We are just a few

Hitchhiking to Antwerpen set a new record for how many cars I needed: Münster – Lichtendorf (near Dortmund), – Remscheid, – Aachen, – Genk, – Hasselt, – Antwerpen; six in total. In Belgium I was dropped at ramps instead of ser­vice sta­tions, and not at very lively once, yet both times picked up with­in five minutes.

trip-2018-04-01-antwerpen We are just a few
Spring awaken­ing in Antwerpen

When wait­ing for ten or fif­teen or thirty minutes at the German ser­vice sta­tions I had a strong impres­sions that the same faces were passing by again and again and again. There was one couple in Lichtendorf that I’m sure I’ve seen in at least a dozen dif­fer­ent cars, occa­sion­ally at a dif­fer­ent age or with the man driv­ing for once, but oth­er­wise clearly the identic­al people over and over again. In Remscheid it was a nervous woman with a bowl cut that sat behind sev­er­al steer­ing wheels. None of these mul­tiples bothered to stop, all my drivers were unique and I’m inclined to believe that’s a gen­er­al rule.

The gen­i­al sep­tua­gen­ari­an between Aachen and Genk who had four grey­hounds in the boot and eye­sight so bad that he needed me to read all road signs on the way, who happened to be born next to my mum’s tiny vil­lage and to live near that of my late grandpa and who had no clue what­so­ever where Genk lies and how to find it might be described as “unique” just as well as the busi­ness IT bloke between Lichtendorf and Remscheid who in the entire con­ver­sa­tion nev­er used a single line that didn’t seem to have been labor­i­ously mem­or­ised from a script.

I’m still unde­cided wheth­er or not there are unique people. I’m rel­at­ively cer­tain that ninetyso­mething per­cent of every­one have one of prob­ably – let’s say: less than 50 dis­tinct per­son­al­it­ies that turn up over and over again, as if we were in a film with sev­en bil­lion char­ac­ters played by about 50 act­ors, some sort of giant com­media dell’arte. The small rest, how­ever, puzzles me: Are they just less-obvi­ous instances of the same 50 cat­egor­ies or do truly unique people exist? If you go on to pon­der this prob­lem I’d recom­mend avoid­ing to look at people too close to you. It’s the events shared with them that you’ll regard as unique rather than their per­son­al­ity. After a while, though, you’ll see it. I’ve even met one or two dop­pel­gängers of my par­ents. None of myself, but that’s nor­mal, I’m the most unqual­i­fied per­son in the world to clas­si­fy myself just as every­one else, respect­ively.

The phe­nom­ena of lookalikes at ser­vice sta­tions is a spe­cif­ic one than that of the gen­er­al per­son­al­it­ies. In our real­ity I haven’t noticed it so often; in paint­ing, how­ever, it sur­faces quite often. Once you have estab­lished a good rela­tion with one mod­el it seems a great way to save time and labour to have it stand in for sev­er­al char­ac­ters in the same pic­ture. Historically that would have been appar­ent in sequences rather than single pic­tures, nowadays people like Grützke incor­por­ate it as a fea­ture in itself. Incidentally, I’ve pro­duced some­thing sim­il­arly minded this February, even if I hadn’t been think­ing about any com­plic­ated the­or­ies there but rather just wanted to try out some grim­aces.

look-at-thyself We are just a few
“But Look at Yourself”, oil on can­vas, 40cm x 40cm

Right now I’m plan­ning a small etch­ing in an even more Grützkean spir­it: a leth­ar­gic screen-addict sit­ting in a pan­de­moni­um of lookalikes try­ing to pull him out into the sun. Hopefully I’ll get it done quickly; cur­rently I’m hav­ing way too many irons in the fire. Three canvases that for­tu­nately all have to dry for a few more days so that they can­not dis­tract me for the time being; two more that are still wait­ing for prop­er under­draw­ings; one etch­ing plate whose fur­ther fate depends on tomorrow’s test print, one planned album of quick’n’small etch­ings and last but not least the Plus Ultra draw­ings that I haven’t con­tin­ued for weeks now. Another new idea revolves around cob­bling togeth­er a rack that’d let me fasten wet paint­ings to the bike. In short: It’s too much, I really ought to fin­ish some of these odds and ends before adding any new pro­jects to the pipe.

Having spent the winter indul­ging in extreme chiaroscuro the focus of my interest has now moved on circa fifty years, to the Dutch concept of houd­ing. As its non-trans­la­tion here and in the rel­ev­ant lit­er­at­ure sug­gests it eludes strict defin­i­tion, that’s because there’s no com­plete agree­ment about what exactly con­sti­tutes houd­ing – so take the fol­low­ing with a grain of my own sub­jectiv­ity. The gen­er­al task of fig­ur­at­ive paint­ing through­out most ages is to sug­gest a three-dimen­sion­al space on a more or less flat can­vas, and there are sev­er­al ways to do that. Simplifying a great lot one might say that in Renaissance per­spect­ive was the meth­od of choice – not just for build­ings, but in the more gen­er­al sense of how to pos­i­tion fig­ures and objects –, while man­ner­ism and baroque went, per­haps less subtly, for light and shad­ow in order to mod­el a sur­face. Houding might be seen as a uni­fic­a­tion of these approaches. It’s more com­pos­i­tion-ori­ented than chiaroscuro on its own but more col­our­ist­ic than per­spect­ive. It is: to paint every fig­ure and object so that it seems to be exactly at the right depth; to both make it stand out from the back­ground and have it con­nec­ted to its sur­round­ings at once.

Compare two group scenes by Caravaggio and Rembrandt. One of my per­son­al favour­ites, The Vocation of St. Matthew, and the fam­ous Company of Frans Banning de Cocq, bet­ter known as the “Night Watch”. Caravaggio’s groups often look like fig­ures on a stage. Even when they are dir­ectly inter­act­ing there seems to be some bar­ri­er between them, and hardly ever do they really seem to be on dif­fer­ent planes. Three-dimen­sion­al­ity is stronger in each par­tic­u­lar fig­ure (often aston­ish­ingly so) rather than the pic­ture as a whole. That is not to say there are no com­pos­i­tion­al prin­ciples in the over­all pic­ture, only that they are rather abstract (aim­ing for a “har­mon­ic” impres­sion) and less con­nec­ted to the sub­ject mat­ter itself. One might eas­ily cut a pic­ture into two or more pieces and get some still fant­ast­ic paint­ings. The ori­gin­al whole will have been more than the sum of its parts, but not as enorm­ously much more than a com­plex Rembrandt sub­jec­ted to the same pro­ced­ure. Neither is it to say that Caravaggio wouldn’t have been able to achieve depth through oth­er means than chiaroscuro, only that it was one of his main interests.

Rembrandt on the oth­er hand uses chiaroscuro not only to mod­el indi­vidu­al char­ac­ters or to dir­ect the view­ers eye to this and that high­light, but moreover to give every fig­ure its appro­pri­ate place, with back­ground char­ac­ters reced­ing into the twi­light instead of the whole theatre being illu­min­ated. More gen­er­ally, Rembrandt allows him­self the lux­ury of a back­ground to a great­er extent, of course not as an end in itself but in order to emphas­ise the fore­ground. Houding also means to give the air a cer­tain weight. This works both on the grand scale (as you’d see it in the Early Dutch paint­ers“ dis­tant blue moun­tains) and the tiny: In the Night Watch, zoom in onto the blue-and-white tas­sel on van Ruytenburgh’s (the one clad in yel­low) hal­berd in the very front: only cen­ti­meters apart, its front is dark­er and more sat­ur­ated than the fringes. Successful houd­ing can require com­plex recipes: Forget about the well-known rule that a picture’s light parts stand out in front of dark­er ones. Look at Cocq, the cap­tain in the centre: His dark browns and blacks clearly appear in front of the illu­min­ated woman in the back­ground, spa­tially speak­ing. To me this seems very obvi­ously to have been Rembrandt’s express intent: Cocq wear­ing one glove on the right hand, car­ry­ing the oth­er in it only adds to the dark­ness, a situ­ation that could have been reversed eas­ily.

So houd­ing is all about con­text: No light nor dark­ness, no sat­ur­a­tion nor milk tone, no flat­ness nor relief can be used as a short­hand for “near” or “far”, but will mean either depend­ing on their neigh­bour­ing areas.

So much for paint­ing, I’d bet­ter get back to the etch­ing pro­ject men­tioned above. How to exper­i­ment with dif­fer­ent fig­ure com­pos­i­tions without a ton of sketches? Well, a quick trip to the hard­ware store was everything I needed:

stick-figures We are just a few

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