From te publication
Portraits without a Face
Ruud Schenk wrote (exh.cat. Groningen, 2011):“Ruud van Empel makes lifelike portraits of people who never existed”. Since 1995 Ruud van Empel (Breda 1958) has been making photographic work, carefully composed using Photoshop. Working from his Amsterdam based studio, which is packed with all kinds of items for dressing up and other paraphernalia, his now impressive oeuvre was born. There is a vast database with numerous categories he can choose from when creating the composition of his photographic work: blue or brown eyes, blond or red hair, thin or thick lips, a daisy, or a palm tree in the background. The possibilities are endless. The compositions are surgically constructed, as a real horror vacuï, in which each element is picked and only added after much deliberation. The tiniest details from different digital images are put next to each other, thereby creating a new photographic reality. Fragments of lush nature photos, in which light and shadow play an important role, suggest an almost paradisiacal locus. The curiosity about the exact location of these places remains unanswered. The people who are depicted in the digital photographs are too perfect or sometimes peculiar. The search for their identity is a useless activity.
The assignment given to Ruud van Empel to create a photographic image of thé only real Vincent van Gogh (Zundert 1853-1890 Auvers-sur-Oise), seems at first glance a strange one. Ruud Schenk’s earlier quote about Van Empel’s work is hereby corrected. Van Gogh certainly existed.Vincent van Gogh is probably the most well-known artist in the world. From childhood on we are confronted with reproductions of The sunflowers, The night cafe, or The potato eaters in the classroom or grandmother’s living room. For years the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has been one of the most popular museums in the Netherlands. In particular, the works of art Vincent made in the south of France are iconic. The volatile viewer can hardly be surprised by a lesser-known work of the Dutch artist. This is the result of the superfast mediatization and digitalization. The fascination and love for the relatively small oeuvre of Vincent van Gogh also inspire many to search for the man behind the work. The combination of the selfportraits and the diaries has created a cult of true heroism. The romantic idea of the misunderstood creative genius is confirmed again and again. We see this in the many ‘biopics’ that were published and released in the last decade. Vincent van Gogh is always depicted as the man with the spiky hair, the red beard, the sharp features, and of course the cut-off ear. Time and time again his character is described as that of a somewhat surly, obstinate, and often mentally unbalanced man.
All-in-all there are thirty-nine self-portraits by Vincent van Gogh that we know of. These are paintings as well as drawings. Then there is one portrait photograph of the artist. In it, we see a flabby nineteen-year-old young man with light curly hair. Despite the rather consistent image and the often stereotypical way people think Vincent van Gogh looked like, the artist turns out to be literally a man of many faces. The young man from the province of Brabant in the picture does not look at all like the man we see in the self-portraits made in the south of France. There are also great differences between the paintings and drawings in the way in which the man was captured. Certain facial characteristics where enlarged or forgotten. Surprisingly enough Vincent van Gogh appears to be an unknown person after all.
There are therefore sufficient reasons to drop the question of what Vincent van Gogh looked like. But let’s not forget the Dutch ‘photo-artist’ Ruud van Empel, who has enthusiastically taken up this challenge. The fact that there is a lack of sufficient source material, and it is therefore impossible to create a correct representation of the artist is not hindering him in the least. On the contrary, Ruud van Empel’s working method fits in well with this investigation. Like the imaginary landscapes and people in Van Empel’s other work, this Vincent van Gogh can also be labeled as imaginary. The quest for the artist’s perfect look-alike has become not only a vain attempt but also an unnecessary one. To create these photographic compositions Ruud van Empel often uses one of the existing painted portraits as a starting point. The Van Gogh we now see is molded, cut, glued, colored, etc. into a skilled and unique portrait. The result is nine portraits, in Van Gogh’s style. We see the man frontally, in profile, from the left, and the right side, but also Van Gogh painting in the wheatfields.
Ruud van Empel also investigates the medium of photography and history of photography in these portraits. One of these Van Gogh portraits refers to the very first photographic techniques, a daguerreotype. This method was developed in 1837 and it ensured that photographs could be developed on a large scale. This process in which a polished silver plate is prepared with mercury vapors, yields positive mirrored images. One of the other portraits uses the photo-chroma eilers technique, named after the Dutch photographer Bernard F. Eilers (Amsterdam, 1878-1951). This technique consists of three negatives being placed over each other, so that bright areas of colour are visible along the sides of red-yellow-blue. Nothing is what it seems, even when using these techniques. The photo work is created on Ruud van Empel’s computer where every detail is meticulously studied and recorded. The physical work process has thus shifted to a mental exercise.Ruud van Empel’s new series of photo works remains true to the principles of his exceptional oeuvre. Deborah Klochko put it into words like this (exh.cat.Groningen, 2011) : “Van Empel’s virtuosity lies in his ability to combine the kind of ideas that are expressed in the paintings (historic references, the expression of the eyes, use of color) and cinema (structure with multiple images and the power of a story) into photography, and to do it on a large scale”. He creates paradisiacal worlds, inhabited by characters of an apparent authenticity. Nevertheless, the attentive viewer intuitively feels that something is wrenching in the photo works. The self-portraits of Vincent van Gogh created by Ruud van Empel highlight both the grandness of his photo art and a reverence for the oeuvre of one of the most important artists of the nineteenth century. This has resulted in a series of unique portrait photographs of a man without a face.