From te publication
Ruud van Empel and the painterly tradition
When viewers are confronted with a photograph from Ruud van Empel’s latest series entitled World, they will feel that the picture coincides with the world as they know it. The series has been composed of what we call ‘realistic’ visual language, a visual language that enables immediate recognizability. There have been two previous occasions in the history of humanity when artists systematically attempted to establish concord between their ‘pictures’ and the visible world. This occurred in Ancient Greece and in Europe at the time of the Renaissance. And since then, too, this intention has undoubtedly been one of the most important, if not the principal, drive behind the development of visual art. Van Empel’s work is unmistakably deeply rooted in this European tradition, regardless of how modern his work and the advanced computer-based technology with which it has been created may appear to be.
In his Historia Naturalis, which is the only source that we have on the visual art of the Greeks and Romans in Antiquity, the Roman author Pliny the Elder recounts that, for an important assignment for the city of Grigenti – a painting of the goddess Hera – the renowned painter Zeuxis had the women of the city parade naked in front of him so that he could choose the five most beautiful. He subsequently selected the most attractive parts of the anatomies of these five models, which he finally compiled to form the ideal female shape. This myth allows us to draw two conclusions. Not only that Greek artists imitated nature, but also that nature should be improved. In fact, this idea can be traced back to Aristotle’s notion of Mimesis, which he recorded in his Poetica. To Aristotle, imitation is a selective process in which selection only works in confrontation with that which is selected from nature. Accordingly, beauty is obtained a posteriori, in an inductive manner.
If we take Van Empel’s working method for Studies for Woman as the starting point here, we observe a clear analogy with that of his Greek precursor Zeuxis. His female bodies are also a construction, albeit from hundreds of small fragments of realistic images of models that have been meticulously fused into one unit. In this way, Naarden Studies 14 consists of elements of no fewer than 100 [200?] different photos.
The analogy with ancient artistic practice reaches even further. An important moment in West European painting arose when, in the early Renaissance, the gold-leaf background of paintings made way for painted backgrounds with figuration. The appreciation of the expensive and reflecting gold leaf eventually succumbed to appreciation for the craftsmanship of the artist. The erstwhile contracts between the customers and the artists indicate the degree of appreciation for the realistic presentation of all kinds of motifs that filled the background of a composition. For example, a contract with Ghirlandaio summed up the many motifs by means of which this Italian painter could display his skills in a painting that was to be realistic and as varied as possible: ‘… human figures, buildings, castles, cities, mountains, hills, plains, rocks, robes, animals, birds, and all kinds of other creatures’. These motifs formed the building blocks or the main ingredients of a composition. In those days, the quality of a painting was determined by the degree of realism and variation with which these visual motifs were painted. For reasons of efficiency, the artists had model books with samples of frequently recurring motifs that could be varied according to the particular requirements. A little later, we see that the paintings of fellow artists were used for the same purpose. The knack was to borrow from others in such a way that it was not immediately noticeable. This borrowing from others was so commonplace that even major painters such as Rembrandt and Rubens used it on a large scale.
Anyone allowed a view of the images stored on Van Empel’s computer will encounter an almost infinite series of self-recorded motifs, divided into categories and subcategories. His image directory is actually one vast book of models from which he can draw for his compositions as he pleases. Whereas van Empel initially borrowed from all kinds of different sources, he later adapted this way of working and now uses exclusively his own material.
Besides the above-mentioned Aristotelian theory of art, there is also a Platonic theory. In the latter, beauty is an a priori entity. In the sixteenth century, people spoke of a gift from God. Beauty was, as it were, embedded in the brain of the artist. These two theories are not quite so diametrically opposed as is occasionally argued. The Aristotelian theory of art also presupposes an a priori knowledge of ideal nature. After all, how could the artist otherwise be able to select the most beautiful parts from nature?
The old concept of an ideal of beauty that must be a priori present is currently enjoying renewed interest in socio-biology, a science that deals with the biological basis of the behaviour of humans and animals, with particular attention being devoted to evolutionary aspects. Socio-biology, nowadays also referred to as ‘evolutionary psychology’, has demonstrated that a great deal of our aesthetic appraisals have a genetic basis. Van Empel’s preference for the female figures of the German painter Lucas Cranach – and he is not alone here – is primarily related to the fact that the figures are idealized to a certain extent, or, in other words, that they have been made supra-normal by subconscious genetic guidance. As a consequence, these figures gain enormously in attractiveness. In two works from his World series, we see how Van Empel has packed his original model into a Cranachian straitjacket, a true tour de force in technical terms. The idealization not only applies to the figure here but also to natural setting in which it has been placed. The idealized, supra-normal nature is also a feature of the entire Worldseries. The unspoiled disposition and exuberance of the flora and fauna serve as the backdrop for ‘innocent’ children and young, budding virgins.
The fact that many of the children in his compositions have a dark skin is a facet that cannot remain without comment. Although it is self-evident that a child’s skin colour is not important, the iconography of the innocent child was traditionally represented by ‘white’ children. The earliest examples of this date from the early seventeenth century. These are portraits in which children are captured in an idealized, pastoral setting. It is a genre to which the children’s portraits of the German artist Otto Dix, a source of inspiration to van Empel, refer. In deviating from the standard iconography by giving the child a dark skin, Van Empel inadvertently assumes a political stance. After all, this child is still the focus of discrimination and its innocence is not recognized by everyone as being self-evident. The most pregnant image from this World series is undoubtedly the one of the girl whose black skin contrasts sharply with the dazzling white of her dress.
Ruud van Empel clearly occupies a place in a painterly tradition. In procedural terms, there are important correspondences but there are also major differences. Paradoxically, Van Empel does not have to be able to draw and paint, because he generates his compositions in a digital fashion. The co-ordination skills that a painter had to acquire in bygone days have made way for an ability to work rapidly and efficiently with Photoshop, where the possibilities of this program must be used to the full. However, the final result is what ultimately counts, and that is where the boundaries between Photoshop and painting once again blend together.
Jan Baptist Bedaux