§De senectude feminarum - invecchiare come donne
Erwin Olaf - On (not) growing old gracefully
by Jonathan Turner

Throughout his 40 year career, the defiant and ground-breaking Dutch artist Erwin Olaf (born 1959, died 2023) side-stepped cultural norms and gender stereotypes. One of Olaf’s recurring themes was ageing and death, both in terms of female iconography (Mature presenting the super-models as old-aged pensioners) and his unflinching reflections on his own gradual demise. His triple self-portrait  I wish, I am, I will be (2009) produced for his 50th birthday, shows three versions of himself as he progresses from handsomely idealized to realistically honest, and ends up with him looking elderly, sad and frail. As always, he captured subtle imperfections. 

Self-Portrait 50 Years: I Wish, I Am, I Will Be. 2009 Photograph - Chromogenic Print 3 photographs, 100 x 177,6 cm

Many of Olaf’s photographic portraits and video imagery specifically questioned the beauty myth and those pressures society places on women. Another of his well-known images from 1996, created for a  Dutch national advertising campaign about the dangers of drink-driving, shows an over-blown, older woman dressed provocatively in shocking pink. Holding a pampered poodle, she stares back at the viewer, shameless and defiant, purposely not “acting her age”. In any case, already for decades, Olaf had poked fun at the trope of growing old gracefully.

«I’ve always tried to make jokes about beautiful people to try to put the whole stupid, over-valued fashion model industry in a new perspective» said Olaf. In his Mature series (1999), Olaf portrayed a group of Dutch women, aged between 60 and 90. He gave them the names of the ubiquitous supermodels of the 1990s – Cindy C, Claudia S, Naomi C, Jerry H, Helena C, and Christy T – women whose names were shorthand for glamour and unattainable perfection. His own models pose as sexy pin-ups in see-through negligees, shiny black stilettos and Chanel string bikinis. These women glow as icons of uncommon pride, standing in sharp contrast to their drab settings. The floral wallpaper, cheap carpet and pot plants are reminiscent of a stuffy waiting room in a retirement village.

Mature - Cindy C., 78, 1999 Photograph - Chromogenic Print 113 x 84 cm
Erwin Olaf. Mature - Cindy C., 78. 1999. Photograph - Chromogenic Print 113 x 84 cm

«The outside part of getting older is the skin» said Olaf about his Mature series. «But with the help of make-up, wigs and revealing clothing, plus a bit of computer manipulation, I changed these women into actresses».
Each woman is captured in her own distinct emotional state – sultry, bemused, seductive, sporty, aroused. While presenting a satire on the commercially limited concept of sensuality, including the way in which society tends to overlook the sexual urges of the elderly, these images are neither cynical nor exploitative. Each portrait shows a confident woman clearly in control of her own destiny.

They exist in opposition to the young models posed in his Royal Blood series from 2000, in which teenagers impersonate eight historical figures who met with violent deaths. Enjoying the bitter-sweet contrast, Olaf purposely used old women to imitate youthful lust in Mature and fragile adolescents to personify the weight of tragedy in Royal Blood. Wearing white costumes to better show the fake wounds, Olaf’s young Royal Blood models pose in the guise of Julius Caesar, Poppaea, Marie Antoinette, King Ludwig II, Empress “Sissi” of Austria, Tsarina Alexandra of Russia, Jackie Kennedy after the assassination of her husband the American President John F. Kennedy and, most controversially, Lady Diana. In this final portrait, the Mercedes logo is embedded in Diana’s bloody arm following the high-speed car chase and accident in Paris.

In the Royal Blood portraits, the blonde models with their red rimmed eyes stare back at the viewer with damning expressions of accusation and condemnation. As Olaf was keenly aware, a well-publicized, violent death is also a short-cut to eternal fame. He often commented on the public obsession with the magical triad of youth, beauty and blue blood.
Sometimes, he also purposely embraced the shock factor. In 1999, Olaf won the Silver Lion at the Cannes advertising festival for his Dirty Denim campaign for Diesel Jeans. A fashionably attired grandpa and grandma sit on a sofa. The old man is asleep, but the woman enthusiastically grabs at his crotch, her tongue stuck out in bawdy concentration. Part of Olaf’s masquerade was his ability to employ an elderly couple to advertise jeans in an unconventional, licentious manner.

Royal Blood, Di, † 1997 2000 Photograph - Chromogenic Print 125 x 125 cm
Diesel - Antique Dirty Denim 1998 Photograph 100 x 100 cm

After his baroque and extravagant photos from the 1980s (Chessmen, Blacks, Squares),  Mind of their Own (1995) and Fashion Victims (2000), Olaf created Separation (2002-2003), a more introverted series of imagery and a video in which a boy and his mother are clad from top to toe in black latex clothing. There is no association with fetish symbolism, but the latex instead accentuates the emotional isolation of the two masked figures. The boy progressively ages with each photograph in the series, darkly lit in midnight blue tones. Many of Olaf’s works allude to approaching mortality, particularly when there is a marked age difference between two models in the same image.

«In the Separation photos, you can always see the child’s eyes» said Olaf. «The mother is blinded. I didn’t want to give her an identity. It’s up to the child, walking towards her outstretched arms, to create the emotion, the sense of isolation and the idea of separation. The photos have something to do with saying goodbye, about suffering the losses in life. It’s a symbolic farewell, done after the death of my father, and the end of a couple of long-term relationships. I ended up using the series as a sort of therapy – for me it represents the acceptance of the realities of life».

After Separation was completed, Olaf pared back the digital artifice of his circus-themed Paradise Portraits (2001-2002) and steered clear of his previous representations of older models, overweight women and subjects with unusual bodies. He began to produce more stylised, minimalistic photographs that posed deeper philosophical questions, revealed by his series Hope (2005), Grief (2005), Keyhole (2011) and Palm Springs (2018). 

Hope - The Classroom 2005 Photograph - Chromogenic Print 120 x 170 cm

Some of his subjects are clearly mourning. He created a sense of the staged documentary, with models dressed in 1960s clothing, posed within theatrical settings meticulously styled with the aura of mid-Century modernism. Meanwhile, the landscapes featured in his Im Wald (2020) series, further highlighted the daunting prospect of searching for paradise amid the indifferent power of nature.

Highly respected as one of the three most important contemporary photographers from the Netherlands (with Rineke Dijkstra and Anton Corbijn), Olaf received the Johannes Vermeer award in 2011, the Dutch state prize for the arts. In terms of composition and symbolism, he acknowledged the influence of the Dutch Old Masters, drawing inspiration from Rembrandt, Jan Steen and George Hendrik Breitner. In 2018, a collection of about 500 of his works was acquired by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. A subsequent exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in 2019 paired 12 of his key photographic works with classical Golden Age paintings from the museum’s own collection. The same year, he was made a Knight of the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands. Two large scale public exhibitions in The Hague coincided with the publication of the monograph, Erwin Olaf: I Am.

While much of Dutch contemporary realism is about subterfuge, ambiguity and sublime duplicity, Olaf himself was honest, direct and his work effortlessly bridged many stratas of society. With a sumptuous sense of aesthetics linked to painting and cinema, he straddled the world of art, advertising, journalism and fashion photography. This enabled him to make several state portraits of the Dutch King Willem-Alexander, Queen Maxima and their family, while simultaneously being known for his striking theatrical nudes, his early photographs recording fetish sub-cultures and his organization of the outrageous Fucques Le Balles party events.

Skin Deep - Reclining Nude No. 05 2015 Photograph - Chromogenic Print 100 x 151,6 cm

Olaf was also strongly inspired by the attitudes of his mother Lydia, and he talked about her sense of fairness and morality. For four decades, he captured the world around him with humour and irony. Without fear, he also turned the camera back on himself.

Erwin became a close friend of mine around the time he achieved international recognition when he won the award as Young European Photographer of the year in 1988 for Chessmen, his series of black-and-white images of people transformed into bizarre, medieval chess pieces. Beginning in 1993, I have curated more than 10 solo and group shows with his work in Italy, the Netherlands, Australia and beyond. Now I believe that a timely submission for the De Senectute Feminarum issue of Roots&Routes on the theme of getting old, is my affectionate obituary of an unrivalled social commentator. From both the male and female perspective, Erwin was forever shattering stereotypes (queer and otherwise). His photographs incorporated the themes of shame, femininity, the worship of youth, the terrors of cosmetic surgery, the marketing of blatant sexuality, and living in defiance of old age. As Erwin once said to me with his characteristic deep laugh, referring to his own fear of ageing, “Anyway, you don’t get any older than dead.”

Erwin Olaf suffered with hereditary emphysema. He died in the Netherlands on September 20, 2023 at the age of 64, from complications following a lung transplant. He is survived by his husband Kevin Ray Edwards, whom he married in 2016, and his two brothers Jos and Rob Springveld.

Erwin Olaf Paradise Portraits - Mieke 2001 Photograph - Chromogenic Print, Colour Metallic 100 x 75 cm

[1] All quotes by Erwin Olaf were made directly to Jonathan Turner in different conversations
[2] All photos courtesy of Studio Erwin Olaf, Amsterdam

Jonathan Turner. Born in Sydney, Australia, lives in Rome, Sydney and Amsterdam. He has organised more than 100 solo and group exhibitions in museums and galleries around the world (Italy, The Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, the U.S., Thailand, Macau, Australia, New Zealand) for a broad variety of international artists and designers. Has held various organisational positions with the Biennale of Art, Venice, including Executive Committee at Aperto in 1993.
Since 1995 he has been advisor to Manifesta, the European Youth Biennale, the 7th edition which takes place in 2008 in Bolzano-Trento. Founding director of the Jet Foundation for Inter Continental Art, a non-profit organisation based on the promotion of art events around the world. Founding advisor to RipArte Art Fair in Rome. Awarded the prestigious A.B.O. prize as best independent curator and critic for his work in Italy.