Freerk Heule – Chinese objects in Henk Helmantel’s modern still lives

Dr Freerk Heule (1948) is a philosopher with a broad interest in eighteenth-century culture and the connections with China. His publications reflect this orientation.

An Evaluation of Robert Van Gulik’s the Gibbon in China and Its Place in Modern Sinological Discourse. Southeast Review of Asian Studies 35 (2013), 141-160;

Linguet’s Lettre du Mandarin, a Forgotten Apology for the Jesuits: The Mandarin Wei Zheng as a Model. Journal of Early Modern Christianity, Volume 2, Issue 2 ( 2015), 257-280;

Linguet’s ‘La Pierre Philosophale’: An enlightenment fable of the sparrows and the caterpillars. The Journal of the Oriental Society of Australia, Volume 48 (2016), 74-96;

Notes on Female Sexual Roles in China in Readings from Du Halde, Diderot and van Gulik. Studia Orientalia Slovaca volume 16, Issue 1 (2017), 111-142.

Chinese objects in Henk Helmantel’s modern still lives

Henk Helmantel (1946, 哈勒曼特 Halemante), the modern Dutch still life (靜物画 Jingwu hua) painter continues working in the style of the 17th century Dutch Masters (荷蘭大师 Helan dashi). In their paintings blue-and-white porcelain 青花瓷器, Qinghua ciqi) from the trade of the Dutch East India Company or V.O.C. (荷蘭東印度公司 Helan dong yindu gongsi) symbolized beauty and wealth. Did Helmantel follow their chinoiserie (中国风 Zhongguo feng)?

To answer the question I present four episodes in the working period of Helmantel viz. 1970-79; 1979-2008; 2008-18, and after 2018, to explore the details of his “Chinese” art works, with key exhibitions as hallmarks: 1979 Taiwan Kaohsiung Museum; 2008 Groningen Museum; and 2018 Taiwan Chimei Museum.

Two specimens with Chinese characteristics are recognizable in Helmantel’s works viz. pottery/porcelain (陶器 Taoqi/瓷器, Ciqi) and bronzes (青銅器 Qingtongqi), with some 10 paintings in each category. Around these objects fruits, vegetables, and objects d’art such as Roman glass or old books are carefully arranged and placed to make his typical compositions, in the wonderful light of his studio in his house in Westeremden, Groningen, NL. Here the influence of the Rembrandtesque clair-obscure (明暗对照法 Ming’an duizhao fa) is visible, which he studied at the Minerva Academy in Groningen, just like Vermeer’s touch of the brush. First he makes a drawing on the panel of Masonite, then with thin industrial oil-paint the whole drawing is filled in, with a few soft tones. Later, in multiple thin layers, the painting will be finished. Some paintings are not tonal but show red, yellow, green or blue elements. Helmantel works like a monk, dedicated to his art, producing overall some 25 paintings a year.

Helmantel himself is a collector (藝術收藏家 Yishu shoucang jia) pur sang of the mentioned objects, and in a separate room the shelves are loaded with unique objects, seldom shown to visitors. Over time, an antiquarian, dealer, auctioneer or friend in the Netherlands could offer him these rare – and sometimes expensive – artefacts. Today, in China’s modernity, they represent the proud history of its ancient past.

In detail one can see that Helmantel focusses on the “skin” or surface (表層biaoceng) of the unearthed bronze objects, where corrosion, induces a miraculous greenish pigment (patina綠銹 Lu xiu), with squiggles and crustations. The glazed earthenware bowls, in all their curvatures and plain white, however, reflect a cool light. We don’t see the opulence of the Masters’ seventeeth-century paintings, but abstract, antique tomb gifts, ritual objects or utensils. Sometimes he made pencil drawings in a museum first (e.g. the water basin, 艦,Jian, Spring and Autumn Period, 春秋時代 Chunqiu Shidai, c. 771 to 476 BC, now in the Shanghai Museum, PRC – on exhibition in Groningen in 2008).

Over time Helmantel’s interest in Chinese material culture grew, accelerated by exhibitions and dialogues in Asia. Helmantelian particularities are the simplicity (簡單 Jiandan) of composition and the emptiness (空虛 Kongxu) around the objects. Both characteristics could be seen as typical for (protestant) Christianity, 改革宗基督教教堂 Gaigezong jidujiao jiaotang) of which Helmantel is a follower, but he is said to float also on Zen Buddhism (禪, Chan), a popular trend in Dutch spirituality (靈修 Lingxiu) of the 21st century.