A personal quest

Publications / Press >> Text by Kees Verbeek


Particularly in somewhat older art you keep falling over the skulls, blown out candles, withered flowers and fallen glasses. All of them vanitas motifs, meant to remind viewers of the transience of life and the certainty of death. Musical instru- ments do not always refer to cheerfulness, for the music is gone as soon as it has faded away. In the 16th and 17th cen- turies bubbles were popular and the aphorism homo bulla est was frequently chiselled in gravestones: man is like a bubble. We all know what happens to a soap bubble: after a merry but brief glide it bursts. The resulting small puddle of moisture will evaporate quickly. All is vanity.
Memento mori: remember that you can die. Most paintings executed in the vanitas style were meant to admonish to austerity, and in some cases as an urging to live it up.
In 2011, book critic Carel Peeters observed in Vrij Nederland that vanitas still lifes are no longer necessary nowadays. The daily news with its tsunamis, earthquakes and other disasters ensures that we are perfectly aware of the precariousness of our existence. And in 2016 AD we have to superadd the fear of terrorist attacks. The NOS TV-news dishes up our daily portion of vanitas and as viewers, Peeters says, we should consider ourselves fortunate – despite all the day-to-day bad news – that we have not fallen victim to finiteness. Yet.
Ruud van Empel's vanitas still lifes are not intended as a moral call. Neither to austerity, nor to cheerfulness. Nor can they be interpreted as invitations to relief, because despite everything we still exist. Van Empel gives an account of his quest for his personal transience, his development from child to man, the lost visual culture of his childhood, the first tokens of his artistry. He introduces us to the objects, the drawings, the photographs that have survived. Things, inci- dentally, that are likewise experiencing the ravages of time.

The twofoldness of past and present

‘Time is the rotation of the earth, the day and night cycle, and because it's rotating everything is destroyed. That rotation in itself slowly but surely causes the destruction of everything if we fail to maintain it. I'm not sure that's true, but that's my theory. Our cities will probably decay in a couple of hundreds of thousands of years if we leave now and don't bother about them. That's an interesting picture of transitoriness.'
In his spacious study in Amsterdam I am talking to Ruud van Empel (Breda, 1958) about his three series together called Vanitas: Souvenir, Still Life and Souvenir d’Intime. We have a view across a messy part of the city. Water with houseboats, a row of seventeenth-century Dutch-gabled houses, a drawbridge, a Montessori school and the cheer- less office block of market researcher TNS-NIPO. The decay has not visibly set in yet. The older premises have probably been restored dozens of times. The NIPO buil- ding had perhaps better be left to the rotation of the earth straight away.
How such a process can work is evident in Varosha, on Cyprus. Forty years ago Varosha was a fashionable sea- side resort. With its white sandy beaches, turquoise sea and historic town centre it was among the most popular holiday destinations on the Mediterranean. Film stars such as Paul Newman, Liz Taylor, Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren were favourite guests here. Until the Turkish inva- sion in 1974.
Residents made a hasty escape from the town on the assumption that they could return within a week. But the Turkish army locked up hotels and churches and fenced off the beaches. Varosha has been a ghost town and no man's land ever since. No entry.
‘It notched me fascinating pictures. Delapidated hotels and restaurants, garages with cars from that period, on a bar a bottle of Coca Cola, completely eroded away into a volcano- like object, clothing half mouldered away. All very interes- ting as pictures to work with when I'm making still lifes about vanitas, about transitoriness. Everything is still the way it was when people left it behind and yet everything has changed in forty years' time. With no one touching it, no one doing anything. Transitoriness is an autonomous process.'


Van Empel became conscious of his own mortality at some point in his thirties. The fact that his younger sister died in 1992 may have been a major factor: 'Before that time I was totally unaware of it. Not a single thought or feeling of the kind. But little by little it became a reality, particularly after my mother died in 2007. That was when I started to give myself more time to think about it. It results in fascinating images, but at the same time mortality is unreal. And you can't live according to it as a basic principle. Everything becomes futile when you fix your attention on it all the time. There's also a future.'


In 2008 Ruud made the series Souvenir, which sketches a picture of the environment he grew up in: an apartment on Beverweg in Breda. 'They're photographic reconstruc- tions of the kitchen, the bedroom, the living room. I've photographed each object separately and used the pic- tures afterwards to make these photographic collages. They're not reconstructions in the literal sense, but rather evocative images. But they're our objects all right. The Buisman tin in the kitchen, for example, I actually found in our parental home. There's nothing from a car boot sale. But now that you see everything again, there's no denying that there was a lot of ugliness in those days. My parents used to go places, biking to Moerdijk for example, 40 kilo- metres further down, and bought souvenirs. The house was full of them, there was no such thing as waste. I even found a tin of baby powder from those days. The lino from the apartment was still at my father's place. And furniture from that time in the attic. Rather ugly, but still our furni- ture. Perhaps the ugliness of those years played a decisive role on my taste later on, I don't know. But it's a fact that I'm not mad about modern and that I loathe design. Clothing from the 30s, 40s and 50s I find more attractive than today's casual stuff. It's got more style. I made a series of nudes last year and I like to put one of those old- fashioned wallpapers in the background. When I leave the background white, which would be a lot more modern, the picture would be completely different but not by definition better or more beautiful.'


In 1966 the Van Empel family moved to a terraced house in Ypelaar, a suburb of Breda. It was definitely an improvement, three times the size of the apartment and a lot more room to play outside. Yet, somehow, the old apartment continued to play a part. Not in those initial years, but later on: 'It all started when I was about twenty-two. I don't think there was a particular reason. When I rode past on my bike, old images were stirred up. Later on I went there with no idea, really, what I was expecting to find. As soon a I saw the front door, lots of things from the old days came back to me, things I wasn't particularly looking for. Not very clear, either. Atmospheres, moods, vague images that tended to evaporate just as quickly. Proust writes about it, in À la recherche du temps perdu, calling it the madeleine effect.' Madeleines are small cakes with a shell-like shape. Proust relates how the narrator, when visiting his aunt, dips a madeleine in his scented tea. He has not experienced that taste for a long time. It activates his memory and slowly recalls a childhood memory to his mind. Proust calls it the mémoire involontaire, the involuntary memory, to contrast it with the mémoire volontaire, the memory produced by putting conscious effort into remembering it. One might say that the mémoire involontaire, triggered by association, connects you with deeper layers of your past, of your personality. This is called the madeleine effect.
In an episode from 2000 of the documentary TV series Van de schoonheid en de troost ('Of Beauty and Solace'), neurophysiologist Gary Lynch describes a similar expe- rience. At the insistence of colleagues, he watches an episode of the MTV series Beavis and Butt-Head. Slightly bored, until one of those two adolescents makes the umpteenth minimalistic joke. This lands in his memory and connects with what he himself calls the young Gary. He split his sides laughing. He used to make the very same jokes when he was a boy! So that lad still exists and Lynch, going on for sixty, experiences it as solace. Ruud: 'To me it's not so much solace. It's proof, rather, that I'm still the same person, that past and present converge, that you are the sum of time and experiences. And that it hasn't all gone. When I think of my childhood, it seems like one long summer holiday, with a lot of peace and quiet, and lightness. Obviously, there were dark things too, but the pink clouds prevailed. That's what inspires me. A search for what is over for good, but what must still be around somehow. What I would have loved best is that my parents had turned the key, back in 1966, and left the whole apartment – furnished and all – as it was, so that we, with that key....'

Preserved history

Van Empel mentions an apartment in the ninth district of Paris, near the Folies Bergères, Place Pigalle and the Musée de la Vie romantique, where – among other things – a plaster cast of Chopin's left hand is kept. Before WW II this was the apartment where Marthe de Florian lived, a demimondaine with well-to-do lovers and an extravagant lifestyle. After her death in 1941, her granddaughter took up residence here. Not for long, though, for because of the German invasion she took refuge in the South of France in no time, where she was to stay until her death in 2010. As she kept paying the rent over the years, no one in Paris really noticed her absence and the apartment was left untouched for almost seventy years until her heirs went to have a look.
‘Unfortunately we can only have a look inside by means of photos. Photography is a way of preserving the past. You can see what's in the small bookcase, or in the drawers, the powders and scents on the dressing table, a big cuddly Mic- key Mouse, a stuffed ostrich. It's not quite clear, everything, for there's a thick grey coat of dust, but bygone times are still quite perceptible. It's like being in Pompeii or Hercula- neum. Without a dust layer, but thanks to the ashes from the Vesuvius, of 79 AD, one of the best-preserved Roman cities, with a tangible past. You can feel the years that have gone by. Spectacular! Tchernobyl must be like that, although that's a completely different story. When I was confronted with all the old things after my mother died, I realized you're getting older. That one day everything will be over. That's the vanitas feeling, I think. It's about time and an intangibility that you try to grasp nonetheless, so that you can learn and focus. Perhaps it teaches you how to get on in the future. I think it does, although I can't quite explain how. But then it's curiosity rather than wistfulness or nostalgia. Past and present are a twofoldness.'

Still Life

After Ruud had visualized the landscape of his childhood years in 2008 – the same year when the apartment block was demolished – the walls of his study were hung with the Souvenir photographs for a spell. And because they had been given a place, the past could also find a place: 'It was all right and I could leave it behind.'
It was not until six years later, in 2014, that Van Empel actualized the theme of transitoriness in the series Still Life.
Not in the light of his own history, but with traditional images. Carefully staged rotting fish, offal from a market in Barcelona in a chilly, tiled white space, a fetus in aqua fortis. The stuffed animals are artificially kept alive beyond death in a museological setting, but even there time catches up with them, decay sets in, the monkey's fur starts to give off fluff. Stuffing the animals is a mere delay – time is implacable. At the end of the day they will all fall victim to that rotation of the earth. Dust will intrude into the limbs, the same way as dust covered Varosha on Cyprus, and the apartment in Paris. Those hundreds of things that Ruud van Empel found in his parents' furnishings will likewise fall victim to dust. That's what it starts with.
The bubbles refer to the maxim homo bulla est, which was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries and was immortalized in numerous prints: man is like a bubble. It is also found on gravestones. In this context, Erasmus writes that 'nothing is more fragile, transitory and empty than human life, which is therefore like a bubble in water, disappearing as quickly as it appears'.

Souvenir d’Intime

Meanwhile there are still those three removal boxes full of all sorts of things from his parents' two homes. Including lots of things that were moved from the Beverweg apart- ment to Ypelaar, and were subsequently stored in the attic: 'Things you hesitate to throw away when you clear out those houses, but you're not sure what to do with. Things that you put away. Just in case. But sooner or later you'll have to be sorted out. Particularly now that I was keeping on at transitoriness. What struck me is how lovingly they had kept an incredible lot of things. My sketchbooks, a box with love letters from a girl in the first form of the primary school. About 3,000 photos. Some of them still in their frames. Some were faded, which in itself is a wonderful reflection of transitoriness. Stuff from my dis-abled sister, teeth, hair clippings. I had it all somewhere, waiting for me sort it out. I felt I had to.' To his surprise, Van Empel found a few dozen self-portraits in pencil in the sketchbooks. From the time when he was a little lad to his early twenties, just before he graduated at Sint Joost in 1981: 'I had no idea they were still around, but I can recall I made them. It was a matter of practising. Training for taking a good look and reproducing what I'd seen. Of course, I could have asked my brother to pose for me, but he wouldn't have had the time, I'm sure. So then you decide to be your own model. I remember very well how I was always up and about with a mirror to have a good look at myself as a model. I think that's what Van Gogh did, too, when he wanted to test a new painterly view and couldn't afford a model. Usually I wasn't very happy with them, though. Eyes too big, nose crooked. It's the only way to learn: try, try, and try again. Together with the other drawings they show the genesis of my artistry.'

Mom and Dad

Four of the ten works of Souvenir d’Intime directly concern Ruud's parents. Mom and Dad are portraits, but not in the traditional sense of the concept. Both works are composed of objects that were typical of them in one way or another. Like the balls of wool and the GPO cap, for his mother liked knitting and his father was an electrician for telephone ex- changes. The other two, Linda and Soldier, tell stories about special circumstances in their lives. Linda was Ruud's sister, and had multiple disabilities. She was born when he was twelve, and was admitted to an institution, where mother visited her three or four times a week to look after her. She died in 1992, before she was twenty-one. Father was nineteen when he was drafted into the army to take part in the colonial war in 'our Indies', called 'police actions' in this country. To him it was one long holiday, he said later. After all, he was an electrician and never had to wade through paddy fields or prowl about the jungle, where he could be pounced on any moment by a so-called terrorist (read: freedom fighter).

New reality

Like Ruud van Empel's earlier work, nothing in the three series of Vanitas is what it seems. They are not installations photographed as such. Van Empel photographs each ele- ment separately and later assembles them into a whole. Sometimes he adjusts the formats, as in the drawings, which in the work are all more or less the same size, as opposed to their actual size. This way a new reality is created. The question is for how long: 'We know when it comes to analogue photography. It has a limited life span. But in terms of digital photography, we'll just have to wait and see.'

Kees Verbeek
December 2015

by Ruud van Empel. All rights reserved.