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Theo Voorzaat


One of the problems in the Western world is the question what is art and what is not. Moreover for the majority of Westerners the usefulness of art is problematic and if someone likes something, how does he explain this to those who are indifferent to it. The great stylistic variety in the visual arts does not simplify matters. Not only are large groups of people occupied with the burning question wether art is indispensible, but within the world of art itself the admirers of the various movements are almost at war with one another. One group criticizes the absurdity and vacuity of what the other group experiences as the height of sensory pleasure and spiritual delight, although in reality the discussion is never so rational. Whether or not the arguments used make sense, they will never bring about any change in the entrenched opinions of the opposite party. However, before you get the impression that I am trying to show off my learning: I, like my fellow men, am limited and shortsighted, and only by rational thinking have I acquired a more tolerant attitude.

Understanding everything is dull, so is liking everything. The very contrasts form the soil on which the blissful sensation of recognition flourishes. To which field the recognition relates to is of no importance whatsoever. An absolute right cannot be derived from it, even the idea of art serving a purpose is open to question. In good English this is called: The wish is father to the thought. In this sense it is amusing to realise that modern realism has a number of advantages while it is abused by the cultural powers that be, it is not being hampered by high expectations of radical changes in attitude and social upheavel. It can, therefor, lay claim to greater effectiveness.

Would it be justified to explain the revival of realism during the last few decades, keeping in mind that it has never really disappeared, as a growing need in artists to articulate emotions and convictions. Not only to show that they are there, but to work them out and bring them into the open. This is happening in several movements in the visual arts though with varying results in intelligibility: things are not always what they seem. The concept of subjectivity is the keyword there. The painter who works in a realistic way translates what he experiences consciously into a readable image. He manipulates reality, distorts it if necessary, intensifies or isolates certain elements and he fantasizes although this seems to contradict the literal meaning of the word realism. This way of expressing things may seem to be a continuation of an ageold tradition, which it is indeed from a technical point of view. With regard to content, however, modern realism has freed itself from a pattern of action and reaction which is prevalent in the visual arts today. In other words: the pendulum-like movement between formalism and antiformalism (Arnold Hauser, Social History of Art) can no longer serve as a model to determine the position of the modern realist.

The realistic way of painting is being used for all matters of things. The message can be more or less articulated, may appear in the form of a protest, or present itself as a welcome opportunity to temporarily escape the chaos of modern living. The means are now formalistic, then antiformalistic. Unlike many previous movements, such as Impressionism and Cubism to give some arbitrary examples, modern realism is a movement which is hard to define. The common denominator is obviously the idiom. While many trends in art are characterized by a relation between the way of thinking and the way of formalizing, modern realism does not know this duality. In Cubism the resistance of the illusion of a third dimension on the flat level of the painting is indissolubly linked to the cubistic way of painting. The premiss is supported by the work of art or vice versa. In modern realism this is different. In one and the same idiom the world is both romanticized and tarnished. While one painter strives for poetic exaltation, another is petrified in horrible alienation. It is both fleeing the naked truth, or call it longing for the quiet tranquillity of paradise lost, and a strong protest against hypocrisy and impending doom.

It is not inconceivable that in the near future several trends will crystallize, distinct from each other in subject and purpose. I am not saying that this is necessary, but studying art-history means taking cognizance of categories, trends, styles and so on and such a study should be projected on to the social structure of the moment. This will probably remain so. If we make a provisional distinction of the heterogeneous group of artists who together give shape to modern realism, then Voorzaat should be placed in the group that concentrates upon a way of thinking which is critical of society.

"Theo Voorzaat, schilderijen"
by Koen Nieuwendijk,
Galerie Lieve Hemel Editions
Amsterdam, 1985

(sold out)


A phenomenon, however, cannot be described that simply. It is too easy to say that Voorzaat is chiefly concerned with doom and destruction. On the face of it he succeeds in making the gloomy beautiful. But how? He holds on to the desire to live in a harmonic world, but at the same time he does not disguise his fear that this cannot be realized. This results in the remarkable combination of elimination of man and embellishment of decay. However, by making this distinction we still have not got to the bottom of the secret of the attraction of his work.

An important element is the light that he paints, or more accurately the colours he uses. Most people know at least something about mixing colours. For when pouring coffee, the colour of the mixture of coffee and milk is a clear indication of its taste. The average coffee drinker is able to draw quite a lot of conclusions from simply adding a little milk: the coffee is either too strong or too weak, too much or too little milk has been added and the more expert can even tell if the coffee is old or fresh. Something simular is the matter with colour and light in Voorzaat´s paintings, with one big difference. The spectator is fascinated, recognized as it were the right proportions in colour, composition and theme, but still after any amount of technical analysis, the secret remains. Voorzaat is able to use colours in such a way that the light in his landscapes, town views and still lives determines the mood. That same light connects the often conflicting elements which compose his paintings. How else the decaying ruins and the threatening presence of inexplicable electronic installations rhyme with romantic looking landscapes in such a way that they do not conflict. Desolate they are, but the attraction is irresistible.

Theo Voorzaat
"A Cup of Coffee at Doel" 1981
oil on canvas
(page 38)

In my opinion two main points can be indicated which are not impeded by their apparent contradiction, because they exist on different levels of abstraction. Voorzaat, being a man of this world, has not lost his natural instinct for survival, in spite of impending doom and his fear of the suicidal tendencies of the human race. Sleepless nights, so to speak, do not stop him from seeing the beauty which is still there, dedicating himself to its preservation and reproducing it. Yet his work seems impregnated with a cosmic impotence as well. The universe does not know of any judgement of value, only of the chain of events, of rise and fall in varying contexts. In this universe man is but a tiny speck of dust, though he may, if he wishes, call himself a link in this chain. The feeling of insignificance is strongly present in Voorzaat's paintings too. The emphasis, however, is on the impotence of one man when confronted with the unfathomable powers called forth by another. To some extend he even reproaches the average man with his servile attitude. The things the few people still present in his paintings are confronted with may be mysterious and threatening- in a way which leaves little hope for the future- but they themselves are responsible for that. Curiously enough the consequence of this hidden reproach is that the spectator can only partly identify himself with the sad fate that has befallen his painted fellow man. This may also partly explain the surprising admiration of Voorzaat's work, in spite of the terrifying tendency of the scenes painted. Therefore it is not in Voorzaat's nature to consider himself a prophet of doom of this epoch. The soberness of a northener prevents him from taking to a soap-box in an attempt to reform humanity. To show how people are is one thing, what they do is another.


The practice of recording the biographical data of an artist should be more than an obligatory item. Once a painter has reached the point that his work attracts attention and is being admired, people automatically become interested in his life. The amateur psychologist who lies hidden in all of us, tries to relate the usually scarce and fragmentary data available to the work itself. Whether the image which the painter presents to the spectator is fully clarified by enlarging upon his life or deepens the enigma, seems of secundary importance. There should be something present which is characteristic of everyone and preferable something we cherish in our own dreams and can admire in others. In general, being endowed with a special talent plays an important part in all this and the greater contrast between the basic data of birth, general upbringing and such a talent, the more it strikes the imagination. We are all acquainted with daydreams in which one sees oneself rise above the daily grind, to become the hero of the nation and which with a simple snap of the fingers burst like a soapbubble. It can, therefore, be fascinating to recover part of this daydream in the true talent of someone else.

Without pretending that a blueprint exists which records how great painters develop their talents, it is worth remarking that Voorzaat´s first thirty years were only dominated by his artistic talents to a limited degree. That does not mean that there were no indications at an early stage which pointed that way.

Theo Voorzaat was born in Rotterdam, the son of a dockhand, on the second March of the pre-war year 1938. He was, therefore, old enough to experience conciously the terrors of the war. If we keep in mind that decay is one of his favourite subjects, the most plausible inference might be that Voorzaat was confronted with terror at an early age. However, this is not the case. He has no recollections of that nature and we can only suppose that a year-long stay in war-torn Rotterdam did influence the shaping of his character after all.

At primary school he was already scoring high marks for drawing, which he did with much pleasure. In spite of his obvious talent he was sent to a technical school to complete his higher education. At the department of window dressing and decoration he mainly learned priming and scraping. In his free time he filled many a canvas and sheet of paper and the only person who supported him was his neighbour "Uncle Leo", a timber carter; Leo was a communist and he indulged in fierce but friendly arguments with Voorzaat's catholic father, and he wasn't above swearing and singing loudly when painting on the veranda. Clearly uncle Leo was an enthusiastic amateur painter. This is not the reason Voorzaat regarded painting and drawing as no more than a pleasant leisure activity, and neither did his parents forbid him. The possibility of earning his daily bread as an artist -a word out of another world- simply was not taken into consideration. Uncle Leo who could not believe his eyes each time Voorzaat showed him his work, offered him advice on the subject and his words did not fall on deaf ears. But every self-taught man, young or old, has to travel a long way before he has acquired enough skill and working knowledge to produce a piece of work which is at least technically perfect. Thus it was both instructive and stimulating to learn from uncle Leo how the right perspective can be obtained by applying light and dark simply by using a pencil. This happened in a very simple way. Voorzaat made a drawing and his neighbour corrected the shadows where necessary. He did not paint in oils. Voorzaat acquired his technique without outside help.

Meanwhile, having finished technical school it became clear that Voorzaat had a more than mediocre talent, and an acceptible compromise was found. He registered for the evening classes of the Rotterdan Acadamy of Art, department of publicity. This was still considered a good trade at the time, for, as Voorzaat recalls: "Painting, that was not regarded as a real job. It was just booze and parties." This training however, did not satisfy him and, craving to do some real painting, after two years he got himself a job. Untill about the age of thirty he did odd jobs such as truckdriver, postman and signwriter and painted mainly at weekends. In so far as his other hobby, motorcycling, did not make him forget about his brushes and paints altogether, this was an important period of his life. He tried out all possible styles and techniques, till at long last he found a way of painting he really liked and which he still uses today. For years his other passion has been his motorcycle, races and crashes included. I still remember vividly how, during the first years he exhibited in the gallery, Voorzaat on his heavy motorbike would come thundering to a halt outside, tightly shrouded in leather. At the time the robust two-wheeler was but a legacy from wilder days, for at about the age of thirty he took the decision to dedicate his life entirely to painting. This decision coincided with being fired from his job as signwriter and as he was not married yet, he was at liberty to deliver himself up to the uncertainties of the life of an artist.

His first real exhibition took place at the now closed Gallery Liernur in The Hague. For what does an artist do if he wants to show his work to the world? He walks into a gallery and puts his question. He took thirty panel-pictures to the first gallery he walked into. That was Nouvelles Images, where he got coffee and cake but no exhibition because his work did not belong there. He was luckier at the second: at the above mentioned gallery Liernur he was offered an exhibition that was a success right from the start. Prices were as low as the paintings were small, the frames were only small slats and who could suspect that each successive exhibition would surpass the success of the previous one. By chance he arrived at gallery "Lieve Hemel, stoot je hoofd niet", where he has exhibited almost all his work ever since.


One cannot deny the presence of symbols in Voorzaat's work and in many cases there are situations within the context of the painting which acquire a symbolic meaning. The word symbol is somewhat misleading here. It suggests knowledge of the deeper meaning and in Voorzaat's work the meaning often only becomes clear after one has seen a number of paintings. In other words, he gives to objects which are not known as such, the radiation of a symbol by having them recur in continously different situations to accentuate the already gloomy atmosphere in a way that cannot be misunderstood.

A good example of this is the spherical shape. In all kinds of thinkable and unthinkable situations the sphere disturbs an atmosphere which could be called romantic. It is not clear which material the sphere is made of. It is also a mystery whether, when and how the sphere wil come into action. In one painting it is lying unassailable as heavy as lead. In another it is bursting forth from a wall, in a third a formation of spheres is gliding towards the center of the painting or right away from it. Some spheres radiate light, just as light itself is a peculiar factor. In one and the same painting there are sometimes two or more sources of light, which are not necessarily in sight. Voorzaat uses this device in two completely different ways. In his idiom it is almost obvious that it radiates a certain threat, yet at the same time he uses this means to show to the full the unobserved beauty of a green efflorescent ramshackle house. After all it is impossible to go through life just warning people and pitying their fate. It is the process of natural decay itself which fascinates Voorzaat. If it were up to him, nothing would be pulled down or restored: what time and the elements together bring about should not be disturbed by anyone. But reality is different. Often, not to say more often than not, he has to hurry to complete an object he is at work on before it has been pulled down. Often the breakers beat him to it, leaving him with only a sketch to carry out his original plan.

Man plays a minor role in Voorzaat's paintings. Human beings usually figure in them as servile mass products, sometimes wrapped up in transparant cocoons or expressing panic. Little remains of the independent being who, after all, is the cause of all mischief: man himself. Only in a few paintings does a human being behave somewhat more stoically and in those cases Voorzaat has nearly always painted himself behind his easel or clearing away debris. This is one of the reasons one can assume he adopts a realistic attitude in spite of all the dramatic develepmonts in the world. For this is a question the spectator asks himself when confronted with the painting: just how gloomy is Voorzaat? On the basis of the subjects and atmosphere in his paintings we might formulate a rough idea of his character.

The danger of an interpretation which misses the truth is obvious. A threatening sky need not stem from a gloomy character and when asked his answer is indeed that he finds a sombre sky beautiful. "I will never paint a blue sky. Autumn, stormy weather, that´s what appeals to me." It is just like his predelection for ruins. With a smile on his face, so to speak, he arranges his thunderclouds on the firmament. Not because he does not have an eye for real misery, but why should he always have a heavy heart? Like everyone else he is unable to flee from the many negative things in this world, but in painting he has found a way to work them away.

Theo Voorzaat, detail of
"The Saving of a part of Venice", 1998,
complete image see section
Artists of the Gallery/Theo Voorzaat

A special story in Voorzaat´s paintings is the ever recurrent theme of ships, which are nearly always called "No return". Now it is a disused ferryboat, floating on filthy water, then it is a tugboat steaming down the river, towards a cataract. More often than not the painted scene confirms the metaphorical name of the vessel: There is no way back. On close examination of the series, so far seven paintings and a drawing, it is striking that the tenor is not always the same. In "No return II" (page 18), a certainly hopeless attempt is made to safe whatever possible. It is clear to everyone exept to the helmsman that five more waves and a squal will cause the edifice, now still whole, to desintegrate and sink like the proverbial stone. Above all, is it not by a combination of perseverance and naivety that possibly positive but above all negative forces have been set free? In "No return V" (page 24) of which the real title is "Pont Saint Esprit", the tugboat with her whole bizarre load is unmistakekably heading straight for the waterfall. The orderly line of the raft convoy points to a deliberate action by the captain of the tugboat, who has obviously set himself the task of destroying totally the threefold display of abject behaviour on the rafts behind him: servility, self-destruction and immorality.

So things are how you look at them: need the world be saved or is it better to clear away the debris, somehow or other paints the painter, should be done.

The sad fate that awaits the ramshackle pleasure craft in the painting "No return VI", refers to the impotence of the arrant self-destroyer man can be. Before the curtain drops, the sea as a symbol of the invincible force of nature, shows for the last time to the malefactors their tools and victims, symbolised by the box with the dial-plate, the floating sphere and the dead fish. I cannot help interpreting a bit further. Does not half of Holland use a motor, sailing or rowing boat to flee the hustle and bustle of every day life? And does not Voorzaat's artistic view throw a shrill light on this mass attempt to escape, be it that one can only temporarily escape reality. It is time to stop this flood of words. To mention a theme is one thing, to saddle the painter with intentions is another, especially -see the foreword- with the help of things so imperfect and elusive as words.

Theo Voorzaat, "No Return II", 1978,
pencil drawing (page 18)

Theo Voorzaat, "Pont Saint Esprit", 1979,
oil on canvas (page 57)

Theo Voorzaat, "No Return VI", 1979,
oil on canvas (page 26)