Henk Pander’s memories of Nazi occupation

Dutch-born Henk Pander lived his early childhood in occupied Holland, an experience he has captured in his work

The painter Henk Pander was born in Haarlem, in The Netherlands, in 1937.

That meant he was three years old when the Nazi occupation of that city began in 1940 and eight, when it finally ended in 1945. The “Hunger Winter” of 1944-45 was especially bad. Food was scarce; the Nazi occupiers and their Dutch collaborators were desperate to find resources, human and otherwise, to keep the war going; it was an extremely cold winter.

That winter the Nazis came for his father, who managed to escape. But would he be able to escape the next time?

Henk Pander, "The Floor"

Henk Pander, “The Floor”
“On our street another large family was involved in the resistance. There were routine house searches. People hid between the joists under the floors. The wife pretended to be ill. I tried to make these works from a child’s point of view.”

That profound experience of occupation stayed with Pander as he grew up in Holland, training to be an artist, as his father was. A primary lesson: “The government can walk into your world without hesitation,” Pander says. When he arrived in Portland in 1965, after marrying an American and starting a family, he brought that sensitivity to the coercive power of government. And he saw that power exercised in Portland, in response to the anti-Vietnam War protests of the time. He drew, painted and caricatured that Portland, and continues the practice of capturing the world around him—animated by his classical Dutch art training—to this day. From a purely documentary viewpoint alone, that work is fascinating—among the most important contributions to our understanding of Portland, Oregon, and America that I know of—even before we start to interpret it.

What that little boy witnessed in Haarlem between 1940 and 1945 became another vector of exploration. After seeing an Anselm Kiefer mixed-media painting show in Paris in 1984, a mediation on World War II and the Holocaust, Pander filled several drawing books with his memories of the war.
And then between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, he started painting them. I would suggest that those memories haunt much of Pander’s work, but these paintings allow us to see, feel, and experience what life under Nazi occupation was like. At the same time, they operate on a metaphorical level, too, the level of nightmare. Art historian Roger Hull calls them “among Pander’s most moving and profound accomplishments,” in the catalog essay for the Pander retrospective at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem.

Pander isn’t given to euphemism. “I again live in a Fascist period,” he says of this time. He’s not talking about Obamacare, and he’s not being metaphorical.

During the recent election, I heard the words “Nazi” and “Fascist” used more frequently than I had since my childhood, when they were used mostly to describe actual Nazis and Fascists from the recently concluded war. Mostly, the words were used loosely, I thought. Trump supporters used them, and so did Clinton supporters, neither side making a particularly coherent argument in the process, partly because the definitions of those words are contested and complicated, far more than our political conversation can handle at this perilous point. What is the proper application? I’m not a political scientist, but perhaps experiences like the ones Pander painted.

It’s possible that these paintings seem a long way from your everyday life in Portland; for some, though, they may capture the essence of it, especially if they are at Standing Rock right now. At the very least, they serve as a warning: We do not want this in Portland, in Oregon, in America, not for ourselves and not for anyone else.

Pander contributed the captions for these paintings.

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