Some of the best realist painters of the twentieth century were Dutch. If few art lovers outside the Netherlands have heard of them, this is because the Netherlands has proven unable to launch major reputations for artists who stayed at home and did not work in international groups like De Stijl or Cobra. Schwartz delves into the issue, and is held up midway by the tragic choices of the best of the Dutch realists, Pyke Koch.
Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Composition II, 1929. Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
Pyke Koch (1901-91), The shooting arcade, 1931. Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
Around 1930 one and the same farseeing, self-assured museum director bought these two canvases by Dutch painters for his museum. Dirk Hannema (1895-1984) was director of the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam (now Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen). With an approach to art that was generous enough to see the merits of two such different creations, he went after them both, the Mondrian in 1929 and the Koch in 1931.
Concerning these acquisitions, Carel Blotkamp made the following fascinating remark:
Hannema must have realized in a flash that this [painting by Pyke Koch] was exactly suited for his museum. He probably went after the necessary funds in person, approaching his circle of faithful backers. The sum involved was no trifle. The evidence points in the direction of 1500 guilders, which is six times the price of the Mondrian. (Today the Mondrian would surely cost fifteen times as much as the Koch.)
My curiosity was ignited. In my mind’s eye I saw a graph tracking the value of paintings by Mondrian and Koch, with the rising lines converging until the Mondrian line took off into the blue. What year will that have been?
I’ll report on my research campaign and findings in a moment, but first the non-Dutch reader will want to know who Pyke Koch is, whose name is unknown outside the Netherlands. He was a doctor’s son (1901-20) fraternity boy (1920-30) turned Utrecht culture demigod (1930-40). Koch was the central figure and housing host (Oudegracht 341) of what has been called the Utrecht Bloomsbury of the interbellum: poets, musicians, architects, dancers and actors; art historians, critics and teachers; artists and their muses. He thrived on the extra attention and prestige that this conveyed, over and above the admiration, good sales and commissions he enjoyed as a professional painter, even in the depths of the depression.
He was the most highly regarded of a loose grouping of Dutch painters labeled neo-realists or magic realists. Coming out of a strong tradition of figurative art, they responded to European avant-garde movements not by emulating cubism, dada or surrealism, but with new twists to figuration. Koch could paint a model or a subject before his eyes as if he were imagining or dreaming it. The results are captivating and confusing, leaving you unsure exactly what you are seeing.
Pyke Koch, Self-portrait, 1937. Utrecht, Centraal Museum
Cover of the first issue of De Schouw (The Showplace), official organ of the Kultuurkamer, a body to which a Dutch artist had to belong from 1942 on in order to exhibit work in public. This placing makes it unnecessary to debate whether the black headband in the self-portrait was meant in 1937 to express fascist self-identification. In 1942 it did.
It’s an eternal shame, but because of his politics, Koch’s name cannot be uttered in the Netherlands without involuntarily sparking a nasty reflex. What to think of a man who wrote in August 1940, three months after his country was invaded and occupied by Germany?
As soon as our Volk as a whole comes to acknowledge the truth that only a National Socialist order can save it; that Nazi thought is the truth for Europe in the coming centuries and that life is going to grow increasingly intense and grand; at that moment Art will surely react to the first genuine shudders of the spiritual climate.
True to this principle, during the first years of the German occupation of the Netherlands from 1940 to 1945, Koch engaged in various forms of collaboration for which in 1946 he was arraigned but, because he kept his distance from the Dutch Nazi Party, NSB, not tried by the denazification tribunal. The only formal punishment meted out to him, by a board for restoration of the honor of the arts, was a one-year prohibition to exhibit his work. But his reputation suffered permanent damage. (Mondrian was also an anti-Semite, but he spent the Second World War in New York, keeping his prejudices to himself from the Jews who floated him, mainly Harry Holtzman.) The market for Koch’s paintings languished for decades after the war, when his name was anathema to many. Eventually the quality of his art overrode most qualms about his morals, and his prices rose, though perhaps never as high as they would have otherwise.
Koch’s black war record and postwar stonewalling (Mieke Rijnders: “He relativized his political engagement [and] never expressed regret.”) had a dire effect on the appreciation of Dutch realists in general. It made critics and art historians reluctant to work with a canon in the field, a canon in which Koch would shine. His excellence as an artist complicates the never-ending discussion about whether bad politics can engender good art. Is his own art a reaction to the spiritual shivers of the resuscitating West?
Getting back to the graph I wanted to draw – the numbers I was after for the y-axis are not easy to find. To be honest I have not found them yet. Museums and funding agencies do not normally report on prices, nor do scholarly monographs or art databases. The best sources are auction results, as rigged as they sometimes may be. My research assistant Marit Slob and I went through volume after volume of a compendium called the World Collectors Annuary, and I had the good fortune of being allowed to consult the files of the M.L. de Boer gallery in Amsterdam (see photo, with kind thanks to Ted de Boer). Neither of them provided prices for the period when Mondrian must have overtaken Koch, which was accomplished by 1965, when a non-objective Mondrian sold for $42,000 at a New York auction. Before that date the record is too sparse to allow of any conclusions.
Except for one. Going through the auctions, we tabulated the prices of figurative paintings by other Dutch artists than Koch (Floris Verster, Jan Mankes, Charlie Toorop, Carel Willink, Raoul Hynckes, Dick Ket, Wim Schuhmacher) and abstract ones by other artists than Mondrian (Theo van Doesburg, Bart van der Leck) and noticed something significant. Most of the prices for work by the artists who became known for non-figurative work were in dollars, pounds, francs and deutschmarks, while ALL the prices up to 2001 for the 208 Dutch figurative works we found (except for one Verster in the ‘70s and one Willink in the ‘80s) are in guilders. That the hammer prices, from the 1970s on, were so far below what Mondrian et al. were fetching, even for their figurative work, can be explained by the sheer size of the market they were reaching and the benefits of a major international reputation. Dutch realists appeal strictly to local taste.
A shocking example of the vastness of this effect can be documented from recent Christie’s auctions of two modest Dutch landscapes from about 1890. Please look at them first without captions and ask yourself which you prefer.
OK, I like the one on the right better too. But do I think it worth 120 times more than the other painting? Someone does. Here are the captions, with the auction results and links to prove them.
Left: Floris Verster, Surroundings of Bergen, 34 x 45.5 cm, sold at Christie’s Amsterdam on 4 September 2010 for €1500
Right: Piet Mondrian, Twilight, 28 x 44 cm, sold at Christie’s New York on 13 November 2015 for $203,000 (then €180,670)
The only other Dutch painters to hit high numbers outside the country had also, like Mondriaan, moved to New York: Willem de Kooning and Karel Appel.
That interest in the Dutch realists stops at the national borders has another effect that goes beyond the art market. The Dutch neo-realists are seen as exemplars of ur-Dutchness, heroes of the down-to-earthness for which the Dutch rightly or wrongly are famous. As a result, the resemblances between their work and that of contemporaneous colleagues in other European countries are ignored. Consider these comparisons of paintings by a French and German painter (left) and Dutch contemporaries and soulmates (right).
In France, August Herbin is a first-generation French modernist from la France profonde; in Germany, Herbert Ploberger is considered a hero of German Neue Sachlichkeit. If instead of framing them as representatives of their nations we acknowledged and studied their resemblances to each other, and to Dutch realism of the period, we might stimulate, however homeopathically, a badly needed awareness of Europeanness. (After which we can dilute the Europeanness with a dash of interbellum American regionalism and who knows some magic realism from Asia and Africa.)
The above is based on the opening lecture that I gave on 3 February for the exhibition 4 Realisten: de serene blik (4 realists: the serene gaze), in Museum MORE, Gorssel, The Netherlands. With thanks to the museum and its director, Ype Koopmans, for permission to put the material on the Schwartzlist. The exhibition is on until 13 May 2018. The museum is a pleasure to visit.
The quotation from Carel Blotkamp is a translation of a passage in an essay he wrote, of which he kindly provided the text, in a volume published by the Vereniging Rembrandt in honor of Peter Hecht.
Also consulted: De wereld van Pyke Koch, with essays by Andreas Koch, Roman Koot, Mieke Rijnders and Marja Bosma, Zwolle (W Books) and Utrecht (Centraal Museum) 2017. Published on the occasion of a major exhibition of the work of Pyke Koch and others in the museum (until 18 March 2018). Quotation from Pyke Koch above is from Mieke Rijnders’ essay.
© Gary Schwartz 2018. Published on the Schwartzlist 27 February 2018.
Next week Loekie and I will be in London for two days, on an invitation coming out of the distant past. In 1961 and 1963 I worked on the first and third seasons of the excavation of Aphrodisias, a Greco-Roman city in Asia Minor. The excavations are still in progress, and could go on forever without exhausting the extractable treasures and knowledge. On 7 March the Friends of Aphrodisias are holding their annual meeting, with a lecture on the past season by the director of the dig, Bert Smith. Starting with my reading of and reacting to an inspiring article on Aphrodisias by Patricia Daunt in the splendid magazine Cornucopia (“For Patricia Daunt it is the most beautiful site in the classical world”), a sequence of contacts led to the invitation.
The most exciting development so far lay in two recoveries of 57-year old materials. The keeper of Aphrodisias documentation at the Ashmolean Museum, Julia Lenaghan, sent me a pdf of the notebook I kept in 1961 on the work in my trench. And Loekie found the photographs I took that summer, which I thought I had lost.
The two sources have a few links, which I find thrilling. Below are two pages from my notebook and a photo that shows the situation described, a situation that did not last for more than a few hours on August 1, 1961.
We cannot go to London without seeing the exhibition of the collections of Charles I in the Royal Academy and looking up at least one old friend.
Responses in the Reply box below (these will be viewed by all visitors to the site), or personally to Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl are always appreciated and will be answered.
So will donations.