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    Critical Hazards
by Abigail R. Esman
Marc Mulders
Ranonkels VI
Marc Mulders
Sunflowers VII
Marc Mulders
Two Fish Hanging
Marc Mulders
Ray Fish
Should an art critic be allowed to … criticize?

Not according to Marc Mulders, one of Holland's more popular contemporary painters. Some months ago, Mulders filed suit against the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad in response to a scathing review of an exhibition of his work at the DePont Foundation in Tilburg.

Charging that the review by critic Janneke Wesseling, a 20-year veteran of the newspaper, was both "childish" and inaccurate, and arguing that it could damage his reputation -- and so, the market value of his work -- Mulders, who has his own website at, demanded that the newspaper publish letters defending his work sent in by various friends and collectors (sent in, it would appear, through the artist's own orchestrations).

Unsurprisingly, the NRC refused, citing "freedom of opinion" -- and so the matter landed before the Journalism Board (Raad van de Journalistiek), an institution which oversees the practices of Dutch journalists (much as the American Bar Association oversees lawyers in the U.S.).

In filing the complaint, Mulders, whose work is included in the collections of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and Stedelijk van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, further asked that Wesseling write an apology for her review, and acknowledge what he perceived to be errors in her writing. Should Mulders (and his supporters, who conveniently include a collector who happens also to be a State Judge) prove successful before the Journalism Board, they could then pursue the complaint in a court of law.

"It was a serious issue," Wesseling says. "If Mulders won, it could be huge. It could conceivably affect all criticism -- art and music and film -- in all the media. So we were prepared to fight to the very end, if necessary."

The paintings in question, Mulders' thickly impastoed images of chrysanthemums, sunflowers, animal carcasses, dead fish and Ecce Homo motifs, speak, by his own description, of Christ, death, rebirth and sacrament. In a 1999 interview with the Amsterdam daily Het Parool, Mulders rightly observed that he is "more Baroque" than most Dutch artists, and stated that he works specifically with Catholic imagery because, in his words, "Everyone needs religion."

Mulders says he tries to evince both sorrow and consolation in his work, adding, "And apparently, I succeed, for every canvas I paint lands almost immediately over somebody's couch." What this has to do with consolation, one can only guess (though the notion would no doubt thrill manufacturers of velvet Elvis paintings).

Such religiosity, Mulders noted in the Parool interview, permeates Western art traditions, and can be found not only in the works of Old Masters, but also in those of abstract painters like Robert Ryman or Ad Reinhardt. Ryman's "white canvases," Mulders observed, "are for me white blood, an effusion of white blood ... the vulnerability of white as metaphor for the vulnerability of Christ."

Blood? Christ? Ryman? "Only someone completely blinded by dogma can come up with such an interpretation," Wesseling says, "and that's exactly what I wrote in my review."

Mulders, however, insisted that Wesseling had misunderstood him, arguing in his complaint that she had also quoted him incorrectly as saying that he was against Conceptual Art. In his statement to the Journalism Board, Mulders claimed that he has no problems with Conceptual Art, but only with "neo-conceptual art."

Wesseling found this uproarious. "I am fully aware of Conceptual art, which has been around for about 50 years. But neo-conceptual? No. So I felt, 'over my dead body will I ever use the term neo-conceptual art,' and no one can force me to use such a term.'"

Nor, evidently, was Wesseling about to say that she saw things in Mulders' paintings that she did not, in fact, see: of his claim that he paints death and resurrection, she remarked in her review: "I see in his work plenty that is dead -- but little life or rebirth. There is no tension of rhythm or of composition. Mulders mixes so many colors together that it all becomes a muddy, grayish mush in which his squid and his chrysanthemums seem hopelessly stuck forever.

"Not so!" retorted Marc Mulders in his complaint. "There were several paintings [in the exhibition] with light and color all over the place!" Maybe for him, says Wesseling now, defending her remarks, "but for me, the man can't paint. So I don't see light and color. I see gray mush."

Fair enough -- one person's feast is another's gruel; one's Lucky Charms, another's porridge; one artist's white paint, another's white blood; and one artist's light and color, one critic's gray mud.

On such grounds, and striking a major victory for freedom of the press and of critics everywhere, the Journalism Board ultimately dismissed Mulders' case, citing Wesseling's right to express her subjective opinion on the work -- and emphasizing, in fact, her duty as a critic to do exactly that. The NRC was further not required to publish any of the letters that had been submitted in Mulders' defense, as the paper has a longstanding policy against publishing letters responding to cultural reviews.

"His work," Wesseling had written, "is Music for the Millions. Mulders is the Julio Iglesias of painting."

But the question now on everyone's lips is: What will Iglesias have to say about that?

ABIGAIL R. ESMAN is an art journalist and critic based in New York and Amsterdam.