Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective currently at the Guggenheim Museum in New York opens with the portrait series that brought her more widely to the attention of the art world, the Beach Portraits (1992-2002). These large-scale photographs of adolescent bathers, like much of Dijkstra’s work, appear fairly straightforward and innocuous.
The curators—SF MOMA’s Sandra Philips and the Guggenheim’s Jennifer Blessing—comment on the influence of the Old Masters in the incisive catalogue (sharp in terms both of content and design) that accompanies the show. The fact that Dijkstra is Dutch, evidently quite visually acute, makes portraits and is influenced by the Dutch Old Masters does not come as a huge surprise, her being surrounded by the finest examples of Golden Age portraiture and landscape, the fruits of Rembrandt, Hals, Van Goyen and Ruisdael. Further, Philips discusses the impact on one hand of Diane Arbus and on the other, objectivists Hilla and Bernd Becher, Thomas Struth and others, from their uncompromising eye to their work on a large-scale. Blessing beautifully compares the uniformed group of English school children in Dijkstra’s video I See a Woman Crying (The Weeping Woman) (2009) to an imposing—in scale and subject—civic group portrait of militia officers from 1616 by Frans Hals.
To return to the Beach Portraits, all these strands discussed above come together here. The low horizon line—very much a 17th-century Dutch landscape perspective—her gaze and large-scale format refer to Dijkstra’s artistic heritage and the unflinching realism of Arbus and 20th-century Germans early and late, from August Sanders to the Photo-Objectivists.
Yet these portraits still are of gawky kids at the beach.
Her subjects (in the catalogue’s side-bar interviews that brilliantly complement the interesting artist’s interview) talk about how easy and relaxing the several hours sessions with Dijkstra are, while the artist herself reveals how conscious she is of artistic tradition balanced with her immediate concerns of honestly portraying her subjects. She is also interested in the larger social implications of her photographs. In the Beach Portraits she consciously chose to compare the American kids with Polish ones to attempt to portray the contrast in a consumerist culture versus one just emerging from behind the Iron Curtain. The idea that one imagines these larger cultural differences can be detected in the bodies of young teenagers and that the artist can capture these fleeting impressions comprise the strength of Rineke Dijkstra’s work, alongside its evident technical and artistic beauty. A beauty, by the way, that makes a virtue of ugliness and unease.
A few Beach Portraits should be singled out: Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 27 1992, shows two young boys, one straightforward in pose and attitude and the other in a charming, unself-conscious and elegant pose which is classic contrapposto (counterpoise). In one after another photograph in this series, the awkwardness of the adolescent bodies somehow turn graceful with repetition. Of course, the very famous “Botticelli Venus” girl from the Polish beach contrasts with the earlier American girl in Hilton Head Island, S.C., USA, June 24, 1992: knowingly or not, both girls evoke an enduring masterpiece of Western civilization and a famous byword of seduction, but the materially unsophisticated Polish girl successfully strikes the pose, while the American with all her material benefits is uncomfortable and unconvincing.
The New Mothers series (1994) presents a powerful look at these young women who have just given birth. These photographs are as tough for us to look at as they must have been for the women to pose for: Saskia’s caesarean wound and Tecla with the slightest drip of blood running down her left inner leg. Tecla, Amsterdam, Netherlands, May 16, 1994 presents a compositionally perfect image, the linearity of the line of blood balanced by a circular blemish on the wall. Dijkstra’s genius lies in the equilibrium between the complete honesty of her gaze and the formal precision of her technique.
Often discussed in tandem with New Mothers is the series the Forcados or Bullfighters of 1994/2000. As the artist explained, she was interested in capturing the conflicting emotions of people who have just emerged from “intense physical and emotional experience[s]…”. This premise is enough to make for a compelling image, but in the Bullfighters you also have the brooding eyes in Vila Franca de Xira, Portugal, May 8, 1994; the bloodied jacket and frightening-looking bandaged throat in the affable, if slightly oafish young man in Forte de Casa, Portugal, May 20, 2000; or the blood-streaked, puppy-dog face of a dark-haired youth of the same place and day. The courtly, old world costumes of the forcados and their owners’ relative youth mightily contrast with the bloodstained faces and clothes, startling reminders of masculine rites of passage and sport.
Dijkstra’s work—and the exhibition—veer dramatically away from Rembrandt women and Goya bullfighters to the teenage preoccupations of the club-set in the U.K. and the Netherlands. In a series of still photographs and then her first video work, The Buzz Club, Liverpool, UK/Mystery World, Zaandam, NL (1996-97), Dijkstra began to chronicle youths engaged in these early tribal and courtship rituals. More than ever, the artist’s explorations take on an anthropological cast. In the afore-mentioned video, girls from the Liverpool club and boys from the Dutch club are shown in candid moments. It’s uncomfortable to watch—just as painful to regard as the freshly minted mothers—because in both we feel we are viewing something private. Also in operation in the Buzz Club/Mystery World works, and later in The Krazyhouse series of 2008-09 (another Liverpool club), is a pervasive ennui. These kids look bored and adult, but they are, as Dijkstra shows us, simply children out to emulate what they perceive adults do, however much they may construct their own means of expression in order to so. Dutch twin boys remain manly, impassive; one young man refusing to engage the camera. On the other hand, in the video The Krazyhouse (2009), one teenager—Philip—dances expressively in front of the camera, revealing his vulnerability, allowing us to watch. It’s really touching, and we come away more convinced of his maturity than of the Dutch twins and their stoic façades.
Perhaps the zenith of the exhibition occurs in the face-off between the Almerisa and Olivier series (begun 1994 and 2000, respectively). The former follows the young Bosnian refugee Almerisa at a Dutch asylum center in March 1994, aged five, to her becoming a young mother in June 2003. So extraordinary is the sweep of time and transformation of the young woman, I at first didn’t realize it was the same subject. Opposite in that gallery is another transformation, although only over three years. Olivier documents a young man, Olivier Silva’s, induction into the French Foreign Legion and change from a handsome, innocent boy into a hardened soldier: from t-shirt to fatigues, from fatigues to braids and epaulettes. While this trajectory might seem predictable, it is none the less moving. Both these series represent an astonishing investment—a real commitment by Dijkstra—to her subjects and to her art, and indeed, to her public as well.
The balance of the exhibition includes Dijkstra’s photographs of Israeli twins, and another famous series of young Israeli soldiers(1999). Like Olivier, these are kids with accoutrements of war, harrowing to consider. Perhaps it is fitting to end here, for few things must transform a human being more than the experience of giving birth or the passage, effected through warfare, from child to adult. Rineke Dijkstra captures these moments—moment by moment—and so allows us to ponder life’s innocence and instruction, its transience, accidental joys and certain pain.