An Intimate Distance: conversations with artists during lockdown
#3. Hendrik Kolenberg talks with Alexandra from his home and studio in Sydney. October 2021.
What personal impact has the pandemic had on you?
I don’t know anyone who has had COVID but my brother died about a month ago in Adelaide, of cancer. His eldest daughter, who lives in Canada, missed seeing him before he died because she was caught up in quarantine, first in Sydney, then Adelaide – trapped by a system that wipes individual circumstances aside. That’s the closest I’ve come to anyone suffering from (regulations brought about due to) Covid.
My brother was five years older than me. When I was a boy he used to read children’s stories to me in Dutch. That is probably why I have retained my love of the Dutch language. In a strange way, even if you aren’t close, there are all sorts of things that siblings share, including, in our case, coming to Australia by ship as migrants, with our parents, in 1952. My wife, Julianna, came to Australia as a child too, with her parents and younger sister, the result of the Russian invasion/crackdown of Hungary/Budapest in 1956. She and her parents fled over the border to Austria as refugees.
We cannot see our grandsons due to restrictions during Covid. They live in Canberra with their mother, our daughter – possibly the first thing we will do, is go and see them as soon as that is possible.
What is a normal day like for you now?
Today, I’m packing two framed works together to send to you in Melbourne. I’ve probably dealt with this recent long lockdown better than those in place last year. I was thrown by it all last year. I have managed quite a lot of work over the last 4 months though. Drawing and painting.
Why do you draw?
For me drawing is searching; a gathering process. Mostly I find subject matter on my wanderings. More than anything else, I draw. Painting comes out of it as a kind of summation. I paint quickly but it takes a long time to reach the point where a painting is possible. There may be 20-30 drawings or more, before it leads to something else. I keep my drawings in albums – there are about 25 of them thus far, ie of drawings kept since the 1970s; with about 100-150 in each album. They are a bit bigger than A4. I used to buy them from stationery shops where they are called ‘guard books’ – books used in offices in the past for pasting in newscuttings, records of meetings etc – basically a book bound so that it can expand. I used to draw on anything – envelopes, scrap paper, in sketchbooks, anything, but these days I use good quality book-binding paper, folded up to fit loose between covers like a sketchbook. The search is what matters to me .At art school I experimented. When I left, I returned to what I was taught before I went there.
How were you taught?
My mother once worked in a barber shop in Adelaide. She was shy and, stoic but always supported my interests..One day she asked a regular client, an artist, if he took students. He said ‘no’, but that he would take her son, me. She must have been persuasive or he may have needed the money, modest enough though that was? It was a surprise for me but I was very thankful. I went on Saturday mornings and ended up staying all day. He was a painter of the Meldrum persuasion – taught by William Dargie at the National Gallery School & a friend of Hayward Veal. I was a shy boy of sixteen but looked younger because I was so short. He was a ruggedly well-built Australian though also sensitive. I admired him and I liked the way he painted. It was my first experience of a real artist. His name was Carl Lock.
Carl lived in a stable at the back of a house on South Terrace in Adelaide. He kept the top part of the door closed and would duck under to enter. There was no bed, just a couch and a kerosene heater for warmth. It was my first experience of a bohemian life. I thought him old (he was almost bald) though he was only 38, ten years my father’s junior. He was also patient & encouraging and taught me a lot – how to lay out a palette, how to mix colours, how to make a Claude glass. Of course I learnt without fully comprehending what I was learning, over almost two years.
Then suddenly, one Saturday, he wasn’t there. I went to see his landlady. She told me he had suffered a burst appendix and was in hospital so I went to see him there. Then his wife and two children arrived. I didn’t know he had a family. He had left them in order to paint.
He never returned to his studio and I never saw him again. That left a terrific hole in my young life – after he had so generously opened a door for me into one that I longed for. I had dreamed of becoming an artist but that was a childish fantasy until I met Carl Lock.
Later, at art school; I tried everything except what I had learnt from Carl Lock. After I graduated as a high school art teacher, I returned to what I would like to have done if I had remained on the path he had revealed.
Many things he said have stayed with me. I could work with or against any of them. Such as: to paint light you must intensify the darks around it. But I wanted to create a more intense high key light than his, almost as if to disprove him. He painted directly from observation without preliminary drawing. I love drawing above all else. So I made up a frame with strings to place before a subject so could first draw, then paint over it. And since I’m naturally more driven by emotion than intellect, such mechanical means gave me control as well as order.
Has the pandemic changed your focus ?
When the pandemic struck and we experienced the first lockdowns last year, I was already thinking about bringing my work together in a book. It is an ongoing worry – whether what I make has any value? So gathering my work together from the earliest to most recent might help me to assess it more critically. I grew up in the 1950s & ‘60s, attended art school/teachers’ college in the mid-60s. That was the time when American art first began to dominate/strongly influence Australian art. I didn’t care much for any of it and didn’t like hard-edged abstraction. I’m not particularly conservative but I wanted something concrete, less decorative or pattern-like, and to seek my own way to it. In London in 1973 I moved away from still life compositions & began to seek my subjects in the street.
How did you find your own way?
I saw an exhibition of Sickert’s work at the Art Gallery of SA in Adelaide in 1968. I’d never heard of him before. The Gallery’s curator, Lou Klepac, was responsible. I was bowled over by the exhibition, visiting it many times. Before that I was very anti-British in my taste. Sickert was however half Danish/half German, though I didn’t know that at first. And he made small drawings, squared them up to make paintings. That fascinated me. I was also struck by his subject matter. It seemed very Dutch to me – everyday life. I soon collected everything I could find on Sickert. His work and what I discovered in my quest to know his work thoroughly, helped me more than anything else in how to go about making pictures of things seen the street.
The streets of London quite took me over when my wife and I lived there in 1973. The brick is a grubby khaki, but in daylight it glows like olive oil. I really fell in love with London. I have the drawings from that year in my books or albums. Before that experience in London I destroyed almost everything. But there I realized that if I make a drawing of something that contains a real experience, not just a fact, it is worth keeping; And also that I must like or be strongly attracted by what I see. So I started keeping my drawings despite their initial crudity. Looking at them I can remember where and why I made them.
What is important to you in a painting?
I don’t particularly want to make pictures of what I see but rather of what I feel about what I see. And not necessarily expressionistically, rather to reflect why certain subjects matter to me. One of my lecturers at art school suggested painting on paper. Instead of making a painting on a board or stretcher, to just make a study in oil on paper. That’s how my process evolved; and drawing small, at the ‘scale of vision’ like Sickert, instead of on big sheets of paper, as was encouraged at art school. Now, when I draw in charcoal on large sheets of paper, it is to determine the size an image or painting could or should be. And, heaven forbid, I use photographs too. They can be helpful in getting to grips with a subject that is not in front of you (which mine seldom are) and help me to avoid being a slave to observed fact. Sickert used photographs, as did Degas and many others, including a personal favourite, the Dutch late 19th/early 20th century painter George Hendrik Breitner.
My work comes largely out of intuition and action, and I don’t want to over-think it. What matters is solving visual problems and to try and learn from what you make. For me art is the residue left over from all the activity. Usually I dislike my paintings after I’ve finished them and cover them with sheets. I have to get them out of the way or I might destroy them, or scrape them off. After time, a year or more, I can look at them more dispassionately, or as I might have in my former life as a curator!
You have an unusual technique of painting, using a hand -made gesso ground. Why do you use that?
Gesso was a chance thing. Some friends were talking about gesso around the time I left art school/teachers’ college. They didn’t reveal how it was made. Something about it appealed to me however, so I read up about it and experimented. I’ve always loved plaster. I favoured it in sculpture classes at art school My father was a housepainter and an able plasterer, repairing walls in readiness to paint them.
There were a lot of failures at first, especially because I liked painting on coarse cloth or hessian. Sometimes, the gesso would lift or crack off, or when on a stretcher, distort into sails. I must say that I love making my linen and gesso boards. When dry they are as lovely to touch as porcelain. And beautiful to paint on.
Gesso is very absorbent – the paint soaks in quickly and draws out the oil, leaving pure pigment on the surface. Tones change or darken in drying. The other thing with gesso is that you have to paint in one go. The next layer won’t marry if you let it dry – there will be no unity of surface. So, you must work quickly.
I used to get into a terrible mess at first. Gradually I learned how. Nowadays I paint very thinly, trying to make the most of the absorbency and whiteness of gesso. But it is very different from the gesso you buy in an art shop. Chalk and rabbit skin glue are organic, quite unlike anything based on acrylic or PVA.
There are more ways of making art than there have ever been. Is there a future for painting?
Over the centuries painting has been challenged and its processes have evolved. You can’t say that there is only one way to make a work of art. Art is a form of language. And the language of painting continues to develop.
My closest friends in Sydney/in NSW are young(er) painters. Each of them could almost be children of mine, considering their age and mine. They give me hope that painting has a future.
Is art irrelevant to world problems like a global pandemic?
My wife and I used to look at COVID numbers in televised press conferences each day. That’s mostly depressing. The real thing is what we do with our days. To spend them focused on an activity that has no practical use other than itself is a curious or special privilege. We are lucky. I am lucky to be able to spend time trying to solve visual or pictorial problems, that must seem insane or meaningless to others. I/we deal better with the world by having art in our lives. I don’t know how other people get through their days without it? All I have to do is pick up a book, listen to a piece of music or look at a painting or drawing to be instantly transported into the marvel of imaginative experience. It is life-changing and life affirming to be involved in art.
Hendrik Kolenberg’s previous solo exhibition here