Monday, February 13, 2012

Facing the unbearable: 'Dutch Magical Realism

In celebration of 50 years of a diplomatic relationship between Korea and the Netherlands, “Dutch Magical Realism: Past toward Contemporary” opened at the Museum of Art (MoA) at Seoul National University .
Despite the emphasis on the artistic movement that started in the 1920s, the exhibit is, in reality, about everything unbearable in life — aging, loneliness, stillness and fear.

The impeccably smooth surfaces and exacting brushwork of the Dutch artists have brought ugly moments to eerie beauty. The unadorned interior of MoA with a high ceiling and glass openings offers the ideal environment to submerge into the unsettling serenity.

Wrinkled women gaze out from three paintings by Theo l’Herminez — “Woman With A Cat,” “Untitled” and “Party” — at the beginning of the show. Against the backdrop of dark green, the skeleton like faces with sneers seem to confront the viewers saying, “Go on, keep looking at me; I won’t flinch.” Their perfect hair and flashy style repel the viewer and remind one of the cruelty of aging that makes these women’s sexuality unsightly. The artist once explained; “It’s not about being beautiful or ugly. I paint people who have had life go over them. I prefer to create paintings of ugly women full of wrinkles and crinkles.”

Koos van Keulen dramatized unwanted solitude in “Restaurant” by painting on a two-meter long panel. At one end of the painting, three elderly men in white shirts eat looking, not at each other, but down at the food. At the other end, another balding man in a magenta shirt sits alone, facing the viewer. The blurred faces, humble hues of brown and flat composition epitomize how one grows to accept loneliness. Keulen pulls the viewer into the untold story by only capturing a moment.

Barend Blankert also captures isolation in acrylic painting “The Last European.” The 130- by 150-centimeter canvas tightly fits a bald man in a white tank top and boxers at a tiny dining table. He stares down at his empty plate with an unreadable expression while a cat with almost a human-like smile, sits in the back. This disquieting peace is Blankert’s signature ambiance.

In the still life section following the portraits, the contemporary Dutch painters subtly defy the conventions of Renaissance tradition by imposing a bizarre composition. Kenne Gregoire’s “Still Life With A Silver Plate” has two perspectives — the table is seen from directly above while objects on top are drawn from a slightly lowered angle. The clashing viewpoints give it a mystical air. Some deviate from the traditional subjects by depicting modern day items as in “Panettone Box” by Arnout van Albada. The absolute stillness in the image of three pastry boxes makes a judgment of repetitive modern lives.

The group of landscape works continues to allure the visitor to question the overarching calmness and find disturbance. “House,” oil on canvas by Johan Abeling, looks like a photograph of a wooden house that sits tenuously on a hill. Framed by ominous gray in the sky and the field, the painting insinuates either an imminent danger or misfortune taking place inside the house. There is no trace of brush strokes or uncalculated lines. The immaculate surface only terrorizes the viewer further. Abeling uses sfumato, a painting technique used in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” By defusing the outlines and blending the boundaries of hues in miniscule brushstrokes, Abeling achieved the mysterious haziness.

The exhibition runs through April 12.

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