Elly Strik - 2005 - Homecoming [EN, interview]
Interview with Elly Strik about some works of art she likes
A work of art feels like a homecoming. It takes us to places that seem familiar, though we have never been there before. Sensitivities, thoughts, patterns, rhythms, sounds and vibrations which lived in an insusceptible and impalpably way within us, take on a new and totally unpredictable but affecting form.
In 2005, I asked Elly Strik to send me some pictures of works of art she liked to include them in a book I was making. Then I asked her why she had chosen those particular works.
On William Degouve de Nuncques: “What I find so beautiful here is the way the light is diffused. I know this painting from the Kröller-Müller Museum where I saw it as a young girl and it lived on in my memory as a painting by Magritte. Only later did I discover that it was painted before Magritte was even born. Moreover, the painting is beautifully constructed: the window which lights up in the darkness on the left and the house on the right which is filled with light. Some of the shrubs and trees in front of the house do look as if they’ve been stuck on. On the ground floor the curtains are drawn, but there is a light on behind them. On the first floor there are no curtains and all the lights are burning. I see the house as a body. Degouve also painted pictures of peacocks, featuring trees which recall dancing Salomés. Very erotic. Not unlike the drawing of the breast-feeding tree we have included towards the end of the book.”
On Khnopff: “I was drawn to symbolism when I was studying at the academy, but after a while I turned away from it in shame. I wanted my work to be more austere, because I thought that was the way to achieve a greater convergence of form and content. But in fact that didn’t work for me. I realized that the convergence I was looking for actually occurs in symbolism. In fact, I now believe that all artists have something of a symbolist. Even Duchamp. As for this landscape by Khnopff, it is intangible. It is a dream. And there is almost no shadow in it. It is all light and green, very tranquil.”
On Johann Hauser: “I am always deeply affected by this man’s work. His figures are almost primeval, they are primal screams. All his images are highly charged. My approach is of course very different. Hauser is seen as a patient; it could be that he didn’t have a conscious method. But I always look at a picture to see what it can give me and then it doesn’t matter how it was made, by whom or in what circumstances.”
On Heinrich Heine’s death mask: “I wanted to include Heine in this book because of the line: ‘Speak woman, what shall I give you?’ He is also the one who injected new life into the story of Salomé, after it had fallen out of favour. Why did I choose this portrait and not another? He is dead, of course. It didn’t occur to me to portray him as someone who is still alive. The photograph is taken from the book Das ewige Antlitz, which only contains photographs of death masks. It was given to me as a present… When I get stuck, I take a look at that book.”
Does her interest in death masks also have something to do with the idea of the ‘mask’? “No. And they are not real masks. They are casts of faces.”
On Spilliaert: “I have chosen two paintings by Spilliaert in which something similar happens: a self-portrait and a landscape. In the first painting Spilliaert’s reflection – his self-portrait – is captured in the mirror like a stray ghost. That sounds alarming, but he gives himself the chance to escape by isolating one eye, encircling it with black. This eye is in contact with the viewer. He extricates himself from his own eye by painting a mask around it. In the second painting, the passages under the bridge, which are much lighter than the rest of the painting, also make us think of a mask. It’s also nice to notice that Spilliaert seems to use the reflective water surface in the same way as he uses the mirror in his self-portraits. I see Spilliaert and Ensor as kindred spirits. In my opinion Ensor also sought relief and escape through his masks; he simply turned them into a ‘feast’. Spilliaert knew Ensor and would often stand and wait for him at his front door, so that he would not have to go out walking on his own, or rather, go out ‘spooking’. But if Ensor saw Spilliaert standing there, he stayed indoors.”
On The Studio by Philip Guston: “The work is a repetition. I find the repetitions in this work incredibly beautiful. The cigarette is in the same position as the brush. The eyes in the painter’s hood are repeated in the painting, just as the black dots on the front of the easel are repeated on the side of the canvas. The window is partly obscured by what looks like a roller blind, just as what appears to be a curtain is draped around the painting. And the smoke is given form. That’s very subtle. The cloud of smoke doesn’t come from the cigarette, but hangs in the air much further away. The clock, the light, the eyes: they are all important. I don’t know if the painter’s disguise has something to do with anonymity or the Ku Klux Klan. Perhaps it is also a sort of ‘wiedergutmachung’, a reparation. But I don’t know Guston, nor what he thought. In photographs he looks a very amiable sort; I don’t think he was involved in politics, quite honestly. I once saw him painting in a documentary. He made a line, and then he came back with his brush and painted the last bit of that line again to continue the movement. A very beautiful movement.”
On Fra Angelico: “Fra Angelico or Beato Angelico is one of my favourite painters. He was canonized as a painter. I find almost all his work totally disarming. It is unbelievable how it takes me unawares, how it affects me. It has even moved me to tears. He painted with such chasteness. In my view, ‘Noli me tangere’ is all about respect. I see this work as the beginning, the beginning of art. The two figures are very close, but they don’t need to touch. And they go their separate ways. That’s nice. I’ve seen this work in San Marco in Florence. Each friar’s cell contains one painting. He painted them with his assistants. I’ve been there twice. The first time you could look at the frescoes from close to. Ten years later, they had cordoned off the cells so that you could only view them from a distance. There were not many pictures in Angelico’s days. Imagine the impact an image like this must have had when you lived with it every day! I have visited Fra Angelico’s tomb in Rome. I couldn’t find it at first; I didn’t expect it to be so simple and inconspicuous.”
On Goya’s El entierro de la sardina: “The title of the work speaks of a burial, but when I look at it I see a wedding. I’ve seen the work in Madrid, not in the Prado, but in that museum which also has two superb self-portraits by Goya. I think it’s wonderful that the people carry that portrait in a procession. Actually I’ve always had a soft spot for that face, perhaps because it comes across as so ‘non-guilty’. It almost touches the tree and at the same time it stands out against the light of the clouds. The whole thing is crazy, but why not? It’s a celebration after all.”
On Bas Jan Ader’s photograph: “I don’t know if I’ve interpreted this image correctly, so for that reason I am not entirely certain if we should include it. I don’t want any lies in this book. What I find so powerful in this image is that the lamp is not directed at the writing, but half at the empty wall next to it. Half-half. It is in this ‘empty’ half that things can begin to happen. Space is made available for something else. This photograph hung in my studio for a while. I, too, look for what can be eliminated. I think I do something similar with the peacock feathers.”
On the images from the film King Kong: “This legendary film dates from 1933. I wanted to include two images from it in the book, one of King Kong and one of Fay Wray. When Fay Wray was asked to play the role, she was told that her opposite number would be very dark. She did not of course suspect that it would be a gorilla. My Fay Wray drawing is in fact the image of ‘the terrible primordial mother’: something that gives and takes at the same time. I hadn’t realized this when I made it, I discovered it much later. The idea of combining gorilla heads with seductive women was inspired by the artistic, feminist pressure group, the Guerilla Girls, who want to remain anonymous and so give themselves names drawn from history. The work didn’t have a name when I finished it, but the same day the actress Fay Wray died. The title was given to me. As a tribute to her they made the lights of the Empire State Building in New York flicker for fifteen minutes. I thought that was wonderful.”
Montagne de Miel, November 14th 2005