Consolation Parade

The Work of Caren van Herwaarden

                                                           An Interview with Esther Polak

When my work was abstract, I would look at a painting and think that this yellow rectangle could be a little darker, or that stripe a bit wider. The deciding argument was that the result would be a more beautiful painting, or the composition better, but I did not want that amplified into what the painting was all about. When I paint a figure, it is about the one person who is looking at the other, and about the other person who allows himself to be looked at. That is a subject where I have something to say, a contribution to make.

As a teenager I had a whole collection of pictures of naked people, mostly women.  Magazines at the time did not often have pictures of nude men. The only naked man in my collection was Jesus on the cross – together in the same box with female glamour models. My mother was worried about it; it was an obsession. For me the pictures weren’t erotic. They didn’t sexually excite me.

Drawing from the model is an extension of looking. I am not inclined to show the model drawings. They are the humus layer for other, autonomous work. The skin of the model protects, keeps me out.  While I am drawing, I am carefully searching for weaknesses in that armour. There, where the surface is thin, I’d like to stick in my hand. Some places on the body seem to be made for giving comfort. The back of the neck, for example, seems designed as a bowl for the consoling hand – or the other way around.

In representing people, it is not about the appearance or the beauty of the body, but about its vulnerability, its place of least resistance. I don’t find really beautiful people interesting to draw.  When I draw people, it is a way of being intimate with them. I look and their body becomes a second reality, alongside my own. I want to feel what it’s like to be that other person, to be old, to be a man, to be pregnant.

The naked body moves me. If I look at someone, I feel it is an honour that a person lets himself be seen by me. It is not of interest to do it secretively. I am no voyeur – I don’t peek through keyholes. It is a form of affection, of loving without words, without gestures. It does not matter whether I get along with someone or can have a good conversation with them.  What it is about is that someone – in all their uncertainty – lets me look at them. This evokes intense compassion in me.

I spent a few years drawing from collections in medical and natural history museums.  Once they have donated their bodies to science, people cannot hide. They cannot take back their decision, not even for an afternoon off, throw their hands in front of their face and say no, not today. There is a great sense of defencelessness. The museums feel the same way about it. They are very protective of their collections – they don’t just let you in.  First, my work was looked at, for a drawing can have the same effect as a photograph. There are stillborn and sometimes deformed foetuses.  In the interest of science, they have all been given up by their parents – but with no less grief and despair. The rooms are filled with shattered expectations and dashed hopes. I have never shown the work I did there, but it is an important reference for me.

When you sit all day amongst the deformed and ill-born, you realize how often everything actually does turn out all right and what a miracle that is. I gradually got to know more and more about the development of the embryo.  It is unbelievably complex. Just one little thing needs to go wrong for the whole process to go off track, and you suddenly have a big-as-life problem. 

If I draw a solution with the brains of an adult, I am aware of the thoughts and the feelings of a lifetime that have gone through that mind. I experience it as a privilege that I can see the home of those thoughts and memories, as if I become part of a whole life.  The body is the space where the thoughts and the feelings live. The matter that the body is made of has a meaning, and by painting it, I come closer to finding that secret. It is not about scientific or clinical observation. I am more interested in what the anatomy has to say than in the anatomy itself.


I’ve never had any trouble drawing people from above, although in reality, you almost never see them that way. As a child, I believed in a very simple God who looked down over us. I always felt as though I were being watched from above and I also imagined it literally. The image is very familiar. The idea that God always sees you and always reads your thoughts is something very primitive. The idea is that this way, your behaviour will be better, your sins fewer. But the opposite can also be true.  If there really is a God that sees everything, I can make it all very enticing and exciting by thinking and doing provocative things.  Mischievous things – for there is always an audience.

Here, I have drawn a group of people from above. You see how much people actually have in common.  They are all individuals, but they all have comparable ideas and feelings. It overwhelms me when I try to imagine how many people there are in the world. The drawings that look down on people are about this.  It seems such a waste. If all these people just die again, why should there be such unbearable pain? There’s something revolting about it. They reproduce, of course, but in my worse moments I can only see it all as a perpetually expanding muck, an endless river of frog spit. The only sense I can make of it is that all those billions of people think their existence is worth it, that it has a purpose. It may be an illusion, but that illusion is real and valuable.

Together with our intellect, it is our capacity to comfort others that makes us human.  The need for consolation is common to all people. It is the beautiful side of our uniformity.  As I draw someone, as I close in, this is what I am seeking.  I feel the difference between humans as herd animals and humans as valuable individuals on a very small scale.
 I have an older friend who has been modelling for me for several years now.  I love him very much and his body has become ever dearer to me. But a beach in Spain, crowded with old people spending the winter there, is a lot more difficult.  Those people are absorbed by the group.  I have to really search to find affection, a bond.  This has nothing to do with their being beautiful or ugly, but with their sheer mass.  If I cannot focus or zoom in, cannot see the person as an individual, life becomes pitiless.  I think also that this is the source for a lot of the evil that people inflict on each other.  On bad days, I sometimes walk through the markets and see all those heads…

Everything that has ever happened in a place leaves its mark on the environment.  This is also true for the body.  I can imagine that our emotions leave physical traces behind.  You could compare it to Armando’s ‘guilty landscape’.   When I see war criminals at the Yugoslavia tribunal or I think of the Nurenberg trials, then I cannot imagine that the bodies of these people have stayed the same.  I expect visible bumps and bruises or other misshapen growths.  This is of course rather simple – it probably has something to do with my Catholic upbringing.

I often think about how it is conceivable that there are people who slaughter other people systematically and by the thousands, en masse, the way they did for example, at Auschwitz. I think those camps were designed with grisly ingenuity. The prisoners were shaved bald and stripped of their identity.  Hence it could happen that the guards could do things to them that they would never have done to their neighbours, for instance.  I want to confront myself with that removed attitude, that distance, again and again, until I comprehend that I myself could be capable of doing such things. I do not want to deny it or avoid the issue. That would be naïve and then it becomes really dangerous. Fortunately, I always come back to finding the way to focus in, seeing people’s frail and tender spots, their comfort zones. This is what matters. 

I made a series of drawings of bodies stacked up on top of each other. If you imagine these bodies as cells, as building blocks, then in a sense you can build a wall of them. Last summer, I saw a Sacha Walz dance performance where that really happened.  It was so well done that the mass took on a beauty of its own, precisely because the potential for focusing in was left open. She had found a very beautiful form in which to do it.

My work certainly has a moral side to it, although I am not out to improve the world.  I do not live under the illusion that by seeing my work, people will be less inclined to go out and commit heinous crimes.  But I do expect that the revulsion I feel for the anonymous mass and my love for the vulnerable, susceptible individual can be seen.  If you can see that, then you can be strengthened and comforted by it.

Translated from the Dutch by Mari Shields

Armando is a Dutch painter and writer whose work deals with the consequences of WW II.