Home Magazine Hendrick Kerstens. Our modern-day Dutch Master

Upon first glance, Dutch photographer Hendrik Kerstens's portraits look somewhat familiar. Is it a Vermeer? A Christus? A van Eyck? The subject is often a pale but dignified young woman whose face emerges in profile from a deep shadow, dressed in the traditional Dutch Golden Age attire.

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The subject does, in fact, resemble Johannes Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, Petrus Christus's Portrait of a Young Girl and at times, and Jan van Eyck's Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban but in reality she is Kerstens' daughter, Paula, who has been the subject of his fascinating photographs for the past 25 years. “One day Paula came back from horseback riding. She took off her cap and I was struck by the image of her hair held together by a hair-net. It reminded me of the portraits by the Dutch masters and I portrayed her in that fashion," explains Kerstens. 


Bag, © Hendrik Kerstens.


Kersten's trademark certainly riffs on the Old Masters, but are usually twisted into a visual joke that is actually very 21st century. Upon a closer look, the van Eyck turban is revealed to be a towel, the Christus hat is a lampshade, and the headdresses are often made of toilet paper, soda cans, bubble wrap or plastic bags. Kersten's photographs have now been collected by museums around the world and are credited as sources of inspiration by taste-makers as diverse as Elton John and Alexander McQueen. McQueen even based his Fall 2009 collection on Kerstens' image of Paula with a plastic bag as a head-dress and used the image as the invitation to the show. 


Cosy, © Hendrik Kerstens


Initially, Kersten's photographs were created out of a genuine desire to capture his daughter's fleeting childhood. However, one day he realized that he is now inadvertently projecting on her his interest in the Dutch painters of the seventh century. A few of his works clearly resemble Johannes Vermeer paintings. The photographs are formal, clear and feature a serene expression on a young girl's face with great use of the signature "Dutch" light. However as his practice progressed, he became more and more interested in creating a conceptual dialogue between the past and present, using everyday items to emphasize a point. The titles usually give them away. In "Bag", a plastic grocery bag is shaped to resemble a lace hood and in "Napkin", a simple napkin is made to resemble a maid's bonnet. 


Green Turban, © Hendrik Kerstens


In 2007, American Photo, the photography magazine, released a special edition called "The Portrait Issue", highlighting top photographers like Annie Leibowitz, Albert Watson, Matthew Rolston, and Lori Grinker. In one section filed under "The Portrait as Masterpiece", Kerstens' portraits of his daughter befittingly were highlighted and described as follows: "shaking up the concept of time, Kerstens literally immortalizes his daughter, as if to stop time and oblivion."

Since then, Kersten's career has taken off, with The New York Times Magazine frequently commissioning him to make portraits illustrating their interviews like with film producer Michael Haneke, visual artist Marlene Dumas, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alec Baldwin and others. The National Portrait Gallery in London then honoured Kersten's portrait Bag with the prestigious Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize and his works were soon popping up at museums around the world

In the context of the radical realistic paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, Kerstens' portraits explore the photograph as a platform to reflect on ordinary objects and their meaning in historical tradition. With his signature selection of down-to-earth forms of headwear, like napkins, wet towels, or folded aluminium foil, Kerstens focuses on the fact that daily life has always been central to art, whether it was in the 17th century or the 21st. He has clearly mastered the intent, lighting and subject storytelling to remain in the zeitgeist and be recalled for years to come. 


Napkin, © Hendrik Kerstens


Lampshade, © Hendrik Kerstens


Cover image: Hendrik Kerstens, Crown. 

Stay Tuned on Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.


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