Sense or no sense, Klaas Gubbels paints. Every day, in his studio. The man is now 90, but his mission is still not completed “to turn something as silly as a coffee pot into something.” His voice has almost given out, and Tonko Dop van News hour has to shout at him to make himself understood, but there is little wrong with his eyes. He is trying to get a table and chair on the canvas. One is gray, the other white, and now it is a matter of blending one into the other in such a way that it is correct and consistent. This is the first of five portraits that Tonko Dop made of old(er) artists.
Rembrandt was already the best artist in the world at the age of twenty. That’s what Judith de Leeuw was told when she showed artistic ambitions. She was eighteen then. Beautiful, she thought. “Then I still have two years.” She is now 27 and an international worker street artist. Her work can be seen in 62 countries, on three continents and in documentaries JDL – Behind the wall she is followed through the creation of one of her murals, a monumental wall painting. The wall is of an apartment building, the apartment is in a suburb called Paolo VI, near the city of Taranto, in the Italian region of Puglia. A working-class neighborhood. Once prosperous due to nearby industry, now withering due to industry’s departure.
We see Judith de Leeuw – or JDL – dangling in an aerial platform in front of a gigantic, gray wall. And that should include a completely realistic ballerina, who is encircled by a pair of male arms. Larger than lifelike. The work is called Love is stronger than death, part 4 and these are the words of her father, spoken and repeated until shortly before his death. While she usually takes social issues as her subject – racism, loneliness, gay rights – she has been unable to think of anything else or paint anything else since his death. “An ideal grieving process,” she says. The woman in her painting seems to feel the presence of someone who is not there.
The hairdresser, the make-up artist, the ballerina who models the mural, they ask Judith de Leeuw the questions. Who is she, where does she come from, what does she want? You can’t really figure that out. We hear her talk about a childhood that ended when she was twelve. About drug use, foster homes, a year of wandering the streets and then a bare cell in a closed youth facility. She started drawing between the walls of that cell. “Practice, practice, practice.” At 20, she was ready to paint what she draws on walls.
The difficult questions
Director Deborah Faraone Mennella asks the difficult questions herself. The one about her father. “It wasn’t always pleasant in the past. Actually just not. Never. Never pleasant.” She talks about anger in shapes, sizes, flavors and colors and a grandmother, hers, in a concentration camp and a father who suffered from it. The story remains vague and foggy, but a drama looms behind it. It’s the same with her murals. For a long time, only shades of gray can be seen – made with spray cans of wolf gray and Icarus gray. When she’s done, you’ll see what she saw all along. Italian art lovers saw Bernini’s marble statue in it: Pluto and Proserpina – Pluto dragging a reluctant Proserpina into the underworld.
But the best part starts when the neighbors across the street, residents of the opposite apartment, hang out of their window frame and say what they see. A woman in pain, the men say. She doesn’t want to be touched by men’s hands. You can tell they have a toxic relationship. She wants to escape.
It is the soul of a dead person that holds her, the women say. She has lost someone, one says. “You only see that when you have lost someone yourself.” Is it her boyfriend, the other asks. Can, can, can. But she thinks more of a brother. Her father perhaps?