MEMORY IN BLUE: Jan van Leeuwen

Jan van Leeuwen- Barbed Wire Number 1- Matthews Gallery Blog

Jan van Leeuwen, Barbed Wire No. 1 (Cyanotype), Matthews Gallery

What color is memory? Is the human soul tinted by life’s great joys and sorrows?

Jan van Leeuwen‘s darkest recollections are a deep blue tide. His self-portraits take shape much like memories do. It’s a long process with details fading in and out of focus, projecting visions of the self that never feel quite complete. It took a lifetime for the photographer to discover his medium, but when he did the images came spilling out.

Jan van Leeuwen- Cyanotype Portraits- Matthews Gallery Blog

Leeuwen was born in Amsterdam in 1932. In 1940, when the artist was 8 years old, the Dutch surrendered to the Nazis and Leeuwen watched as his community fell apart. Jewish neighbors and schoolmates fled or were taken. Over the course of the four-year occupation, the young boy’s confusion turned to anger, frustration and guilt.

Leeuwen’s first career was as a kitchen wares distributor, and he learned how to work a camera by photographing the products. He took his first serious stab at the medium in 1986 when he was in his 50’s, mostly so he’d have something to do when he retired.

Jan Van Leeuwen- Cyanotype Portraits- Matthews Gallery Blog

Drawing inspiration from the innovative spirit of the Dutch Renaissance masters, Leeuwen developed his own method of producing photographs. He uses a 100-year-old wood camera to capture an image on resin-coated paper, creates a negative and then makes a contact print using a UV-B lightbox.

The process of capturing and transferring the images echoes the artist’s struggles with the trauma he experienced in his youth and the impact it has had on his identity. For the cyanotype in our collection, the artist used a long exposure to fracture himself into eight meshed figures. The only thing starker than their furrowed brows is the strand of barbed wire that stands in their way.

Jan Van Leeuwen- Cyanotype Portraits- Matthews Gallery Blog

Leeuwen created Barbed Wire No. 1 in 1993. A year later he quit his job to pursue photography full-time. Since then he’s had a stellar contemporary art career, with shows across the world and artwork in The Photo Review, Art in America and many other publications.

The artist’s success hasn’t dampened the intimacy of his self-portraits, or lightened the burden of his memories. However, Leeuwen reminds us that sadness is accompanied by beauty, and creation always surmounts the pain of destruction.

Learn more about Jan van Leeuwen’s art and life on the Matthews Gallery homepage, and connect with us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest for more gallery news.

HOW TO BE AN ARTISTIC GENIUS: Go bonkers.

Gustave Courbet- Self-Portrait (The Desperate Man)- Matthews Gallery blog
Gustave Courbet, Self-Portrait (The Desperate Man)

We all know that Vincent Van Gogh left this world with 1.5 ears and a (probably) self-inflicted gunshot wound in his chest, but when you go on a hunt for the craziest artistic geniuses, the fou-roux starts seeming positively rational.

After all, Michelangelo was so averse to bathing or changing his clothes that his long-suffering assistant once wrote, “He has sometimes gone so long without taking (his shoes) off that then the skin came away, like a snake’s, with the boots.” The Renaissance master would wander off in the middle of conversations and refused to attend his brother’s funeral.

Gustave Courbet went a little nuts after he tangled with the French government and exiled himself to Switzerland, painting several “self-portraits” of bleeding, mangled fish. You surely have to be a bit bonkers to drive so many lovers insane, so Pablo Picasso deserves a spot in the art sanitarium as well. Then there’s Paul Gauguin, who made up romantic, insanely elaborate lies about his dismal trips to Tahiti.

Lesser-known prodigies only suffer more, it seems. French painter Leon Bonvin was found dangling from a tree after a dealer refused to show his paintings. Dutch artist Abraham van der Doort, who was Charles I’s art conservationist, thought he’d lost one of the king’s favorite pieces and offed himself. Dutch painter Herman Kruyder ended it all in a psychiatric ward, and Polish writer Stanislaw Ignacy Witkierwicz fed his lover poison and slit his wrists after the Second Army invaded Poland.

Does true artistic brilliance come hand in hand with insanity? Perhaps to see things in revolutionary ways, you have to take a trip off the edge. What do you think? Join the discussion on our Facebook and Twitter pages, or in the comments section below.