Interview for Cahier of the Academy Fontys, Tilburg, Netherlands

Here follows an interview with Hans de Wit by Huib Fens; sculptor and poet and Christianne Niesten: professor in Art History at Academy Fontys, Tilburg, Netherlands.


When you ask an artist what his sources are, you put him to an impossible test. He will always be incomplete out of necessity. It is like searching for the source of a river and all the tributaries, rivulets and showers that feed it, as cultural philosopher Claudio Magris attempts to do in his book about the Danube. Sometimes, when asked, an artist will do his utmost to distill a number of important sources of inspiration from the immense pile of experience, confrontations, frustrations, subconscious influences and divulging discoveries accumulated in decades. Such an artist is Hans de Wit. On arrival in his studio, a stack of books lies waiting on a table. But the conversation begins with music, inevitable with a double talent. There are artists who walk way ahead of you with a small torch, until you stumble upon them one day. For years Robert Wyatt has been an important inspiration to Hans de Wit, because of the way he continuously tries to reinvent his music. During the interview several other musicians are mentioned e.g. Scott Walker who goes his own way and records a CD every decade or so. “When he has something to say “.

I have been pondering on your question about my sources. To me they are always the secondary sources, never the highlights, because they are so explicitly untouchable. I often see things which have nothing to do with art with a capital A, that I actually find just as interesting. I feel more versatile with these things than with things totally crystallized. When I see a Vermeer, in a way it is as hermetic as can be. I do not get much out of that concerning my own work , but it acts as a kind of benchmark to define what is beautiful or sublime. I have noticed that I have to search for the sublime in a totally different way. My sources vary, from drawings by Van Gogh to what I have here by one of my idols i.e. Brueghel. I think he is very authentic, not only where his plot is concerned but also in his images.

What is so attractive about authenticity ? Could you describe what that entails according to you ?

It is so easy to use the term as a kind of excuse, that authenticity equals quality, but that is not the case. There is however something you could call a kind of undertow, the thing you have to attack each time and every time you attack you will reach another level. I have noticed that with Max Beckmann for instance. He was someone I resented during art school. The academy’s feel was predominantly Rubensian and Beckmann had a certain crudeness to him. I had a strong resistance towards him , until I actually saw an exhibition of his work. But also because the time was right to notice the quality of his work. You are not always able to see at once what you would like to see. It takes time. It has to do with ageing, maturing and your own development .

What inspired you most in Art school ?

What inspired me most is that I encountered all those things that did not inspire me at all. That I explored areas of which I thought: these are mine. And I had the feeling I had to find out my own way, what that is, I will be the judge of that.

Does a source cease to be interesting once you have got to the bottom of it ?

The importance diminishes, because you reformulate yourself and you store it in your frame of mind. You are as a matter of fact some sort of sponge. I also have some kind of Stendahl-syndrom. When I am in a museum I feel a kind of resentment, I am forced to leave because there is so much quality and energy present.

But you are forced to do something with it ?

Yes I have to do something with it. It is a kind of love/hate, you would like to embrace it but on the other hand it is so repulsive and at the same time so super and confronting- who am I and what do I want ?- that it is very humbling. What is my tale ? And if it is that big, it is almost my duty – this sounds very moralizing – to show it. If I feel a quality within me I want to show and communicate it.

In museums are you predominantly looking for secondary sources ?

I visited an exhibition by Hans Vredeman de Vries in Brussels a few years ago. There were things on show there that gave me some kind of approval, that I was on a right course. Something like, do not hesitate, you are on the right track. On such a moment it becomes really topical, certainly when I hold actual drawings in my hand as I did at Teylers with drawings by Brueghel, those things become so topical, that I get the idea that I can actually add things to those drawings.

The moment something gets hold of you, do you want to grab it ?

It has to do with watching. You can not unravel the secret in its entirety, why an artist does certain things, why the image is the way it is. Sometimes it is just a sort of black, it only concurs with formal things. As soon as you notice that, you let go of historicity completely. What I am always looking for is an intensity of perception but also of image. This holds true e.g. for Dore who shows me a world which resembles the one I live in. Therefore when I had a stack of drawings, these were unequivocal, encyclopedic research, I really had the idea of putting them into a contextual world. I am currently working on this drawing called “Goudzoekers” ( Gold diggers ). These are shapes that stem from a cycling trip from Liege to Maastricht during which I came across a number of bollards along the canal. These were not the bollards I am accustomed to because these had shoulders. I gazed along the canal and they looked like spectators of some sort. I thought they made a weird image and I could not stop myself from using these shapes in my work. I thought; this has to be Belgium. I know all kinds of bollards, because around here ( Eindhoven ) I also saw them along the canal when I used to walk there with my grandfather, but they never had this shape. That again has to do with Bracelli’s drawings from 1542 or Hans Vredeman de Vries’ work. Then I start drawing parallels with photos from the paper. It is so rewarding to make such a connection. I am therefore interested in finding topicality in history. You can consider history as history; what has been. But the funny thing is, the moment you hold one of Rembrandt’s drawings in your hand, it becomes very topical. You can use that topicality again in your own work.

How do you get all those sources of inspiration ? Were they handed down to you or did you discover them yourself ?

Oh no, that is a real quest, exploring things and not taking them for granted. It is strange how you are constantly looking for things you are not actually looking for.

It is striking how your quest is aimed at an artist’s sketches and drawings, in which you can notice his signature and the experiment. Are these the most interesting to you ?

Yes, once completed they repel. Then they are finished. But you have to select the things you can put to use in your own quest. These are the things which also intrigue me in music and architecture. Parallels everywhere. I think you need a sort of modesty and a kind of trust as well, that when you choose your road carefully, something good will come out of it. You have to question that trust constantly though.

While working on a drawing, when do you tag a name on it ? Like the Gold diggers ?

Before that I was already working on a drawing called : “The Pearl fishers”. At such a moment the impossibility intrigues me. I am not looking for some kind of morals but something you can never get hold of or make concrete in matter: gold, alchemy in a metaphorical sense. What I mean to say is that the drawings themselves are ambivalent, gold, a form of gold mining, you know beforehand you can sift and as a result you will find a few grains. And you think; that is quite enough. ( H. laughs ). You try to see it as megalomaniacal as possible. Not as an ideal, but as a feeling it could turn out sublime.

Do these titles represent a kind of emotion or an atmosphere?

I think atmosphere is more important than emotion at least for my work. I intend to create a feeling of falling between two stools, a kind of space which attracts, incites but at the same time is lethal. I want to transmit a feeling of disgust and beauty rolled into one. Or trying to explain something, “what makes this tick”. I am currently working on drawing 52. There is a certain development. At first they were based on architecture, buildings. They are becoming more and more arcane and I don’t know whether that is a good thing, but I just have to let them come into being. I really am a doubting Thomas. I have to put my finger into the wound. Get to the bottom of things.

How important is philosophy to you ?

It is of the utmost importance. I would like to integrate it into the way I watch images and what I have to do in order to watch images. And what actually happens when you are watching images, that process. Heidegger is someone who wrote a great deal about that. I watch for parallels. That travelling watching. It has to do with formal way of watching. When I am watching I actually see a lot of things. People have always tried to structuralize multiplicity but they do this manipulably. I think this also happens in art And that I distrust unequivocality, I like ambiguity better. I cannot watch unequivocally. When I watch the periphery is always present. It exists due to what I am able to imagine. I cannot imagine a thing unequivocally. When I imagine something it is always in a complete world, never a bare thing.

Do you pass that on to your students ?

Yes I try to, but it is not easy. When you look through history there is always the notion of the world. The humdrum of life, that is it what interests me. The psychological reality, what does man make of it. I can simply watch a thing but something in my brain is constantly interpreting, translating, transponding and rephrasing – who was I and how should I look at things and what are my convictions on this matter etcetera. These are matters which limit your clear perspective immensely. A clear perspective and clairvoyance. But how to watch intrigues me. It has to do with your disposition and what your preferences are, what you like, how you were influenced, what your position in life is etc. Your entire system, I try to do that in my drawing, put a description of the world in it.

Do you see parallels with other disciplines, because until now you have been talking about the visual arts as inspiration ? Music for example ?

Yes, music is one of those interesting things. One of my passions is Benjamin Britten who occupied himself immensely with these things, the narrative in his operas, but he tried totally different things in his cello sonatas.

Are there parallels between his way of working and yours ?

Yes, he did not avoid the narrative. And you have to trust that through excellence and constant toiling you will keep on finding space. Robert Wyatt, front man of the legendary jazz group Soft Machine, winds up in a wheel chair after an accident. His wife buys him a cheap Farfisa organ. With it he records the legendary album Rock Bottom. He tells in interviews that he could listen to what sound actually was anew. In my opinion that is interesting. These are the things our time benefits from. The same goes for Scott Walker.

These are people who are looking for the room between two stools ?

Yes, and who are often misunderstood by that commercial to the core world. You cannot force it. Each era has its own tale to tell. Perhaps that is what interests me most. The reason for us thinking we can manipulate reality and all the while we can’t do that at all. What also intrigued me; my father’s antiques collection. We had collections of clocks and stuff. I grew up between those artifacts and I looked around me and saw weirdly shaped chair legs and I remember wondering why people made such things. And why we have both Canova and Ruckriem; the affirmation of matter and the total denial of it. That dualism is more or less forced upon us, we cannot free ourselves from that. People drivel about the unification of all this but I think we only get to know things through others. Someone can tell me fantastic tales about the colour purple but that is just purple. I don’t know what that is. I can only see purple when juxtaposed to yellow or any other colour.

I just realized that your fascination for crazy bollards and other shapes could be reduced to your father’s antiques collection.

Yes that is true. I graduated from Jan van Eyck and immediately I was labeled. Yes, you will become a painter. I used to draw back then, but I thought it was of lesser significance Drawing felt different from painting. As David Scher put it: “Drawing is catching a fly and painting is walking through mud”. I have done that and it was necessary to catch that fly. In my case anyway. It is not judgmental. I have painted extensively, large and heavy and I feel as if I had to plough my way through that stack, before I was able to reach draw land. That is where I can show my stuff. As a means.

Art history will label you as a draughtsman.

Yes, I would regret it though, should things turn out that way. I resent being labeled. That is what people make of it. You cannot produce a single thing without it being labeled instantly.

The word conflict recurs to me. Is there conflict in all the choices you make ?

The solution lies within the conflict more or less. Conflict is not extinguishable nor annihilating or destructive. It offers dynamics. That is also what I attempt to say to my students, nothing will bring universal happiness but it is simply a matter of acting. For instance, you can fill an entire wall with things you loathe and you will probably get more out of that. I have learnt to transfer that, but you have to be mature enough and it has to fit within your quest. I am of the opinion that you need to confront real art. You have to experience what works for you and what does not. While drawing I will see where it ends. I have made a pact with myself; as soon as I notice some sort of automatism in my work, I will turn to something else, so I took up painting again. Yeah right.

So you make music simply for a change ?

Yes but music is an entirely different matter. Of course you start thinking about composing music that would fit in a drawing. As soon as I notice such a thought I immediately say: Don’t do that, you are just saying that in order to make your drawing even more expressive. No, music is a completely different thing. The time it takes to get from A to B and what you can make happen there. It is a totally different interference from making a drawing. It also has to do with time, but time intervenes differently in music. You should concentrate to get a good end result . I try not to have set opinions in my life, at least that is what I aspire. Imagine that. Your opinions change, the question is whether you allow yourself these changes. As a child I used to listen to music which I now think horrible. Someone like Wyatt is interesting. It is not right when your life is all peaceful and quiet. You should stay alert, militant. I know I am getting older and my mind works differently from 20 years ago, both in speed and accuracy. The older people become, the harder it gets to stay flexible. I will not cave, I am trying to remain flexible. Not forced, it is not that bad. By the way, Robert Wyatt has begun to repeat himself.

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