Hendrik Kerstens’ New Old Masters
Published: December 18, 2013 (Issue # 1791)
With the end of 2013 in sight, and with it the Netherlands-Russia year in which the two countries have been party to a series of economic, cultural and social events celebrating their long bilateral relations, one event has caused a significant amount of international interest and attention.
Hendrik Kerstens’ exhibition of large-scale color photographs, titled ‘Paula’, had already been seen in Amsterdam, Brussels, London, New York, Los Angeles and Latin America before it arrived in St. Petersburg but that did nothing to dim the enthusiasm with which it has been met.
With work in the collections of the Art Museum of Santa Barbara and Gemeentemuseum in The Hague, to name but a few, Kerstens’ reputation preceded him. His latest work, which is now on view in the Erarta Museum in St. Petersburg, follows on the heels of well-received exhibitions at the Ekaterina Cultural Foundation in Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and Yekaterinburg.
Born in the Hague in 1956, Kerstens’ work is celebrated for its alchemical admixture of the arts of photography and painting. For nearly two decades, he has documented his daughter Paula’s life thorough photographic portraits.
Beginning his project with portrait photography, since 2008 he has placed her in more constructed settings that reference Dutch painting from the seventeenth-century. Bringing to mind the paintings of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals, Kerstens emulates the traditional style of the most famous artworks of the period as an ode to the Golden Age of Dutch painting, elevating the humble family portrait to luminous new heights.
The relationship between Dutch painting and photography has long been pondered, with Johannes Vermeer being said to have employed a camera obscura. The clarity of the portraits by the Dutch painters of the Golden Age and their sensitive use of light make them the perfect reference for contemporary photography.
Rather than slavish imitation, Kerstens’ recreation of Dutch painting also includes references to contemporary life. The photographer’s slyly humorous, almost tongue-in-cheek approach to his sources and the sheer breadth of the project address issues of seriality, time and identity, while emotionally they speak to his love for his child and their ongoing collaboration.
“The thing that fascinates me in particular is the way a seventeenth-century painting is seen as a surface which can be read as a description of everyday life as opposed to the paintings of the Italian Renaissance, which usually tell a story. Northern European painting relies much more on craftsmanship and the perfect rendition of the subject. The use of light is instrumental in this,” Kerstens has said of the project.
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