Just a month ago, the Jewish people marked Yom haShoah, the day that we remember the Holocaust. The Dutch-Jewish visual artist Maarten van der Heijden (1947) focuses his modern artworks on his visceral reaction to the Holocaust, following a personal journey in which he embraced his Jewish roots after a visit to Auschwitz.
He uses photographs that Allied forces took at the liberation of the Nazi concentration-camps in 1945 as a base for his artworks. At first sight, his work is a beautiful kaleidoscope of color, but as you gaze into the work, you are slowly confronted with the horrors of the Nazi regime. It is simultaneously pleasing and disturbing.
These works almost made me angry. I felt that I had been "taken in" by such an underlying brutal image. But it leaves an impact and there's no question about its Jewish sensibility. Can we move past the Holocaust into a brigher world? Yes, we must, but not without remembering what happened.
He describes for us how he came to embrace this visual expression:
"Growing up in an assimilated family, I always knew that I was Jewish, but that fact had hardly any meaning for me. About Judaism and about the war, we did not talk in our family. And in terms of faith, we were 'nothing'. I became a Baroque musician and played the Double Bass in orchestras with Ton Koopman, Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Brüggen and others, and I studied Clinical Child Psychology. In 1993 I wrote a doctoral dissertation and I graduated in Educational Psychology.
When I was 48 years, I hit a midlife crisis: job gone, wife gone, everything into question. I needed support, love and hope. And then I thought: I can go to the Baghwan, but I'm Jewish, so why not explore what Judaism has to offer me?
My search for my Jewish roots began with a course in Jewish Spirituality and ended, by the way of double-bass playing in a klezmer group and attending various Jewish rabbinical courses, with a second-generation support group on the impact of the Holocaust. Finally I made a trip to Auschwitz with the Auschwitz Committee.
I was speechless and I was quite perplexed: The history of Judaism was both outrageously beautiful (the Jewish mystical and Talmudic traditions) and at the same time unimaginably terrible (the horror of the Holocaust). This was almost unbearable for my tiny shoulders. And I asked myself: what can I do with these vehement and contradictory feelings? My answer was: the only possibility is to express these feelings in VISUAL ART.
I studied from 2005 on at Gerrit Rietveld Art Academy Amsterdam, where I graduated in 2010 with works that reflect my Jewish second-generation identity. In my artworks I use the photographs the allied forces took at the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in 1945.
I consider communication and dialogue on (the backgrounds of) my works very important. So recently I am combining my second generation life history and my artworks with psychological studies of obedience (Milgram) and group behavior (Zimbardo) in order to give Holocaust-, genocide- and human rights education to students and audiences of different ages.
Recently I gave two workshops for secondary vocational education students (age 16-20) at the ROC Amsterdam. The students were very much interested in how to make something meaningful out of the horror of the Holocaust; and it was their first acquaintance with conceptual art. Inspiring!"
Van der Heijden's art can be viewed on his website at http://www.maartenvanderheijden.nl.He has shown his works in The Netherlands (Borne Synagogue and Amsterdam), in Germany (Berlin), and in the USA (New York). Since his Holocaust work, he has
moved into a number of other visual areas that are presented on his website.
Larger versions of these images are viewable here
Photo by Rene Bosch