A heartfelt longing for that other world
Ruud van Empel in Museum Belvédère
During the first years of its existence, Museum Belvédère explicitly focused on the traditional art disciplines – painting, drawing, and printing – to only after some time devote space in thematic exhibitions to photography as well as video art. In Improvisations on Wind, Water, Wadden in 2015, On the Spot in 2017, and Oasis Oranjewoud in 2018 for example, classic and modern disciplines were interwoven. In 2012, 2016, and 2018, the museum also was the main stage of the annual photography festival Noorderlicht, during which it displayed painted responses to documentary photographs.
It was only to be expected for these projects to be followed by the first solo exhibition of a ‘non-painter’. Accordingly, we had been thinking about inviting Ruud van Empel for some time, because he creates his photo works using modern computer techniques based on long-established image principles originating from the art of painting. His sceneries result from a long process of combining and arranging separate image fragments and meticulously setting compositions to tone and colour. When the artist, following international successes with his series World and Portraits, shifted his focus to landscape and nature without human presence – a subject matter in accord with Museum Belvédère’s focus of interest – we immediately offered him our main exhibition room.
The exhibition Ruud van Empel – Making Nature contains a selection of thirty photo works; carefully composed ‘computer montages’ in which nature, both above and below the water surface, is featured in sublime beauty. Like in his previous series, all separate motifs – trees, plants, and flowers – are modelled in front view and on reality and subsequently spread throughout the image. In the more panoramic photo works, this results in nature impressions that seem hyperrealistic yet display perspectivic abnormalities – a tension the images derive their mystifying atmosphere from. In series as Floresta Negra, in which Van Empel ‘seals’ the image by covering it with flowers or leaves, this atmosphere is realised by means of a sultry chiaroscuro, stirred by a light source that is untraceable yet evidently situated within the reach of the image. In some Floresta Negra works the leaf patterns are set aside for a moment and an additional twilight realm between reality and imagination, actuality and dream reveals itself. Even though his work may seem different in character, in this regard it bears a resemblance to Jan Mankes’ painting, which is so well represented in Museum Belvédère’s collection. Like Mankes, Van Empel feels the need for intense concentration on individual motifs, seeks beauty in sober themes, relates reality with imagination and occasionally nearby with unreachably further away. However for Van Empel, unlike Mankes, this does not stem from a philosophy of life coloured by religion, from the idea that the higher truth reveals itself in everything that occurs within and beyond our scope of perception. In the nature images Van Empel presents in Making Nature the atmosphere of fantasy derives especially from the reflection of moods, of a heartfelt longing for that other world in which reality conforms to imagination and things are still permeated with enchantment.
In Making Nature Van Empel simultaneously refers to human interference in nature – the latest technologies that enable modification of organisms’ appearance and character until nothing is what it seems anymore.
Ruud van Empel is one of the most important Dutch visual artists and he is frequently represented with photo works in international exhibitions. We are grateful to him for being willing to show his newest series in Museum Belvédère and publishing this accompanying publication. Also on his behalf I would like to thank Ruud Schenk, curator of modern art at the Groninger Museum, who put Van Empel’s work into art historical perspective in an illuminating essay. The production of the exhibition was made possible by Bernard Ruijgrok, the firm Wilcovak and P.W. Janssens Friesche Stichting
Han Steenbruggen, director Museum Belvédère