Dongen, Paul van - VM - Marleen Hengelaar 2
Paul van Dongen: Judgement and Rising
by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker
Contemporary art does not only consist of installations, but also figurative art is still abundantly present. Paul van Dongen’s work, with its craftmanship and classical leanings with a touch of baroque drama, falls within a rare subgroup of figurative representation. Two of his drawings are now part of Art Stations of the Cross (6 March – 22 April) in Amsterdam. After the six preceding stations they shift the attention from the suffering of the world to our own suffering and our own part in the problems of the world. They form a station or stop to literally stand still for a moment and reflect on our own life.
After a long search the two pen drawings found their temporary home on the façade of Paradiso, well-known to all Dutch people as a church that was converted into the rock concert hall of Amsterdam in the sixties and onward. One of the drawings is hanging in the Small Museum, which is housed in the former announcements’ cabinet of the Free Congregation. The second drawing is hanging in a similar cabinet that is used for Paradiso’s own posters and advertisements. One could call this pop temple a daring location for these explicit works, while at the bottom of left one the title Judgement is attached and underneath the other one Rising. No wonder that these works are observed to conjure up a lot of discussion among staff and ‘pilgrims’ alike.
Together these two works form Station #7, at which traditionally Jesus falls for the second time. ‘Falling’ is also the theme of the left drawing. We see a tangle of falling naked men, not fallen women for once. Actually the gender does not really matter here. The work is about human beings, male and female and everything in between. Jesus fell under the weight of his cross, these men fall under the conflated weight of their own egos. We see men who push, grab, shove aside. We see a hand which reaches into a vacuum. At the right we see figures who try to fight their way up but are pushed down by the man at the top. It is the lonely hell of every man for himself and nobody for me. Paul van Dongen remarks, “This drawing is part of a series which has the fall of man as its main theme. I did not want to portray the fall literally as in Genesis but rather, as a choreographer, to make a composition with naked male figures who together express the fall, an existence without solid ground, being lost beyond redemption. In an ornate whirling, the men turn, fall and tumble over one another.”
We see men in all their nakedness, without a concealing façade. Naked is not nude here. It is not about offensive or erotic nudity. Naked is used symbolically for the naked truth about the human condition. The judgement element is present not so much in a tyrannical judge who allegedly directs the fallen ones to hell, but rather in human beings who create their own hell by what they do and leave undone. Hence the drawing is not initially about the wicked world of the godless, but about you and me.
But thanks be to God there is also a way up, just like Jesus got up after his second fall. This we see in the right drawing. At the bottom left we see a man on his knees, one piteous pile of gloom. With the figures above and right of him an upward movement sets in, with in the middle of the drawing a man who holds his arms up in a help seeking gesture (or is it also a gesture of worship?). At the top a man floats in a crucified position, in complete surrender, in total vulnerability, a Jesus-like figure or Jesus himself. The artist: “This drawing is about human figures who, after falling down into the depth, are being pulled up by a single person who initiates the upward movement. It is about getting up again and being pulled up.” In this drawing the men also grab each other, but this time they seek connection, beyond loneliness. Here it is no longer about our own gain, but – like the figure at the top – about our willingness to take up our cross for the benefit of others.
To take up our cross, that does not sound very contemporary. For some it may sound like something from ages past. Yet it is the way up out of human misery. It means that we are prepared to give priority to loving others. Just like Jesus. Thanks to his willingness to carry his cross, God forgives all our misdeeds and opens new vistas. This too is Lent: not only a time of remorse and repentance, but also a time of celebration of the joy of God’s grace.
Paul van Dongen: Judgement, 2012, pen and ink, 35 × 25 cm. Rising, 2013, pen and ink, 35 x ×5 cm. Photos: Ton Hartjens.
Location: The Small Museum, Paradiso, Weteringschans 6-8. In 2016 the music venue and cultural center Paradiso, housed in a converted former church building from the nineteenth century, opened The Small Museum. The smallest museum in the Netherlands, it is located in one of the cabinets where the Vrije Gemeente (Free Congregation) used to display its announcements. The exhibitions regularly link to the religious past of the building. www.thesmallmuseum.nl
Paul van Dongen (1958) is a Catholic artist living in Tilburg, the Netherlands. www.paulvandongen.com
Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker is editor-in-chief of ArtWay and co-curator of Art Stations of the Cross. http://Stations of the Cross — Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion (luceartsandreligion.org)
ArtWay Visual Meditation May 7, 2019