Marcel Van Eeden
A burst of revelry from the forecastle

A burst of revelry from the forecastle


For the past 25 years Marcel van Eeden’s world has revolved around images made before his birth in 1965. He has produced thousands of drawings, copying the images in his signature drawing style, using Negro chalk pencils for deep black tones and perfect shades. The act of copying the image – catching a light that was present before he himself was in the world – gives Van Eeden the possibility to ‘own’ the image, to an extent cataloguing it, creating an endless encyclopaedia of his ‘death’; of the time he did not exist and that will continue after he is gone. Light travels endlessly in space and time, so the light that illuminated the pre-1965-scenes Van Eeden copied is still out there, somewhere.

At first it was straight copying of given images. Soon he started to create stories, using comic and cartoon style schemes with text combined with image. All elements – text, names of protagonists, imagery – are derived from the same vault of information pre-1965, but juxtaposed into fictive narratives. The multi-drawing series read as graphic novels, although text and image often don’t match. Neither is an illustration of the other.

All this is done with the same drawing hand, ranging from precise and meticulous to broad and impressionistic, all lettering also produced by hand. In some drawings Van Eeden displays a loose hand, straying from the original image with broad strokes and handwritten, hardly readable words. Often these images reflect back on the housing schemes of the fifties in his birth city The Hague, typical Dutch modernist architecture of four to five storey high apartment buildings. They carry a certain nostalgia of carefree youth in Dutch collective memory. Drawn however with heavy dark lines that crowd the image like dark spaghetti, the tone of the works is sombre and melancholic.

Over the years Marcel Van Eeden has gone from single images to series to larger compositions of multiple motives swarming over the paper surface. 

These drawings are much more cryptic, don’t present a fixed narrative, and engage the viewers in a rebus-like puzzle, working with the specific iconography of the individual elements, and giving no clue about meaning. A clown’s face laughing, combined with the front side of a car, combined with a walking couple seen from behind, combined with a man’s face, combined with a sign with numbers. Seemingly incomprehensive, a riddle, but with a kaleidoscopic, cinematic view of ‘reality’.
Van Eeden has ventured sometimes beyond the realm of drawing, making a series of paintings or sculptures that supplement the images in his drawings. But still based on pre-1965 imagery. Very recently the artist has turned to photography, which posed a challenge. The rule was: every image needed to be from before 1965. Taking pictures can’t work that way. They are inevitably taken now, in 2018. A break with the concept Van Eeden cultivated for 25 years.

Or is it?

Not for Marcel van Eeden himself. Photography is a mechanical process. This is to some extend also the case with copying photographs, even though the former is by a machine with a lens and the latter by hand. “My act of drawing is photography in some ways. I take pictures with my hand”, Van Eeden says. “After occupying myself intensely with photographs for the past 25 years, studying them to be able to copy them, I got the urge to mechanically reproduce the world myself. As the people whose photographs I use also used to do. And since I used to photograph a lot in my early years, it was not difficult to start again, using an old Leica analogue camera, therefore yesteryears technique.”

“Of course I am working in the ‘now’ with the photographs, but I have always done that in the series I have produced. I looked for subjects in the cities that I worked, in events that were current, and I would base my series on those narratives. The difference is that in the drawings I use old photographs to ‘tell’ this story. And in photography I work with what presents itself in every day life now.”

In the photographs Van Eeden is ‘a fly on the wall’, he chronicles mundane, everyday situations. Casual, we encounter them ourselves all the time. People waiting in an airport lounge (shot from a low angle), a sidewalk in an American street, old showcases in a library (unceremoniously shot from the side), customers en silhouette in a Chinese restaurant, a fleeting shot of a petrol station at night, pissoirs in a men’s toilet, a sideway glance at an escalator in a train station after dark.

Interestingly enough, this off hand depiction of reality in some ways sheds light on the drawings as well, where the scenes often are also devoid of formalness: people chatting each other up, non-explicit street views, the corner of an old fashioned study, cars, trains, a map, fruit, candy wrappings. Sometimes two men – wearing hats of course – in a generic, dramatic movie scene.

Life before Marcel van Eeden was born is as indistinctive as life when Marcel van Eeden is alive. And life will be after he is gone. Light continuing in space.
This casualness is enhanced by the ‘rough’ compositions in the photographs. Often slightly tilted, as if the photos were shot from the hip, in passing. It reflects a style that was cultivated by artist Ed Ruscha in the 70’s, who shot street scenes in Los Angeles from a driving vehicle, not caring if buildings were straight or horizontal lines perfectly horizontal. An ‘honest’ form of photography.  

Also Garry Winogrand comes to mind, the iconic street photographer who helped set the standard in the 60’s and 70’s. Like Ruscha he didn’t care for a careful rectangular framing of the street or road scene. Some photographs even look distinctively haphazard, until you see a detail that probably had gotten Winogrand’s attention and became the centre of the photograph, no matter how hastily the shot was made.

Van Eeden is focused more on the generic atmosphere of a situation than specific details. This atmosphere is enhanced by the strong use of  black and white tones, interlaced with ‘smudgy’ greys. Again Van Eeden goes against conventions, with parts of the pictures completely saturated with black shadows. It gives some of them a rather gloomy aura, the same sombre, melancholic feel we encounter in several of the drawn works. Playing with shadows and black & white (and grey) in the photographs therefore mimics the play with light (and darkness) in the drawings. Both complement each other.  

Van Eeden once said he identifies with the ‘amateur’, who does his thing, irreverent to expectations or needs. And if this ‘thing’ never sees the light of day, tucked away in attics or cellars, that is ok as well. Because the true amateur is doing the thing he does for his own pleasure – or obsessions as you wish. A mechanical act in a constant rhythm. Like drawing. Like photography.

«Drawing as photography», Robbert Roos, 2018