Taking self-portrait as his sole subject, Philip Akkerman (*1957, Vaassen, NL) decided to pursue a career in painting at the tender age of 18 when the others were announcing heroically to him the tragic death of painting. “How can painting be dead if I wanted to paint so much?” In the last 30 years, Akkerman derived an almost methodical approach to painting by creating images of himself through adaptation and reinvigoration of painting techniques offered to him by the old masters throughout the history of art. Declaring that “I paint myself, and so I paint the whole of mankind”, we see in his vast ouvrage of 3,000 self-portraits the diversity of man and art “combined into a philosophical collage of forms”.
A loyal disciple of Schopenhauer, Akkerman believes in individual freedom of creation, yet this freedom has to be backed by a regulated, self-disciplined working method of the medieval time in order to make it positive and productive. “I don’t think I am a child of this age, I am a romantic darkness,” Akkerman defines.
The present interview with Philip Akkerman was conducted on the 29th April, 2011. To mark the day, Akkerman wore a royal hat for the royal wedding.
9 April – 26 June 2011
Kunsthal, Rotterdam (NL)
PA – Philip Akkerman
ST – Selina Ting for InitiArt Magazine
The eye sees everything except itself
ST: Looking at the paintings and meeting the real artist, I see different persons.
PA: [Laughs] Here is just one Philip Akkerman and over there you see 400. One of the things that I am aiming at with my work is to see who and what I could be if I were born in another time or in another country. We don’t have many choices in life, but I want to know how many Philip Akkermans are possible, and I surprise myself every time.
ST: Is it more about painting or about yourself?
PA: In the first place, I am a painter. Otherwise, I would realize this search in hundreds of novels, or films, etc…
ST: Why is it this sad, serious look? It’s kind of dark, isn’t it? Does the world appear to you as dark and sad?
PA: It’s serious but not sad. It’s the concentration of someone at work. Another reason is that a smiling self-portrait is grotesque, nobody would believe it. And the third reason is that I am a pessimist. It’s dark, as you said, because life is a mystery which we will never be able to understand. It’s perhaps only possible to understand who you are as an individual at the end of your life. We can look at ourselves in two ways: through the senses and through introspection. Our intellectuality applies only to the first, i.e. to our experience with the outside world. Our internal world of feelings and emotions are inaccessible for the intellect. “The eye sees everything except itself”. It’s a nice expression for this paradox that we live in.
©Philip Akkerman. Left: Self-portrait 2010 no.51, 50×43 cm. Centre: Self-portrait 2009 no.24. Right: Self-portrait 2008 no.142. Courtesy of the artist.
ST: When you paint, do you try to look at the psychological aspect of yourself instead of taking a logical approach?
PA: No, it’s more about philosophy than about psychology. I am interested in the most profound meaning of art: What is existence? Who are we ? What is this life that we are living? Then there is the more superficial part of art that is also core to my artistic research, which is the technique. Everything in between, be it psychology, history, social meaning of art, etc. etc. I am not interested in at all.
ST: Not even art history?
PA: No! Art history is a joke! It’s for students and scholars, not for people who enjoy paintings or who make paintings, because all the notions of styles are inventions. There are just individual paintings and when you look at a painting or make a painting, you should not think in styles, movements, schools, etc. It’s too fictional.
ST: We will come back to the idea of art history later. What about the profound aspect of art? How do you capture them with your paintings?
PA: I think about these life issues all day. Since the 1960s, artists like Joseph Beuys tried to convince us that our everyday life is art. But I really do believe that art is something special. It’s not like baking bread.
ST: Because it distills something from our daily life?
PA: Yes, it tells us something more about life. It can somehow stop life.
Painting is dead?
©Philip Akkerman. Left: Self-portrait 1999 no.48, 27 x 25cm. Centre: Self-portrait 1999 no.3, 50x43cm. Right: Self-portrait 1998 no.70, 40×34 cm. Courtesy of the artist.
ST: What about the old masters and the different period styles that you referred to often in your work?
PA: [Laughs] I am an old master! It’s still the same culture that we live in, nothing has changed. Let me tell you something. When I started doing my self-portraits in the late ’70s and early ’80s, my teachers said to me, “You can’t do that. Painting is dead”. But I really wanted to make paintings, I really loved to paint. How can painting be dead when I love it so much? And I asked myself, when does something die? Something dies when the reason that it came to life can no longer justify its existence. Studio painting emerged at the end of the Middle-Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, a moment when the totalitarian popes and emperors had to share their power with the civilians. It was the rising individual freedom of the common man that in turn gave rise to the form of studio painting.
ST: When people started painting for themselves…
PA: Exactly! The essence of painting is individual freedom and autonomy. Do you know the American TV show painter Bob Ross? He taught painting on TV in the 1980s. People watched it not because they were interested in painting, but just to relax before they went to bed. He was not taken seriously because he’s a kitsch painter. In the TV show, he says something which to me is the essence of our culture. He says, “Look I am painting a tree. But it’s a lonely tree, isn’t it? So let’s paint another tree next to it. Remember this is your painting and you can do whatever you like!” This is what individual freedom means. It’s your painting; you can do whatever you like with it. We had this freedom when painting started and we still have it! So painting is still alive. It’s still vital even though we now also have photography, conceptual art, video art, etc. It almost died last century under the totalitarian regimes, Fascism and Communism. They tried to stop it because individual freedom was a threat to their regimes.
ST: But we have seen the opposite that paintings, especially underground paintings, can come out very powerful under political repression.
PA: I hope so but it’s really difficult for artists.
ST: Another idea around the notion of the death of painting is that nothing new can be invented or derived from painting because of its long history of experimentations.
PA: Why should there always be something new? That’s the art historical nonsense. Our culture is one of chaos, of crisis. As I said, the essence of our culture is the individual freedom. No two individuals are the same. There are always clashes; there are always people who want to do things differently. People would say, I am going to do it all over again. I am going to make an important step backward. [Laughs] Why always ahead?
ST: Talking about art history, isn’t that you are also experimenting with different styles and techniques developed in the past centuries? Studying different techniques is an essential part of you work.
PA: It is my daily work. I am trying to improve my paintings everyday to make them more disturbing to look at. When you master some tricks, you can catch your audience . Here comes my theory of the “eye” or the retina as part of the skin. You are not aware of your skin until someone pinches it or licks it. It’s with such sensations that you suddenly realize that you have a layer of skin. Paintings can arouse such sensations to the eyes through contrasts between warm and cold colours, sharp and soft edges, dark and light tones, etc. There are hundreds of contrasts that can be applied at different degrees.
©Philip Akkerman. Right: Self-portrait 2006 no.138. Centre: Self-portrait 2006 no.114. Right: Self-portrait 2005 no.104. Courtesy of the artist.
ST: How can you avoid rendering it routine after 30 years of painting self-portraits every day?
PA: As an artist, you were born with a certain talent and you can’t be any better or any worse than what you were born with. But technically, you can grow. You can become better each year with practices and rational thinking. Complete control over technique is what people called “routine”. I like it very much even though this is the superficial part of the art. If you look at my work, you will see I am not that far yet, there are many bad paintings, but I am not going to destroy them because they are the witnesses of my struggle. I am not afraid of bad paintings because when you are afraid of bad paintings, you stop experimenting. I am happy to know that I am improving when I look at the bad paintings.
ST: It sounds like a very strict self-disciplinary process on the technical part of painting, while the idea, the contemplation on life, as what you said, is very idiosyncratic.
PA: Yes. In a totalitarian regime, everything is strict – taste, technique, material – everything is censored and standardized. Now, in our culture, everything is free. The content is free, the technique is free, which to me, is as boring as the medieval art. Complete control is boring, complete freedom is also boring. I let these two forces clash, so I use the strict techniques of the Middle-Ages combined with the freedom of ideas of today. What I have is a powerful, disciplined army which marches in one direction, but the soldiers are free to choose their own outfits, they can wear whatever they like, in different styles, hats, shoes, etc. That’s my painting.
ST: These are the rules that you apply to yourself, such as doing only self-portrait but in many different disguises.
ST: Have you ever painted the others?
PA: No. Maybe five or six times…
ST: Why did you choose not to paint the others?
PA: Because I have more freedom with self-portrait. I don’t have the secret desire to beautify the portraits; I don’t need to care about the feeling of the sitter. When I paint myself, I am completely free from all these.
ST: I think you are creating a persona that you can work on freely and evolve with it. It’s also more economically accessible. In a way, these paintings are no longer self-portraits, but the image of a human being in general, like a tool for your work.
PA: That’s why I said I have become paint!
©Philip Akkerman. Right: Self-portrait 1992 no.13, 40×34 cm. Centre: Self-portrait 1991 no.85, 40x34cm. Right: Self-portrait 1991 no.1, 31×28 cm. Courtesy of the artist
ST: [Laughs] Do you keep diaries of your work?
PA: Yes. I write diaries and notes. At the young age when I decided to become a painter, I had to write notes, like a declaration, of what I was really concerned and worried about and reflected upon. Later, I wrote about technical matters. Before, I used to have one thick diary for each year, but in the last five years, I only had one. So, the inner struggle is almost over.
ST: You are more certain with yourself…
Akkermania – solo show of Philip Akkerman’s work from 11 private collection. 09 April – 26 June 2011. Exhibition installation view of Philip Akkerman’s paintings from the Caldic Collection in Kunsthal, Rotterdam. Courtesy of the artists, the Caldic Collection and the Kunsthal Rotterdam.
ST: Is it your idea or the curator’s idea to put up a show from 11 collections?
PA: The idea is from the architectural critic Jeffrey Kipnis. He told me five years ago that he was amazed by the diversity of my work. He told me that I would need 10 curators to put up an exhibition to show the diversity. In the Akkermania show, we don’t have 10 curators but we have 11 collectors who picked their own choices throughout the years according to their own temperaments and visions. The idea is to see my work through their eyes.
ST: The diversity is the theme and the collectors are the tools!
ST: How do you find it finally?
PA: I like it. I am crazy about it. I like to experiment with each exhibition and I want each of them to be different. Once I did a show with just paintings from one year, another time we did different ways of hanging for each room in a museum show. There are many possibilities to show the work.
ST: How did you choose the 11 collectors?
PA: We wanted to show the diversity, so we chose collectors with different tastes and approaches to my work. Also, there is a rule in it: it’s all or nothing. They had to show all my paintings in their collection, there is nothing to hide, as I said, bad paintings are equally important to me.
ST: I like the title “Akkermania” very much!
PA: It’s from one of the collectors. He said, “I am an Akkermaniac”. I have to say that my work doesn’t sell easily, because you don’t want a self-portrait of an angry-looking man, a stranger, in your living room. But once people start buying my work, they are caught by the Akkermania fever. They buy one at the beginning, then they return to buy another one and another one. One collector started by buying one painting per year, now he has two or three from each year. He just can’t stop.
ST: After all these years of intense observation and contaminating people with the Akkermania fever, are you comfortable facing yourself?
PA: Of course not! Nobody is. But we need the troubling feelings in order to understand ourselves and the others better.
ST: Thank you very much!
About the artist
Born in Vaassen (NL) in 1957, Philip Akkerman lives and works in The Hague.
His recent solo exhibitions includes Akkermania, Kunsthal, Rotterdam in 2011; 2010: Full Frontal, Mummery + Schnelle, London; Am I A Person?, BravinLee Programs, New York; I have become paint, Galerie Polaris, Paris; Nicky’s Schoenen- en Sleutelservice, The Hague. 2008: Mummery+Schnelle, London; Stephane Simoens Contemporary Fine Art (with Tony Matelli), Knokke; Torch Gallery, Amsterdam. 2007: Guido Costa Projects, Torino. 2006: Bob van Orsouw, Zurich; De Hallen, Haarlem.