Hans Broek – ROOF-A, The Netherlands
4 Nov — 6 Jan 2024
Travel and painting converge in the representation of the landscape, the main theme in Hans Broek’s oeuvre, with the painter drawing inspiration from photos he takes during his worldwide peregrinations, often in locations where history has left its mark. His landscapes are a form of history painting, but not the kind that idealises significant historic events. Instead, Broek’s pictures help us imagine and even experience these events. “Geography is the eye of history”, the cartographer Abraham Ortelius wrote. Broek paints décors devoid of people, but ones in which the lives that once unfolded here are palpable.
In addition to being a reflection of a world elsewhere, landscapes also reflect our gaze. They can be paradisiacal or barren, make us feel homesick or patriotic, and even inspire sorrow or shame. Like travellers who go to find themselves in distant countries, the painter discovers his shortcomings and own capacities in his studio. Broek works in a former radio studio near Hilversum, where he has mounted some 600 reproductions of his paintings on the wall, in rows, in a chronological overview of the evolution of his work, which is remarkably consistent.
His first landscapes from the early nineties were inspired by travel memories. There is something unnerving about the expressive style and bold colours of these paintings. Unfinished houses in Sicily that are only partly occupied. A roadside telegraph pole under the dark, cloudy skies of Spain. In one of his landscapes, we see a remote house amid birches devoid of foliage in a farmyard with a gate (Untitled, 1993). The cast shadows and the unusual colours (the sky is mint green, the shrubs a purplish blue) are reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s morose villagescapes.
On the back of To the Wilderness (1992), one of the paintings for which the 27-year-old painter won the Koninklijke Subsidie voor Vrije Schilderkunst [Royal Grant for Painting], he added some lines from the Tom o’Bedlam song:
With a host of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air,
To the wilderness I wander
Tom o’Bedlam is the English archetype of the deranged vagabond, named after Bethlem Royal Hospital, better known as Bedlam. The words of the confused vagrant are a good indication of Broek’s artistic ambitions. His work is restless, reckless, driven. “In the beginning, I had no idea what I was looking for”, says Broek. “I just wanted to move beyond the horizon. To get lost.”
Los Angeles / California
In 1995, Broek relocated to Los Angeles, where he lived for ten years. He moved for love, but also because of the photos that the artist Monica Nouwens, who was his girlfriend at the time, sent him: pictures of modern bungalows on the city’s fringe. Broek implicitly knew that this was the subject he had in mind: “This is what I want to paint”. He set out on long drives, always taking his SLR camera with him. “The bright light accentuates everything, rendering it in sharp detail, even from a great distance. The misty ambience that I had grown so accustomed to in the Netherlands was completely absent here.” In his studio, he projected the slides on painter’s canvas, moving them around and searching for a theme that he could use, a suitable composition, a good distribution of light and darkness. His style of painting changed as he channelled his reckless precociousness – the beginner’s privilege. The layers of paint became thinner and less bold, the representation more accurate. He also began to use masking tape to paint ramrod straight contours.
Los Angeles is a city without a centre or boundaries, expanding anywhere the wind blows. In this urban sprawl, the wilderness is never very far from civilisation. Untitled (1996, De Pont Museum collection) depicts modern buildings that are seemingly scattered across densely grown hills. Roofs and façades are reduced to dove-grey or caramel-coloured planes, with dark green fan-like structures with sparkling dots making up the foliage. The flowing lines of the vegetation and the rhythmic structure of geometric rectangles form two patterns, running parallel or intersecting, not merging into one another and never converging.
These impeccable, orderly cityscapes are all about simplicity and clarity. “My Calvinist roots kicked in”, the painter says. “Pare everything down to the absolute minimum.” In the vein of Dutch masters such as Hendrik Goltzius, Philips de Koninck and Hercules Segers, Broek maps out the visible realm with an eagle eye. According to Claudio Magris, the outer frontiers of the visible world can only be reached through meticulous observation. There, providence permitting, we are granted a glimpse of what lies beyond, of the immutable light and the unwavering silence of the eternally hidden. However paradoxical this may sound, knowledge can enhance mysticism. As we see more, we find it easier to envisage the invisible curve of our destiny.
The panoramas unfold in landscape format (as opposed to portrait format), the horizon being more or less in the middle. The expanse above it gradually turns darker, in an almost perfect, colour gradient that would delight a painter like Jan Andriesse. The petrified suburbia is gallantly stylised. Pursuit and Possession (1998), meanwhile, depicts a house in a snowy landscape, where a fire rages inside (the theme refers to a woodcut by the Japanese artist Hokusai). The flames that burn through the roof are fused in an elegant formation of parallel arabesques, the glowing orange contrasting warmly with the earthy Van Dyck brown and the off-white of the surroundings. Everything that is even remotely dramatic is thus tempered. Mortal fear smothered in refinement.
Repoussoir and horizon fade from view when Broek takes photos during his night-time helicopter trips over the city. From the sky, Los Angeles is a looming, never-ending grid of roads and countless twinkling lights in the dark, as we know it from Hollywood films. In some of his painted nocturnes, buildings, streets, and parks seem to have inexplicably levitated, casting off their earthly shackles. The escape from gravity is liberating. LA no longer looks like the sun-drenched morgue that it is in the eyes of many a cynic. In one of the paintings, three of the floating planes are red, yellow, and blue, in a nod to Piet Mondrian’s liberating abstraction.
In these canvases, a tangible and recognisable Los Angeles looks both unfathomable and impenetrable. Like in a film noir, the familiar is shrouded in a cloak of mystery. We have left the promised land of unlimited possibilities behind, for uncharted, treacherous and unpredictable terrain. San Fernando Valley, Mulholland Drive (1997, Stedelijk Museum collection), a view from the motorway across the Hollywood Hills, brings to mind the feature film David Lynch made there four years later: Mulholland Drive (2001), a dark, sinister dream about Hollywood’s boulevard of broken dreams.
The American art of painters such as Ed Ruscha and Edward Hopper resonates in these visions of alienation and desolation. The rain-drenched petrol station in Gas (2006), in sparkling green neon, could be a backdrop from one of Jim Jarmusch’s road movies. This canvas marks the transition to a new phase in Broek’s work, coinciding with his move to New York. The American landscape, which initially seemed mysterious and inaccessible, and which gradually transformed into a backdrop for mental despair, is increasingly portrayed as a site marked by tragedy, a disaster area.
New York / East Coast / Greenland / Antilles
In his studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Broek was mainly inspired by imagery from films and videos. Cinema had always been a major source of inspiration and reference point for the painter. He even took an evening course in film studies. In his new series, Storyboard, the landscape is suffused with the film images on the silver screen.
Toni (2014) consists of five black-and-white paintings and is based on Jean Renoir’s eponymous film from 1935, a socio-realistic drama about an Italian migrant worker in the south of France who is wrongly accused of murder. One canvas depicts the location where the film was shot. “I knew that Renoir had shot certain scenes in the Camargue”, Broek explains. “The Ligne Bleue still runs along the coast. I took the train several times until I found the exact film location. And then I painted that very frame. The painting was created in the run-up to Brexit when there was much talk about the free movement of workers. Foreigners were the scapegoat, just like in Renoir’s film.”
Another black-and-white film location is Baltic (2014), depicting the frozen bay of the Gulf of Finland, a reference to the opening shot of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s The End of St Petersburg (1927). “You need to paint what you see”, Broek says, “but also how it makes you feel inside”. The pitch-black coastline in the foreground, the grey light on the barren ice plain, and the low sun on the distant horizon all contribute to an undefinable sense of loss. Broek: “Werner Herzog calls these prelinguistic images, images that express something for which you have no words, but which convey meaning.”
In the autumn of 2012, Hurricane Sandy tore through the Atlantic Seaboard, from the Caribbean to Canada, leading to widespread power outages and a complete blackout in New York. The natural disaster inspired Broek to create several large, almost square paintings on which the streets of the darkened metropolis resemble dark ravines. Broek visited the coast where the hurricane wreaked the most destruction, roaming through wind- and rain-lashed landscapes. Four monumental canvases from 2015-2016 depict the hauntingly beautiful devastation on Hunting Island, midway between Savannah and Charleston. “I walked around in the mist. The place was surreal, almost magical even. The area is mainly inhabited by Gullah, descendants of enslaved persons who worked on the plantations. I saw an African American mother crossing a wide road with her three small children, and for a moment, I thought I was in Africa.”
Broek trailed the hurricane to Greenland, where the ice caps are disintegrating at such a gruelling pace due to global warming that they are known as the galloping glaciers. “I visited the fjords with a local guide”, says the painter. “It was a harrowing experience. Someone my age told me that the winters have become increasingly shorter during her lifetime, from nine months in her childhood to three months today. I painted some of these landscapes. Unfortunately, a breathtaking polar landscape always looks breathtaking. There’s no way of telling that there used to be a 1km-thick glacier here half-a-century ago.”
In that same period, the painter travelled to Curaçao and Sint-Maarten. The traces of the past are most definitely visible in the photos he took in the Antilles. The images partly explain something that profoundly shocked Broek when he arrived in the United States: the historical roots of slavery in institutional racism, discrimination, and segregation. When he arrived in Los Angeles, the city was in thrall to the O.J. Simpson trial and the Rodney King riots. His new address was just around the corner from the infamous Skid Row, where 30,000 mainly African American homeless people and drug addicts lived on the city’s streets. “While moving, I happened to find a book in which I learnt that one of my ancestors, Adriaen Pieterszoon Raap, was involved in slavery. He was employed as a director at the Admiralty, which protected the merchant fleet and the slave boats. So I decided to read up on this.” In 2018, the artist relocated from New York to Dakar, Senegal.
Ghana / Senegal
In colonial times, the Republic (and later the Kingdom) of the Netherlands ruled a global empire of shipping routes, trade posts, military forts and strategically located outposts. This vast network was controlled by the powerful Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC) and the Dutch West India Company (West-Indische Compagnie, WIC), two of the very first multinationals. Their trading empire stretched from the West African coast, past Cape Town in the south through to Mozambique, Yemen and Sri Lanka and on to the Indonesian archipelago, from the island of Deshima off Japan’s mainland to areas which now belong to Brazil, Suriname, the Caribbean and the United States, including the city of New York which was once called New Amsterdam. Many of these overseas hubs extended deep into the hinterland, which was exploited for profit. Over time, 12.5 million enslaved Africans were shipped to plantations across the Atlantic to make up for the lack of labour – some 600,000 of them by the Dutch. The dehumanising treatment, the horrific conditions during their crossing, the heavy work and the cruel regime caused an absurd number of deaths.
Broek visited all twenty extant forts along the Ghanaian coast which the Dutch used for the slave trade. “Impressive, brutalist buildings”, Broek remembers, “with an unusual shape and walls that were sometimes over a metre thick, made from bricks and locally hewn rock.” He took approximately 8,000 photos in West Africa, deeming 50 suitable for painting.
The first canvas, Cape Coast (2019), is one of the most thought provoking. Dutch slave traders lived in this stone bastion before moving to a larger castle called Elmina. The blinding light on the pale stone and the waves that break on the rocks contrast shrilly with the dark brown coastline, the blackish-blue sea, and the sombre grey skies overhead. The powerful tonal contrasts and the unsettling, dramatic light (it is impossible to tell the time of day) are reminiscent of the natural devastation of the landscapes on America’s East Coast. At the same time, this work paves the way for new perspectives. Cape Coast emphasises the undeniable relationship between the location in the painting and events under colonial rule. Africa’s West Coast is transformed into a crime scene, becoming a backdrop for epic violence, abuse of power and historical injustice. The landscape, now pockmarked by history, has lost its innocence, becoming instead a lieu de mémoire, a site of historical interest.
In Senegal, the artist sailed to Gorée, a tiny island about two kilometres from the Senegalese mainland. As it provided the shortest transportation route to the Americas, Gorée became a major hub to which all Africans destined for the trans-Atlantic slave ships were sent. Broek: “When the Dutch captured the island in 1617 from the Portuguese, they immediately set about building two large fortresses here, Fort Orange and Fort Nassau. The trading post became a large open-air prison. After the English invaded the island, Michiel de Ruyter was sent in to kick them out. There was a lot of fighting over this little island.”
His monumental painting Slave House (2020) depicts a slave merchant’s house. The family lived upstairs, while men, women and children languished below in chains in dark dungeons. “Under the stairs to the veranda there was a cell that was barely one metre high that was used to lock up rebellious prisoners, sometimes three and even four people at a time. Most of them didn’t make it out alive. Nelson Mandela once requested to be locked up in such a cell to experience what it felt like. He emerged ten minutes later, his cheeks covered in tears, utterly distraught.” A tiny door opening offers a view of a bright blue horizon. “The door of no return”, Broek explains. “Any African who passed through this door would never return to his homeland”. The symbolism of this sinister site is tremendous.
In the larger paintings, the fortresses and houses seem coated in stucco rather than paint. The oil paint, in which the artist has mixed sand or grit, has been applied with a broad palette knife, at times smeared out with a plank of wood, lending the works a powerful, physical material quality. “I wanted it all to feel somewhat unpolished”, the painter says. “My intention was never to create a pleasing kind of painting. I don’t want to appeal to my audience with my paintings, I want them to experience emotions when they gaze at them.” In some canvases, the doors and windows are life-size, making you feel as if you could step into these dark spaces.
In Power Structure (2020), Broek has painted cartouches, on which he has indicated, in old-fashioned script, how the building is laid out: the slave dungeon at the bottom, the church above it, and at the top, the crescent-shaped governor’s residence with a balcony with an ocean view. The verbal explanation runs counter to the visual principle of ‘Show, don’t tell’. “But you cannot expect people to know what they are looking at”, the painter says apologetically. “Now at least you understand the close involvement of the church and the state in the slave trade at a glance.” Like in Anselm Kiefer’s monumental landscapes, the genius loci, the spirit of place, is experienced intuitively, with all your senses. You need some form of explanation to understand what you’re looking at.
In Africa, the painter tested new motifs on a smaller format using fast-drying acrylics. He photographed, magnified and painted any sketches he liked in oils. He whittled down his palette to three or four evocative colours for a coarser, more straightforward, less detailed composition. Broek: “The image is separated from its photographic origins, becoming more of a painting. I want to stay true to reality, I don’t want to modify anything. Then again, the power of that reality is such that you can distort it without making it feel less real.” If Los Angeles was the city of ‘less is more’ for the artist, and New York added dramatic narrative to his work, Broek rediscovered the bravura of his earliest paintings in Africa: “The devil may care.”
Suriname / Amsterdam
In December 2019, Broek travelled to Suriname for the first time, sailing down the wide Commewijne River, past Leliëndaal, Sorghvliet, Alliance, and other former inland plantations. Most of the houses, sheds and barracks were run-down, dismantled, overgrown… Occasionally, like in Frederiksdorp, they had been restored to their former glory. As Broek looked through the lens, he intuitively knew which locations he wanted to paint. He purposefully chose to sidestep the picturesque, pastoral clichés of the idyllic exotic landscapes of his illustrious predecessor Frans Post. “My work is all about the site’s historical significance “, he says. “You may not be able to tell from the landscape, but you cannot exclude it”, he says. The journey through the wilderness meanders past many moral abysses. A tropical sunset casts a blood-red glow over a planter’s residence, tucked away among the all-encompassing vegetation (Plantage Sorghvliet, 2020) [Sorghvliet Plantation].
In addition to learning about the strange countries he visits, the traveller also finds out more about the place he comes from. “When I returned to Amsterdam, I realised my perspective on the city where I had lived all those years had changed”, Broek says. “All that misery was organised, financed, and overseen from here. A select group of Amsterdam families became filthy rich thanks to the slave trade”. In his monumental Herengracht (2022), he paints a line-up of these families’ stately city palaces and townhouses, indicating for each of them how they came to be so wealthy. Everyone benefited from slavery, either directly or indirectly.
In Sociëteit van Suriname (Damzijde) [Society of Suriname (seen from Dam side)] (2022, Dordrechts Museum collection), the Royal Palace on Dam Square is a hulking Moloch under a dark, foreboding sky, reminiscent of the clouds that are about to crack open in El Greco’s View of Toledo. Originally, this stately building, once the largest secular building in Europe and hailed by the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel as the Eighth Wonder of the World, was Amsterdam’s town hall, a symbol of the power and wealth of a city that became the hub of world trade in just a few decades. The Society of Suriname operated out of one of its luxuriously decorated halls. Here, directors met to discuss how the colony of Suriname should be run. The city owned one third of the shares, with the remaining shares in the hands of the WIC and the Van Aerssen van Sommelsdijck family. Most of the plantation owners, shareholders, and employees of the WIC lived in Amsterdam. Many of them were politicians. You can see how political influence and financial-economic power were interconnected in Gerrit Berckheyde’s detailed city views. De Dam, naar het westen gezien, met het Stadhuis [Dam Square with the Amsterdam Town Hall] (1673, Amsterdam Museum collection) depicts the proud, colossal town hall on a bright sunny morning, with goods from around the world being unloaded and weighed in Dam Square and merchants from all over the world, some even wearing kaftans and turbans, doing business. Broek, meanwhile, paints the same building at night, menacing and sombre. In his Sociëteit van Suriname II (2022), the town hall is shown from another angle, coming up the Raadhuisstraat. The tympanum on which Amsterdam’s city virgin is depicted accepting gifts from Asia and America has dissolved in the half-light of dusk.
A way in the world
Life, according to Søren Kierkegaard, must be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. History only becomes a reality when events have found their place, many years later, in a greater context and are assigned the meaning they deserve. Broek’s quest, inspired by a book about one of his ancestors, extends well beyond the branches of a family tree. “I knew very little about the history of these slave forts and plantations”, he says, “and yet we need to face this history if we want to move forward together.” Much as his earliest landscapes explore the frontier between architecture and wilderness, his recent works depict the trauma of slavery and a civilisation’s ethical deficit. All great art explores the duality of good and evil. But mainly of evil.
All Hans Broek’s quotes were taken from a discussion with the author in his studio at Kortenhoef in June 2023.