park life cycle 

Written by Ken Pratt, initiator of Centrifugal Projects and curator of The Dutch Cultural Pop-Up Space in London. 

Even before the horrors of the First World War propelled European art into a thirst for responses that brushed away the old, the seed of Modernism’s particular manifestations in Dutch visual culture can be picked out in the burgeoning early examples, particularly in the applied arts. But, at the height of the despair of the trenches, in 1917, with the birth of de Stijl, the format and form of Dutch modernism was resolutely distilled. In the frequently comparable examples of the now legendary names – Van Doesburg, Mondriaan or Rietveld, for example – the same geometric forms, bold colours and clear lines occur again and again. Furthermore, even more than in Germany’s later idealistic schools, such as the Bauhaus, the notion that the artist should cross boundaries, operate equally as painter, designer, critic or architect, are glaringly clear.

Within this broader cultural framework that naturally still exerts a powerful influence on Dutch arts and design education today, the place of painting is unique and somewhat different from its histories in other regions of Europe. From 1917 onwards, painting in the Netherlands is something that shares as much in common with architecture or design in its implicit notion that all creative disciplines are somehow about ‘a solution’. Colour, form, composition or even poetics are not something that can merely be expressed, but they are something that needs to present that expression in a form that offers ‘a solution’. In many ways, this is only natural. The Netherlands is, after all, a country that was literally built on solutions; solutions to the problematic landscape itself. As many astute observers have noticed, the works of twentieth century modernist painters with their bold blocks of colour and geometric forms bear as much connection with the Dutch landscape with its vibrant tulip fields and neatly engineered waterways, as artists working hundreds of years before documenting the now familiar and unique landscape literally being pulled up out of the sea.

In approaching the work of Caroline Havers, the notion of painting as ‘a solution’ is a particularly relevant one. Like many painters of her generation who studied at a time when the tensions between Modernism’s proponents and those more eager to reconnect with the great distant centuries of Dutch representational painting traditions were at their height, a painting had to become something of ‘a solution’ that addressed such tensions. Certainly, both within this new body of work and in older works, her painterly development of a solution to plot a path between the abstract and the representational is clear. Anyone who has seen here more representational works cannot deny her ability to capture a recognizable form of a seemingly simple bird in a way that is at once familiar and yet simultaneously full of sweeping expressive line or delicate and almost raw brush strokes. Similarly, other more abstracted works elaborate her full working knowledge of the tenets at the heart of staunchly modernist Dutch painting. 

But, there is a way in which the notion of painting as ‘a solution’ is particularly poignant in her most recent body of work ‘A Walk in the Park’. It is a body of work that grew out of a personal response to tragedy. The death of a loved one is never unique and at the same time always so; a quotidian human drama that proves our connection with everybody else by, ironically, prompting an existential crisis in which we so often feel entirely alone. Confronting such a tragedy, Caroline Havers, an artist, inevitably found it impacting on her practice as a painter, eventually becoming a process that was about ‘a solution’ on many different levels.

If this gives an expectation of self-indulgent expression or dark grief-laden work, then nothing could be further from the truth. As is evident to anyone who views the new body of work, its visual manifestation is almost its opposite.

The park that literally constitutes the park in ‘A Walk in the Park’ is Hyde Park, viewed through an entire seasonal life cycle. Its colours and moods shift from the self-protection of bracing itself against ice to the joy of informal picnics under a loving summer sun. These are the images that Caroline Havers would chance upon during her almost daily experience of the park and eventually distill into new paintings marking more than a year’s new work. All of these reach us not as simplistic documentary images or naturalistic representations, but as a series of painterly solutions that hover in a new ground between free abstraction and something that is somehow immediately familiar yet difficult to translate into simple words. Of course, each has its own poetry, its particular evocative palette or painterly gestures that, in turn, create very specific reactions; moods that differentiate each work.

On one level, the metaphor is relatively direct. The park, with its natural cycles of bloom, decay, death and eventual rebirth, are a strong reminder not only of our own mortality in the tradition of the Vanitas or the memento mori, but equally a balanced recognition of the potential for joy that exists in all human lives even if they are sadly short. In this sense, this new cycle of work taps into something familiar and reassuringly constant in an inconstant universe. But, perhaps far more importantly, ‘A Walk in the Park’ actually becomes far more about process, a rather structured strategy on the part of the artist to fuse her painterly practice with the contemplation of some of the more weighty issues likely to affect any of us during our lives. And it is here that there is much to be gained. For, as one progresses through the series, it becomes clear that the somewhat ironic ‘A Walk in the Park’ actually does become ‘a solution’ on a number of levels.

Parks are traditionally associated with human thinking and contemplation. Originally developed for leisure and, to some extent, showing off one’s wealth, during the nineteenth century Romanticism changed the hitherto formal parks forever. A grand tradition of romantic landscape gardening sprung up all over Europe, literally creating artificial landscapes designed to heighten the emotions and encourage thinking and contemplation. Not only is Hyde Park still testimony to this movement, but it has also become synonymous with many of its original famous landscapers’ intentions. Certainly, it is a place of leisure and relaxation, but time and time again – in film, literature or art- we are reminded how this park has become the location for much soul-searching, serious contemplation or philosophical soliloquy for generation upon generation of Londoners finding a certain privacy within one of the world’s most populated cities. Parks generally – and Hyde Park more specifically – are a symbol of human narratives of interiority and inner quests. As is evident from ‘A Walk in the Park’, Caroline Havers has become one of those Londoners who have played out an important interior process within the parks leafy boundaries.

Fortunately, she has also become one of the more select band who have transmuted their silent inner journeys into something that has a resonance and a life of its own as works of art. She has not only found new solutions, but she has graciously offered them to us as something to consider, to appreciate and, perhaps, as something with which we too can identify.

London, September 2011

Ken Pratt