Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Girl in a Kimono

She was born in 1877 in Zaandam, in the province of North Holland. When she was 16, Geesje Kwak moved with her sister Anna to Amsterdam to settle into the safe young ladies' profession of milliner. There, among the ladies' hats and bonnets, ribbons and bustling clients, she might have remained in obscurity, her name - and her features - unknown to art history. Except that one day her path crossed that of the artist George Hendrik Breitner.

Breitner, already something of a name in the art world of the time, had recently acquired a studio on Amsterdam's Lauriergracht (Laurel Canal), one of the prettiest spots in the city. In 1892 the artist had visited an influential exhibition of Japanese art in The Hague (which had also inspired Vincent van Gogh, among others), and had enthusiastically acquired several kimonos and some decorative room screens as a result. A year later, the artist's chance meeting with the young milliner seems to have lit a spark of inspiration, and Geesje found herself being asked - on a paid professional basis - to pose as a model in the kimonos. Breitner seems to have been meticulous about details. There is an existing notebook in which he recorded the various dates and hours when Geesje posed for him, and the amounts which she was paid for her time.

The notebook suggests a methodical, business-like approach to the model sessions, but the series of paintings which resulted reveal a special alchemy. Breitner's brushwork in the canvasses shows extraordinary verve and confidence, as if nowhere was it necessary to go over the same brushstroke twice. They are images which indicate that the artist knew exactly where he needed to go to achieve the required result, and what he needed to do to get there, and Geesje seems to have been the catalyst. Posed either in a red or in a silvery-white kimono, Geesje is there in the canvasses as a tangible presence, even when only her face and her hands are visible. Breitner never allows that presence to be swamped by the surrounding patterns of kimono, carpet and room screen which swirl busily around her; the balance between the naturalistic treatment of the model and the eddying patterns is always perfectly held.

Always a restless innovator, Breitner was among the first artists to use his own photographs as references for his paintings.  And indeed: among his collection we also come across his photographs of Geesje, apparently made by the artist for this very purpose. One photograph by Breitner in the Leiden Museum print collection shows a thoughtful Geesje posing hand-on-chin. This gelatine-silver print offers us perhaps our clearest look at the girl who inspired the artist. What must Geesje herself have thought about it all? Was she bemused? Was she flattered by the unexpected attention? In any event, she did not feature further in Breitner's work. There are two reasons for this.

The first reason is that, incomprehensibly, the series of paintings featuring Geesje met with either an indifferent or a scoffing critical reception when they were exhibited. The critical reaction was cold enough, apparently, to discourage the artist further in this direction, and he went on to other themes and subjects. The second reason is Geesje herself. Two years later she emmigrated with her older sister Niesje to Pretoria in South Africa, where she sadly died before reaching her 22nd birthday. But this young death of the girl who became Breitner’s model and inspiration offered its own transcendence: the mysterious immortality which art can grant, even to a young unknown milliner. 


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