Ruud van Empel and William Blake: An Exploration of Innocence in Art

Ruud van Empel constructs magic realist images, collating and editing photographs with photoshop to create eerie portraits, with afronting and innocent stares. The images are startlingly beautiful, especially in a era where ugly photographs of modern vistas have become normal. The pastoral quality and van Empel’s usual subject, black children, reminded me of a poem by William Black from his Songs of Innocence and Experience called ‘The Little Black Boy’. Both artists deconstruct the image of the white child as the traditionally innocent subject in western art.

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This video shows van Ruud at work:

The Little Black Boy
(Songs of Innocence, William Blake)

Blake uses the plaintive voice of a black child who has been indoctrinated to believe the white English boy is angelic to idealise a future in which both boys can be free of their white and black cloud. This is an ambivalent hope, however, because it is only in the presence of divine love when they are both free of their bodies that this equality can be achieved.

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My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.

My mother taught me underneath a tree
And sitting down before the heat of day,
She took me on her lap and kissed me,
And pointing to the east began to say.

Look on the rising sun: there God does live
And gives his light, and gives his heat away.
And flowers and trees and beasts and men receive
Comfort in morning joy in the noonday.

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love,
And these black bodies and this sun-burnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.

For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear
The cloud will vanish we shall hear his voice.
Saying: come out from the grove my love & care,
And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice.

Thus did my mother say and kissed me,
And thus I say to little English boy.
When I from black and he from white cloud free,
And round the tent of God like lambs we joy:

Ill shade him from the heat till he can bear,
To lean in joy upon our fathers knee.
And then I’ll stand and stroke his silver hair,
And be like him and he will then love me.

——————-

Maria Hengeveld has written an insightful article for the Guardian about Ruud van Empel, including an interview with the artist. She quotes from the art historian Jan Baptist Bedaux (2007) talking about innocence in Empel’s work:

“The fact that many of the children in his compositions have a dark skin is a facet that cannot remain without comment. Although it is self-evident that a child’s skin colour is not important, the iconography of the innocent child was traditionally represented by ‘white’ children. The earliest examples of this date from the early 17th century. These are portraits in which children are captured in an idealised, pastoral setting. It is a genre to which the children’s portraits of the German artist Otto Dix, a source of inspiration to Van Empel, refer. In deviating from the standard iconography by giving the child a dark skin, Van Empel inadvertently assumes a political stance. After all, this child is still the focus of discrimination and its innocence is not recognised by everyone as being self-evident.”

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