We are inclined to pass snap judgments on other people. We quickly form an opinion on the basis of their appearance or behaviour. The beautiful but discomfiting paintings of Dutch artist Ad Gerritsen (1940-2015, Arnhem) confront us with these processes of looking at and assessing our fellow humans. Often they evoke a sense of menace, the underlying narrative and image too gruesome for words, while the work itself actually makes you feel good. The Gemeentemuseum is now bringing together a large number of paintings from Gerritsen’s idiosyncratic body of work, highlighting their topicality in today’s world.
Gerritsen mainly painted people. Every facial expression or posture of his subjects suggests something. We constantly have the sense that something is going on. His work is often regarded as discomfiting on closer inspection because it intervenes and comments on how we function in society.
Ad Gerritsen portrayed characters on the fringes of society, including criminals, but also vulnerable individuals like traumatised children, women being harassed and psychiatric patients. Isolated from those around them, they convey some deeper meaning that is not always easily to define. The paintings immediately draw our attention with their strong colours. Unlike the photographs that Gerritsen often used as a source for his paintings, he was keen to escape the chilling atmosphere of the images. ‘A good painting distracts you by its beauty, the aesthetic, but it also has to have something that makes you unable to get it out of your mind’, he said. Every work, however austere or pared down it appears to be, has several layers of meaning that can be related to controversial aspects of our daily lives, wherever we are in the world.
In the colourful painting England, London, a group of people approach the viewer. They seem agitated. Is this a demonstration, or are they fleeing something? This work was inspired by a photograph Gerritsen saw in the newspaper of a group of people being evacuated after the attack on the London Underground in 2005.
A man sitting on a bench in a red jacket, his tie flapping, seems to be sleeping peacefully. But his faces looks ashen, so he might in fact be dead. ‘I left it unclear as to whether he is dead or asleep’, Gerritsen once said of this painting. ‘If I were to make it clear I would impose too many constraints on myself as I develop the painting.’
After attending trade school Gerritsen trained to be a confectioner but, having drawn from a young age, after his military training he enrolled at the art academy in Arnhem, where he studied for eighteen months. From 1964 onwards he built an oeuvre of drawings, paintings, objects, installations and performances, all of which hinge on his fascination with human expression and its impact. Gerritsen took images from art history, the visual media, the world of science and his own surroundings. His first exhibition in 1972 in Arnhem sold out instantly. He stopped painting and started working as a creative therapist, something he felt driven to do out of sheer curiosity. In the early 1980s he took up his paintbrush again.
Ad Gerritsen – Topicalities shines the spotlight on an artist who is known and loved above all in his own circle and among fellow artists, though he is less well known among the general public. For many visitors the exhibition will provide an opportunity to discover a fascinating body of work for the first time. The Gemeentemuseum recently received a donation of several works from the artist’s estate, and these are of course included in the exhibition. It also includes some of Gerritsen’s finest work from the collections of AkzoNobel Art Foundation and Museum Arnhem, as well as several private collections.
In homage to Ad Gerritsen and as a thank-you to his heirs’ generous donation, AkzoNobel Art Foundation is to commission writer Mischa Andriessen and filmmaker Gerrit Schreurs to make a film which includes interviews with former students, fellow artists like Gijs Assmann and Ronald Ophuis, and grandson Levy with whom Gerritsen prepared his final work. The documentary includes footage never seen before of Gerritsen working and talking about his work.
A publication entitled Het ontstellende werk van Ad Gerritsen (2002, in Dutch only), which presents an overview of Gerritsen’s work, and includes an essay by our modern art curator Hans Janssen, will be available at the museum shop.