Dutch Clouds, Past and Present

Conversation 6, a special exhibition on view at the San Francisco Arts Commission Main Gallery in the Civic Center through April 27, pairs Jason Hanasik, a local multimedia artist, with Berndnaut Smilde, an internationally recognized installation artist from Amsterdam. Today’s guest blogger Meg Shiffler is the director of the SFAC Galleries, and in this entry focuses on the work of Smilde and its relationship to paintings featured in the special exhibition Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis.


Berndnaut Smilde, Nimbus Munnekeholm, 2012

As the director of the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries, a large part of my job requires seeking out emerging artists both in the Bay Area and beyond. The SFAC Galleries is a municipal gallery that was founded by artists in 1970, and we are renowned for both nurturing and highlighting local artists, as well as exhibiting Bay Area talent next to artists from around the globe. Our Conversations series exemplifies our commitment to this exhibition strategy and helps our patrons understand how our regional art production fits into an international contemporary art dialogue.

Berndnaut Smilde grew up looking at traditional Dutch landscape paintings, and took particular notice of the clouds. As I wandered through the special exhibition, Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis, currently on view at the de Young, one painting especially caught my eye.


Jacob van Ruisdael (Haarlem 1628?–1682 Amsterdam). View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds, ca. 1670–1675. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague

The painting above by Jacob van Ruisdael is almost three quarters sky. The exhibition audio guide tells viewers that van Ruisdael is renowned for devoting the majority of his canvas space to rather dramatic skies, and paintings like these are most influential in Smilde’s current work.

When we began developing the exhibition now featured at the SFAC Galleries, Smilde shared with me, “I always wondered what it would be like to pull those clouds out of the paintings and suspend them, alone, in the middle of a gallery.”


Berndnaut Smilde, Nimbus Platform 57

He has accomplished exactly that, and the resulting body of images is now exhibited around the world. Smilde is quick to clarify, “Although people always want to know how I do it—how I make the clouds—I don’t like to focus on the process.” So, I will be brief in my explanation.

Smilde works for days to frame and light the shot, making hundreds of clouds and shooting hundreds of images to get the one photograph that represents his work at that site. The resulting photographs are mesmerizingly beautiful; however I also find them tremendously unsettling. The clouds are caught in a kind of in-between world, trapped in a manmade limbo in which they are completely displaced from the natural world. Smilde and Van Ruisdael both find drama in the isolation and perhaps overemphasize the stereotypically moody Dutch sky. Van Ruisdael’s sky, from about mid-way to the top of the canvas, seems to be free and completely unrelated to the ground below, while Smilde’s clouds wander so far from their intended destination that they become entombed inside vacant structures.


Berndnaut Smilde, Cumulusklein

I hope that you will stop by and see the exhibition and join us for a special event on Wednesday, March 20 to hear Smilde speak alongside Melissa Buron, assistant curator of European art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Rounding out the conversation will be renowned photographer Doug Rickard, and I will be moderating the evening. See you there!

Meg Shiffler is the galleries director for the San Francisco Arts Commission, the arts agency of the City and County of San Francisco.

Join us for Indoor Clouds, Google Street View and Dutch Masterworks on Wednesday, March 20, 6–7:30 p.m. at the San Francisco Public Library Main Branch in the Koret Auditorium. This event is free and open to the public; no RSVP required.