Seemingly fine - Diederik Kraaijpoel
As published in the book: "Henk Helmantel" published 2000 by ArtRevisited (www.artrevisited.com)
Also read the interview by Hans van Seventer
Henk Helmantel and I arrived in Groningen at the same time. In 1961 I began teaching at Minerva Academy, just when Henk was enrolled as a student. I travelled back and forth by train to Amsterdam, and he by bicycle to Westeremden, which was twenty kilometres from the city. Even under the most severe weather conditions he was present at half past eight in the morning, earlier than his fellow students. Why don't you buy a moped? I asked. That's too cold in the winter, he explained. His condition was obviously excellent; he ate a mountainous pile of sandwiches for lunch. At the academy in those days two kinds of classes were taught. First of all, studies from nature, with an emphasis on quick sketches and directness of stroke and colour. A sort of post-impressionism, but based on insight into anatomy and perspective. You could call it the heritage of the Renaissance, albeit in a shortened form. On the other hand there were also disciplines taken from modernism, bits of Bauhaus, abstract colour studies in the style of Johannes Itten, collages, etc. Henk did everything with great gusto, but from the very beginning it was clear that he felt the strongest affinity for the classical part of his education. Besides being present on time, Henk turned out to be exceptionally diligent. If someone else made one drawing, he made two. His most beloved example was Rembrandt, who fitted in perfectly with the lesson on how to set up a painting: first large areas of dark and light without giving premature attention to details and worked-out plasticity. Henk's work of that time, if I remember well, perhaps reminded me the most of Breitner. Post-impressionistic colour analysis, taught by Evert Musch, made him aware that a shadow is not a neutral grey area but actually contains colour. Now we Helmantel lovers know that his later work is quite different: the emphasis is precisely on details and the suggestion of plasticity. He did not learn this at the academy. Looking back, should we therefore have to say that his education was inade-quate? Henk does not think so, and neither do I. Each of his paintings still begins with broad brush strokes in order to come quickly to a total treatment of the space. The rest is not worked out until the following phase. Behind every Helmantel is a Breitner. It is impossible to see how it could be done otherwise; if you begin by glueing details together you never get a whole. The quality of Henk's work lies not only in his talent and intelligence, but also in this traditional way of working.
At this point we are faced with a problem of terminology. Helmantel is included among the fijnschilders (fine painters), there is even such a concept as Groningse fijnschilders, of whom he is considered the leader or figurehead. One often hears of "a fine brush" in the style of the Old Masters, as if the Old Masters had a preference for working this way. These misunderstandings must first be set right. The term fijnschilders refers to those who display an extreme attention to detail. Indeed, very fine brushes are needed. Van Eyck, Memling, Dürer and Bronzino are the first examples who come to mind. From the seventeenth century we are familiar with Saenredam, Dou and Van Mieris. And in Helmantel's case, especially in his early work, there are paintings which are as a whole worked out in minute detail, like Still life in red cupboard (p. 50), an example of trompe-l'oeil which shows that this old tradition still lives and astounds today's viewer just as the works of Apelles amazed his Greek contemporaries. At first glance this is strange: after all, we are used to the exact rendering produced by photography and film. What astounds us then? The fact that it is painted by hand: how can human hands do this? This reaction is completely justified. We look at a work of art to admire what we ourselves cannot do, and fijnschilderen is an example of that. But not the only one. The famous Old Masters, names like Michelangelo, Titian, Velasquez, Rubens, Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, Tiepolo or Goya were not fine painters. Their paintings are elaborately worked out, as a rule they were also not quickly finished, but these painters used a fine brush only on those areas where they found it necessary. This creates a marvellous illusion: because of the exquisite detail in several areas the eye of the beholder is under the impression that everything has undergone the same meticulous treatment. Only when you look closely do you see that your leg has been pulled. These days, however, you get whistled back by the guard before you have a chance to get too close to a work of art in a museum. That explains why more art viewers of our time, in contrast with those of the past, think that all Old Masters were "fine" workers. This idea also has to do with the enormous circulation of reproductions. In a reproduction the image is generally reduced to such a degree that everything appears to have been painted with a very fine brush. For example, the plates in this book are of very high quality, and yet they suggest a smoother surface than you would find on the original. The paint surface, or skin, one of the great and mysterious charms of the art of painting, does not come across in most reproductions. Only in the case of works which are themselves limited in size does the reader get an impression of the surface. Of several paintings details have been included which are instructive in this connection.
In the twentieth century there is little fijnschilderen to speak of. The Dutch painters Ket, Willink, Koch, and Van Gelder, and the Germans Schad and Tübke are among the exceptions. Well-known neo-realists like Dix, Balthus, Casorati, Spencer and Hopper strive for the illusion of tangibility, but use larger brushes. At the academy in Groningen, students are not yet taught to work out their paintings in this detailed way. In the province the technique is also at a low ebb. Only a few graduates have become competent in it since their academy days. The suggestion of sculptural plasticity is something which Helmantel had to master without a teacher. In this respect he was born at the wrong time. It is true that in the 1970's photo-realism was the rage, but its influence was not useful for his purposes. The principle of this style is, after all, that the painter borrows from the photo not only the motif but also the arrange-ment with all its coincidences, as well as the limitations of its depth of field. What Henk strives to achieve is maximal harmony. This cannot be derived from reality itself, much less from photos of reality. Where then can we find it? In the art of previous generations. But to continue on the foundations of earlier art was taboo in Henk's early years. And it still is, by the way, at least in the Netherlands. The pre-impressionist tradition is no longer taught. Whoever wants to go in that direction will have to reconstruct it himself. And how did Henk fare? After his graduation I stayed in contact with him as I do with many ex-students (the so-called follow-up care). Sometime near the end of the sixties he came by to visit, and said a bit mysteriously: I want to show you some-thing: I've started something new. And he unpacked a couple of minutely painted still lifes. Among them there was, as I recall, a composition with shells, which was hardly inferior to a Dirk van Gelder. You're doing well, Henk, I said; I believe you've made a great step forward. Carry on! He himself had of course already found the narrow path that leads to salvation, but he nevertheless went to an authority to ask the way. In the ten years that followed Henk was indeed occupied with working out the entire surface of a painting. Even the light, following in the footsteps of Dick Ket, falls democratically across the entire scene (p. 86, 87, 102). Those works are not bad at all, and have their own radicality and inexorability, but they do not yet represent his true style, as we now know by hindsight.
The Helmantel style
This began to appear around 1980. The forms remain tangibly plastic, but the painter makes more of a choice between major and minor elements than he did in the past. The eye of the beholder is directed to several points of attention. This is not a fixed recipe, as is evident in Still life with Chinese bronzes from 1997. This work is dominated by a stern archaic frontality and all objects attract equal attention. But the gradual variation of luminosity from dark to light across the wall reveals that we are actually looking at an example from the later style. If one looks closely one can see in nearly all the recent paintings that the term fijnschilder no longer applies. As in the work of many an Old Master, the secondary areas are applied with the large hog-hair brush, whereas detailed treatment is reserved for those parts of the objects chosen to play the leading role. To reach this stage a reconstruction process of twenty years was needed. There is a good chance that Willem Claesz Heda (1594-1682) in his youth was able to reach the same level after studying with a teacher for about five years. But Helmantel was not discouraged by this; it's simply the price one must pay in the age of Submerged Subject Matter.
Our reflections on the distribution of light are probably related to the second motif so firmly interwoven with the name Helmantel: the church interior. The choice of that subject is easy enough to explain from Henk's religious background. But this choice confronted him with a few artistic problems. For a realist who works by observation the still life is the ideal genre. Think about it: we are standing before a limited space, a couple of cubic metres at the most, in which the painter has laid out objects of his own choice where he prefers to have them and is able to control the lighting as he wishes. A great deal still has to happen in the process of painting, above all the colour will have to be considerably adjusted, but nevertheless once the ensemble has been arranged the composition is already largely determined. And if upon further consideration a vase does not give satisfaction you can simply replace it with a box. An interior, to the contrary, is a ready-made subject, and not easy to alter. Helmantel obviously chooses spaces which cor-respond with his desire for sobriety and serenity (hence no living-rooms strewn with toys), but the only thing that can be arranged is the sketch made on location (p. 182) or the painting based on it. Even more important is the effect of light. With a still life you can always speak of objects which are highlighted. Wherever Henk's backgrounds are predominantly dark the most important objects are illumined, thereby coming into the foreground. The majestic plasticity which results from this must be counterbal-anced with colour; objects are thus chosen for their differences in colour. This principle was taken to the extreme in the huge Still life composition with the Mondriaan poster. In a church it is the other way round. Tangible things are unimportant. The subject is the empty space itself, which is made visible by the light which fills it. The lightest area is not some-thing which comes to the foreground, but a window located somewhere at one side or at the back. The portrayal of an interior space thus demands extremely accurate adjustment of valeurs, that is to say the tonal colour values. One can see that in the tradition of northern church interiors, from Saenredam and De Witte to Bosboom, no use is made of extreme local contrasts of colour. Helmantel's St. George Church in Amersfoort is an example of a work in that tradition. The suggestion of space is determined not so much by the construction of perspective as by the soft diffusion of light. These refined nuances in light and dark cannot have been registered by Henk during the painting process, for all his church interiors are made in the studio. It is thus a question of memory, the ability to imagine space, and close study of great examples in art.
One of the likeable sides of Helmantel is his strict rationality in his profession. Does this stand in contrast to his Reformed protestant religious convictions? Not at all. Consistent mono-theism leaves no room for superstition. The effect in this case is very favourable, since most realistic painters think that the Old Masters had better materials than we do. That is not true. Apart from linseed oil, almost all the materials which they used were more unreliable than ours, and only the collective professional experience of generations was able to save them from disasters. The superstitious of our day think that along with studying the Old Masters we must also adopt their technology. They are constantly occupied with turpentine, natural resins, rabbit glue, beeswax and home-made paint. Because they do not know how the earlier painters used their materials this activity results in premature deterioration, sticky messes, cracks, puff pastry. Helmantel realised this very quickly and used the best materials which modern technology has to offer. He prefers to paint on water- and termite-resistant masonite, prepares it with an ordinary alkyd primer, and works with good factory-made oil paint. All of his paintings, including those made twenty-five years ago, are still in perfect condition.
In this study the word "tradition" has been used repeatedly, as have examples like Dick Ket, Heda, Saenredam. In his book Nederlandse Zen (Dutch Zen), Kousbroek refers to these artists as national examples of sobriety and concentration. These and other masters, namely Floris Verster and Jan Mankes, are mentioned by Helmantel with reverence, and he makes no effort to hide their influence on his work. You may ask: what about the artist's originality? That is, after all, the most worthwhile aspect of visual art? The Dutch Ministry of Culture has these last decades explicitly declared that only original art is eligible for subsidy. In recent years, if I am correct, the tide seems to be turning. The more intelligent beholder has begun to suspect that some-thing original can sometimes be very silly. As the American architect Phillip Johnson already said in 1983: 'You can better be good than original.' In the Netherlands we have not yet reached that stage, but there are signs of it, particularly in the sectors of art where subsidies are not needed. Henk, with his historizing orientation in the Old Masters, has unwittingly contributed to what, in vague terminology, is called the post-modern situation. One of the great contemporary taboos, namely that in art one may never go back, has been pushed aside by his art. In technology and science the only acceptable movement is forward movement. Art, to the contrary, has a reverse gear which every serious artist makes use of from time to time. Art is something you learn not by looking at nature, but by looking at the achievements of other artists. Each painter has a few examples or teachers. In the course of his oeuvre their influences grow, mixed with some of his own discoveries, to a recognisable conglomeration: the personal style. These days the personal style is the goal which everyone strives after, but in earlier centuries artists did not know this convulsive ambition. If a painting resembled someone else's no one was bothered. Still, it is often justifiable to attribute a work to one person or another. A personal style, it seems, comes into being as a matter of course; you do not have to do anything for it. Although Meindert Hobbema, for example, took over everything from other landscape painters, there is in his style something very Hobbema-like, whatever it may be. It is probably something characteristic in the brushstrokes, the build-up of the images, the colour and other things which he himself was not aware of, for he had never heard of originality. Henk Helmantel has heard about it though, and is aware of it, but he has never done anything about it. His originality lies in the fact that he has never tried to be original. He has never sat at his easel intending to make a real Helmantel. And yet, just as with Hobbema, his work is recognisable from twenty yards away.
Realistic painting, as I read recently, has made a comeback internationally. Compared with twenty years ago, there are more pictures of still lifes, portraits, and landscapes to be found in international art magazines, and more attention is being paid to this kind of work by galleries and some museums. In reality, the figurative tradition has never really gone away, but it is a fact that in the estimate of the art public (the several percent of the population who regularly visit exhibitions) it is now more highly regarded. The advantage of this is that we have more material for comparison: Henk has long ceased to be the only one of his sort. There are more painters with a reverence for tradition, a sharp eye for reality and a firm hand, and sporadically someone appears who even surpasses him in virtuousity - Matthijs Röling, for example. The question arises: why do I consider Helmantel to be better than most others of his generation? I think he excels in a special facet of art, namely composition. Just as in the past when I was still teaching, I will need to clarify this concept. The word composition means putting together. Indeed, most of Henk's representations are of various things which have been put together, but that is not exactly what we are talking about here; he has made enough paintings of only one object, as for example a dead bird, a bowl, or an apple. Yet even in such a case we speak of composition, meaning the correlation of the object to the space around it, or the relationship of a saturated colour to a greyer background. In Henk's work this is always simple, well-organized and harmonious. For realists the composition is invariably threatened by the messiness of reality itself. Before you know it you have dragged in chaos. Henk is able to stand up to this danger by way of his strict attention to arrangement. I find this extremely important. Composition is not just an added sauce: it seems to me that it is the heart of art. In successful works we see the world cleansed of accident and arbitrariness. It is as if all the parts have finally found their final place and form. Here they stand, they cannot do otherwise. I will readily admit that this compositional talent is not the sine qua non of artistic quality. There are paintings by Kokoschka or Ensor which are a bit shaky or even mildly chaotic but nonetheless worthwhile. However, they arouse a nostalgia for something else, for art with a suggestion of completion. The fact that Henk can create this suggestion makes him exceptional.