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Interview: John Stringer talks about Kees Bruin: Visions of the Real


With degrees in art history and classics, John Stringer brings a depth to appreciating both contemporary and ancient art as an expression of human culture. Having worked in both the church and the art sector, he is qualified to unpack Kees Bruin’s unique painting career. John is a published author and historian with interests in archaeology, faith and art. He lives in Christchurch with his wife, Laurie. They have five children, four grandchildren, and two British bulldogs. John continues to write and research on history, art history and faith and is a practising artist himself. John talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about Kees Bruin: Visions of the Real. What inspired you to write this book?

Kees (pronounced “Case”) was first persuaded by NZ painter Bill Sutton to but down his sculptor's chisel and take up a paint brush; perhaps the best advice Kees ever received. His super-realism is of the very highest international quality, his work hanging in collections from Iran, to Amsterdam to New York. Yet he is less-well known in NZ. I have called him NZ’s hidden Vermeer. The book seeks to capture the journey of this remarkable NZ Sumner-based painter over the last 50 years. And to capture his artistic-vision through the remarkable canvases he has crafted since the 1970s.

For readers who might not know too much about art, could you describe Kees Bruin’s work and his influences?

He is a super-photo-realist in the American tradition of post-modern art, oil painting what is seen as if with photographic precision. Many viewers of his work are doubtful it can be oil paint, presuming it to be Photoshop. Yet every molecule is oil paint. He paints in a style reminiscent of the Dutch masters, often including repainted inverted facsimiles of Renaissance paintings in his backgrounds. Yet he chooses his own fantastical modern realities, often with NZ idiomatic contexts (such as his Baptism of Christ in New Zealand River Scene, 2006 with Mt Cook/Aoraki on the skyline and John the Baptist in jeans). He plays a lot with perspective and his paintings are multi-layered and subtle while being dramatic and engaging. Thus “Visions of the Real” chosen as the title of the book.


Personally, what are some of your favourite pieces of art from the book, and why?

While he is best known for his late-nineties “Bride series” (which I say in the book was a working out of his grief following his fiancé's death and his spiritual reflection of that loss as a symbol of the Church in the world), I prefer his later figural work, from the 2000s, with much fuller canvas composition, a direct influence I had on the artist. This has produced in my view, his best work. It draws out his remarkable talent more than his earlier sea, sky and skate tableaus. Within this season, standouts are: Rachael, 2000 (Cat. 121) a portrait of a Christchurch friend that is quite a NZ master with a haunting Mona Lisa quality; and Vanus Emporio and Supper Emmaus, 2006 (Cat. 143) originally chosen as the cover of the book for its arresting visage that draws the viewer in to an old 1601 Caravaggio, “Supper at Emmaus.” Old meets new. The painting arrests our attention and holds it while the subject flaunts a gaudy ostentatious ring in our face while the disciples suddenly see Christ revealed at supper in the background.


Of his earlier work, Tim, 1979 (Cat. 014) a stunning NZ portrait in the best of the photo-realist tradition.

If a soundtrack was made to accompany the book, name a song or two you would include.

Bob Dylan’s “What’s A Sweetheart Like You, Doin’ in a Dump Like This?” (Sweetheart Like You, 1983) from Infidels to accompany Kees' Bride series, and perhaps Ed Sheeran's 2015 “Photograph” (Love can be so hard) because it talks about what Kee’s paints, that humanity and life is about love, and can be hard; and obviously because Kees is a photo-realist. Ed sings in this song, what Kees paints.


What did you enjoy the most about writing Kees Bruin: Visions of the Real?

Digging deeply in to the paintings and finding the vision and intent of the artist, often unknown to himself. This I think is what art historians can do best, by drawing on older traditions to uncover the now (life, thought, vision). And obviously reconnecting with Kees as a friend through his art.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

It was a very long interrupted process. I celebrated by popping out to see Kees and view his latest unfinished work on canvas, a wonderful self portrait-in-progress in which Kees has become the ‘bride’, as Doubting Thomas inserting is hand into Christ’s side. The look of shock and awe is stunning. And again, the transposition of Christ into modern idiom as he confronts a disciple in a black leather jacket (the artist himself).


What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

George Sanders' experimental novel Lincoln in the Bardo, 2017. Quite hard to comprehend at first, but when you understand (suddenly) it's quite the best structured novel you’ve ever read. And it has such pathos and grief, it's difficult to put down. It's like an invigorating literary swim in a cold stream on a baking hot day. A book that has extended after taste, like a good curry.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

More writing. I have a third vol. of my art historical series coming out on the pastiches of Herge's Tintin; and a history of Kursk the greatest tank battle of WW2. My grandfather fought in the first tank battle in WW1. I also have some quirky children's books I want to get finished (including: “I Can Out-TXT 20 Tigers” and Poet Tree and the Witch of Witchconzin).


Quentin Wilson Publishing