Two weeks ago, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the Frans Hals show. It was quite hard to call it a show since most of the paintings are regularly on display. But there were many surprises. The first negative surprise was that I thought the original “Malle Babbe” was going to be there- but on display was a “Malle Babbe” that was considered an original until the 1980’s and now is considered to be a copy. It is part of the permanent collection as well. It is still quite beautiful and one can easily imagine the virtuosity of the original. The image itself is all Hals but the brushwork lacks the fluidity that is Hals’ signature style.
In the second room there was a truly beautiful Hals called the “Fisher Girl“( from a private collection). In this painting, a girl of about 14 is outside on a beach on a cloudy day. There are dunes and flying crows in the background. She is holding a basket of fish in her left arm and a small, wet fish aloft in her right hand. She is joyous and alive, smiling and laughing. The brushwork is amazingly brief and fluid. There is no interest in recording forms as forms to be modeled but rather how these forms appear as a visual phenomena on the retina of the eye. There are so many passages, especially on the shadow side, that are slashed and zigzagged. They have nothing to do with the solidity of the form. They are true and accurate, but they speak of an accuracy that goes beyond what we “know”, that rational part of our brain, and represent instead a fluid visual experience manifesting itself on the picture plane. This picture plane mimics the image as it appears on the retina of our eye without our translating it to pure form. Hals rejects form and takes a leap of faith that these strokes are the thing itself-the only thing necessary to convey the image. And within this boundary, Hals breaks from all that is past and projects himself into the future. He is the only one of his time that goes beyond form itself into a purely visual expression of life through the paint. Rembrandt is all form- solid, hard form. Vermeer is onto the same thing as Hals but he holds back. He reconsiders the picture plane through the camera obscura but he does not entirely succumb to it as Hals does.
The mastery of Hals lies on two planes. He is a master craftsman and he is a soul penetrated with pure emotion. His portraits speak of his love for humanity whether they be children or drunkards or old men who have lost a sense of self. His humility is ever-present in his work and through this humility one sees his amazing contact with other souls. His work is a record of this. The “Fisher Girl” is so profound. Her childish joy at being in the world and being with a painter, who is socially out of her realm, who finds companionship with her is evocative. It almost supplants my favorite Hals from The Museum of Fine Art in Boston, “The Man in the kimono” where the duality and division within a man’s being is laid bare but not with a brutality of judgement but with a generosity and communion- Hals recognizes his own inherent division and the division within everyman.
But the greatest surprise at the exhibit was a painting of Robert Henri. This painting , “Dutch Girl in White“, is in the permanent collection but is never on display. I’ve been waiting 20 years to see it and there it was like a vision- Frans Hals translated in a modern idiom. It evoked the wonderful brushstrokes and fluid application of Hals but was charged with brilliant color. This color transformed what could easily have been a traditional painting into a modern masterpiece. There was the same joyousness and child-like vivacity that Hals captured, but now there was no longer a social barrier to be overcome. Henri plants himself with the “every man”- as he called them,”my people“. Henri adds to this equation his own unique craftsmanship a superior color sensitivity. He fluctuates between his love of 19th century form modelling and the fluid visual experience of paint on canvas mimicking the image as it appears on the retina of the eye. He is the most satisfied with himself when he applies the paint freely as Hals did. He remarks in his journal that he wishes to repeat that flowing quality that he achieved in “Gypsy Man with Guitar“- the inherent liveliness and freedom of stroke that Hals would approve of. But now color, so important to modern man, becomes his hallmark and leads us into another dimension- one of unspoken feeling, that Hals was not able to express fully. The challenge is how can a contemporary artist build on this in a new way.