CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Bart van der Leck

Exhibition: 10 April - 18 July 2004

From a museum press release

Bart van der Leck was born on 26 November 1876, the son of a house painter. Little importance was attached to intellectual development within the simple working class environment in which he grew up. At the age of fourteen he swapped his schoolbooks for an apprenticeship in the glass industry in Utrecht. After eight years he managed to get a scholarship to study at the State Academy of Applied Arts in Amsterdam. After his graduation in 1904 Van der Leck developed his own style. He paid little attention to the then current movements or concepts and exhibited his work rarely, relying upon the support of a small cir-cle of admirers. One of these was Helene Kröller-Müller. Between 1913 and 1939 she acquired no fewer than 42 paintings and 400 drawings by him. She was guided in her choices by H.P. Bremmer, an art educator and inspiring champion of contemporary art. Bremmer gave Helene Kröller-Müller private lessons in art appreciation and advised her on her collection. He brought Van der Leck to her attention and, like her mentor, she considered his work to be ‘without time or place’. From 1914 Helene Kröller-Müller had direct contact with Van der Leck and he was even employed by her business Wm H. Müller & Co to design colour schemes for its buildings. In 1916 Helene Kröller-Müller and Van der Leck signed a contract whereby she had first refusal on any works that he produced. She acquired the majority of the remaining works via Bremmer, who had a separate agreement with Van der Leck from 1912 to 1945. In the first two years after his graduation Van der Leck made illustrations for an edition of ‘The Song of Solomon’ and designs for stained-glass windows. The illustrations were inspired by the work of Antoon Derkinderen, especially the stained-glass windows that Derkinderen designed for Utrecht University. Van der Leck’s experience as a glass painter naturally played an important role in his designs. His time in the glass studios, which he described as, ‘art fabrication and studio to-do’, taught him to see colour as light, made him aware of defined and spatially isolated forms, and developed his appreciation of the combination of painting and architecture. From 1906 Van der Leck’s painting style underwent rigorous change. He came under the influence of the Amsterdam impressionists and painted a series of portraits, including some of old women. These works are noteworthy for their meticulous realism and the modest, almost monochrome tonality of colour. In 1907 Van der Leck decided to follow his fellow students such as Kees van Dongen and Lodewijk Schelfhout to Paris. However, he returned to the Netherlands within fourteen days. Despite inspiring visits to the large museums and Chartres Cathedral, where the stained-glass windows impressed him, it was the unimaginably poor social conditions in the French capital that made the greatest, and indelible, impression on him. This experience brought about a thematic change in his work. Upon his return to the Netherlands Van der Leck devoted himself to the creation of a new art that would contribute to a new kind of society. He began to develop a new image of people – a simple, generalised typology that allowed him to stress the similarities between people. He found his first subjects close to his home in the workers in the textile industry. Their solidarity and the similarity in their clothing and behaviour inspired him to develop a principle that he called ‘unity in diversity’. Later a battalion of soldiers would become a new source of inspiration. Inspired by the Egyptian art that he had seen in Paris, Bart van der Leck slowly but consistently developed a personal monumental realism in which individual characteristics and incidental formal elements became increasingly abstract. From 1912 the figures that, following the Egyptian principle, are depicted in a combination of frontal and profile views are isolated against a white background. In addition to this formal language, which he stylised more and more, colour also played an increasingly important role and Van der Leck began to use the primary colours more often. This development caught the attention of Helene Kröller-Müller who described Van der Leck as a, ‘characteristic figure for the emotions of our time’ in her book Beschouwingen over problemen in de ontwikkeling der moderne schilderkunst (Reflections on the problems of the development of modern painting).

In 1914 Bart van der Leck joined the ‘Estates Department’ of the Wm H. Müller & Co. In the same year Helene Kröller-Müller commissioned him to design a large stained-glass window for the company’s headquarters in The Hague on the theme of company’s mining activities. He went to the company’s mines in Spain and Algeria and returned with more than a hundred drawings and watercolours. These formed not only the basis for the large window but also an important reservoir of new imagery that he would regularly draw upon later. In addition to the stained-glass window he also designed posters for the company’s Batavia Line, mosaics for the office in London and for the model farm on the family’s estate, typographic designs for Helene and (often in collaboration with the architect H.P. Berlage) colour designs for the Kröller-Müller couple’s houses including the St Hubertus Hunting Lodge. In 1916 Van der Leck ended his contract and moved to Laren. There he completed two of the most important paintings of his entire career: ‘The Storm’ and ‘Work at the docks’. Both paintings show a radical simplification of colour, form and content. Helene Kröller-Müller, who retained first refusal of Van der Leck’s work, wrote of ‘The Storm’: ‘Now, at a certain point in his life, there comes an artist who sums up everything we know and unites all the stirred emotions, that a storm brings with it, into an idea – the storm idea, which is experienced within’. In Laren Bart van der Leck met Piet Mondrian who, with his strict ordering of horizontals and verticals, his extreme abstraction and rhythmic system of lines and planes, made a great impression on him. This led to an abrupt and fundamental change in his style. The degree of reduction and abstraction in his new works renders reality unrecognisable so that they initially appear to have no subject. However, they are all based on real themes. In a complicated process of intermediate stages he abstracted the themes into rectangular planes in primary colours against a white background. Helene Kröller-Müller, who received several of the new works, was not enthusiastic. She wrote to him on 11 December 1916 to say that she had difficulty understanding his new style. She wondered if he had not been too greatly influenced by Mondrian. In 1917 Bart van der Leck co-founded the journal De Stijl. Van der Leck saw the eponymous movement as a means of associating with kindred colleagues and wrote impassioned pleas for the fruitful alliance of architecture and painting. However, the importance he placed on the (albeit abstracted) depiction of reality was not shared by the other members of the group, including Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondriaan. Van der Leck refused to sign the group’s first manifesto and decided to go his own way. In 1918 he published his own manifesto: ‘The horseman’, in which the horse and rider are clearly recognisable despite the considerable degree of abstraction. He transformed his large panes of colour into smaller, refined accents of colour that, together with black or grey lines, gave form to his motifs. Despite their mutual respect Mondrian and Van der Leck came to a definitive break due to their differing views on the representation of reality and also their distinct formal languages and attitudes towards the placing of forms within the picture plane. In the late 1920s and 1930s Van der Leck sought opportunities to apply his painterly ideas to architecture. Metz & Co in Amsterdam commissioned him to design upholstery fabrics and carpets, which were put into production in 1929. In 1930 these carpets were exhibited, together with furniture by Gerrit Rietveld, in Paris. Only a few examples of the first edition have survived. The carpets in the exhibition come from a new limited edition and can still be ordered. In 1934 Bart van der Leck received a small kiln as a present and began experimenting with ceramics. From his notebooks it is clear that it took him a long time to transfer his pure painting style with primary colours on a white field to this new medium, however, by 1936 he had mastered the glazing techniques. He produced several series of tiles with depictions of fruit, birds and animal’s heads, two series of plates and even vases with geometric forms. Bart van der Leck died two weeks before his eighty-second birthday on 13 November 1958. Following his regular morning walk, he died in his studio sitting at his easel.