The poetry of light

Light has always played an important role in visual art and in particular in Dutch painting. Rembrandt was a master at playing with light and shadow and often worked with strong light-dark contrasts (clair-obscur). In that same period other painters, such as Van Ruisdael, Vermeer and Van Goyen, also discovered the beauty of Dutch light. It features prominently in landscapes but also in interiors. Cloudy skies rich in contrast, reflecting wine glasses, and the soft sheen of pewter are painted so realistically and expressively that it almost seems as if you could touch the objects. Yet, it is not the primary aim of these painters to present a realistic image of their subject but to paint light as it is reflected by the sea, by glass, or by metal.

The work of Bert Keller continues in this Dutch tradition. In his drypoints as well as in the mezzotints and inkjet prints his fascination with light is clearly evident. In the drypoints he focuses completely on colour: the reflection of light in the bk. series yields an infinitely rich array of tones and tints. In the mezzotints on the other hand, colour is almost completely absent; here the focus is on contrasts between light and dark, subtle nuances in greys. In the inkjet prints, finally, light becomes the bearer of meaning. Light and shadow, clear colours and pale tints are brought into play to create a compelling atmosphere.

The bk. series is a series of 12 drypoints, each of which has three bands of colour placed side by side. Several layers of ink and pigment were printed on top of each other, making the colours intense but nevertheless clear, and they could be called transparent. The different colours form a balanced whole, sometimes rich in contrast, at other times blending together but always in balance. The series can be seen as a study of colour and the effects of colour combinations.

The mezzotints, on the other hand, contain practically no colour but Keller makes intensive use of the contrast between light and shadow: he makes a bedspread or a table light up, lets the sun play on the feathers of a peacock or the leaves of a bamboo. The play of light gives depth to the image, while at the same time drawing attention to the subject, whether an interior, a plant or a flower. The strong contrast between light and dark makes the image light up in the dark as it were, in order to briefly draw the attention of the viewer. This effect is never dramatic, on the contrary the images exude a stillness, a timeless peace that invites the viewer to pay closer attention. And if you look more closely, you can see with how much care these prints are made and how much detail they contain. Every leaf, every vein is represented.

In the inkjet series The American Prints, the colours from the drypoints return, but this time combined with the subtle nuances of the mezzotints. Here too, the light draws the eye, while the careful division of light and shadow, from clear white to the deepest black, from bright yellow to soft, pale blue, imparts a unexpected sense of quiet to the prints. I call it 'unexpected' because there is a lot to see: skyscrapers as far as the eye reaches, streets full of traffic, airports, fountains and enormous waterfalls. But again, it seems as if time has come to a standstill, so that the viewer can let his eyes roam at leisure over squares, bridges, and buildings. A magical light wraps the images in a veil of mystery and also a vague sense of doom; of inescapable loneliness reminiscent of Hopper.

What ties these prints together is not so much their subject, and even less an underlying message or intent, but the atmosphere they manage to invoke. The light becomes the bearer of meaning, of hard-to-define emotions such as devotion, melancholy, desolation. It is not about a realistic rendition of a city or a plant, even though the prints are often based on photographic reality. What it is about is the light, which gives these images an unmistakable poetic power that keeps the viewer spellbound.