Artistic alchemy

Piet van den Boog turns lead to gold with oil and acrylics.

Jewish bride II (2016), acrylic and oil on lead, iron oxide, black patina (photo credit: ZEMACK CONTEMPORARY ART)
Jewish bride II (2016), acrylic and oil on lead, iron oxide, black patina
Alchemy, as we all remember from high school history, was the medieval forerunner of modern chemistry. Alchemists busied themselves for centuries trying to turn base metals like lead into precious metals like gold.
There exists today a living, breathing alchemist who lives in Amsterdam and busies himself turning base metals like lead into visually stunning works of art. These artworks are mostly portraits, and many are inspired by Dutch masters like Rembrandt, Van Rijn and Vincent van Gogh. Actually called “The Alchemist” by friends, colleagues, curators and critics in the art world, his name is Piet van den Boog, and some of his most recent works are currently on display in a solo exhibition in Tel Aviv called “Masterpieces: My Tribute to the Iconic Paintings I Admire.”
Born in the Netherlands 66 years ago, Van den Boog has what he calls a “double background” of technology and art. Studying more or less simultaneously at a technical college and at Gerrit Rietveld Academie of Art, he worked first for Philips, Holland’s huge technology company, for some 15 years and later at a multimedia firm.
“By day, I worked in technology and made art at night,” he recalls. His first solo exhibition was in Amsterdam in 1984. Van den Boog decided to devote himself full time to art around 20 years ago and has not looked back.
At a time when virtually everyone has a cell phone that can take sharp, vibrant, high resolution pictures that a photographer in 1950 could only dream about, one might wonder why anyone would want to bother making, viewing, or much less buying a portrait painting. The answer to that is evident as soon as one looks at a Van den Boog portrait.
“Maybe it has to do with the texture,” he says. “And it not only captures a moment, but emotions as well. In my case, it’s not just the portraiture. I’m also trying to add elements, some abstract and intuitive, that you can’t do with a photograph or even with paint.”
Among the many materials Van den Boog uses to make his portraits – not on canvas, but on plates of lead and steel – are oil, acrylics, azurite, iron oxide, copper chloride and gold leaf.
“It’s not always very conventional, but the signature of my work is the use of different materials. I try to think what elements I can put in, what textures I can play with.”
The current exhibition is a particularly intriguing experiment in using these unconventional methods and materials to reflect the classic styles of painting of famous Dutch masters. Says Van den Boog, “During the past two years I have been working on a series of paintings that gradually went toward referencing well known and iconic paintings, most from the Netherlands. That’s my own heritage.”
A good example of this is The Jewish Bride, which references the classic painting by Rembrandt.
“That was an iconic painting because it was one of the first paintings of a couple that was not very formal. Married couples were normally painted in two separate paintings.” Van den Boog references that tradition elsewhere in the exhibition in his diptych of the artist Alberto Giacometti and his wife Annette. But The Jewish Bride, says Van den Boog, “was the first painting where a couple was portrayed in the same painting. It showed some intimacy. In Rembrandt’s painting, we see the hand of the man on the chest of the woman and she puts her hand on the hand of the man. I find that gesture so beautiful I wanted to use it my painting.”
Other classic works that inspired pieces in this exhibition include portraits by Van Gogh and Vermeer, as well as later works by Balthus and Francis Bacon. Van den Boog is clear that each of these artworks is a reference to an earlier artist, not an homage.
“No, it’s a reference – something that strikes me in that specific painting.”
He also uses living models for some of the portraits inspired by earlier paintings, first photographing them and later working from the photos. Asked why, he replies, “Doing a portrait requires a lot of time, too much time to sit.”
Asked how he selects his models, and whether he recruits them randomly while walking down Amsterdam streets, Van den Boog laughs and answers, “No. I need to have some connection to the subjects. Maybe it has to do with my character. I’m a bit of an introvert.”
Not all of his artwork is inspired by paintings. A particularly interesting series of portraits, with a lot of added elements and almost surreal color, are based on one black and white photograph of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, the young Dutch woman who became an exotic dancer known as “Mata Hari,” and who was later believed to be a spy for Germany during World War I and executed by the French.
“I have always been intrigued by her life,” says Van den Boog.
Although inspired by a black and white photograph, the viewer is struck by the unconventional array of abstract elements that have been added to convey what the artist saw in the photograph or knew about the life of this historical figure. “During the process of making this portrait, it evolved,” he says simply.
“Masterpieces” is showing until April 4 at Zemack Contemporary Art, 68 Hey B’iyar St. (Kikar Hamedina),Tel Aviv. Sunday to Thursday 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. For further information: (03) 691-5060 or