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White Spirit

07 Nov 2014 Hanne Hagenaars

In my studio, among all the tubes of paint, there is a plastic bottle of white spirit, turpentine, for rinsing brushes, for cleaning up paint, for blurring areas on a painted surface. The great painter Luc Tuymans certainly uses it for his thin compositions.  

'His followers appear to have Tuymans's spectral oils in mind as they squeeze out blobs of paint, mix up some turpentine-heavy medium, and take brush to canvas,' wrote Art Forum 1 about my work and that of others. Thinning to get to the heart of the matter. I study a photo of the master: Tuymans, introspective, with a wisp of smoke spiralling upwards from his mouth, like a medium performing a ritual, banishing or summoning the spirits, although I think that nothing would be more alien to him than a magic ritual.2 An analyst. A watcher. I dance around the table in search of inspiration. It’s still damn quiet in my studio.

Nula sits facing me in Café Loos in The Hague. She is a good-looking, strong dark woman and big—beside her I’m as skinny as a rake. With an infectious laugh she tells me her life story, about her predestination as a Winti priestess. How the god Kromanti had taken possession of her and how she now carries his power inside her.  Kromanti is the god of war, of the strength that comes to help you when you need it.

To be honest I had wanted to have my studio cleaned so as to make a fresh start, to get the inspiration to come flying in again. Day after day I read and studied texts by and with my great heroes. But it seemed as if their hands were slowly being placed on mine and paralyzing my hands while the sentences raced through my head. One day I decided to ban them from my studio. My heroes. I stacked the books up at home in the hall under the coat rack and I mopped my studio. But it wasn’t enough.

The woman looks at me, ‘Girl, what can I do for you?'

I start, confused, 'What is my job as an artist?' I suddenly ask. 'I no longer know why and how I’m going to spread paint on a canvas. I’m going nowhere.' Nula nods understandingly and speaks to me. She believes that the Netherlands has lost something important; the country is rich and poor at the same time. 'The cold has taken the people’s souls. In Winti we talk about the kra, the soul, the divinity in man, which we revere with rituals, which we nourish through our relationships with others. Here life is barren. The word ‘soul’ sounds like a curse. It could be the job of the artist to bring the magic back into our world. Leave your studio and enter new spaces. Go in search of the soul.'

I spread out the map: a map of the universe from the Amazon, the little ridge where the people live is an extremely small layer in this complicated system; the area of the spirits is infinitely larger, where the two mythical carriers of the world can be found, just above the land of the dead and the world of the hunting spirit. The people of the earth, the people of the water and the people without an anus. Top right lives the Great Shaman, and above and below the universe there is emptiness.

That night I begin to draw my own universe, one in which the spirits of my father and my mother roam, the spirit of my dead brother, my living and no longer living friends.  I give my mother’s ashes a place too; my father left the scattering of her ashes to the undertaker. A bilious green orchid –a false violent flower – appears at the edge of the paper.3 As I draw the memories tumble over one another, crying and calling, jostling one another.

'The process of remembering has something violent about it, because you always leave things out. Dissolving paint is also violent, taking it away.' (Luc Tuymans, NRC 95 4) His words pursue me again. But I continue to work hard on my own map of the cosmos.

The next day I email my drawing to a friend. Almost immediately he sends a reply: an illustration of Victor Man’s 2008 painting Shaman. Without comment. Perhaps he’s afraid that I’ve fallen in a bucket of New Age dregs. This shaman is a gloomy, dark character, a clash between Miracle of the Eucharist by the fourteenth-century painter Sassetta and Effigy (1970) by Pierre Molinier.

Shaman (2008) Victor Man
Shaman (2008) Victor Man

Sassetta was a pious man. Miracle of the Eucharist shows a frightening miracle. An unbeliever is taking part in the Communion rite (this is my body; this is my blood) but God sees through him and the man drops dead. The host spurts blood and a small black devil flies off with the soul, which will burn in hell for eternity. It is wise, therefore, not to think disbelieving thoughts. Molinier was full of sinful thoughts that he indulged in his photographs. Like a shaman he descended into an unrestrained sexual underworld and transformed himself into a woman, into a transsexual, into a sexual beast. He wanted the viewer to be contaminated by looking at these images: 'Only then would they be able to know themselves, to discover their true erotic sensibility and find real spiritual freedom.' 5 He already had a title—The Shaman and His Creatures—for the biography that was never written.

Sansetta, Miracle of the Eucharist
Sansetta, Miracle of the Eucharist

The man who titillates you as an attractive woman in a sultry black wig in Effigy takes on a threatening form in Victor Man’s work. There is no hint of seduction, a Ku-Klux-Klan like figure, a modern-day Savonarola, who like a muscular tyrant has the whip at the ready. Keep your thoughts in check! New rituals push aside the old, but the violence goes on. Victor Man’s paintings make extreme demands on your eyes; they are dark as pitch and the subject is almost sucked away into them. But even when your eyes have finally deciphered the image they are not easy to understand: this shaman, the Lazarus Protocol, 'to create mysticism through omission, pointing out how “loss” may give rise to an awareness of the connectedness of all things.'6

The man who titillates you as an attractive woman in a sultry black wig in Effigy
The man who titillates you as an attractive woman in a sultry black wig in Effigy

Loss – sure, I know it like the back of my hand. In the stacks of paint; the emptiness lives in those black layers. In the meantime I occupy myself with what the soul is, the empty soul or the full soul. My lecturers have never uttered the word ‘soul’. Die Seele. A fantastic word that smells of the salt sea and infinity. Artist Eylem Aladogan includes the soul in the title of a sculpture: 'Listen to your soul my blood is singing iron triggers that could be released'. Wislawa Szymborksa writes about the soul that waits for us until we have finished cleaning and doing the washing. And even Picasso mentions the soul: 'Art washes the dust of everyday life from the soul'. I look at my drawing. In a drawing the space you work in seems boundless; you can rub out, stop half way, carry on drawing or stick a piece of paper on to it if you run out of space. From the start painting is constrained by the boundary of the frame; every brushstroke anticipates the total image, 'lines are more becoming, painting moves to completion'.7 A painting is like a hortus conclusus, a walled garden, and this very restriction of the completed image is irresistible. That’s why I paint. A painting is a place, a region, a space that flexes inwards or extends forward, spits in the face of the visitor or embraces them warmly. And, like the hortus conclusus, painting forces you into introspection, for ultimately it carries a reflection of the world in itself. My reflection.

'Why do painters still paint? To me the reason is clear. Because the world is flat,' wrote Marlene Dumas.8 I lock the door of my studio behind me. For days I wander around and observe the flat world.  I read the newspaper, take the train to my birthplace, make a pilgrimage to Zeeland, to the places in my favourite film 'Kan door huid heen' (Can go through skin), my parents’ house and, while I walk around, the memories resurface. Fear, grief, love—all those recognizable feelings, those dangerous words, the quicksand of art.  I go to my only brother—who would rather not see me, but I ring his doorbell anyway—and go straight to my aunt in Bergen op Zoom. I know the landscape and enjoy the vastness, the silence, the birds and the sea. And so I encircle the emptiness in my soul that is cloaked by my body and limbs. I travel the rest of the world using the keys on my computer keyboard. I take all the fragments with me to my studio, a suitcase full of photos and pictures, all collected images. My picture atlas.

‘Why paint pictures?’ repeats Barry Schwabsky like a mantra in the 2006 book The Place I'm Coming From by Victor Man. Yes, why transform a picture into a painting? Because the image is such an indispensable part of the memory; the pictures are the anchor points on which we hang the past. I recognize my mother’s face from the photos. The house where I lived is a faded colour photo from the 1960s. Images cast a net, a net that tries to capture the past or makes us realize how impossible that is, because the past always eludes us. Yes, remembering is a falsifying process, violent. Every time we make a new construct of that past. 'What is important about the images is the sense of familiarity they convey, of deja vu,’ writes Barry Schwabsky. Yes, this is what Man means, 'I rather let myself be constantly surprised by things around me, images which I empty of any kind of content (which is necessary so that I can formulate a new one), and use them as bricks in a building. They serve a purpose, which is beyond themselves.'9

We have a tendency to leave out what we don’t understand, to deny the existence of mystery. I cast my net to capture the non-understanding. To connect with my own past and to encircle the loss. I go to work amid my pictures, full of memories that I sharpen with my found image library. There in the studio, stars appear again on a small piece of canvas. The canvas sucks up the cosmos, times tumble over each other, memories crowd around and my work becomes green and squelchy like the Amazon jungle. Places and locations full of thoughts and feelings. An image of time, which makes me realize that the sun is nothing but a star amid millions of other stars in the universe.

This essay is written by Hanne Hagenaars for the Koninklijke Prijs 2014. Winners of this Royal Prize for Painting prize are: Niels Broszat, Koen Doodeman, Bob Eikelboom en Jessica Skowroneck

Sources:

1 Jordan Kantor , The Tuymans Effect, Art Forum. 2004
2 A photo by Stephan Vanfleteren, 2008
3 This orchid features in Luc Tuymans’s work
4 Luc Tuymans, ‘Ik wil schilderen zonder deemoed', Bianca Stigter, NRC Handelsblad, 1995
5 Tim Ingold, Being Alive, Routledge London, 2011
6 Iain Gale, Pierre Molinier, The Forgotten Surrealist, The independent, Thursday 4 November 1993
7 Victor Man, If mind were all there was, on the occasion of The Lazarus Protocol, Transmission gallery 2011
8 Marlene Dumas, The World is Flat, On painting, De Rijksakademie, 1990
9 Quote from a conversation between Victor Man and Gianni Romano,  Contemporary-magazines, http://www.contemporary-magazines.com/interview82.htm 

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