Frans Vosman and the Arts

In the following blog, editor Tessa Smorenburg briefly describes how a lecture given by professor Frans Vosman shaped her everyday perception on the Arts and Care.

The stone

The new students of the Master Care Ethics and Policy were sitting behind their desks, I was one of them. It was 2012.The desks were setup in a circle. In the middle of the circle was a table. On the table lay a stone. An ordinary stone, at least that’s what I thought.
It was one of my first lectures by Professor Frans Vosman. It would be years before I would understand what Vosman was teaching us at that moment. “What do you see?”, was the only question Vosman asked. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”… “What do you see?”, he asked again. He looked at us all as if it was an everyday question. “A stone?”… “No, look again.”

The disruption had begun. How can a stone be anything but a stone? That was exactly the dialogue he was looking for with his students. By provoking us to challenge what appeared to be self-evident, Vosman was demonstrating the importance of context and subjectivity in definitions of reality and the framing of meaning. How does the meaning of a stone along the riverbank differ from a stone in the forest? Or in this case, in the classroom? Not that I understood that at the time.

Insight in Chronos

Years later In 2017, while researching the relationship between Care and the Arts I interviewed Vosman. He explained the deep connections between these two disciplines. He described a doctor or a painter who falls ill and writes or paints; “And knows how to portray this magisterially”. An example of such a connection that Vosman talked about was the work Turu, Krankheit und Tod by the German painter Max Kaus (1891-1977) of the Die Brücke school. Kaus painted during the war in 1942-1944. In this period he drew many gouaches, painted watercolors and made chalk drawings of his sick wife Gertrud (whom he called Turu).

Vosman had been deeply moved by Kaus’s work in the previous summer when he visited the Brucke museum in Berlin (GER). “At the time I was completely fascinated by his work. This painter had been painting his sick wife for years. There were dozens of portraits of her, in her chair, in her bed, he painted her continuously until her eventual death; and then I thought, he created very beautiful paintings, but this artist also understood something… to keep following someone. That brings an exponential power and an eloquence that goes far beyond it. It is not a mirror of something wildly strange, but in a certain sense it does leave something alienating or forgotten, and that can also be confronting. Caring is paying attention to the long term. Now that everything is deliberately planned, all done in segments and divided into programs, the natural sense of “chronos” can fade away into the background”.

Perceiving the Arts

I work as a policy advisor in the Centre on the Quality of Life and Survivorship in the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek hospital in Amsterdam (NL), a specialized cancer hospital. In one of the halls where many presentations are given hangs a tapestry on one of the walls. This work, by the Dutch artist Jenny Ymker (1969), was commissioned by the hospital. Because of its vast scale, being eight meters wide, this tapestry is incredibly impressive.

When I stand before it I wonder: What do I perceive? And what do I perceive in the context of this cancer hospital? My response is one of ambivalence. The material texture is warm, but the image depicted is cold: the scene is frozen and blanketed with snow, the dark sky looms ominously. Just slightly left of the central focal point of the composition stands a woman exposed on a large open field, in what appears to be a typical rural landscape. She is alone. Her coat is as white as the snow, she has been incorporated into her stark surroundings, a unity of composition broken only by a single blue line cast by the rope she is holding in her hand. Her hands are frozen, she is not wearing gloves and the rope is rubbing in her hands painfully. Even In broad perspective she stands completely isolated in her task. In the distance one sees houses, too far away to reach or to be reached. Should she scream then no one would hear. That she is standing just before the center of the composition may be important, she is not quite half way. How should this be understood?

Is it the accomplishment of the journey already made or is it the daunting prospect of still so far to go? To coin a popular cliché: is the glass half full or is it half empty? Perhaps the subjective roles of patient/caregiver/visitor to the hospital, and the meaning one grants to these respective roles could ultimately predict one’s perception. A stone is not just a stone. A metaphor is not just a metaphor.

The greatest lesson

Vosman asked me that day in 2012: what is the meaning of what we perceive? These days this question starts and ends all my ethical deliberations. All of my articles are based on this sense of curiosity. Now I believe that the purpose of his question was to open up a dialogue about perception. All of the attributes of that brown, smooth but imperfect stone; all of the associations one could ascribe to it; and all of the wildly diverse interpretations given by the students that day to expose the inadequacy of a simple definition; albeit it “only a stone”.

Perception is incorrigibly permeated by our subjectivity. Well at least this is my perception of what was taught. What Vosman actually meant with that lecture  I guess I will never know, but the fact that it left me with more possible questions to ask than answers to give stands testament, I think, to the greatest lesson Frans Vosman ever taught me.

Image on top: Landscape in White (2020),  Jenny Ymker

(gobelin, 179 x 773 cm, commissioned by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek hospital 2020)

About the author: Tessa Smorenburg

Tessa Smorenburg

Tessa Smorenburg (1987) graduated as a master in Ethics of Care and Policy at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht (NL) in 2015. She currently holds the position of policy advisor in the Centre on the Quality of Life and Survivorship, at the Antoni van Leeuwenhoek hospital in Amsterdam (NL). This centre accommodates the physical/psychosocial, supportive and survivorship care for cancer patients. As a sociotherapist she worked in direct contact with patients in psychiatric clinics. Her previous experience at TAAK brought her in contact with visual artists and care institutions to whom she provided an ethics of care perspective during research and project development for the programme “Art & Care”.

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