Flower by Flower
Oil on panels makes way for digital photography. Bas Meeuws is a young photographer who is injecting the traditional Dutch genre of the flower piece with new élan. He composes his work the way the old masters did, flower by flower in luxury and splendour. The result is a layered photography that transcends time.
Meeuws was born in 1974 in Heerlen, Limburg, in the very south of the Netherlands and he grew up in the village of Spaubeek. After grammar school he trained as a physiotherapist, later specialising in manual therapy. He is married with two children. In the area of digital photography he is a self-taught all-rounder and proficient in documentation, portraiture, nature and children. It is only in flower pieces, however, that his interests coalesce: beauty, nature, the technical challenge, meaning and art.
Meeuws’ most important goal is the creation of beauty. He aims to bring real, timeless beauty − pleasure and delight − to everyday life. And, indeed, his magnificent work oozes with splendour. Flowers are ideal objects with which to achieve his aim, he says. In nature, flowers seduce bees and other insects with colour, scent and unusual shapes and since the very beginnings of history, they have had this effect on people as well.
The photographer makes the beauty all the more profound, however. His work is closely allied to the history and traditions of art because it is explicitly based on the still lifes of the seventeenth century. With all their polished digital beauty, the photos evoke the glory of the Dutch Golden Age: intense commerce, the regard for tulip bulbs and independence, and the artist’s workplace. Meeuws is intrigued by the function of flower pieces in the seventeenth century. “I try to summon up the feelings in myself that the people looking at the picture then would have had. The awe that they must have felt for all the expensive and exotic flowers together.”
He also has great regard for the sensitivity of the early modern masters for transience and mortality. Their pieces weren’t just to encourage the person looking at them to enjoy life and seize the day − carpe diem − but their frozen beauty also offered solace for the passage of time. “The bouquets in the paintings were impossible constructions of flowers from different seasons. I want to pursue this element of the genre. It gives you the opportunity to work outside of time, to make time stand still. The comfort of photography, that’s how I like to see my still lifes,” explains Meeuws.
I try to summon up the feelings in myself that the people looking at the picture then would have had.
Meeuws plays the one reference to time against the other with confidence. He clearly enjoys working with the references and the extra layers of meaning. He is, in this respect, an exponent of the recently crystallised genre of history photography which acquired this name when the Dutch photographer Erwin Olaf produced a series of photographs in 2011 called The Relief of Leiden [Leidens Ontzet]. The series explored the centuries-old tradition of historical paintings depicting the siege and relief of Leiden in the sixteenth century. Maartje van den Heuvel (curator of photography at Museum de Lakenhal in Leiden) introduced the term to describe the photographs more precisely. In history photography the painting tradition is used as the point of departure for new photographic pieces. This results in ‘remediation’: a tradition passes from one medium to another. The art of painting and photography have never been so closely tied to each other since the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Meeuws’ work can be placed within this genre with ease.
Not that the genre didn’t exist before the term was coined. The photographer Jeff Wall was deeply inspired by Eugène Delacroix, Bill Viola uses motifs from early modern paintings in his video art and Andreas Gursky, responsible for the most expensive photograph in the world, creates enormous, intensively manipulated images which look like monumental paintings.
History photography is also prominent in modern Dutch photography. Erwin Olaf was already interested in this type of photography when he lent Spanish masters such as Vélazquez new life as photographs for the Spanish town of Gijon. Richard Kuiper plays with ideas about mortality and morality in his tableaux which are constructed entirely of plastic, but which, at first sight, look like seventeenth-century still lifes, and Hendrik Kerstens’ portraits or tronies – the Dutch term for portraits by artists to practise painting facial expressions – are highly reminiscent of Vermeer or the Flemish Primitives because of their stillness, characteristic Dutch light and distinct headdresses.
But the question remains why artists should bother with history photography. What is achieved by mixing the two mediums, photography and painting, and the historical and the contemporary?
In Meeuws’ case, the new medium adds an intense immediacy and insistency to flower pieces. They become all the more intriguing. The lavish beauty of the flowers, shells, insects and other objects in Meeuws’ work is sharply outlined and literally redefined. It is as if we see familiar situations with new eyes and begin to appreciate them again. You can also search for endless similarities and differences between modern and past flower pieces. The photographic pieces posses the same detail as the historical paintings, and as Erwin Olaf said while preparing his shoots for Leidens Ontzet: “The amount of detail is needed to ensure that it is a visual feast.”
A flamboyantly undulating tulip can be constructed from five different photographs.
Meeuws’ process is similar to that of the seventeenth-century flower painters. The starting point for his monumental pieces are digital photographs of individual flowers using the same lighting. Each flower is photographed several times in various positions but with a varying exposure to build up a digital library. Meeuws’ ‘flower library’ is like a modern version of the seventeenth-century tulip books and other botanic pieces from that period. Artists couldn’t afford a vase full of flowers in the seventeenth century and so they composed their bouquets out of individual flowers. Sometimes they used real flowers, but they also referred to tulip books because of the refined illustrations.
The precision and the time Meeuws takes to make his pieces can also be compared with the old masters. The compilation of a good flower library in particular demands time and dedication. Meeuws composes his pieces from this digital library but he can’t always find the flower that he wants right away. A flamboyantly undulating tulip can be constructed from five different photographs. Meeuws enlarges and reduces images, adjusts colouring, weaves flowers and stalks together and adds snails and insects; everything in order to achieve an amazing picture. But the contours of the flowers still have black edges. Meeuws cleans these up digitally with meticulous eye work. He then examines the shadow and light in the piece: everything has to be right: the shadow that anchors a ladybird to a stalk, the reflection of the vase, the disappearance of the lowest layers of a flower in the dark. Meeuws is a painter of fine art: the computer mouse, his brush.
To get closer to nature, to avoid the feel of a cabinet of curiosities, Meeuws doesn’t select his flowers the way seventeenth-century masters did. “I use the flowers they did, of course, because they’re beautiful. But I also like to use flowers like daisies and cornflowers. And I use celery as greenery. In my work, you can see how beautiful native, small plants are while they were often too ordinary for the idealised, exotic bouquets of the Golden Age.”
From now on, it is always spring.
Although Meeuws has only been creating flower pieces since 2010, development in his work can clearly be seen. His first pieces resembled the flower pieces from the early seventeenth century. In this period, the flowers were arranged into a bouquet on a flat surface, each was clearly visible and the composition was frontal and very symmetrical.
However, while the development of the seventeenth-century flower genre took decades, for Meeuws it has taken less time. He has experimented with depth, exposure, structure and composition. He abandoned his black studio background in favour of lighter hues. And he also extended his flower library which he spent 2010 filling. It is now possible to see in the pictures in which season they were made (“Aha! There are the snowberries!”). He now has access to a comprehensive database of plants from all seasons. His visits to the Hortus Bulborum, the botanical bulb garden in Limmen, were also an important inspiration for his work. Old strains of tulip and other bulbs are cultivated with dedication there and it is one of the few places where bulbs infected with the viruses which affect colouring are grown. Meeuws would leave every year with the most spectacular flowers.
Beauty and nature, technique and history, structure and art. Meeuws weaves all these aspects together in splendid pieces, beautifully composed and fashioned with love. While he maintains the richness and splendour of the past, digital photography allows him to get so close to his flowers that they immediately touch us. From now on, it is always spring.
Karine van ’t Land