Bart van der Leck

This biography is taken from the Christies catalogue for a sale of van der Leck's work held in 2001. See Note 1 below for details of the source and alternative versions.

Bart van der Leck (1876-1958)
by Cees Hilhorst

When he died at his painter's easel two weeks before his 82nd birthday, after a career spanning over half a century, Bart van der Leek left an oeuvre of no more than approximately 175 paintings. He may not have been a prolific artist, but he worked diligently all his life. However, he lacked confidence, and neither his self-doubt nor the integrity from which it stemmed were ever to leave him. He found it difficult to declare a painting finished and then to put it aside. As a result - particularly in his later life - many of his paintings remained in the studio for years, awaiting his seal of approval. Yet there are other reasons why he left a comparatively small oeuvre. For besides painting, Van der Leek was always interested in various types of applied art. He tried his hand at typography, stained-glass work, interior design and ceramics, but – contrary to what he himself aimed at - owes his reputation mainly to painting.

Bart van der Leek (1876-1958) was born in Utrecht, a medium-sized provincial capital, whose university tempered the stifling lethargy that took hold of the Netherlands in the 19th century. 1 While at school he found little inspiration from the working-class atmosphere of his parental home, where poverty reigned and where numerous births alternated with almost as many deaths. He left school at the age of 14 - which was not particularly young at the time - and found a position as an apprentice at one of Utrecht's stained-glass workshops, where he learnt the techniques of this ancient craft. At 16, he became friends with Piet Klaarhamer (1874-1954), the future architect and teacher of Gerrit Rietveld (1886-1964). Though Klaarhamer was almost the same age as Van der Leek, the fortune of his birth and education had given him a considerable intellectual advantage and he remained Van der Leek's guide and mentor for the next 25 years. He inspired his friend's spiritual and intellectual development and under his influence Van der Leek started reading prose and even poetry, took up French, and acquired a lasting interest in theology and philosophy. His exposure to new ideas led him away from the Christian doctrine of his youth, which he exchanged for a lifelong affinity with left-wing progressive political movements and some of the mystical ideologies that were gaining ground in the Netherlands around the turn of the century. His interest in the spiritual side of life appears to have aroused his artistic ambitions, for he soon joined the local artists' association Kunstliefde (meaning 'love of art'), where he studied life drawing. In 1900, Van der Leek enrolled at the Rijksschool voor Kunstnijverheid (the National Applied Arts Academy) in Amsterdam, and a year later he started attending evening drawing classes at Amsterdam's Rijksacademie voor Beeldende Kunsten (National Fine Arts Academy). 2 The emergence of the Arts & Crafts movement in Britain around that time and its impact on the art centres of Europe inspired a revival of the applied arts in the Netherlands. However, Van der Leek's interest in the applied arts must have been based largely on political and social considerations. His aim was to bring art down from its ivory tower, incorporate it in daily life and make it accessible to the public at large. His efforts to abolish the distinction between fine and applied arts shaped his entire career. He even reached a point where his paintings were not only works of art in their own right, but could also be incorporated into a wall or wall panelling, and could even serve as patterns for murals, tapestries or glazed tiles.

In 1904, after completing both courses in Amsterdam, Van der Leek embarked on his real career. At first, he led an unsettled existence, drifting from one place to another in the Netherlands. He kept himself occupied by designing illustrations for books and other ephemera (see lot 181) as well as furniture upholstery, usually in collaboration with Klaarhamer. He also sketched from nature and in the working class neighbourhoods that had sprung up in several cities (see lot 192). He was unable to afford expensive materials such as oil paints and canvas, so that most of his work from this period consists of pastels and chalk drawings on paper. In 1906 at one of his lodgings, he met his future wife, the teacher Bertha Teerink (1883-1959), who proved to be another important intellectual sounding board in his life. Soon afterwards he met H.P. Bremmer (1871-1956), a mediocre Painter who soon found his true vocation - and greater success- teaching art to a growing coterie of well-to-do admirers. Bremmer was later to emerge as a valuable Patron of the arts and one of the most influential Dutch art critics of his day. The two men formed a close and lasting friendship, from which both benefited. 3 Bremmer must also have been a source of intellectual inspiration to Van der Leek. He certainly had an appreciable influence on his artistic development, although without tangible evidence it is difficult to assess the extent of his impact.

By nature, Van der Leek had 'Apollonian' rather than 'Dionysian' leanings, and his training in the decorative arts would only have reinforced this tendency. His artistic development around 1905 and for the following 15 years stands as a textbook example of a very gradual, step-by-step evolution, in which each successive stage was discernible, logical and inevitable. The guiding principle in this process throughout the years was a striving towards simplification, generalisation and synthesis. Van der Leek literally 'abstracted' various aspects of his paintings and representations to make the content more universal. He applied to his canvases the rules of wall painting, one of the few types of art with a traditionally public function, by avoiding three-dimensional effects. He emphasised the flatness of the canvas by not using overlapping figures or strong diagonals. He simplified the attitudes of his figures by representing them from the front or en face or in the 'Egyptian' manner (see lot 219), and stripped the 'models' of their individuality by rendering them without personal distinctive features (fig.1). More often than not, they were rendered in identical garments and poses. Van der Leek lifted his scenes from their normal context by depicting them against a white background (fig.2). To enable his paintings to be incorporated into a wall -thereby ignoring the distinction between painting and architecture and uniting the two completely – he abandoned the customary support of canvas on a wooden stretcher and took to working on sheets of asbestos. He emphasised the flatness of the image by avoiding shadow effects and applying his colours evenly. He gave these colour fields distinct outlines and where possible 'straightened' the contours. He reduced any remaining resemblance between representation and reality by letting parts of the scene 'float' over the white background, as if immune to gravity. 4

This was the stage Van der Leek had reached when, in early 1914, Bremmer - who for a few years had been providing him with a steady income in exchange for his paintings - introduced him to the collector Helene Kroller-Muller (1869-1939) and through her to Wm. H. Miiller & Co., one of the largest trading companies in the Netherlands. Van der Leek was engaged as their 'artist-in-residence', the idea being that he would team up with the famous architect H.P. Berlage (1856-1934), who at the time also worked exclusively for Muller & Co. His first assignment was to design a stained-glass window for the company's head office in The Hague. He was sent to Algeria and southern Spain for two and a half months to prepare himself for the project. The impressions he gained during that time were to have a marked impact on his uncommissioned work for several years. Shortly afterwards, he was invited to design a poster for the Batavier Line, which ran a passenger and cargo service between Rotterdam and London. These two assignments resulted in works that even today are considered milestones in the history of Dutch applied arts.

For practical reasons, Van der Leek and his family - he married in 1912 - moved to The Hague, where he continued to paint in his spare time. Here, perhaps inspired by more frequent contact with Bremmer,he found the direction that was to lead to his most conspicuous contribution to the development of the visual arts. In mid-1915, he must have come to the conclusion that having 'abstracted' content, form and composition, he should start doing the same with colour to achieve further synthesis in his work. He therefore started to reduce the natural colours to their principal primary components and from then on painted exclusively in the unmixed colours red, yellow and blue and the non-colours black and white (and a decade later, slightly inconsistently, in grey). His first paintings in this unusual palette were The Storm and Stevedores, both completed in 1916. 5

In the meantime, nothing had come of the envisaged collaboration between Van der Leek and Berlage, mainly because of the smouldering rivalry between these two strong, perhaps stubborn, personalities. As a rule, Berlage did not confine himself to architecture, but designed total works of art, leaving his own distinctive mark on the interiors of his buildings. Hence, there was little for Van der Leek to do in the way of either painting or wall painting, or advising on colour. Commissions for monumental works of art for the company were not forthcoming and Van der Leek was spending more and more of his time on rather trivial work for Helene Kroller-Muller personally (see lot 220). In the spring of 1916, he decided that enough was enough, and asked to be released from his contract. The terms were amended and he again found himself in a similar position as he had been with Bremmer: he was to give all his paintings to Helene Kroller-Miiller in exchange for a steady income. The arrangement was to be reviewed every year. Van der Leek and his family immediately moved to Laren, a small village near Amsterdam, which had gained a reputation as an artists' colony and as a good - and inexpensive - place to live. 6

In Laren Van der Leek met Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), who had been visiting his family in the Netherlands when the First World War broke out and was unable to return to Paris. Following completely different paths, both artists had reached a similar point in the development of their theories of art, aimed at a rigorous synthesis of the visible world. They formed a firm friendship from which both were to benefit, albeit at different times and on different levels. Mondrian must have introduced Van der Leek to 'Christosopher' Mathieu Schoenmaekers (1875-1944), whose two publications, Het Nieuwe Wereldbeeld (The New World Image) of 1915 and Beginselen der Beeldende Wiskunde (Principles of Plastic Mathematics), which appeared in 1916, had a substantial impact on them. Schoenmaekers influenced not only their painting, but also the terminology Van der Leek subsequently employed to describe his work: 'The modern [artist] consistently explores the fundamentals of existential being to achieve transparency in spatial mathematical unity [author's italics] and hence discover the true reality of all humanity, i.e. the representation of physical transience in spatial cosmic reality. 7

Through Mondrian, or perhaps Vilmos Huszar (1884-1960), whom he had met among Bremmer's circle of acquaintances in The Hague, Van der Leek came into contact with Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931) in late 1916 and as a result became involved in the founding of the avant-garde journal De Stijl (1917-1931/32). 8 However, his association with the journal was short-lived. Through differences of opinion on art - and the personal quarrels that ensued - his relationship with Van Doesburg cooled so fast that Van der Leek must have withdrawn from the project around the time the first issue appeared. He did not even renew his subscription for the second year. All in all, his contribution to the journal was limited to two articles, in which he analysed the nature and functions of painting and architecture, examined their roles in relation to one another, and advocated a more influential role for painters vis-a-vis the all-powerful architect. Even so, his impact on De StijI should not be underestimated, though his name never appeared again. Van der Leek's main contribution to the journal - and to 20th century art history, though less striking - was that he introduced the ideal of integrating painting and architecture to the artists associated with De Stijl and thus laid one of the cornerstones for the ideology to which the journal owes its international reputation.

Under Mondrian's influence - and in line with Schoenmaekers's philosophy - Van der Leek had adapted his painting idiom. In his studies he continued to render his subjects in blocks of even, primary colours against a white background, but he would subsequently reduce the images by applying more and more white over the edges, 'painting them away', until all that remained were geometrical shapes set against a white background. Like Mondrian, he stopped giving his works titles. He only signed, dated and - for some time - numbered them on the back (see lot 202). They look rather like tangram puzzles, with the fundamental difference that Van der Leek's blocks of colour were never allowed to touch, let alone overlap, one another (fig.3). All his compositions incorporate an imaginary passepartout. The white backgrounds against which the images are set merge into a fairly wide white frame. In some cases, he painted a series of unconnected squares or rectangles on the borders of the scene, which - joined up in the observer's mind - actually did form an inner frame. Never was this frame to be closed - he even preferred not to have black lines printed around illustrations of his work - because he felt it would disconnect the painting from its surroundings. According to Van der Leek's rather metaphysical theory, 'open', or unconnected, shapes set against a white background gave the work itself an 'openness' and allowed its surroundings to keep influencing it. In other words, that 'openness' prevented the painting from becoming stultified and ultimately futile. Initially it was possible, with a little determination, to identify the original objects, but they grew increasingly indistinct in the course of 1917, as Van der Leek became more focused on the structure of his compositions. He distributed his blocks of colour over the picture plane according to an imaginary scheme of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines, with rotation playing an increasing role (see lot 202) at the cost of anatomical components and proportions of the model. Van der Leek's paintings no longer had anything to do with his original starting points in the visible world. At the exhibition held at Voor de Kunst in Utrecht in the spring of 1919, he called works of this kind Mathematical images. He had the following to say in the article referred to above: ‘Mathematical truth gives expression to all that exists in the cosmos. In the visual arts (painting) a single mathematical image or signal is a symbol or image of our spiritual experience of cosmic reality.' 9  Nevertheless, he apparently still needed an identifiable starting point for his studies with shapes and composition. 10

Van der Leek's influence on Mondrian, on the other hand, is far less clear. He sought Van der Leek's opinion on the articles he initially published in De Stijl, which his wife supposedly edited. In any event, Van der Leek deserves much of the credit for imbuing him with the idea of integrating painting and architecture. Given the profound concentration with which Mondrian was to furnish and decorate his studios he obviously took it very much to heart. Even so, their differing views on art drove a wedge between them In the end, Mondrian probably disapproved of the diagonal lines that Van der Leek continued to use, while Van der Leek frowned upon the grey-black rasters in Mondrian's compositions, which in his opinion sealed his works off from the outside world. Their friendship finally came to an end when Mondrian returned to Paris in 1919, but they never lost respect for one another as artists.

Bremmer and Helene Kroller-Muller were also disappointed with the path Van der Leek had chosen to follow in his work. They saw his 'break with the visible world' as an uncharacteristic imitation of Mondrian, and for Kroller-Muller it was reason enough to end the contract after the second year. Though Bremmer persisted for another year, he too finally decided to withdraw his support. He could only help Van der Leek financially as long as he could sell the works he acquired to his mostly well-to-do pupils, but by this time he apparently had too little faith in Van der Leek to take any further risk.

In March 1919, Van der Leek also fell out with Klaarhamer over an argument about money, so that within the space of a year he had managed to alienate himself from the four people who, apart from his family, had meant the most to him. As an artist, he appears to have suffered a crisis around this time, which may have been a precipitating factor. Though his work had been steady and consistent up to that point, his oeuvre from the years 1918 to 1921 displays a marked dichotomy. Besides the Mathematical images referred to earlier, in which the geometric structure of the compositions was paramount, he also produced work following the same procedure and still abstracting his original starting point, except that now, for a practised eye, it was fairly easy to reconstruct. And once again he started giving these works titles in order to give the observer something to go by (fig.4).

This was the direction that Bremmer felt was suited to him, and in mid-1920, when Van der Leek resolved to continue along these lines - possibly encouraged by Bremmer - the old contract was swiftly renewed. 11 In exchange for a agreed annual stipend, Van der Leek was to give all his work to Bremmer, who would try to sell it to his pupils. This arrangement remained in place for over a decade, during which time the family relied entirely on the income from Bremmer. For reasons of his own, Bremmer often suggested subjects he considered appropriate for Van der Leek, but left the artist free to decide for himself. And in many cases, Van der Leek complied with Bremmer's requests. He apparently felt that the role he had sought as an applied artist, which generally pre-supposed a patron, was also acceptable in 'free' painting. Through history this practice was by no means unusual, but it had largely died out with the Romantic Movement.

Van der Leck worked stedily throughout the 1920s, ultimately producing an average of about three or four paintings a year. He continued to develop his idiom, although the advances he made were more subtle than they had been in the past. He had found his ultimate form around 1920 and emerged as a mature artist. In the following years, however, that form was never to become an indifferent, automatic routine. One important step in that process of maturation should not be overlooked. In the mid-1920s, when he introduced a mixed grey for the elements that defined his pictures and reduced the number of areas in primary colours, Van der Leek started distributing those colour accents more systematically throughout the picture space. In his subsequent work these accents in the same colour usually appear on the corners of imaginary geometric shapes or on guiding lines such as the diagonals (fig.5). In this way, he explored the 'mathematical foundations' of the visible world with the utmost subtlety, but with no less thought than before.

Van der Leck’s less than prolific output declined further around 1930. He suffered a stroke towards the end of 1929, from which he only recovered slowly. In the meantime, the Netherlands was starting to feel the impact of the global economic crisis, and Bremmer was compelled to reduce Van der Leek's stipend. However, besides Bremmer a second patron had appeared on the scene in the person of Jo de Leeuw. De Leeuw owned the prestigious Metz & Co. department stores, which stocked not only a conventional range of products but also gave avant-garde artists, designers and architects an opportunity to produce, showcase and market their work. Its collection included fabrics by Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) and Vilmos Huszar, carpets by Georges Vantongerloo (1886-1965) and furniture by Rietveld and J.J.P. Oud (1890-1963). 12 Van der Leek was engaged to choose colours for the collections of fabrics and to design new interiors for De Leeuw personally and for the branches in The Hague (1934) and Amsterdam (1950/51). He worked with Rietveld on both projects. Several carpets bearing his designs were also produced over the years (some after the 'mathematical' paintings he had completed years earlier), and he also designed packaging materials.

In late 1933, hoping to break into a new market or adapt to one that was changing, Bremmer advised Van der Leek to try his hand at painting and glazing ceramics. This type of craftwork was relatively inexpensive and he was hoping it would find buyers in the unfavourable economic climate of the time. From 1936 on, after spending several years (!) mastering the technique of getting the glaze and colour just right, Van der Leek produced a steady flow of tiles. The majority were sold through the art gallery of G.J. Nieuwenhuizen Segaar in The Hague, mostly to a 'Bremmerian' public (see lot 210).

Van der Leek had thus drifted from the fine arts to the applied arts, which was precisely where he wanted to be. He produced only a few canvases at sporadic intervals after the mid-1930s. Nor did he paint much during the Second World War, partly for lack of equipment. He returned to his old calling once those dark years had passed, but his progress was slow. We know from the dates on his paintings that he often spent several years working on them. In fact The reaper (1946-1952) took a full six years (see lot 232). In the post-war years Van der Leek finally had several opportunities to achieve his lifelong ideal of integrating painting and architecture. Though most of these commissions were from and for private patrons, three projects stand out. The staff canteen at the Ketjen factory in Amsterdam (1952, in collaboration with his friend, the architect Piet Filing), the overall colour design project for the Dutch Aviation School in Eelde (1953/56, on which he worked with Pierre Cuypers) and the glazed-tile mural for the VARA studios in Hilversum (posthumously executed by Filing) gave him an opportunity to produce truly monumental art for a large public. Though no longer young, Van der Leek was not prepared to rest on his laurels. Around the mid-1950s, when he was almost 80 years old, he finally - or perhaps again - started producing completely non-figurative compositions. 13 Though this must have come as a surprise at the end of a career spanning so many years, he may have done so for a number of reasons, all of which are related to the revival of De Stijl shortly after the war, or more accurately, the appreciation it finally received in the Netherlands. The reappraisal was prompted by the international - predominantly American - appreciation Mondrian enjoyed towards the end of his life from the art world and the public at large. In 1945, the Museum of Modern Art in New York launched the first museum retrospective of his work, and was followed soon afterwards by the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In 1947/48, Nelly van Doesburg (1899-1975) persuaded seven American museums to mount a retrospective of her husband's work. 14 In the summer of 1951, the Stedelijk Museum mounted the long-awaited first retrospective of De StijI. This exhibition represented the Netherlands at the Venice Biennale the following year, before going on to the MoMA in New York. The committee responsible for preparing these exhibitions comprised several former contributors to the publication, plus Nelly van Doesburg. However, Van der Leek was not invited to join. These preparations and the exhibitions themselves inspired a 'documentary review' of the journal and its associates by H.L.C. Jaffe, which led to the publication of his highly praised dissertation in 1956. 15

Though Van der Leek had also had his first retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in the spring of 1949, he must nevertheless have felt pushed aside by the tremendous interest that De Stijl in general, and particularly Mondrian and Van Doesburg (whose work he considered dubious) had managed to generate. This may have prompted his decision to convince the world that he was capable of painting
completely non-representational compositions. The seven abstract paintings he completed in the last four years of his life (besides ten more 'conventional' works – he literally had a final spurt) prove that he indeed mastered
this idiom.

1. Biographical details are based largely on R.W.D. Oxenaar, Bart van der Leek tot 1920. Een primitief van de nieuwe tijd, Utrecht/The Hague 1976 (diss.). A summarised article based on this dissertation is available in several languages. In English as 'The Birth of De Stijl, Part two: Bart van der Leek' in Artforum, XI (1973) 10, pp. 36-43; in German as an article in Bart van der Leek 1875-1958, Berlin (Nationalgalerie) 1977, unpaginated (both revised and expanded in Mondrian und De StijI, Cologne (Galerie Gmurzynska) 1979. pp. 47-66; and in French as an article in van der Leek 1876-1958. A la recherche de I'image des temps modernes, Paris (Institut Neerlandais) 1980. pp. 5-12.

2. For results from this period, see lots 184 and 189.

3. The first evidence of contact between them is a postcard Bremmer sent Van der Leek on 11 May 1911. See Cees Hilhorst (ed.), Vriendschap op afstand. De correspondentie tussen Bart van der Leek en H.P. Bremmer, RKD-bronnenreeks I, Bussum 1999, p. 79. The introduction to this complete collection of letters has been translated into English; see 'Introduction', pp. 46- 73.

4. Bart van der Leek, Otterlo (Kroller-Muller Museum) 1994 offers the most comprehensively illustrated account of the development of Van der Leek's oeuvre.

5. Both paintings are in the collection of the Kroller- Muller Museum in Otterlo.

6. See Lien Heyting, De wereld in een dorp. Schilders, schrijvers en wereldverbeteraars in Laren en Blaricum 1880-1920, Amsterdam 1994.

7. B. van der Leek, (Inleiding), Tentoonstelling van werken door B. van der Leek, Utrecht (Vereniging 'Voor de Kunst') 1919, unpaginated.

8. On Van der Leek's involvement with De StijI, see Cees Hilhorst, 'Bart van der Leek', in Carel Blotkamp et al, De beginjaren van De StijI 1917-1922, Utrecht 1982, pp. 155-185. Translated into English: De StijI. The Formative Years 1917-1922, Cambridge (Mass.I/London 1985, pp. 153-185, and Italian: De StijI, Nascita di un movimento, Milan 1989, pp. 241-292. See also Carel Blotkamp and Cees Hilhorst, 'De dissidente kunstenaars: Bart van der Leek, Vilmos Huszar, Georges Vantongerloo' in Carel Blotkamp (ed.), De vervolgjaren van De StijI 1922-1932, Amsterdam/Antwerp 1996, pp. 311-362, notably pp. 313-330.

9. See n. 7.

10. See Hilhorst (note 8), figs. 145-147, 149-154, 157-164 and 169-170.

11. Another two Mathematical images were completed in 1921 (now in the collections of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Centraal Museum in Utrecht), but Van der Leek had started them earlier and they were therefore not covered by the contract.

12. See Petra Timmer, Metz & Co, de creatieve jaren, Rotterdam 1995.

13. According to the oeuvre list in W.C. Feltkamp, B.A. van der Leek. Leven en werken, Leiden s.a. [1956], the first 'non-figurative painting' must have been completed in 1954 (p. 96, no. 155); its whereabouts are unfortunately unknown to me. Although Feltkamp's datings are rather questionable, particularly for the later years (nos. 154 and 156 were not completed in 1954 as the list states, but in 1952-1955, given the dating on the backs), the first abstract composition must have been completed by the time the book appeared, in 1956.

14. Shortly after Van Doesburg's death, in 1932, a wide range had been on show in Paris and in 1936 four rooms were reserved for him at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. For Van Doesburg's posthumous exhibitions, see Wies van Moorsel, Nelly van Doesburg 1899-1975. 'De doorsnee is mij niet genoeg', Nijmegen 2000, pp. 212-246.

15. Jaffe informed Van der Leek of this plan on 13 December 1952; letter in the Bart van der Leek Archive, RKD,The Hague.

Bart van der Leck, Composition with one grey stripe, 56-57.58

Composition with one grey stripe
oil on canvas 110 x 105 cm