Interview by Hans van Seventer
As published in the book: "Henk Helmantel" published 2000 by ArtRevisited (www.artrevisited.com)
Also read the article "Seemingly fine by Diederik Kraaijpoel"
"Once when a group came to visit a woman said to me: "Sir, I can't take this; this has entirely nothing to do with reality. You portray a world which does not exist, and I cannot stand it." We had quite a conversation about it. I told her that there are all sorts of people in the world, each with his own task. I see it as my task to practise my profession in my own way. That in turn is a part of reality as a whole. What I portray is not divorced from reality but contained in it. Alongside war there is also peace, alongside tiredness there is energy for living, next to misery there is pleasure, and so on; life as well as death. I am someone who tries to evoke a world of harmony, that which makes people feel good and which can be of benefit to them in difficult circumstances.
I'm not trying to fulfil a social function, but indirectly my work seems to have that effect. In the midst of so many things which are not right, people experience here at "De Weem" a feeling like: Ah, here we can come to our senses for awhile. But if I were to turn my painting into some sort of ideology, a program, then I would miss the point.
What motivates me? Indeed I often hear the question: how do you keep it up, year after year, day after day? But the effort to attain what I have in mind is such a grand adventure that I want to do it again and again. I am sometimes amazed that it is possible for me to paint the same pot or bowl for the third or fourth time. But each time I have an enormous urge to make the most of its possibilities and to go even a step further. If you look at art history you can ask yourself why 17th-century painters continued to be fascinated by the same goblet or berkemeier. Or you could think about how someone like the painter Morandi could spend his whole life working with a few bottles, a few boxes, some pitchers and other objects. Still, it was the great challenge of his life, bringing him to wonderful heights and adventures. What matters is not so much the variety of the subjects but the intensity with which something is experienced, how it is perceived visually. Throughout history there have been many artists who have worked in this way.
I like to surround myself with paintings by other artists whom I greatly admire. Such a collection provides a rich breeding ground for my own work. These are all artists who are truly involved in the craft of painting. Together they form a kind of chart of the solutions which most artists eventually arrive at, also within the figurative tradition. I find it fascinating and satisfying to be confronted daily with work like this. For example draughtsmen - an underestimated group - like Kees Stoop and Philip Kouwen. We own drawings by these top artists which I look at every day.
The call of Rembrandt
I always wanted to paint; that began very early. 1956 was a Rembrandt year, and newspapers and journals were full of reports and reproductions of his work, which I diligently saved. In those days it was normal to have paper-collecting campaigns to raise money for school excursions, and it was my job to bundle the paper. That gave me the opportunity to look through all the papers for reproductions; in that Rembrandt year the harvest was very rich. I have always been extremely fascinated by Rembrandt. And although technically my work evolves in a different way perhaps you can still detect traces of his influence in my work. The extent to which I am occupied with light has certainly been inspired by solutions which Rembrandt came out with. In mentality, though, I stand closer to someone like Vermeer. Rembrandt liked drama, whereas I strive more for solutions leading to clarity of composition.
Upbringing and education
I was born in 1945 - just after the German occupation - less than a kilometre from where we now live. My father and mother had a nursery and it was hard work. I am the middle child of five and we all worked in the business. Hard work and low income were not unusual for that time. For my parents, faith in Christ was a driving force in their lives and they were able to pass it on to us. I followed them in this from my early youth and it is still my philosophy of life.
My parents were not very happy when they first knew of my choice to become a painter. In general it was thought that art was not the best way to make a living. As far as that is concerned my parents were no different from other parents. Parents want their children to turn out well and be able to support them-selves. But they never held me back because they knew me well enough to know that I would follow my own course. I began my study at Minerva Art Academy in the early 1960's, just before the revolution of that time. Everything had to be changed: down with authority, down with the previous rules, and long live freedom. Coming from a protected Christian com-munity I was naturally thrown to the lions. It was an exception to believe in God, and I had to learn either to defend myself or change course. That period taught me a lot and stimulated my spiritual growth. I had a fairly classical education. There was room for experi-mentation, but also room to explore the more familiar tradition of painting. Besides painting according to a kind of academic impressionism, I made paintings which were very realistic, and this was considered exceptional. I aimed for an effect of tangible, palpable reality. It was an approach which had fallen out of grace and it really took people by surprise.
These days people look differently at the artistic profession than they used to in the fifties and sixties. I once heard a story of an artist from Groningen who said: "When I wanted to go to Minerva Art Academy in the late fifties my mother stood crying at the kitchen sink. But now, in the eighties or nineties, if you tell your parents that you want to be an artist they stand and cheer at the kitchen sink." A bit exaggerated, of course, but there is some-thing to it; the whole climate has changed. Being an artist still has its uncertainties, but I believe the status of the artist has gone up a notch or two.
At the end of the last century there was clearly a tendency to break with tradition, or in any case to break with classicism and to react to reality in a spontaneous way. The impressionists are the best example of that. But this does not mean that the impres-sionists had no use for aesthetic rules; they simply felt driven by an urge to respond spontaneously to the reality around them. Once started this tendency continued, resulting in all the -isms: impressionism, expressionism, cubism, and finally abstract art. The official art academies of the nineteenth century were firmly confined in a straitjacket of academic rules. Neo-classicism was rampant and there was a great admiration of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Everything had to meet the demands of the classical tradition; a classical treatment of land-scapes and portraits prevailed, along with history paintings. The classical approach was seen as a kind of ideal. No wonder there was a strong reaction to this. For me, a boy born in 1945, there was little to add to this development. What boundary was left to be pushed back? After Mondriaan and abstract art was there anything genuinely new to add? In fact it is impossible; you can see this if you look around. Initially I had absolutely no knowledge of abstract painting. I just wanted to make beautiful things. What's wrong with that? People enjoy looking at beauty, at well-made objects, things that are harmonious. People on holiday go to attractive places, looking, I think, for something that appeals to a primal feeling, to an experience of beauty.
After my Minerva period it finally became clear where my greatest strength lay. When in 1967 I finished military service and became an independent painter I made impressionistic work: landscapes, flower still lifes, and portraits. At the same time I was making finely worked-out paintings. It was to these that both ordinary people and also my teachers reacted most strongly; they found that they had the most character. Such reactions stimulated me to go on in this direction. Still, it is strange that I have always maintained a great interest in the more impressionistic approach. You can see this in the collection we have in our home, where the accent generally lies on paintings which have been painted in a looser way, with freer brushwork.
Faith and work
Let me begin by saying that I would be biting off more than I could chew if I tried to give my faith a visual form. (I know myself well enough to realise that.) I also don't find it necessary, for creation is a totality to which we all belong: man, the ant and the great oak tree. One really does not need an exalted subject as starting point for a painting. In the Bible it says: "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof". That expresses fantastically the way things are. Everything has its own place and the fullness indicates the enormous variety that life is made up of. One thing cannot exist without the other and therefore everything can be used as a theme. If you put an apple or a pear down somewhere you can see how the light falls on it and brings out its true beauty; such an object is just as lovely on a small scale as a mountain landscape. As far as I am concerned everything is, in principle, worth painting. I never advise anyone not to paint an interesting idea. Everyone must do what he thinks he should do, but you can express your feelings and experiences in so many ways. I think that is one of the fruits of the Reformation. Before the Refor-mation the only starting point for artists was the religious theme. But if, as happened then, you lose the church as client, what do you do? You look around and read with new eyes what the Bible says about creation. (That was something new; do not forget that the common people had just learned to read.) So the beauty of clouds and the magnificence of a panoramic view or of some-thing close by - it can all be subject matter for painting. I am very glad that we may believe in God's creation with its marvellous variety and colour.
Man as image-bearer
We have been made in God's image. We create culture. We have received a number of characteristics which are derived from creation: we may re-create. Is that necessary? I don't know, but it happens and we can deal with it in different ways. As human beings we can enrich or destroy what surrounds us. That is a curious process. We can build a city or demolish it. We can collect things or forget them. But the possibility of enriching life is some-thing which I believe God has put within us. Perhaps it is not an absolute necessity, but I am very glad it exists.
I sometimes say: objects which have undergone wear and use can only become more beautiful. A bronze pot which has just been cast is not yet very interesting. Of course if the pot itself has quality the form will be good, but its surface becomes more interesting when it has been used. Or if it gets lost and buried, the corrosive effect of the earth gives it a kind of new "skin" which has more to offer artistically. 2000-year-old Chinese objects removed from graves are all the more picturesque. I also consider their history important because of its effect on their appearance. I look for the maximum beauty of an object. I have, on the other hand, made paintings of cardboard boxes which have just come from a shop and not been used but which nonetheless are so interesting for me as forms that I can also do something with them. If you look closely at these paintings you will see that there is not a single box which has nothing wrong with it. Otherwise I would see to it myself that it looked a bit worn. I change things a bit to suit my own purposes, to give them a more lifelike quality. I would rather paint an apple with worm holes than an apple which has been approved for export and has nothing to offer - too smooth, too round, too equal in colour. That's not for me. One must exploit the painterly qualities of a thing to the maximum, but I would not call this a trick. If you are not in control of the technique you cannot express what you intend.
The aesthetic experience which I undergo in the small world of the still life also affects me very strongly in sober Roman-esque, Romano-Gothic and Gothic church buildings. I am especially struck by the atmosphere in churches where the iconoclasm has left its mark, those churches stripped of trinkets and trimmings. I remember well, around 1960, when the church in Loppersum had just been restored. When I entered the church and saw the pure white walls and the accents, just touches of red and remains of frescos, and here and there a piece of furniture in white oak and light falling from the windows, I was overwhelmed. I had the same kind of experience when I first visited the church in Bozum (Friesland) with its semicircular apse. It almost gave me a feeling that the Spirit of God was hovering above in the arches; it was a strong religious awareness. Maybe you could compare the painting of church interiors with the portrayal of that which is most elementary. The neo-Romanesque and neo-Gothic churches of the last century exhibit enormous feats of technical skill, but I miss a certain atmos-phere. Medieval buildings have a special balance in their propor-tions, walls with round arches or pointed arches, white plastered walls, often a cross form, not too many windows but also not too few. The atmosphere then created has never been equalled since.
As a painter I find it fascinating to respond to this atmos-phere, to make use of it. The first time I entered the St. Peter's Church in Utrecht I thought I was walking into a painting by Pieter Saenredam. I think Saenredam felt what I felt; he responded to it in his way and I in mine. As a painter I actually wish to add little to the subject itself. The visual experience of the space is what I want to bring over to the flat surface. Is this worth it? I think so. A limited space is perhaps more impressive than infinite space. You could say that the intimacy of indoor space is exciting to work with because you have a much different kind of light than in a landscape. The light always comes through a window, making it quite localised. A concentration of light on an object accentuates it. The bronze pot which I am now working on would not be nearly as beautiful outdoors. The illumination from the window creates a section with intense light and a section that flows into the shadow, displaying the forms to their best advantage.
A church interior with many windows is never as beautiful as one with few. Take, for example, the church in Monnikendam, of which I have made a painting. The southern nave is a good example of high Gothic, late 15th or early 16th century. A lot of windows on the southern side, large windows shedding light on the entire southern nave. When I painted the church I mentally bricked in a few windows to produce a concentration of light at the back of the tableau and a shadow area where I stood painting. The viewer looks from the shadow into the light. That is an illustration of how you sometimes have to make changes to suit your own purposes. The church in Bolsward, for example, has side naves whereby the light first falls on a nave and then is checked by the pillars and wall surfaces before falling on the central nave. In general a cruciform church or a basilican-style church is better suited for a painting than a church without side aisles because the latter has fewer corners to use. It is precisely the diagonal view which creates suspense. Moreover I like to portray everything from a central axis: a direct view of the choir or of a window gives, I think, a very balanced effect. Perhaps this is something like what Mondriaan did; all dra-matic elements are absent and one is left with horizontals and verticals, the surfaces that remain being filled in with colour.
Between Jan van Eyck and Mondriaan
In the art of painting one encounters artistic reactions that result from painstaking observation and those that come more from a person's fantasy. Someone like Jan van Eyck did not literally record everything which came to his attention. But if you stand in Gent before the altar piece "The Lamb of God" and you look carefully at the lawn and the garden you can see twenty or thirty kinds of plants in the grass. He actually registered them all. But he did not care whether all the plants grew or blossomed at the same time. He used the colour of the plants in his composition, and was able to balance that green colour in a masterly way with the remaining areas of colour like the robes of the bishops. What is to be found here is not an indiscriminate copying but a very personal treatment of sensual reality. That is what makes art exciting - you can do it in so many ways. Last year in New York at the viewing day at Christie's I saw a painting by Mondriaan among a number of paintings by well-known impressionists. It was like a slap in the face! It was one of the most beautiful Mondriaans I have ever seen; verticals, horizontals, colour planes - but so marvellously balanced; at such a moment you are speechless, but deep inside you sense what is going on.
History art and Biblical art were in former times regarded as the highest forms of art. Landscapes and still lifes were considered much lower and less prestigious than narrative art. Portraits were made almost solely to order, enhancing the status of the one portrayed. I can imagine no 17th-century person who would enjoy making a painting in the same way as Mondriaan or the abstract painters. That is a fruit of the developments in the art of painting: that we can think in terms of art without immediately wanting to see a particular representation. What I have done is combine a switchback to the past with the insights gained from reflection on art during this past century.
Museum boards are generally aware of my existence but they do not trouble themselves to become better acquainted with this work. Since the 1960's a new figurative movement with a characteristic kind of realism has developed in northern Holland, but the museums have ignored this, and that is very strange. In the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam you will not often find work by a figurative painter unless it quotes something from art history. At the moment there are all sorts of painters who are doing this; for example, they take a painting by Velasques and then incorporate it into a new painting. Often the results are deplorable technically, but they give the suggestion that the artist has tried something new. Fortunately Vincent van Gogh convincingly demonstrated that it is possible to do better; his paintings inspired by Japanese prints became true Van Goghs. Here in Westeremden we have as it were created our own museum. People experience here what they seldom find in modern museums. I must say, though, that there are a number of smaller museums which have begun to buy and exhibit their own collections of realistic paintings.
Art and photography
At a certain point one can get tired of a photograph. With a painting it is the personal translation of reality that makes it so fascinating. You put the accent where it can function most effectively. Reality as it is offers too much information. But the information which you deal with in your mind and with your hands becomes a new reality in artistic form. Choices are made in such a way that there is the utmost attention for atmosphere, for light, and for what is important on the painting surface.
Imagine that the actual Syndics (Staalmeesters) by Rembrandt had been photographed; perhaps it would have been a very nice photo. But when Rembrandt painted them he captured a moment of optimal concentration: the absorption of the people meeting there as they looked up for a moment, the light so perfectly spread over the surface, the tablecloth behind which they are sitting. It is not a statement about an actual tablecloth; the viewer does not think: what a beautiful Persian rug, but: what a marvel-lous abstract function that red area has next to the black of the men behind the table with their white collars and black hats. A camera cannot register such things to the same extent. A camera registers reality, which contains too much information. Also, a painting is usually built up in layers, giving its surface a certain substance, whereas the surface of a photo is flat and fixed. But you must never try to compare the one absolutely with the other; you cannot compare apples and pears. A photo is a photo and a painting is a painting. When I stand before an abstract painting I never think to myself: this should be a treatment of reality. An artist may also make an image which has no reference to reality but which may be there for its own sake. Some art critics say that artists should not be concerned with their reactions to reality; they must make new art. In that sense the artist actually tries to do what God does: not to recreate but to create. I do not think the results are really worth the trouble. In such cases the idea takes the lead, the idea is considered more valuable than what a person has done with it. At some point you need an image; you can't do anything with nothing. A white piece of paper remains a white piece of paper as long as you do nothing with it; I think you have to have something recognizable to start with or you get nowhere. If you take a human being as starting point you can do different things. You can portray him as something fantastically beautiful, but also as a monster, as something horribly disfigured which makes one withdraw in fear. All these possibilities exist, but you need reality as a basis for them.
What is a good painting?
In my opinion a good painting has harmony, good rhythm, good atmosphere and a fascinating use of colour. These are all technical aspects, but they are the sum of the elements which largely determine the quality of a painting. Inwardly I aim for truly high quality. One always has to wait and see if one succeeds, and the degree of one's talent determines this to a great extent. I do my best - that is my mentality - to fulfil my own ideals as to what makes a good painting. A wall decoration, an embellishment of the wall, a painting is that too. But a painting not only presents phenomena to the eye but also presents a world which stimulates the imagination. A good painting rises above decoration.
I used to want to become a portrait painter; I gazed in com-plete admiration at the wonderful portraits which have come into being in the course of art history. But I think it is important that an artist chooses to work in the direction of his greatest strengths; thereby he also admits that there are some weaknesses which he cannot overcome. There are people who can do every-thing, such geniuses do exist, but I am not one of them. I must concentrate on a number of genres and make the most of them. I see an artist like Rembrandt as a truly universal artist; I think Picasso had that capacity too, and from our time I would include Matthijs Röling. Röling can paint a landscape, a portrait or a still life; he can make fantasies. He can in fact handle anything. That is not true of me. I think of a man like Adriaan Poorte, a painter from Zeeland (in the south of the Netherlands) who lived in the late 17th century. All his life he did nothing else but paint a few small panels with a bunch of asparagus, a few goose-berries, some red or white currants, a few butterflies, a few shells. His art had a very limited scope. But when I go to the Rijks-museum I go not only to see the highlights like Vermeer's "Milkmaid" or Rembrandt's "Syndics"; I also go to see that little bunch of asparagus by Adriaan Poorte. Whereby I acknowledge that a small talent can also come to fruition. I see my work as an extension of a centuries-old figurative tradition. Gradually something more and more Helmantel-like has come into being and I hope that I will be able to work on this development for many years.