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The stories

Anton Corbijn - Miles Davis, 1985

Miles was doing an interview with Richard Cook and I was allowed to sit in but not take pictures. He wasn’t particularly nice to Richard. Whenever he answered a question, he would say: “And what’s your name again?” I had a shoot with him the next day, five or six minutes in a hotel room. He gave me a drawing he’d done which was really nice. I still have it. Miles was a beautiful man. His stare here is very intense. I guess that’s how he lived. This was taken later in his life, when he was in a lot of pain. He took injections of goat serum that affected his pupils. That’s what is striking in this picture. His pupils are as large as you’ll ever see.

Anton Corbijn, photographer, graphic designer and film director

The viewer can't escape the penetrating gaze of the trumpet player Miles Davis. His fingers, their pale nails contrasting with the dark skin around them, point towards his eyes. His black, dilated pupils contrast with the whites surrounding them. Every detail is razor-sharp. Davis’s eyes reflect the things in their field of vision: a large window with bright light shining through and the silhouette of the photographer Anton Corbijn in front of it. Corbijn took this intimate portrait of the late jazz legend in 1985 in Montreal.
Groninger Museum database

Miles Davis was approaching 60 in 1985. He had already achieved everything, really. He was a trumpet player, one of the most influential jazz musicians in history. He kept winning new, young audiences from the 1940s until he died. His energy radiates from this photograph. Yet at the same time there’s an uncertain, almost anxious quality. Surely the great Mr Davis has nothing to be afraid of? Those wide-open eyes – what do they tell us? Did the photographer ask him to do that? Did he only open his eyes like that for a split second and then burst out laughing? Either way, it’s a gaze you can’t evade, the gaze of a strong personality. And ultimately the image has one effect: I want to know more about this man, and I want to hear the music that plays in his head.
Leo Blokhuis, music journalist

Jeff Koons - Christ and the Lamb, 1988

Christ and the Lamb is a gleaming gold mirror whose frame is made up of rococo curlicues, stylistic elements from the 18th century. Why this title? Where is Christ, and where is the lamb? What isn't immediately obvious is that the mirror’s shape is derived from Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, which hangs in the Musée du Louvre in Paris. That work shows the Virgin Mary with her mother, Anne, the baby Jesus, and a lamb, with a rocky landscape in the background. Koons plays with art-historical references as well as the viewer’s expectations.
Groninger Museum database

Koons, known for his outspoken and often provocative artworks, establishes a harmonious dialogue between religion and pop culture in this piece. The shiny, polished surfaces emphasize the refined craftsmanship and contemporary aesthetics of the work, while the symbolism is deeply rooted in ancient spiritual traditions. The choice of Christ and the Lamb as subjects raises questions about redemption, sacrifice, and the role of spirituality in our modern society. Koons seems to challenge the viewer to reflect on the evolution of faith and how symbols from the past resonate in the contemporary world.
Tekst and translation by ChatGPT

Koons’ work raises questions, some of them philosophical. Most mirrors are household objects, not art. So is this a work of art? The design is based on Christ playing with a lamb in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne (1501/19). So the mirror appears to have content, and the philosopher Arthur Danto said that something is art if it embodies a meaning. But that’s true of a traffic sign. And what exactly is the content here? Is this a critical work about pomp and circumstance in the Catholic church? An ode to kitsch? Or a vanitas, perhaps? After all, Christ is playing with a symbol of his own eventual death, and we see ourselves reflected in the richly decorated mirror. Does Christ and the Lamb have an unequivocal meaning? And if so, what determines it? Koons once said his work didn’t have any deeper meaning. That’s difficult to believe. At the very least, this work lends itself to different interpretations. That doesn’t explain why it’s a work of art, but it does say something about its quality.
Daan Evers
, philosophy lecturer, University of Groningen

Peter Paul Rubens - The Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1610

Do you notice anything unusual about this painting? The newborn Jesus is being presented with gifts by the Three Kings, or Three Wise Men. Strikingly, Rubens chose to place Balthazar, a Black man, in the central position. The city of Antwerp, an important European port and trade centre, commissioned this painting. Rubens may have chosen to portray a Black man as a symbol of Antwerp's prosperity and its links to different regions of the known world. Rubens most likely based this image of Balthazar on an older portrait of an unknown Black servant.
Groninger Museum, Bittersweet Heritage cultural event

This oil sketch was made in preparation for The Adoration of the Magi that Rubens painted for the city of Antwerp before 9 April 1609 (the painting, which Rubens himself modified twenty years later is now in the Prado, Madrid). Rubens probably learned to make preparatory oil paintings from this early masters in Antwerp. During his extended Italian stay, from 1600 to 1608, he often made use of this tool, probably to show his intentions to his clients, as other artists there were doing at the time. The painting made after this oil sketch follows it carefully, except for some details.
Alejandro Vergara
, chief curator Flemish and Northern European art, Museo del Prado, Madrid

The Groninger Museum assumes that the model for the Black man in the centre, one of the three Magi, was an enslaved man. I'm not so sure about that. Contrary to what was assumed in the past, not all people of African origin in Europe were enslaved. Prior to Dutch colonial slavery, people of colour from all walks of life lived all across Europe. In paintings intended to portray people with African roots in Europe as inferior, they are rendered as almost invisible. A person is often shown as merely a dark silhouette, barely visible, indicating that his or her sole purpose in life is to serve the clearly portrayed white person. That’s not the case in this painting. In fact, here we see two young men who are evidently serving the party of kings. In contrast to what we might expect, they are not Black but white. In this painting, the social status of the people portrayed is indicated not by skin colour but by each person’s clothing, posture and position in the painting.
Linda Nooitmeer, chair, National Institute for Dutch Slavery History and Heritage (NiNsee)

When I look at this painting, my first impression is how violent it is. The baby Jesus isn't even the focal point. All these strange, almost creature-like people have descended on him. There’s smoke, weapons, some sort of eagle hiding in the right corner, half-naked figures in the foreground. It’s as if the whole world, every era, all the good and the bad, has come together to see this child. To revere him? Sometimes I wonder if that's what we want right now: a messiah to worship.
Guy Weizman
, artistic director of NITE and Club Guy & Roni

Alessandro Mendini - Poltrona di Proust, 1990

The former museum director Frans Haks and the designer Alessandro Mendini regarded the division between the domains of art, architecture and design as a thing of the past. This is a Louis XV-style armchair decorated with a detail from a painting by the impressionist and pointillist Paul Signac (1863-1935). Mendini wanted to design a chair that the French author Marcel Proust (1871–1922) could have sat on. He learned that Proust had impressionist paintings on his walls. Mendini’s combination of a chair and a painting shows his doubts about the division between mass-produced utilitarian objects and capital-A Art. Is this an art object to be looked at or an object to be sat on? Haks and Mendini’s collaboration led to Mendini becoming the lead architect of the Groninger Museum.
Groninger Museum database

What I think is unusual about this chair is that it's made of earthenware and extremely fragile. Whenever it snows, I always build a chair out of snow, so why not earthenware? What stands out for me the most is that the colours are really unusual for such an old chair. It's a bit posh and old because of the curls and decorations. It's in the style of the Georgian era, cheerful and serious at the same time. Mendini probably wanted to show that posh things can also be cheerful. I think he made the chair for posh people who don't have any kids and are 60. But maybe I would like to have one. I call this work of art “Rainbow” because it's so colourful.
Mette van Zoest (age 11), Junior Club member

Usually, braking is safer and accelerating is more fun. In the early 20th century, from the idea that “Less is more,” they hit the brakes on most forms of decoration. Alessandro Mendini said “Less is a bore,” and he saw this armchair, the archetype of baroque excess, as a good starting point for bringing back decoration. So it's a lively, colourful, and much more fun piece of art. In the 1990s the chain of action and reaction switched back to a new purist, no-nonsense movement. Then things got quiet, and an uninspired atmosphere of “It's all been done before” was prevalent. And then it was time for me to graduate from the Design Academy. “Step on the gas!” I thought. I burned a baroque chair similar to this and reupholstered the charred chair, making it usable again. Smoke Chair was seen as a new beginning, like a farmer burning his land to make it fertile. More or less…
Maarten Baas
, artist and designer

At the fringes of madness

You could say
what is to come will appear
you could say, what seems miles away
could show up just like that

what once looked like a boundary can
as if out of nowhere appear a fence
we can peek over together, a hue
you can remember forever, clear blue
dreams and your favourite colour that

you grasp on dull grey days

you could say, those who stumbled
in the dark will one day dance again in the light
those who have dislocated themselves will again fly light as a feather
a forward life is reserved for those who
dare to dislocate themselves and the taken-for-grantedness
of things from time to time

yes, if you say anything then say this

“one who sees the madness
in the normal will find
wisdom at the edges
of insanity.”

Myron Hamming, poet and spoken word performer