Museum of Natural History in London

Marcelle van Bemmel (1948)

spent her early years in Nederlands Indië. With the transfer from Dutch colony to the Republic Indonesia in 1949 the current Dutch civil servants like her father would work two more years for the new government. Thereafter they were no longer welcome. During the period her parents tried to start a new life in The Netherlands, Marcelle spent a lot of time with her grandparents in Overijssel. In 1958 the Van Bemmel family settled down in Rotterdam. Marcelle's father, who committed himself all his life for the preservation of nature and protection of endangered species, became director of the Rotterdam Zoo.

"I am conceived in the Museum of Natural History in London.
Shortly after the Second World War my parents were allowed half a year leave to the motherland from what was called the Dutch East Indies at the time. But not only the distribution of food was still restricted, textiles and fuel were scarce as well. Family members - in spite of the happy meeting after so many years - were struggling too much with their own experiences during the war to be able to listen to the horror stories from Asia and to provide long-term shelter to people who as a result of the war possessed hardly more than the clothes they were wearing. My parents, both biologists, were relieved they got the chance to do scientific research in London, where the circumstances were slightly more favourable. The museum looked desolate. Most objects were brought to safety from the bombardments and had not yet been put back. Damaged display cases were everywhere. Through the broken glass a path had been wiped clean that lead to a small room where my parents could stay. There was a small gas heater that would light when you put coins in. If I may believe the stories, the warmth of the stove contributed to me being put into the world nine months later.


Back in the fifties mothers were housewives and fathers worked six days a week. Going out with the children on Sundays was not as common as it is now. The few times during my childhood that I was taken to a museum, we did not go to art exhibitions, but to a Natural History Museum. I was mesmerized by the dioramas and would have loved to step through the windows and wander about in them. This was the best visual information you could get about nature: nobody had TV at the time and the spectacular nature films you see nowadays did not exist yet. The naturalistic and at the same time estranging representations of exotic landscapes with stuffed animals were an inspiration for my black light boxes with landscapes cut out of paper that I made for my final exam at the academy in 1972. And those boxes were a starter to my performances, landscape projects and installations the public could walk around in.


Although I never went to an art exhibition during my youth, I was not completely cut off from art. I spent much time with my grandparents in Twente. Sitting still and making no sound during their afternoon rest was not a problem for me. There were storage folders with a large stock of graphics I could browse in. Half of them were Japanese woodprints, and the other half were etchings and lithographs from mainly around 1900. Many by unknown artists, but also by George Breitner, Jozef Israels, James Ensor, Charles-François Daubigny, James Whistler, Odilon Redon, Honoré Daumier and Francisco Goya.


The teachers at the Rotterdam Art Academy thought sculpture was not suitable for a girl like me, and sent me to the section TSO (Drawing, Painting, Design), but I never liked painting. More paint ended up on my clothes than came on the canvas. Due to the educational innovations of director Pierre Janssen I was lucky enough to be able to use the facilities of other departments. I could experiment at the section 3D with epoxy resin, which was very popular back then, print black and white photographs in the dark room of the section Graphic Design and weld aluminium with the amanuensis in the cellar. A teacher like Krijn Giezen provided a major incentive to experimenting.


I came to the conclusion that the choice of materials was important for what you wanted to express, but that they always were means and never a goal. I developed a preference to ‘matter' one could not easily force in a shape, like light and shadow, sound and time, texts, water and reflections. Objects were often transparent and when you walked through an installation or around a landscape project of mine, you would get an everchanging perspective. My subjects were often affairs one could not see, but had to be reconstructed with concrete data, like the course evolution. One performance was about the roving rocks in Death Valley which nobody ever saw move, but they left tracks, another one was about events that were on a much smaller scale than the human dimension, like the cruel love life of fireflies. Or about the curiously mirrored world of Alice.


Art is about sharing emotions. It may be a sense of beauty, or on the contrary, overcoming a certain aversion. Sometimes a political or social message is included, and at other times only a concept is presented. And exactly with passing on emotions everything goes wrong. The spectator has another world of experience than the artist and will interpret the work differently than intended. So I started to play around with confusion - also an emotion. I used emblems of which nobody knows any more what they mean and collected pictures in which a mistake was clearly made. I found it absurd that emotion could be traded. But time has caught up with me. Nowadays even your buying behaviour and actions on the internet can be traded. Artificial Intelligence knows better what you think and feel than you do.


Us baby boomers were pretty arrogant pupils at the academy. We thought the pre-war artists were old fashioned and we would re-invent art. We did not realise how privileged we were. In 1968 a group of pupils of the Prague Academy visited us. They told us that the communist regime had restrained them to strict rules, but that times had finally changed and they could work in freedom. Shortly after the Russian army entered Czechoslovakia and the Prague Spring came to an end. I remember a picture in the papers around the late sixties where abstract paintings were spread over the Red Square in Moscow. They were rolled over by tanks.


I am very happy to have lived under circumstances which gave me the possibility to create work the way I wanted. That I could share it with others without war, commerce or political force taking the lead."


Following an interview with Hans Walgenbach  meant for a book about 60+ artists in 2019