The poem

Ladies and gentlemen, Anton,

It is getting quiet, it is getting hotter in the room.
Thin, rattling metal is blowing increasingly saltily.
The typewriter murmurs nonsense.
Have a read, it doesn’t say what it says.

That one line from the poem Awater by Martinus Nijhoff: Have a read, it doesn’t say what it says, has almost achieved the status of a saying in the Dutch language. Derived from literature, we use it to indicate that that which is not said is often just as important, or even more important, than that which is said. In language, we can easily imagine this: literature is the art of making allusions, evoking something, indicating, suggesting, avoiding the question… because each word is loaded with dozens of associations, which are determined both collectively and individually, and because sound and intonation are, after all, full of meaning. We can say the opposite of what we mean and still understand one another.

But does the same thing apply in visual art? Can you say: Have a look, you can’t see what you see? A painting, a drawing, a sculpture is a thing, after all, it is not a word, not a sound. It is there, tangible, visible, touchable – a thing with weight (however little) which takes up space, while words are weightless and evaporate with each inflection of the voice.

I think the same thing does apply in visual art, if it is good. Of course, you sometimes just see what you have to see, and that can be good: a carving by Jan Schoonhoven is a thing to look at because it makes things visible, in this case the endless nuances of light. But I think that, in the work of Anton Vrede, you can’t see what you see, or, to make it more complicated, that you see what you can’t see.

What do we see? Each time we see an elephant, a hare, sometimes a penguin or an ape (I will leave the three model drawings to one side, for the moment) which balance one another – or even better, a hare which is performing a range of acrobatic poses on an elephant, which is lounging on its trunk almost turning it into a diving board, a hare which is staring, full of expectation, into the distance, which is messing around with a penguin, and sometimes these animals meet one another or say goodbye to one another.

But we do not see this, of course. What you see is your own credulity. Actually we only see colours, stains, sometimes lines, we see thick paint and thinly applied paint, we see the brushstrokes in the paint, we see light and dark, washed out colours and vivid colours, mat and glossy areas, colour over colour over colour, sometimes ton-sur-ton, sometimes hard and with a high contrast. The work has become simpler in recent years, Anton says, but this simplicity is deceptive.

We see colour and line, and we believe that we see animals, but what we are actually seeing is Anton Vrede himself, maybe even better as the work has become simpler. As with every good artist, he cannot avoid making a self-portrait each time. What we see is Anton Vrede looking and dreaming. In his paintings, drawings, statues, we see him looking at Bugs Bunny and the Indian god Ganesha, we see him looking at the hare of Dürer and the lion of Henri le Douannier Rousseau, and in the menagerie which he has made his own through all these years we see him dreaming increasingly clearly of a world full of trust, in an unsteady balance, perhaps, but nevertheless…. We can well use such dreams these days, in a world which, in the past few years, has lost many of its illusions. Sometimes it is better – briefly – not to see what you see, and to look carefully at something that is actually not there but which should be there.

Ludo van Halem
Curator, Stedelijk Museum Schiedam 14 April 2006