Painting Toward the Light

J. Benschop, Catalogue Noord Brabants Museum

When Marc Mulders moved, in 2008, from the center of Tilburg to the rural estate Baest,[1] twenty kilometers away, and set up his studio in a large barn, he assumed that some change would occur in his work. The day-to-day surroundings had, after all, changed radically. All at once Mulders had 'the outdoor studio', as he calls it. The garden, the woods, the meadows and birds, the fog and flowers were right at his door, alive and in constant flux, driven by the seasons. For an artist like Mulders, it would be strange if such a change would not affect his work. Yet several years passed before the work revealed any visible transformations. And that says something, in fact, about what takes place when painting is conceived on the basis of nature and about the specific course that Mulders steers in this respect.

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It is tempting to say that Marc Mulders is a painter who works from nature. His work shows tangible motifs derived from landscape, as well as the dynamics that occur in nature. Even so, to refer to this as painting from nature would be merely a half-truth. It likewise involves an observation of the old and modern masters. The work of Mulders comes about in dialogue with great predecessors, and that dialogue has at least as much importance as the flowers or plants. And, much more indefinably, there is an unseen source which governs the work: a spiritual, inner mainspring to which the painter listens. Thus the idea of 'working from nature' is relative.

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During the 1990s Mulders painted images of flowers that he literally had brought into his studio, in order to observe them closely while painting them.[2] These works were executed in layers and in an excessive manner; the canvas was covered with abrupt movements of the brush. Sometimes the paint stood upright on the canvas and became much more than a mere vehicle for the depiction of a flower. The paint wanted, it seemed, to become physical matter, analogous to the delicate physical substance of a petal. A baroque translation into paint took place in these paintings, all of it based on an orchestration of examples from of nature. One can sense the delight in detail, in that focus on nature through a magnifying glass. And at the same time, the transitoriness and fragility of life remains palpable. Everything is contained in a flower, the paintings told us—in the very depths of a calyx and in the arrangement of petals.[3]

If we compare these paintings of flowers to the recent works of Mulders, which have come about since 2012, a turning point can be discerned. A change of course did occur once he moved into his new studio, though only after a few years. The exuberant use of paint has given way to a much more scant, more efficient application. There are even areas where the canvas has no paint—where only the foundation layer shows. That suffices. As opposed to the exuberance of earlier years, there is now a leanness of paint, and the motifs are different as well. While in older works the painted floral motif can still be made out, that is hardly the case in new works. Perhaps only here and there. Nature is no longer depicted in the literal sense, although it can be said that nature continues to be the point of departure for these paintings. In these new works Mulders focuses on what he calls 'the architecture' of nature. This has the appearance of a dynamic weave of organic forms, yet it looks just as much like an abstract painting, which lets us guess at what we're seeing.[4]

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What strikes the eye with these new paintings is their light character. It literally seems as though a different kind of light is shining in them, one that Mulders hadn't managed to capture before in this way. Whereas the earlier works are exuberant in their desire to be material, these show that a reverse approach has been taken. The paintings tend toward the disembodied, the tenuous; they have an ethereal and immaterial character. And that puts their bond with nature into perspective. We might say: this is the fabric of nature, the coherence that can be felt in it. But that would mean referring to nature in a more abstract sense, since such coherence cannot be indicated or depicted in a concrete manner. Suggestions of figuration do arise in the painting, but these occur in the realm of the latent.

For those who thought they knew the work of Marc Mulders by now, the recent work comes as a surprise. The artist proves not to concur with the style in which he worked for many years, and in which his work seemed to have become consolidated. On looking back at his oeuvre, we do actually see other moments of great change. Some time ago, during the 1980s, he was a painter of heavy, emotionally charged works involving religious motifs such as the crucifix or the Pietà. These were centered around figuration that emerged from the darkness and seemed almost cemented in paint. Then came a period in which animals and flowers were painted; this included the baroque patterns of flowers. Creation was ordered and presented anew in the studio. And now, in the recent work, sunlight enters the picture as never before. But this is purer than pure sunlight. The focus is lightness in the spiritual sense, an inner source that has been tapped in the paintings.

The religious has often been a motif in, or in relation to, the work of Marc Mulders, and occasionally that has led to misunderstandings or to narrow interpretations. Without going into this at length, it is interesting to notice how the religious themes have become less literal over the years while, at the same time, the spiritual content of the work seems to have grown. In the past religious motifs were referred to 'by name', whereas now, in the recent paintings, there might not be a concrete subject, yet the work does embody a highly spiritualized experience of nature—or actually, of existence in general. The works have broken free of their original pretext.

Mulders paints Being, you might say, as impossible or pretentious as that may indeed sound. And whatever can be said about the biblical motifs applies to nature as well. In a certain sense these natural motifs withdraw in order to become more present on a different level. The ubiquitousness of nature, in which Mulders began to live,[5] made it unnecessary to continue taking it literally. The painter became interested in another aspect of it, in nature as a living environment, more than in its individual inhabitants. In the context, as opposed to the detail.

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The recent work is generous, made by someone who passes on what nurtures him and what has made an impression on him. And it has been made by an artist who no longer needs to fight a certain battle. Who doesn't necessarily need suffering or darkness to produce a connotatively strong painting. A certain gravity and effort has vanished from the work. And that is an enrichment. A new resonance has taken shape.

How has this change of course now been made possible? How have 'the new paintings' come into the world? There has, of course, been an inner, unseen development taking place in the artist with the passing of years. But there are also tangible factors, which ushered in the change, as it were. Mulders has become involved with a broad range of techniques and media in recent years. He is an artist who has Bauhaus ideals, who wants to let his art (whose core I situate in painting) reach other parts of his life. It sometimes seems as though he deems each material suitable: tapestry, collage, photography, glass. All of them are, to Mulders, potential vehicles for art.

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For an understanding of the recent paintings, it is important to know that the artist began painting on glass and working in stained glass. The stained-glass window at the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, realized in 2006 on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of Queen Beatrix, is the most striking example of this.

Painting on glass, as opposed to canvas, demands different skills. The process is one of painting against the light. It starts with a light box on which a piece of glass is placed, and then onto that glass the paint is applied. The light box is a means to simulate sunlight, which will later shine through the church windows.  

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The experience that Mulders acquired while working with glass also provided him with new insights for the works on canvas. For in the recent paintings there does seem to be an inner source of light. It is as though he has been able to transpose the light, but also the lightness—the ethereal quality which can be obtained with glass—into paint on the canvas. I saw that for the first time in his exhibition Lost for Faith / Retained for Beauty,[7] held at Marres in Maastricht in the spring of 2012. That exhibition showed, in brief, the development of his work from the dark paintings of Christ, via the baroque paintings of flowers, to the airy recent works. As well as his expansion into other media, his work with glass and collages. The exhibition moreover included religious objects from the collection of Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht. These were no longer being used in the religious sense (Lost for Faith) but were given a new life by Mulders in the context of art (Retained for Beauty).

It was a sublime exhibition, which went unnoticed by the art critics but nevertheless revealed a turning point in his development, albeit in brief, with only a few of the new works. In retrospect it was a prelude to the present exhibition being held at the Noord-Brabants Museum, where a much broader range of the new work is on view. 

 A visit to Mulders's studio in the Brabant countryside tells us that the place where his work takes shape has an influence on it. We hardly need to be romantics or nature enthusiasts to establish that fact. Mulders was given the added benefit of an outdoor studio.[8] The immediate effect of this can be seen in photographs, of natural motifs in the landscape, that he takes on a regular basis. Earlier, in his baroque paintings from the 1990s, he had already revealed the rewards of a detailed observation of nature. And now, in his stained-glass work and in his recent paintings, the results of a contemplation of nature can be experienced on a more abstract level.

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Crucial to the work of Mulders, particularly in recent paintings, is his dialogue with modern and older masters. Claude Monet is among them. Monet had his garden at Giverny, where he produced his paintings on the basis of the flowers, the water, the seasons observed there. This was the springboard to Les Nymphéas, the water lilies, which can be regarded as the culmination of Monet's work. From the liveliness of nature, Monet created a painterly reality which actually cannot be compared to anything. Here the sensory and the contemplative merge in a fluid manner. Nothing in Les Nymphéas is truly in focus, in the photographic sense. It is from the blotch of paint that an image arises; and here lies the connotative connection with Mulders's work. It is the sensation of looking—and its effect on the soul—that becomes the subject of Monet's painting.

Another painter who peers over Mulders's shoulder as he works in the studio is Willem de Kooning. Especially the lightness and use of color in the most recent paintings of Mulders remind me of De Kooning and the artistic path taken by this Dutch American. One of the most exciting aspects to discern with De Kooning is his gradual liberation, over many paintings and many years, from the dictates of the figure. You can see the work becoming more abstract—or, to put it more precisely, reaching the point where figuration and abstraction have equal truth. You could also say: De Kooning becomes liberated in the paint and in the figuration. His famous painting North Atlantic Light, from 1977 (at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam) illustrates that. For those who wish to see it, there is a little boat sailing amid that wild spectacle of paint, yet it refrains from becoming objective figuration. That is typical of De Kooning. The figuration is latent—it is no fait accompli. And that's where the mysterious dynamics of his work lie. Everything comes about as a suggestion, not in a congealed, fixed form. The painting reserves the right to remain in flux.

In the studio De Kooning would often rotate his canvases a quarter of a turn, and then continue working on them. He wasn't aiming for a perspectival order that had to make sense. His concern was the dynamics of the whole, which took place within confines of the painting. De Kooning was all over the canvas. Compare that to the recent works of Mulders. Likewise, they haven't been conceived on the basis of a hierarchical center, which draws all the attention. And in a similar way, the figuration has become latent with Mulders. It presents itself as a possibility, exists to a certain degree, but it does not emerge as a depiction in the sense of a distinct image. There is a glimpse of a face or an animal's head, but then it vanishes again. Mulders has placed his focus on structure, on movement and on light.

Why is De Kooning so important to Mulders? Because he broke free of figuration, or actually: became free in figuration. Because he achieved a high degree of sensoriness in the paint and could give the painting the presence of a body. Because he understood abstraction in the deeper sense. Because the paint will hold up for years to come—no cheap solutions. All of that Mulders can find with De Kooning—but then he has his own temperament. His own content, which needs to come alive in paint. His baroqueness and his restrained, spiritual way of expressing himself. His own palette. Mulders resembles a sovereign follower of De Kooning, to the same degree that he manages to link himself with the traditions of painters such as Titian, Monet and Van Gogh. The new works of Mulders have a subdued atmosphere. They are light but, at the same time, have a certain reticence. In their balance between the expressive and the introvert, the artist has achieved something new. At this point it would be risky to make a statement about his further development. Who knows what other phases might still emerge. But the recent works are certainly among the best that the artist has produced so far. He's on to something of a higher nature here. It looks like something that he has been seeking for a long time and which, paradoxically enough, has become possible now that he isn't forcing it so much. In other words, it looks as though it came about this way on its own.

Mulders has called the exhibition Moonlight Garden. That is a title to contemplate for a moment. Moonlight can be generous and illuminate an entire landscape or garden. But in a muted tone, in a very specific orchestration. Only certain plants and surfaces light up in moonlight, that silvery light. Others remain unseen. Moonlight is not sunlight. And the mood, with moonlight, differs from that during the day. The sun has set, things are done; anyone still observing at night, still sitting in a garden, almost always does so in a reflective mode. The title, in Mulders's case, was taken from an existing garden at the Taj Mahal in India.

Here the garden not only represents the design of the exhibition; it is also a metaphor for art. A refuge for repose, where life unfolds in all its sensory delight and where we can contemplate, unhindered by the noise that distracts us outside the garden. It is a garden that has various sections and seasons, among them a Moonlight Garden. As a whole, the work of Mulders is just as much about daylight, about what can be seen in nature during the day and how that translates into paint. The Moonlight Garden adds a new dimension to the daylit garden already embodied in his work.

Is it now, once again, correct to refer to Mulders as a painter who works from nature? A mere yes or no would hardly suffice as an answer. The work stems from a close relationship to nature. Amazement, admiration and detailed observation play a role in this. But here nature is also simply the day-to-day setting, the reality in which the artist works. Nature is his primary 'outside world'. That has its effect on his work, has gone to the heart of it, yet does not thereby comprise the sole content of the work.

Jurriaan Benschop
translation: Beth O'Brien