Fotomuseum The Hague Holland 21.07.2017

When I stumbled upon the Fotomuseum in The Hague, I was put off by the name; museum suggests the past, the old, the forgotten and I was not encouraged by the possibility of such immersion. However, as I walked by the gallery I was struck by the fact there were three exhibitions showing and realised this was the chance to see new and different work. None of the names meant anything to me yet obviously these were highly competent photographers, ones that had found their way to Holland rather than the United Kingdom.

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Fotomuseum The Hague

When I stumbled upon the Fotomuseum in The Hague, I was put off by the name; museum suggests the past, the old, the forgotten and I was not encouraged by the possibility of such immersion. However, as I walked by the gallery I was struck by the fact there were three exhibitions showing and realised this was the chance to see new and different work. None of the names meant anything to me yet obviously these were highly competent photographers, ones that had found their way to Holland rather than the United Kingdom.

I excuse myself from the friends I am spending the weekend with and walk to the Fotomuseum which I chanced upon yesterday. The building is smart with a colourful exterior, brick and glass. There are a few books and cards on sale in the foyer where one can purchase a ticket.

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The first exhibition I am directed to is by Gerard Petrus Fieret, a photographer I have never heard of but described as the most “quirky and eccentric” of the 20th century. In fact, he only really photographed for about ten years between 1965 to 1975 yet built up a huge body of work during this time photographing anything and everything. The exhibition is titled “There are no failed photographs”.

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Fieret lived from 1924 to 2009 and appears to have been eccentric adopting a polarised attitude towards the Gemeentemuseum that eventually acquired his estate in 2010. Presumably he was Dutch; he lived and worked in The Hague as well as Leiden where he studied briefly. A statement of his intent reads “What I am looking for in photography is anarchy: in the context of conservative society,  my photographs are aggressive. An intense life full of passion – a sound passion for life, that’s what they’re about.

The black and white prints are not well made in the technical sense and the subject matter is often banal yet there is wonderful variety. A video about Fieret is shown in the gallery and this gives a good insight into the way he worked which was very playfully, an untutored haphazard approach yet celebrating life. He often photographed women during which time they would take their clothes off for him while he danced around. Much of his work consists of self-portraiture, an attempt to discover himself; “Who am I?” was his mantra yet he only ever encountered the external form.

The video is effective in showing him as a human rather than a deranged artist. However, Fieret did suffer from psychiatric problems and needed caring for towards the end of his life. One can’t help feeling this manic quality in his work and yet it provides a fantastic insight into bohemian life at an interesting time.

Fieret claimed “I am not a photographer; I am not even an artist … I am a visual art maker. I find the word ‘artist’ a bit too restrictive.

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The exhibition ends with touching portraits of Fieret by other photographers. He does not look deranged rather wise even if there is sadness in his eyes.

In addition to work held at the Fotomuseum in The Hague there is also an archive in Leiden University; it is considered his work will last much longer than that of his more well to do contemporaries. A sleeved photo book is on sale in the foyer and I purchase the French-English edition, a chance to reflect further on the work. The book seems poorly printed and hence probably not worth the cost which is much higher than one might expect for such a publication; an art book that will increase in value? I like the essays at the end that might point out something one has missed or just give a more considered insight into the work. Fieret’ book Le Monde Entier is probably the photo book of his work that defines him rather than a catalogue he had nothing to do with constructing.

Fieret had friends and supporters who not only allowed him to create a striking body of work but also preserved it. His brief training in art meant that he could work meaningfully as well as abstractly. There was a method to his madness!

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Peter Hujar self portrait

After a light lunch, the next exhibition I see is The Speed of Life by Peter Hujar. Like the Fieret exhibition, this is largely a retrospective and in black and white.

From the first two photographs, a gay theme is evident. A naked self-portrait of the photographer running followed by an image of a gay pride march allude to the identity of Hujar who operated at a time when the gay scene was not as open as it is now.

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Susan Sontag portrait (with gallery reflections!)

The photographs are beautifully made and well composed. The first one to really strike me is of Susan Sontag whose books I have read such as “On Photography” The image of her is well focused, the background allowed to blur slightly with the texture of her jumper, hair and face in good focus. The side view of Sontag has caught something of her character that a straightforward image might not; she appears to us as vulnerable in her prone position but in no way penetrable. The photograph was made in 1975 and is a gelatin silver print like most of the others here. A lot of the photographs are of people I have not heard of yet presumably important in their day. Hujar was associated for awhile with Warhol’s Factory. There is a list of people who were photographed and a brief description of them.

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I find the photographer’s biography outside the entrance to the gallery. Hujar was from New Jersey and he worked mostly for art’s sake though he did have a brief period of success in fashion which lead him to decide “it wasn’t right for me!” He accepted financial hardship for a life of creative freedom.

There are quite a few images of animals and nature such as water surfaces. The severed head of a cow is not typical and hence striking as is a snake hanging from a branch.

Hujar died in 1987 from AIDS. There is one monograph of his work from 1976 called Portraits in Life and Death while the catalogue to the exhibition is published by Aperture and simply called Peter Hujar. It seems that like Fieret, he was not an easy person to relate to. Joel Smith writes in the introduction that Hujar was “… difficult to know closely, to convince or dissuade. Difficult to save from his solitude, passing euphorias, self-castigation, fatalism, rage.” As Hujar said of himself, “I can express myself only through photography.”

Both these exhibitions are of late artists of a somewhat eccentric turn who seemed to have fallen on their swords to make art. As Kafka wrote, “In art one must throw one’s life away in order to gain it.”

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There are another few rooms of Hujar’s work to see, this time with white rather than grey walls. As a whole, the work does not inspire me yet there are many well made images. One wall I like shows an older man apparently in meditation while beside it is another Hudson River close up. Perhaps Hujar knew something of peace yet overall the portfolio suggests misery albeit human.

Recalling the first exhibition by Fieret, I sense a certain energy, a dynamism. Perhaps Hujar needs more attention but I have seen enough for one day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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