Spring In The Winter Time: Bas Meeuws emulates Dutch masters in photographic still lifes
The show, Spring In The Winter Time, co-hosted by Dauble and Per Van der Horst Gallery, The Hague, presents 43 photo works by Dutch lensman and artist, Bas Meeuws. The highlight is Meeuws’ series of Mughal Botanicals and Still Lifes, apart from his early floral still lifes, inspired by the Dutch tradition of ‘flower painting’. In an email exchange, the artist explains his choice of medium, and intensive process of image-making. Excerpts from the interview:
Tell us about your ideas about beauty, specifically pertinent to the idea of reviving artistic traditions in a digital world. Take us to the beginning, of how you conceived the idea of working with the traditional Dutch still life form with flowers. What inspired you in a visual sense, to heighten the inner, natural beauty of the flowers?
I've been taking photos since I was 16 years old, using my fathers old analogue Praktika. When I started using a DSLR in 2005, I was able to experiment with everything I could. In 2010, I was experimenting with staged still life photograph and got dragged into the vanitas still lifes of the 17th Century. From there it was a small step to these flower still lifes. What inspired me most was the impossibility of those still lifes. Flowers, in that time, were extremely expensive and exotic in the Netherlands. Nowadays, flowers are very common and cheap. I want people to understand and experience the awe that people in the 17th Century must have experienced while watching such beauty and richness.
In a flower still life, you can find springtime flowers as well as ones that bloom in summer, berries and fruits from the autumn. And, the lack of gravity also inspired me to start working in the way I do. I can change proportions, play with time and seasons, catch flowers in their most beautiful way and combine it with exotic, very rare and beautiful vases from around the world. I want to offer people an image that can give joy, comfort and consolation, and a visual alternative for everyday news.
Please explain the idea of 'remediation', of traditions being passed on from one medium to another. How did you come across this rather evolved idea, and how did you appropriate it for your work, specifically, to blur the lines between photography and classical fine art?
History photography is a genre that started around 2010. Dutch Art historian (specialised in photography) Maartje van den Heuvel first mentioned it after Erwin Olaf's remake of old paintings in Leiden (Netherlands). There are several photographers working on portraiture and still life photography in the style and tradition of the 17th Century Dutch and Flemish masters.
'Remediation' means that the artist switches from one medium to the other. The tradition is oil paint on panel, the remediation is high-end photo prints or diasec or video art.
I cannot tell you how I blurred lines between oil paint and photography. I just did it. I liked the old paintings very much, I've been reading about them, and got fascinated. That's where it started for me. It was a logical step for me to use photography as a medium, because I was familiar to photography and image processing.
Could you give us a little insight into the image-making process, of the multiple layers that go into each image, setting the balance, compositions, and so on? How difficult, and demanding is it to make such photographs?
I've been taking a variety of photos of single flowers in different angles and different stages of bloom since 2010. I've also been taking photos of vases at art and antique fairs like PAN Amsterdam. When I begin building my composition, I start out with the choice of the vase. The vase inspires me to pick the first flower out of my 11,000 photos of flowers. Every step leads to another step, and in this way the composition will get its final form. There are several stages in completing the work, construction, cleaning, editing, lighting and shadows and final inspection.
I don't find it difficult, but if you see how a few photographers do this, I can imagine it to be quite difficult. It demands quite some time to create, sometimes even up to 400+ hours. Most compositions take 50-200 hours to complete. That's time excluding shooting and post-shoot processing and research.
There are many other cultures that speak of the phenomenon of flower paintings, each with their own distinctive style. Tell us about the other styles you have explored or researched? How do you see the Dutch tradition being unique in itself, and distinct from the rest?
I'd been studying the Dutch and Flemish style intensively in my early years. I've started to develop my own style since then. During my visit to India in 2015, I've started researching Mughal flower arrangement, which sometimes do not differ that much from the Dutch, and sometimes differ a lot, being more symmetrical and almost graphic. Since last year, I've been studying more Oriental, Far East, Japanese, and Chinese arrangement styles. And, I've started a series of photographical homages to Sanyu, the Chinese painter (1901-1966).
It will be blazing summer in India, through the course of this show. Have you explored the country much? The change of seasons here does result in some very colourful fauna across our landscapes.
I hadn't explored India very much yet, until now, unfortunately. I hope to experience more and more. I definitely have to come back for a longer episode in the right time in spring! Now, my children are getting a bit older, and it will be easier to travel for me.
You identify yourself as a "self-taught all-rounder". Tell us a little about how you honed your personal interests, channelised your own passion, and how went about giving form to your artistic visions? How did you go about creating your own visual vocabulary, to speak of?
When I started doing digital photography, I had a full-time job, which made it difficult to travel but made it more easy to experiment at home and during little family trips. Reading about photography and looking at other people's work made it easier for me to realise what I prefer and like most in photography. I started using Photoshop in 1998, and have been experimenting a lot in those years. Since 2010, I started combining those two passions, which eventually led to these works. I still do there photography, but not in a professional way, just as a hobby, whenever I find time for it.
Have you ever toyed with the idea of painting with oils yourself? Would you consider your form of image-making to be a lot more intensive than working with oils on canvas?
I'm not experienced in working with oil paint. I've always been interested in photography, ever since I saw images coming to lie in my fathers dark room. So, for me, it's a logical step to use photography instead of oil paint. Oil paint has been done for ages. My work is more contemporary by the choice of this medium. I cannot tell if painting is more intensive than my work or less. The time I spend after collecting my flowers, vases, etc, is in the range between 50-200 hours per work, while exceptions are a couple of pieces that took me over 400 hours of labour.
If ever given the chance, possibly through trick photography, how would you picture yourself as a classical Dutch artist - complete in costume, surrounded by brushes, palettes and easels? would you like to give us a fantasy self-portrait of sorts, of this image of yourself?
I'd prefer the normal portrait. By choosing the tricked one, the message it will send to my public would be that I'm more like a copycat of old Dutch master. I'm not. I'm an artist who makes contemporary photographical still lifes. It's the 21st century and not the 17th!
Tell us a little about the artistic traditions, and photography that you have come across in India. How do you see the form and medium evolving, especially among new media artists?
India has such a different culture other than the West. I've been following Tasveer for a while. I can see great contemporary Indian photography as well as exquisite vintage photography here. When I visit in Mumbai at the beginning of May, I will visit more museums and galleries to explore and experience more of Indian art and photography. I hope it will trigger me to push my limits more.
Would you like to offer a word of advice for aspiring, up-and-coming photographers and artists, to seek and find their own visual métier, and possibly, to reconnect with the natural world for inspiration?
Keep on trying and experimenting, put as many effort in your skills and techniques as you can, try to use the best materials and equipment you can afford, and never give up. Belief in what you're doing and stay close, and faithful to your principles.
At Tasveer, Sua House, until April 25. Monday to Saturday, 10 am-5.30 pm. Details: 4053-5212.