There is no Recipe for Passion

Monique Camps grasps the nineteenth century by the hand

Lucette ter Borg
Art critic and writer

I am a self-confessed horse lover. I have loved horses for as long as I can remember and perhaps even before that. When I was two years old, my father took a photograph of me holding a book about horses in my hand. I could not yet read, but I could look at the pictures. And there was nothing I would rather do than look at horses: on our first black and white television, in magazines, postcards, and in the flesh. For want of a horse, I used to play horses with my sister. After school, we trotted around the garden, the neighbourhood, and in the holidays we often went riding in the woods far over the Belgian border, with a washing line in our mouths as reins and the other as the rider behind.

Where did this love, that was indestructibly resilient, originate? Was it the soft nose of the potato delivery man’s horse that I just had to stroke? I pressed my cheek up against the enormous nostrils and felt the caress of the horse’s soul. Was it the acceleration with which the horse that I later rode could go from step to full gallop - so hard that the tears streamed from my eyes and I could hear nothing except for the thundering of hooves on the forest floor and the whistling of the wind? Was it the size – bigger than a dog, smaller than an elephant? The beauty, even if a horse had coloured spots, a ram’s head or a tail that was too short and fluffy? Or was it just the smell? The mix of dung, hay and sweat that still brings me joy as I enter a stable?

I have never earned enough money to buy a horse of my own. I did not choose a profession ‘with horses’ – but rolled into art. And then I bumped into a painter, Monique Camps, completely unknown to me in 1998. At the annual exhibition in the Palace on the Dam, where the former Queen Beatrix awarded prizes for the best young painter in the Netherlands, she was just to ‘hang’. In the jargon of the Koninklijke Subsidie voor de Schilderkunst that meant that she had not won a prize, but that the jury had marked her work as interesting. Among all the paintings – even those by the winners – there was just one really eye-catching work. That was a canvas by Monique Camps depicting an apparently old-fashioned pants suit, as though it was lying in painted sky. The folds in the fabric were crisply painted. With a strong contrast between light and shade. In actual fact, the painting was more reminiscent of an abstract sculpture than a figurative painting. I found it thrilling, as though the artist wanted to say to me, the viewer, that it really did not matter what could be seen on the linen, that it was unimportant whether it was paint, clay or stone in which she poured her ideas. I found it even more exciting that the wearer of the pants suit was not there. It appeared as though a gigantic gush of wind had lifted him out of the cloth and blown him away. The painting was part of a series, titled ‘autour de Géricault’. There was no explanation in the catalogue. So the connection between the floating pants suit and the French romantic painter Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) remained a mystery. It was a mystery that was only cleared up after I had seen more work by Camps.

Ask Monique Camps about the origin of her more than twenty-year fascination with Géricault and a silence falls. There is no recipe for passion. You can look for explanations, come up with reasons – but ultimately it does not weigh up against the deeply anchored feeling of – yes what actually? Camps can approach the subject most effectively through explaining when the love affair began. It was at the beginning of the nineties, during an ordinary Teleac broadcast in which, via the painter Géricault, the impressionist painter Claude Monet was described. Géricault’s most famous painting was shown: The Raft of Medusa, painted in 1818.

The monumental painting that depicts the unfathomable despair and hope in grisly sepia (see the minute silhouette of the ship on the horizon) of the drowning souls from the shipwreck Medusa in 1816, left a lasting impression on Camps. She saw the raft full of bodies, naked and covered, the dark wall of waves that drifted the drowned souls and the viewer in a certain direction. She saw the blistering sensitivity that appeared to splash out from the canvas – Monet’s water lilies wilted in comparison. Immediately she knew: she had to see this painting in real life. But upon arriving in the Louvre in Paris, where The Raft of the Medusa hangs, she found the gallery closed for renovation. Disappointed, Camps wandered through the museum looking for other works by Géricault. She stumbled on a portrait of a child, Louise Vernet, a daughter of a couple who were friends with Géricault. This portrait captured her interest. Everything in this small portrait, dating from 1817-1818, appeared to be wrong.

The body is poorly proportioned. The cat on the lap has a Rottweiler’s head. The attire is looser than was usual for the period. The normal ‘appendages’ of an early nineteenth century children’s portrait are missing: there are no parents and there is no parental home in the background. But the most striking detail of all is the expression on the child’s face: it is not jolly or roguish. On the contrary: Louise Vernet appears to distrust the viewer. In the museum shop, Camps buys a book about Géricault and reads it cover to cover on the train back to the Netherlands.

Thunder struck.
This is the beginning.
She researches the three children’s portraits painted by Géricault, which have always been underestimated by art historians. How could a painter so adept at painting bodies and facial expressions, paint portraits like these? Her research takes her to the United States, France, Scotland, Germany and far more places besides. She encounters the theories of the Age of Reason philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in his novel come study of 1762, Emile, on Education, ‘invents’ the child as an independent being. She speaks to curators, studies the  biographies of Géricault. She discovers how much the perception of Géricault’s paintings has changed through the course of the years. She expands her fields of interest to cover the children’s attire, the Revolution, Géricault’s colleagues, the military society of which Géricault was a part, Géricault’s horses, Napoléon, Napoléon’s horse, Napoléon’s son. Through these subjects she arrives in the twentieth century, in the Second World War. Once again, she is in Paris, but now the city is occupied by the Nazis.

Monique Camps is not a historian, not an art historian. She is an artist who graduated from the School of Art in Maastricht in 1997, department of Monumental Design. She completed her course in three years. She paints, but takes photographs too. By the time she left art school, she had garnered an enormous knowledge of the nineteenth century. With this knowledge she started to visually associate. Association and keeping an eye open for the accidental are the basic ingredients for her work.

The item of clothing in the above mentioned painting in the Palace on the Dam is derived from the item of clothing that Alfred Dedreux is wearing, one of the three children whose portrait Géricault painted. The little Alfred has disappeared, but his shell, his clothing ‘remains’. Camps believes – and an artist may be subjective about this – this to be the main theme of Géricault’s portrait. A statuette of an eagle that she found in an antique shop, accompanied by a photograph of a romantic woodland. Balls of rope, sand and seaweed, washed ashore on the Scottish coast, are flanked in a display cabinet by a souvenir plate with an image of Napoléon, a gift from an artist friend, and a Scottish landscape, painted by an artist friend in Scotland.
Some of these associatively found objects, reproductions and books are on show in the six cabinets in Museum van Bommel van Dam. The cabinets are located in the museum corridor. It is a beautiful space. The ancient Greek Philosopher Aristotle encouraged his students in Athens even before our era to speak, observe and listen while walking – because he believed it was then that people had the greatest insights. There is a correlation here with Camps: a picture develops - while walking past the cabinets - that is certainly not uniform, but has many openings and is fluid.

Camps drew my attention to similarities, in a photograph of a kingfisher, between the colours of the bird’s feathers and Géricault’s portrait of Alfred Dedreux. After she had pointed this out, I could not believe I had missed this. And, in the same way, a dead white ermine moth suddenly melts into the white ermine coat Napoléon is wearing in the state portrait by Dominique Ingres, a contemporary of Géricault. Camps does not claim that one thing is another, but subtly shows how similarities and relationships can extend across the centuries. Wander by Camps’ collection, and it is as though an invisible hand grasps the other hand that existed long ago. As I lean over the cabinets, I have to look more precisely and attentively. As a result, I see more, later on too.

Monique Camps does not have an affinity with horses, even though she is surrounded by them on a daily basis. Along the border between Limburg and Germany the fields are full of horses during the summer months.
That is one.
Géricault painted horses. That is two.
And Camps says she will never shake the spell Géricault has over her. That is three.
She has attempted a number of times to distance herself from the subject, but without success. She examines everything that she sees around her, with her knowledge of the nineteenth century. She has no choice in it. And yet she still sees new things.
Like now the horses.

Géricault painted a horse slumbering on the ground with its foal up against it. He painted horses’ heads, noble and proud, horses at a race with rider, a full-blood stallion that rears frightened by lightning from the heavens. Géricault painted his horses full of sensitivity, with attention for the structure of their skin, the slenderness of their legs. He cherished the soft motherly love of the mare for her foals with his brush. Sometimes, he painted horses’ legs in multiple positions – as though he wanted to capture their speed in paint.

I think that Géricault loved horses. Camps is certain of this. Géricault was obsessed with horses and died from complications following a fall from a horse. Camps photographs horses. At least that is what she calls it. The horses that she photographs are not – however - live horses, but images of horses. They are porcelain statuettes that she finds in shops full of curly baroque dinner services and Biedermeier bric-a-brac. Camps does not enlarge the statuettes and puts them in the museum, like the American neo-pop artist Jeff Koons would do. She does not make hyper-real paintings of them, like the British artist Mark Wallinger. No, she releases the porcelain statuettes from their kitschy essence and lends them a new value.

High in the museum gallery hang six impressive photographs. As large as life photographs. Their monumental dimensions are an intentional reminder of Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. KLEINPFERD, as the exhibition is called, comprises photographs of parts of horses. Only one horse can be seen in its entirety. I see a body, a black horse’s head that looks like the head of the white horse painted by Géricault, other body parts. Camps has looked carefully at the lustre and the way in which the light strikes the porcelain. Above all, the small imperfections, and the common dust that has settled on the statuettes has been left intact. This is what you see, and not the horse as such. It makes the photographs contemporary, intriguing. What is hiding behind this formal study? The question can be best answered through the projection on the wall of an improbably white-as-snow, porcelain grey horse. The animal has been photographed with its back to the viewer. Slender is the back. Subtle and almost female the buttocks curve. Dark are the shadows under which the muscles move. Light reflects from the bend in the neck.

La Grande Odalisque, as the wall-filling projection is known. The title refers to Ingres’ famous painting La Grande Odalisque – an enchantingly beautiful, naked harem woman that the artist depicted in 1814 and who stares at the viewer shamelessly. In Camps’ ‘Odalisque’ the horse is actually looking away. As a result, the confrontational seductive gaze that Ingres painted is absent. Camps’ theatrical approach is one of super-cooled suggestion. She suggests that there is a correspondence between the past and present, while maintaining the difference. And this is a wonderful idea.

I peer with Camps’ horse into the dark depths. Something infinite is taking place there that happened long ago, long before my love of horses began, long before my parents were born and their parents. A big tangled ball of threads rolls on, unstoppable, the threads flap around. Monique Camps shows that you only need stick out your hand to grab a thread – and then an adventure can begin.