Grandes Machines

I’m a very big fan of 19th century French painting. My artistic output is rooted in the 19th century and its  revolutionary spirit..I’ve been reading books like Linda Nochlin’s ‘Realism’ and `The Politics of Vision´ time and again, because they inspire me and to sharpen my awareness. In the 19th century  history painting was known as the “grande genre”, the champions league of painting. A picture like Gros’s Napoleon in the Plague House at Jaffa, in which the emperor dares to touch the bubolic plague wounds of a,  largely monumental, dying veteran barehanded,  keeps fascinating me.

In 19th century France a painter could only succeed in building up a career if his work was noticed during the yearly held ‘Salons’.  An opportunity comparable with the art fairs of our time, The Art Basels’, Frieze Art Fairs  and Armory Shows. In order to get a maximum of press- and popular attention painters tried their best to grab the public’s attention with exciting , overpowering images of actual history or found metaphores for actual happenings in classical texts. This mixing of history painting with actuality lead to works that were labeled in their times as “Grandes Machines”. Big schemes aimed at playing their role in the public debate.

Right. So, what about my paintings?  I saw links in the invasion of Iraque, the ideological wars between the West and the East, the Orient. This fascination with the Orient in the 19th century, as an environment where one could express one’s longing for freedom, in every imaginable way. And the recent fear of  (radical ) Islam as a major threat to our way of life, the liberties we value. These opposing views triggered my imagination.

And then the pictures out of Abu Ghraib came thundering in. Cheap SM, racism, unwelcome imagery bubbling up from the depths of civilization. I was totally shocked, was this war not waged with noble means, dethroning a brutal dictator who used toxic gasses against his own population? Bring democracy to the region? The system I believe in unconditionally because it provides us humble citizens with a freedom to shape our lives in the least obstructed manner. What forces of evil lay behind those images?

I collected as much material as I could , and as the story developed I began thinking about a form in which I could try to visualize what I felt. Of course the big painting by Delacroix, ‘Liberty guiding the people’ came into view. I felt for the victims, trying to imagine how they suffered  How can one human being inflict such horror against another human being ? Their mirror- image? Of course it begins by pointing out the visual differences which are then combined with ideological values.

And then my radar pulled me towards the frescos that Luca Signorelli painted for the Duomo in Orvieto in the fifteenth century. The part in which he visualizes Hell is peopled by figures whose bodies look alike, the bodies of devil and victim come from the same mould. And even some of the devils’ faces look humane, add a set of horns, a more extreme hairdo, some bodypaint and  one can play the part of devil. This Hell, these thoughts,  were translated into the first painting, the most  “direct” one of three.

For the second painting I prepared a canvas in exactly the same size of  the Liberty by Delacroix, and while I began sketching for it, there were developments in the story of Lynndie England that fascinated me. Lynndie is the girl that was photographed on the occassion of her twentyfirst birthday with a pyramid of naked Iraqi prisoners. She is the girl with the prisoner and the dog-collar. The man often seen in other pictures molesting hooded prisoners is Charles Graner, her boyfriend at the time. They had a love affair, Lynndie later tells Dutch reporter Twan Huys; ”He was a terrific guy, always prepared to help. He was almost fifteen years my senior and I had an enormous respect for him. He was a real leader.”( not the actual words but my own translation from dutch into english). Lynnie became pregnant during that period and that’s my clue. This fact lies at the basis of the second grande machine. In my painting you see Lynndie holding a baby in her arms and Charles next to her, looking the other way. Right in front of Charles is a hooded figure in a white robe, I based that loosely on another emotionally charged picture from Iraq, a father with a black plastic bag over his head sits in the desert behind  barbed wire, he comforts his little son who is sitting on his lap. In the painting I leave out the boy. A decision instinctively made, now almost 6 years later I keep wondering why.

That brings me on the topic of Innocence, and that is exactly what lead to the third painting. Sometimes people find themselves in uncontrollable situations. They regret having been there for the rest of their lives. Some get angry because they feel cheated and blame it on bad luck, others find guilt inside themselves and seek atonement. In the third painting a young girl finds herself in such situation, like the small boy did in the ‘Deluge’painting.









Grandes Machines