The Johannes Vermeer Award is a state prize for the arts. For the jury, this raises the question in which of the various sectors of Dutch art it is to appoint the most talented artist of this time. After all, in each sector one or more Dutch artists can be designated as belonging to the top of the respective discipline. However, it is worth noting that some artists in the Netherlands work not only in one or two, but even in half a dozen disciplines within both the expressive arts as well as the performing arts. In the opinion of the jury of the Johannes Vermeer Award 2010, within that select category, there is one creative talent who has managed to rise above the artistic domain, and that is Alex van Warmerdam. The jury came to this conclusion unanimously based on five observations, each of which will be explained further.
Firstly, Van Warmerdam qualifies for the Johannes Vermeer Award because of the above-mentioned versatility. He writes novels, theatrical texts and poems, creates both music theatre and theatre, draws and paints, and has made gouaches for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. Furthermore, he is an actor and filmmaker and a designer of scale models and costumes. Ever since his first stage productions for the theatre companies Orkater and De Mexicaanse Hond, he has presented himself as a maker of total theatre, with music, drama and self-made sets. With costumes that often give the actors the look of a comic character. In his novel De hand van een vreemde (A Stranger’s Hand), which was written in ‘immaculate Dutch’ according to literary critic Carel Peeters, expressive art is the lead character. Moreover, in the city museum of Schiedam (the Stedelijk Museum) visitors came across more dramatic figures, this time drawn on the walls. Van Warmerdam is not only adept at various artistic fields, he also impresses with the ease with which he switches from one tool to another. To this artist, there are no boundaries between the separate artistic disciplines. To him the arts are one great, comprehensive discipline.
In addition to his versatility, his work is most distinguishable. Van Warmerdam has complete and utter control over his style and artistic tools. In all his creations, the maker’s steady hand is recognizable. His work is filled with sharp contrasts, strong colours, people and their unattainable desires, pictured on their own. Van Warmerdam’s signature can unfailingly be recognized in the large theatre sets, in the direction or scenography, in the smooth play of the actors or in his paintings, poems and drawings. His books conjure up the same images you would find in the museum, the same with which he sets all his films and theatrical pieces in motion. His detailed perfectionism is another specific trait. In the universe created by Van Warmerdam, everything must be correct, reconciled and match. There is the famous incident during a film shoot, when a take had to be stopped because the main character was wearing grey socks instead of black ones. Journalist and writer Wim Noordhoek once characterised Van Warmerdam’s oeuvre as ‘a lifelong entity, persistent in a fixed style’.
Thirdly, there is the message, the story Van Warmerdam tells us each time. With tenacity, he addresses Life’s Big Questions by means of dialogues, special staging and by bringing his distinctive characters onto the stage or the big screen. It is an unparalleled exploration of the way in which people in solitude are confronted by themselves, or are in fact condemned to live together. He explores the patterns of interpersonal associations with that existential keynote. What is normal is entangled with the abnormal and the boundary between the bizarre and the everyday is blurred. The absurd images of laborious communication inevitably draw us to Van Warmerdam’s work, but these images are never gloomy or hopeless. Frequently, his work is labelled as tragicomedy. He delivers his message with the light note of open-mindedness, of astonishment.
Fourthly, the artist Van Warmerdam is completely sovereign. He imperturbable goes his own, individual way and does not acknowledge belonging to any establishment, school or movement. This is made possible by his allies at Hauser Orkater, De Mexicaanse Hond, and by his brothers and wife with whom he enjoys a lifelong professional relationship. He also perseveres in his autonomous position on the film set. He prefers cutting production costs by shooting a movie digitally, to enhancing the saleability of his work with polished images and comfortable storylines. He picks the best actors and allows them to say their lines in the best possible circumstances. And the best thing is: exactly because of his uncompromising attitude towards accessible popular movies, he manages to hold on to a loyal audience. In addition, the critics are at his feet. That assures him of his success: as a born artist with sufficient loyal fans, he proves to withstand the social pressure of the cultural establishment and its glitter and glamour.
Finally: if Van Warmerdam would belong to anything, it would be Holland. Against distinct Dutch sceneries, he lets his creations wrestle with life’s issues. Like no other he portrays the Dutch landscape with its ditches, polders and its dead straight provincial roads. In these polders, the new housing estates mushroom, fitted up with treeless streets and houses with lounges and front and back gardens. In this context, the Dutch norms and values come to life, preferably from the fifties and sixties. It was the period when bourgeois ideals still triumphed and everything was neatly arranged. Nevertheless, none of this brings about nostalgia, because in neat Holland he introduces exotic black men on stage, has delicious girls appear and Spanish butlers serve. Outsiders disrupt the organised lives and with it create the drama typical for Van Warmerdam. To our laureate, culture is a living activity that flourishes thanks to the interaction of artists and society.
Van Warmerdam delivers his timeless message with a great variety of artistic means and dramatic possibilities. However, his biggest trump card must be the unparalleled manner in which he turns reality into a fairytale and fairytale into reality. That process will not be analysed, let alone be systematically described. Which again shows how analysing works of art remains a precarious undertaking. But with Alex van Warmerdam, the spectator’s initial appreciation develops into reasoned admiration upon closer acquaintance with his work. Against all these backgrounds, the jury enthusiastically nominated Alex van Warmerdam to the Secretary of State as the winner of the Johannes Vermeer Award 2010.