Speech by Ingrid van Engelshoven, Minister of Education, Culture and Science, at the presentation of the Vermeerprijs 2021 to Natasja Kensmil on November 1, 2021

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Dear all, and above all, dear Natasja,

We’ve just heard the jury’s praise for your work.
Now I have the honour to address you before presenting you with the Johannes Vermeer Award 2021.
I do so with great pleasure and tremendous admiration.

I have been studying your work more closely in the run-up to today.
Not just because I want to tell a story here that honours you.
But also for the simple fact that I enjoy it.
Getting immersed in an outstanding artist. Trying to understand why she does what she does.
And looking at the canvases again and again – because I always see something new.

As the minister of culture, I value art for what it is, what it means and what it sets in motion.
No two works do so in the same way.
One is overwhelming, while another makes you dream. Or startles you. Or makes you cry, sometimes.
In your case, Natasja, the jury report mentions ‘disruption’, among other things.
Making us see things in a different way.
In doing so, you take a path that only a minority of artists choose: a dark path.
Because you are fascinated by the heavy, the intense, the murky, in art and in people.

This fascinates me too.
For a Monet, Sluijters or Kandinsky fan, it may sound strange – but the way in which the darkness overwhelms can be a real pleasure.

I had already seen quite a few of your drawings and paintings before today.
Curiously, I missed a brief documentary from a few months ago about your work and what motivates you.
As viewers, we are allowed to spend fifteen minutes in your studio. Your ‘isolation cell’, as you call it.
In a very short time we learn a lot about your work.
For example, you say that it is always difficult to pinpoint the moment when a painting is finished.
This befits an artist who gives us a different perspective on what we have always assumed to be ‘known’ or ‘true’.
For when can you say that you really know something through and through?
When is a history complete?
Who actually decides whether something is finished?
If you decide to take a different look, you will always see something new.

Your work often gives us a new perspective on what we thought was completed.
That is immensely valuable.
Artists who question the obvious release something that is stuck. Again, or possibly for the first time.
Art has a unique ability to do just that.
And it helps us to progress.

Creating such a promising oeuvre means not treading lightly. You must also question yourself.
You stay a step ahead of the rest. You take the plunge.
In the documentary I mentioned you speak candidly about your personal life.
You say that you were, or are, afraid of quite a few things. Fear has become part of your work.
It feeds imagination, you say. An apt remark, I think.
When you said it, I thought: fear is not only destructive, but also productive.
Both for the artist and the viewer.
It felt almost reassuring. Hopeful.

I experienced the same feeling at the end of the documentary.
We see you, at the end of your working day, in your studio.
You are turning your paintings.
We see the thin slats you use to lift the canvas. Fronts against the wall. So that the next day you don’t see the image you left behind.
You’ll return to a neutral space.
To those who are unaware, it may seem like just a routine. A small, harmless ritual. But there is much more to it than that, of course.
Depending on how many canvases you turn over, the activity itself is indeed small.
But there is great humility in the faithful repetition of that action, every working day anew. And respect for the blank page.
We see an artist, a professional with conviction, who wants to look at the world with fresh eyes every new day.
A nearly effortless way to keep bias and preconceptions at bay.
This is very much to your credit.
If only we could all turn our paintings over at the end of the day.

Dear Natasja,

Quite a few years ago, you already received a very special award out of the hands of our Queen, back then.
Today you will receive the most prestigious state award in the Dutch arts.
Congratulations on the Johannes Vermeer Award 2021.
Will you please come forward to receive the award?