My perception of art will forever be linked with my family. The distinct taste of my maternal and paternal families cannot be unblended in my mind.
The quiet, almost subdued taste of my maternal family with traditional subjects of the fisherman’s life; stock and trade of the sturdy fishermen that I count as relatives.
The browns and greys, which dominated the paintings communicated in essence the sheer roughness and mercilessness of life. A cart with a dejected horse, collecting shells on the beach, which would be burnt into chalk. The driver hunched down in the wind and possibly a light drizzle. A distinct Katwijk fishing boat out on the sea, with treacherously calm waves in brown, grey and green. The monumental ancient white church cuddled safely in the dunes. A beacon of hope for every returning fisherman. The fisherwoman looking out to sea, undoubtedly pondering the well being of her relatives, or, more probably, the fond memories of her husband who is now enjoying the view from the bottom of the ocean.
The art of my paternal family was much more land based: no fishing boats, no subdued subjects, but the self confidence of numerous ancestors looking into the world with a curious mix of politeness and boldness. Row after row of 19th century ladies and gentlemen all donning their Sunday best as to signal to the viewer that they had arrived at the life in which they could afford this. The art of the middle classes, devout Calvinists and never averse of a good business deal.
The few landscapes did not speak about rain, wind or the weariness of the sea, but of spring mornings or early summer in the dunes. The life of confidence, and the belief in the sheer immovability of good fortune. An incidental portrait adorned with a plaque remembering the heroic deeds of a now elderly gentleman painted with gravitas. An elderly lady looking down on you with a grave and somewhat disapproving look as if to say “what have you done for the family?”
If you were to put all the art of my childhood in one room, the average art historian would probably rush passed them in search of a masterpiece. More forgotten people and places.
For me, and my family they were not forgotten but very much alive, and not by way of some dark Caribbean magic either. My grandfather used to use the family portraits to tell us stories of the people in question. For me, growing up, someone who had died in the 1870 was as much alive as my own uncles and aunts. Their faces as well known to me as the faces of my own siblings.
It was much later that I developed my view that family portraits only make sense as a starting point for a whole corpus of family history. A sort of “Behold thy ancestors! And these were their deeds..”-thing. It is an ancient tradition, and perhaps a folly in the modern world, but as I come from a culture that is drenched in ancient traditions it is nothing strange to me.
To me the juxtaposition of the hard life of the common man and the stiff upper lip of the 19th century middle class will forever be etched in my mind as my first introduction to real art. The grand museums of Europe were still in a distant future as I leafed through the art books of my grandfather or showed my first paintings to a maternal uncle. That and the numerous drawings and watercolours made by family members that were either legit artists or just dabbled.
Has this fused in to my own art? In a way it has: when painting portraits one searches for poses and expressions, and I always seem to come back to the imagery and lore that I knew as a child. I ask patrons for the stories about the person, as I need them to be alive in my mind, and I write the name of the sitter in India ink somewhere on the canvas. A desperate attempt that this portrait won’t end up in a room somewhere with the label “unknown person”.
At the same time, I don’t paint the ever present images of “life of the fisherman” or the famous white church in Katwijk. Not because I can’t: the ever present shell-collectors, church and typical ships of the area are present in every house of my hometown. However, I think that has also desensitized me to this imagery. I can still enjoy it as an image from home, but not in a way that drives me to make my rendition of this. Maybe one day. But for me growing up, the stories of hardship and loss were sometimes a little bit too real.