Compiling an attractive and wholesome summer exhibition: it’s an art form in itself. During the cultural low season, when the regular audience has migrated to southern European beaches, museums hoping to maintain healthy visitor statistics choose to cater to tourists, staycationists, and day-trippers. And that requires a special type of show. Of course, the fun factor is to be reckoned with; the subject should not be too highbrow and instead have a broad, preferably universal appeal. Some couleur locale, however, is an indispensable pull factor lending some urgency to visit this location specifically. And in times of fierce competition with other leisure activities, the quality of what’s on show has to be top grade.
De Hallen in Haarlem has quite a lot of experience with dog day exhibitions. This year marks the eighth time the museum has organized a large summer show. The 2014 edition is entitled Lucht! (Sky!) and—at first sight, at least—seems to be absolutely spot on. The subject, how artists during roughly a century and a half have represented the sky, has an immediate appeal and is Dutch to the extreme. Ever since the painters of the Golden Age started depicting altocumulus humilis and stratus nebulosus, the firmament has been a constant factor in Dutch art. Moreover, the artist credited with “inventing” the genre of landscapes with lots of sky, Jacob van Ruisdael, was born in Haarlem.
Charles Leickert, Winterlandschap bij ondergaande zon, ca. 1849, Oil on panel; Collection Simonis & Buunk, Ede
Lucht! does not go back all the way to the seventeenth century, so as not to become an exhibition of genre painting. The starting point is 1850, around the time paint in tubes came onto the market enabling artists to take their easels out into the fields and paint the sky while standing right underneath it. Among those working plein air were the likes of J. H. Weissenbruch and Jacob Maris, important representatives of the Haagse School whose windmills and small harbors with fishing boats are etched into the national soul. The same goes for Willem Roelofs’ pastoral landscapes with cows or Charles Leickert’s winter scenes. Andreas Schelfhout with his romantic style and eye for detail can be seen as a direct descendent of Ruisdael’s.
These nineteenth century works are offset by and juxtaposed to art from all decades of the twentieth century and later. The exhibition jumps from Leo Gestel’s impressionistically influenced Herfst (1909) via Pyke Koch’s magical realism, Gerrit Benner’s cocky neo-expressionism, and Marinus Boezem’s conceptualist attempts to document the heavens in lead boxes or satellite images, to contemporary contributions such as Carla Klein’s paintings, a video by Guido van der Werve and the internet-injected art of Floris Kaayk and Anne de Vries. Some work is quite cerebral—Jan Andriesse’s Primary Rainbow, for example, which tries to capture light in a monochrome white painting—but there is also humor—John Körmeling’s polystyrene cloud with a hole in it and a spotlight shining on a doll in a deckchair never fails to bring a smile to faces.
All media are represented. The roster of names has a respectable ring to it. And it’s not as if De Hallen approached this exhibition as a glorified reshuffle of its own collection; for Lucht! a lot of works were loaned from private collections and other museums. This exhibition, in other words, pretty much ticks all the boxes for the perfect summer show. Except for one thing: the curators forgot to tell a story.
Instead of a chronological set-up, which could have yielded some insight in the historical development of skyscapes but which would probably not appeal to a larger audience, a thematic approach has been opted for. Nothing wrong with that, but in this case the idea of a theme is defined in a rather narrow and formalistic way. Basically all works dealing with horizons are stuck together, rainbows go with rainbows, there’s a room dedicated to clouds, et cetera, et cetera. At first the resulting clash of eras, styles, and schools is refreshing and exciting but quite soon the novelty wears off and you’re left with an empty shell of an exhibition. The only statement this large-scale show makes is: look how often the sky has been depicted in all kinds of art. It doesn’t ponder the question why the sky is such a popular theme. Nor why it’s popular specifically in the Netherlands.
An answer to the latter question could be that we live in an unusually flat country offering grand vistas. The sky is a constant in every Dutchman’s life. It is also the only part of the physical realm which is absolutely free and beyond human control—a rather appealing notion for artists living in one of the most densely populated and regulated countries in the world, I’d reckon. Some have tried to colonize or conquer the sky, like Elspeth Diederix, who photographed a cluster of plastic bags in the shape of a cloud, or Fiona Tan, who got lifted off the ground by a large bunch of balloons, but everybody knows these attempts are fantastic or absurd and therefore on the edge of reality, the realm where art flourishes.
Guido van der Werve, Nummer negen, The day I didn't turn with the world, 2007, HD video on Mac mini, 9 minutes; Frans Hals Museum | De Hallen Haarlem; Courtesy the artist and Galerie Juliètte Jongma, Amsterdam
For a number of artists in Lucht! the sky acts as a kind of mirror of ideas or emotions. Romantics such as Maris considered the dramatically grey skies over meadows and sea as reflections of the soul. For an expressionist like Quirijn van Tiel, who in 1943 painted a wonderful landscape crowned with a blazing storm of orange and black, the firmament expresses the horrors of World War II. And for a younger generation the translation of earthly mishaps into celestial forms is even more direct; Raquel Maulwurf, for example, depicts the deadly clouds resulting from nuclear tests near the Russian town of Semipalatinsk.
The only section of Lucht! achieving some kind of an extra layer is the room dealing with horizons. In the paintings of JCJ Vanderheyden, Jan Dibbets’ serialized pictures, and Wout Berger’s large photos of the IJsselmeer where the water at some undetectable point merges with air, the elusive nature of the sky comes to the fore. The horizon is a border that can never be reached, an ever-shifting framework to our existence. But as soon as this mystery is touched upon, the curators shift back to their easy categorization. In the case of individual works the captions sometimes dig a little deeper, but as a whole the exhibition lacks a conceptual backbone. Lucht! brings together a collection of great works, but that does not automatically make this a great exhibition.
(Image on top: Leo Gestel, Herfst, 1909, Oil on canvas; Kranenburgh, Bergen N.H.; Photo: Arend Velsink)