alien to those of the images with which his work was associated, but the entire context of his oeuvre makes it evident that he is engaged in manufacturing a wholly different and innovative type of image. In terms of art and cultural history, and from the point of view of reception history, however, the negative reactions are very interesting. A number of these are repeated below, but it will become apparent that they are completely unjustified. Nevertheless, it is clear that Van Empel’s pictures have left a deep impression and have had an emotional impact. As habitually occurs with artistically powerful work, the first emotional responses are followed by slow but gradual acknowledgement and content-related appreciation of the qualities of the work. This text concludes with a concise sketch aimed at clarifying and positioning Van Empel’s work in present-day art production.
Within his oeuvre, Van Empel’s preoccupation with innocence and purity was a reaction to the alienating stratification that was visible in his earlier work, such as his theatre and graphic designs from the eighties and nineties, and in his first visual art series from 1995 onward. (1)
The series entitled Studies for Women and Naarden Studies, produced in 1999-2002, which focus on the loss of innocence, are later examples of this. As a reaction to the cliché female image presented in the media, he composed female creatures from various body parts that he had photographed himself or had sampled from visual media. In contrast to the cliché media images, these women did not laugh nor did they assume the well-known seductive poses. This fabricated character gave the women an unattractive appearance. This even stimulated one critic to state that Van Empel must be gay and that these images demonstrate his aversion to or disinterest in women. (2)
With these series, Van Empel discovered that beings composed of different components and/or distorted creatures occasionally induce reactions of anxiety, irritation or abhorrence. This was also the case with the Baby project, 2004-2005. All this encouraged Van Empel to abandon his layers of ironization and alienation in the following phase of his work. He wished to devote his efforts to creating work dealing with innocence and beauty, themes that he had been developing since 1999.
To Van Empel, nature and childhood are important elements in the representation of innocence and beauty. Since 1999, he has been engaged in making computerized sketches in which he experiments with both motifs. He produced sketches and Studies in Green from forest scenes, often without living creatures or with only birds, insects or deer. These images again aroused a tenuous reaction: that these scenes were ‘kitsch’. (3) In 2003 and 2004, he also produced sketches of ‘local kids’, children in everyday clothes against a background of suburban housing estates.
Following his experiments in 1995, Van Empel made combinations of figures of young children and nature in his later Studies in Green series, 2003-2004, and in Untitled, 2004-2005. (4) These show white children in a North-European forest with oak and birch among other types of tree. To Van Empel, these were studies in which childhood and nature were symbols of innocence and beauty. The picture of the seated boy in Untitled #6 was autobiographical: to create this, he photographed a model who strongly resembled Van Empel when he was young. The innocence was reinforced in the photographs of girls, partly by the white Communion dresses. The reactions to these works were even more extreme and completely misplaced. The pictures of the children in the forest were references to paedophilia, and the stylized posture and gaze were seen as ‘creepy’. (5) In addition, the girls with blue eyes and blond hair were linked to the imagery propagated by National Socialism, where girls were portrayed as Aryan. (6) Finally, there was the inevitable association with the most famous of Western fairytales, Little Red Riding Hood, in which the small innocent white girl in the dark forest undergoes all kinds of disaster, personified by the Big Bad Wolf who takes advantage of her naivety and eats her up.
In 2005, Van Empel realized the synthesis of the World series, in which he depicts black children in a natural environment. He has abandoned the North-European forest. He portrays the black children amidst a colourful mixture of nature from all over the world – often originating from botanical gardens, as mentioned above. Depicting black children as an image of innocence and beauty has no precedent in the Western tradition of visual art and popular culture. It is not so long ago that pictures of blacks as the oppressed or, in a more positive sense, as the jester or an object of study were common. (7) This is a pictorial tradition that is only being revised in our day and age.
Van Empel finds himself in the socially charged position of a white man who portrays blacks. His pictures are seen as being related to colonial photography, in which blacks are portrayed as subordinate to whites, or, in the most favourable case, as an object of study in medical and ethnographic photography. On viewing his Venus series, one female critic confronted him with the Hottentot Venus: a tragic and distasteful colonial occurrence in which a South African woman was transported to Europe and exhibited as an attraction in London and Paris. (8) But this comparison is grotesque and certainly misplaced, and ignores the content-related and formal differences between these two ‘presentations’. Sadly enough, the comparison of Van Empel’s work with colonial ideas is more an expression of the force of the visual tradition in our collective memory than of the presence of such elements in Van Empel’s work. Moreover, the rest of his oeuvre indicates completely different preoccupations. Anyone drawing a comparison with colonial ideas has simply not looked at the work for long enough, and has not recognized the essentially dissimilar elements in Van Empel’s work. In other words, the stereotypical is not embedded in the work of Van Empel but rather in the rapidity with which the public responds in accordance with the old stereotypes, without investigating this work properly. For his Venus series, Van Empel photographed professional models in a respectful way, set in the archaic symbolism of the Creation of mankind and inspired by the paintings of Lucas Cranach.
In fact, Ruud van Empel is not primarily concerned with whether the portrayed people are black or white. His true themes are nature and childhood, and in that context he photographs both black and white. However, what does play a role is the fact that Van Empel experiences more artistic freedom in depicting black children because he is operating in a new and unknown artistic domain. The art historian Jean Baptist Bedaux also emphasized the placement of black children as a symbol of innocence, whereas traditionally only white children were portrayed in this way in Western painting. (9) Bedaux refers to it as a political choice. In view of van Empel’s preoccupations, however, it can also be regarded as an artistic choice, which actually has an appropriate contemporaneity in the light of the recent election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the US. One reviewer formulated it aptly as ‘Here, a long-denied innocence has just walked into Western art history.’ (10) In fact, Van Empel received many positive reactions from the black community in response to the poster on which a black girl was portrayed in a white dress in green natural surroundings to promote the Picturing Eden exhibition, displaying Van Empel’s artwork World #1, in the George Eastman House. (11)
Van Empel accomplishes the archetypical by continuously opting for the universal and neutral, and not for the specific or expressive. In relation to the poses of his characters, Van Empel encountered parallels in the photography of Mike Disfarmer, Norbert Ghisoland and August Sander. The portraits made by these three photographers are distinguished by a neutral and reserved presentation of the human figures. They accentuate the general and timeless aspects of humans as types, rather than any specific emotions or personal traits. In old-fashioned studio photography, this may have been caused by the lengthy camera shutter times which meant that people could not move or laugh, leading to a rather stiff and formal appearance. August Sanders was deliberately involved with people as types rather than as specific characters.
Van Empel depersonalizes his models by removing the specific and emphasizing the universal. He has his models adopt neutral poses, or ceremonious postures that we know from archetypical figures in art history, as is very clear in his Venus series. By not allowing his models to laugh and by further stylizing the manifestation with the computer, he removes even more specific and personal features, and emphasizes to an even greater extent the figure as a type or archetype. This aspect is experienced by some viewers as being sinister. However, others see it as the absolute quality of his work: it accentuates the timeless, the beautiful in people.
The distinction between the archetypical and the specific is a distinction that has a very strong tradition, especially in the Christian iconography of the Roman Catholic Church. The world of virtues and saints, one could say the realm of unreal but idealized archetypes, is traditionally depicted in personifications that are neutral, expressionless and serene. The mortal world with ordinary people full of ordinary shortcomings – in other words: everyday life – is traditionally depicted by means of realistic characters, often in full motion, with dramatic poses and facial expressions. The 13th-century cathedral in Amiens, for example, presents series of virtues and vices, vertically opposed to each other. The virtues, in the upper row, are consistently idealized figures with a neutral pose and depersonalized appearance and gaze. The vices in the lower row are realistic human figures, often with expressive gestures, engrossed in some action or other. (12) In their serenity, Ruud van Empel’s characters primarily resemble these former figures.
And now we touch upon what causes the shock effect in the photography of Ruud van Empel, and what can be regarded as the innovative quality in his work. Painting and sculpture have always been engaged in both domains: that of the universal and the ideal, and that of the specific and realistic. Up to the present, photography has been engaged in the earthly, the specific, the characteristic and the realistic – one could say: the lower group of figures on Amiens cathedral. With Van Empel’s computer-manipulated work, photography has now convincingly entered the world of depersonalized archetypes. Of course there have been developments in this direction in the past. For example, there was the 19th-century pre-Raphaelite photography of Julia Margaret Cameron, the early 20th-century picturalist photography that emulated painting, and the glamour photography of Hollywood, which portrayed film stars as divine creatures. However, in the case of these photographs, there was always the straightforward relationship with reality due to the fact that the photo was a direct print of the physical manifestation at that moment. Collage technique and computer manipulation now enable a far-reaching depersonalization of human figures. With his photography, Ruud van Empel creates archetypical figures such as we have only known until now in paintings and statues of saints, virtues, allegorical and symbolic figures.
Recent projects by Van Empel cast a new light on the archetypical images in World, Moon and Venus. In his publication entitled Photoarchive. Slides & negatives 1958-1970 (2007)he processed photos in much the same way as Hans-Peter Feldmann does, but Van Empel used pictures from his own family archives. And here we in situ see all the poses, dresses, boarding school uniforms with which we are familiar from Van Empel’s recent photography. They turn out to come directly from the Catholic visual culture in the southern part of the Netherlands, Ruud van Empel’s native region, which is full of archetypical symbolism. We see girls-next-door and other girls in white Communion dresses and all kinds of other symbols of symbols of innocence and purity, Ruud and his brother shining in the Sunday suits complete with tie, dressed as clowns or magicians at Carnival time, looking at floats with symbols like suns, bulls and nymph-like female creatures, and kneeling in front of the crib with the ultimate child-symbol of innocence: Jesus.
However, the photos produced by Ruud van Empel himself cannot be classified as Christian in any way whatsoever, although the archetypical representation does parallel the Catholic visual culture within which Van Empel was raised. Van Empel works in the figurative-art tradition. He draws a straight line from late medieval Gothic, via Romanticism, to the present day, where he breathes new life into archetypical thinking in these style episodes by expressing it in photography. He has never felt attracted to the paths taken by Kazimir Malevich and Pablo Picasso towards the abstraction of Modernism and conceptual art, nor to the irony of post-Modernism. Of the early 20th-century painters, Otto Dix and Edward Munch tend to form his sources of inspiration.
It is therefore no coincidence that Van Empel was recently one of the initiators of the book Beyond Photography, which focused on the staged and manipulated photography of fantasy and imagination in the Low Countries. (13) The initiators mention that they have compiled work that has its artistic roots in the South-Netherlands’ Jeroen Bosch rather than the North-Netherlands’ Piet Mondriaan. The domain of Ruud van Empel is the archetypical. And that is the great challenge when viewing the work of Ruud van Empel: can we establish the mental connection with, on the one hand, the archetypical aspect of visual art and, on the other, the specific and the factual heart of photography?
Maartje van den Heuvel
Curator of photography
University of Leiden
1. See Ruud van Empel, PhotoSketch. Digital Sketches 1995-2007 (Amsterdam, published privately, 2007).
2. Erroneously labelled as a ‘homosexual manner of looking’. Edie Peters, quoted in Merijn Henfling, ‘Stoned van Bambi’, in: Het Parool/PS van de Week, 31 May 2003, p. 17.
3. Dirk Koppes, ‘Het woord kitsch wordt verkeerd gebruikt’ in: CARP, no. 41, 7 October 2003, p. 31.
4. Ruud van Empel. Moon Venus World (Amsterdam/Nijmegen, exhib.cat., Ruud van Empel/Museum het Valkhof, 2007).
5. Dirk Koppes, op. cit. noot 3; s.n., ‘Ruud van Empel – A Summary of Photo Works – 1996-2004’, in: ExBerliner, no. 27, May 2005.
6. Sarah Kessler, ‘Ideal world, Ruud van Empel’, interview in: Whitewall-USA, autumn 2008, pp. 96-105.
7. Countless publications have appeared on this topic. A good survey is provided by Jan Nederveen Pieterse, White on Black : images of Africa and blacks in Western popular culture (New Haven [etc.] : Yale University Press, 1992). Recently published: Linda Roodenburg et al., ‘View of the Other since 1850’, in: Dutch Eyes. A Critical History of Photography in the Netherlands (Zwolle, Waanders, 2007), 291-343, and Black is Beautiful: Rubens to Dumas (Amsterdam/Zwolle, exhib.cat., Nieuwe Kerk/Waanders, 2008).
8. Sarah Kessler, “Ideal World, Ruud van Empel”, interview in: White Wall - USA, Contemporary Art and Lifestyle Magazine, Fall 2008, p. 96-105.
9. Jean Baptist Bedaux, ‘Ruud van Empel and the painterly tradition’, in: op. cit., note 4, pp. 27-9.
10. Alex de Vries, in internet art column ‘Kunst van de dag’ (Art of the day), review based on solo exhibition by Ruud van Empel in Museum het Valkhof, Utrecht, 2007.
11. Poster for the Picturing Eden exhibition, George Eastman House, 2006.
12. See Emile Male, ‘Book III: The Mirror of Morals’ in: The Gothic Image. Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century (New York/Hagerstown/San Francisco/London, Harper&Row Publishers, 1972, orig. 1913), 98-130.
13. Ruud van Empel et al. (eds.), Beyond Photography– Photography and Imagination (Amsterdam/Antwerp, Voetnoot Publishers, 2008).