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.
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.
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: