Autopsy: Dutch painter Katinka Lampe, a singular portraitist
” The first time I saw Katinka Lampe’s paintings was in an art fair with her main gallery, Ron Mandos. They exhibited there two or three large format. The size of the canvases was very large (160 X 120 cm) and on each one there was a face represented on the whole surface that was really imposing. I felt of course I was very small compared to them but most of all I felt uncomfortable.
I remember one; it was the face of a child, a girl, with a dark grey cream like a facial mask spread on it, and, instead of hairs, a black bonnet. The eyes looked both empty and deep. The background was just a light gray color.
Another one was a black young girl facing the viewer but her eyes were looking at something -we supposed to the ceiling.- There was no special make up or costume to this one but only the use of incredible skills from the painter in using the brown and the black color. The background was white to enhance the color of the face and the white of the eyes was bright like if lighted from the inside.
Katinka Lampe is certainly the most disturbing portraitist painter of her generation. Her body of works is entirely devoted to strange “real-fake” portraits of children. As I like no more than being disturbed with good contemporary art, I started to examine every single clue of her body of work to understand what it is about.
The Netherlands is THE country of portraits
What if I tell you that Katinka Lampe was born in the country where the art of portraits was born? The Netherlands! This is a huge key of understanding of course. Everyone has in his/her mind one of the wonderful self portraits by Rembrandt or earlier the portraits by Jan Van Eyck.
Van Eyck was considered as the founder of the genre. He was the first one to paint a ¾ head-and-shoulders instead of full-length with the eyes looking at the viewer
Rembrandt Wide-eyes 1630
Rembrandt self portrait 1661
Two centuries later, Rembrandt liked to exercise his painting skills portraying himself with different costumes, hats and postures (see below the famous self portrait of 1661) and the drawing on paper (Rembrandt Wide-eyes 1630). He was the first one to be really free with the representation issue in portrait. He didn’t care about how to represent the reality because he preferred to create his own representation. He knew very early he could play with the reality to make a most interesting composition to the painting.
What about contemporary portraits?
The most interesting characteristic of contemporary art is the freedom in the process of creation. Whether the technique, the size, the colors, the composition, everything is now possible, Duchamp and Picasso have shown the path.
Until recently the art of portrait was considered as something too realistic, too “bourgeois” to belong to contemporary art and Photography took the place for a while, but Painting has that magical “something” that finally makes it back on tracks every time.
Nowadays, the approach of portrait has changed a little and painted portraits are again on the Art Market with famous painters like Elisabeth Peyton or Yan Pei-Ming to name a few.
Earl’s Court – 1996 Democrats are more beautiful (after Jonathan Horowitz)
Oil on board -10 x 8 in 2001- Oil on board -10 x 8 in
Collection Nina and Frank Moore, New York Collection Laura and Stafford Broumand
courtesy New Museum.org courtesy New Museum.org
Double (Bruce Lee) – 2007
Watercolor on paper
60.63 x 109.45 inches 154 x 278 cm
courtesy David Zwirmer Gallery
Ever since the beginnings of the genre, painting portraits served to express the personality of the people represented. Elisabeth Peyton paints portraits to express intimate situations or feelings that match with the person she represents even if she uses the vocabulary of contemporary painting like just a line or a simple touch of color to draw her intimate portraits.
With Katinka Lampe, the portraits are anything but realistic.
The technique of painting is perfect. The colors have a good balance on the canvas.
If the background is flat painted, she uses all the possibilities of traditional painting for the face and costume like the transparency of a veil, the brightness for the white of the eye, the intensity of a black to better enhance a pale face.
The proportions of the face are real and not transformed.
Every single realistic detail is perfectly painted, but we see and feel a strangeness, something bizarre that makes the viewer uncomfortable. Those portraits are anything but smooth and easy.
The portraits Katinka Lampe paints are actually the opposite of realistic or beautiful interpretation of what she sees. They are not a reflection at all of what the child is for real.
Katinka Lampe pushes the boundaries of the portrait to the edge
Actually Katinka Lampe continues to follow the path of Rembrandt’s self portraits, but she pushes the boundaries far away by choosing a very radical definition for her portraits.
First she reduces the portrait to the face with sometimes just a piece of neck. She discards any other possibilities of expressing a personality by putting a hand there or there or with a special posture. Thus, she cuts the composition issue from her paintings to focus only on the face of her young models.
Then, like Rembrandt, she puts to her models some odd costumes, wigs or other details to create the mood in which the model will have to act. And then she asks to her model to mimic some odd situation the way they want. As children are excellent comedians and like to play, it’s easy for them to make some strange grimace. This, combined with the skills of painting of the artist creates together a bizarre portrait which is anything but realistic.
The soul of a child is envisioned through the eye and skills of a great painter. Everything is like theatrical. This is totally fake, a total creation, like a play written for theater. The painter releases her imagination far beyond to a kind of ultimate freedom in creation.
For sure we are far away from the classical idea of portrait on canvas.
This is what we call Avant-garde.
a French voice from LA
Los Angeles, March 7th 2011