I spy with my little eye
As I recall, the first time I saw Helly’s work it stirred up feelings
of perplexity, serenity and hesitantly seeking for something to hold on
to, but not knowing where to start looking.
Now my approach is different: I stand before the work, open myself up
and look. Because the work refers to nothing except itself, does not
claim to be anything other than it is – which I admire – and reveals
itself only through looking.
And as this looking has developed, so our friendship has grown and I
have gradually come to know the person behind or in the work.
Helly’s materials are her instruments. She plays on them,
idio-syncratically, open to sudden flashes of inspiration and alert to
every small surprise they offer.
Her sculptures grow in her hands, formed by impulses and resolute
interventions. From where? Partly plucked intuitively from the air,
partly from a distant past, from candour, from not knowing but doing,
guided by a wisdom that resides in her hands and in her heart.
She often goes to the limit, wishes to test the limits, into the realm
of the unknown, the surprising, the astonishing and still further.
Reason and emotion work together to carry her forward, leading her to
discover unconventional techniques. How many experiments must you
undertake before you can do what you feel you must?
When Helly describes her own work she simply lists the materials from
which the work is made: clay, bricks, frosted glass, perforated brass,
copper. Very matter-of-fact, as if she is looking with us.
She began with clay, that age-old, trusty material, ideally suited to
giving concrete form to her ideas. Clay, part of the earth, eternal in
all its guises and colours. It can be kneaded, cut, fired or pounded
into dust, but it cannot be destroyed. Although clay retains an
important place in Helly’s work, she also employs a range of other
materials. Such as colourless glass, that material that is visible but
also not entirely visible, a blank sheet which – just like clay – can
stand heat, which melts, flows and congeals, breaks and splinters.
Glass adheres, moulds itself to the clay and will not let go: a
touching duality. Glass can also be subservient; then it finds its form
only once it has hardened. It can also take on other guises: jagged
fracture lines and rough serrated edges that evoke other emotions. Her
studio is full of fragments and materials from daily life: a shot
glass, a piece of iron, a bolt, which may suddenly find their place in
one of her sculptures.
Always inquisitive about new directions, Helly has keenly turned to
photography or the computer. She manipulates and cuts up the sculptures
and plays with dimensions. Is it flat or three-dimensional? Is it
porcelain or a photograph? She toys with the viewer: do you really know
what you’re looking at? As if her images challenge us to look properly,
and if you think you see it, there is always something that will
What looks like thin white cardboard is in fact porcelain that has been
rolled out in thin strips, almost to breaking point, suffering a small
tear and developing a frayed edge, which flows seamlessly into a
different coloured clay. The work is not what it appears to be at first
glance. It begs questions. Just as all the senses are involved in the
making, you need all your wits about you to look at it.
Yet Helly’s work is not just about the materials. She devotes almost as
much attention to the space, the gaps between the materials, the space
outside the sculpture, the void that surrounds it: space for thoughts,
She creates space with her sculptures; she places them in space. This
location is also an act: sometimes nailed to a piece of wood bearing a
text as a playful addition, or with their feet in a cloud of glass
Despite their abstract form, the sculptures are movingly human and once
you have perceived them as such they seem to open and say: look at me,
you don’t have to understand me, just take me as I am. When you look at
her work it seems at rest or does it induce this restfulness? With
sustained looking, you discover new pieces, curves or angles that you
had not seen before. The work is inexhaustible in its surprises because
the longer you look the more new elements you seem to discover. Yet one
thing is clear:
it must be precisely as it is.
Helly gives her works names just as you would give a newborn child a
name. Her titles are often invented words without meaning or connection
to any known thing. They stimulate the viewer to take a good look and
to find his or her own meaning in the work, wordlessly.
Even if she doesn’t make it easy for us – certainly not for the fast,
impatient viewer – whoever makes an effort and takes the time to
understand Helly’s language, will discover treasure.
Translation Gerard Forde
Finding a way
At the age of twenty-two in 1958 Helly Oestreicher graduated from the
Instituut voor Kunstnijverheidsonderwijs (IvKNO) in Amsterdam (now the
Gerrit Rietveld Academie). She had hesitated between photography and
ceramics, but eventually opted for the latter.1
for her attraction to working with clay would become clearer over the
years, but in this early period she was still finding her way. This
hesitation was partly personal – the war had left deep scars in her
personal life – but it was also related to the phase in which ceramics
then found itself.
The years of post-war reconstruction in the Netherlands were
characterised by growing commercial demand in all areas and rapid
industrialisation. The tableware industry reaped the rewards of this
growth and enjoyed a brief period of success, which would all too soon
be stifled for good by competition from cheap mass production. The
potteries attempted to turn the tide through reorganisation and
modernisation. Rationalisation was the credo: first and foremost,
industrially produced tableware must be functional.
The ceramics department at the IvKNO was headed by Wim de Vries. He had
trained in studio pottery but had become a successful designer of
tableware and worked for the Fris pottery in Edam. De Vries saw no
future for studio potters who wished to work in the craft tradition of
his predecessor, Bert Nienhuis. He believed that his students must
prepare for a career designing tableware but should also be able to
throw clay on a potter’s wheel. Because the course offered inadequate
time and facilities to perfect this skill, before sitting her final
exams Oestreicher served an apprenticeship at the Zaalberg family firm.
After gra-duating she gained additional work experience in Finland,
then the Mecca of modern design. Unlike many ceramicists of her
generation who finished their studies at the progressive tableware
manufacturer Arabia, she went to work for a small studio.2
However, by no means all of De Vries’s students opted for an industrial
career, not even in the years when the ceramics industry seemed to
offer a degree of security. Many of them bucked the dominant trend by
choosing the craft direction. At the time of Oestreicher’s graduation,
their work enjoyed a degree of recognition and a little later the
Netherlands witnessed an important renaissance in studio pottery. This
process of change was marked by the replacement of the old term potter
with the more generic term ceramicist, which suggested a broader area
of activity than only making pots.3
For the advocates of craft it was very important that the link with
tradition was not broken. The introduction to the catalogue of a
selling exhibition of ceramics in which Oestreicher participated in
1964 written by René Smeets, the first director of the new school for
industrial design in Eindhoven, is illuminating in this respect:
“It is gratifying to observe that there is in this age, which is so in
awe of technology and perfection, such a great and lively interest in
things made by sensitive hands on the potter’s wheel and moreover that
there are so many among the younger generation who are inherently drawn
to clay and the potter’s wheel in order to continue the age-old craft
of making vases, dishes, jugs and pitchers.”4
contrasts slick industrial products with the personal hand of the maker
and places the contemporary ceramicist in the tradition of the age-old
craft of the potter.
How did the young Helly Oestreicher relate to this tradition? Because
of her practical experience in Finland, where she had worked on
batch-produced objects, Oestreicher had little affinity with
hand-thrown earthenware, which posed too small a challenge for her.
Neither did she feel drawn to the direction being pursued by the
ceramicists of the experimental department of De Porceleyne Fles (now
Royal Delft), whose work had been held up as an example during her
studies. These ceramicists – the majority of whom had studied at the
IvKNO – experimented with historical processes such as kneading and
engobe (slipware) techniques. They made one-off items ranging from
bowls and pots to sculptures and reliefs.5
The realisation that there was another way – that she could also work
as an artist – grew following her stay in Finland. Her husband’s
background was also influential. Reynoud Groeneveld, whom she married
in 1959, had studied architecture in Delft. The Technische Hogeschool
(now the Delft University of Technology) was the bastion of
Neo-Traditionalist architecture (the Delft School), but young
architects, Groeneveld among them, were increasingly at odds with this
conservative movement and felt a greater affinity with the pre-war
modernism exemplified by the functionalism of Berlage, Brinkman &
Van der Vlugt and Van de Broek & Bakema. Helly Oestreicher was well
acquainted with modernism, having enjoyed a cosmopolitan and artistic
Her family came originally from Karlsbad (now
Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic) but in 1938 the family moved to the
Netherlands where her maternal grandparents lived. Helly’s parents did
not survive the war, but two of her father’s sisters did. One of these,
who became her foster mother, Lisbeth Birman-Oestreicher (1902-1989),
studied at the Bauhaus and worked as a designer in the Dutch textiles
industry in the 1930s. Through her, Oestreicher had become fully
acquainted with the ideas and ideals of the Bauhaus. Her other aunt,
Marie Oestreicher (1915-1975), who worked under the name Maria Austria,
was a celebrated photographer. This background and the circles in which
Oestreicher and her husband moved naturally had a great influence on
the young ceramicist. It explains why she did not consider herself a
designer, felt even less at home with the craftspeople for whom
tradition was important, and why she sought her own way to commune with
her own period, unhindered by the history of her discipline.
The first works she exhibited displayed an affinity with contemporary
architecture and sculpture. They were Constructivist sculptures that
were known in the family circle rather perversely as ‘anti-pots’ to
emphasise what they were not.7
Oestreicher later wrote about
these first ceramic sculptures: “After my final exams at the Rietveld
Academie (then the IvKNO) I went in search. I began with the thing, the
untainted thing without a ‘message’ for the past or the present, and
without any reference to reality. The “anti-pots” are not pots made to
contain anything, but are thin-walled objects that enclose space. The
anti-pots are statements, they have no utilitarian function, no
acknowledged design, they make no appeal to prevailing aesthetics.”8
Her nonconformism expressed itself not only in her forms but also in
her handling of the clay. She made a stand by using little or no glaze
on her ceramics, something that was highly un-usual at the time. ‘You
didn’t use clay without a glaze, that was something that came from
everyday tableware, which otherwise would be too porous. And it had to
be seductive’, according to Oestreicher.9
experienced her unglazed work as ‘un-ceramic’. Her work was
occasionally compared to nuts and bolts – a reference to the world of
technology that was not meant positively. The dimensions of her pieces
also demonstrated her ambition to transcend the limitations of the
potter’s craft. Her sculptures are large, larger than the kilns then
available. She achieved this scale by firing the hand-thrown elements
individually and then assembling them. ‘Jonker’ from 1963 is an
excellent example of this working method, as is the robust ‘La Ronde’,
which resembles a miniature building.
Her nonconformism gave her a unique position in the broad field of
ceramics. Oestreicher’s work evolved into sculpture, and allhough it
was not exclusively ceramic, the majority of pieces were made from
clay. The constructed forms of her early years were followed by open
forms with oval curves in which the material was, as it were, tested
for its elasticity. Later she produced impressions of landscapes,
incised and coloured on flat plates of sandy clay like ceramic
paintings. Here she used the physical characteristics of the material
to express the earthiness of the landscape. In these reliefs she dealt
for the first time with the themes of the path, the horizon and the
distance. This subject led in the 1980s to the series ‘A Long Road’ –
freestanding sculptures inspired by a tree-lined road. In order to
evoke the sensation of the free interplay of light and shadow,
Oestreicher combined the ceramic forms with sheets of glass with a
jagged, ‘bitten’ edge. In addition to works reminiscent of nature,
Oestreicher also created sculptures that evoke direct associations with
nature such as ‘Grass’ and ‘Corn’ from 1981: playful representations of
swaying grass and crops.10
In the 1980s her sculptures became larger, took up more space and were
arranged into groups and installations. The sculptural group
‘Personages’ (1983) was exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum in 1984 and
made a deep impression. It consists of eight abstract sculptures, each
of which comprises a rectangular transparent glass box, surmounted by
an assemblage of curved ceramic plates; the two elements brought into
subtle dialogue by strips of colour on the glass. With this and other
monumental sculptures Oestreicher took a step towards installations in
which the exhibition space itself began to play an important role. In
1997 she made the impressive installation ‘Labyrinth’ in the Bergkerk
in Deventer. Visitors had to find their way through the maze of high
walls constructed from large brick-coloured breezeblocks. Between the
bricks were thin glass plates, symbolising the possibility of a way
out. This work revisited the theme of the path of life as a quest.11
The bricks’ surface appearance and texture played an important role: on
the one hand rosy and blotchy like skin, on the other striped like the
canvas of a marquee.12
Love of clay
Helly Oestreicher has frequently spoken about her preference for
working with clay, a material that means a great deal to her. Over the
years she has undertaken a variety of detailed explorations into the
possibilities of this material. For example, during a residency at the
European Ceramics Work Centre in Den Bosch she developed a porcelain
clay that rises in the kiln like bread.13
the physical qualities of clay, its plasticity, texture, colour and
hardness. Almost forty years after graduating, she expressed her love
of clay as follows: ‘The hard flexibility of ceramic forms is special
to me and therefore plays an important part in my work; the absolute
constancy of the material has an emotional value for me. Ceramic
displays no signs of decay, no ageing such as the yellowing of paper,
the discolouration of varnish or paint or the patina of bronze.’14
Oestreicher’s devotion to this material so readily associated with
ceramics has led many to ask whether her work should be
considered applied art or fine art. After all, dependence upon a single
material is a characteristic of the applied arts, while the visual arts
are not bound to any particular material. Countless pioneering artists
who have explored new forms with ceramics and with textiles have been
confronted with this tiresome question about the status of their work.
As recently as 1998 Oestreicher gave an irritated and dismissive answer
to this question and stated that she did not wish to discuss such a
hackneyed question. For her, the autonomy of her sculptures is beyond
Her idea of craft is purely technical: ‘I have learned the techniques
of various disciplines: ceramics, glass and bronze. Craft hides an
element of tradition, and I was not interested in that aspect.’16
For a colleague such as Jan de Rooden tradition did play a role in his
view of the profession.17
Jan van der Vaart, a friend of
Oestreicher’s, was certainly no romantic about his profession but
neither did he pursue ceramics as a form of fine art. Van der Vaart
made sober Constructivist glazed pots and vases, both unique pieces and
multiples. He distanced himself from the idea of becoming an artist; he
was a simple craftsman. Someone with whom Oestreicher feels an affinity
in terms of her artistic position is the German-born British potter
Hans Coper (1920-1981). Following the Second Word War, Coper became a
ceramicist almost out of sheer necessity while he had actually wanted
to be a sculptor. His work is unique and has no relationship to English
ceramics of his time. Due to his background, Coper remained an outsider
in the world of studio pottery.
And neither did he have an affinity with it. His interest was in
sculpture – Arp and Brancusi – and the ancient art he knew from the
British Museum: Egyptian, Cycladic, Etruscan and Neolithic.
There are technical similarities between his work and Oestreicher’s
early sculptures. Coper always threw his work on a wheel and often
constructed his pieces from separate components. His forms are
primarily sculptural and possess enormous monumentality no matter how
small they may be. Oestreicher contacted Coper and had several
discussions with him during the year she spent in London in 1965. At
that time she bought a work from him (and received another as a gift),
which she cherishes almost half a century later. Just as Coper felt out
of place in the world of crafts and was inspired by broader and more
ancient approaches to working with clay, Oestreicher has always
resisted being conscripted into the world of studio pottery, of applied
art. Her vision is a broad one. She has travelled far and wide and has
frequently given expression to her emotions and sense of connection
when standing eye to eye with ceramic objects from thousands of years
ago: ‘I have just returned from Syria and was deeply moved by the sight
of sculptures in alabaster and ceramic from 2500 BC. This poignancy
stemmed from an intense feeling of connection with these people who,
like me, had such an urge to make something. People who could not
resist transforming clay or alabaster into something summoned up from
their imagination and which speaks to their own imagination and that of
others. The thing, the vehicle of the imagination, communicates and
unites people who share a common experience in looking at it.’18
The path that Helly Oestreicher has beaten and which may be followed in
this book, attests to a faith in her own principles and a love of art,
of no matter which period or culture. Above all, it speaks of a
peculiar sensitivity to the world in which she lives.
Translation Gerard Forde
1 J.E. Crommelin, ‘De ceramiek
van Helly Oestreicher’, in: Mededelingenblad vrienden van de
Nederlandse ceramiek, (1967) no.4, p. 20.
2 Arabia in Finland had
established a reputation for modern tableware, including the Kilta
service by Kai Franck. The factory had an art department which produced
one-off items. Oestreicher would have liked to have served her
apprenticeship there, but had not prepared her journey properly,
according to the artist in conversation with the author, 24 April 2009.
3 Regina M. Dippel,
‘Kanttekeningen bij de Nederlandse pottenbakkerskunst van vandaag’, in:
Museumjournaal, vol.9 (1964) no.2, p. 45
4 Quoted from exhib. cat.
Keramiek, Amsterdam (Stichting Toonkerk. Kunstkontakt) 1964,
unpaginated. (abridged version taken from the journal Klei en keramiek
(1964) no. 4).
5 Two lecturers at the IvKNO,
Theo Dobbelman en Sybren Valkema, worked at the experimental
department; Dobbelman was head of the department. It was Oestreicher’s
visit to the exhibition 6 Amsterdamse pottenbakkers at Museum
Boymans-van Beuningen in Rotterdam in 1962 that encouraged her to seek
her won direction, according to the artist in conversation with the
author, 24 April 2009 and 8 September 2010.
6 Renée Waale, ‘Een lange weg’,
in: exhib. cat. Helly Oestreicher, Breda (De Beyerd) 1989 and Amsterdam
(Jewish Historical Museum) 1990, pp. 22-25.
7 Crommelin (note 1), p. 20.
Consulted on 22.04.2009.
9 The artist in conversation
with the author, 24 April 2009.
10 Exhib. cat. (note 6), ill.
pp. 35 and 49.
11 Els van de Berg, ‘Labyrint’,
in exhib. cat. Helly Oestreicher. Labyrint, Heino/Wijhe (Bergkerk
Deventer – Hannema-de Stuers Fundatie) 1997, pp. 17-18.
12 The artist in conversation
with the author, 8 September 2010.
13 Exhib. cat. Amsterdams
blauw. Helly Oestreicher, Otterlo (Nederlands Tegelmuseum) 2006 (text
14 Van de Berg (note 11), p. 8.
15 Cees Klok, ‘Dat wat je niet
in woorden weet te vangen. Een interview met Helly Oestreicher’, in:
Glas en keramiek, vol. 11
(1998) no.1, pp. 23-27, in particular p. 24.
16 The artist in conversation
with the author, 24 April 2009.
17 Marjan Boot, ‘Stances on
Craft. New Forms of Ceramics in the Netherlands (1960-1980)’, in:
Re-view: new Perspectives on the Collection of the Stedelijk Museum
(working title). Due to be published on the occasion of the reopening
of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 2011.
18 Helly Oestreicher, EKWC
Michel Kuipers, Helly Oestreicher, Irene Vonck, Den Bosch 1995, p. 9.
Art and poetry in the post-war vacuum
Interpreting, representing and translating Paul Celan were the themes
taken up by John Felstiner (Celan’s biographer), the artist Helly
Oestreicher, and translator Ton Naaijkens at the annual study afternoon
of the Paul Celan Society of the Netherlands held at the Catholic
University of Nijmegen on November 18. The presence of a visual artist
at a literary symposium is a rarity, but Oestreicher’s recognition of
parallels between Celan’s poetry and her own work, offered new insights
into the shattered post-war universe where both artists and writers,
and particularly survivors, felt they had to begin at zero. What
follows is a condensed version of Oestreicher’s talk presented under
the motto’ and she sings as if her song had more purpose than life
itself’ (Ferdinand Pessoa 1914).
“When I was around fifty, I first became familiar with Paul Celan’s
work and it has not let go of me since. I hope to make clear that I, as
a child of my time and history, made choices that were essential for my
art and that only now, viewing them beside Celan’s statements about
poetry in general and his work in particular, can I see parallels.
The history and the cultural background we share probably play a role
When I was born in Karlovy Vary in the former Republic of
Czechoslovakia, Paul Celan was fifteen years old. My father and both my
grandfathers were Jewish doctors. At home German was spoken. In 1938,
when I was two, my grandmother, parents, and we three sisters emigrated
to Holland. Since the Germans had forbidden attendance to Jewish
children, I had not yet been to school when I was separated from my
family at age seven. But, thanks to my parents, I could already read in
two languages, Dutch and German, and also do a little arithmetic. Fairy
tales by Grimm and Andersen were as familiar to me as the myths of the
Greco-Roman gods and heros. I knew the Old Testament as well, not only
in story form, but in the images I had seen in books on the Italian
After the liberation, my older sister and my twin returned from the
German concentration camp where they had been held, but my parents did
not survive. Under the name of Ellie Strijker, I had been hidden by a
family of Dutch farmers. Reunited with my sisters, I became Helly
again. In the years that followed, like all children, we went to
school, and when we were eighteen we took the final exam at the
gymnasium. I went to the Gerrit Rietveld Academy of Art in Amsterdam
and finished four years later in 1958 with a degree in ceramics. The
following year, I married the architect Reynoud Groeneveld, who was
then still studying in Delft. In our student rooms, I began to make
ceramic sculptures with the traditional techniques.
Creating the thing about nothing
But before saying more, I would like to address the question of the
ceramic pot. What is a pot actually? It is a form that can contain
something. In the sculptural sense, however, it can also be the
opposite – a thin-walled object that surrounds space or emptiness. Not
pots, but anti-pots (so named by my husband) were what I wanted to
make: thin-walled forms without meaning or purpose that surrounded
emptiness. I set myself in opposition to the ceramic tradition and my
My anti-pots were objects that had to take their right to exist from
their material, texture and form without an aesthetic. They didn’t
refer to anything, they didn’t indicate anything. They just were.
I realize now that I was seeking to orient myself. I began with the
pure thing. The thing about nothing. The work was the journey not the
destination. It had no message to the past, nor was it about the past –
once made, it stood there free from everything.
Celan says in the Meridian, his lecture on receiving the Georg Büchner
Prize in 1960: ‘Vielleicht geht die Dichtung wie die Kunst, mit einem
selbstvergessenen Ich zu jeden unheimlichen und Fremden und setzt sich
– Doch wo? Doch am welchem Ort? Doch womit? Doch als was? Wieder frei?’
(‘Perhaps poetry, like art, goes with a selfforgetting I to everything
ominous and foreign and seats itself. But where? But in which place?
But with what? But as what? Free again?’) But the object, like a poem
The unchanging presence of the object appeals to its surroundings with
its solitary individuality.
Since the first anti-pots a lot has changed in the outward appearance
of my work, but the basic idea remains.
If there was a simple organization at the start, more complex forms
came along the way – conceptual images. For my thoughts I seek a
material appearance that grows into a reality. A shadow of an idea that
cannot be suppressed sings in my head. I call it a tune to make clear
that I do not mean a preconceived image. I begin by choosing materials
and making them my own through experiments and exercises. I transform
them and play with them like musical instruments. I compose with them
until the form, the texture, the color and the dimensions essential for
the tune appear.
Along the way in an intensive, concentrated exchange with what emerges
and what is in the back of my head, the image becomes form, becomes
free. The often vague beginnings, are very personal, very subjective.
By looking for a material form, they become objects and thereby are
freed (from me). ‘Kunst schafft Ich-Ferne’ (‘Art creates I-distance’)
says Celan. Distance from the self can be a solution as much for the
creator as for the recipient.
If I look at Celan’s work then what I notice is that in searching for
reality (wirklichkeitsuchend), he tries to create a knowable world. He
transforms language, he sculpts words into many dimensions, including
the sensory, and he chisels word combinations into gossamer,
transparent images that stimulate the reader to leaps of thought almost
impossible to pin down. The many-sided, multi-meaning word pictures are
Celan’s own. Therein I recognize Celan, the comtemporary – one who
conquers the reality of existence exclusively from within himself.
The observer’s inner picture
Creating is shaping the amorphous, shaping the subjective tune into an
object. When an observer sees one of my pieces, he builds up his own
inner picture of it, oriented to his own personal knowledge,
experience, and feelings. So the object comes to life in imaginary form
again and becomes a subjective form once more – it becomes part of his
cultural outlook. Our seeing/perceiving is subjective. ‘The door to
seeing is veiled’, says Celan in the story Gespräch im Gebirg.
(Conversation in the mountains)
I see my work as the carrier of my imagination into the culture in
which I live. For Celan, too, poems are a form of speech and therefore
in their essence, dialogues. Poems are en route, they go towards
something. Towards what? Towards something open, something that can be
occupied, an approachable other.
In 1989 I was invited to have a solo exhibition in the Museum de Beyerd
in Breda that was to continue on to the Jewish Historical Museum in
Amsterdam. In November of that year when the exhibition in Breda had
already begun and the catalogue was finished, the Berlin Wall came
down, the velvet revolution broke out in Czechoslovakia, and the aunt,
who had taken in we three sisters after the war and given us a home
after she had survived the camp, passed away.
New work with a purpose
With the conjunction of these events, I felt I had to make new work for
the exhibition in the Jewish Historical Museum, work that did have a
purpose, that was an expression of concern and a call for
participation. The exhibition consisted of only four pieces, one of
which was an ‘Hommage To Paul Celan’. It was double-sided drawing of
brown packing paper lined with black fabric hanging down and onto the
floor. On both sides back to back two lines by Paul Celan are
visualized: ‘Ein baumhoher Gedanke’ (‘A tree-high thought’), from the
poem Fadensonnen. On the other side is the line ‘Die Welt ist fort, ich
muss dich tragen’ (‘The world is gone, I must carry you’), from Grosse,
The artistic attitude to life expressed here, prompted by perplexity at
one’s own inability to find answers for the disasters of history and
personal tragedy, and hoping for some limited order in unlimited chaos,
results in stubborn artistic expressions. These are seldom immediately
understandable because far-reaching stylistic freedom goes together
with a very personal language of form. The observer/reader must set out
for the unknown, uncomfortable terrain, where seeking is the only
given. One stands as shaken and displaced as the creators. That is
asking a lot, I know. But I hope to have made clear that it cannot be
otherwise because it is also a way of surviving.
On the litho’s for Paul Celan
In his lecture upon receiving the Bremen Literature Prize in 1958, Paul
Celan said the following:
“Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses:
language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure
against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through
terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous
speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening,
but went through it. Went through and could resurface, ‘enriched’ by it
Here, like a human rite of passage, Celan describes the process by
which his instrument – the German language – is purified. The redeemed
language is the sharp tool with which almost unbearably he questions
himself and trenchantly defines the very limits. Tyrannically without
wanting, let alone knowing how to define, he describes, he encircles,
he approaches, he seeks to grasp with words, seeks to understand. His
language stagnates; he stammers. In a condensed poetic language he
reaches the boundaries where the word can go no further. Neither can
one expect help from the senses, which are also unable to understand
the world as it is.
In Gespräch im Gebirg (Conversation in the Mountains), as in many of
his poems, Celan writes about vision: ‘they have, they too, have eyes,
but a veil hangs before them, not before, no, behind, a mobile veil; no
sooner does an image enter than it is caught in the fabric’. You see,
our vision is subjective. That is the human condition. At the same time
Celan understands ‘seeing’ as the force that awakens the hidden seed in
Sensory perception and the conditioning of perception and of experience
was an important basis of the three-dimension visual research I
undertook with my students at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in
Amsterdam. The object and its image that is caught and processed in the
viewer’s web is the subtle game that visual artists provoke.
My objects appeal to all the senses. They are clearly defined in form
and materials. They are not representations: they have no message, no
referent; they define only themselves. They are what they are. Those
who see my work cannot read it; they must simply look. My work must be
explored through the senses; in this way it becomes a vehicle for the
imagination. Viewers will incorporate what they see – the image of an
object – in their subjective world of experience: ‘no sooner does an
image enter than it is caught in the fabric’, writes Celan. The image
penetrates the viewer: the object becomes a subjective internal image
and brings ones own imagination to life. Seeing/looking as a force to
awaken the seed in the soul is the creative vision, the experience.
In 1990 I was invited to exhibit at the Jewish Historical Museum in
Amsterdam. For the exhibition, which I entitled Denkbeelden (Conceptual
Images), I made work for the first time from the recognition of my
Jewish identity. I too went through a ‘lack of answers’, through a
‘terrifying silence’. From this intrinsic confron-tation with my
history, I became aware, among other things, that it is thanks to
reading Paul Celan that I could once again tolerate the German
language. German was, after all, my mother tongue and the language of
my forefathers, even if I had suppressed it. For the exhibition I
created three new large works entitled ‘Onder Dak’ (Shelter), ‘Over
Leven’ (About Life/Survival) and ‘Homage to Paul Celan’. The idea of
making a work for Paul Celan was exceptional for me, because I had
never previously worked with a direct referent. I also had to convince
myself that I was allowed to link my work with that of a great master
such as Celan.
My ‘Homage to Paul Celan’ is the three-dimensional materialisation of
two lines of poetry; it is not an interpretation or an illustration. It
may be compared to the voice that recites a poem, which attempts no
more than to allow the lines of verse to resound clearly. This homage
prompted the curator of the Jewish Historical Museum to commission me
to make the portfolio of lithographs you see here in 1995, on the
fiftieth anniversary of the Liberation. I collected the ten poems from
his complete works. While reading I paid attention to the expressive
interaction between language and content and listened to the
connections between and around the words, to the movement, to the
rhythm and the emotion of the poems.
The lithographs were made by painting on stone and printing the
paintings on paper with a press. The stone notates; the press records.
In order to define a circuit of movement for each poem and to achieve
the suppleness required, I made countless sketches just as a dancer
figures out the choreography to a piece of music and rehearses it. The
acceleration of the motion, the pressure and release of the brush give
plasticity to the strokes. The stone – the same size as the sheet –
absorbs the moisture from the brush. Thus the stone – like the floor
for the dancer – dictates both the resistance and the room for
manoeuvre. If you examine the lithographs at length you can follow the
dance of the brush in the plasticity of the blue lines. Just as in a
dance, the space around and between the movements is the counterpoise:
the white of the paper is the partner to the lines; here and there it
is even the central figure. The blue – a pure, yielding colour –
captures the mood of Celan’s bleakness. He sculpts his language until
he arrives at something so naked that it is almost unbearable. I have
added my voice to this.
1 From ‘Speech on the Occasion
of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of
Bremen’, p.34, in Celan’s Collected Prose, translated by
Rosmarie Waldrop, Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: The Sheep Meadow
Meine Damen und Herren,
Herr Rahe hat mich eingeladen, einige einführende Worte zur Ausstellung an Sie zu richten. Die zwölf Tafeln zeigen zehn in Deutsch geschriebene Gedichte von Felix Oestreicher, meinem Vater, sowie jeweils die Übersetzung in englischer Sprache mit Fotos aus dem Buch Nachher/Afterward, alles entworfen und herausgebracht von Martien Frijns, der auch hier anwesend ist. Diese Gedichte sind aus Ein jüdischer Arzt-Kalender
entnommen, dem Tagebuch, das mein Vater zwischen 1943 und 1945 in Westerbork, Bergen-Belsen und Tröbitz führte. Es wurde von meiner Zwillingsschwester Maria Goudsblom-Oestreicher entziffert, bearbeitet und im Jahr 2000 herausgegeben. Das originale Tagebuch Ein jüdischer Arzt-Kalender
wird hier In Bergen Belsen aufbewahrt.
Felix Oestreicher war ein aufmerksamer, fürsorglicher und gewissenhafter Arzt, der seine Praxis im Kurort Karlsbad in der damaligen Tschechoslowakei hatte. Das elterliche Haus in Karlsbad, wo mein Vater, seine Schwestern und wir drei, seine Töchter, zur Welt kamen, wurde 1938 auf der Flucht vor der Bedrohung aus Deutschland verlassen.
Als meine gesamte Familie am 1. November 1943 von den deutschen Besatzern in Amsterdam verschleppt wurde, erklärte mein Vater mich für krank und ansteckend. Unterwegs im Lastwagen wurde ich bei dem Krankenhaus für Juden in Amsterdam abgesetzt. Zweieinhalb Monate später brachte ein Widerstandskämpfer mich bei der Bauernfamilie von Herman Braakhekke im Osten von Holland, in Sicherheit. Zwischen dem ersten November 1943 und dem vierzehnten März 1944 weilte meine Familie in Westerbork, vom fünfzehnten März 1944 bis zum zehnten April 1945 verblieb meine Familie in Bergen-Belsen im sogenannten Sternlager. Sie wurden aus dem Zug, der am zehnten April 1945 in Bergen-Belsen abgefahren war, am drei-und-zwanzigsten April 1945 in Tröbitz von den Russen befreit. Meine Eltern sind dann krank geworden und Ende Mai und Anfang Juni beide gestorben. Ende Juni sind meine zwei Schwestern gesund zurück gekehrt bei unseren Grosseltern in Amsterdam.
Ich habe bereits im Sommer 1945 erstaunt und erschüttert den Erzählungen meiner zurückgekommenen Schwestern zugehört. In jenem Sommer spielten wir oft „Lager“ und „Zug“ mit unseren Puppen im Stall des Bauernhofes, wo meine Schwestern wieder zu Kräften kommen konnten.
Den transkribierten Text aus dem Tagebuch meines Vaters bekam ich im Jahr 1998 das erste Mal zu Gesicht, wobei ich die Gedichte als unablösbaren Teil des Textes in mich aufnahm. Das erneute Kennenlernen meines Vaters, von dem ich als Siebenjährige gezwungenermaßen Abschied nehmen musste, berührte mich beim Lesen des Tagebuches tief. Jetzt, da die Gedichte außerhalb vom Kontext des Tagebuches herausgegeben sind, zeigen sie mir ganz eigene Dimensionen. Der distanzierte, notierende Tagebuch-Doktor wird zu meinem verzweifelten Vater, voller Wut, mit Sehnsucht und Kummer - aber auch liebevoll. Die Verse zeigen ihn, auf rührende Weise, in seiner ganzen Vielseitigkeit. Er reflektiert seine eigene Situation und Geschichte, bleibt aber nicht in einem Rückblick auf alles, was verloren ist und noch verloren gehen wird, stehen. Er ist sogar imstande Abstand zu nehmen, indem er über das Dasein der Überlebenden nach Kriegsende vorausdenkt. Die Gedichte – losgelöst vom ursprünglichen Kontext – sind unredigierte, raue Seufzer eines gefühlvollen und gedemütigten Mannes, der geistig einen Ausweg sucht. Freiheit und emotionaler Raum in der Poesie sind für den rechtschaffenden Mediziner neben der Prosa das geeignete Instrument, um sehr persönliche Gefühle niederschreiben zu können. Das Gedicht mit dem Titel „Weißt du noch“ ruft das Bild unseres letzten Hauses an der Transvaalkade 13 in Amsterdam wach, wo im Gartenzimmer ein großer runder Esstisch stand und unsere Katze Mucki dasaß und darauf wartete, ob sie ein Häppchen abbekam. Meine stets emsige Großmutter Clara Oestreicher ist neben dem Titelgedicht „Nachher“ abgebildet. Sie wohnte mit uns in Karlsbad, ist mitgeflüchtet und wurde zusammen mit unserer Familie in Amsterdam aufgegriffen und über das Durchgangslager Westerbork nach Bergen-Belsen überführt, wo sie an den Entbehrungen starb.
Zwei ganz verschiedene Gedichte im Buch tragen den gleichen Titel: „Bei den Schuhen“. Sie beschreiben die erzwungene Arbeitsverpflichtung der Lagerbewohner beim Auseinandernehmen zurückgelassener Schuhe. Das erste Gedicht ist ein langes „Lamento“ – mit dem Seufzer „ob heute ich noch spreche das Kind“ – von dem Mann, der auch im Lager ein fürsorglicher Vater sein wollte. Schmutz, Hunger und harte Arbeit machten eigene Gedanken unmöglich. Der Wunsch, zu vergessen, kommt immer in ihm auf. Einige Gedichte, wie „Ausbruch“, sind heftiger, verzweifelter. Er scheint meine Mutter Gerda anzusprechen. Von ihr ist aus den Lagern kaum etwas überliefert. Nur in Einträgen meines Vaters kommt sie vor. Aus ihren Tagebüchern (Gerdas Tagebücher 1918-1939, herausgegeben im Jahr 2010) spricht eine nachdenkliche, junge Frau, die ihre Umgebung ab dem zwölften Lebensjahr eingehend betrachtet und kommentiert. Im April 1939 schreibt sie: „Wir leben dahin, immer mit dem Blick in einen Abgrund schauend, der uns alle verschlingen wird.“ In Tröbitz angekommen und befreit, hat meine Mutter mutig and hoffnungsvoll die Blümchenvorhänge der Bauernwohnung, in der die Familie Unterschlupf fand, zu drei Kleidchen verschnitten, die wir drei in Holland dann getragen haben. Im Gedicht „Luftangriff“ schreibt mein Vater über Hass und Lernen zu hassen. Solche ambivalenten Gefühle habe auch ich gekannt, als ich die englischen Bomber auf dem Weg nach Deutschland über unserem Bauerhof hinweg fliegen sah. War ich froh darüber? Konnte ich meine Gefühle der Angst, dass dieselben Bomben meine Eltern und Schwestern treffen könnten, im Zaum halten? Es ist äußerst schmerzhaft, dass mein Vater – von den Russen ’aus dem Zug ohne Ziel’ in Tröbitz befreit – sich ein paar Wochen als Überlebender fühlte, aber letztendlich, nach dem Tod meiner Mutter, selbst auch verstarb.
Bleibt mir noch zu sagen, dass hier eine neue deutschsprachige Webseite zu sehen ist, die unter Leitung von Professor Paul Sars von der Radboud Universität Nijmegen gestaltet worden ist. Es ist ein Forschungsprojekt, aber auch an Studenten und Schüler gerichtet, über die sogenannten „DRILLINGSBERICHTE“. Das sind etwa 170 Briefe, die mein Vater zwischen 1938 und Ende 1943 über die Entwicklung seiner drei Töchterchen an Familie und Freunden geschrieben hat. Die Webseite beschreibt die Berichte über unser Leben in jenen Jahren, enthält eine umfangreiche Fotogallerie und zeigt die weitverzweigte Familie Oestreicher, die verwandt ist mit den deutsch-jüdischen Familien Kisch, Löwenthal und Laqueur. Ich lade Sie gerne ein, sich auch diese deutschsprachige Webseite anzusehen.
Amsterdam, den 15. April 2016