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The immersive works of multimedia artist Saskia Boddeke reflect her belief in the need for deep, emotional engagement in art. It was a passion shared by Matisse’s Russian patron Sergey Shchukin, the subject of Boddeke’s film installation in the Masters of modern art from the Hermitage exhibition. “Art is an absolute necessity; it is a universal thing we share. All over the world, we express ourselves in painting, in music, in speaking, in putting words in an order that touch your heart. That is how we recognise things. Art makes us civil. Art makes us look – not only at paintings, but at other people. It shows us the beauty in difference.” By Sarah Price.

The passions of artist Saskia Boddeke

Saskia Boddeke.
Credit: Felicity Jenkins, AGNSW

At the core, or heart, of the Masters of modern art from the Hermitage exhibition is Saskia Boddeke’s work. Her poetic film installation Chtchoukine, Matisse, la Danse et la Musique pays homage to one of the most important art patrons of the early 20th century. It tells a story of courage, artistic liberation and influence.

You are immersed. The room is dark, the carpet green and soft. Ornate chandeliers hang from the ceiling. There is a line of blue benches inviting you to sit. Five screens, playing a complex multichannel story, wrap around you. Russian art collector Sergey Shchukin is on the left screen, French painter Henri Matisse on the right. From silence come the glassy notes of a violin. Avant-garde artists from Russia appear, symbolising suppression and prohibition. Ballet dancers dressed in orange – as if having stepped out of Matisse’s Dance – bend and sway and swoop. Their slow and rhythmic dance mirrors Matisse’s idea about art: that it should calm you down, provide serenity and relaxation.

Now iterated at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Chtchoukine, Matisse, la Danse et la Musique made its first incarnation at the Fondation Louis Vuitton art and cultural centre in Paris. The video, or visual poem, imagines the relationship between Matisse and Shchukin. It shows the history of European avant-garde art collection in Russia, and artists forging new ways of seeing the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When the piece was initially commissioned, the expectation was that Boddeke would make a documentary. She told the gallery’s curator she instead wanted to create art that explored the relationship between the two men.

We sit together on padded benches in a gallery room, where workmen are undertaking final preparations for the exhibition. The walls have been painted pale yellow, the paintings hung. On the wall behind Boddeke is Matisse’s Woman on a Terrace. To her left, Game of Bowls and beyond that, Nymph and Satyr. Boddeke laughs and smiles and sweeps her hand around to indicate the paintings. While people in Paris were laughing at Matisse, Shchukin recognised his talent and supported him, she tells me. The artist would not have had a career without Shchukin. “Art patrons, collectors and philanthropists who support artists are enormously important,” she says. “Being an artist is hard work and you earn very little. You must be a bit crazy to live this life.”

Born in 1854, Shchukin was the son of a prosperous merchant who owned one of the largest manufacturing companies in Russia. As a child, Shchukin was skinny and timid, with a severe stutter and a disproportionately large head. He was thought to be destined for a short and painful life. But he grew strong, married, had children and ran the family business in large-scale commerce. And he began to acquire paintings. When he spoke about art, his stutter would dissipate. He moved between two worlds: the palaces of pre-revolutionary Moscow and the salons and studios of bohemian Paris. At the time, Matisse was yet to be taken seriously as an artist. His work was considered clumsy – failing to convey reality. But Shchukin regarded Matisse’s work as daring and innovative, and collected 37 of his paintings, along with work by the most innovative artists in Europe, filling his palatial home in Moscow with the world’s greatest private collection of modern art: the works of Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin.

Following the sudden death of his wife, and the deaths by suicide of his brother and two sons, Shchukin found solace in art, sitting in front of paintings for hours. It was Shchukin that Matisse thought of when he said, “Art should function as a good armchair.” The Russian collector opened his home to avant-garde artists, providing the only opportunity many Russians had to see Western paintings in their full colour.

Boddeke is a firm believer in the civilising power of art. “I am driven by letting people understand how important art is,” she tells me. “It is as important as eating and drinking. Art is an absolute necessity; it is a universal thing we share. All over the world, we express ourselves in painting, in music, in speaking, in putting words in an order that touch your heart. That is how we recognise things. Art makes us civil. Art makes us look – not only at paintings, but at other people. It shows us the beauty in difference.”

Come the revolution, Shchukin fled Russia and his collection was seized by Lenin. In October 1918, the 258 works were declared the property of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. The paintings are now held jointly by the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and St Petersburg’s Hermitage.

Public access to art is another of Boddeke’s passions. “It is the role of the education system and the world around to make sure we connect to art and artists. It is not the obligation of the artist to make sure the work is seen. I don’t know when art is good or bad, but I know the necessity of it. Art should be in the world. A lot of young people can’t see it anymore; they cannot see the frame. You need to really see what is going on. I think what is most important is that we are able to see, that we are not blind to it. To view art – to properly see it and see the frame – is to slow down.”

    

Boddeke, 56, is a multimedia artist and filmmaker. In the Netherlands she directs her own opera productions. She has worked alongside Dario Fo, Peter Stein and Pierre Audi. Working in collaboration with her husband, the filmmaker Peter Greenaway, she produces multimedia installations and performances that are exhibited in major museums around the world. Throughout the past two decades she has developed a language embracing the use of multiple screen projections and sophisticated computer programming. In the online virtual world Second Life, Boddeke is well known for her art installations and childlike avatars.

Her gallery installations are immersive experiences. “The sound, smell, the touch of the floor, the light, video… all the layers,” she says. “I lead people through an emotion and let them respond to artworks in a different way. To play with all the levels, you can provide focus to the audience. I use music like a meditation so that people calm down and therefore open up to properly look at things. That influences emotion and how people relate to the work.” She puts carpet on the floor so the sound is “dense”. She provides benches so you are invited to stay and not rush through. In anything she does, dance is important. Dance is an art form that gives possibility to create emotion, she says. You may not understand it, but you can feel it.

When Boddeke started to make installations, they were always credited to her famous husband. “Peter and I did a lot of work together – he influences me and I influence him. I got really irritated that all the credits went to him, so I created an alter ego. I began creating art installations in a digital world known for its sex [Second Life]. But even then, people still thought they were the creations of Peter.” In the virtual world, she could experiment freely and make things as complete as possible. Creating immersive installations in that online world made her realise it was the direction she wanted to take with art in real life. “Peter made installations but they were not immersive enough for me. If I had never entered that world, I would not have done the work here. First I make my installations in the digital world and then we copy them to the real world.”

Boddeke says she and Greenaway work well together, with “extraordinary trust and respect” for one another. Together, they find ideas and concepts. He writes her text and is open to the changes she makes. “But I find it difficult the moment the work goes public. When the work goes outside, people do not see me – they only see him. Every opening night is very bruising for me. People write about him. I also want to be seen – I want to be recognised for the work I am doing. If Peter is next to me, I really disappear. It’s not always nice to be the wife of a famous artist. Sometimes, it’s terrible… especially if you want to be seen as well.”

Last year she made the The Greenaway Alphabet, an intimate documentary about her husband and the couple’s teenage daughter, Zoë (Pip). Through the use of the alphabet (A for art and autism, L for love, through to X for exit) the documentary explores Peter Greenaway’s autism and the close relationship he shares with his daughter. “As he is ageing the autism is more apparent. When he was younger, he could disguise it more easily,” Boddeke tells me. “Our daughter could connect with him from a very young age. He trained her to look at art postcards and taught her the different movements and artists. I filmed a lot of it myself. I chose to call it The Greenaway Alphabet because Peter is very much a person of systems. It was also for me, to express my love for him and her.”

To make art, Boddeke needs to feel something, or “smell” something. She begins with a space, an idea or a theme. She tries to feel the space or see the space. With a minimal amount of research, she writes her first associations down and begins to devise a concept. Too much research, she says, kills her creativity – she trusts her instinct. She says she then asks questions of herself, does research and, then, “things fall into place”. Each time she creates art, she says, “I am searching for the edge, asking myself, how far can I go?”

“I think you should read a lot, know your holy books and know your history. You should have a backpack full of knowledge so associations can come out of it. The concepts become sharper each time. Art is the only way to express myself. I would not live anymore if I could not do my work. I am in love when I make my work. I see this in other artists, too. Peter is obsessed. He is always painting… always writing.”

From an early age she knew she wanted to be an artist. She grew up in Castricum, a small seaside village in the Netherlands, and left home at 15. She wanted to become a sculptor but didn’t have any money, and she was rejected by the art academy in Amsterdam. A local maths teacher encouraged her to study sociology, and gave her an allowance on the condition Boddeke stayed in the village. She undertook the course, but applied for theatre school in Amsterdam to become a director and was accepted. All along, she thought they would find out she was a fraud and would kick her out. They didn’t.

When she was organising a theatre festival, Boddeke came into contact with the Dutch National Opera. They gave her a job as “the assistant of the assistant of the assistant”. She says she became fascinated by the possibilities of the set – the orchestra, the lights and sound, the singers and physicality of singers, the chorus – and began to make art. As a young person, she got to work with Pierre Audi, the national opera’s longstanding director.

Audi – who retired in September after 30 years at the helm – has had the most significant influence on her career, Boddeke says. From him she learnt about artist and stage collaboration, and about the persistence of perfection. She learnt that if something is not helping the art, she should take it out. “I got that from him: use only what you need to tell the story and don’t be afraid to kill your darlings,” she tells me. “That is how I get clarity in my art. For me, that is very important. I am an intuitive creator … That is how emotion comes into my work.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 24, 2018 as "Emotional rescue". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.