The king as king

herman de vries’ tautologische postkarten

Usually a postcard highlights something special. You share with your family how very whimsical it is that that tower of Pisa can stand so askew, or how blue the Mediterranean Sea is. The simultaneously sent postcards depicted here seem to have a similar intention. The special object is depicted rather ordinarily. Only the text on the front makes one frown briefly: ‘the castle as castle’, herman de vries writes, and that seems a duplication. But with it he inserts a subtle shift in meaning. That singular beautiful castle becomes just a castle, like there are many more.
In the case of the postcard of the king the intervention of the artist works slightly differently. For this portrait a man is dressed up in the most expensive clothes and with a heroic pose captured in paint. The individual made special as a kind of noble superman. But if we see this king as king, he becomes common again. A bit cliché even, that mantle with its lining of mink fur.

herman de vries, v71-199 bilder als bilder / X, 1972

The series tautological postcards (tautology, that was that style or linguistic error where something similar is said twice) that de vries posted around 1972, only seem to include something similar twice. The same word twice, yes, but with a slightly different meaning. This elegantly simple intervention demonstrates that a postcard (or any other image) is not so neutral or unambiguous as one perhaps might think – even if the design is quasi-objective. The image is being presented here as image.

The artist posted these postcards from Gstadt, at the time he had an exhibition in the aktionsgalerie bern. There he displayed a similar series bilder als bilder, sent to a collector during a voyage via Athens, along Caïro to Sri Lanka. The set shown here has an edition of thirty and in any case went to Galerie Swart in Amsterdam, where de vries exhibited previously, and to Art & Project gallery where he may have sought to establish himself. His future wife also received them, with an equally impersonal inscription by the way.

The postcards reflect a transitional phase towards his better-known work, where he displays samples from nature in various ways. Often this is literally, as for instance when he presses leaves of grass between two glass plates, which he frames. In his earlier work the displaying itself had become an object of study, as we have seen: how does an image change the idea of the specific object that is used for it? For quite a while de vries had been interested in breaking away from more traditional representations. He spent a considerable amount of time thinking how the world could be involved in art without too much direction or preferences. herman de vries wants to acknowledge, with insights from Wittgenstein and eastern philosophy, that all things are in fact equal and that to deviate from it is in the end a figment of human imagination.
Furthermore, he invites the spectator to realize that everything could have been – and will be – constantly different. Not only is the world a collection of equal matter, but everything is also in a state of permanent development. Complex causal connections create new changes in every situation.

Initially, this new direction in working resulted in the anthology of concrete poetry on language. Meant as an essay, but mostly composed of fragments of text and images – images by the way that, uncut, are also always a ‘sample’ from reality. The anthology also contains something that only represents itself: a tuft of grass. He writes to his gallery owner Riekje Swart in August 1972: ‘it does not show, I believe, that this was the most important undertaking for me this springtime-summertime.’ Even today more is hidden behind his beautiful, seemingly so simple grasps from reality than the eye detects.

Published in Treasures of the RKD Netherlands Institute for Art History, The Hague 2018.