I must confess to having had a slight sense of déja vu seeing the Anton Heyboer exhibition at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. It was only a few weeks ago that I discovered fellow eccentric Dutchman Gerard Petrus Fieret next door at the Fotomuseum, an exhibition that was the most exciting of its type I had seen for a long time, and now along comes Heyboer and trumps it.
While Fieret worked only as a photographer and only for about ten years, Heyboer was a master etcher, an exciting painter, a skilled draughtsman and processor of photographs. There are many, almost uncanny, similarities between the two artists which I will go into at another time.
Anton Heyboer was born in 1924 in the Dutch East Indies where his father was an engineer working for Shell. After a visit to the Netherlands in 1939 the family was unable to leave due to the war and settled in Voorburg and later in The Hague where the young Anton trained as a technical draughtsman. In 1943 he was conscripted by the Germans and sent to a forced labour camp near Berlin. This was a period that influenced and affected his entire life.
After the war he fell in with some local artists and took up etching as therapy, a way of coming to terms with his wartime experiences. Heyboer’s etchings are perhaps his best work, exploring textures and techniques with their gaunt figures perhaps echoing his past. Nearly all the paintings, drawings and photographs have handwritten scrawl and exaggerated signatures across them.
For me the early etchings and the paintings from his final years are by far the best work. They have a directness lacking inhibition and any regard for aesthetics. Even without knowing his backstory you could detect a seriously disturbed, obsessive mind.
For the final 44 years of his life he lived in a farm/junkyard in Den Ilp in a remote rural area north of Amsterdam. Here he tried to create a commune and developed his “system” as a way of understanding, explaining and exorcising his demons. He filled every nook and cranny of his land with his accumulations, including clapped out old vehicles and numerous wives.
During the 1970’s major international success was knocking on Heyboer’s door with three consecutive appearances at the prestigious Documenta in Kassel and purchases by MOMA in New York. He was with a top dealer and his name was mentioned along with Hockney and Freud. And then it all went wrong.
In 1975 he had an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam which was the first time he had shown large paintings. This was the peak of his career, though, it turned out, a peak without a plateau and from which the only way was down. He became more mentally unstable, unable to cope with success.
After the Amsterdam show Heyboer took the paintings back to his junkyard and set about defacing them with red paint. He withdrew to Den Ilp, became a media soundbite eccentric with whom eventually the art world lost patience and, ultimately, interest.
It is these dozen or so large, final canvases that are the most powerful and disturbing works in the show. There is an energy to them which, being aware of the circumstances, we can interpret as anger and despair. It’s hard to tell what the originals were like but the red versions are, ironically, magnificent – but also, knowing what we know now, very sad.
Salvador Dali once famously said, “There is only one difference between a madman and me. The madman thinks he is sane. I know I am mad.” I am not sure Anton Heyboer shared that insight.
This is an important, superlative exhibition by an important, superlative, though tragically forgotten and overlooked, artist. Highly recommended. Michael Hasted 18th October 2017
ANTON HEYBOER exhibition continues at the Gemeentemuseum in Den Haag until 4th February 2018