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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Constant Nieuwenhuys

Yellow Sector, 1958, Constant Nieuwenhuys, iron, aluminum, copper and ink on Plexiglas, as well as oil on wood.
It's difficult to overstate the hardships that wars bring to artists. They range from outright death to "fleedom" (fleeing to freedom). In between these extremes lie starvation, severe deprivation, political persecution, psychological trauma, creative restrictions, an existence underground, and sometimes simply abandoning all pretense of being a working artist, at least for the duration of the conflict. Worse still, its not just the artists themselves, but their families, who suffer, if not the same desperate circumstances, then simply in being separated as refugees from their loved ones. Moreover, wars are not kind to whatever meager output such artists produce. It's often destroyed, stolen, confiscated, abandoned, lost, or simply disappears for years. At the very least, wars often decimate a country's population of artists, (for all the reasons mentioned above) leaving a creative deficit to be felt for decades.
Bomb, 1950, Constant Nieuwenhuys
During WW II, the Dutch painter, Constant Nieuwenhuys, and his family suffered virtually all the wartime miseries (short of death) imaginable, and probably some unimaginable. Constant (he has always been known by his first name alone) lived and worked in Bergen (northern Holland) from 1941 to 1943. The city of Bergen was evacuated by the Germans in 1943 forcing Constant and his wife, Matie, (whom he married in July 1942) to moved back to Amsterdam (his birthplace in 1920). During this period Constant went into hiding and refrained from registering at the "Kulturkammer" (Nazi Chamber of Culture) to avoid the "Arbeitseinsatz" (labor supply for the Germans). Because of this he was unable to conventionally exercise his craft or to buy art supplies. To paint Constant used tablecloths and bed linen, which he had to rinse out before the paint dried in order to do his next painting. As with many painters in the war-torn countries of Europe, the death and destruction he saw all around him had an indelible effect on his art following the war (above). During the war Constant's brother-in-law, Jaap van Domselaer, moved into their apartment to hide. He introduced Constant to Plato, Spinoza, Descartes, Kant, Hegel and Marx. The writings of Karl Marx provided inspiration regarding Constant's later ideas on art and society. Coinciding with the winter famine of 1944, Constant's first son, Victor, was born. After the war, Constant, his wife and son moved back to Bergen only to return to Amsterdam in 1946.

The self-portrait above was painted during the war and reflects the Bergense School, which strongly influenced Constant's early works.
All wars come to an end, though some always seem reluctant to depart, leaving behind calling card reminders for several future generations to ponder. When this war ended, the trauma remained, but Constant was able to expand and grow as an artist, gradually overcoming the years of captivity and limitations. He liberated himself artistically by experimented with multiple techniques of art-making. He was inspired by Cubism, especially the work of Georges Braque. In 1946 Constant traveled to Paris for the first time where he met the young Danish painter Asger Jorn. The friendship between Jorn and Constant later formed the basis for CoBrA (an abbreviation for the three cities home to the artists involved--Copenhagen, Brussels, and Amsterdam. In July, 1948, Constant founded Reflex Exper-imentele Groep in Holland with Corneille, Karel Appel and his brother Jan Nieuwenhuys. The first edition of the magazine was published with a manifesto written by Constant. For Constant, art had to be experimental. He had deducted this from the French word "ex-périence." He believe that art springs from experience of the artist and thus is continuously changing.

Constant's highly experimental "freedom" period.
The director of the Municipal Museum of Amsterdam, Willem Sandberg, was very supportive of young artists and fully supported the CoBrA group by giving them seven large rooms in which to exhibit their work. Most of the CoBrA works had been fairly small due to their lack of money and so Sandberg gave the artists an advance to create some larger works in the week before the exhibition. Constant, Corneille, Appel and Eugène Brands created several large pieces of art that have become iconic for the movement. The architect Aldo van Eyck was commissioned to shape the exhibition. The exhibition was unconventional to say the least. The works of art as well as the way they were presented. The show aive rise to harsh critique from press and public. A critic from Het Vrije Volk (Free People) wrote, "Geklad, geklets en geklodder in het Stedelijk Museum" (Smirch, twaddle, and mess in the Urban Museum of Amsterdam). An often heard remark from the public was that their children could probably do the same, only better (a remark which soon traveled to the U.S.). The CoBrA artist came to be considered scribblers and con artists. The group dissolved itself in 1951, claiming they would rather "mourir en beauté" (die in beauty) than become a regular artist interest group. However, short the existence of CoBrA, it forever changed the creative thinking of postwar European artists.

The New Babylon, drawings and model, dating from 1958.
Constant’s interest in architecture and urban development began early in the 1950s when cities all over Europe, damaged during the war, were being rebuilt. Constant addressed himself to the rational, monotonous, functionalism then being utilized, which he maintained would limit a free and creative life. In 1956, The artist became directly involved with International Lettrism, a movement set up four years earlier by the Frenchman Guy Debord, who, like Constant, was campaigning against functional building. With Debord, he formulated “unitary urbanism”: the theory of the combined use of arts as a means of contributing to the construction of a unified milieu in dynamic relationship to experiments in human behavior (what a mouthful). In the intended social revolution the fine arts would play no role. An intensive correspondence between Constant and Guy Debord followed. in 1959 Constant wrote several theoretical articles for the French Situationist International (Sl) journal and staged events at several museums in Paris and Amsterdam, where he showed his New Babylon series of paintings, drawings, and models (below).

Entrance of the Labyrinth, 1972, Constant Nieuwenhuys
In 1974 the New Babylon project officially came to an end with a large exhibition in the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag (Municipal Museum of The Hague). Because Constant lacked room to store the vast collection of constructions, maquettes, maps, and structures, he sold them all to the museum. In 1999 Constant's New Babylon: City for Another Life, opened at the Drawing Center in New York. It was his first solo exhibition in the United States and included several of Constant's paintings done in conjunction with New Babylon (top and above). There was a symposium conducted in conjunction with the exhibition. According to the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, Constant made a lot of architects think anew about urban design with his New Babylon.

The Trap 2005 (above), was Constant's final painting.
He was still working on it at the time of his death.
In 1969, After ten years working exclusively on New Babylon, Constant returned to painting, watercolors, and graphics. More and more he was inspired by contemporary and political issues, including such things as the Vietnam War, African famines and Kosovo refugees. Marxism was a strong influence. There are people who consider Constant's later work after 1995 (below), as a return to tradition. In the tradition of the Venetian Renaissance painters, Titian and Tintoretto, Constant applies himself to the technique of colorism. He doesn't make use of charcoal or pencil sketches but applies color directly on the canvas with the paintbrush constructing soft transitions instead of sharp contours. The most important feature of this technique is the way light is expressed in the painting by integrating it into the color. This technique is laborious. The painting comes to life layer by layer. Constant paints with oil on canvas and every layer he applies then needs to dry. In this period Constant produced a mere 3 to 4 painting per year. He was eighty-five at the time of his death in 2005.

My Son, 1846, Constant Nieuwenhuys.
He would have been about two years
old at the time.


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