May you live in interesting times, as the old curse has it, and Henk Pander’s lived in interesting times and places.
Consider, just for one example, Haarlem Transport, Pander’s large (40 x 60 inches) 2001 watercolor in the current exhibition Transport: Works by Henk Pander and Esther Podemski, on view through May 20 at the Oregon Jewish Museum. The interesting place of the watercolor’s title is Pander’s hometown in The Netherlands, Haarlem, a cultured small city that’s been a haven for artists since the days of Frans Hals, Jan Steen and Jacob van Ruisdael in the Dutch Golden Age. The interesting time is the years of the Nazi occupation during World War II, when Pander, who was born in 1937, was a child.
Like all of Pander’s artworks in this exhibition, Haarlem Transport is a memory-piece, a reconciliation of the measured and tested observations of adult recollection with the fresh and vivid experiences of the youthful eyewitness he once was. What we see is a simple frozen moment whose importance comes clear only in retrospect.
An urban street corner of brick buildings and pavement, a bicycle in the foreground. A man in a brimmed hat, absorbed, leaning forward, pedaling hard. A girl in red sitting on the handlebars, hair flying, legs dangling, eyes intense. Around the corner, past a falling shadow and a streetlamp, the lurking, almost obscured hulk of a military tank, its long pencil gun barrel pointed like an obscene promise toward the brick that is the city’s fabric. Straddling the rear fender of the speeding bike, a boy, hanging onto his father (for that is who we suppose the man is), grasping for balance, wide eyes staring out of the picture, probing but expressionless, inviting — almost compelling — us into their depths. The moment is loose and rapid, as if sketched swiftly on the scene, yet in certain particulars (those eyes, those eyes; the man’s taut mouth) it’s meticulous.
What is this scene snatched so startlingly from memory? A mystery, yes. But a mystery of private life, pinched in and reshaped by public trauma. It’s that transgression, the jagged edge of what should be but is not a natural exchange between the private and public realms, that in turn shapes the dark beauty of Pander’s art. Something’s amiss. Even the young and unformed know it. It turns them old before their time.
A lot of people have experienced the curse of interesting times. History’s pretty much a minefield of them, and we’ve been living in an extended one in the near-century since the onset of the war before Pander’s childhood war – the one that people at the time fearfully and all too hopefully called the Great War, as if it would somehow solve things for the future. As another old observation has it, fat chance.
Yet if millions have survived (and not survived) hard times, not a lot of people have also been witnesses, at least in a public sense, although they might well have been eloquent witnesses in their own private circles. And that makes Pander’s brand of public witnessing particularly interesting. He’s an artist/reporter, one of those people who looks at the fault lines and quietly demands that we pay attention. It doesn’t make a lot of difference that his images are funneled through private memory. By drawing and painting them, he makes them public, for all of us to contemplate. In the past he’s shown us images of airplane graveyards and other wreckages in the desert, the fiery New Carissa oil tanker tilted and leaking off the Oregon Coast, beached whales, the urgent scenes of ambulance and emergency-room workers, and the gutted shell of Lower Manhattan immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Even his landscapes and still lifes can be fiercely structural, determined to bare their bones.
It’s hardly back-of-the-couch stuff — Pander is not the artist of choice among upscale interior decorators — but it’s insistent and memorable. And because Pander, true to his training in the great Dutch tradition, is such an accomplished draftsman and builder of images — the man flat-out knows how to draw and paint — his works have the additional, almost inconceivable, allure of being beautiful in spite of their subject matter.
Is it possible — is it quite right — to feel aesthetic pleasure and even joy in viewing them? Yes. That’s one of the mysteries of a certain kind of art, which attracts and repulses at the same time, perhaps attracting even because it repulses. The effect’s a bit like that of the Japanese performing art butoh, which like Pander’s Haarlem drawings and paintings grew out of the experiences of World War II: achieving beauty within the grotesque. It echoes the pleasure-from-pain principle of works as disparate as Artemesia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor, The Book of Job, Kafka’s dryly funny Metamorphosis and pretty much the whole of medieval European art, with its obsession over a suffering man-god nailed to a criminal’s cross.
Much of Pander’s art in Transport is heroically scaled, and its size is important to both its impact and its particularity. Telling details leap out with a clarity that can only be dimly suggested in reproductions. (Trust me: the reproductions accompanying this story can’t carry a candle to their originals.) And it’s an unrelentingly social art that keeps its feet soundly on the side of private territory, perhaps because the point of a culture’s social contract is to secure safe haven for private life. The pieces here have neither the sense-stirring battlefield drama of Goya’s famous Disasters of War prints nor the overt moral outrage of Sue Coe’s prints and drawings condemning the butchery of animals. Pander’s art seems somehow sadder and in its way perhaps even braver, because it sees not just the atrocious event, but the private ripples of the atrocious event. To truly understand, it seems to say, first you have to truly look.
We look, of course, with our eyes. And eyes play big in Pander’s pieces at the Jewish Museum, which are entered, as often as not, through a child’s eyes. In the 1995 ink drawing Children’s War the kids are literally playing, with slingshots, a parachute, wooden sticks. Off to the corner, perhaps not certain what’s a game and what is life, a girl runs away in fright. In another 1995 ink drawing, Arresting a Collaborator, a soldier points his rifle at the door another soldier is vigorously kicking in. A crowded street of Haarlemmers stands by, heads down, faces like skulls. A boy and girl are in the foreground, looking startled, unlike their elders, who have simply seen too much. Above and behind, the sky is filled with fierce striations of clouds, one of which resembles a bird of prey, talons spread, ready to swoop down.
Impending violence repeats and expands in the giant (81 x 105 inches) 1994 oil painting The Kitchen. Beneath a shaft of light through stained-glass windows a monk peels potatoes as a Gestapo officer trains a pistol on another monk, whose arm is flung up, perhaps in fright, perhaps in protection. Five helmeted foot-soldiers with rifles and bayonets ring him from behind, crowding in front of a hard-faced bespectacled man who appears to be a war bureaucrat. Almost lost in the circle, a little girl in red hair and red dress stares out. Her huge eyes, once you see them, become the focus of the entire painting. They’re older than anyone or anything around her.
Specters, or specters-in-waiting, reveal themselves. Pander’s relatively small black-and-white inkwash (17 x 22 inches, 2006) Ship with Refugees, WWII is a moody brush of tall Dutch buildings, a lowering sky, a wooden hull with mast, and ghost-figures with long shadows walking through the gray toward it. What will they find, supposing the ship gets them away? In another ink drawing, 1992’s Gathering Wood in the Dunes II, Pander sketches what at first glance seems a simple rural scene on a blustery day. But there’s something cadaverous about this woman’s stolid figure, drawing an old wooden cart through the grass and wind in an environment that seems as old as Breughel. Things fade, things stay. Things stay past their time.
Even more cadaverous, and ravenous, is the 1999 ink drawing Soup Kitchen, in which thin skull-eyed children bend over bowls of thin liquid. This might be Pander’s memory of the winter of 1944-45, the hongerwinter, a time of famine caused by harsh weather and a German blockade, during which those who survived (18,000 did not) did so partly on a diet of tulip bulbs and sugar beets.
War is an act of waiting, and people wait in these drawings and paintings. They endure, if that’s the right word, and they anticipate, and they simply … wait. For the next bad thing. For the end of the next bad things. They wait, children and adults, in the 1995 watercolor The First Night and the 1993 oil Waiting in the War and 2011’s intense oil painting The Ruse (Razzia), in which a boy with a chamberpot and a nursing mother with straggly hair and beat-up boots outwait a German soldier staring in their window. Their stoic faces struggle to give away nothing, and in the process give away the struggle. Here is the quiet face of atrocity, the eternal face of endurance. Here is the story of what human beings do to human beings.
Pander’s lived and worked in Portland for more than 45 years now, which ought to be long enough to make him a “Portland” artist, which he’s certainly become, and a deeply admired one at that. Yet for all his acclaim he’s still and always an outsider, from whence comes his strength: a stranger in a strange land. A modern master of a grand illustrative tradition in a time and place that undervalues both tradition and the craft of drawing. A European in an American frontier town. A painter who doesn’t quote ironically from the old masters because he grew up breathing their air. A brooder; a thoroughly modern historicist who has seemed from his summer days and his continuing stubborn independence to define a certain sort of avant garde. Funny that he turns out to be perhaps the deepest classicist of us all.
It’s fitting, even though he isn’t Jewish, that Pander’s remembered Haarlem war is being featured at the Jewish Museum. This was, after all, a defining war for Jewish people. Haarlem’s synagogue was destroyed. Most of its Jewish population was deported, in spite of efforts to shelter them by the Ten Boom family and others. It’s all in the memory bank. During the war, members of the resistance took shelter in the Pander family home. Giving them refuge was an act of courage that must have left a lasting mark of tension on the son, and a lasting understanding of the importance of private principle. After all these years, those Haarlem days and nights are still piercingly with him. And because they remain with him and a dwindling number like him, they remain with us. It’s as if, in the works in Transport, Pander’s taken on the role of the lucky/luckless witness reporting calamity upon calamity to Job: I alone have escaped to tell you.
– I haven’t said anything about the work of Esther Podemski, who shares this show at the Jewish Museum with Pander. Podemski, who now lives in Brooklyn, was a longtime Portland artist who was born in Poland shortly after World War II. She’s Jewish, and her art reflects memories of the world that came to being in the war’s aftermath. Despite the similar themes, the two halves of the exhibition don’t fit together especially well. Podemski’s art is quieter and more intellectualized, and tends to get overwhelmed by Pander’s largeness. Plus, much of her best work is on film, which is shown only in excerpts here. She deserves a separate show, out of Pander’s shadow; or maybe a second visit to be spent with her work alone.
– Pander also has a good exhibition ending today (Saturday, February 24) at his Portland gallery, Laura Russo Gallery. It consists of landscapes from his native Netherlands and his adopted Pacific Northwest, and explores the differences of terrain, which seem also to contain a difference of mind: once again, Pander split between himself. He shares space with veteran sculptor Mel Katz, whose color-drenched flat-plane wall sculptures are a break from his freestanding tradition and a happy revelation.
– The excellent Oregon art historian Roger Hull wrote the book on Pander’s career for last year’s retrospective at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem. Book and exhibition, which Hull curated, were called Henk Pander: Memory and Modern Life. I wrote about the show for The Oregonian; you can read that story here.