The Art of Gradi Nitert (Studio Sacre Bleu)

Article Written by Alexander Greco

June 6, 2019

sa·cré bleu

/ˌsäkrā ˈblə/

1) The expression today is not used in the major French-speaking countries, France, Belgium or Switzerland, but in the English-speaking world it is well known from Agatha Christie’s books about the fictional Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.

2) A stereotypical French curse that is never used by real French people. Similar to the mustache and the beret—something only non-French people think is typical of the French.

Gradi Nitert

As with many artists, it’s difficult to pin-point exactly what makes Gradi Nitert’s artwork stand out from others’, but it is immediately apparent that her artwork possesses an original style. Yet, Gradi’s work ranges across a wide spectrum of subjects and technique so, what common thread brings her artwork together?

“I think I now deeply realize my deepest core desire or ‘why’ is creating worlds where others—and myself—can find wonder; be surprised by the estrangement and alienation.”

Gradi Nitert is a dutch illustrator, maker and creator from Zwolle, in the Netherlands. Her work spans across collages, paintings and digital artwork, and her art incorporates elements of surrealism, fauvism, and abstraction. Drawing inspiration from dreams, oddities, music and a sense of nostalgia, Gradi pushes the boundaries of conscious and unconscious perceptions, and creates small pocket-realities of memories, imagination and fragments of reality.

With this kaleidoscope of the unconscious, the strange, and the familiarity of the past, Gradi’s artwork stretches the walls of reality, until Gradi simply steps over those walls. Outside the confines of a prescribed reality, Gradi defines her own rules, shapes her own landscapes, and gives life to her own people and places. Yet, for all the absurd strangeness of her work, Gradi has managed to build a bridge between her imagination and the world we inhabit.

“Vision”
Acrylics on Wood
2013

“As a little girl, I started creating little worlds—sometimes with small, hidden moments in them that made me laugh. When making 2D or 3D work, I always want to create an ambience where people feel nice, and with every piece there is a journey of discovery. I love to get out of reality, stepping or crawling into a new world—not to escape reality, just to discover a new one. Creating new worlds is my passion, and in surrealism I can do that infinitely, with a sense of connection.

“The curious thing is that I often like a sense of nostalgia in my work—a hint to the past. So, again, by creating a new world, I don’t want to lose our connection to reality. With things from the past, I want to give my art a cozy, comfortable feeling. The past is like our own, personal collection. I love to collect old, curious and peculiar things, so that I have that comfortable sense of nostalgia in my personal life. Surrounding myself with nice things, it gives me space to create and simply be.”

From the start, I found Gradi’s connection to music quite interesting.

“Music is the oil that makes the ideas come out. For all my ideas I do first visualize them in my head, which sometimes is a problem because by experimenting you’ll find yourself in things you never thought of in the first place. I try to do both, pushing myself to experiment with materials, and ‘to just do it’ and make ‘mistakes’, but I think still 70% of my work I see in my head. How? I don’t know. Maybe the music is a trigger; maybe the ambience or mood creates unconscious links and triggers. I love instrumental music the best; classical music, music from movies, or orchestras. Orchestra plus rock or electronic beats and other mashups are perfect too. I love Rob Dougan, as well as big band music—music from the 20’s to 40’s.”

In music, like in art, meaning is formed from the relationships of small components, and the patterns across a piece. Chords harmonize from notes across a scale. Chord progressions and rhythms form a landscape of sound, with melodies and improvisations roaming across that landscape. Together, these things form a cohesive whole. Formed from the placement of many small parts, the composer creates their own, unique space within the sound.

In art, colors, lines and shapes harmonize into the fundamental forms of a piece. These come together into the images or symbols of the piece. The placement and composition of each image forms a relationship with the other images, and together they create a new world of the artists design.

What’s peculiar about Gradi’s artwork is that, despite the seeming arbitrariness of her art, she forms something cohesive and meaningful. Similar to jazz, orchestra, and other instrumental music, Gradi’s art doesn’t tell you what you should be thinking about, and yet it still feels familiar. The worlds she creates define their own rules, patterns and relationships, and it’s from these patterns and relationships that Gradi creates its meaningfulness.

“Decoupage”
Digital Collage/Illustration
2014

“I was asked by producer-duo Seven League Beats to create a cd-cover while they were finishing their music. I saw their process develop from “sketches of sound” to the final CD. It was an amazing project. They gave me very personal notes of why they created that CD, what drove them to make the music, and what inspired them. Since they were a duo, there were two experiences I had to fuse into one ambience-world. Listening and isolating myself with the music made me create the final design. Sound and music have always been a huge inspiration for me—it easily takes me into that ‘world’ in my head, and the creations flow out of my head onto paper. Some movies, I listened to over 200 times, and never fully watched them, just because the sound design and music is so inspiring.”

The two most prominent ways Gradi portrays her small worlds are with her choice of imagery, and her application of color theory. Gradi’s work achieves its dream-like effect by pairing random subjects and objects together, and by blending realism with abstraction. This is seen particularly in her collage-work, where she pairs together animals, people, plants, architecture, and other random objects.

Some of her work anthropomorphizes animals, or clumps odd arrangements of visuals together. Some of her work pushes towards more uncanny cliff-edges of the weird and strange, but never comes across as disturbing, or so strange or novel that it’s unpleasant to look at. By toeing the line between strange and familiar, Gradi pulls us into the worlds of her invention, and invites us into spaces created from her dreams and imagination.

“Weirdscape”
Collage
2018

With “Weirdscape”, from Gradi’s “Nation of Nonsense” series, Gradi combines three rocks, a planet, a bear, and a pathway of boxes. The bear is walking across the path of boxes, with a planet emerging from its body, and the rocks projecting up and out from the planet. It’s arbitrary, it’s random, it’s nonsense, yet it feels meaningful to look at.

There is an orderly placement of each object, with the direction of the bear, planet and rocks centered and perpendicular to the boxes, and there is a hierarchy of size with the objects. There is a single, small rock at the top, the bear and the planet at the center, and the endless rows of boxes at the bottom. Despite its apparent nonsense, there’s a pattern and an organization to the image.

Beyond the selection and arrangement of images, a major part of what gives “Weirdscape” and other pieces of Gradi’s meaning is her use of color. Much like the Fauvists of the modern art movement, Gradi uses color in a surreal, dream-like way. Rather than depict reality as we know it, Gradi colors her new worlds in muted tones and unnatural hues.

Though some of Gradi’s art appears to have random color schemes, Gradi’s use of color is just as organized and meaningful as it is dream-like and strange. She uses scales of complimentary and analogous colors, but also uses scales of values—from neutral tones to brighter, vibrant colors—to create dreamy, pleasing and cohesive color schemes.

In “Weirdscape”, she uses a light, muted purple as her background, with a dark purple bear and a light blue-purple planet at the center. The two uppermost rocks are colored with orange/red-orange and purple/red-purple, with a few hints of blue. At the bottom are the neutral-tan boxes, which contrast with the other colors, but also pair with the muted and lighter shades throughout the rest of the piece. Though the colors are strange and otherworldly, they’re arranged in a pleasing pattern, which clicks in our heads as something meaningful and familiar.

“Cult”
Acrylics on Wood
2013

Another example of this use of color can be seen in “Cult”. The background is a chalky black, which transitions into the dark, red-purple bodies of the figures. The heads range on one end of the color spectrum from red-orange to violet, and on the other end, blue-green to yellow. Despite the abstract use of color, the hues of the odd figures are tied together like notes along a scale, with the purple-red bodies grounded in the black background.

While “Cult” can be analyzed technically, this piece also ties back to Gradi’s interest in the unconscious—which is actually her inspiration for the color choice.

 “This is one of my paintings I made in response to some dreams I had. A period of my life I couldn’t sleep during the nights and barely stayed awake during the day. That period had some really inspiring visuals for me. The dreams were so complex, so deep, I had to recreate them. I even tried to make myself have lucid dreams, but I never really succeeded. The colors I saw were so consistently intense, it took me a while, but I managed to ‘catch’ them and transfer them on my canvas. That period was one of the darkest in my life, you can imagine lack of sleep is a real killer. When I look back at the works I created that time, I can still see and feel the darkness I sunk into.”

Across cultures and throughout history, humans have a fascination with dreams, and, since Freud and his contemporaries, there’s been a fascination with the unconscious parts of our mind. It’s become apparent to many that there seems to be some connection with the unconscious and art, music, or writing—with creativity and ingenuity in general.

This connection between dreaming and reality has been a major inspiration for Gradi and her art.

“I think I can analyze my work more and more after looking back at myself when I made the piece. Dreams are a way of processing. By not giving yourself time and rest to do so, it will be a mess starting with intense dreams. I don’t think dreams give you literal answers or views of your mind, but I think you can learn from them sometimes; maybe you have to think things over more. Maybe you have more difficulties with a subject than you thought. But also, the weirdness of dreams is amazing, right? It’s funny to think you sometimes dream unthinkable weirdness, but it’s still your head thinking it. That makes you think, don’t you think?

“I love how endless your brain can be, the unique ideas and images you can create, and how unfortunate 80% of the stuff we make looks like each other. Unfortunately, I don’t remember my dreams anymore the last few years—though, for me personally, I know that is a good thing. I have some peace—some rest in my head—but my unconscious is of course still influencing my work. In a good way, but also some times in a bad way.”

On her piece, “Dreamsight”, Gradi stated:

“Dreamsight”
Acrylics on Wood
2013

 “In the same series as ‘Cult’, is Dreamsight. Notably, I always hid the faces during that time. I think it’s an unconscious choice I made. I wanted to hide—trying to understand this intensely confusing feeling. I still often make my paintings like that.”

Dreams, daydreams, the unconscious, and the storm of thoughts that can invade our waking minds, can all be seen as a window to the soul, or to the Self. Yes, we must mediate between our personal selves and the selves we put out into the world, but we must do so without obscuring our inner realities, our inner selves. I think this might be one of the greatest challenges of the modern era—of rediscovering the things that made humanity, and that make each of our lives, meaningful.

Gradi shows this with her piece, “Block”.

“Block”
Acrylics on Wood
2015

“I think this is the painting that describes my most dominant and recurrent topic in my personal work and life. Trying to escape the mold of society. I painted myself stuck in the structure (I call ‘the mold’) and the pressure I feel very deeply in the Western world. We constantly get shown how we should live. People just assume it is the way you should go. And how simple the solution looks like, I still have to remind myself as an adult to follow my own path. It’s easy to float in the stream, you know.

“Stuck, oppressive, trying to get out. The world walking numb in circles around you.”

When I asked Gradi to explain this sense of pressure from society, she explained:

“I think it’s the unnatural overload of advertisement, the core of materialism and capitalism, and the acceleration and the growing presence of social media everywhere. The way ‘normal’ is portrayed, and the way it must be in your life is constantly rubbed in your face. It’s really a struggle, the jealousy (really nasty feeling), and thinking 10,000 people can do what I do better, so why should I make this stuff.

“What can I contribute to this (art) world? All slowly slipped in my mind. Good thing you can go offline—literally stop or unplug—but it had me, and I didn’t even know it… …it is just something that unconsciously slips into my life, and by not reminding myself, I will do and make stuff I don’t want.”

My favorite piece of Gradi’s—the beautiful, vibrant and expressive, “Silence”—expands on this idea.

“Silence”
Acrylics on Wood
2018

 “This one I made more recently. I think my style constantly develops. I also believe that experiment and development is crucial to your work and your own, personal development. I don’t want to stand still. I always try to find new, other, or better ways to express myself.

“’Silence’ is made with the feeling that you have to be your own explorer, instead of listening or looking at others. I think this is an important topic in my work. Look at ‘Dreamsight’. So many influences with the same eggs. Don’t create the same egg. Create your own.”

Let it out. Let yourself, your ideas, your creativity—your inner reality—flow out from your head, and into the world around you. Let the space you inhabit be your own, and don’t let the world constrict you so much that you lose sight of what’s important and meaningful—don’t let the world constrict you so much you lose sight of who you even are. Bring your own vision to bear upon the society that bears down on each of us.

When talking about developing her style, Gradi stated:

“I can’t remember not wanting to be an artist; it is my love, my why. It never was and still is not easy—to be an independent artist, to make art most of my time. To develop my own style, I always push myself to reflect my work and myself—reminding myself why I want to make art, what inspires me, and what has always driven me.

“After being ‘lost’, and not being true to myself as an artist, I slowly started making stuff I thought others would love to have. Since I had to make money, pay my rent, pay my bills, and not really have other degrees or skills, I HAD TO MAKE IT, I HAD to make MONEY. People had to love my work and pay for it so I could make art and not have to work elsewhere—elsewhere meant no energy or inspiration left to make art. Otherwise it was office jobs, and that would slowly dull me out. But I realized that I only want to inspire people, make people feel good a little bit by looking at my work.

“Not money. I just want to MAKE. And the only way to do so, is make what I love. Make what inspires me, only then can I give that spark to someone else. And so, I try to experiment, and also remind myself often why I make what I make. And that makes me go forward, and it makes me happy.”

The last piece of Gradi’s in this article, “Circus”, is a simple yet beautiful example of what makes her work unique. It’s like a photograph taken from a distant mindscape—possibly an image from a textbook on the geography of dreams and the unconscious.

“Circus”
Collage/Illustration/Paint

“Okay, after the previous works, I want to show you the other side of creating. The fun just drips off this work. It was made after I read Kafka’s ‘Ein Hungerkünstler’ [A Hunger Artist] (1924). Shuffling and combining collages and pieces of paper, until I created the right ambience of that masterpiece by Kafka. It shows my hints of nostalgia, my love of paper and oddity, and the experiment I always recommend.

‘Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.’

—a quote by Albert Einstein.”

I was a little surprised that the inspiration from this came from Kafka’s “Ein Hungerkünstler”, as it’s a rather dark read. It’s about an artist who starves himself in a cage for days on end for the entertainment of others. When the artist finally dies from starvation, they are replaced by a panther, which the crowd finds far more entertaining than the artist. However, I thought about this for a little while, and it began to make sense to me.

I don’t want to speak too much for Gradi’s interpretation of Kafka, but, relating it back to her other artwork, between the self-starving artist and the panther, the crowd found the panther far more enjoyable. Why? Because the original artist became a hollow husk for the sake of others’ pleasure, but the panther was something wild and true—something full of life, something that didn’t apologize for its existence, or seek to please others with its own demise.

Gradi likewise overcame her need to please others with her art, and became an artist as wild, true and full of life as the panther. We’re not searching for artwork that was designed to entertain, we’re searching for creations that emerged out of someplace deeper. Gradi’s art not only emerges from that deeper place, but creates a bridge for us to cross over and join her in the worlds of her creation.

If you enjoyed Gradi’s work, you can find her on Instagram @studiosacrebleu. You can purchase prints, original artwork, and other products of her design at https://www.studiosacrebleu.nl/. If you’re ever in Europe (or, if you live in Europe), her work can be found in a wide variety of shops (which you can find on her website), and—if you catch her at the right time—festivals, galleries and other events.

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