Bobbi Essers (r), Ricardo van Eyk (m) en Thierry Oussou (l). Photography: Berend van Breda
On Thursday, artists Bobbi Essers, Ricardo van Eyk and Thierry Oussou received the Royal Award for Modern Painting from HRH King Willem-Alexander. The winners received a cash prize of 9,000 euros in the Royal Palace on Dam Square in Amsterdam.
The Royal Award for Modern Painting is the oldest art award in the Netherlands and, together with the Prix de Rome, the most important. The prize was established in 1871 as the Subsidy for Free Painting by King William III. The prize is awarded annually to three artists up to the age of 35.
This year the number of entries was significantly higher than previous years. For this edition, 495 artists submitted work, while the number of entries in previous years fluctuated around 350. What is striking is the number of entrants who tried it for the third or fourth time and the number of entrants who indicated that they are self-taught. The organisation concludes that the fame and appreciation of the Prize has increased.
Yet the jury, chaired by Mirjam Westen, did not nominate an autodidact. The 13 nominees have all completed an art education. In fact, the winners have all been on display at galleries. Last year, just after her graduation, Essers was included in The Best of Graduates at Galerie Ron Mandos and was on display at Stigter Van Doesburg this summer. Van Eyk is represented by tegenboschvanvreden and Oussou by Lumen Travo.
As in previous years, some artists work with materials that stretch the boundaries of traditional painting, for instance by using textile and leather (Wouter Paijmans), metal (Ricardo van Eyk) or cardboard (Minne Kersten). In addition, the majority of the entries appeared to be figurative work. The jury also reports in its jury report that remarkably few works contain references to historical or social issues. “Taking all this year’s entries as a whole, we gained the impression that many focus on their immediate surroundings and circle.”
The latter is in line with the graduation shows just before the summer. The latest group of graduates also hardly addressed social themes, but had a clear preference for topics such as changing living situations, family life and childhood memories. For example, a subject such as the war in Ukraine was conspicuous by its virtual absence.
HRH King Willem-Alexander and winner Bobbi Essers. Photography: Jeroen van der Meyde
The three winners
The relationship with the winners' own immediate surrounding is most evident in the work of Bobbi Essers. In her series SKINS, she painted the bare limbs, backs and hands of friends up close in large format. As a result, the setting is not only intimate, but as a viewer you sometimes do not know which leg or arm belongs to which body. It is the painterly way in which she captures this intimacy between friends – unashamed and lovingly – that convinced the jury.
Bobbi Essers, In this world it’s just us. Photography: Tom Haartsen
Essers is also by far the youngest of the three winners, she was born in 2000, graduated only last year and was a student during the Covid-period. That partly explains her choice of subject. You can read SKINS as a coming-of-age story, but her work also contains queer positivity and feminist messages. Also, Essers is a digital native and this is reflected in her approach. For her photorealistic works, she starts from photos that she edits into a collage with an app on her phone.
HRH King Willem-Alexander and winner Ricardo van Eijk. Photography: Jeroen van der Meyde
Ricardo van Eijk (1993) takes the concept of immediate environment a step further. “I walk a lot. Preferably along abandoned railway tracks, sheds and distribution centres, ‘Vinex’ districts, I see them all as potential subjects for my art,” says Van Eyk in the accompanying interview. The things that catch his eye and that he occasionally photographs have in common that they were damaged by chance. This could be due to the weather or a lazy repair. Van Eyk initially started from those photos, but he gradually let go of that. “The countless images in my head are now enough to start the creative process and determine the composition.”
Ricardo van Eyk, LASSO XVI. Photography: Tom Haartsen
In the works from his LASSO series, which consists of reflective stainless steel panels, it takes a while before you realize what you are looking at. Because the lines are ground on the back, the composition is not immediately clearly visible. The jury praises Van Eyk because his images are elusive and balance between “tenderness and aggression” and describes his work as “painting by applying forms of mutilation to the surface with a angle grinder, drill or saw”.
HRH King Willem-Alexander and winner Thierry Oussou. Photography: Jeroen van der Meyde
Thierry Oussou (1988) wins the Prize with works from his Workers series. Oussou expressively paints gesticulating, distorted figures that appear to float freely against a black background. Oussou was a resident at the Rijksakademie in 2016 and lives and works in Amsterdam. However, the workers are at work in his native Benin. They are the cotton pickers and the people behind the assembly line. Heavy physical labour that takes place outside the field of view of our consumer society. We often do not realize what it takes and under what circumstances our products are created, is the message that Oussou has for us. Oussou succeeds in making these workers emerge from the shadows, according to the jury.
Thierry Oussou, Workers - Untitled II-A (2023). Photography: Tom Haartsen
The exhibition of the Royal Award for Modern Painting with work by all 13 nominees can be seen from October 7 to November 5 in the Royal Palace on Dam Square in Amsterdam.