Mrs. Potiphar

Years ago I bumped into an aquaintance who wanted to know what I was working on. I told her it was a series about Potiphars wife. “Oh, that bitch!!!” was her reaction. I nearly burst into tears. “She is not a bitch!” I always get terribly attached to the characters I photograph. And they are never bitches.

It’s a nasty story, that of Zuleika. For that was her name. She was married (arranged, of course) to Potiphar, a fat old flabby – I imagine – top dog in Pharao’s court. When Joseph appeared there, she fell hopelessly in love with him. The boy was such a conceited, spoiled little brat that his brothers had thrown him into a well. They meant to teach him a lesson – they even considered killing him. In the end they sold him to a passing caravan, which is how he had ended up at the Egyptian court. Officially as a slave, but it wasn’t long before he landed a job as confidant of the pharao. A whole year long he paid daily visits to Zuleika, flirting like crazy probably, but never touching her. One unlucky day it became too much for her, and – according to the horribly moralistic tale – she threw herself at him. He fled the room and forgot his cloak (you know, Technicolor Dreamcoat and all that). In her despair, Zuleika accused him of sexual assault, and he was thrown into jail. Only to be released again in no time – after which he was appointed court dreamologist and eventually making it to viceroy. Poor Zuleika was completely stuck.

Potiphars wife has long been a highly desirable subject for artists. Undoubtedly because it gave them an excuse to paint a hot (naked) broad, in the meantime hiding behind morality. After all, no one spoke about female sexuality – that was something to be savored in secret and denied in public. It was solely for ‘bitches’.

I know a Hebrew scholar who, as a student, was instructed to skip the story of Zuleika (Genesis 39). Good thinking, university! That way you make certain that each and every student reads it.

Master of Affligem, ca 1500. A painter we basically know nothing about, except that he came from Flanders and that he painted six tondi, round paintings, about the life of Joseph – which is why he is also known as ‘Master of Joseph’. Here he tells the the entire episode with Zuleika in one image: she grabs him (with an extremely motherly look in her eyes), on the right she points at ‘exhibit A’, and behind that we see Joseph being captured.

Pieter Coecke van Aelst, 1540. It looks like William Blake! But it was made three hundred years earlier. Mrs. P . has a really modern hairdo – actually they both have very modern looks. It is an incredibly dynamic painting. Here too, the course of the story is depicted in the background.

Anonymous artist, slightly later than Coecke van Aelst, and painted in a slightly clumsier manner. But it’s hilarious to see how the entire household goes into disarray. And those jugs in front of the bed, all the time? Yup, you got it. Sexual symbols.

An engraving by Harmen Jansz Muller, after Maarten van Heemskerk, ca 1600. Man, is she ugly, this particular mrs Potifar. And the place is swamped with creepy monsters. In this case, I’m with Joseph.

Ludovico Cigoli, 1610. Italian Baroque painters could not get enough of our story. They have all made multiple images of it, over and over again. With models who all had the same, slightly slimy expression on their faces. I’ve chosen Cigoli on account of those crazy shoes.

The lustiest Zuleika is by Rembrandt (1634). And his Joseph is visibly in two minds. In other words, they are by far the most human. This etching truly is another shining example of Rembrandt’s genius.

Costume design by Léon Bakst for the ballet La Légende de Joseph. Staged in 1914 by Les Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev’s company, with music by Richard Strauss. Speaking of crazy shoes! These are cothurni, originating from the ancient Greek theater, later often worn by Venetian hookers, but hardly ever used in ballet performances. Dancing in them sucks.

India, 1888. In the Qoran, Zuleika is mentioned by name, and the story is told more extensively there. It describes how she introduces Joseph to her girlfriends. The women, who are peeling oranges, are so dazzled by his beauty, that they collectively cut their fingers. Apparently the scene turned quite bloody. I really appreciate that their feelings were taken into consideration!

And finally, my own Zuleika, portrayed by stunning Dutch actress Anna Drijver (2005). Persistent rumors have it that Potiphar was a eunuch. What a crappy life that girl must have had – and then going down in thousands of years of history as a bitch, too . . .

Brave, beautiful Zuleika, I think you are fantastic!

Update

It’s been awful quiet here, sorry. I’ve been working hard on my project about the mysterious Venetian little girl (read more here). It is finished!

During the month of November a special edition of the book will be available, for the benefit of the restoration works in Venice, in cooperation with a Dutch charity that deals with Venetian preservation, restoration and educational projects. By the way – if you are aquainted with similar international organisations please let me know.

I will explain more nearer the time. For now, here’s a taste of what’s to come.

And in the next few days I’ll write a decent post. Although, the subject this time is slightly less decent. In other words, fun. Watch this space!

BLM

I read a plea somewhere the other day, for everyone to pay attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ll gladly comply.

Minorities in art is a tricky subject. Belonging to a minority myself, I am sure we are all hyper sensitive and I dare say, rightly so. There’s a plethora of images in which blacks, Jews, gays, Asians, Roma and Sinti, indigenous people – keep going – are portrayed as caricatures. It hurts. Not to the extent that we drop dead on the spot (others take care of that) but if you see yourself, your ancestors, your ‘landsleit’ depicted like a freak, it screws with your mind. Recent developments got me thinking, so I started digging in the history of art. It isn’t nessesarily a pretty sight. There are works that probably don’t mean any harm, like the portrait by Gerard Dou of a young black guy wearing a turban (1635). Or Rembrandt’s ‘Jewish Bride’ – so called presumably because it portrays Isaac and Rebecca (1665). As a child I couldn’t figure out what to think of the title, wondering why it would matter if she was Jewish or not and feeling uneasy. I still do. There’s the painting (1778, usually attributed to Johan Zoffany) of Dido Elizabeth Belle who was the illegitimate daughter of an officer in the British Navy and an African woman, perhaps a slave. Dido was brought to England and put in the care of her father’s uncle, a nobleman. These paintings are relatively kosher, I guess. I hope.

0. combi BLM
Lady Elizabeth Murray and Dido Belle, once attributed to Zoffany

But things have gone from bad to worse. Slave trade became totally institutionalized from the 17th century, anti-semitism has been anchored in Christianity for literally thousands of years, and the result is that today our perception of discrimination has suffered inflation. How could we possibly NOT get infuriated when we see and hear about the wrongs in history, past and present? Just weeks ago, when there was a large BLM demonstration on Amsterdam’s Dam Square, our scary politician Geert Wilders – the one with the weird bleached hairdo – called it a “leftist” event. What? Does being against racism have a partizan side? Is it ‘leftist’ to look after your children? To love your parents? This is about humanity. And while I’m at it: it is totally, completely, utterly unforgiveable that one minority discriminates against another. We sure as hell should know better. Ok. Back to art history.


1. Jan_Steen InterieurJan_Steen_and_the_Family_of_Gerrit_Schouten 1663

Jan Steen, 1663. Fantasy Interior with Jan Steen and the Family of Gerrit Schouten. A family portrait of a wealthy beer brewer, filled with typical 17th century luxuries. Including a slave. Also, there are the usual reminders of our mortality, and Jan Steen is in the picture, he always is. That’s the unnerving thing about this – in spite of the opulence, it is all so normal.


2. Walgelijke stoelen Ca' R

Chair from the 18th century, Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice. Black figurines used as the chair’s legs. Disgusting.


Slaves on the West Coast of Africa, c.1833 (oil on canvas)

François Auguste Biard, ca 1833. Slave trade, Sierra Leone. Biard traveled through Africa, and with his paintings he criticized the practices he had witnessed. The French slave trade was still legal then.


4. Slave trader's business in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864

Slave trader’s business in Atlanta, Georgia, 1864. My stomach turns.


6. Thomas_Rice_playing_Jim_Crow_in_blackface_New_York_City_1833

Between 1866 and 1870, US politics granted full voting rights to all (male) American citizens, including freed slaves. But the opposition against these rulings was so powerful, that in 1877 they were overturned under the so-called Jim Crow laws, named after a blackface character. It took till 1965 to re-install legislation that allowed general voting rights for Afro-Americans and there are many accounts of those laws still not always functioning properly. It goes to show that clocks are being turned back, all the time. Obama’s election becomes more and more of a miracle.


7. Gordon Parks Ella Watson (american gothic) 1942

Gordon Parks, Ella Watson, 1942. Called ‘American Gothic’, in a referral to Grant Wood’s painting. Ms Watson was a cleaning lady at a governmental institute in DC. She had lost her husband in a freak shooting two days before their daughter was born. That same daughter died eighteen years later shortly after giving birth and Watson worked her butt off to raise her grandchildren. The oldest child was paralyzed. Gordon Parks carefully documented her life of hardship in close to a hundred photographs. Worth checking out.


5. Erwitt N.C. 1950. Segregation Fountain

Elliott Erwitt, Segregation Fountain. North Carolina, 1950. When Erwitt took this picture segregation was still legal and it would be for another 14 years. I was a small child in the early sixties. My mom and me were living in New York State, in a crummy apartment. Luckily a girl came over to help clean the place. She turned out to be just fourteen years old, and brought her newborn baby. She had just arrived from the Carolinas, having hitched a ride on a cattle truck. The baby needed a clean diaper and she put it on the floor. Of course my mom picked it up and put it on her bed. The girl was horrified, and cried out: “I can’t put my baby on no white man’s bed!” A few days later we were on a bus in NYC. A limping old lady, a black lady, boarded so I got up for her. The entire bus turned on us and we had to get off as soon as we could.


8. Kwame Akoto-Bamfo

A sculpture by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, inspired by the Akan practice of portraying the dead. Please try to watch this incredibly meaningful video. It really hits home.

https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-africa-48744703.

This is just a random couple of images, chosen solely for their impact. They are drops in the ocean, not a lot is going to change because of this post unfortunately. But I had to speak out. Let’s all continue to do so.

Gothic.

 

For the Dutch, the Eighteenth century wasn’t the best of times. We weren’t happy back then, we had fought and lost wars, the East Indian Trading Company had fallen flat on its face. So much for world supremacy. We simply stuck our heads under the pillow and let all those pretty frivolous frills pass us by, we were too hurt and too Calvinistic for that. Maybe that wasn’t such a stupid move – after all you cannot, against all odds, keep on pretending you are still the most powerful nation in the world (I’m looking at you, Britain). We did continue our colonial shenanigans but that only made matters worse. Artwise we were a bit of a mess.

Why am I bringing this up? Where does it lead to? To Romanticism. Yet again. That enormous, overwhelming movement that started in the Eighteenth century, very much a reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. And this time we aren’t just focusing on desolate landscapes – today it gets really scary. Spooky!

In 1764 young Horace Walpole, the son of the British Prime Minister, wrote a novel: The Castle of Otranto. It is said to be a rather mediocre book, but it is considered to be the first ‘Gothic Novel’, making it the start of a steadfast movement within romanticism. Gothic – an English term for an international cultural phenomenon. At first used in a derogatory manner, its meaning shifted halfway through the 18th century. Art historians began to appreciate the characteristics of Gothic architecture – the meaning ‘medieval’ remained, but the negative connotation disappeared. It intertwined with the supernatural, after all the Dark Ages formed a perfect backdrop for a world full of ghosts, vampires, undead, and droves of their innocent victims.

From the beginning of the 19th century, all this creepiness had a more or less unforeseen side effect: blinding aesthetics. Painting was of course an ideal way of visualizing the Middle Ages, Arthurian legends, fears and frights – every aspect that makes up Gothic. Just like the theater, where Shakespeare was being rediscovered, and where the developing classical ballet also offered endless possibilities to bring the supernatural to life.

In Great Britain in particular, people were actually living Gothic-style. During the Victorian era entire neigborhoods were built that could have provided the phantoms and the doomed with turn-key accommodation. Apparitions, messages from beyond and live-in ghosts included.

 

1 Joseph_Wright_of_Derby_-_Experiment_with_the_Air_Pump1768.jpg

Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768. ‘The experiment with the air pump’. I told you he’d be coming back! Here we see Gothic in its ‘Fear of Science’ mode. It all seems very rational, but clearly the scientist is a madman, the lighting scares the poop out of us and the weather isn’t helping either.

 

2 Henri Fuseli Hamlet 1793

Henry Fuseli, 1793. ‘Hamlet’. One of many paintings depicting Shakespeare scenes, by the Swiss/British painter. Shakespeare inundated his plays with fantasy figures (no wonder he regained fame). In this scene the rebellious young prince scolds his mother, in an attempt to avenge his murdered father. Whose ghost immediately appears to calm him down. I totally love the expression on his dead face: “What to do with this hothead of a son? Dad isn’t angry, he’s just really disappointed”.

 

3 Henry_Fuseli_-_The_Nightmare 1781.jpg

Another Fuseli. ‘The Nightmare’, 1781. Undoubtedly his most famous painting. The horse in question is on the left, same weird eyes as Hamlet Sr.

 

4 Blake The Ghost of a Flea ± 1820

This is William Blakes ‘Ghost of the flea’, 1820. Blake, the visionary who traveled the world (and time) in his paintings and poems, but who in reality never left London. Unrecognized in his day, he is now considered a genius loner, ultimately Gothic.

 

5 Abtei_im_Eichwald_(C_D_Friedrich) 1810.jpg

Caspar David Friedrich. Another reappearance. ‘The Abbey in the Oakwood’, 1810. With every painting I pick, I think to myself “It doesn’t get more Gothic than this”, and now I’m really writing it down, too. Isn’t it insane? Could also be used for a very,very, VERY scary version of Swan Lake.

 

6 Géricault le Radeau de la Méduse ± 1818

Théodore Géricault, 1818, The raft of the Medusa. Journalism goes Gothic. In 1816 the French naval vessel the Medusa got shipwrecked. The incident caused a huge uproar – apparently the captain got himself into safety, but his crew, all one-hundred-and-fifty of them, ended up on a wonky raft, stuck on the ocean for weeks. Only fifteen of them survived, mainly by eating their dead raftmates. Géricault shows the moment where a dot appears on the horizon: the ship that will save them. A true child of his time, he covers reality with a thick, highly romantic blanket. Actually, his own life too, was pretty romantic (or shall we say Gothic): his studio was full of half-dissected horses and humans, he got his aunt pregnant, hid in Italy after that, painted a series of portraits of psychiatric patients, and died at 32, probably of syphilis.

 

7 Hunt,_William_Holman_—_Isabella_and_the_Pot_of_Basil_—_1867.jpg

William Holman Hunt, Isabella and the pot of basil, 1867. One of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Those guys are the very incarnation of the Gothic soul. They need their own separate post, but I’m squeezing this painting in here. This is Isabella, originally from the Decamarone, who hid the severed head of her lover in a pot of basil. As one does. Holman Hunts wife died in childbirth, but in spite of that – or because of it – he used her as a model here.

 

8 ieuw! dooie dracula (?)

Photography, the new medium, proved a perfect way to make the dead live forever. Corpses were dressed to the nines and then the photographer was called in. By the way, there’s a persistent rumor that all very early photos of people were of dead bodies, on account of the crazy long exposure times. Although it is probably an urban myth. Either way, this particular person appears extremely dead. But then again, I once had a student who told me he slept in a coffin. Lovely guy, great photographer. And deliciously Gothic.

Venice.

 

Actually I wasn’t planning on blogging about my own work. But my ever-supportive husband said: “You are starting a new project, if not now, when?” So here goes.

First, a quick introduction. Last autumn I went to Venice, on my own, for a month. I wanted to do a photo series about a 17th century poetess, Sarra Copia Sullam. I still do, but for now the plan is on hold, because I came across two other projects – women – that need to come first. I met these women in November, one is a stunningly beautiful prostitute with a grueling past, the other a small girl. I’m going to start with her. This is the story:

My first time on the Canal Grande, I saw a little girl in a porta d’aqua, comforting another girl. They weren’t really there, I knew that, but still. I saw her again and again, that little comforter, and I just knew it: she exists. For sure.

Three years later I was back, still thinking of the little girl. And then I found her.

Her name was Giuseppina Gabriel Carmelo. On November 29th, 1904 she lost her life in a boating accident. Together with a group of women, she was in a gondola that was hit by a vaporetto, late at night and in dense fog, somewhere between Murano and San Michele. Eventually the bodies of all the women were found, but not that of Giuseppina. However, some foggy nights you can see a small coffin floating on the water, with four burning candles on it’s corners. That way Giuseppina warns and protects the boats that need to be out on the lagoon under harsh circumstances. She will bring solace and aid to everyone who needs it in Venice.

My head is spinning as I read Giuseppina’s story. There she is! You can find her in every anthology of Venetian ghost stories. The inhabitants of La Serenissima boast that they have more scary legends than any place else in the world. Some are really hair raising and actually I don’t feel my little girl belongs there. Anyway. I want to shoot backgrounds, so that I can later add a model – my usual work method. But this trip, and these projects, run far from smoothly (neither do I by the way, I’m sporting a crutch due to an injured achilles tendon). I will spare you the details.

And then came November 12th 2019. The worst flood in 53 years. It was absolutely horrific and it stank like hell. The fridge of the girl downstairs filled with sewer water, the lady from upstairs came to the rescue and I babysat for her sleeping child. Orchestrated by Giuseppina probably.

Back in Amsterdam the images enter my head. I’m missing a few backgrounds, but that’s ok, I’ll be going back soon anyway. Or so I thought. I crash with my bike, bruise a rib, all of a sudden there’s this frightening virus in the Veneto. I stay home, lock down, and brood. At last I ask Yona Hartogs (a nine-year old Julia Roberts) to model for me. Luckily she and her Mom agree. I style and sew, costumes and hats, get in the car to drive to their house – battery dead. Ok, the jinx apparently isn’t quite gone yet, but hey, onwards and upwards!

 

1 Hier is het gebeurd.jpg

The mooring at San Michele, the cemetery island. In the background is Murano, so this has to be close to the spot where the accident happened.

 

2 Casa Willink

Stunning house on the north lagoon, overlooking The Spot. It seems a serenely magical place, but I believe it is a party venue.

 

3 NW meneer.jpg

This is the north-west tip of Venice, not many people know this corner of the city. The houses are mostly new builds, although you hardly notice that. It is a very residential, totally adorable area. I only got to know it because my Italian lessons were there (easyitalianlanguage.com – highly recommended).

 

4 cute grachtje

It doesn’t get more Venetian than this. All the elements are there: a canal, boats, the ‘altana’ – the roof terrace where the women used to lighten their hair in the sun, after dousing it in urine. There’s a ‘porta d’aqua’, the water door (this one has that typically Venetian pointed frame), the wrought iron window grills there on the left . . . mmmmm, beautiful.

 

5 meerpaal.jpg

A collapsed mooring pole (is that what you call it in English?). Yeah, they fall over, too. A month later it was still lying there. This, by the way, is also the spot where I dropped my crutch in the water. Swiftly grabbed it, saving it from the poop! (Parts of the sewage still end up in the canals. You get a €600 fine when you jump in.)

 

6 Campiello onder water

And then the water came. It was horrible. Really really frightening. The sound of the sirens – four, highest state of alarm – will ring in my ears forever. These shots are from the next day, when the worst was very much over. I’m curious to see if Giuseppina will appear on the scene, there is a lot to be done.

8 de gang the morning after.jpg

Our dark hallway. No electricity.

8 the morning after. what a mess

Two days later, low tide. The clean-up can begin.

 

I will give an update every now and then, watch this space.

 

The queen, the prince and the photo’s

 

On paper it was highly unlikely that young princess Victoria, born in 1819, would become queen. But every male heir to the throne died so there she was, at eighteen, reigning over the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. She would do so for nearly 64 years, acquiring an empire as she went along. Her story, and that of the era that carries her name, is really quite extraordinary, and way too extensive for me to even begin to tell here. Luckily the internet is full, chock-a-block, with articles about her, so I can concentrate on these bits, pieces and photographs.

Victoria’s mother had installed a ridiculously strict plan for her upbringing known as the Kensington System. The kid couldn’t move. Literally – she wasn’t even allowed to walk down the stairs without someone holding her hand. Her mother slept in her room, right until Victoria became queen on her eighteenth birthday. The story goes that she kicked Mutti out of the room that very day. For her own sake and that of the nation, a husband was needed. She fell madly in love with her German cousin Albert, and on February 10th 1840 they got married. Victoria wore white, which wasn’t the custom at the time, but she set a trend and we never looked back.

Today we consider the Victorian era the stiffest, stuffiest, uptight period ever, but Victoria and Albert were horny little monkeys – they have nine children to prove it. As far as state affairs go, it seems that Albert hated playing second fiddle, and tried to make his mark as much as he could. At home he instilled a very strict regime for the upbringing of the children. When Bertie, the Prince of Wales and later king Edward VII was a student, the story unfolded that the lad had slept with an Irish actress. Oh, the shame! Albert immediately travelled to Cambridge to set his son straight. After his return, he became very ill and died, aged just 41. Victoria was inconsolable, blaming her oldest son for her husband’s death. She went into mourning and never came out of it, dressed in black for the rest of her long life.

Victoria is the first monarch to be photographed. She and Albert absolutely embraced it, enjoying the newness and modernity of it. They were great patrons of the arts in general, often paying artists an annual salary. Both were keen artists themselves, too.

1. Queen-Victoria-Prince-Albert wedding 1840

Wedding photo, 1840. See how quick they were to get themselves photographed? The official ‘birth year’ of photography is 1839! (Although in truth the first photo dates from 1826, but still.) And by the way – no, she isn’t kneeling, she was just really tiny.

 

2 Roger Fenton Victoria 1854

1854, Roger Fenton’s portrait of Victoria holding a portrait. Of Albert of course, who else?

 

3 Queen_Victoria_Prince_Albert_and_their_nine_children 1857

Mom and Dad with all nine children, 1857. There’s a persistent rumor that Victoria didn’t love her children. That seems very harsh to me. I do believe she hated being pregnant, but who knows how difficult her pregnancies were? Who knows how nauseous she was? Who knows if Albert still wanted her with her big belly?

 

5 Princess_Beatrice_mourning 1862

It is 1862 and Albert is dead. Victoria stages a picture of her daughters surrounding his bust and calls it ‘Princess Beatrice Mourning’. That princess being the blurred little one, who obviously couldn’t stand still long enough. But being the baby of the family, she was cut more slack than the others.

 

6 wedding Bertie and Alex 1863

The wedding of the Prince of Wales and Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863. I think I would have strangled my mother if she had screwed up my wedding picture like that. But then I my mom was very, very different from Victoria.

 

4 Sarah Forbes Bonetta 1864

Sarah Forbes Bonetta, 1864. Now here’s an amazing story. Sarah was a West-African princess who, as a small child, lost both her parents in a tribal war. She was sold as a slave and, through the interference of a British sea captain, given (!) to Queen Victoria. The queen declared herself Sarah’s godmother – I have a nagging suspicion she took to her like one does with a cute little pet . . . but it did help Sarah to overcome some of that horrible start in life. She married a wealthy African officer and had three children, always staying in touch with the queen. She died of tuberculosis in Madeira, only 37 years old.

 

7 Carte-de-Visite Victoria and Prince of Wales

Victoria and the prince of Wales. It is a ‘carte-de-visite’, the precursor of our business card. When photography caught on, people rushed to get their pictures on cards. They idea was that you’d call on someone, hand your card to the maid/butler/door opener, and then Monsieur or Madame could see who was there. And decide if they were home or not. I dare say queens and princes didn’t really need an introduction and I doubt very much they ever turned up on your doorstep unexpectedly.

 

9 Queen_Victoria_1897 crownjubilee met bruidssluier

Portrait to commemorate the golden jubilee in 1887. Fifty years on the throne. Over her black mourning gear, Victoria is wearing her wedding veil. Hmmm, I don’t know, isn’t that a little freaky?

 

Royal Families

Family gathering at Balmoral, 1896. Queen Vic in the middle, Bertie on the right. The man with all the thingies on his jacket is Tsar Nicholas II, a distant relative. The miserable looking woman on the left is the tsarina (did she foresee what was ahead?) and that very weird baby is Grand Duchess Olga. Queen Victoria was known as ‘the grandmother of Europe’, she was related to pretty much every crowned head on the continent.

 

COLOR!

 

Color photography.

From the very start, photos were being hand tinted, with water based inks or oil based dyes. It was an extremely precise and time-consuming job. At the end of the 19th century Gabriel Lippmann, a French physicist, developed an early form of color photography. He glued together light-reflecting surfaces that, aided by chemicals, used refraction and other physical phenomenons to produce an image. Which unfortunately couldn’t be viewed on anything but the actual plates – it certainly wasn’t reproduceable. Nevertheless, in 1908 Lippmann was awarded the Nobel prize for it.

We know the brothers Lumière, Auguste and Louis, as the founding fathers of the cinema. But – are you ready for this? – they didn’t think there was any future in the moving image, so they turned their energy to color photography. In the camera, they put a glass plate which was covered in the thinnest possible layer of colored starch. This worked as a sort of conversion fliter: it let same colors pass, and blocked the complimentary colors. When projected (like a slide) the result was amazingly realistic. They named their invention “autochrome”. It was based on a fairly simple principle but applying it was far from simple.

Round about that same period (the beginning of the twentieth century) – and with pretty much the same idea as a starting point – Russian chemist Sergej Prokudin-Gorskii discovered a process where he took, at a dazzling speed, three (monochrome) shots through differently colored filters. He then projected all three images simultaniously, using a specially built projector with three lenses above each other and with specially colored light, rendering astonishingly life-like colors. His system could not be printed either, but luckily the American Library of Congress owns his entire archive and started its digitalisation in 2004. But the maker of what is considered to be truly the very first color photograph, in 1861, is Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell, who used roughly the same process for his Tartan Ribbon:

0. Tartan_Ribbon JCM

 

It wasn’t until after WWII that consumer-friendly color films became widespread. And even those weren’t always very stable, which accounts for the many purpley-hued and/or faded aunts and uncles filling family albums all over the world. Since the advance of digital photography analogue color photography is quickly losing ground. No wonder – it is a terribly complicated process that requires a lot of specialized knowledge, materials and equipment. All of which is in rapid decline, and the consensus is that in 20 or 30 years time, there will be no-one left who can handle analogue color photography. As one photo historian said: “When it’s gone, it’s gone.”

 

1. Dickens combi credits

In 1859 Herbert Watkins shot a portrait of Charles Dickens. In 2020 Oliver Clyde digitally colored it in, just in time for the 150th anniversary of Dickens’ death on June 9th. (Look at the date of this post! How topical is that?). I read that this clearly proves the writer had a healthy skintone – not at all the stereotypical pallor of the time. No offense to Mr. Clyde, but may I store that under the header ‘far fetched’?

 

2. Daguerrotypie Atelier E. JacobsDaguerreotypie by a certain E. Jacobs. The hand coloring apparently got on E’s nerves, because the plaid on the toddler’s outfit has been slapped on rather coarsely. But craziest of all has to be the prop the little chipmunk is holding. Yes, indeed. A shotgun. At the risk of sounding biased, surely this is American?

 

 

4. Autochrome archief Kahn 1914

Autochrome 1914. From the enormous collection of Albert Kahn, a French banker who set out to visualize the world through color photographs: Les Archives de la Planète. Unfortunately the Great Depression of 1929 put a spanner in the works. In this shot of a balloon event (they look more like melons!) you can see the grains and the spots of the colored cornstarch.

 

3. Gebroeders Lumière

The Lumière brothers. Left is Auguste, on the right Louis. This is not an Autochrome, but a hand-tinted photo. Aww, somehow that doesn’t seem right.

 

 

5. ThePondMoonlight Steichen

Edward Steichen The Pond, Moonlight. Mamaroneck 1904. Yet another way to color your photos: the gum bichromate process. You prepare your paper with a mixture of gum arabic, pigment and a light-sensitive component. Negative on top, expose, rinse, and there’s your monochrome print. Repeat with a different color pigment, and a third time, maybe. It sounds fairly simple but it’s not – far from it.

 

 

6. Prokudin Gorskii 1912 GeorgiëSergej Prokudin-Gorskii, Georgia, 1912. The tsar was so impressed with SPG’s work, that he gave him a train(!) to travel the gigantic country and document the population. He spent years doing that, until in 1917, suddenly riding around in a gift from the tsar wasn’t really that much fun any more . . . In any case, the end result is stunning, both in a photographic and a demographic sense.

7. 1912, Kaukasus

Caucasus 1912. Here you get an impression of what he did with those filters. Differently colored filters change the rendition of the original colors in a black-and-white pcture. When projected those colors can be recreated. Oh, I get it. Hmmmm. Vaguely.

Russian photographer Pavel Kosenko has a richly illustrated post about SPG on his blog: https://pavelkosenko.wordpress.com/2015/05/26/color-photographs-by-s-m-prokudin-gorsky-1863-1944/

 

8. Hek Versailles

From your blogger’s archives. A seriously bleached out Versailles. But don’t be fooled, this shot is only a few years old. Nowadays, we have yet another tool to determine the color of our pictures: Photoshop. This is filter “Warm Skin, Fading” . . .

 

The Big Shots. (Part 1, probably.)

 

 

European art is loaded with Big Shots. I once had a long discussion about it with a dear friend from art school – she said Italian Renaissance painters formed the all-time biggest influence, I was team 17th century Dutch Masters. All a bit silly of course, and also all a bit true. It probably has to do with our respective locations, too: she’s been living in Italy for more than twenty years, I’m a 10-minute bike ride away from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Where you find the Big Shots of this post. My heroes, my idols: Rembrandt van Rijn and Johannes Vermeer. Both ridiculously talented draughtsmen of course, but they are photographers avant-la-lettre, they see, they register, they choose like a photographer, applying Cartier Bresson’s decisive moment without the split second. (Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer who coined the phrase ‘decisive moment’: the intuitive choice a photographer makes to capture a moment in time.)

Rembrandt is the street photographer of the 17th century. He must have shlepped endlessly through Amsterdam, jotting down everything he saw in his little sketchbook. I think THE most amazing example is his drawing of the ‘Koekenbakster’ – the pancake baker (1635). Look at them! The weary woman, the toddler with his pancake-filled cheeks, but most of all the guy reaching in his pocket for money. Look at his posture, his neck, his mouth – slightly open in concentration. I swear I can feel the sandy guck, that somehow always ends up in your pockets, under my nails. From Rembrandt’s all-seeing eyes straight onto the paper. It’s insane.

De Koekenbakster

 

But it doesn’t stop there. Rembrandt manages to convey emotions in a painting as if he’s talking to us. This portrait of his son Titus (1657) is the ultimate story of a father’s love for his son. I’ve never seen anything else like it. The realization that he has had to bury Titus makes it even more poignant:

Titus Wallace coll.1657

 

Lucretia, 1666. When I finally got to see this in person, I could hardly pull away. This is the second painting he made about the fated Roman girl. She had been raped and saw no other option but to commit suicide. He captures her when life is running out of her and all that is left is this unbelievable sadness. It always moves me to tears.

Rembrandt Lucretia (II) 1666

 

Now. Johannes Vermeer. His ‘Little Street’, 1658. This is not a badly cropped reproduction, the top of the façade really is missing. He could have easily redone it when he noticed it wasn’t going to fit the canvas. But he didn’t, thus making us feel we saw it all in passing. “Hold on, is that woman standing at a washtub? And were there two children playing under that little bench? Is it even a bench? Lemme go back and have another look.” If you would have photographed this, you’d kick yourself upon discovering that the top was missing. But Vermeer knew what he was doing – cropping the image like this, he gives us the feeling of a small world. Imagine there’d be sky over the gable, that would feel totally different.

Straatje van Vermeer 1658

Next is one of the Vermeers that cause wild speculations (1663). Is she pregnant? Or just fashionable? Who wrote that letter? What do the pearls on the table mean? Nobody knows for sure, but hey, c’mon! Of course she’s pregnant! And let’s assume, to keep things relatively simple, that it was her husband who wrote to her, that he sent her the pearls. Or whatever. X-rays show that the jacket (a ‘bed-jacket’) originally had a fur trim. Why did he change that? I give up. Nobody knows.

Vermeer,_Johannes_-_Woman_reading_a_letter_-_ca-1._1662-1663

 

One more. For now. Sleeping Girl, 1657. Look at her, too tired to straighten the mess in front of her on the table. Was she cleaning the floor? Is that why she pulled back the carpet on the table? (Yes, the Dutch put Persian rugs on their tables. Don’t ask.) Her cheeks are flushed with fatigue, she just HAD to sit down. I can feel her tiredness.

14.40.611

Almost all Vermeer paintings are so-called genre paintings, depictions of everyday life, and oddly enough he almost always puts a crumpled piece of cloth on the table. So why would that be? It is true what they say – the man is an enigma.

The Still-life

 

“In the still-life the world stops at the far edge of the table.”

from the BBC documentary ‘Apples, pears and paint – how to make a still-life painting’.

 

Around 1596 Caravaggio made a painting that is generally considered to be the first still-life. Whether that is a correct qualification remains to be seen. Centuries later, when Pompeii and Herculaneum were discovered, it turned out that the Romans had done them too – lavish images to show off their hospitality, their wealth and the produce of their vast empire.

The Netherlands of the 17th century were still-life-crazy. After iconoclasm, the Protestant republic craved secular art to exhibit their endless wealth and exotic imports – just like the Romans 1700 years earlier. Art was owned by the burghers – there was no royalty, no nobility, no Catholic church to claim it. The paintings were literally dripping with abundance. This was the richest nation in the world, don’t forget. However, we were (are?) Calvinists, so somehow we had to curb our bragging. Enter the Vanitas.

“Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas” is a well-known expression from Ecclesiastes meaning “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”.

A Vanitas painting is filled to the max with symbols. Skulls, hourglasses, clocks are all pretty obvious reminders of mortality, but music too, was a useful symbol, after all, when the last tone ends, everything is gone.

In Spain around 1600 another important still-life culture emerged, especially in the monasteries. In contrast this one was triggered by austerity. They depicted the contents of the larder, the ‘bodega’, and thus are called Bodegones. An important name in this context is the Carthusian monk Juan Sanchez Cotán.

In the eighteenth century the Academies started calling the shots and an institution like the Académie Royale in Paris had a profound disdain for still-lives. In a sense they applied a hierarchy: at the bottom of the pack lies the still-life, then comes the landscape, then portraiture, and then, on top, images of historical, mythological and biblical scenes. Those were considered truly meaningful and prime examples of man’s intellectual prowess. For Jean-Baptiste Chardin, French master of everyday life, it was quite a battle to be taken even remotely seriously. In 1728 he actually received recognition from the Academy (as “valued painter of Animals and Fruits”). No mean feat, for painting what-was-in-front-of-you was hardly considered artistic.

 

1 Stilleven Pompeii

Pompeii, ca. 70 AD. It looks as if Escher was here! That table’s edge does something weird. But it’s a fresco, so even a small change would be a huge hassle. Oh, well, I suppose it could be a recess.

 

5 Juan Sanchez Cotán 1602

Juan Sanchez Cotán 1602. Those pieces of string make sense – fruit and veg were suspended that way to preserve them. What doesn’t make sense, are the shadows. He painted what he saw, but apparently the sunlight came from different angles every time he got behind his easel.

 

1a vanitas Pieter Claesz 1628

Pieter Claesz. Vanitas ca. 1628. Paintings like this were a showcase, to convince potential patrons of the painters abilities. He mastered it all: glass, wood, reflections (of himself for instance). And with intellectual depth, too.

 

17 Jean Baptiste Chardin La Raie 1728

Jean-Baptiste Chardin, 1728. The Ray. Every day life. Although? A seemingly smiling ray with his intestines on display and a freaked-out cat?

 

39 Cézanne

And then came Cézanne. Being the Impressionist he is, he doesn’t paint what he sees, he paints how he sees it. He has this amazing technique that make his still lives initially seem a bit odd, but if you look at them from a distance, or through your lashes, they become extremely real. I’m sure the experts are right when they say Paul Cézanne “painted his angst, motivated by a frenzied perception”. Of course. But clearly he was also a very clever draughtsman who knew exactly what he was doing.

 

Canestra_di_frutta_(Caravaggio) ± 1600

If you look at Caravaggio’s fruit basket like you looked at the Cézanne, it turns into some sort of tapestry. I learned that from David Hockney! From his super interesting book Secret Knowledge.

 

Picasso Violin and grapes Moma

Picasso. Violin and grapes, 1912. Cubism and the still-life are an ideal match – after all cubism allows you to show, on a flat surface, all sides of your subject.

 

Mapplethorpe Poppy 1988

Photography has taken other aspects of the still life under its wings. In advertising of course, but also in contemporary fine art photography. Poppy, 1988. Robert Mapplethorpe. Think he’s known only for his homo-erotic work? Think again.

 

31 mosaic Peter Ruting

This is by Dutch photographer Peter Ruting. I once introduced him to someone saying, “this is the man who made me graduate from the photo college.” And he said, lovely guy he was: “No, you did that yourself”.

 

“In the Still-life the world stops at the far edge of the table.”

No way it does.