Drs. Vincent Botella
On the work of Ineke van Koningsbruggen
What would it look like, if the earth herself could paint? A little piece of the vast landscape, that for a moment creeping under the skin of the artist and making a self portrait, and not like us viewing the earth and the land as outsiders. Self portrait of a piece of farmland, it could be called. Over the years, painter Ineke van Koningsbruggen (1943) developed a special, very intimate relationship with the earth as it exists in certain pockets of farmland. Her paintings look abstract, but they actually convey the consise summary of her experiences in the landscapes that she chose. And, perhaps, they convey the experience these landscapes have with her!
That might sound a bit woolly, but it is in fact incredibly physical and concrete, and one can hardly call the eloquent and sportive Van Koningsbruggen woolly - not even close. It is very much worth the effort to look more closely at Van Koningsbruggen’s working method, where, in a nonverbal way, she enters into a dialogue with the ‘intentions’ and ‘movements’ of the landscape on a specific site.
Her intentions as an artist are on the one hand quite contemporary, due to the abstract, formal, and conceptual elements they entail. On the other hand, her artistry is rooted in the old European especially French tradition of landscape painting. The French were the first to search for the essential values of the classical tradition, going back over two thousand years, in the landscape. When artists such as Lorrain, Corot, or Cézanne painted a landscape, they emphasized its sustainability and the permanence, as well as the related elements that provide rhythm, scale, balance, and harmony.
It is as if Van Koningsbruggen, with all the knowledge and experience she has as a contemporary artist, aspires to join their tracks. Her use of paint is dramatic and her imagery abstract - of course. Naturally, she observed twentieth-century German and American painters thoroughly - but her underlying intention seems to be grafted onto the classical French tradition, that aspires to make a certain strength and sustainability tangible in a piece of art. Oftentimes, this is an intuitively-felt sustainability, like the French philosopher Henri Bergson articulated and the French painter Henri Matisse painted.
It is the emphasis on this felt sustainability, much more than on the perceived sustainability, that makes Van Koningsbruggen a child of our time. Twentieth-century art knows many experiments where artists attempt to identify themselves with animals, machines, objects, or art itself. Van Koningsbruggen allows the landscape - the total experience of the landscape - to take possession of her. This is not without any struggle, as we will see below. It is not something you just do with your imagination. On the contrary, you do it, with your whole body and spirit.
The process and the practice
So how does Van Koningsbruggen make a painting out of her total experience in a landscape? It demands a conversion of experience to painting, more difficult to achieve than the hand-eye coordination needed to merely paint what you see. Moreover, it requires the ability of the artist to step into an out of the ordinary way of experiencing. From the customary ‘touristy’ manner of experiencing - as I will call it - she has to step into a way of being, where she doesn’t look at the landscape as a tourist would, enjoying the view and perhaps taking a picture, but rather where she actually partakes completely in it.
Due to this unusual longing, Van Koningsbruggen found that painting is really a practice that has to fit the personality of the painter like a glove. She is a mobile person, by nature, active, and sportive. Furthermore she is also a thinker that speaks with ease, and taught art history, color, and composition. From these ingredients, she distilled, during the course of the first twenty years of her professional career, a completely personal practice that enables her to make the desired conversions. First, from the regular way of experiencing the landscape to a basic form of total experience. Later on, in the studio, the conversion of the sketches originating in the total experience to the formal language of the painting. That is to say, taking the characteristics of canvas, paint and painting utensils into account, including her own hands.
‘Hassle’ as ritual
At the beginning of her artistic work, Van Koningsbruggen stands barefoot on the earth, surrounded by the scenery. For practical reasons, (weather and traffic) this is the landscape of France and Spain already for years, but it has occasionally also been the Netherlands or the Dominican Republic. The main artistic criterion the landscape has to meet, is the ability to move her European painter’s soul, and that is always a landscape where farm life has left its mark.
European landscape painters have almost always painted farmland, ever since the landscape made its appearance in Europe in the fourteenth century. There have only been a few brief exceptions. Asia, especially China, has known a much older tradition of landscape painting, where the untamed wilderness takes the center stage. The European landscape in the arts, on the other hand, is a tamed landscape. A landscape that has taken shape through the dialogue between order and chaos, so typical of farm life. Of course, China is originally very much a farming country as well, but that is not reflected in her art.
Standing, Van Koningsbruggen takes her place in the country, accompanied by her trusted utensils. The worn-out, thirty year old camping table that is basically just a frame since it lost its table leaf long ago. That special, oversized plywood sheet set loosely on top of it. The loose hardboard panels to clamp the paper on. When she draws, these hardboard panels must always be perpendicular to the plywood sheet, leaving enough room on both sides while the panel protrudes at the front and the back. The ancient wine box at her feet, where the paper clips belong on the edge, and nowhere else, filled with a hodgepodge of charcoal, Siberian chalk, dry pastels, brushes, and paint cans.
An unshakable ordering of ramshackle, worn to the bone stuff, nothing of which can be thrown away or replaced. Moreover, it is a lot of hassle dragging all these things to the right place. Almost impossible to carry. Even Van Koningsbruggen thinks, when she plows like a mule through the soft soil: “This is insane!” But it must be this way. That’s for sure, otherwise she can’t get going nothing will happen. She could make things so much easier for herself with a modern, cleverly designed multifunctional box...on wheels. But that will not help her at all, because nothing will happen that way.
This arduous arrival is part of the commencement. Walking over hillocks, she immerses herself in the sights, scents and sensations of the vegetation, the sun and the wind, the insects, the changing light in everything. It is a total experience. She arrives as an outsider, but as this ritual of hassling around with too old and too cumbersome stuff progresses, she becomes a participant in the landscape and starts to feel the physical language of it in her body.
This beginning is a long and ritualized process to step from her daily manner of being into the mythical space of the earth. A space where the earth, through quarries and ruts, slots and traces, speaks a wordless, sturdy language with man. The earth only delivers her crops and fruits after a great amount of work has been done. As mentioned before, she feels attracted to cultivated land, like all the European painters that live in her memory.
Works on paper
Oftentimes there is, once arrived, a period of ritual procrastination. Smoking a cigarette while laying on the ground, odds and ends in the box, staring at the empty pieces of paper maybe they have a suggestion? Until the first movement emerges. It always starts with a movement. When the complete hassle has immersed her sufficiently into the landscape, a movement emerges that could only take over her body here in this particular place. And from this movement, a first beginning, in charcoal on paper, comes forth. She draws then, almost like a seismograph that registers the inner movement of the landscape, with lines that follow, something rather than indicating something. She draws the landscape from within. During this well-defined and necessary ‘hassle’, the landscape mysteriously changes from an exterior view to a movement within her.
When the act of drawing, a sort of inner registration, has taken her over enough, she can also apply color with pastel or paint. Usually not the visible colors. Rather, she applies, the sensible colors she perceives, like the colors of the wind, heat or cold, or the colors that soil and crops perspire with their scents. Moreover, it is the colors of something indefinable that one might call the depth of the Earth. As if earth and stones have their own atmosphere, their own deep space with a much more sustainable hue than the sky.
During a short time span, she makes a large amount of works on paper, out of which she can only decide afterwards which ones are ‘right’ and which ones are not. The better ones, and therefore later also the usable ones, have an unpredictable simplicity that consists of a limited color palette and a basic, summarizing form. For example, a bisector, a loosely applied oval, rhythmic stripes or angular planes that summarize the essence, the bottom line of this place. ‘Essence’ in the sense of ‘what it comes down to’, the ground that you land on when you are here all the way, not distracted by anything, not even by your own thoughts and feelings about this place.
The second phase of her work takes place in the studio. For, sketching outdoors she does in the summer, while she works in her studio during the three other seasons of the year.
Here in the studio, the painting always starts with the ‘summer sketches’, the works on paper, that she made standing in the landscape. She cannot just, out of the blue, create a painting in the studio, because she does not work ‘by heart’. The grounding outside on the land is necessary and the sketches function as a bridge to that experience. After all, they form the precipitation of her experiences and movements on that place and in that moment, immersed as she was in the language of the earth.
In the studio, she lays the sketches out around her, almost like an echo of the experience in the landscape. With the drawings around her, a new process starts, that one might call ‘the land tillage’. The ground of the painting must be prepared first.
She starts to paint, loosely led by a chosen work on paper. In this stage, the main objective is to fill the canvas. She wants to get rid of the sterile white. She also starts to scrabble in between. This is again working on paper, but on another level than in the landscape. With the scrabbles, she introduces the thinking process in painting, a visual thinking process. After the intuitive, motoric appropriation that took place on the land, now a slow reflective regeneration takes place within the limits the painting imposes.
The scrabbles look like classifications, thoughts about the division of the surface. As wordless and intuitive the first experience on the land was, a thought process is required, namely, on what the painting allows, in such a way that the comprehensive experience from the landscape allows itself to be retrieved on the limited space of the canvas. Perhaps one can compare this with the work of a farmer. First she mainly identified herself with the earth, now it is the turn of man cultivating the earth, thinking about how he wants it and where he wants to go. However, always within the framework the earth allows him.
While painting, a new balance arises, that is just as physical and intuitive as her working method in the middle of the land. Painting with oil paint on large surfaces is heavy duty work and almost as hard as working on the land. But in contrast to her working method outside, she is now not exclusively receptive in her demeanor. In a goal oriented way, she recreates that immersion in the country. Not necessarily of that particular spot or because of that one sketch, but the experience itself of partaking in the language of the earth, expressed in an intense, pictorial language.
In the studio she enacts a new dialogue between ‘orderly’ intention and ‘wild’ receptivity, where the result of this dialogue can become a reality for the viewer instead of an image of reality. The smooth, wayward paint is assigned the role of earth: the thick, rich soil that yields her fruits only after lengthy cultivation. Hand, brush, spatula, and palette knife receive the role of the plowing and weeding man, working in the soil and demarcating her space. The vibrating colors, oftentimes a sharp contrast between two complex and layered colors, recreate the depth that, together with the earth and her adaptations, enacts a unique totality for this moment. Durable and transient at the same time.
In her studio, Van Koningsbruggen rebuilds a real experience she had before. In that sense, her paintings do not represent anything, because she is not portraying anything. The paintings are not re-presentations or de-pictions. A better description would be that they are instruments to bring a specific experience back to life. The experience of a wordless, uniquely structured totality that enters through her feet from the earth and through her eyes from the horizon, because it is about the earth, and nothing but the earth. It is a natural choice that she made when she was mature enough for it, suiting the vital, earthly creature she is deep inside.