Janice McNab, Our Spectral Gardens, Galerie Maurits van de Laar. Fotografie: Gert Jan van Rooij
At Gallery Maurits van de Laar, you can now admire the work of Janice McNab and Frank Van den Broeck, both of whom are either featured or associated with a museum exhibition elsewhere in The Hague.
From the latest insights in nanotechnology to the traditional field of psychoanalysis, science has often been a wellspring of inspiration for artists. Some artists have even transitioned from academia to art. But it is rare to witness someone using their own research as the starting point for a series of paintings. Janice McNab (1964) is such an exception.
This Scottish painter earned her doctorate at the University of Amsterdam’s Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis and lectures in Artistic Research at the Royal Academy of Art The Hague. For the exhibition Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondriaan: Forms of Life, currently on display at the Kunstmuseum through 25 February, she contributed to the catalogue about Af Klint's The Ten Largest (1907). In it, she also explains how this relates to her own work. This translation of ideas is now on display at Gallery Maurits Van de Laar.
Janice McNab, The Rift Valley, 2022, Galerie Maurits van de Laar
While Af Klint may have been considered a pioneer of abstract painting for 20 years, little is known about the visual language of the ten canvases she painted in less than 40 days. She gave titles to the canvases that referred to life stages, but even Af Klint herself couldn't provide an answer to their meaning: "The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and [...] I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict."*
The inspiration for this botanical visual language was not direct, but rather lay in her subconscious. It is known that during this period, Af Klint subscribed to a kind of Vitalism, the idea that everything in the world is alive and valuable. Because Af Klint thoroughly revised her diaries in 1932, McNab decided to explore the circles surrounding Af Klint. She came upon the diaries of illustrator and children's book writer Ottilia Adelborg, who, in the years prior to 1907, focused on collecting traditional costumes and relocated to the Swedish countryside. This was not uncommon due to the late industrialisation and urbanisation of Sweden.
Janice McNab, Night, 2022, Galerie Maurits van de Laar
Af Klint visited Adelborg in the winter of 1904. In her diary, Adelborg wrote that Af Klint often discussed theosophy and spiritualism during her stay in Gagnef. The Ten Largest contains a combination of these ideas and the traditional costumes collected by Adelborg. Af Klint may not have consciously adopted the forms and patterns of the traditional costumes, but there are numerous similarities between her paintings, created three years after her visit, and the garments.
Af Klint described the series as wall hangings, which she most likely observed in the Gagnef region, as the local population would hang paper paintings with religious or nature motifs on their walls during holidays. These self-sustaining communities understood the profound connection between their lives and nature, and deeply valued it. Virtually everything they possessed was derived from the land, from their sustenance to their clothing.
Janice McNab, The Fall, 2023, Galerie Maurits van de Laar
Add to this the early feminism that prevailed in Af Klint's social circles – Adelborg managed a farm in Gagnef and advocated for women's education, while Af Klint's sister was a suffragette – and you get a good idea about what The Ten Largest represents. According to McNab, the series can be viewed as an exploration of an outdated way of life and a spiritual way of life: "What she [Af Klint] produced through this movement is a joyous cartography of women's lived experience. Invisible inner life drawn as a body in time, using the patterns that countless Swedish women before her had used to protect and care for their families."**
McNab incorporated some of the ideas from The Ten Largest into her Ghost Garden series. Like Af Klint, she looks back in order to look forward. However, unlike in Af Klint's time, our relentless exploitation of the Earth and its ecosystems leaves us wondering if we can ever return to the pre-industrial state that Af Klint used as an example.
Janice McNab, Agony in The Garden, 2022, Galerie Maurits van de Laar
McNab's starting point was a scarf her mother had purchased in 1959, the year she got married. It was a memento of a joyful era, the optimism that characterised European societies after World War II. McNab inherited the scarf from her mother.
Unlike the traditional costumes that Af Klint observed in Gagnef and pre-industrial worldview associated with them, the scarf is a mass-produced item, characteristic of capitalism. In Agony in the Garden (2022), the floral motif of the scarf is partially visible, though fragmented. According to McNab, this work serves as a portal, opened out of love yet referring to a threatened or already lost world.
Janice McNab, The Shadow of Birds, 2023, Galerie Maurits van de Laar
It is no coincidence that McNab's work straddles the line between the still life and the landscape. Both genres emerged alongside capitalism and the commodification of the world. The adverse effects of capitalism on Earth are evident in The Shadow of an Animal (2023). The backdrop remains McNab's mother's scarf, but the flower is literally overshadowed by a shadow puppet of a deer. Not a real deer, but the shadow it left behind. McNab's works explore the past, but are about our future. "As the slow violence of climate collapse unfurls before us, our sensing bodies are once again coming to understand that land is not an inert resource."
Frank van den Broeck, no title, 2023, Galerie Maurits van de Laar
Fire and Fiction
In addition to McNab's work, the gallery is also presenting work by Frank Van den Broeck. In recent months, he had an exhibition called Fire and Fiction at the Museum Beelden aan Zee. Van den Broeck (1950) is a pure draftsman, but in the late '90s, saw the possibilities in the scratches and marks that arise during drawing and decided to transition to working spatially. Van den Broeck viewed these marks as incisions and excisions. This observation led to small clay sculptures in which the figurative elements emerge gradually, much like how his drawings often reveal their subject matter gradually. At Van de Laar's gallery, you can now see clay and bronze sculptures alongside drawings that provide context to the sculptures.
Frank van den Broeck, series No Fine Excuse, 2018, Galerie Maurits van de Laar
Our Spectral Gardens will be on display at Gallery Maurits van de Laar in The Hague until 5 November.
*Janice McNab, Ghost Gardens: An Artistic Re-interpretation of Hilma af Klint's The Ten Largest, p. 3.
**Ibid, p. 8.