Once upon a time (EN)

Publications / Press >> Text by Deborah Kochko (English)


Has the wordly paradise ever truly existed? Is childhood really the most carefree period in one's life? And what does 'real' mean in this context? Ruud van Empel portrays lifelike people who have never existed, children who look the spectator straight in the eye, and nature that is almost too beautiful to be true.

Picturing Eden

World#1 by Ruud van Empel adorns the cover of the Picturing Eden catalogue, which was published to accompany the exhibition of the same name in the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. A timid black girl, in a spotless white dress and with a bunch of white flowers in her hand, poses patiently in a densely foliated but very attractive portion of tropical forest. The warm green light, the soft mossy ground, beautifully coloured details such as a flower or a tortoise, lucid dewdrops on large succulent leaves: yes, this could be a small cut-out of the Garden of Eden, the paradise from which Adam and Eve were banished.

The work of most other artists in Picturing Eden is much less idyllic than that of Ruud van Empel. Curator Deborah Klochko wrote about the exhibition, which was restricted to the medium of photography: 'Picturing Eden is about perceptions of the garden as an Eden – not a natural environment but a manipulated, fabricated place. Our banishment from Eden was the end of innocence. The introduction of photography brought an end to the age of visual innocence. I am interested in photographers who turn their cameras to these manipulated environments and then take it a step further – not even dealing with reality.'

There are at least three cases of lost innocence here: paradise lost; the photography that presents the world as it is and not as we would like it to be; and the 'garden', the nature all around us, as a constructed, manipulated environment. Klochko actually mentions a fourth step away from innocence: the photos of that manipulated environment by the artists selected here are themselves often manipulated. None the less, Klochko does not regret the loss of paradise. By eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Eve took her fate into her own hands. She decided to explore life herself. The alternative would have been a permanent stay in an unchanging situation – an endless amount of the same.

Everyone, perhaps with the exception of a true purist, accepts or recognizes the fact that all photographic expressions are manipulated in one way or another these days. The degree of processing that Ruud van Empel applies, however, is so radical that his work encounters a great deal of resistance from many specialists in the medium. He constructs his photographic works from countless details taken from other photos. He photographed the large leaves in World#1 separately, as he did with the flowers, the drops of water and the insects. Van Empel's photographic works are both reserved and abundantly detailed, and deal with a wide range of human emotions and yearnings: from angst and uncertainty to dreams of everyday happiness and pure beauty.

These were all carefully extracted with the aid of the computer and added seamlessly to the new image. Even the girl consists of samples of photos of various children ( van Empel has photographed a large number of children specifically for this purpose ), and her dress has been processed with the aid of the computer to match exactly what Van Empel wants. Nothing is left to chance, the entire picture has been built up out of a vast number of fragments and formed into a single image in an extremely labour-intensive process of trial and examination, time after time. The working method resembles that of a painter who creates his work layer by layer with separate brushstrokes, rather than that of a photographer who more or less adjusts his picture by means of a computer program.

'Thomas Struth meets Henri Rousseau – how's that for a formula?' wrote an American critic about van Empel's work. This comparison is justified, not only because van Empel has achieved a new synthesis between photography and painting but also because the reference to the work of le Douanier Rousseau draws attention to a striking correspondence between Rousseau and van Empel, namely, the combination of a certain 'naivety' and, in a formal context, a certain 'flatness' of image. In the case of Rousseau, the flatness of image is clearly expressed in his later paintings of jungles, where there is scarcely any distinction in depth between figures in the foreground and figures in the background. This would become one of the important themes of painting in the twentieth century: in painterly terms, the 'background' is just as important as the 'foreground'. Painting became increasingly uniplanar. In works by Ruud van Empel, something remarkable is happening, which becomes more obvious when you see these works next to other photos. Partly due to the detailing, lighting and colour intensity of his works, the figure and the surroundings are equally prominent in the 'foreground'. The extraordinary aspect is that this effect occurs while van Empel nevertheless simultaneously instils depth in his work by means of perspectival vistas, depth contrast, and effects of light and shadow. In his detailing, he is thus far from 'modernistic', and tends toward the Flemish Primitives. In that respect, the formula of 'Rousseau meets Rogier van der Weyden' would be just as accurate.This stratification not only exists in formal but also in content-related terms. In Picturing Eden , Deborah Klochko stated that a completely 'innocent' look is no longer conceivable. On the work of Van Empel she wrote: 'The wide-eyed children in Ruud van Empel's photographs are in a pristine, but sinister realm of nature. There is something hidden behind every tree and under every leaf. This new Eden is not as separate from the real world as we might hope.'

The Uncanny

The menace that Klochko feels here is also present in van Empel's earlier work, although that is completely different in its nature. For example, curator Han Steenbruggen wrote that the series entitled The Office, dating from 1998, evoked sentiments that 'are difficult to clarify, but certainly have something to do with deeper-lying anxieties'. The series consists of black-and-white photomontages, created with the aid of the computer, in which a man ( very occasionally a woman ) looks at us from behind a desk in full-frontal view. Van Empel set about this work in the same way he did when he still made traditional collages with scissorsand glue, and used ( sections of ) photos from magazines from the forties. The characters in The Office are surrounded by a collection of similar objects or pictures, such as books, machine components, artworks or objects or symbols that are more difficult to define. Although the people behind the desks have something reserved about them, it is generally not the common subservience of a salesman that radiates from their posture. In contrast, they tend to look rather threatening. The intimidating spread of objects seems to symbolize the power that they could exert over us: the engineer with a whole arsenal of machine components, the scientist with incomprehensible formulae, the art dealer with enticing artworks. The atmosphere, certainly in the darker works in the series, brings to mind stories by Kafka.

In Study for Women, and several related series, van Empel applied the montage technique for the first time to create human figures. In these series, a young, slender woman is presented against an alienating background, sometimes in semi-darkness. The women are clearly posing: they look with anticipation at the photographer, aware that their bodies and facial expressions are being recorded for the eyes of others.As a viewer, you feel that there is something not quite right in this presentation of the women: they do not seem completely life-like but are more of a mixture of real women and shop mannequins. This generates a certain unease, a discomfort that evokes what was described as 'das Unheimliche' (the Uncanny) at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The first person to define this concept was the German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch, who published an article entitled 'Zur Psychologie des Unheimlichen' ( On the Psychology of the Uncanny ) in 1906. In this, he described the feelings of uncertainty that arise when objects or situations that seem to be familiar suddenly accommodate a new or strange element. This is most strongly expressed in the doubt as to whether a living being really has a 'soul', and vice versa, whether a lifeless object perhaps has a 'soul' after all, in one way or another. As an example he mentioned wax figures in the gloom and life-size dolls which seem to move of their own volition on the basis of a mechanical system. Jentsch's article became famous primarily because Sigmund Freud argued against it in his own essay entitled 'Das Unheimliche' in 1919. Freud defined the concept according to his own notions and much more specifically than Jentsch. He stated that 'das Unheimliche' only occurs in adults if suppressed experiences from one's childhood are stirred up, or if apparently curbed convictions from more primitive developmental phases of humanity ( such as animism or angst for the evil eye ) appear to be latent in an individual.In 1993, the American artist Mike Kelley realized an exhibition called The Uncanny for the Gemeentemuseum Arnhem, a project that he repeated in slightly altered form in the Tate Liverpool in 2004. The exhibition was partly inspired by the ideas of Jentsch and Freud, and displayed a varied collection of figurative sculptures, life-size dolls, anatomical models, as well as photos of dolls, such as the grotesque Sex Pictures that Cindy Sherman made with the aid of anatomical models. In comparison to Kelley's rather rigorous preferences, which attempt to descend deep into the human mind and physical experience with the assistance of objects and dolls, these photomontages by van Empel are much milder and more idealistic. They are definitely not as bizarre or threatening as the works that Kelley included in The Uncanny, but here, too, the boundary between imagination and reality has been blurred, and a feeling of unease can nestle in the mind of the spectator.

The forest

By around 2003, van Empel had achieved a high degree of perfection with his labour-intensive technique of making photomontages. Although the spectator is aware that a certain image cannot be photographed in a single shot, it remains impossible to discover the 'welding joints'. The human figures that van Empel represents ( exclusively children from this point onward ) look as if they have been taken from real life; the somewhat wooden character of the Studies for Women has van-ished completely. The first series in which he reached this magical new unity was Study in Green, a series of forest-scapes. They are teeming with details: thick tree trunks, each with a typical pattern in the bark, irregular roots, wild berries, insects, flowers, mushrooms, a beetle, a snail. Each point in the work displays something new, but only if you prolong your look; only then do you see the fox's snout in the distance or the ant in the foreground. Every detail has been photographed at its most favourable and although van Empel does not wish to present a dissonant anywhere in the picture, it is not only comfort-zone artistry. On this subject, Pieter van Leeuwen wrote: 'We see the best experiences, as it were, of a long walk in the woods in one compressed picture. Despite this euphoric angle of approach, spectators utter totally different sounds. Instead of attractive deciduous woods, they see scary primeval forests in which danger lurks behind every tree.' At a second glance, the shadows do seem rather deep…

Traditionally, the dark forest is regarded as a dangerous place. This angst reaches back to the time in which people first began to develop agriculture: the open field was cultivated and was familiar and trusted, whereas the surrounding forests formed a disorientating world full of unknown hazards. In the forest, you were outside society, as it were. In depth psychology, the forest is regarded as a symbol for the subconscious, which harbours sinister forces we prefer not to know. At the opening of The Divine Comedy, Dante finds himself in a dark forest where he is overcome by anxiety. Subsequently, he has to descend into Hell to eventually reach Heaven via Purgatory. In fairytales, woods usually represent a threatening world: Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel go there to meet their fate – fortunately they manage to survive. In contrast, the woods form a place of refuge for Snow White because she can make friends with the dwarves.

In this context, we are startled if a small girl, staring at us with big round eyes, suddenly appears next to a huge tree, as is the case with Study in Green #2 ( 2003 ). On the one hand, the forest in which the girl is standing is dark and impenetrable but, on the other, it also contains charming details such as the small flowers and the fresh green leaves at the spot where she is standing. In this way, the manifestation of the girl can be interpreted ambiguously: as the representation of innocence, the focal role that van Empel assigns to children from this moment onward, or perhaps as an elf that has not yet decided whether she is going to deal with us benevolently or malevolently. Of course, the interpretation is to a large extent dependent on the spectator. To one group of people, large forest ants, as presented in Study in Green#17, are frightening creatures, whereas others may be fascinated by them, like the American writer Henry David Thoreau. In the mid-nineteenth century, he retreated into the forest for two years to cast off the chains of civilization temporarily. Full of love and admiration, Thoreau could watch almost uninterruptedly what was happening in the forest, including the tasks and wars of the ant colonies, which he wrote about with great powers of observation and involvement in Walden ( 1854 ). In the series that Van Empel made after Study in Green, called Untitled, there is always a little girl somewhere among the trees. Although the woods are now a good bit lighter, with much more slender trees, an alienating discrepancy is invariably tangible in the setting. The pose and dress of the girls calls to mind the photos that parents make of their children in their communion outfit ( in the Roman Catholic Church, children go through their First Holy Communion at the age of 7 or 8 years, after which they may participate in the eucharistic celebrations ), but such photos are generally taken in the garden or in a well-laid-out park, not in the depths of the forest where the expensive new clothes could easily become dirty or damaged. Dressed in this way, a girl would not dare to go into the forest alone.

Paradise revisited

In the voluminous series entitled World, and its nocturnal pendant Moon, the menace that lurked in the cold northern woods is almost completely absent. Here we see tropical forests, small lakes with clear water and blooming water plants – a warm, pleasant ambience in which life is most agreeable. Actually, these beautiful settings seem to be situated in the protected atmosphere of a tropical greenhouse or a trusted garden rather than in wide, raw nature. In that sense, they harmonize with an age-old tradition of the depiction of paradise. In complete correlation with this tradition, van Empel attempts to emphasize the beauty of nature as much as possible. He achieves the breathtaking wealth and intensity of colour by working with backlighting when photographing plants and models so that the leaves are almost fluorescent and the colours of the models and their clothes acquire great depth. Occasionally the works seem to refer almost literally to art-historical examples. The posture and expressions of the naked girls in Venus#5 to Venus#8 strongly evoke the way in which Eve is portrayed in European art, from Lucas Cranach to Henri Rousseau. With only one difference: they are black.

In 2007, the art historian Jan Baptist Bedaux wrote about van Empel's use of black models: '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 seven-teenth century. These are portraits in which children are captured in an idealized, pastoral setting. […] In deviating from the standard iconography by giving the children 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 whiteness of her dress.'

Van Empel was pleasantly surprised by the positive reactions that he received from the black community in the US when several works from World were displayed in Rochester. After that, questions did emerge from the 'politically correct' corner: why is a 'white' artist portraying so many 'black' children in his work? Van Empel, who lives and works in multi-coloured Amsterdam and actually wishes to make no distinction at all, is not seeking controversy but, on the other hand, is not out to please. Even with all the beauty and tenderness in his work, there still remains a slightly discomforting element: a 'different' significance that skulks just under the surface, a question that remains unanswered. The black girl in Moon#7 has bright blue eyes, the girl in Moon#1 the eyes of a cat. The two boys in World#32 are standing arm in arm, as if they are going to be married – or are they perhaps twins? Some children linger dreamily by a pond, but most of them pose stiffly and hesitantly in clothes that are much too neat for playing and horsing around. Yet other kids stare at us from the water into which they seem to wish to retreat at any moment.


With Souvenir in 2008, Van Empel created a series in which concrete objects from his own youth are the focus of attention. The direct impulse for this series was the death of his mother. When clearing out the house he came across many items that evoked recollections from his childhood. Regardless of how tangible these objects were, the years of erstwhile family life had irrevocably vanished. The exceptional status of Souvenir was emphasized by the fact that Van Empel wrote a short poem to accompany each of the six works.

At Souvenir#1, for which he photographed a child that resembled the boy he himself once was, dressed in the kind of clothes that he had to wear then, he wrote: 'It was dark / This could be me, at about 6 years old / Playing with my marbles / The original curtains were drawn.'The other five sections of the series are still-lifes of objects that are connected to a certain stage of life or a room in the parental home. For example, Souvenir#2 concentrates on items linked to birth and the first few years of life, such as birth tiles, a tin of baby powder, rattles, discarded milk teeth in a box. Souvenir#3 is an arrangement of artistic products produced by the family: paintings made by the youthful Ruud, clay figures by his brother Erik, and a painting embroidered by his mother. Souvenir#4 presents a number of objects that refer to the time that his father served as a soldier in the former Dutch East Indies, and 5 and 6 are displays of objects from the kitchen and the living room, respectively. The last photo is accompanied by the text:

'These objects have been around me all my childhood / I used to hate them, now I feel attached to them / This could be the sideboard in our living room / I want to throw them away, but I can't.'

The items were all photographed separately, as were surrounding elements such as the curtains, wallpaper or tablecloth, and subsequently compiled to form a single image with the aid of the computer. In terms of intensity and intimacy, the still-lifes call to mind the paintings that the Dutch artist Dick Ket made of objects in his immediate surroundings in the twenties and thirties. Ket was also emotionally linked to the items that he used for his still-lifes and by means of which he represented a spiritual philosophy of life in a reserved way. On the basis of van Empel's series, the story could be told of civil life in Roman Catholic Netherlands in the sixties, the story of safety and sanctuary, of increasing prosperity, of shared values and experiences, which is recognizable to a whole generation that grew up in those surroundings at that time. Besides collective memories, of course, there are always the private ones, and the poems accompanying Van Empel's works suggest that a shadow may have hung over his youth, which is not further explained. The way in which each of the Souvenirs is arranged induces associations with small altars: meditations on transience and, as such, a completely personal variant on the seventeenth-century Vanitas still-life.


In the three works of Generation, the fictive children return. Now they are no longer alone or in twos in an idealized setting in nature, but in a large group against a sober background, arranged for a classic school photo, as it were. Keeping in mind the discussions that his photos unwittingly provoked with respect to 'race', Generation#1 consists mainly of 'white' children ( with one exception ). Generation#2 consists entirely of 'black' children, and Generation#3 of 'Jewish' children. In doing so, van Empel demonstrates both his provocative and his idealistic sides: to a greater extent than as a homogeneous group, all the children here manifest their individuality, accentuated by the unique combinations of colours and patterns in the clothes of each one. In turn, the many faces are compiled of parts from many more faces, which makes them real and fictive in equal measure. Much more than a normal school photo, which only has depth and significance for those who know the children shown and perhaps their paths through life, these works tell, at a more universal level, about the crucial stage in life in which young people have to remain afloat in a large peer group. They are engaged in forming their identities in relation to one another, full of expectations about their futures. It is not a single moment in time that is being shown here, but many moments compressed into one image: a panoramic group photo in which each child forms a central point.

Curator Modern Art
Groninger Museum

by Ruud van Empel. All rights reserved.