Truly wretched are those who cannot love

In Florence, a short time ago, I was with a group to whom I displayed almost all of the high points of the city. For them it was their first visit, for me it was the tenth; an anniversary. And even so I saw a number works of art as though for the first time. This was partly because of the reactions of my companions, but it was also because I was trying - so as to better understand her work - to look, to see, as if through the eyes of Caren van Herwaarden.
I noticed what I had not seen before; the affection with which Donatello had created his Atis Amor. (1440-1443). Amor, his cupid, laughs exuberantly, with sparkling vivacity, seemingly fully aware of the perfection and beauty of love. Donatello does not, as is usual, portray him as a naked toddler. To me he looked about thirteen. He wears a belt attached to leggings that leave bare both his firmly moulded buttocks and the small tail directly above them. I longed to throw my arms around him, to cuddle him, to share in his happiness.
The men in the work of Caren van Herwaarden are, perhaps because of the watercolour technique, less material but to me just as tempting and sensual. In Soulmade (2004) and Man wacht wel (2003) men and profiles are portrayed in sequences of movement. The movement and the transparency of the water colour make the figure elusive, but also here the anatomy – the tight buttocks and powerful posture – evokes in me the need to grab hold of him, to desire him.

In the Museum of the Cathedral, Michelangelo’s most beautiful Pietà (1548-55) stands before me. Because this work fortunately does not yet have the tourist-pilgrimage status of his Pietà in Rome’s St. Peter’s church, (1501) this one stands free in its own space. You can walk around it and study every detail from close up. It is not a common composition, no Maria with her dead son on her lap, but a work made up of four different figures. It carries the title Pietà but holds a position somewhere between a Descent from the Cross and a Pietà. The two Marias do hold the dead Christ. The standing man with cape and hood behind the group should, according to Christian iconography, portray the young John. But here one finds Michelangelo himself, shown as the old man he already was when he created the sculpture. Filled with devotion and compassion it is he, himself, who supports, sustains the Christ that he had so often represented in his work.
The Pietà is an important subject in Van Herwaarden’s work. She shifts it out of a religious context, converting it into a universal theme. What is striking is that, as with Michelangelo, Van Herwaarden in her own interpretation makes the group larger, portraying something vastly more significant than a mother’s loss. The death is one that touches us all. In When We Come Close (2000) and Iedereen is er –Everyone is there- (2006) I feel not only the loss of the dead man but also the grief that individuals share with one another. Michelangelo introduces himself as one who personally laments the death of Christ; as a creature of the earth he brings the sorrow closer than his forebears. Van Herwaarden presents the man no longer in relation to sanctity but places him in the centre of the world of men. Through this the sorrow becomes our own, something with which we are able to identify.
In secular times like our own, Caren Van Herwaarden opens herself to inspiration by the Flemish primitives and the Italian Renaissance. Her point is not Christian subject matter but the way in which artists portray subjects of deep concern to humanity in general.
The American artist Bill Viola opts for the same themes as Van Herwaarden. His videos are often slow shots of scenes that refer to Christian iconography. The embrace of what is lovable can also provoke resistance, as can the anguish of the sharing of sorrow - the group that offers comfort can at the same time be suffocating. All aspects of the physical interaction are magnified by the slowness of the camera Viola is an artist that Van Herwaarden especially admires.

With van Herwaarden, too, there are embraces that inhabit the middle terrain between affection and coercion; both come from love and the desire to extend comfort, both are sustained and supported in the work. The body is for her the ideal identity card, if only because everyone has a body. In Van Herwaarden it has as much to do with the physical burden that bearing or carrying brings with it, as with the emotions that the body expresses in the handling. You can actually see, through a position or movement, the sentiment that fills the brain and the heart. Pop up (2007) is such a work. A man is held up above their heads by a group. You see the tension in the stretched out arms of the men who sustain him. The man lies confidently on the hands, lets his arms hang loose and looks down with a lifted head. To be carried is what we all desire.
For a broader vision of Van Herwaarden’s work I would like to make reference to another Florentine. The Death of St. Francis and Inspection of the Stigmata (circa 1320) by Giotto in the Bardi Chapel of the Santa Crocc is one of the first frescos in which love and pity are portrayed through facial expression.
From time immemorial artists have attempted to portray humanity in many different materials. To depict what interests people, what keeps them busy, better than it can be experienced in life, and better than his own instructor, has been for artists the highest goal. The tenderness and love on the faces of the Franciscan monks is not shown through their gestures. These express, rather, astonishment, surprise and piety. Possibly Giotto here attempts to bring the religious gestures that had applied for centuries together with the more secular facial expressions.
Van Herwaarden generally leaves the facial expression aside. A gesture or position carries the image, the presentation. For the viewer faces are the easiest to read. With Van Herwaarden it seems as though only the body parts must do the job, it is they that must show to perfection the concerns of the depicted figure.

Nowadays we see the suffering of others on television and in the papers; far away and fleeting. We have to remain forever young and life on earth is in the western world a great festivity. We are told by the government through posters and billboards that we must have compassion for one another, that we must give a helping hand and look after one another. Compassion and community are not taken for granted.
Van Herwaarden gives in her work a vision of man’s most basic need: love and compassion. But she does it with all the ambiguity that is so much part of human nature.
Giotto’s work shows a group of people who together mourn the death of a saintly figure. Collectivity can bring an individual deeper into to his humanity but can it can also hamper him.
Communal prayer demonstrates whether the experience of an event of togetherness can bring strength, comfort and happiness: a mass of people can also have something anguishing about it. There is the lurking fear of not being able to get away and of the loss of one’s individuality.
Van Herwaarden shows the ambivalence of togetherness in various works. Crowds of people become forms as in Jaco’s Ring (2003) or Wensveld. (2001) The shimmering of togetherness; but the tightly massed people can also evoke feelings of claustrophobia.
The space between the groups that is left free offers the possibility of release from the mass.

In Z.t. (2002) (pag...) it seems as though the deportment of the figures together express simultaneously the acts of pushing away, of carrying and of community prayer. Side by side two groups of people lie opposite one another. The arms are stretched forwards and hands are pressed straight up against the hands of the others. Are these people praying together or are they trying to push each other away? Or is it an intimate touch, in the way a hand is given on meeting a stranger? The figures in Van Herwaarden’s work are always naked. Nakedness in this work has something intimate and can not be interpreted other than the passing on of energy through the hands to the other.
My feeling is that the essence of Caren van Herwaarden’s work lies in her ability, through the use of western art history, to make possible the apprehension of universal experience through the arrangement of numerous figures.
She renders grief without tears, because grief endures longer than the time one can weep after the loss of a loved one. She depicts the power and the love between people by bringing them together in masses and allowing energy to flow between them. She renders compassion through an embrace or carrying position that is so replete with love that no other interpretation is possible. What plays out in the mind and is felt in the heart makes Van Herwaarden present in her work.
What is inside has become visible.

Diana A. Wind, Municipal Museum of Schiedam, The Netherlands

Text was written specially for STAY!: a monography of the work of Caren van Herwaarden, 2010