VAN DER LEEUW
"ME OR SOMEONE ELSE"
MARCH 29, 2021 BY: Felicity Carter
© Hans van der Leeuw
At first glance, van der Leeuw's portraits look firmly rooted in the Dutch classical tradition, however it quickly becomes obvious that style is used primarily as response to the subject at hand, like colors on the palette. The emphasis is on psychology and lack of formality. Van der Leeuw's portraits are the result of interaction and interpretation rather than formal representation, he doesn't aim to simply please.
"For me, the portrait is a theatrical play with eyes, nose, mouth and the light as principal actors. Comedy or drama, equally interesting. I feel that in essence every portrait is a self-portrait too, I don't want to please nor do I aim at merely creating a realistic representation. I like to capture the moment and preferably paint more than one portrait of a subject, nobody is just one person."
- Van Der Leeuw
What is your first memory of art?
My first experience with art was through a subscription to a very influential art magazine when I was a kid back in the 60’s. Reproductions of artworks from Dutch public collections would regularly arrive in the mail and it was my job to add them to a fancy dark blue binder with gold lettering. The oftentimes classical artworks, ranging from Rembrandt to Mondrian, would be explained in writing and in radio talks by experts in the field. My first live art memory was seeing Gilbert and George’s first Living Sculpture performance in 1969 on the stairs of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, thanks to the monthly museum lessons that were part of the curriculum in the better elementary schools back then. And don’t forget it was also in the middle of the Vietnam war and Neil Armstrong took his first small step, confusion ruled…
First off, how would you sum up your work?
I think I paint people, not portraits. The combination of both classical and conceptual art is still present in my work. In the 80’s I studied at the then still very old fashioned Rijksacademie in Amsterdam, painting and drawing live models for four years, well shielded from much more exciting things that were going on in the real world. After graduation it didn’t take long to shed academism in favor of a more symbolic and conceptual approach to art. I got tired of the art world and through a commissioned piece for a big company I became a freelance marketing and communications expert for a number of years. When I started making art again, I very deliberately chose a direction out of my comfort zone and relatively new to me, representational portraits in oils.
How do you approach a painting? What do you gather first, someone’s aura or do you look at their facial features and expressions?
A sizable part of my work consists of “Muse interpretations”. At the base of these portraits are often found references (Instagram selfies). Post teenage angst combined with a wonderfully self-conscious awareness of “the good side” of the face are just two of the triggers that might start me off on a portrait.
For me, appropriation of a found image is an artistic statement and is not to be mistaken for just using photo reference. What makes selfies interesting is that they are the quintessential self-portraits, made on the subject’s own terms, reflecting how they prefer to be seen by others and how they like themselves best. As an added bonus, most of the digital pics won’t survive long, not nearly as long as my painted interpretations will and that appeals to my love for archiving life.
© Hans van der Leeuw
What do you look to capture and communicate?
I paint selected people because they fit my narrative, not the individual personality but “us”.
I deliberately simplify and generalize. I love honesty and I love fake. I love things to be tongue-in-cheek but I don’t like funny and stories. Most of all I like contradicting myself and using style variations, I’m not the same person every day. A famous fashion model or an anonymous girl after a rough day, they are two sides of the same coin. A boy or a girl or somewhere in between, two sides of a coin. Me or someone else, the same... They say all portraits are basically self-portraits and I think that’s true. I hardly ever accept portrait commissions because in most people I struggle to find pieces of my story. However much I empathize, my models are subordinate to my message. I reverse the process by appropriating selfies of ‘anonymous’ people to portray emotions we all share. I paint me and hopefully part of all of us.
Tell us about the color palette and why you use more muted tones?
It has nothing to do with Rembrandt who is known to have commented on his use of earth colors as “creating the divine out of humble dirt”. For me, paint is a fabulously yummy and versatile means, never the message. I try hard to make my painted words count, no carefully choreographed drips and swooshes that appear to be energetic and free but are often only lazy. I want the paint to whisper and breathe and a more subdued palette is a logical choice. perhaps also because I’m Dutch, had I been born under the bright California sun, things probably would have been quite different.
How has lockdown impacted on the logistics of your work? Do you still have sittings or do you paint from reference. What are the pro’s and cons?
Apart from obvious Covid restrictions... who has the time for multiple extended sittings? Posing can be fun, sure, but I think it often has more to do with the artist’s ego than that it necessarily helps to create a good work of art. Flexibility is key, go with the flow and take it as it comes. There are plenty of portrait painters that paint exclusively from live models and attach a medal of excellence to their work based solely on that premise. I believe that’s ridiculous, “exclusively from life” goes beyond preserving and honoring classic techniques, it is downright stubborn conservatism and often tries to hide the fact that the artist lacks vision.
I don’t mind using photographic references at all, quite the contrary. Apart from thus being able to paint people from all walks of life from all over the world, it has a ‘time’ element that I love. The photographic fraction of a second, the unseen image. The image that transforms into a much more fluid state as a result of the time and effort it takes to create a painting.
© Hans van der Leeuw
Have you seen a change in your subjects (i.e. the struggles of lockdown / strains on mental health) and does that feed into your work?
Not a lot of change, but that’s because I’m me. I don’t feel I paint depressed or hurt faces, but I usually don’t paint happy faces, that’s true. I want to paint the “honest face”, the one you have when you make coffee in the morning without anyone around, nothing particularly happy or sad going on, just you and your face. The honest face gives center stage to the traces daily life has drawn on its surface and comes close to the actual self. The artistic consequence is that my portraits are open for interpretation, mirroring the sentiment of the viewer and changing with their own mood. Last year I painted a small series of portraits of people experiencing the first global lockdown in history. The selfies I received, after having posted an open invitation, really weren’t very different from the ones I would have considered painting under normal circumstances. The small texts, I later invited the subjects to write to accompany the portraits, added a more specific documentary context and so, in a way, added gravitas and displayed not surprisingly remarkably similar emotions.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
I’ve always loved sequences, I paint most of my favorite models more than once and will keep on doing that for the next couple of years. After a first portrait I often keep in touch and invite people to send me pics I might find interesting, or work together producing reference pics. Hannah, who features in my 2020 isolation portraits series kindly sent me a pic after she suffered a broken nose due to a skateboard accident. Because of Covid a number of shows for last year and ’21 were canceled or postponed, I’ll focus on making new work! I love painting us and that’s just what I will do.
Hans van der Leeuw
Text: Felicity Carter
Illustrations: Hans Van Der LEEUW