I must confess to not being very aware of Erwin Olaf before today but I now must add him to the list of other great Dutch artist-photographers that I have discovered at the Gemeentemuseum or Fotomuseum – the others being Gerard Petrus Fieret and Anton Heyboer.
While, on the face of it, there are great similarities between the latter pair, there seems to be little to connect them to Erwin Olaf. While their work portrayed the deprived and depraved, drunks and the homeless and set largely in the gutter, Olaf’s world is one of glamour, wealth and even royalty. While Fieret’s and Heyboer’s photos are crude and crumpled, Olaf’s are smooth and shiny.
On the face of it, they are as different as different can be. But all three of them have a lot of common ground. They all inhabited a demi-monde and each shares a willingness to reveal that which is easier to ignore. Fieret and Heyboer are in your face and undeniable, Olaf is more subtle, more subversive.
Olaf started out as a photo-journalist reporting on the gay scene and his work developed along two tracks – as a top international commercial photographer and as an artist creating his own, non-commissioned work and it is this, which I find most interesting.
His early work was clearly influenced by Robert Mapplethorpe, among others, but his large, set-piece tableaux are unique and breath-taking.
Alongside the conventional, though still exquisite, studio portraits are the most exciting works. The large pictures, many set in America, have a strange surrealism about them. They are moments frozen in time like eccentric versions of pictures from early Life magazines or stills from1950s television soap opera or pictures from mail-order catalogues. There are echoes of Edward Hopper in their stillness and mundanity and of David Lynch in their strangeness. There is hommage to David Hockney with a naked man in a swimming pool being observed by a fully dressed man, the scene surrounded by hills and palm trees.
It is their calm ambiguity that make these pictures disturbing – who are these people and why are they doing what they are doing? Where are they going, where have they been? The quality of the giant photos is astounding; they have the richness and depth of old master paintings. You find yourself looking closely, trying to detect brush strokes.
Although you know that there is something odd going on, it is nothing you can put your finger on. The formal studio portraits of rich-kids have a certain matter-of-fact innocence to them that defies suspicion. But still . . .
Possibly the most innovative part of the exhibition of the Gemeentemuseum are the moving portraits, just like those in the Harry Potter films. Framed in the same frames and hung next to the conventional photos, it is rather disconcerting when a face you are looking at begins to move – so much so that you find yourself lingering at each picture just in case it bursts into life.
Olaf’s large tableaux photographs are created meticulously with vast amounts of effort, manpower and resources going into an image. They are like a single frame from a pivotal moment in a strange film without us ever knowing the plot.
In fact, Olaf has made a number of short films. The most striking is in black and white, set in an old, oak panelled house. A black woman in a black high collared Victorian dress sings a lullaby to a baby. In the next room a black boy in a sailor suit is bouncing a football off the walls. The dénouement of this is very disturbing and solicited a few gasps from the people watching.
Almost incongruous is the series of formal portraits of the Dutch royal family which has a section all to itself away from the main body of the exhibition. They are fine, affectionate family pictures which give no indication to the hidden depths and visions of arguably Holland’s greatest living artist. A must see. Michael Hasted 28th March 2019
The double ERWIN OLAF exhibition continue until 12th May