by marlies|dekkers

With her stunning staged photographs, Dutch artist Marie Cécile Thijs (1965) connects the past with the present in an intensely poetic, painterly way. Originally a lawyer, she decided more than fifteen years ago to follow her love for the camera. In just a short period of time, Marie Cécile became an internationally acclaimed artist whose works are included in the collections of museums like the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Museum of Photographic Arts San Diego. She has also presented her art at TEFAF (widely regarded as the world’s pre-eminent fair of art and antiques), Art Miami and Photo Shanghai. For her signature series ‘White Collar’, Marie Cécile photographed the only surviving 17th-century pleated ruff in the world, then digitally added it to her models for an almost surreal, mesmerizing result.

Marlies: Marie Cécile, first of all, thank you so much for the stunning series you have created for this issue of FEMININE/FEMINIST. I have always felt a strong connection with your work. One of the things I appreciate is the way your art is inspired by our rich artistic Dutch heritage, yet at the same time feels so contemporary and fresh.

Marie Cécile: Thank you, Marlies. I have had you on my radar for quite some time too, since I am a long-time admirer of your lingerie. Your designs are both cleancut and feminine, a very appealing combination.

Marlies: Yes, for us Dutch, it’s all about the essence of things. We prefer the minimalist; no unnecessary frills, no frou-frou.

Marie Cécile: I agree. In order to make a good product, you have to get to the heart of the concept first. It is also very important to develop a signature that is instantly recognizable, something we have both managed to do. And don’t you think there is a very strong element of storytelling in our work? Yes, we are minimalist in our approach, but we also create fairy tales.

Marlies: Absolutely. Your work transports me back to our roots: the world-renowned Dutch painters. The quality of it and your eye for detail are tremendous. Can you tell me something about your work process? I have seen that you spend hours, often days, producing one single photograph.

Marie Cécile: When working on this series, for example, I started with researching the history of these women, symbols of that time, and translated them into images. When I see the image in my mind, I start looking for the materials and objects I want to use. When all the props are in my studio, I start with the composition and the actual photography. I often use less props than I gather. My sets are somehow minimalistic, I want to focus on the essence. After I have photographed my composition, I fine-tune it with digital imaging.

Marlies: Well, we finally found the perfect project to do together. I asked you to create images featuring the symbols of the women that played a role in Queen Elizabeth I’s life. They were all so strong and beautiful, and lived such intense, powerful lives. Quite a task! Can you give me an example of how you selected the different symbols for each woman?

Marie Cécile: I started with Mary Tudor. I was tempted at first to create an image based on her nickname Bloody Mary, but after a lot of research I ended up choosing the Tudor Rose: a heraldic emblem symbolizing the melting together of the two families who laid down their swords after the War of Roses. I very much enjoyed creating a modern version of that historic rose; an excellent way to start the project.

Marlies: Production wise, which pictures from the series turned out to be the most challenging?

Marie Cécile: For this series, I used various historical attributes. Some things are easy to find, other things quite hard or even impossible to find. But while looking for one thing, I sometimes discover something that’s even better. From the beginning, I had wanted to use a raven in my images. The presence of the ravens at the Tower of London is surrounded by myth. It was believed that at least six ravens should be kept at the Tower to prevent disaster. And did you know that there are still seven ravens at the Tower (six, plus one spare) to keep the legend alive? However, to find a tame raven was quite a challenge. They are very rare. I found one, after weeks of searching, and this raven appeared to be a playful and intelligent bird. He could imitate the sound of other animals and even talk a little bit. In the beginning, I was quite intimidated by this huge bird in my studio, but we became friends very quickly. Quite an unexpected discovery.

Marlies: All these women have amazing stories. My favorite is Queen Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn. Her sheer audacity was beyond anything else! Which one of the women spoke to you most, and why?

Marie Cécile: I think all these women had interesting minds of their own, but if I must choose, fierce Mary of Guise really appeals to me. She seems to me a driven and independent personality with a sense of humor.

Marlies: You fell in love with photography ‘at second sight’: in 2000, you quit your job as a lawyer to become a fulltime artist. What gave you the courage to do so?

Marie Cécile: I started photography when I was eleven years old. As a young girl, I was already caught by the magic of the process. I wandered the streets with my camera, a wonderful way to follow my curiosity. During my years at university, I didn’t photograph much, but it was always in the back of my mind. During my late twenties, when I was a lawyer, I rediscovered the camera and started a new life as a photographer. You could say that it was love at first and second sight.

Marlies: What made you fall in love with photography in the first place?

Marie Cécile: The possibility to create illusion. That has always been my fascination. The magic of photography is that the illusion you create seems ‘real’; it makes the viewer believe that it could really happen. I love to create parallel worlds, the kind of realities that awaken, the moment you fall asleep. When looking at my portraits, you might get a strange feeling that my portraits are watching you.

Marlies: Growing up, who were your role models?

Marie Cécile: I always liked Isabella Rossellini very much, because of her natural style and her unconventional choices in selecting her fi lm roles. But my real role models were painters: 17th century ones like Rembrandt, our national pride. But also, Velázquez, Rafaël and Caravaggio. And when it comes to modern art, I have always thought Francis Bacon is absolutely phenomenal. He is a master of abstraction, and although his paintings make you feel slightly uncomfortable, they have a staggering beauty, especially when you see them in real life.

Marlies: Where does your fascination with the 17th century come from?

Marie Cécile: First of all, I love the use of light, the so called claire obscure. But I’m also utterly fascinated by the contrast between the sobriety of that era and the drama and mystery. They managed to depict even wealth in an earthy, nearly minimalist way.

Marlies: Are there any exciting projects you are planning or working on right now?

Marie Cécile: For sure. However, I never talk about my ongoing projects. When working on them, they are under my wings. So, future will tell!

Marlies: I am very much looking forward to that! Thank you, Marie Cécile!

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