From te publication
Balance between reality and perfection
Ruud van Empel (1958) is a versatile artist. He has already enjoyed a broad artistic career as a décor and theatre designer, graphic designer, and filmmaker. He has worked on various television productions as an art director, and in 1993 received the Charlotte Köhler Award for his television work and other associated activities. In the early nineties he began to present his artistic work to the general public, creating collages of plants, animals, flowers and trees, mounted in large forest landscapes that he had previously photographed in black-and-white. This black-and-white collage was then photographed once more to create an even whole. When the possibilities of Adobe Photoshop (= processing photos with the aid of a software package) became available, he could adapt his collages further.
From the mid-nineties onward, he devoted all his endeavour to art photography, developing his images in thematic series. In this way, several series have been generated since 1995: The Office, Study for Women, Study in Green and, more recently, World Moon.
Since 2002, he has been working a great deal with nature and, in doing so, he has definitively found his present-day characteristic visual language: photographic works with an unbelievable clarity of colour, rich in detail, with intriguing representation, and a fairytale ambience. Children often feature prominently in his images. Ruud van Empel combines forms on the computer and assembles pictures that deceive our perception. His work balances between reality and perfection. They are magical-realistic images, as it were, a cross between narrative painting and staged photography. The artwork that Ruud van Empel finally presents to the public seems harmonious and self-evident. The sophisticated viewer will suspect that intensive work has gone into the photo work presented, but the definitive image looks extremely refined. To gain a good insight into the photography of Ruud van Empel, it is useful to review the major external influences from painting and photography on his work.
Sources of inspiration
Ruud van Empel experiences painting as an important impulse. Accordingly, it is essential to deal with the work of several painters and draughtsmen who have formed a point of reference for him. His unremitting interest in painting is remarkable for an artist who completely devotes his energy to the medium of photography. The work of several of the painters he admires furnishes an outspoken stimulus to create exciting photography. He is inspired by the realism of painting and the recording – a moment captured in paint – of people in an exceptional environment.
For example, he is fascinated by the direct realism of the German painter and draughtsman Otto Dix (1891-1969), who works extremely intimately with his models. It seems as if Dix wishes to conquer the figures portrayed. In his depiction of heads and bodies, both the attractive and the abhorrent are presented, a bold combination that Dix manages to fuse into a convincing whole. The portraits of his parents and friends, as well as the commissioned portraits, occasionally give an ironic and grotesque impression. They are always incisive images. He manages to uniquely typify sensitive topics such as newborn babies, children and the elderly, as well as charged images of cripples, whores and pimps. Dix is an exponent of the realistic painting that was common in the Weimar Republic. Beauty was simply inextricably linked to ugliness. The direct human side of Dix’s work appeals greatly to Ruud van Empel.
Another trail-blazer who fascinates him is the Norwegian painter and graphic printer Edvard Munch (1863-1944), who imbued his work an oppressive psychological layer. Ruud van Empel is also a great admirer of the late work of Walter Spies (1895-1942). This German artist began his artistic career in Moscow and Berlin. At 28 years old, Spies decided to travel the world. On his wanderings he reached Java and later the island of Bali, where he experienced the life style of the population, the culture, and the landscape as Paradise on Earth. During his lengthy stay on Bali, he painted and drew this enchanting island in a naive magic-realistic style with an unprecedented eye for detail. While the natural representation is hallucinatory, the panoramic perspective in the composition has been recorded in an admirable way. Surprising features are the perspectivist vistas to which the viewer’s eye is automatically drawn, and the atmospheric portrayals of the landscape that evoke a longing to participate in this enchanting scene. A common element in the work of Spies and Van Empel is the use of dramatic lighting, alternating with enigmatic shadows and the entrancing character of a fairytale world.
To gain access to the core of Ruud van Empel’s work, it is also necessary to focus on a few artists who have inspired him within the discipline of photography. These include several comparatively unknown pioneers from photo history, who made a distinct personal development in relative isolation. The photographer Mike Disfarmer (1884-1959), of German origins, portrayed the population of the mountain village of Heber Springs in the American state Arkansas in the period 1939-1946. These are authentic photographic portraits of normal country people dressed up in their Sunday best for the occasion. They are standing in a standard pose, without backdrops, looking directly into the camera. The portraits are soberly shot in regular daylight. The models are reproduced in all their simplicity in a somewhat unflattering manner. Disfarmer is regarded as one of the most important precursors of American portrait photography. The photos are penetrating and poignant in their self-evidence. The subjects radiate a natural dignity that even occasionally looks gracious. This respectful depiction of introvert, nameless models, is also a quality that can be discerned in the work of Ruud van Empel. Just as in the work of Disfarmer, his photos also show dignified and unpretentious people who symbolize a timeless image of humanity.
The Francophone photographer Norbert Ghisoland (1878-1939) works with more staged images. In the twenties and thirties of the last century, he portrayed the population of the town of Frameries in the Wallonian province of Henegouwen. He photographed his models on festive occasions: taking their first Communion, celebrating an anniversary, at sports events, playing music, playing a theatre role. To create a more attractive ambience when portraying children and family members, he placed his models in a theatrical setting. Playful in its approach, this staging works very endearingly. There is no false bottom, and the emotion, although it has been staged, is genuine. The interaction between the models portrayed and their staged environment is also a striking feature of the work of Ruud van Empel.
The German August Sander (1876-1964) became internationally renowned as a photographer primarily for his large-scale project Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts(People of the twentieth century). His mission was to record the real person behind a specific profession. He produced documentary photographic portraits of people without masks, without trimmings, who provide evidence of a hard existence. With his portraits, Sander aimed at transcending individual identity in order to present an archetype of a person engaged in his profession. The people portrayed are real people, albeit anonymous. They are the symbol of a human image, similar to what Ruud van Empel also produces.
In the past few years, the human figure, surrounded by abundant nature, has formed the central theme of the photography of Ruud van Empel. He has a preference for placing innocent children in the foreground. They look as if they have been unexpectedly transplanted there from the game they were playing. They pose for the camera in exemplary fashion, as if they are aware that their portrait is symbolic of the naïve idyll of youth.
The individual components used to construct the work have often been photographed with backlighting, which intensifies the colour intensity. Large lotus leaves form a pattern of sun yellow, bright green, and olive green. Due to the extraordinary light, all the details are visible in their full glory. The incidence of light, in association with the composition, furnishes the presentation with an astonishing radiance. The child is positioned in a full-frontal stance and is emphatically present. It is at rest and waiting for what is about to happen. Its body language speaks simultaneously of timidity and alertness. But the viewer is also tentative and is a witness to an extraordinary scene which evokes a feeling of poignancy. In compositional terms, the photographer has created a perfect construction, everything is under control. Life has come to a halt for a moment. The child resembles a statue. A kind of silence reigns, indicating that this is not an everyday situation. The natural posture of the youthful figure incorporates a mystery. In this context, it seems as if a leafy aureole appears above the heads of some children.
The entire scene has something artificial about it. The abundance of motifs is striking. Just as in medieval miniature art, every detail has been meticulously elaborated. Every small facet presents itself in the foreground, as it were, everything has been placed at the right spot. Regardless of how exotic the presentation seems, the viewer nonetheless receives the impression that this outdoor scene is taking place in an enclosed space: a brilliant drama in a clear interior space, like a tropical glasshouse. You are looking into an artificial world in which life is on showcase display. The magic of suggestion has been achieved by means of photography.
The girls portrayed in the ‘Study in green’ series are white and exemplary. The young child in a red-orange flowery dress evokes an emotional response. The schoolgirl in the white Sunday dress poses in a manner that was customary in the static portrait photography of the fifties. The attentive-looking child in a blue dress has a large reader under her arm. They all seem to be transported to an enchanted forest. This is a well-known fact from children’s literature. The vulnerable child is lost in the ominous forest and the helpless creature is subject to the dangers of the inhospitable darkness. Nevertheless, it is not only an oppressive world that the artist presents to us here. The wood seems frightening but it is not really dangerous. It is a kind of interior wood where the animals peacefully co-exist. This must have been the way it was in the original Paradise. Despite the presence of caterpillars and beetles, no leaf is tainted. Nature thrives abundantly. Flowers and fruit show themselves at their most favourable. In the distance, a fox or deer gazes into the camera. This alertness is a part of the character of the animal, there is no reason for anxiety. There are no pitfalls or threats in an idyllic landscape. A girl surfaces playfully in the water amid the scale-shaped leaves of the Victoria Amazonica. All living creatures have walk-on parts in a timeless representation of natural beauty.
With a fascination that calls to mind the passionate experience of art and nature of the 18th-century Palace of Wonders, Ruud van Empel delights in recording the splendours of nature in all their variety. His work has an exciting stratification that can be interpreted in different ways.
The attractively clothed young girls pose in white dresses like real little princesses. At the same time, they are somewhat wary, they have an uneasy look. To which psychic pressures are they exposed? The whiteness of their dresses evokes a feeling of vulnerability, but also expresses strength and protection. The cleanness and purity of the dress are symbols of the innocence of youth. The artist has recorded such finesses in an inventive manner.
The realm of World Moon (2005-2006) is populated by dark children. Van Empel now concentrates on the dusky, mysterious appearance of the tropics. The intensity of the dark skin and the penetrating white eyes give an exceptional allure to the faces. In this representation, the artist was inspired by the expression of the impressive bronze shapes that were found in Pompeii and Herculaneum. The figures are coated with a black patina, with inserted, luminous white glass eyes, which gives them an enigmatic look.
In their innocence, the dark children possess great dignity. They are a symbol of the perfection of Creation. The artist shows us an idealized picture of ingenuous beauty in a secluded world. He visualizes something that is actually unattainable.
Ruud van Empel shows himself to be a true perfectionist in the development of the required form of expression in his photography. In the process of composing his images, he works precisely and methodically. The construction of faces and bodies does not happen by means of an advanced computer program, but rather by a personal, labour-intensive approach. He works in a craftsmanlike way, concentratedly seeking and experimenting, until he has found the right power of expression. He is led by artistic considerations alone. Subtle image manipulations are applied with a feeling for psychic influence. The result emanates an improbable power of representation. It is a successful combination of digital photography and magical painting. Ruud van Empel demonstrates that he is capable of articulating free representation in the medium of photography. The exuberant nature is abundant and yet simultaneously artificial. Fairytale and reality can be conjoined. He creates intriguing images that evoke partly idyllic, partly sinister associations. Whatever the case, they are certainly images that induce genuine emotions.
Frank van de Schoor
Curator Modern Art Museum Het Valkhof