All curators at major institutions know that the witty, allusive, poetic titles they dream up for exhibitions will probably have to give way to something banal but comprehensible. What a clever title New Worlds From Old was – but nobody seemed to realise it referred to a show of Australian and American paintings from the nineteenth century. This is why every second exhibition has “masterpieces” or “treasures” in the title, even if the contents struggle to match that description.
Hendrik Kolenberg, one of the most respected curators at the Art Gallery of NSW, has definitely slipped under the radar with the title, Intensely Dutch: Image, abstraction and the word, post-war and beyond. Will this draw the masses? For most people the word “Dutch” conjures up images of windmills, wooden shoes and tulips. Imagine someone saying: “That’s a very intense pair of clogs you’re wearing.”
Kolenberg may expect us to think of these lame clichés, and then remember that Van Gogh – the most intense artist of all time – was also Dutch. In such contradictions one finds the possibility of great creative tension. This survey of post-war painting from the Netherlands is filled with bold, rebellious gestures, but also with moments of melancholy; rigorous formal experiments and sheer joie-de-vivre. It is a snapshot of a time when Dutch artists set out to challenge the values of a highly conservative society and made a brief but lasting impression on the annals of Modern art.
The catalyst was the Second World War and the long ordeal of Nazi occupation. After the Allied victory the newly liberated country was left in economic, social and moral disarray. While post-war reconstruction proceeded swiftly there were lingering tensions between those who had collaborated with the Germans and those who had fought for the Resistance. Although many called for a return to the stable, traditional values of the past, others felt the old ways were hopelessly discredited and corrupted.
For Willem Sandberg, the influential director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the way ahead was clear: in the name of cultural renewal the Netherlands must abandon its inward-looking ways and embrace contemporary trends in international art. Sandberg exploited the moral authority he had acquired through his involvement with the Resistance, embarking on an ambitious exhibition program that included Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky, Calder, the architects Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto, and that underestimated local hero, Piet Mondriaan. At the same time he championed young artists who took a progressive or experimental path.
Foremost among these were the artists and writers of the CoBrA group – an inspired name drawn from the first letters of Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, the home cities of the protagonists. It is a small irony that this defiantly provincial avant-garde was run largely from Paris, which remained the centre of European art. The CoBrA adventure lasted little more than two years, from 1949-51, but achieved a fame that set its leading members on the path to international stardom.
The major CoBrA artists from the Netherlands – Karel Appel, Constant, Corneille and Lucebert – are well represented in this exhibition, along with older mavericks such as Gerrit Benner and Jaap Nanninga, and defiant loners such as Bram Van Velde and Bram Bogart. There are paintings by the most celebrated Dutch-born artist of the century, Willem De Kooning, and by lesser-known figures such as Wim Oepts, Edgar Fernhout, Jaap Wagemaker and Jan Schoonhoven. The Australian connection is represented by Jan Riske, who has lived here for many years, and Theo Kuipers, who has visited and travelled around the Outback.
Most of these names will be unfamiliar to local audiences, but the pictures will strike welcome chords. It is virtually impossible to ignore the affinities between the work of a CoBrA artist such as Corneille and the sixties paintings of John Olsen, who returned to Australia thoroughly energised from a sojourn in Europe. In fact, Olsen and Corneille were friends and kindred spirits, who travelled through Spain together.
Another obvious reference is to the artists associated with Melbourne’s Roar Studios, such as David Larwill, Jill Noble and Mark Schaller, who emerged in the 1980s with a style of crude, playful expressionism that owes a clear debt to Karel Appel and his peers. For the Roar painters conspicuous vitality was the aim, just as it had been for the CoBrA school. Willem Sandberg had held up this “vitalist” impulse as the most important attribute of CoBrA art, pitting it in conflict with the cultural inwardness of Dutch painting, with its proud traditions of portraiture, landscape and still life.
It is a story that finds many echoes in mid-twentieth century Australia, where Modernism was even more staunchly resisted. The outbreaks of abstraction, matter painting, and art informel that emerged in Sydney and Melbourne during the 1950s and 60s, have direct parallels in many of the tendencies represented in Intensely Dutch.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this period is the close connection between painting and poetry. CoBrA, like Surrealism, Dada, Futurism, and many another movement, had a basis in the word as well as the image. Lucebert was judged a true “double talent”, known for his poetry no less than his paintings. Yet it seems as if the majority of artists in this show also practiced as poets. Their colleagues, the poets, dabbled enthusiastically in painting and drawing.
A spirit of restless creativity permeates this exhibition, generating an atmosphere that could hardly be further removed from the chiaroscuro of Rembrandt or the luminous precision of Vermeer. Even allowing for the fantastic art of Bosch and Breugel, or the Symbolists of the late nineteenth century, Netherlandish art is generally known for its empiricism and close observation. It is, in the historian Svetlana Alpers’s phrase: “an art of describing”.
One of the striking aspects of the works in Intensely Dutch, is that so many artists abandon this fastidious respect for appearances in favour of the imagination. For the most part this does not result in pure abstraction, but in a new approach to the image, whereby figures, animals and landscapes are infused with powerful emotional responses. Looking at Appel’s figures one feels their surging, brutish vitality. Wim Oepts’s landscapes are made from unnaturally strong colours, inspired by the south of France. Even Jan Riske’s highly formal abstractions may be read as a vision of the cosmos in distant descent from Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
In a different manner, one cannot deny the lingering melancholy in Jaap Nanninga’s low-keyed abstracts that never quite leave the realm of concrete imagery. This is even more pronounced in Bram Van Velde’s loosely painted forms, which resemble geometric shapes from which all the tension and rigour have been removed. Long, looping brushstrokes turn back in on themselves like snakes, apparently flaccid but with a hint of underlying strength. Van Velde was a friend of Samuel Beckett and a favourite of the Existentialists, and his works seem to perfectly capture that post-war mood, when the human condition was viewed as a heroic but futile struggle against nothingness. “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Van Velde’s painting is well summed up by one of his aphorisms, printed on the wall at the entrance to this exhibition: “A painting is an instant in time that has escaped oblivion.” There is a sadness and fatalism in the idea that a painting represents nothing more than an instant. The painter’s motivation lies in the fleeting thrill of that escape, repeated over and over.
Bram Bogart has taken that instant and monumentalized it in enormous paintings that consist of a few broad brushstrokes captured in a medium that resembles a meringue. In Daybreak (1997), he has created a work that is as much sculpture as painting, suspended on a metal frame. For many years this has been Bogart’s signature style, but through a series of smaller, earlier works we can see the way he reached this plateau. Like Lucio Fontana with his sliced canvases, or Morris Louis with his stained ones, it is a trademark that has proven amazingly durable. Bogart’s works still have the capacity to take one by surprise, through their saturated colour and imposing physical presence.
Regardless of its peculiar title, Intensely Dutch is a show of exquisite variety and depth – the kind of survey that we see too rarely in Australian public galleries, where spectacle often takes precedence over substance. My only complaint was that I would have liked to see a lot more by some of these artists. The mid-twentieth century may not compare with the Golden Age of Dutch art, but the sparkle lingers on.
Intensely Dutch, the Art Gallery of NSW, June 5-August 25, 2009
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, July 18, 2009