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Dongen, Paul van - VM - Marleen Hengelaar

Paul van Dongen: Resurrection

Breaking through Vanity

by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker

Resurrection (Verrijzenis) is a delicate, refined and meditative work. The format is 70 x 33 cm, larger than one at first glance would think. It is a watercolour etching. The Dutch artist Paul van Dongen (b.1958) spent many years studying old and new techniques and perfecting his skills. Extremely detailed drawings and etchings and subtle watercolours have increasingly become his specialty.

In Paul van Dongen’s works, themes of mortality, vanity and falling figures (due to pride and sin) return again and again, as well as more explicitly religious subjects like the pietà and crucifixion. In his rendering of the latter subjects, he often chooses one detail from the traditional iconographical depiction and then blows this up. He lets the details tell the story, as is also the case in Resurrection that features a thorn branch and crown of thorns. These enlargements of one or more separate elements, often executed on big pieces of stark white paper, make his work new and contemporary.

Resurrection is part of a series of comparable works with recurrent motifs like thorns, thistles and other plants and flowers, skulls, crosses and flames. They carry titles like Cross of Thorns, Resurrection, Apparition and Pentecost. Concerning the plant motifs Van Dongen says: ‘Nature with its cycle of growing, flowering, dying and sprouting out again is symbolic to me of Christ and his resurrection. And the other way around.’ At first glance that also seems to be the theme of the work depicted here. But when we take a closer look at all the elements that together make up this etching, we will discover that this print deals with even more.

First of all, we see a straight thorn branch with some shoots in the middle and at the top. These may be somewhat withered, but, especially due to the soft colours that play over them, they also yield a promise of new life. Then we see the crown of thorns, cut in two by the straight branch. This crown of thorns alludes to the suffering and death of Jesus. Yet in the history of the church and art the crown of thorns also refers back to the curse that we read about in Genesis 3:17,18: ‘Cursed is the ground because of you, both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you.’ How symbolic that Jesus carried a crown made of branches heavy with a reference to the curse and our lives of vanity after the Fall!

The transparent soft-coloured balls in the background underscore the allusion to our mortality. If you look carefully, they turn out to be skulls. The skull is the ultimate vanitas symbol: everything is vanity, everything ends in death. They also refer to the skull that is sometimes depicted at the foot of the cross as a reference to Golgotha (Place of the Skull).

The colours are meaningful as well. Purple is the colour of sin and suffering. White the colour of purity and Jesus glorified. Blue points to heaven. The yellow and green of the leaves suggest new life.

What do all these elements mean when you consider them together? This print speaks of sin, death and mortality, and of new life that has been opened up for us through Jesus’ suffering and death. Death and resurrection: what seems dead turns out to be bursting with life. But also, just as the crown of thorns is broken in two, so Jesus’ body was broken for us, breaching the brokenness and clearing the way upwards. The erect branch breaks through the crown of thorns like Jesus through the stone on his grave. He opens up the way that leads to on high, into heaven, to the Father.   

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Paul van Dongen: Resurrection, 2006, watercolour etching, 70 x 33 cm.

Paul van Dongen is an esteemed visual artist in The Netherlands, who works and lives in Tilburg. He was born in 1958 in ’s-Hertogenbosch and he studied at the Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten St. Joost in Breda from 1978 till 1984. For more about Paul van Dongen, see www.paulvandongen.com.

Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker is editor-in-chief of ArtWay.

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