Rotterdam.Jasper Krabb

By Jonathan Turner

In this age of biennales, art fairs and blockbuster exhibitions with grand themes, how often do we have the chance to slow down, to take a closer look at a more intimate and focused approach to contemporary art. For his solo exhibition, installed over two floors at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam (opening February 23), and accompanied by a new 300-page book, Amsterdam artist Jasper Krabbé has created more than 200 works devoted to a single subject, one year in the life of his wife Floor. In a variety of techniques and styles, he has captured the many facets of her changing moods and appearances, from exuberant to withdrawn. He provides a personal panorama of obsession, surveillance and affection.  Here, the artist presents his 21st Century reinterpretation of an age-old source of inspiration, namely the muse.

Whether in a carefully studied academic painting, a rough sketch or a few minimal pencil lines showing a refined silhouette, Jasper Krabbé’s recent work continues the long tradition in which the portrait represents the purest relationship between an image and its context. His muse is Floor, his partner of 15 years, and the mother of their two daughters. Seen through Krabbé’s eyes, Floor is a chameleon. She is shown relaxed or stiffly posed, dressed in formal clothes or nude, wearing make-up or only just awake. She alternately appears proudly confident, then hesitantly shy.

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“I’m fascinated by all the different appearances Floor has,” says Krabbé. ”She has so many distinct looks, from melancholic and silent, to being brutally shameless, in-your-face. You can never find someone’s identity in a single fixed image. Like on a Google search, I was interested in discovering whether from a huge number of images, the reality of who she is can emerge.“

“It’s a declaration of love, a method of research, but it’s in no way scientific. I’m trying to get closer to the woman with whom I live. It’s about getting through layers to find the true identity. Anyhow in this case, the muse chose me. I have been painting Floor for years, but I didn’t realize she was my muse until I found I was tempted again and again to try to grasp her elusiveness.”

The original muses of Greek mythology were the nine daughters of Zeus. They were the generous goddesses of the arts and knowledge who functioned as the sources of inspiration. Since then, the world has seen many artists fall under the spell of their muses. Rembrandt had Saskia, Dante had Beatrice, Salvador Dali had Gala, and Picasso had his changing harem of muses.  George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion, a play which was later transformed into My Fair Lady, a tale about a man falling in love and moulding his idealized beauty according to his whim.

Instead, Krabbé has set out to record all the emotional subtleties and exaggerations of his wife’s behaviour, overlapping the territory between intimacy and public behaviour. Floor is a strong woman, not a passive subject, depicted at home in Amsterdam, in London, in Spain, in the south of France, in hotel rooms, walking in a forest, at Schiphol airport, and in such places as Bali, Biarritz and Curacao.  As a doctor specialized in aesthetic medicine, she is a complicit yet independent model.

“The power of the muse still lies in her ability to get inside the artist’s mind and plant the seed for a new artistic vision,” writes art historian Pietje Tegenbosch in her introduction to Closer to you, the book which accompanies Krabbé’s solo show at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. “Whereas in the past the aim was to create a cohesive image of a harmonious world, regarded as the truth, in the modern era the attention has focused on a process of individualisation, seeking to isolate the particular and unique from the more general. This shift has created problems for portraiture – perhaps the most important territory of the muse. How can the artist gain access to the subject’s inner self, except via his or her outward appearance? After all, what is brought to light must Viagra previously have been in the dark. Portraits are revelatory: they penetrate the obscurity of the subject’s personality to spotlight hidden features. By doing so, they render specific what was initially generic or homogenous. Krabbé’s portraits – and the meandering way in which he experiments with different styles and forms – reflect more than just the way the artist sees his wife. The game he plays in order to fathom her (essentially enigmatic) identity also implies a reflection on the genre itself, on the structure of the portrait and what characterises the image as such.”

In Krabbé’s series of portraits, Floor’s attitude ranges from the brazenly sexual to the bored, as she undertakes the casual activities of domestic life.  The artist himself refers back to Bonnard’s wife portrayed in the bath, or stepping out of the bath, and the women in the paintings of Balthus, combing their hair.

“Sometimes I have been inspired by artists long gone, by the shadows and silhouettes of Modigliani, Schiele and Munch, or the erotic drawings of Ingres. But I’m equally inspired by contemporary painters, and by brightly coloured film posters, street art, packaging and travel brochures. Other works are not strictly portraits at all, since they don’t show Floor, but an association, or an image of what she could be, like a starfish, a fragile creature, refined, you touch it and it reacts. These are the sorts of objects she collects from the beach.”

Meanwhile, verging on the conceptual, a scrubby, blue, abstract pastel is entitled How I feel about you. (“This represents turmoil. I roughly drew over a couple of older drawings.”) Hence, some of these works are similar to those out-of-focus snapshots you immediately discard, but which in fact might be more honest representations of a person than the flattering, more obvious photos you show to friends.

There is also symbolism in Krabbé’s choice of media. His materials are almost always used, second-hand, or found.  Floor’s face emerges from the surface of torn cardboard, handmade watercolour paper, wooden panels, and note-book pages. Her features are outlined and shaded in lead pencil, crayon, watercolour, gouache, charcoal and thin paint. His techniques are opaque, the special effects are the results of disturbances in the materials. This see-through aspect purposely reflects the transparency of the subject. The finished works often appear damaged, oxidized, fragile yet resilient. Each portrait hangs as part of the larger installation its own special frame, ranging from a cheap Indian reproduction found in a junk shop to a carved, gilded antique frame.

For Jasper Krabbé, it is essential that all the works come together in the single idea that Floor could have been born at any time, in any century. She is an ageless beauty, simultaneously ancient and contemporary, depicted using the aesthetics and incidental beauty of chance.

Floor has her own particular viewpoint. “We’ve been together so long, I find it unusual that he still spends time looking so closely at me,” she says. “Of course, I like some of his images more than others, but even so, I still have a distance from them. They aren’t me. They are pictures of me.”

So what is it that triggers Jasper Krabbé to choose a particular moment to create a portrait of his wife? “It could be a profile, a look when she is walking in front of me, when she isn’t paying attention. An image can grab you for its symmetry and colour. It might just be the way in which the light hits her face, or a sexual hint, or a more psychological aspect when she looks back defensively. But I am also inspired by her universal femininity, her movements as she dries her hair, the way she tilts her head, or reads a book. There is grace in the small actions of everyday life.”


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Exhibition curated by Jannet de Goede -Kunsthal Rotterdam, February 24-May 20, 2012 -Book published by WBOOKS

300 pages, 180 reproductions, with texts by Pietje Tegenbosch and Jonathan Turner

ISBN 978 90 891 0280 5 – English 69,95