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The Same Lost Thing

August 25, 2008
Untitled, gouache on kraft paper, 1973, 70 x 105 cm

Untitled, gouache on kraft paper, 1973, 70 x 105 cm

(from Time Feb. 16, 1962)  For 54 years he has been a painter, and for all but the past five of them. Bram van Velde has been penniless and unknown, a man so much alone that he has almost lost the gift of speech. Seemingly too late to give him any satisfaction, he is now becoming famous and solvent. He has had enormously successful shows in Swiss and Dutch museums. At his big retrospective at the influential Galerie Knoedler in Paris last fall, some of his paintings fetched prices up to $18,000. This week a similar show opens at Knoedler’s in Manhattan.

Van Velde was born in Holland in 1895, and by the time he was twelve had found a niche in art. He was apprenticed to an interior decorator as a wall painter; his talent quickly advanced him from walls to designing lampshades to copying, old masters. The decorator sent Van Yelde to a German artists’ colony where he discovered “painting as a language to translate the world and one’s life.” But his translations were so brutal and sad that no one wanted them, and when the Depression came, the decorator cut off Van Velde’s stipend.

Untitled 1956, 130 x 162 cm

Untitled 1956, 130 x 162 cm

Van Velde never could afford a model. So he painted the women who paraded through his mind, even as his strength ebbed away from slow starvation. During World War II, living in Paris, he felt so weak that he could not hold a brush, and did not paint at all. “I lived like a phantom,” he says, “I wasn’t broken, though. I went on living in the work I had done earlier.” He searched for handouts and scoured the gutters for cigarette butts. After the war. with the help of new patrons (“a few people for whom it wasn’t a drama to help me”). Van Velde regained his strength and his art, then at last began to attract attention.

The paintings at Knoedler’s trace Van Velde’s grim road. Gaunt figures loom in his early paintings, but in his later work they begin to decompose, and finally the portraits are hidden behind impenetrable strokescreens in which forms flow free of nature and colors are free of form. The colors slosh about in swoops and swirls; the paintings seem as gay as bunting.

European collectors have taken these charmingly unsophisticated mazes to their hearts, but the new affluence has not changed Grim Painter Van Velde. “I am still,” says he, “the same lost thing that by the act of painting must reassure itself.” Says a Paris friend and patron: “He sleeps, gets up, does his housework, sighs, laments, torments himself, destroys himself, feels remorse, walks, walks a great deal, eats, breathes, laughs, lies on the bed. puts his head in his hands, is lonely, is very lonely.”

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