donderdag 7 maart 2019


Ronald Cornelissen, July 28, ink, pencil, watercolour, gouache and acrylic paint on paper, 114,6 x 244 cm, 2018
Category: interview/Subject: Ronald Cornelissen on his drawings/Author: Peter Nijenhuis/Date conversation: February 1, 2019. Proofreading and editing: Chris Kennedy.
Ronald Cornelissen (Beverwijk, 1960) studied at AKV/St. Joost in Breda from 1983 to 1988, specialising in painting and monumental design. He has exhibited in The Netherlands, the US, Greece and France. A solo exhibition of his sculptures was shown at Museum Boymans Van Beuningen in 2010, under the title The Horseman's Kitchenette, (When Demons Cook). He had a duo exhibition entitled Ground/ground with Paul van der Eerden at Drawing Center Diepenheim in 2015. Ronald Cornelissen is represented by Galerie Bernard Jordan in Paris and Zurich.

When did you start drawing?
I used to draw a lot as a child, but I was never told you could make a career out of it. That realisation came when I went to art school in 1983, where I focused on painting and sculpture. My teachers there liked thick layers of paint. They also preferred paintings to be abstract. When I moved to Rotterdam three months after graduation, I began to realize more and more that this way of painting was not for me. I like to tell stories, for me it’s about iconography. My interest in art started between my sixteenth and twentieth, not fed by museum visits, but by music, comics and things from American underground literature. In art school, however, narrative was considered suspicious. If they told you your work was anecdotal, they meant you had a serious problem.

Ronald Cornelissen, 1-4 June, ink, pencil etc, 88,5 x 138 cm, 2017
How do you know when a drawing is worth keeping?
The obvious answer is it has to be finished. The question is, though, when is a drawing finished? I keep pretty much everything I put down on paper, even when I feel a drawing doesn’t feel right. I keep all my drawings, bad or good. After a while, a year maybe, I’ll come across them again. Over the years I´ve learned you can turn a bad drawing into a good one. It´s something I like doing. When a drawing is no longer quite so fresh, I’m less nervous about screwing it up, as I´m less aware of all the time it took to get it to where it’s at. Also I usually work on a lot of drawings at once, that way it´s easier to let go of the idea that a particular drawing has to be ´good´. And I never make preliminary studies. That way everything is wide open when I start working, which is nice because in that phase drawing comes easy, you can’t go wrong really. As I progress it gets more and more difficult to manoeuvre, until I get stuck. And that is the stage a drawing must be at in order for to finish it and turn it into something I consider good. Now you have to come up with the right move. At this point I might make what you would call a study, a small version of what I have so I can try things out, often something quite arbitrary or perverse. You could say that’s rather adolescent of me, but I see something very vital in precisely such a seemingly mindless act at that point. It creates a tension between sophistication and crudity that I like a lot. It also tends to give a drawing something tragicomic and I like that.

Yusaka Hanakuma
How do you determine when a drawing is a good one?
In Japan they distinguish four types of manga artist: bad and good draftsman without character, and bad and good draftsman with character. The first two categories can be dismissed. The last category includes the true masters, obviously. The third category, though, should not be underestimated; it certainly has my warm interest. I love artists that still work in the so called ‘heta-uma’ style, such as Yusaku Hanakuma and Takashi Nemoto. In fine Art too I prefer work where the ugly or banal plays a meaningful role. I admire Franz West for that reason. Charles Bukowski once wrote: When the spirit wanes/ the form appears. That ties in with what I said about manga styles. One of the things that truly counts in a work is character. If that is missing, formality surfaces, the structural application of mere tricks. It’s important to avoid that, even though it can be difficult when you’ve been drawing as long as I have. Over time you get to know what works well; it’s tempting to fall back on that knowledge. If you do, though, predictability lies in wait. To avoid this I try to organise my work process so that I end up painting myself into a corner. In that way, an emergency jump becomes unavoidable. And that has to be exactly right, as I mentioned before. It’s precisely that leap that can open the way to unforeseen results.

Ronald Cornelissen, The Hyperborean Garden, 2013
In the past you drew urban landscapes. In your recent drawings, your subject is the Arctic world. How did that come about?
I see all my drawings as landscapes of some sort, but the Arctic world is indeed something different. To my mind, though, it’s not as far from home as you might think. In 2013 I made an installation in De Korenbeurs in Schiedam. One of the topics on my mind a lot then was the shift to the right in politics and how ‘Henk and Ingrid’ (as a certain right-wing politician refers to his idea of the typical Dutch couple) felt that their culture, which was considered superior, was under threat from an inferior, outside culture. Reading about these issues, I ran across the name Hyperborea. Originally a Greek idea, Hyperborea was a fabulous realm of eternal spring located in the far north, where it was sunny 24 hours a day. I wound up calling my installation in Schiedam The Hyperborean Garden (see below Notes post1). On delving deeper into the subject, I found that this ancient notion of a northern paradise underwent a revival in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Theosophist and Ariosophist circles, this mythical north was linked with racial theories and the rejection of modern thinking. This delusional world of esotericism, conspiracy theories, racial doctrine and anti-modernism - as described in detail in The Occult Roots of Nazism and Black Sun by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke and Arktos: The Polar Myth by Joscelyn Godwin (see below Notes post 2) - influenced twentieth-century thinkers such as René Guénon and Julius Evola and through them individuals who figure in contemporary politics, like Alexandr Dugin and Steve Bannon. I found all this to be as interesting as it was repulsive. So I decided to take a look at the North for myself and ended up spending time in Svalbard.

Ronald Cornelissen, Kolhamna Spitsbergen 2018
What did all this trigger in you?
First of all, I definitely want to go back there. I was invited last year (2018) by Maarten Loonen, a biologist attached to the Arctic Centre from the University of Groningen, to stay nine days at the Netherlands Arctic Station in Ny-Ålesund, on the north-west coast of Svalbard. Moreover, I could stay for three weeks as artist in residence in Galleri Svalbard in Nybyen. Svalbard, or Spitsbergen as we call it, is hard and stony. Close to the ground there is a rich vegetation of mosses and even a kind of miniature tree. Svalbard is visited by migratory birds and is home to Arctic foxes, reindeer and polar bears. If you go out walking it’s always with a guide and never without a rifle. Apart from all that mind-blowing nature there is little else. And last but not least, there are hardly any people. That creates an enormous sense of freedom. I talked to a Russian woman in her early twenties in Pyramiden, where only about 30 people live. I wondered what she was doing there. These exceptional circumstances apparently attract certain people (see below Notes post 3). In summer, which is when I was there, it´s light 24 hours a day. That light and the landscape made my stay feel sometimes hallucinatory, especially at night. And distances were difficult to estimate for me.
Ronald Cornelissen, The Horseman's Kitchenette, 2010
 There is a lot to tell about Svalbard, ranging from the mythical and the esoteric to the northern lights, landscapes and polar bears. During preparations for my stay, my interests began to shift from political mythology to ecology. For scientists who do research in the Arctic, climate change is a fait accompli. What’s more, the scientific climate debate is difficult to isolate from political discussion. It’s no coincidence that the denial of climate change is an important doctrine for the new right, and I would not be surprised to see the new right benefit from the climate debate and arguments about the distribution of costs involving energy transition in the years to come. The fact that the climate is often dismissed as a leftish issue does not contribute in a positive way. It means centre right parties also tend to downplay scientific pronouncements about climate change.
Gerrit de Veer, Waerachtighe beschryvinghe, 1598
 In order to start somewhere and to try to organise the rather complex subject matter in my head, I decided to study the original version of Gerrit de Veer's book from 1598, in the Maritime Museum in Amsterdam (see below Notes post 4). As a young man, de Veer joined Willem Barents in his attempt to find the so-called Northeast Passage through the Arctic along the northern coast of the Eurasian landmass. The idea was to find a route to China and India that was shorter than the usual route around the Cape of Good Hope. During the voyage, Barents’s expedition accidentally discovered Bear Island and Svalbard, but in 1596 the ship got stuck in sea ice on the northeast coast of Nova Zembla. The men were forced to see out the winter in a small hut at temperatures that fell to minus 40 degrees Celsius. Twelve of the seventeen crew members returned to the Netherlands in 1597. The failed trip and the book are part of our national history and a prime example of what is called the ‘VOC mentality’ in Holland. This colonial, entrepreneurial spirit of our ancestors, the urge to map the world and get a foothold everywhere, has become a sensitive point of discussion in political debate in recent years - and for understandable reasons.
John CarpenterThe Thing, 1982
 Gerrit de Veer’s book describes the journey taken by these sixteenth-century Dutch sailors, led by Barents, and includes a number of engravings. Together with the travelogue, these engravings were the starting point for my series of 'Arctic' drawings. The prints in de Veer’s book are somewhat one-sided. He describes despair and suffering. The men doubt that they will ever return to Amsterdam alive and have to deal with sickness and extreme cold. Despair and suffering are not so easy to portray visually, or so it seems; the sixteenth-century printmaker chose mainly to depict moments of action, such as the crew's encounters with polar bears. It looks like there were quite a few polar bears at the end of the sixteenth century. Barents’ men seem to have no problem with killing them, even when there is really no need for them to do so. As soon as they spy a polar bear swimming in the sea from their ship, they give chase in a small boat. Unable to defend itself properly while swimming, the bear is hacked to death with an axe. For creatures like the polar bear, the men felt awe but absolutely no compassion. The sixteenth-century portrayal of encounters with polar bears is a recurring theme in my updated versions of the prints, as is the hut where the men spent the winter on Nova Zembla, the so-called Behouden Huys (Safe House). In my drawings, the story becomes gradually infused with more and more foreign elements such as Popeye the Sailorman, Godzilla, the cruel, pseudo-scientific 'research' done by the Russian scientist Vladimir Demikhov, and the Tsar Bomba, which is said to be the hydrogen bomb that was detonated on Nova Zembla in 1961, causing the most powerful nuclear explosion ever. And anyone who has seen The Thing, a B-film by John Carpenter from 1982, will pick up on a few references (see Notes afterwards 5). In The Thing, a group of scientists at an American station on Antarctica are confronted with an alien life form that has lain frozen under the ice for a long time. Brought back to life, The Thing takes control of the bodies of animals and humans that then mutate into hideous monsters.

Caspar David Friedrich, Das Eismeer 1824
A famous painting with an arctic theme is Das Eismeer by Caspar David Friedrich, painted in 1824. It is a drawing-like, linear painting, with a number of diagonal lines that dominate the composition. All details are subordinate to these all-determining compositional lines. Large diagonals, along with other compositional lines, also play an important role in your drawings. Unlike Das Eismeer, the details in your drawings are not subordinate to these compositional lines though, but rather seem to undermine the composition by their scale and dynamic. Is this apparent refusal to make detail subject to composition intentional?
Yes. It is one of the ways to keep the drawing process exciting for me and to obtain unforeseen results.

Ronald Cornelissen, 21-22 June, ink, pencil etc, 71 x 103 cm, 2017
Your drawings are often exceptionally large. The largest in the Arctic series is almost one and a half meters high and three metres wide. Combined with the conflict between composition and detail, these large formats pose a problem for the viewer. Standing up close to the work, viewers are forced to move from left to right in order to examine the details of the drawing, and to step backwards and forwards to take in the composition. Rather complicated; but one could argue that this problem of viewpoint is not without significance. Unlike our modern predecessors, we no longer believe unconditionally in our ability to imagine, view and understand the world objectively. We have come to see that the world is infinitely more complex than people before us realised. Are these problems you confront the viewer with a graphic embodiment of that awareness?
As far as I am concerned, complexity, heterogeneity and lack of clarity are all part of today's reality. I can imagine that people struggle with my translation of this reality in the drawings. People seem to prefer clarity and want at least some sort of ‘message’. But am I obliged to go along with that? I have recently been reading two writers (among others) - Timothy Morton and Michel Serres. Morton, author of books on art and ecology, is not so easy to fathom. His prose is complex and, for a philosophically unschooled reader like me, often difficult to grasp. He throws all sorts of things into the equation that sometimes seem farfetched. But Morton also occasionally rewards his readers with grandiose insights, although he offers them no hope or comfort. Put quite simply, his idea is that we owe the enormous advances we have made since the Neolithic revolution to the fact that we changed from being nomadic hunter-gatherers to being farmers. But thereby, we also placed ourselves outside nature and that has led ultimately to the irreversible catastrophe we find ourselves in today. The beginning of the end of the world is already behind us. According to him we are now witnessing a post-apocalyptic phase and it is time we accepted that the world as we know it is slowly disappearing.
Ronald Cornelissen Kronebreen glacier, Spitsbergen, 2018
 Michel Serres, author of Malfeasance and other works, is much clearer than Morton. In Serres’ view too, the problem begins with man’s settlement, the moment when he starts marking out his property. According to Serres, there is an animal aspect to the whole ecological question. Animals appropriate territory and things by leaving traces of smell. People seem more civilized. They fly over the North Pole and then, in the name of their nation, throw a flag and a large wooden cross down to claim the place, as Umberto Nobile did 1926. Nevertheless, the principle is the same, even the human species stakes its claim on things by leaving traces and smirching untouched territory. Serres offers a well-rounded vision. That is comforting, because it is a form of interpretation, it contains a message. I have great admiration for all that, but frankly I feel more at home in the chaos and complexity of Morton’s ideas. His reality is not readily comprehensible or unified. He does not pretend he has anything to offer to his readers. Morton is not selling us pretty stories and in that sense I’m not selling anything either. I mistrust anyone who makes claims with complete certainty. The construction of certainties, of a vision that ties everything together, presenting reality as an orderly unity, is something that mainly benefits ideologists and politicians, in my view. That’s something you should try to undermine. You should not make things look better than they are. You have to show things as they are as much as possible. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Revelation of John, or the Apocalypse, the last book of the New Testament. The beautiful images of downfall in it have been interpreted in different ways over and over again. Through reading too much into them, attention has been removed from the actual images themselves. In a lecture on the Apocalypse in 1984 in St. James Church in London, Andrei Tarkovsky said that we should stop looking for messages behind the images in the Book of Revelation (see Notes below 6). Tarkovsky suggested we should see the sea of fire described in Revelation simply as a sea of fire. I think Tarkovsky was right in that sense. Once you take pictures for what they are, things tend to become a lot more interesting. That is what I would like to say to anyone who finds my drawings a bit difficult and unclear; try and look at my drawings as if you were looking out of a window. A window is also a frame. People looking through that frame do not normally ask the meaning of what they see, they do not presume any necessary connection between the elements of whatever situation might appear at any particular moment. Things are just there by coincidence, making an infinite number of interpretations possible. They thus give expression to an infinite number of possible connections with the world - the absolute and the infinite, as Tarkovsky puts it so beautifully.

Ronald Cornelissen , 16-20 august, ink, pencil etc, 140 x 279 cm, 2018
You just mentioned untouched territories. Such a pristine terrain, blank paper, plays an important role in your work. In many of your drawings, the white seems inflamed and animated by what has been drawn around it; as if something is about to appear in the white. This is also the case in your arctic series, but more than in previous drawings, drawing is not just used here to the white to life but it also seems to tarnish it. Has your view of the world darkened?
Not really, all my work is in a sense about masculine behaviour or behaviour such as Serres describes it: the intellectual and otherwise mapping, imagining and taking possession of the world. It's about forms of contamination, about expressions of a deeply ingrained instinct that is just as inevitable as it is dangerous and insignificant.

Website Ronald Cornelissen


1 The term 'Boreal' refers to an important founding myth for the European ultra-right: the 'Aryan' and 'polar' roots of the Indo-European people, the supposed ancestors of white Europeans. In Godwin’s book, other Arctic myths are also described in-depth. Much of it is rather insane, but I found it a wonderful book to read.
2 The Occult Roots of Nazism: The Ariosophists of Austria and Germany, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2004.
Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity, Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, NYU Press, 2003.
Arktos: The Polar Myth in Science, Symbolism, and Nazi Survival, Joscelyn Godwin, Adventures Unlimited Press, 1996.
3 During the second week of my stay in Svalbard, I visited the Russian settlements Barentsburg and Pyramiden. Barentsburg is the second largest settlement in Svalbard and lies on the Grønfjorden (which is part of the Isfjorden). Barentsburg has about 450 inhabitants, mainly Russians (in particular Pomores) and Ukrainians. The settlement is entirely focused on the mining of coal. In 1920 Svalbard was placed under Norwegian supervision during a conference in Paris through the Spitsbergen Treaty. The treaty provides for Norwegian sovereignty over Svalbard, while at the same time providing for certain rights for the other signatories. The treaty allows foreign companies to operate under its own rules without having to fully take into account Norwegian supervision. About 40 countries signed the treaty, including Russia in 1924. So far, only Norway and Russia actually exercise their rights through coal mining. The name Barentsburg was given to a Dutch mining settlement by the management of the N.V. Nederlandsche Spitsbergen Compagnie (Nespico) from Rotterdam in 1924. Before that it was simply named after the fjord where it was situated, Green Harbour. Due to financial problems, the Dutch Spitsbergen Company was eventually obliged to sell all its claims on Svalbard, the Barentsburg one included. In 1932 the Soviet State Enterprise Trust Arktikugol took over the Dutch properties at Svalbard. Pyramiden used to be a Russian mining site on an offshoot of the Isfjorden, called Billefjorden. The village was founded in 1910 by the Swedes and sold to the Russians in 1927. Since 1998 the mine has been closed at Pyramiden and nowadays the village is largely deserted, but the infrastructure and buildings are still partly intact. In the past, Russians liked to go to Svalbard because work there was much better paid than in Russia and one could move relatively freely there (even though there was a KGB office in Barentsburg).
4 Something else about Gerrit de Veer's book, A True Description of Three Voyages by the North-East towards Cathay and China : undertaken by the Dutch in the years 1594, 1595 and 1596 (Amsterdam 1598.) Besides the simple fact that the story took place in the high North and that Barents and Van Heemskerck discovered Svalbard and gave it its name, Spitsbergen, there was another reason why I chose to take a closer look at this book. It is a history that, despite the banal economic motives underlying the expedition, is ultimately about courage and perseverance. And that is how we like to picture ourselves in the Netherlands. The expedition did not take place under the VOC flag (VOC meaning Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, the Dutch East India Company). The VOC was founded 6 years after the fact and the story remains untarnished from a colonial point of view; neither Svalbard nor the north of Nova Zembla knew an indigenous population. That does not mean that no price was paid for the discovery of Svalbard in particular. Whales (and other animals) were hunted there intensively for a long time. So my choice of this particular story can to a large extend be traced back to the original perspective for this project: nationalism, particularly of the kind in which the past must be idealized at all costs or even reinvented altogether. Incidentally, my interest in the book goes back a long way: my parents had a few books in their bookcase that stimulated my imagination from the moment I could read because of the exotic sounding titles: Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak and especially Wintering on Nova Zembla by Gerrit de Veer. It took me a long time before I actually read Gerrit de Veer's book, but like so many other people of my age I was familiar with the famous school print of The Saved House, by J.H. Isings from 1951 that we had at my primary school in Leiderdorp.
5 The Thing could be interpreted as an allegory of what happens when the permafrost thaws. It is a remake of a 1951 film, The Thing From Another World. The Thing by Carpenter is situated on Antartica, the original movie from 1951 takes place at the North Pole.
6 Tarkovsky's lecture can be found in the book Andrey Tarkovsky: Films, Stills, Polaroids & Writings (Schirmer / Mosel Verlag, Munich, 2012). Tarkovsky states in this lecture that the Apocalypse cannot be interpreted and explained. According to Tarkovsky, the book of Revelation contains no symbols, it is an image. And while symbols can be decoded, images cannot. A specific meaning can be assigned to a symbol, not to an image, according to Tarkovsky. An image is something we can only perceive and accept.