From te publication
Ruud van Empel ‘Making Nature’
The longing for unspoilt nature has been a major theme in the arts ever since Romanticism. It was, from the late eighteenth century onwards, a response to the upcoming industrialisation, the rapidly expanding cities, the societies more and more efficiently geared to economic gain. And a response to the worldview of Enlightenment, in which the emphasis on ratio and science put pressure on human emotions. In nature the romantics sought beauty, serenity, and the feeling of being connected to something bigger – even if it was only in thought, in imagination, in a work of art. Contemporaries sometimes trivialisingly described them as sentimental dreamers, yet romantics touched upon something that the modern sense of life has been impossible to imagine without since: the importance of the subjective experience of reality, the blossoming of the individual, resistance against the conformism of society. In fact, they can therefore be considered the founders of modern art.
In one of the most-renowned English Romanticism poems, Ode to a Nightingale(1819) by John Keats, the first-person narrator is deeply moved by the singing of a nightingale. It conjures up a desire to, just as the nightingale, fade far away into the “forest dim”, far away from “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” caused by living in this busy society. He even imagines how he could die peacefully while listening to the nightingale’s tune, which has been comforting those full of sorrow since time immemorial. In the eighth and final strophe, opening with the exclamation “Forlorn!”, he regains his composure and his imagination quickly fades. The nightingale’s melodies drift off in the distance and the poet wonders whether it was all just a dream.
Keats supposedly wrote this poem whilst sitting beneath a tree. Perhaps he actually heard a nightingale sing at that time. The remainder of the poem, however, is about things that entirely occur in his inner self and are fuelled solely by his feelings and his imagination – the imagination he refers to in his poem as “deceiving elf”. The enchantment he could briefly cherish, the comforting illusion of disappearing in the greater whole of everlasting nature, evaporates again.
A romantic who actually did retreat to a forest, was the American writer Henry David Thoreau. In 1845 he built a cabin in the woods by Walden Pond, not far from his place of residence, Concord in Massachusetts, to live in solitude in nature for a longer time. He was one of the so-called transcendentalists, the group of thinkers that, led by Thoreau’s friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, preached an elevated – from today’s perspective perhaps somewhat exalted – outlook on nature and on the autonomy of the individual. They were convinced of the intrinsic goodness of humankind and nature on which they considered the effect of societal institutions to be largely corruptive. In their opinion, the individual is at its best when as close to nature and as self-supporting as possible. In his 1836 essay Nature, which marked the beginning of the movement, Emerson wrote that in nature, he feels united with the Universal Being. When walking through the forests and fields, he feels acknowledged by the plants: “They nod to me, and I to them.” He realises that to experience this feeling of happiness, the right state of mind is essential, for nature does not always gets you in a holiday mood. The same place you, figuratively speaking, saw forest nymphs frolic yesterday, can be covered in melancholy today. “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”
Thoreau described his experiment of living in the forest in solitude as an expression of protest against society, which he was permanently at odds with. Accordingly, he for example refused to pay tax to a government that preserved slavery and waged war with its neighbour Mexico. He discussed this in his 1849 essay Civil Disobedience, simultaneously coining the eponymous term for the first time in history. By means of living in the woods, he aimed to demonstrate the small amount of money one can get by with if one were to build a house and grow vegetables oneself. About the more than two years he lived at Walden Pond, he wrote Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854). In this book, critical reflections about life in modern society are alternated with intense observations about nature and soul-searching. Initially, the book barely got a response. Whereas his older friend and fellow-villager Emerson was a well-renowned author and speaker throughout America during his lifetime, Thoreau was regarded as a rather impractical outsider hardly to be taken seriously. Posthumously, however, his stay at Walden Pond grew into a downright American myth.
The heroism of Thoreau’s experiment (“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life…”) has been somewhat in dispute. His cabin was a 45-minute walk away from his native village and he allegedly went to visit acquaintances for dinner or even went home to sleep regularly. Nevertheless, this has not prevented his books from having inspired many in subsequent generations (among others Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King) and him being considered an important precursor of the environmental movement.
A Dutchman Thoreau’s message particularly appealed to was writer and psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden. In 1898 he founded a commune on an estate near Bussum he named ‘Walden’. As it was based on socialist ideology, intellectuals and workers were to farm and make a living together. The commune would also serve as a retreat for psychiatric patients. The ideals were noble: instead of squabbles about money and having one leader, the residents were to live a sober country life with manual labour, study, and decisions that were taken collectively. Outsiders were sceptical from the outset. Despite internal quarrels and financial problems, the colony still existed for eight years, until it went bankrupt in 1907.
More than ten years before he founded Walden, and long before he read Thoreau’s book, Van Eeden wrote Little Johannes (1887), a novella in which he gives shape to his love of nature in a fairylike manner. Johannes lives with his father in an old house with a large garden. Sitting in a boat in the pond at the end of the garden on a warm summer night, he dreams about what it would be like to be able to fly. A blue dragonfly comes up to him. It is the elf Windekind, who is able to bewitch Johannes in such a way he becomes so small they can fly through the woods and over the lakes together. They meet all kinds of animals, as ants, crickets, and rabbits, but elves and dwarves too. He finds out that they all detest humans, who keep trampling and destroying everything. Johannes wants to stay with the animals forever, but the bewitchment wears off as he is increasingly absorbed by the world of the grown-ups. It is the allegorically told story of Frederik van Eeden’s own coming of age: of the sensitive child, instilled with a great love of nature and a strong imagination, who has to learn to cope with life’s inescapable disappointments. Eventually, Johannes accepts the loss of childhood innocence, but he does not become cynical. Instead, he decides to be a good human among humans.
Whether Ruud van Empel feels an affinity for this nineteenth-century story of Little Johannes and the elf Windekind, I do not know at the time of writing. I was reminded of it when I saw his recent series Floresta and Voyage Pittoresque, which seem to have been made almost literally from the perspective of a low-flying dragonfly. The magical beauty of these flower and plant worlds only really exist in fairy tales – or in a child’s imagination? In that regard they are in line with the fictional child portraits Van Empel rose to fame with. These children were also surrounded by paradisiacal environments, which have developed in even more detail and lushness in his recent nature works.
They have romantic characteristics: idyll, idealism, sentimentalism perhaps. Yet there is a certain friction as well. Despite the fabulous virtuosity these nature images are composed with, the awareness that they are not ‘real’ remains patently obvious. There is an ironic edge, an almost satirical exaggeration that undermines the sentimental perception. Some panoramic forestscapes from the Collage series conjure up the same eerie feeling that distinguishes Van Empel’s earlier work, whereas some of the smaller pieces in this series, as Collage#2, have an abstract feel about them.
This ambiguity also manifests itself in the exhibition’s title: Making Nature. For those who are familiar with Van Empel’s modus operandi, the reference with regard to ‘making’ will be clear: the digital collage technique he developed and meticulously refined, in which small fragments from photographs (all taken by himself) are ‘cut’ and seamlessly merged into new images. This method is, as far as I know, truly unique.
Talking about who in the art world he feels affinity for considering his nature work, Van Empel comes up with surprising examples: Walter Spies, a German artist who painted on Java and Bali practising a somewhat naive style; the American nature photographer Eliot Porter, generally known for his photos of trees; the Canadian landscape painter Emily Carr, who combined an early modern style with Indian influences. And Disney’s Bambi. Of this 1942 film the use of the, at that time only just invented, multi-plane camera, which enabled the creation of a strong sense of depth in animation films, particularly stuck to his mind.
Van Empel has never been concerned about what is considered mainstream in the art world. Regarding form as well as content he has always been going his own way. In this context, I cannot resist quoting Thoreau, who famously wrote: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” Following this metaphor, Van Empel is the composer of his own visual symphonies, sonatas, and nocturnes.