ISABELLE VAN ZEIJL - Fine Art Photographer 

From Raphael, Rembrandt, Holbein, Dürer, Van Gogh and Picasso, to Egon Schiele, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, Lucebert, Cindy Sherman, Lucian Freud, Ulay and Nan Goldin, the history of the visual arts is strewn with examples of self-portraiting artists. Whereas today, any owner of a smartphone can shoot a selfie in a split second and enhance it digitally, in days past, a good self-portrait required a certain degree of talent, dedication and technique. This Dutch fine art photographer’s exceptional work is driven by both a fascination for the female in all her guises and the pursuit of a universal, timeless beauty. Poetry, dedication and sheer mastery permeate her self-portraits. Although highly personal in nature, they conjure a sense of accessibility and recognition.

Van Zeijl is a master of patience and psychological insight. She conveys one’s character while attending to the many accoutrements which comprise mood and personality. Self-help avant la lettre. It is, to quote the Dutch poet Willem Kloos “the most individual expression of the most individual emotion”. Isabelle van Zeijl materialises the inner and outer self in brush strokes or pixels, embellishing the genre of self-portraiture in her own, distinctly contemporary manner. Her muted, refined and probing work has a clear signature. Through introspection, the creation of a unique mise en scène, and an intensive process of digital editing, Van Zeijl realises gripping images with a poetic touch and timeless appeal. Her self-portraits bring to mind the work of the Flemish Primitives, Renaissance masters and Golden Age portraitists. They trigger emotional remembrance and the disposition of the observer. Call it artistic Aha-Erlebnisse.

Her work is suspended somewhere between painting and photography, between the past and present: it touches the collective memory, igniting glimmers of recognition. Through the application of both authentic elements (such as a piece of lace from centuries ago, or an original ballet tutu from Swan Lake) and contemporary technology, Van Zeijl sets the scene and creates her own icons. In doing so, not only is the artist self-cast as model and director/photographer, but simultaneously location scout, make-up artist, stylist, prop-sourcer and image manipulator. “After ten years portraying myself, one day I saw the face of my 7-year-old son through my lens. I saw a glimpse of a strong soul. In truth, I think there is no beauty more authentic than the wisdom we find in the love of an individual. As a photographer it is all about capturing the right moment, the right look. I am very grateful he gave me that right moment, the moment his soul was revealed to me. I could capture it with my camera.”

The world is full of relentless imagery of pseudo-glamour masquerading as beauty. In reality this has nothing to do with beauty; it is about conformity, brand and formula. Peddlers of false hopes, hierarchies, religions and pornographies have all pursued and formulated beauty for their own ends. Without character and emotion, there is no beauty and it is too oppressive to present one ideal to women”. Van Zeijl aims to shed new light on the beauty myth and the role of the female within society. Another series, Golden (2013), was created during and after the process of a divorce. Here, she poses with a fencing mask, her body painted gold and her braided hair framed by a halo adorned with stones. The mask symbolises struggle and the establishing of boundaries, but the golden skin, heavy braids and jewellery are a metaphor for survival: an incentive to continue to radiate through adversity.

During the Renaissance, the focus shifted to the individual; to “great” men, distinguished and virtuous. Van Zeijl co-opts the cult of Renaissance masculine-virtuosity, imaging herself in a frontal, self-assured pose. It is bravura that also allows room for vulnerability. For Van Zeijl, facing fear is the path to conquering it. The photos are a homage to powerful women through the ages. The first source of inspiration that Van Zeijl cites is her mother: a self-made woman and mother of four who created textile designs at the kitchen table and showed them at international trade fairs. The artist also acknowledges more universal inspirational women: the nude in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, the art of Frida Kahlo, as well as strong women of today such as Igone de Jongh. Van Zeijl explains: “Two examples of old and new work from the history of art, Botticelli’s ‘Venus’ and the first beach portraits by Rineke Dijkstra, formed a direct inspiration for my first collage. Both of them balance on the edge of childhood and adolescence. That feeling also resurfaces in my current work.”

She is reluctant to place anyone but herself in front of the lens: “That could be a possibility if it was a commission, but not for my autonomous work. It would tarnish the authenticity of it.” Her son, her own flesh and blood, forms the exception. In the series Grand and Romain for instance she captures her son, clad in a lavish lace collar: the gaze of an old soul in a young body. Her work is a blend of various elements throughout history: skin, gazes, beauty, physiognomy and clothing. Van Zeijl states: “We have a collective memory, wherein our vision of history is contained and stored. I like to lend traditional, classic poses a humorous twist, to make them contemporary and unexpected by placing them in the current time; bridging the past and the future.”

You can lose yourself entirely in the timeless images of Isabelle van Zeijl. Good portraiture captures the soul of the artist and the sitter. The model feels so secure and at ease that she is prepared to drop her mask and everyday duties and live in the moment. “Everyone needs tranquillity, purity, and serenity: they recall love and inner strength. It offers solace, comfort and hope in a time when people are engulfed by ugliness, hardship and cruelty. I strive for the good, the beautiful and the beguiling. It takes discipline and focus to retain a sense of positivity.”