Oud Holland

Review of: 'Erich Wichman: Ironische kunst, tragisch leven' (2019)

February 2020

Review of: Frans van Burkom, Erich Wichman: Ironische kunst, tragisch leven, Zwolle [Waanders], 2019

After the exhibition ‘Erich Wichman. Vrije radicaal’ ended on 24 March 2019 in the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, the monograph and catalogue Erich Wichman. Ironische kunst, tragisch leven, was published by the Wichman connoisseur Frans van Burkom. It is 336 pages and, therefore, probably the thickest book to occur in the series Monografieën Nederlandse Kunstenaars (MNK), which has appeared since 1986, and ceased publication with this book.

In his brief introduction, Van Burkom outlines what the reader can expect from this book about Erich Wichman (1890-1929). He does this on the basis of two portrait photos that bound Wichman's short, yet intense life. Thereafter, he starts at the beginning, at the time of Wichman’s birth, and describes how Wichman grew up as a Dutch child in a German family of professors in Utrecht, as an only son and ancestor, and how, from an early age, he never strove to be 'politically' correct. Unmanageable and, as characterised by Van Burkom, more than likely to be what is today known as autistic and/or ADHD; he shows that it was not so much the father who was responsible for this continuous, inevitable behaviour of this extremely intelligent child, but instead, his mother. This is a change from the point of view that Van Burkom previously held, in his Erich Wichman 1890-1929 tussen idealisme en rancune (which as written with Hans Mulder), and appeared in 1983 at the exhibition of the same title on display at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, and the Drents Museum in Assen. This change in interpretation is based on Van Burkom's years long research into the possible causes and explanations for the way in which Wichman arranged his life and career. In addition to the Prussian-oriented family, with Bildungsidealen instinct, and professional interest in the natural sciences that his father instilled in him, his mother brought from her family, a fondness for literature and poetry. Yet, convinced of her son's genius, she saw it as her own role to allow him to follow his own erratic path, for everything. She facilitated this by financing him, first via secret payment channels, and later (after the divorce of her husband) via a special fund. Wichman’s sister Clara, just as brilliant as her brother, but unlike him indeed, as she was particularly socially developed, also financially contributed to Wichman's livelihood, and that of his wives (2) and children (4 in total). With this publication, Van Burkom convincingly demonstrates that his mother's concern for him, also oppressed him, and later formed a barrier to his development into an adult. She kept him, on a rather long leash. For instance, even the death notice of Wichman in 1929 was not drafted by his widow, but rather by his mother. After his death, it was also her who sought to secure Wichman's legacy. It is from documents – letters, postcards, photographs and printed matter that Van Burkom tracked down from scattered sources, preserved by friends and relations – that this monographic biography on Wichman is based upon.

Cover of Erich Wichman. Ironische kunst, tragisch leven.
Middle left: fig. 1 Erich Wichman with Bobby and a walking stick, 26 March 1913.
Middle right: fig. 3 Erich Wichman, Het mannetje uit de Maan, 1926, oil on slate, 22.5 x 33 cm., Zwolle, Collectie Museum De Fundatie, inv. 0000002313.
Right: fig. 4 Interior of the Dutch pavilion for the ‘International Exhibition of Arts and Crafts Modernes à Paris 1925’.

During his life, Wichman made an effort to document both his writings and his visual work. The importance he attached to the chronological arrangement of his works, is in striking contrast to the manner in which Wichman developed as a person, and artist. In his life, he increasingly gave the impression of wanting to evaporate, and be absorbed into nothing. Certainly, during his stay abroad in the 1920s, when he was starving, and wanted to write about the 'art of straining', yet still held tight to the chronology of his work. He also used such a strict guideline for exhibiting his own work. This apparently made it possible for him to work as an artist completely unhindered and entirely separate from 'the now'. Wichman was not alone with such a risky attitude. It was expected of avant-garde artists that they were to step into the unknown, and from there, discover new terrain. In addition, groups of such artists were usually formed to increase the chance of success, but also to compensate for any setbacks. Whereas others found a degree of protection by gathering a group of kindred spirits around themselves – whether or not connected to a publication of the time – Wichman (alone and in a very different environment) built up a network of friends who could strategically support him. It was not that he didn’t want to associate himself with kindred artists, or that he didn’t want to use, for instance, a magazine as a stage. He certainly undertook various attempts: in 1915-1916 with Theo van Doesburg (which ultimately went wrong when Van Doesburg founded De Stijl in 1917); but also afterwards and with more success, with the groups in the magazines De wiekslag (1917-1918), La revue du feu (1919) and the De anderen (1919). But he only engaged with these publications for a short period of time. In the long run, the core of Wichman's network was mainly formed by friends of his from Utrecht, whose circle Wichman had managed to enter as a student. It was these friends who continued to support him and his decisiveness, from their later social and dilettante positions.

From 1909 (and until 1911), student life offered Wichman the freedom to live and develop himself with all the swaggering characteristics of a ‘frat boy’, literally and theatrically, both in word and in performance. Here he was allowed the possibility of expressing himself entirely according to his own, anti-bourgeois and anti-social understanding (fig. 1). And this was, more than once, unadulterated and arrogant, sexist, anarchist and in the end, even fascist. The relatively safe and protective elite circle in which this was possible, was not completely free, but he continued to inhabit it, and moved within it. This environment was also stimulating in a scientific sense. Here he was able to further expand his (m) knowledge, and follow his interests in biology, chemistry and history. He attended philosophy classes at Utrecht University with the popular professor Hegelian Gerard Bolland, and art history classes with Willem Vogelsang – the first professor in that field. Wichman immersed himself in Western art and equally in non-Western, especially Eastern art (about which, Van Burkom notes, this became especially popular during the years 1914-1918). In interpreting various works by Wichman, Van Burkom points to the importance of Asian art and indicates how the knowledge that Wichman has extracted from this, determines the significance of his art. Through his study, Wichman understood that creation of great art in the past, could coincide with socially different lifestyles and values. To him, this was demonstrated by Chinese music-making poets, painters and wine-drinking scholars, or even by hermits and monks, both of whom worked in seclusion. This knowledge must have supported his legitimacy to be an artist on the edge of society. Perhaps he even saw it as a condition to capture the essence of his time in his art. He used his own circle of friends to create the coarse material conditions for that: through his financing, business contacts and exhibition possibilities.

The book also contains treatises on Wichman's personal life: those from within his family and his circle of friends, are interspersed with those about his career as an artist, in which his work – building up his artistic oeuvre and his position within modern art in the Netherlands – are discussed. Below, the presentation of the content of the latter aspects is the focus of discussion.

Connection to the avant-garde
Van Burkom provides a good impression of Wichman's headstrong coming of age with a great deal of attention to his artistic development, in addition to his literary and art-critical activities that he had been developing since his student days (1909-1911). But also, for his talents as a visual artist. After private painting lessons with the teacher of painting and heraldry at the Utrecht arts and crafts school, with Tiele van der Laars, and creating oil painting landscapes (1909-1910), Van Burkom states that in August 1912, Wichman seriously started painting 'flat', decorative and colourful (half) abstractions. Van Burkom points out the influence of recent movements such as Cubism, Futurism and especially Expressionism, and in particular that of Wassily Kandinsky, about whose art and ideas Wichman was informed by the Utrecht artist Janus de Winter. Herwarth Walden quickly joined as an informant of Wichman's. As a German organiser of exhibitions, of the Italian Futurists travelling the Netherlands in 1912 and an overview of Kandinsky, Walden guided them with explanations, and even lectures. In addition, Walden offered readers of his magazine Der Sturm, the opportunity to become thoroughly acquainted with international, contemporary art expressions. The contact between Wichman and Walden soon paved the way for the publication of Wichman in Der Sturm – the first time in an edition from November 1912. Within the space of a year, Wichman developed from a young artist who wanted to know more and could become a connoisseur of the avant-garde, in which he also found connection as a painter, and through which Wichman was to quickly present his own paintings. In 1913 he participated in the spring and autumn exhibitions of the artists association De Onafhankelijken in Amsterdam.

Although Wichman, just like De Winter, was impressed by Kandinsky, both by his work and his theory as laid down, for example, in Kandinsky's book Uber Das Geistige in der Kunst (1912), his canvases from these early years can actually seem to be more elaborately inviting, in comparison with those of different abstract Dutch painters. In particular, the almost unimaginative paintings that Jacob Bendien, Jan van Deene and Chris Hassoldt made in Paris in the years 1911-1912, are eligible for consideration – some of which were exhibited in Amsterdam in the autumn of 1912. Their work was presented as ‘Absolute Painters’ in that autumn at the exhibition ‘The Independent’. Van Burkom references this, yet chooses to treat the effect of Kandinsky's colours (and Symbolism) as one of the most meaningful influences of his in Wichman's painting. There is no doubt that Walden and Kandinsky were of great importance to Wichman, although their significance as a source of inspiration could, perhaps, be more emphasised. For example, the Erster Deutscher Herbstsalon Walden organised in Berlin in 1913, must have had a great effect on Wichman. Walden invited Wichman to participate in this huge global overview of modern, contemporary art – with nearly 400 works by a total of 90 artists from Europe and America. He also invited him to be present at the opening festivities at the end of September 1913. Wichman responded to both requests. He exhibited there, and travelled to Berlin, where he met Kandinsky in person. At that international exhibition, he also found an extensive range of expressionist art from, among others, the Der Blaue Reiter group, to which Kandinsky belonged, Cubist art by the French, and Futuristic works by the Italians and Russians, as well as art by fellow countrymen as Jacoba van Heemskerck, Piet Mondriaan, Jan Sluijters and Leo Gestel, who were influenced by both Expressionism (Van Heemskerck) and Cubism (the others). In the exhibition, Walden had arranged a Sonderschau for the work of Henri Rousseau. That the Herbstsalon made an impression on Wichman, is quite clear from his description of the international development of modern art in his book New directions in painting: Cubism. Expressionism. Futurism etc., which was published less than six months later, in March 1914. In the publication, he takes the Cubists and Futurists as artists who had turned away from the representation of reality, and instead constructed their own images by breaking open forms and applying linear diagrams. That the Cubists saw an example of this in Rousseau's work, was a view that Wichman adopted. Apart from the Herbstsalon, Wichman reveals other striking insights in his writings, as he recalls the late-nineteenth-century monumental mural painting, and the 'revived artisanal' influence of applied art on contemporary art, during the twentieth.

Wichman's 1914 publication, therefore, offers a surprising preview of his own work, in which murals (as those in schools in Amsterdam, 1920-1921) play an important role, as well as decorative objects that he executed in silverware, bronze and ceramic (1919-1928). With this publication, Wichman positioned himself as one of the best-informed writers on contemporary art. This was also a knowledge he applied to his own visual work. For example, Italian Futurism (in particular the art of Umberto Boccioni) plays a role in the conception of abstract woodcuts made by Wichman from the end of 1914-1919 (which, according to their titles, still expresses feelings or even phenomena). Van Burkom convincingly demonstrates this.

Wichman's artworks
After his abstract, ‘flat’ decorative paintings (1912-1914) and his mood-expressing woodcuts (1914-1915), Wichman began designing objects around 1917: boxes and bowls, using silver for their covers. Candlesticks and reliefs were cast in bronze. He also conducted research into material (behaviour) and methods, in order to be able to model these materials from, among other things, the studio that he had overtook from Carel Begeer that year in his silver factory in Utrecht (1917-1919). In addition to precious metal objects sold through Begeer, Wichman was also free to publish his own editions of novelties, such as his metal concrete reliefs. In addition, he designed a series of prints from 1919: black and white lithographs, followed by almost entirely unimaginative woodcuts, etchings, dry point prints and mezzo tones. In 1920 he trained in ceramic techniques, primarily to be able to model vases by hand.

Probably stimulated by the publication of the album Erich Wichman tot 1920. Afbeeldingen en Geschriften. Met een inleiding door Dr. W. Vogelsang, he would soon receive commissions for murals at two Amsterdam schools (1920-1921). Their appearance had a similar effect to his metallisation on his concrete reliefs. Encouraged by the recognition of dance figures in this abstract work, Wichman subsequently introduced figuration, both in his painting and later in his statuettes and jewellery: caricature figures and mask-like faces (fig. 3). In addition to continuing his production of decorative objects, from 1923 onward he released litho folders, in which heads and masks emerge from soft colour in the background; heads that grew into spot images and ghost-like appearances. A similar development in his visual language has been evident since 1925, in his paintings, in which abstracted frontal faces are set against a foundation with erased soft colour paths. The same stylised heads also appear in his jewellery: in his brooches and pendants, but also in paperweights made from 1926 in metals. Wichman was also invited, in 1925, to participate in creating the interior of the Dutch pavilion for the ‘International Exhibition of Arts and Crafts Modernes à Paris 1925’ (fig. 4), designing stained glass windows and a metal concrete bench.

Imaginative Expressionism
Van Burkom ultimately finds the unimaginable expressionism with Symbolic touch ('unimaginative', used here to replace the tricky term Abstract Expressionism from the book, which has nothing to do with the work of Jackson Pollock, for which it was later used) runs throughout Wichman's oeuvre and connects his, quite diverse artworks. This style should not be interpreted as a fixed or unambiguous form. After the more reasoned coloured Symbolism of Kandinsky, Van Burkom signals the effect of intuitive and anti-theoretical expressionism with an esoteric tendency, as defined after World War I by the works of the Rotterdam-based artists Laurens van Kuik and Bernard Canter, who were associated with the magazine Holland express, and to the group De Branding. The ‘transcendental realism’ of Bernard Toon Gits, from that same circle of artists, which can be interpreted as visionary, Wichman also displayed sympathy towards. Van Burkom illustrates the fact that the older forms of Symbolism continued to play a role in Wichman's black and white lithographs from 1919 onwards. As an important source for these prints, he mentions a gloomy Symbolism, as recognised in 'Les Noirs' (1879-1888): that is, the dark lithographs of Odilon Redon that were much loved in the Netherlands. Van Burkom uses the term ‘material symbolism’ for the style of Wichman’s decorative objects, especially his silver works and metal concrete reliefs. It is a form of Symbolism in which the artist was guided by the behaviour and possibilities of expression of the material, and the creative process. It was a process that ran in accordance to a doctrine (à la Kandinsky), which was completely replaced by the creation of the image, by creating it from one gesture, or even from a series of gestures.

What is also surprising, and important, is what Van Burkom further notes on the effect of the forms of Expressionism as they occurred at the time in the Netherlands. As a result of the 'adhesions' he found between various artists' circles in the years 1917-1918 – in which many variations between Symbolist, early-Abstract and Expressionist tendencies emerged – he highlighted the group that formed around Henri Le Fauconnier in North Holland, and Het signaal magazine, of which two issues were published (in 1916 and in 1917). The Bergen-residing French artist Le Fauconnier, also played an important role in this, and formed the link with a French Symbolist Cubism, in which Van Burkom finds ‘unanimism’ to be felt, or seen. That term, coined by the French poet Jules Romain, means the striving of a group for a common soul, which was an aim for shaping the cosmic sense of the life of man. It is also described as a form of Romantic Expressionism. Interestingly, Van Burkom also recognises that trend in La revue du feu, published in 1919 in Amsterdam, by Arthur Pétronio. With Wichman, who had contacts in both the Bergen and Amsterdam circles, he sees this ‘unanimism’ working through in his ‘material symbolism’, in his tactile manipulation of the silver gear, which thus acquired layered-associative and his characterful forms. Van Burkom also considers that Wichman used this material symbolism for applied art and art objects, in the broader interest in the arts and crafts that he notices at Het signaal. It is this way of working with precious metal that prompted Wichman to make his three-dimensional works, in ceramics and bronze, in which the form was to occur naturally and in one go from the act: paperweight, ashtrays and later, vases.

Wichman's work had been regularly exhibited from his outset as an artist, and was often noted in the press. Van Burkom reports on this aspect of his life vividly. In addition, he rehabilitates along the way, a single critic such as Kasper Niehaus, who at the time was fiercely undermined by Wichman, due to his often-outspoken rancour, even if because of a single critical remark. Van Burkom points out that Niehaus’ comments are justified, and even finds him to be a persistent and good critic, who continued to follow Wichman's work. Wichman reached a high point in 1920 with his solo exhibition in P.M. Broekmans’ art gallery above his music publishing house on the Van Baerlestraat in Amsterdam, where the subsequently named issue was published with an introduction by Vogelsang. That this album, Erich Wichman tot 1920, appeared in three editions: a basic edition (for Fl. 8.50 or Fl. 9.50); a wealth edition (Fl. 120.00); and a collector's edition (for Fl. 450.00) – says something not only about the importance assigned to his work, but also about the expected buyers of it. These were not only Wichman's friends, and old study mates, but also new art connoisseurs who, like Vogelsang, were associated with the Dutch art historical institutions and museums. At that time, Wichman was not only one of the best-known avant-garde artists in the Netherlands, but he also managed to interest a new elite in his work.

After the eight chapters of Van Burkom's publication, follows the oeuvre catalogue, which itself is limited in this MNK series, to Wichman's oeuvre currently in museum collections. Fortunately, the text itself contains many works from private collections. That portion of the publication is further, and quite exemplarily illustrated with about 250 images, though it is unfortunate that not all works have been reproduced in the oeuvre catalogue itself. It is clear from the oeuvre catalogue that the Centraal Museum in Utrecht has the largest collection of works by Wichman, which were acquired fairly late, in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The largest collection of prints – more than 150 – can be found in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, some of which were purchased during Wichman's lifetime (in 1925), when he also donated one, while a lithograph had already been donated by the Vrienden van het Rijksprentenkabinet (in 1923). This endorses the high appreciation described by Van Burkom that Wichman had experienced during his lifetime from connoisseurs in the museum and university worlds, and the connoisseurs who were open to contemporary art at the time, and thus recognised Wichman's special contribution to modern art. While enthusiasts of his work are present in the book – such as Vogelsang and Bram Hammacher, and the critics of his work such as Niehaus and Jan Engelman; Van Burkom also investigates the full breadth and depth of where that meaning of Wichman's art originated, and how it originated, which is convincingly intertwined with Wichman's life and with the Expressionist movements. It is only wished that every important artist was to have such a thoroughly investigative researcher and, in particular, such an influential interpreter as an author, as Van Burkom.

Alied Ottevanger
Curator of Twentieth-Century Prints and Drawings
Translated from the Dutch to the English by John Bezold.
Alied Ottevanger, ‘Review of: F. van Burkom, Erich Wichman: Ironische kunst, tragisch leven, 2019', Oud Holland Reviews, February 2020.