Speech by Ingrid van Engelshoven, Minister of Education, Culture and Science, at the presentation of the 2020 Johannes Vermeer Award to Rineke Dijkstra, 18 February 2021

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Dear guests, jury members, live stream viewers,
dear Rineke,

A few weeks ago, theatre maker Jan Beuving wrote a wonderful column about the power of art in these troubled times.
Art has been given so little space in theatres and museums over the past year, he wrote, but it has created so much space beyond those walls.
In our homes, our minds and our hearts.

I am therefore immensely proud to be here with you at this exceptional time for the presentation of the 2020 Johannes Vermeer Award.
Here in Felix Meritis - the “home of the inquiring mind”.
To emphasize, now more than ever, how vital art and culture are to our society.
How important it is to be curious, and to keep dreaming.
But of course, above all else, to celebrate the virtuosity and artistic achievements of Rineke Dijkstra.

Dear Rineke,

For many years, you and your work have embodied precisely what I see as the very essence of culture:
with every photograph and every video, you offer us a new perspective on what it means to be human.
People are not simple.
We cannot be reduced to one characteristic, one role or even one identity. Even though we sometimes act that way...
People are elusive.
We are infinitely layered and complex.
And it is that complexity, that humanity which you make tangible, Rineke, in your own unique way.

In doing so, you not only focus on the eyes and the face, but on “the whole body as the mirror of the soul”, as the jury report so aptly puts it.
You look at the people around you with boundless curiosity.
You show their complexity, their unease, but also their hope for what is yet to come, for what is still possible.

That is why your celebrated beach portraits have always stayed with me.
[Beach Portraits, 1992-1998]
With startling precision, you captured the open and hopeful expressions of those young people, but also their unease with their own bodies.

Your series of photographs of women who have just given birth is also a testament to your exceptional talent.
[New Mothers, 1994]
Their gaze and body language express a range of emotions; exhaustion, yet at the same time pride; uncertainty, yet at the same time determination.

The same can be said of your portraits of Portuguese matadors, shot just after the bullfight.
[Bullfighters, 1994-2000]
Their jackets are torn, their shirts stained with blood and earth.
Then you look at their faces, and see their fighting spirit, but also their uncertainty and doubt.

When you photograph people, Rineke, it’s as if you strip away an outer layer.
You summed this up beautifully when you said:
“A photograph only comes to life when things happen in it that you can’t quite put your finger on.
You have to create a situation where there is room for chance.”
The remarkable thing about your way of working is how you seek to create this space for chance through meticulous preparation.

Take your recent work Night Watching, for example, a video installation that shows groups of people looking at and talking about The Night Watch.
[Night Watching, 2019]
At first glance it seems so simple: grab a camera and film people looking at The Night Watch.
But in your own inimitable style, this shoot was preceded by extensive preparation.
And it was this that created room for chance.

Room, for example, for the red-haired girl from the welding and metal work class at her local college.
Surrounded by her macho classmates, she suddenly turned out to know all about painting and the use of pigments in Rembrandt’s day.

And it’s because you take your time, Rineke, that these unguarded moments arise.
It has made you an international representative of Dutch art and photography.
You have deservedly won a string of major prizes, not least being the only Dutch photographer to receive the prestigious Hasselblad Award.
At the same time, and to your great credit, you remain modest and down-to-earth in the face of such fame.
You continue to work hard, and throughout your career, you have been determined to ensure that your art continues to have a place in public collections.
And although you spread your wings and embraced the world outside the Netherlands at an early stage, you remain in close contact with the people who matter to you, relationships that often go back many years.
The jury’s description of you as “the queen of Dutch portraiture” is therefore entirely fitting.

Dear Rineke,

I understand that besides working on a new project during lockdown these past few months, you have also thrown yourself into organizing your archive and playing Risk.
And now here we are, in Felix Meritis, surrounded by stately columns, and listening to the beautiful music of Lavinia Meijer.
And rightly so, because today you are the recipient of the Netherlands’ leading award for the arts.
An award that is so richly deserved.

It is therefore a very great honour for me to present you with the 2020 Johannes Vermeer Award.
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic restrictions, I don’t get to do that in person this year.
But I am pleased to say that your partner is more than willing to do the honours for me.
You will soon receive the jury report, a magnificent trophy, and of course the prize of 100,000 euros.
I hear you have another fascinating project in mind...
perhaps we can persuade you to give us a sneak preview in a moment?
For now, I wish you every success with the next exciting chapters in your career, and I trust that you will celebrate in style this evening.
May I invite you and your partner to step forward for the presentation?