Arnold Van Praag at 90 | The Redfern Gallery, London
Timelessness in painting, poetry, performance, music, and playwriting is found in works that emphasize the human condition devoid of date-specific events and artifacts. When Pina Bausch raised her hand and touched her face while stumbling to collide with chairs in Café Müller, Bausch was inherently expressing what Edvard Munch composed statically in the thematic through line of his work–the inexpressible yet genetically encoded Erinnerungsfragmente, or fragments of memory.
When Van Gogh painted a self portrait, a sunflower or chair, he painted universal objects known to all and transcendent of time. The elements of figurative painting, painterly mannerisms–“brushmanship”–value, compositional expansiveness, unorthodox cropping, and memetic practices, are all indicators of date.
It can be argued that Odd Nerdrum paints like Rembrandt; Jenny Saville’s imposing canvases are looser versions of slightly more diminutive Lucian Freud’s, and while Cecily Brown doesn’t share the same palette as Catherine Goodman, both employ a disfiguration of form that is violent, disorienting, and disconcerting.
Born in 1926, Arnold Van Praag’s contemporaries include United Kingdom based Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Lucian Freud, and the Ukrainian born and New York resident, Milton Resnick. Chaim Soutine, born just thirty three years before Van Praag entered the world, wrote of his own work, “Once I saw the village butcher slice the neck of a bird and drain the blood out of it. I wanted to cry out, but his joyful expression caught the sound in my throat…This cry, I always feel it there. When, as I drew a crude portrait of my professor, I tried to rid myself of this cry, but in vain. When I painted a beef carcass it was still this cry that I wanted to liberate. I have still not succeeded.”
Layer, upon layer, upon layer, Auerbach, Kossoff, Freud, Resnick, and their forebear, Soutine, labored. Toiling to express the ineffable. Later, on stage, Bausch exploded in movement extending her limbs in grotesque repetition while others sharing her space stood in silent repose. A shuffle, a twist, a slash, a mark erased, thwarting perfect utterances. Van Praag entered relatively unnoticed. Silent. Withdrawn. Ebullient, but only superficially–of color, that is–using fauvist vibrancy belying the dreary European palette that made up much of 19th and early 20th-century realism. He made his mark. Dangerously. A performance in paint. Fish writhe and seethe in disquieting piles one atop another in the appropriately named, “Fishmonger.” Cadmium red oozes front and center in, “Butcher: Rack of Birds.” There is a slash of sadism decoded from the upmost layers; paint applied later in life but with the vitality of a man at the height of his powers. Horizontal and vertical thrusts intersect adding structure to membranous skins that intertwine one into another while mocking the viewer’s sense of fixity.
Tradesman, butchers, and fishmongers predominate in Van Praag’s work. Then there’s Susannah and The Elders, painted not once, but repeated many times. A timeless story of lasciviousness, betrayal, damnation, and the triumph of truthful innocence. On some level Van Praag’s marks seem familiar, yet instantly recognizable as great. While his work is not as well known as some other art historical giants, his paintings hold their own with the best of them.