Erwin Olaf has been such an inspiration in my work, him and David Lachapelle actually. I remember seeing a black and white picture by Erwin Olaf when I was kid, in the 80s, and it had made quite an impression on me.
I really fell in love with his work with the Royal Blood series (2000). Erwin Olaf will be 60 years old on July 2nd this year, time flies, and so the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag and The Hague Museum of Photography staged this great double exhibition. I loved it so much, I already went twice and I will go back for sure!
The Hague Museum of Photography
The Hague Museum of Photography shows the older work of Olaf and his transition from analogue photojournalist to digital image-maker and storyteller. Erwin Olaf was studying journalism in the 80s when he took on photography. At first, he took journalistic photographs of theatre performances and volunteered for COC Nederland. Sexuality and the naked body took a central place in his early work.
The Chessmen and Black
The Chessmen (1987-88) series is also on show there. It was one of Olaf’s first non-commissioned series and it’s very provocative (imagine in the 80s). Olaf portrayed the chess game featuring visible genitals, small half-naked people with kinky attributes, and extremely fat women in bondage outfits.
There are also two photos from the Royal Blood series and one can see the Blacks (1990) series. I personally don’t find Blacks one of his best series, but it’s a series with a message. It’s based on a song by Janet Jackson with the line, ‘In complete darkness we are all the same. It is only our knowledge and wisdom that separates us’. Erwin Olaf’s work has always been highly personal and socially engaged but it use to be ‘raw’ and with time, it became very stylised.
Olaf also chose some twenty photographs by famous photographers of the past who have been a vital source of inspiration to him, from Bernard Eilers to Robert Mapplethorpe, which is cool to see. Where someone gets his inspiration says so much about a person, don’t you think?
Gemeentemuseum shows non-commissioned work by Olaf from 2000 to his most recent series Palm Springs, on display for the first time. What I especially liked in the expo is that Olaf not only shows photographs but also photo installations in combination with sound and film. There even was a sculpture. Let’s say, they kept things surprising!
The large installation Keyhole (2012) is fascinating. There are framed photographs hanging on the exterior, as in a classic interior, and visitors can watch two films through the keyhole in the doors on either side of the installation.
Palm Springs, Berlin and Shanghai
I really liked Erwin Olaf’s most recent series, Palm Springs (2018), which I did not know yet as it premiered at the exhibition in the Gemeentemuseum. It is part of a triptych about cities undergoing change, the other two parts being Berlin (2012) and Shanghai (2017). The three series are moving. I loved them.
The Berlin series highlights Olaf’s concerns about freedom of expression and democracy, and the transfer of power from an older to a new generation. Shanghai explores the influence of super populated cities on individuality.
Focus on actual issues
There are some great series on show in the Gemeentemuseum. I read in the press release that “the clearest influence on the development of his work has been the events surrounding 9/11. Since then, the bombastic, baroque staging of his previous work has made way for more vulnerability and serenity. This has produced images that are very popular with the public: highly stylised film scenes staged perfectly down to the smallest detail, often bathed in light as if they were paintings, with an uncomfortable underlying message. As in the series Rain (2004), which appears to capture the moment between action and reaction after a shocking event. The series Grief (2007), shot in a 1960s setting, is about the first moment of response, the first tear.”
I do understand that so well. Making art is a good way to process strong emotions. Erwin Olaf also made the Tamed & Anger self-portraits (2015) in response to the Charlie Hebdo attack for example.
The biggest retrospective
Together, the exhibitions at the Gemeentemuseum and the Museum of Photography constitute the biggest retrospective of Olaf’s work ever staged, spanning the period from the early 1980s to his most recent work.
The difference between the two exhibitions but even more, the similarity between the early and the recent works is very nice to see. The exhibition is on show until May 12. For more information, check the site of the Gemeentemuseum and/or the site of the museum of Photography.