Helly Oestreicher
Visual biography

I spy with my little eye
Beppe Kessler

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 wrong-foot you.
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, freedom, movement.
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 crystals.

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
Marjan Boot

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 The reasons 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 Smeets 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 up-bringing.6 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 Her contemporaries 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 Oestreicher loves 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 dispute.15
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.
8 http:// www.humanistischverbond.nl/humanismeenkunst/helly_oestreicher.htlm. 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 Johan Kamermans)
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
Monica Strauss

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 in this.
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 renaissance.
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 recent education.
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 exists.
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, glühende Wölbung.
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
Helly Oestreicher

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 all.”1

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 the soul.

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 Press, 1986.

Speech Bergen-Belsen
Helly Oestreicher

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