‘Theo, you are a tearaway’,said writer Bert Schierbeek in his speech at the opening of the Wolvecamp retrospective in Enschede in 1991. This, according to many people, encapsulated one of the typical sides to Wolvecamp’s character, namely his impulsiveness, emotionalism and, very occasionally, his aggressive attitude to others. And Schierbeek described the substance of Wolvecamp’s works of art as follows: ‘The essence of your work is, time and again, a reflection of your state of mind at the time of making it.’
Wolvecamp had said similar things himself: ‘If anyone dares to interfere with my work I’ll kick them out of my studio’… ‘My work evolves out of a highly personal creative process. It sometimes takes nine years and eighty layers of paint before a canvas is finished; before I, through the medium I use, can give the canvas a soul, my soul.’
‘I believe that good painting is art that is able to get a certain emotional meaning across. When you look at a painting you have to make contact with it, it has to strike the right chord. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a still life, or a landscape or an abstract piece, it’s the contact that matters’, he explained.
Achieving this did not come easy.
‘I’m extremely critical, so I don’t produce much. I paint six or seven canvases a year, at the most. If the piece doesn’t completely match my feelings I destroy it or paint over it. On average I work on about fifteen canvases at a time, but it usually take months and sometimes even years before I’m really satisfied.’
Fellow painter and Cobra member Corneille reacted to the news of Wolvecamp’s death with the words, ‘I have known few genuine people. But Wolvecamp was as authentic as they come. In his work, too. And I’ll always remember him like that, with his small, somewhat thickset stature and stubborn character. He was surly. And quick-tempered as well, but honest. What you saw was what you got. His work was real. He had power and originality, even though it was as guarded as he was.’
Wolvecamp was born in Hengelo in 1925 and was the son of a tailor. His father died when he was nine years old, which put an abrupt end to his schooldays. His uncle took over his father’s role. This uncle was a game warden and he took Theo into the countryside and taught him all there was to know about the sights and sounds and colours all around. Shortly before his death Wolvecamp reminisced, ‘I can still pick out the tracks of a fox or a polecat in the snow. My uncle was a good taxidermist as well, and loved drawing pictures of animals. I remember sitting on his lap, him holding my hand and guiding me to draw dogs’ heads.’
It did not take long before Theo started spending time in the library to deepen his understanding of art. The discovery of German expressionism and Kandinsky’s book ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’ made a lasting impression on him and gave him direction. Kandinsky wrote that each generation produces its own art, which cannot be repeated. It was important, just as in music, to find the essence, the inner self.
Because he wished to develop his artistic talent, Wolvecamp spent two years at the very traditional art academy in Arnhem, but he detested every minute, took leave, and wentto Amsterdam in 1947. Once there he threw everything overboard. One of the things thatprompted him was the confrontation with the painting The Slaughtered Ox by Chaim Soutine,which was hanging in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
Both Kandinsky and Soutine spurred him on to experiment, ‘fuelling the urge to create’, as he called it. His new work did not go unnoticed. It caught the attention of painters Corneille, Karel Appel and Constant, who invited him to join the Dutch Experimental Group. This group merged later on into the international group of artists known as Cobra.
In 1991,Wolvecamp said about Cobra, ‘Cobra was an adventure. What I found important was I met people I could talk to about art in a meaningful way. They were doing the same as I was. But you shouldn’t overestimate what Cobra was worth. It was a group, but everybody was doing their own thing.’
Writer, designer and poet Jan Elburg, who also belonged to the Experimental Group and Cobra, looked back on Wolvecamp as follows:
‘The most impressive contribution to the meetings, however, was actually the silence emanating from the ever-present Theo Wolvecamp, the youngest among us. I called him Theophile the Mule in my head, because his reticence came across as rather mulish. Mind you, it wasn’t anything to do with a lack of experimental nature – the advanced work of the youthful Wolvecamp was a boost to his club mates from the start – but he just didn’t seem to get much out of the discussion. After moving from the east of the country he shared a studio with Karel Appel and came along with him, probably because it was more fun keeping silent among friends than on his own at the easel. ’
In point of fact, Wolvecamp was the only artist who everybody thought was good, Martin Visser included, who had just started collecting art. The first publication by the Dutch Experimental Group had barely seen the light of day before Visser, who designed furniture, exhibited work by Appel, Corneille, Constant and Wolvecamp in the Bijenkorf department store. And, in the winter of 1948-1949, they were shown again in the same department store. Just one year before the Stedelijk Museum offered them space to exhibit.
The fact that Wolvecamp’s work was liked proved to be more than evident when Eugène Brands and Wolvecamp were invited by photographer Melcher to show work in 1948. During the exhibition, a man who was known as a big art collector ran off with all of Wolvecamp’s gouaches. Neither hide nor hair of the man or the work was ever seen again.
In the early 1950s, Wolvecamp followed in the footsteps of his colleagues Appel, Corneille and Constant and moved to Paris. Looking back upon his good friend Appel in Paris he said, ‘Karel Appel knew his way around; we went to the Musée d’Art Moderne. He knew all the galleries and where Miro’s work was on show.’ But, unlike the other artists, the city did not have much appeal to Wolvecamp, in fact it was rather the opposite. The other artists were challenged to find new directions, whereas Wolvecamp became depressed and he took to the bottle.
He took Appel’s advice and returned to Hengelo where he was finally able to pick up the pieces after a bout of depression and alcoholism. At last he could work in peace.
Art collector Hans de Jong, who also manufactured stockings, let Wolvecamp use his attic as a studio. ‘We became friends’, he said about this time in his life. ‘I helped him build up his art collection; one of the best in the Netherlands.’
A great deal of Wolvecamp’s work is solemn and the compositions are complex. In the swirling mass you will regularly find figures such as birds, imaginary creatures, an elegant lady or large staring eyes
And, if you look more closely, faces in particular. Could they be self-portraits?
Contrary to his more ‘positive-minded’ colleagues in the Cobra movement, Wolvecamp seemed to have a sombre, dark side. Some of his pieces are imbued with an atmosphere akin to Francis Bacon’s human suffering.
This impression is further reinforced by the fact that in almost every interview Wolvecamp emphasised that the work he admired most was the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. It depicts the Crucifixion and is a European masterpiece in its representation of human agony. Wolvecamp himself said, ‘The most beautiful picture I know is the Isenheim Altarpiece by Grünewald. The crucified Christ is completely and utterly emaciated on the dark hill of Calvary. I go to look at it practically every year. I’m not Catholic or religious, but I never tire of looking at it. I feel in touch with that altar.’… ‘Actually, all painting has a religious aspect. Religious in the sense of a feeling for the mystery of life. In that sense you could also call me religious.’
Some of Wolvecamp’s work evades this sombreness, either because it is totally abstract or else because of the colours. The most striking of his totally abstract pieces is, in particular, the series he made in the 1960s with large black lines on canvas or on paper. You can see a close affiliation with the American abstract expressionist Franz Kline. Theo Wolvecamp became familiar with Kline’s work through the art collection of Hans and Alice de Jong, which included several works by Kline. Wolvecamp’s work is also classified as Abstract Expressionism, Matter Painting, and Tachism. These are all art movements which turned the stroke of a brush into an expression of emotion to create art.
At this point in time, the Ambassade Hotel’s art collection has nearly 500 works by this artist. The last piece that was added is the painting called ‘Printemps’, dated 1966. The colours from this period are strikingly different to other works. The story goes that Wolvecamp had fallen in love, a frame of mind that was immediately translated into his art.
Work by Theo Wolvecamp can be found in the following collections: the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Stedelijk Museum Schiedam, the Cobra Museum in Amstelveen, the museum in Dordrecht , and Silkeborg in Denmark, to name just a few.
Jan G. Elburg, Geen letterheren. Uit de voorgeschiedenis van de vijftigers. [Not literary gentlemen. An historical backdrop to the Fifties’ generation] Meulenhoff, Amsterdam 1987
1991 interview in newspaper 25-02-1991, Leeuwarder daily newspaper
Eugène Brands 80 years Willemijn Stokvis
Karel Appel biography
RKD newspaper clippings
Read more about Karel Appel, Corneille, Brands, Constant, Jacques Doucet, Anton Rooskens, Dotremont, Tajiri, Cobra, the locations where the works hang, Wouter Schopman (the story behind the collection).