By KAREN CORINNE HERCEG, August 2022
What sparks creative passion, that initial awakening in an artist, the drive that sets that spirit alight? We might see it as an ember that glows deep within and is ignited earlier for some and later for others. A certain mentor, another’s work a defining experience, or a confluence of events may renkindle that creativity. For prominent Dutch artist Ben Rikken, it was just such a combination: stimulating teachers, various subjects in school, and the inheritance of work from great masters. He is drawn to innovative and experimental music such as Jazz, modern Romantic Russians of the early 20th century such as Scriabin and Rachmaninov, and French Impressionists such as Ravel and Poulenc. He states, “A melodic movement can be found in the arabesques that are in landscape compositions: lines of sight that take the viewer along continuous lines that suggest movement.”
Rikken feels it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact moment one decides to make art their life, but there is still a traceable, cumulative trajectory and the necessity to reflect upon history and past traditions. To define one’s unique art and expression, there comes an inevitable absorption then rejection of established theories that allows the artist to express their unique voice. For him, early influences paved a path for training as an artist and eventually a rebellion against much of the theory he learned to allow more personal freedom in painting, drawing, and graphics. His path toward visual art had refined itself over time as he continued to study and later teach.
Rikken received a master’s degree in 1979 from Minerva Academy, a fine art school founded in 1798 and located in his hometown of Groningen, The Netherlands. Figuration was held in great esteem and created roots for Rikken’s technique that he emphasized when he taught at the Classical Academy in Groningen and continues currently with private students. He draws inspiration from working outdoors, which affords him the opportunity to capture light, color, and imagery in its purest forms before refining the images in his studio and capturing a mood that translates to the canvas. For this reason, Rikken prefers to begin his work at actual sites and travels extensively, especially to France, Italy, and Spain, favoring coastlines. He lived in Italy from 2002 to 2003.
His perspective is schooled in the tradition of the early Impressionists yet anchors him solidly in a modern sensibility. Brushstrokes are loose and subject to the details that allow light and color to enhance both artistic and emotional viewpoints. Rikken concentrates not only on the obvious light that accompanies the changing hours of the day, but the subtle, rich strata that rests behind and around objects and affects nuance and perception so deeply. He allows what he sees to birth into existence organically rather than imposing a preconceived notion to the scene. This approach grows out of careful attention to discriminating points of light and color and creates his specific and recognizable style that combines traditional grounding with a contemporary perspective.
Rikken exhibits extensively, and I met him at a recent feature of his work at Galerie Nakaï in Tournus, France. This latest visit was one stop on a journey that would take him down to Spain then back up through France before returning to The Netherlands. When we met again upon his return, enjoying a leisurely cup of tea at a local spot on the quay near the Saône River in Tournus, he spoke further in depth about his art and influences by specific artists. Earlier on it was English Romantic painter William Turner (1775-1851), who elevated landscape painting to great prominence, and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, a French landscape and portrait painter and a contemporary of Turner. Interestingly, and in line with Rikken’s proclivity for figurative art, both Turner and Corot were printmakers and etchers. He explains that Corot’s initial tonally oriented work deepened his palette under the influence of Mediterranean light and a new modern play of light and color.
He admires Zorn, Whistler, Goya, and Rembrandt who were outstanding draftsmen and etchers. His interest in graphics is reflected in how he approaches drawing. He explained that contours suggest form in thin and thick lines. One needs to know how to construct these, where to accent them, and where to allow space between and within them. He added, “The brushstrokes follow the ‘handwriting,’ in the drawing of the forms, a very important component, especially in the landscapes.” He likes alternating between thinly applied paint and thicker strokes, painting alla prima, an Italian term dating back to the Renaissance, meaning to paint freshly in a single stroke as opposed to applying successive layers. He also pays homage to the “virtuoso draughtsmen of the Renaissance” such as Pisanello, da Vinci, Bronzino and to Japanese woodblock prints and drawings. He states, “What you cannot draw, you cannot paint,” then quotes German artist Max Klinger who said, “Drawing is the breeding ground of the idea,” in the relationship between drawing and painting.
Rikken describes his style as “figurative with expressionist accents” but with hints of Impressionism as well. Impressionism and Expressionism diverted from the idea of static renderings and strict Realism. Impressionism seeks to capture a fleeting moment in time, while Expressionism seeks the emotion within it. He says, “I prefer to stick to one image, which I let sink in, because I consider it important as an artist and as a person in society. The role of the artist in society is what I call Slow Looking, but few want to see.” There are too many distractions in our world that challenge our attention span and ability to absorb nuances and beauty through the lens and leisure of time.
He spoke about John Singer Sargent (American, 1856-1925), who used Impressionist techniques to obtain his own more realistic style, and as the ultimate “paint wizard” using “a few rakish brushstrokes suggesting a hand, silk gowns, waxen portraits” in bold and often unconventional compositions. He adds, “No wonder he was close friends with Sorolla and Zorn who were cut from the same cloth.” Anders Zorn (Swedish, 1860-1920) was renowned as a painter, sculptor, and etcher. His contemporary, Joaquin Sorolla (Spanish, 1863-1923), preferred beach scenes and was enthused about how sunlight played on the Mediterranean. He worked mainly outdoors, which Rikken does also. He remarked on the warmth and “afternoon palette” of Sorolla that lured him to Spain, referring to “the warm violets against the reds, browns, oranges and yellows with which he captured the light.” In capturing those moments--people swimming, fishermen, children--he felt “everyday life raised to a higher level by shimmering color and light,” where land and water meet and express the unique variations he seeks. In his own work, he sees “water as the ultimate connection between air and land.”
Rikken begins painting his subjects in the immediacy of natural settings for the most “honest representation of that moment.” The skill required to capture this requires time. He added, “From experience I now know that a certain light, and consequentially a certain mood, appear within a short time, and my way and speed of painting is aimed at that: a quick representation of that moment.” He stresses, “There is nothing better than a fresh and directly painted sketch; if it is right the first time, never change it again!” However, if necessary and the subject requires more elaboration, he favors adapting this in the studio and added, “Besides, the color is often influenced by the local light, which doesn’t bother you as much in the studio.”
Rikken has long admired the Impressionists for their rendering of light and technical abilities, the way they “split” color, as he phrases it but also sees this as somewhat “superficial and limiting to the moment.” However, he finds the later Monets to be “pure sorcery in paint and color” and fascinating in the way they “rub up against abstraction.” He also credits Les Nabis as an early influence, a group of young French artists very active in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century. Their style fostered a transition from Impressionism to the more modern expressions of abstract art and symbolism. Rikken suggested that “the rendering through observation, which is typically Northern European,” creates space between objects and “the relationship between form, tonal value, and color.” He sees it reinforced by exaggerating color, which is the Expressionist influence upon his work and adds “value in the realistic still life.” He also referred to such “heroes” in medieval sculpture as Caravaggio and Fra Angelico. He mentioned Vermeer as “virtuoso in all respects, in his multiple layering,” as well as della Francesca, Bosch, van Eyck, Bouts, and Geertgen and admires all the Flemish “primitives” that rely on “folk simplicity, with clear formulas and meaning.”
Rikken referenced the still life works of Francisco de Zurbarán, a Spanish painter of the 15th century, his various executions of the Agnus Dei or sacrificial lamb, crucifixions, monks, and the way he concentrates more on the clothing they wear than on the depiction itself. He finds it creates “a curiously sculpted, monumental and fascinating image,” along with an ability to “balance between strict commands and freer interpretation.” Other historical mentors include nineteenth century artists Levitan, Serov and Sorolla. Isaac Ilyich Levitan was a Russian classical landscape painter and proponent of a genre known as “mood landscape.” Rikken admires “his virtuoso use of color and tonality” that lead often “to subdued representations” and “an almost mystical atmosphere.” He sees deeper layers that reach “beyond a sentimental or, if you like, romantic representation; the naturally experienced greatness of the nature you know yourself to be surrounded by.” He contrasts this with “the ordered landscape” where “the painter has the essential need to recreate the given according to his own insight and experience.”
And, of course, there is Van Gogh. Rikken refers to “the intense experience translated into ever new solutions.” He admires Van Gogh’s paintings from St. Rémy, Les Baux-de-Provence, and specifically his last period in Auvers-sur-Oise, which he finds contain enormous clarity, everything falling into place: “reduction, cooler palette” and a stillness within movement. He adds that it is “as if he has had enough and is turning in on himself.” As a Dutch painter, Rikken feels a whole legacy resting on his shoulders. He muses that “it is quite a quest before you can discover your own individuality, the moods that are typical and valuable to you, and the form that goes with them.” While academic studies were conducted in a more traditional fashion during his formal education, he sees plane, form, and color studies as inherently self-evident and continues to define the foundation of his work in drawing. He explains further that “building up an image through careful observation and study is the main element in my work, ars natura magistra, or nature is the teacher of art. Following that philosophy, I have expanded and enriched my palette over the years. I want to communicate the beauty of the everyday captured in what I think is a harmonious whole.”
Of more contemporary influences, he mentions Andrew Wyeth and remarks, “You will find everything within a radius of max one kilometer around your house,” the attention and amazement of everyday life, and love of detail combined with craftsmanship and talent. He admires Ralph Steadman and calls him a “brilliant illustrator for his lucid ideas, his originality, his professional knowledge and agility when it comes to technique!” He finds Irish painter Conor Walton very interesting: “his daring color schemes with extremely saturated colors” that hold together with twists in the work, and “a kind of modern mythology with a wink that always surprises.” What he doesn’t like are “modern realists who work mainly from photos, and those who are similar to the game culture in style and content. I dislike that kind of reality, especially because, unlike Wyeth, there is no love for the handicraft anymore, let alone insight and expertise in the trade.”
Rikken enjoys teaching more in recent years, preferring to surprise his students with new ideas and does this “within limits of what I teach in figuration.” He states, “If you draw, you see more. I always advise my students to take a sketchbook with them when they travel. Even if you make only one scribble, you still remember years later where it was, and how it came about.” But given the realities of today’s technological world, he does seek opportunities for his art on the internet, social media, websites (including his own), as well as solo and joint exhibitions in which he can “show the organic whole, the coherence, and the drawings,” the latter being his preference. He has an impressive curriculum vitae.
How he prices his art has changed over the years and has increased coincident with his growing oeuvre and notoriety. However, when the economic landscape shifts, he feels it is important not to backtrack on value very much, saying this would disadvantage any faithful customers who have invested in his work. In discussing goals for the future, Rikken speaks of “reducing the subject to a minimum (and) development towards a more colorful, warmer light” that is enhanced by his travels, especially in France, Italy, and the east coast of Spain. He sees his art “as a journey, both substantively and physically. I determine my own goals or choose from what comes on my path. That gives me a lot but also costs me in more energy and time. And in doing so, it remains a solitary activity.” He adds, “I see painting as an autonomous object from which you can read the starting point and the quality. Therefore, to finish a painting is just as difficult, if not more so, than to make it.” Rikken concludes with a quote from famous Dutch poet Rutger Kopland: “He who finds something has searched badly.”
Note: Some interview responses have been translated from the Dutch. WM
Karen Corinne Herceg writes poetry, prose, essays, and reviews. Her second book of poetry, Out From Calaboose, was released in 2017. A graduate of Columbia University, she has studied and read with notable poets Philip Schultz, John Ashbery and William Packard. She lives in France. Her website is www.karencorinneherceg.com.view all articles from this author