Eugène Brands

The Ambassade Hotel’s art collection includes various works by Eugène Brands. The following tells you briefly who this artist was and reveals the background to the art you see hanging in the hotel.

Eugène Brands
1913 – 2002
Painter - poet – writer – music collector
“I’m a lyrical abstract and experimental painter.”

Eugène Brands, “Untitled”, 11-6-1950. Ambassade Hotel Collection

In 1948, Eugène Brands wrote in his article ‘To the Point’, in the magazine Reflex, about the Dutch Experimental Group that he had just joined: ‘Above all else we are optimists. And it costs us anything but the effort you might expect. We have set up this young group and have far less money and appreciation for our work than we have ideals. And this strikes the right balance.’

More than half a century later, and one year after his death, people who had known Brands well outlined his character and work in a documentary entitled ‘The universe of the painter Eugène Brands’ (2003) as follows:

Gallery owner Cora de Vries said, ‘He was a magician, an individualist. Someone who, in a manner of speaking, portrayed space with wonderful warmth.’ Kars Persoon added to this, telling what kind of impression he made on his students, ‘We did see him as a man who had a certain magical air about him, an aura, and who exuded friendliness.’ Fellow painter and colleague of the Experimentalists, Karel Appel, sketched Brands’ works of art as Meditative spaces. Gallery owner John Josten said, ‘His paintings were haikus; he created something from a sparse use of lines and brushstrokes with very few trimmings and the like.’

Cora de Vries described the work she saw around her, at that time, in 2003 or thereabouts, ‘The things artists create are all self-portraits in effect. They interpret the inner world as imagery and what I see is nothing other than beautiful, highly optimistic images. It’s true there’s sometimes quite a lot of black in them, but that’s the cosmos, an interpretation of the cosmos. So it has nothing to do with pessimism.’

Life history
Eugène Brands was born in Amsterdam in 1913. His parents moved shortly afterwards to the Dutch seaside resort of Zandvoort where he spent the rest of his childhood. He took a course in commercial art and then went on to choose the fine arts.

Inspired by exhibitions on surrealism and abstract art in Amsterdam in 1938, he started making assemblages from objects he found on the beach at Zandvoort. At the same time, he began experimenting with paint and language. During the Second World War he moved back to Amsterdam and, influenced by the surrealists’ concept of automatic writing, he started creating cosmic-like pictures using charcoal, ink and gouache. He used dripping, splashing and stippling techniques and discovered new directions to follow.

It was the latter with which he caught the attention of Willem Sandberg in 1945 – the newly appointed director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

In 1946, Sandberg opened doors for Brands by inviting him to show work in the exhibition ‘10 Young Painters’. He was bowled over, ‘To my great surprise I saw that Sandberg had reserved an entire room for me alone … he had laid everything out. There must have been at least sixty pieces. I was taken aback with respect to my colleagues.’ The painters Karel Appel, Corneille and Anton Rooskens were deeply impressed by Brands’ work and followed in Brands’ footsteps by also making assemblages. As it turned out, Appel and Brands happened to live opposite one another on Oudezijdsvoorburgwal. Contact between the two artists intensified even further when they discovered they shared a passion for music.

Even before the war, Brands was a fervent collector of African music, music from Tibet, jazz and of what were known as work songs, music by black prisoners in the US. This music was directly related to his own work. He also made a habit of playing his records at openings or on other special occasions. The primordial nature of this music was eagerly interpreted by his fellow painters and writers.

Eugène Brands, “Untitled”, 1/12 48-9. Ambassade Hotel Collection

In 1948, Constant visited him four times to ask him to join the Dutch Experimental Group. According to Brands, Constant said the following about Brands’ artistic prowess, ‘the non-dogmatic way you work is totally in line with the experiment‘. After much hesitation, Brands did not like being one of the pack, he nevertheless agreed. He was ‘inaugurated’ on 19 August 1948.

From that time on, the Experimentalists also held meetings in Brands’ home. Jan Elburg described what Brands’ home looked like in the 1940s, ‘Compared with the housing where the other artists lived, his home was truly a pinnacle of interior design. He had removed the wallpaper and lath work everywhere from the walls and whitewashed the raw brickwork underneath – not unusual these days, but back then it was nothing less than sensational … When we had a meeting at his house on 17 January, he apparently had had another brainwave. He let slip that, generally speaking, people lived too high up in relation to the floor and he had drastically shortened the legs of every piece of furniture.

Eugène Brands, Reflex, 12/48 and 48
designs for the Reflex magazine of the Dutch Experimental Group, Ambassade Hotel Collection.

At the end of 1948, the Dutch Experimental Group merged into the International Cobra Movement (see Cobra page).

Now that Brands was part of the Experimentalists, he sent letters to Sandberg suggesting that the new Dutch and international artists be given an exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum. Although it took a while before his action bore fruit, it met with success in 1949. Sandberg gave the artists eight rooms.

It became a legendary event that caused quite a commotion. Problems started as early as setting up. Poet Jan Elburg, who also participated, recalled, ‘Everybody argued with everybody else whilst setting up the exhibition.’ Art collector Martin Visser said, ‘Then they were allocated a particular spot. They went and sat there, afraid someone else would hang something in their place. Even Eugène Brands made his wife keep his place if he had to go anywhere. She had to stand on guard.’

The exhibition was opened to the beat of African drums, which had come from one of the many records in Brands’ collection. A few days later a special evening of music and poetry had been organised, and Brands likewise took care of the music. The gathering went off the rails and ended up in a riotous punch-up. Brands’ valuable record collection was saved with considerable effort and in the nick of time. Afterwards, Brands left the Cobra Movement and the Experimental Group. He was totally at odds with the political wrangling and the whole shambolic goings-on. And he felt let down by the lack of collegiality while setting up the exhibition. Later on he said he was grateful that he had been part of the adventure and had been branded with the Cobra label. Otherwise, so he thought, he might well have been overlooked. 

At around the same time that he broke away from the group, Brands developed a completely personal style in his work. Forms arise out of soft hues that flow into branching specks.

Eugène Brands, “Untitled”, 4-1-1951. Ambassade Hotel Collection

From around 1950 onwards, Brands concentrated on the drawings of his daughter Eugenie, in keeping with Cobra ideas. These works also show remnants of magic and symbolic signs. The above piece, for example, stems from that period. 

Eugène Brands, “Landscape with church”, 1955. Ambassade Hotel Collection

His work changed direction yet again in the 1960s. Cloudy, sweeping, soft, edged, rounded figures then became typical elements in his oeuvre. He said that he gave preference to colour above form, because colour almost exclusively appealed to intuition. He also emphasised the following, ‘I make nothing, it comes into existence.’

Karel Appel admiringly said about Brands’ later work, ‘Being nothing in the space, that’s a really fantastic idea. To have that in you. It was omnipresent in Eugène Brands. I find that one of the best sides he had.’

Eugène Brands, “Untitled”,15.11.64-3. Ambassade Hotel Collection

Brands called himself a self-taught man on principle, but that did not stop him from teaching at a school for young artists. He not only taught the students to reflect on their work, but also to look at their palette. What, by coincidence, had accumulated there? Sometimes the composition on the palette turned out to be more interesting than what they were busy making.

Brands continued to exhibit throughout his entire life. From 1951, Brands took part, among other things, in exhibitions by groups known as ‘Vrij Beelden’ (Free Images), ‘Creatie’ (Creation) and ‘Liga Nieuw Beelden’ (League of New Images). In the Netherlands, his work can be found in practically all of the big museum collections, in private collections and in collections belonging to businesses, such as the Bijenkorf department store.

Eugène Brands , “Landscape”, 1966. Ambassade Hotel Collection
Eugène Brands, “Untitled”, Ambassade Hotel Collection

Read more about Theo Wolvecamp, Karel Appel, Corneille, Constant, Jacques Doucet, Anton Rooskens, Dotremont, Tajiri, Cobra, the locations where the works hang, Wouter Schopman (the story behind the collection).