Prof. Mieke Bal, emeritus professor of Theory of Literature at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), and film and video artist, was appointed Knight of the Order of the Netherlands Lion on Friday 17 March. She received the royal decoration on account of her exceptional academic merits. Amsterdam alderman Simone Kukenheim awarded the decoration to Bal during a symposium that was held in her honour.
Bal’s work has had a great impact nationally and internationally in both the academic and cultural fields. The guiding principle in her work is that cultural objects can best be approached from numerous disciplines. She was a pioneer in the field of cultural analysis, certainly in the Netherlands, with that interdisciplinary approach. Bal is one of the founders of narratology, the study of narrative structures. In her book Narratology, which she published (in French) in 1977, she presented a new theory that brought about a revolution in literary studies. It has become a standard work with translations in, among other languages, English, Spanish, Chinese and Romanian. The book is still being reprinted and is used at universities to this very day.
Bal also successfully applied the perspective of gender studies to her academic work, for example in her literary analyses of the Bible. She subsequently started to focus more on the interpretation of visual material and applied narratology to painting. For example, she wrote a book about Rembrandt, which caused a great stir among art historians. Later in her career, she shifted her focus to ‘political art’ with publications about contemporary artists like Salcedo, Athila and Janssens.
In 1993, Bal took the initiative that led to the establishment of the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis (ASCA) at the UvA, which became world-famous and still remains active, relevant and topical. In addition to knowledge development, her significance has also been great in terms of knowledge transfer: more than 80 doctoral candidates have completed their doctoral thesis under Bal’s supervision. At least 12 of them later became professors themselves.
Bal is also an intentionally-renowned film and video artist; her works are exhibited in many museums in various countries. She has made 3 films, 18 documentaries and 26 installations and exhibition videos. In these works, she makes a connection between academia and visual expression by using the cinematic image as a different way of thinking and reasoning.
On Friday 17 March, colleagues from the world of academia and art and culture, from both the Netherlands and abroad, paid tribute to Bal. During the symposium, which took place in the Stedelijk Museum, each of them highlighted an aspect of her work. The reason for this symposium was Bal’s official farewell to the University. In 2011, she was awarded emeritus status and she subsequently exercised the right to confer doctoral degrees (as is customary) for another five years.
After the award of the royal decoration, the afternoon was subsequently dedicated to the opening of the exhibition of Nalini Malani, to whom Bal’s most recent book – In Medias Res: Inside Nalini Malani’s Shadow Plays – is devoted.