Nooteboom as art critic

Many of Nooteboom’s essays deal with art, particularly those branches with a visual focus: painting, architecture, film and photography. In his inaugural speech, Nijmegen professor Harry Bekkering described Nooteboom as a man who attaches more importance ‘to his own view than to that of art-historical guides or handbooks; open-mindedness seems to be a prerequisite.’ His gaze is wide-ranging, making its own associations and placing emphasis without depending on other people’s opinions. Bekkering says, ‘You might say, when it comes to art, his maxim is: Let me wander in innocence.’


In Hans van Mierlo’s eulogy on the occasion of Nooteboom winning the P.C. Hooftprijs, he said, ‘You have the exceptional talent of turning the images you see, whether works of art or situations, into language, which the reader can then turn back into mental images. You have a great command of what the Greeks and Romans called ekphrasis, a rhetorical device involving the evocative description of something that has been seen, famous classical examples including Homer’s description of the reliefs on Achilles’ bronze shield and Virgil’s description of Aeneas’ shield.’


Van Mierlo called Nooteboom the ‘unparalleled master of the evocation of landscapes, cities, cathedrals, monasteries and works of art. His descriptions of colour, sound, scent, weather conditions, are intertwined with the expression of how he is affected by what he perceives: feelings of surprise, admiration, joy, melancholy, and it is here that the reader recognises his own emotions and has the sensation of reading something he has already seen, but had forgotten.’


Another of Nooteboom’s friends, Rudi Fuchs, has remarked upon the extent to which their working methods differ. ‘Cees usually writes away from the art,’ he says. ‘Take his piece about Velásquez. If I were to write about that painting, I’d start by just circling around it. As I did so, I’d get closer and closer. Cees immediately starts gliding away from things. He seeks out the shadows, chimeras, reflections. He does so very well. The art he finds beautiful has these kinds of aspects. Cees attempts to place the painting, statue or sculpture within the cultural and historical context too. He travels there.’


Where does Nooteboom go when he glides away? ‘To a story – with Cees, everything is a story. With other writers, the result is a thesis or a moral tale, a standpoint. With him, that’s far less the case. He is a gondolier. His writing surges and sways beautifully. That’s un-Dutch, but it’s completely normal in other countries. Essentially, it doesn’t matter whether it’s about Velásquez or about something else. They are stories. These paintings are fiction for him, as he sometimes says himself. It’s true as well; a painting is a fictional thing.’


From: Margot Dijkgraaf, Nooteboom en de anderen.





On art

Nooit gebouwd Nederland. Essay. Koninklijk Verbond van Grafische Ondernemingen, Amsterdam 1980.


Zurbarán & Cees Nooteboom. Essay. Atlas, Amsterdam 1992.


De atlas van Cees Nooteboom. Reisverhalen bij foto’s van Eddy Posthuma de Boer. Atlas, Amsterdam 1993.


Tumbas. Graven van dichters en denkers. Essay en portretten. Met foto’s van Simone Sassen. Atlas, Amsterdam 2007.


Het raadsel van het licht. Kunstbeschouwingen. De Bezige Bij, Amsterdam 2009.


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