Wednesday, 15 July 2009

On Intensely Dutch @ AGNSW

I've often wondered whether the triumph Abstract Expressionism, the moment when America became the motive force of the art world, could only be possible in a country with such a relatively unheralded canon of painting. Did Picasso, Giacometti or De Chirico feel such a need to engage in the visual histories of their cultures that they could never abandon figuration entirely? What then of the Dutch? Their old masters have been so comprehensively identified with the social and economic particularities of a certain historical moment that they are an almost parallel history of a nation. It must be tough coming after the 'Golden Age'. "Intensely Dutch", a significant and quietly publicised retrospective of Dutch abstraction at AGNSW reminds us brilliantly that artistic traditions need not cripple later generations.

Domestic genre painting, watery landscapes, still life and memento mori, there are hints of all of these here. The psychic geographies and vivid landscapes of Corneille, that we meet on the way in, are a striking introduction. His paintings balance between big emphatic blocks of colour and ramshackle cellular forms that seem human in scale against them, as in 'Le Grand Voyage du Grand Soleil Rouge (The Big Red Sun's Voyage)'. It's easy to see how this was an influence on the work of John Olsen, although the palette here firmly sets us in a Northern city. Much of the work here is firmly rooted in emerging urban landscapes. While Corneille's shapes solidify out of blocks of colour Constant, in a number of works from a decade long project 'New Babylon' constructs a skeleton for an imaginary world, left an ambiguous mesh of lines for its inhabitants to flesh out.

The CoBrA group of painters and poets are at the core of this exhibition and named after the conflux of avant garde groups from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, of course they had a manifesto:

"Our art is the art of a revolutionary period... and the herald of a new era... it is the expression of a life-force that is all the stronger for being resisted, and of considerable psychological significance in the struggle to establish a new society. ... a painting is not a composition of colour and line but an animal. a night, a scream, a human being, or all these things together"

For all the revolutionary blather it is interesting that CoBrA is not formally exclusive, like so many art movements, and is all the better for creating a broad church rather than an ideologically narrow sect. Willem de Kooning is the clearest bridge between American and European abstraction, he is also an inescapable influence here, particularly on Karel Appel, the other better known name here.

The historic moment that these works spring from might explain some of their vibrancy. Like the Nouvelle Vague of French cinema there is a sense of mischief at play here, the notion that, post-liberation, the way we connect with others matters. This might explain why so much of the work feels so different in tone from the solipsism of American abstraction. The collaborations here between painter and poet, notably and beautifully Constant and Jan Elburg's 'Het Uitzicht van de Duif' (The Prospect of the Dove) 1952, point toward an art that embraces rather than escapes from community, even as it addresses the dark shadow of post war Europe.

Other painters, Lucebert in particular, were accomplished poets in their own right. His work looks like it might have germinated from the memory of an earlier European expressionism but forged his own particular iconography. His twisted animal forms seem to be scratched out of some surrealist subconscious. The skull faced dog in 'Dierentemmer (Animal Tamer)' is immediately unsettling, it seems to have scratched itself onto the smeared concrete of the background . It seems entirely unlikely that this animal is ever brought to heel.

As you pass through the exhibition you are filled with a sense that so many of these artists have a joyous relationship with paint, with the possibilities its weight and texture and surface affords them. This physicality makes the show feel very immediate and relevant, it transforms an historical oddity into living breathing experience. Jaap Nanninga's matted surfaces almost suck the light from the bright gallery. Jan Wagemaker's big accretions of sandy calcified paint might be personal deserts or moonscapes. In works like 'Les Traces' 1962 half recognised objects and chalky paint appear to wrestle one another to break through the surface of Wagemaker's canvasses. Bram Bogart sculpts whole primary coloured reliefs out of paint, pulling and carving the works are solid blocks of paint which, like the giant yellow and white block of 'Daybreak' force the way off of the walls and into our space. Striking and vivid they might be artist's totems to the cult of pigment.

Like Gaugin, Miro and Picasso artists who seek to describe something more than physical surfaces have reached for primal imagery. Again and again we recognise human and animal forms, and each time they resonate deeply at the level of archetype. De Kooning's jagged teeth appear like some inner monster in both his and Karel Appel while Constant's 'L'Animal Sorcier (The Animal Sorcerer)' might be a cave painting or a the shadow of a voodoo rite. This embrace of the primitive is not stylistically novel, but makes perfect sense here. You get a sense throughout of artists using paint in an urgent rush to find a language for a new world, it is no surprise that they should look to the most basic prehistoric symbols in search of it.

There is something rude and untamed about 'Intensely Dutch'. Like Appel's ' De Wilde Jongen (The Wild Boy)' it is barely controlled somewhere between sinister and mischievous, abstract and figurative. The energy of paint and imagination overcomes the polite earnestness of mid-century dogma and makes this an exhilarating and revealing exhibition.

1 comment:

  1. Between this post and the ABC Arts Show i am thinking I must go see this show. great reading thank you!