Silence overwhelms when one is confronted with this oil painting, the enigmatic counterpart of the Madonna del Mare Nostrum. You are forced to take a step back, to relate to it, to dialogue with it in your heart. The pain and beauty of the depicted, the virtuosity of painting and composition, and the thought-provoking power of it all oblige you to reflect.
The title and the composition of this artwork provides references to the statue of August Rodin: Les Citoyens de Calais. The 12th century story behind it is about the heroic self-sacrifice of a group of citizens of Calais. The town was defeated and starved by the English army. The condition of the peace treaty was that some inhabitants had to walk out with a rope around their necks, carrying the key of the port. Facing certain death, they would save the rest of the city. Once in London, they were unexpectedly granted their freedom. The faces and gestures of the figures express some of the emotions similar to the group’s in the oil painting.
The question arises: did these ‘Citizens of Calais’ perhaps leave (or try to leave) from the Calais tent city, the ‘Jungle of Calais’ as it was called until it was dismantled? The aluminium paddle seems to be their key to the promised land. The image is staged, lit by a spotlight or a flash, still could just as well be a snapshot of a few people from a larger group. They look very real yet almost mythical in appearance, draped in golden emergency blankets. They stand monumental, for all the people who risk their lives for a passage to a better place.
These men emerge on the beach as vulnerable creatures bringing not more and not less than their naked being. Chains of thought commence while one looks at them. The main figure is the one in the foreground, bowing his head and raising his right hand to the heavens, with a profound questioning gesture. Four of the five figures express suffering or exhaustion. They must have lived through cruel ordeals on the way by criminal organizations which thrive on human trafficking and exploitation of the young on route.
Somewhat unexpected in this group, a distinctive central figure is locking eyes with the spectator. He expresses no fear. He is dignified and seems to be determined to stand his ground; he has an overpowering presence. This blend of a narrative, current affairs and a portrait’s gaze invites the viewer to reflect on his or her social attitudes and personal beliefs. Depending on the daylight and your own projection, the image can come at you threatening or particularly appealing to your sympathy. One can spend hours studying the details. Even the hairdo can add to your reaction depending on your experience. You wonder how people from other parts of the world would react to this painting.
The image shelters emotions and attitudes like despair and resignation, betrayal and confidence, resilience to survive. Perhaps exploitation by or of a system too? It certainly questions one’s prejudices and thoughts about migration now, when human compassion is challenged in our current social environment. Is there not a certain fatigue that has crept in the discourse on the subject? Massive migration because of climate change, wars and poverty will remain one of the hot topics. Can the capacity for compassion be blunted by the sheer numbers? It is time to look this issue – and the questions it raises in our societies – in the eye.
Are these men the hope for the future in our ageing population? Are they conquerors, self-proclaimed citizens? Are civil rights in a welfare society a human right? Should there be a difference in treatment between migrants for better chances in life and refugees who run for their lives? What could be a balanced long-term strategy for a humane and just policy regarding migration and the refugee crisis? Certainly, all people have the right to be treated as fellow humans? How can I contribute to a more sustainable, more inclusive and future oriented world?
Seeing the countenance of the unknown is a long and intense process.
image: Hansa Versteeg The Citizens of Calais, 2022, oil on canvas, 150×150 cm