Wim van der Beek (writer/art critic curator contemporary art) / Gallery Terbeek


Bert Brus: Almost realistic paintings


The phrase ‘realistic painting’ is actually an umbrella term. It does not encompass an entire movement but is rather a chameleonic phenomenon that includes a multitude of split-offs and variables. We can distinguish magical realism, mega-realism and hyperrealism, tranquil realism and stylised realism, metaphysical realism, photographic realism, surrealism, eclectic realism and aesthetic realism. The above is just a random selection of the many varieties of realism that have already been named and that enjoy an art historical definition. It is interesting that all of these terms apply, to a certain extent, to the work of Bert Brus, and yet none of them quite manage to define the essence of his work. However, the artist in question has come up with his own definition. He employs the term ‘almost realistic paintings’ in relation to his work: Realistic painting, but with a twist. The deft touch that he imparts to reality is the key to the success of his formula and to the unique quality of his work.


In one of Bert Brus’ recent paintings (entitled ‘Rechtdoor’) we can see two feet and calves, in the act of walking. The person appears to have come to a temporary standstill. This is unsurprising, as there is a piece of chewing gum stuck to one of the shoes that makes walking difficult. The way that the scene is depicted is reminiscent of the cinematic technique ‘Caught in the Act’. The action has been brought to a halt, not just by the chewing gum, but also because the moment is frozen in time, in a painting with the specific characteristics of a snapshot. Other paintings by Brus include situations with a similarly humorous undertone, such as an umbrella that has been yanked from the hands of its owner and becomes an airborne element in the painting against a cloudy background. The title ‘Tailwind’ once again demonstrates the painter’s subtle sense of humour. However, at the core of his work is his ability to zoom in sharply on details that often generate a sense of disorientation. Shadow and the incidence of light play a special role in the construction of the images. The suggestion of infinite silence and immense expanses of emptiness are important elements that reinforce the impression that his still lifes transcend reality and transport us to a domain where the term ‘realism’ is manifestly short of the mark.


One cannot avoid the term ‘trompe l’oeil’ when referring to Bert Brus’ painting. Yet, however realistic the paintings seem to be, the artist clearly takes things a step further. He gives a twist to reality, and this unusual switch serves to trigger a form of alienation that is reminiscent of the magical realists or the recently deceased Co Westerik, with the important distinction that Bert Brus, unlike these predecessors, is a master at styling scenes and situations. He goes to work as if he were a director, placing each element in the picture exactly where it should be and as if it were the only place the element could possibly find itself. His paintings arise from an irrepressible artistic desire to create a personal and authentic new order, where the world of things receives a new definition.


Bert Brus’ central starting point is the ambition to achieve a maximum return on his pictorial devices and to encourage a particular train of thought or manner of perception in the viewer, by ingeniously tapping into a wide range of concrete and easily recognisable points of reference. This includes still lifes on the beach, decorative ornaments, fragments of architectural tours de force (from clean façades to beautifully styled staircases) or even an apple on a plinth or a chamois leather on a washing line. In each case, these are manifestations of a familiar, timeless and universal beauty and sense of stillness.


Aristotle declared that ‘Art imitates nature’. Various Ancient Greek writers went to great lengths to recount vivid anecdotes about the art of imitation that has become so very ‘salonfähig’ again in contemporary art. One of the most famous examples is that of Myron’s cow: so realistically represented that a cowherd waved at it with his stick. Or the little boy, painted by Zeuxis, with a bunch of grapes in his hand. The picture attracted starlings who tried to peck at the juicy grapes. But when the painter’s colleagues and friends congratulated him on this unparalleled achievement, he brushed their compliments aside with the relativising remark: “I have surely painted the grapes better than the child, for if I had fully succeeded in the last, the birds would have been in fear of it.” These classical examples from the early days of visual deception should not be compared with Bert Brus’ paintings. Brus is not a hyperrealist or a mega-realist pur sang, unlike Tjalf Sparnaay, for example, who paints a fried egg in a manner that is more realistic than any photo.


What does Bert Brus do? He remakes reality. He uses tried and trusted painting techniques that still prove to be valuable and useful, without, in his case, ever resulting in a form of traditional art. Because if one thing is clear, it is that his painting is both authentic and contemporary to its core. If one wishes to penetrate the deeper lying strata of his work, one can turn to the fifteen questions that are at the heart of the doctrine of ‘Aesthetic Realism’, as drawn up by the philosopher and freethinker Eli Siegel. Fundamentally, Siegel is concerned with the creation of harmony and balance by combining opposites and to bring them into line and balance with each other. Bert Brus does the same with his paintings. The painter's artistic freedom is embedded in the order within the painting. The painted objects are similar to how they appear in reality, yet at the same time they adhere to the specific laws of pictorial art, where the essence is formed of suggestion and the reflection of a ‘new reality’ that has been applied to canvas with paint, and cannot exist anywhere else than in pictorial art.


Eli Siegel contends that every object must be seen in the broader context of universal experience. He observes that emotion cannot exist without logic and that the apparent simplicity of a painting cannot be divorced from the complexity of the image-forming process. He also ascertains that a so-called realistic painting is both a momentary snapshot and something that should be seen in the context of its art historical heritage. The static nature of the canvas is offset by the sense of energy that a good painting can radiate. This is Bert Brus in a nutshell. The world, its art and our position within it can be explained, in terms of ‘Aesthetic Realism’, from the perspective of a unity of opposites.


Eli Siegel also applied his ideas to the art of Georges Seurat, Roy Lichtenstein, Raphael, Rembrandt, Willem de Kooning, Max Beckmann, Andrew Wyeth and Piero della Francesca. They stand up equally well when we apply them to Bert Brus’ paintings, where the distinction between dream and reality becomes almost entirely obscured. Fact and fiction become one and are no longer opposed to each other. Various forms and manifestations from the wide spectrum of realistic art are gathered together by Brus in a new order: this is his own reality, one that does not come into being until he puts brush to canvas. He does this calmly and deliberately, unabashed by expanses of empty space. Concrete observations are the starting point for his singular compositions where realistic elements engage in extraordinary pas-de-deux with abstract arrangement principles. As a result of this, his paintings are not simply concerned with the experience and representation of reality, but also with a balanced and yet unusual organisation of forms, planes and colours.




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