Memories of Evert Musch

The “Groninger Museum” organized a special exhibition in commemoration of Nico Bulder from September 19 until October 25 1964. Evert Musch gave the openings speech. Click here to read the original text in Dutch.

Thanks to some good friends of this online museum, we can also provide you with the English translation of this memorable speech:

Speech by Evert Musch on September 19, 1964 opening the Nico Bulder commemorative exhibition in the Groninger Museum
(This exhibition was held from September 19 until October 25 1964.)

It is my honor to open this commemorative exhibition celebrating the work of Nico Bulder at the request of the director of the Groninger Museum, Mr. Westers, and Nico’s niece Miss G.A. (Sien) Bulder.

Let me start by taking you on a virtual tour of his house. It was a typical “veen-koloniaal” house in Hoogezand, with a traditional wide front door decorated in the middle with wrought iron. Two windows were symmetrically placed on either side. The blue tiled roof had two chimneys with large wooden caps. Two neatly pruned Tilia trees (commonly called Basswood in USA) stood in the front yard behind a black iron fence. Behind the house was a large luscious flower and vegetable garden with a nice gazebo in the back. That house, that was the bastion where the artist Nico Bulder would return to after a day’s hard work as art teacher, firstly at the “Hommes Institution” in Hoogezand and later at the Minerva Academy in Groningen.

There in that house his world famous wood engravings would be created. In the classic simplicity and clarity of the house itself, he created his expressive black-and-white world in the hard, rigid cross-grained boxwood (Buxus sempervirens). A world that was defined by his boundless, versatile knowledge based on his in-depth skills and technical know-how. In the familiar seclusion of that house surrounded by the devoted care of his dear companions, he found the strength and ability to retain the high quality of his work.

He did not need to take great journeys to broaden his horizons. A bicycle ride in the woods of Slochteren would provide enough details to enhance his imagination for things he had not actually seen himself. Thus he could for example capture the sense of a dark tropical forest. Or the old twisted and gnarled Apple tree in his back yard covered with moss and with grotesque roots at its foot would morph in his mind into the Olive tree growing alongside the desert road in the Bible story of the “Good Samaritan”.

He loved the countryside in his home surroundings. During an excursion to Paris with his pupils he would compare the Seine with the “Winschoterdiep” (this is a canal that runs from Groningen to Winschoten) with its abundantly cow parsley-covered edges.

And then he had his books! It was a treasure trove full of reproductions of the works of the greatest artists of all times. Among his favorite artists were Lucas van Leyden, Leonardo da Vinci, Hercules Seghers, Rembrandt, Géricault and Delacroix. A text – which he used on a print of the World Library 1938 – was relevant to him: “Heil den lezer! Gij die leest boven den aarde, boven wolken, naar de heem’len van den geest, voeren boeken mensch en volken” (roughly translated as: Hail the one who reads! Reading of books transports man and populations, out of this world, above the clouds, and to the heaven of the soul). What more could he possibly need?

Heil den Lezer – 1938

To you it might seem that Nico Bulder was a man who without problem or hesitation could produce his works in tranquility and conviction. He was recognized as one of the best wood engravers, as the illustrator par excellence and one of the best ex-libris designers in the country. He seemed like a man who would never made mistakes, who was flawless, straightforward, relentless sometimes and tough, also in his criticism of himself and others; in other words, a headstrong person, demanding and strict with his students, but also demanding and strict for himself and his own work. 

And that was certainly true, but there was also another side to Bulder – a man who had doubts and was searching, who wondered whether he was good enough, who wrestled with the question of whether he was worthy; who, if he made an incorrect cut in a minute detail of a hand or head, would in desperation, destroy the wood block that he had worked on for weeks, and then start again from scratch. Only once his workpiece was completed to perfection, and after his housemates – as a microcosm of public opinion -and a few trusted artist-friends had given their approval, could the resulting prints start their journey around the world.

And so he granted an abundance of graphical art to the world. 

But sometimes he made art just for himself. They remained his secret, unknown to the world. A world that time and again appealed to him and to whom he could not say no, because he wanted to be of service to society; a world in which he never felt too good to refuse the even smallest commissions of even less than local importance. Why? Because he felt he was not a painter or free artist… 

And so he produced, aside from his commissions, these never before shown oil paintings. Here is another Bulder, who with an almost divine hand and feather light touch applied the paint sparingly to the canvas. And here he allowed himself to leave a work unfinished. Allowing the viewer the freedom to “fill in the missing parts” appealing to our imagination and fantasy. He regarded these paintings more as exploratory, as practice for the more thought-out canvasses or just as a pleasant relaxation for himself.

And so these paintings were created of his old garden, the fertilizing machine and the four preliminary studies of the “Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. These studies were painted in the space of a few hours during one sitting. But these works were shown only to a select few and were found stored in cupboards and in the attic when we searched for his works for this exhibition. For many it will be a surprise that he interpreted a hand or a head with a single brushstroke or created a sophisticated atmosphere of a horseman in the rain, cloudy sky or a study of waves. He also spent a long time working on paintings of the great Apocalypse and of Jacob wrestling with the Angel, that amazing painting with the first blue-grey of the very early morning.

Jacob’s struggle with the Angel, oil painting, 1961, 64 x 79 cm, private collection AB

Here he worked carefully and with the same tough determination as with his wood engravings, doggedly with gentle touches and layer upon thin layer of paint. Particularly the last mentioned painting was built up with extremely thin layers of paint glaze (in oil painting, the simplest form of a glaze is a thin, oily, transparent layer of paint spread over the top of an opaque passage that has been given some time to dry. Light travels through the glaze and is reflected back off of the opaque layer below) and thereby creating the peculiar, intangible transparency associated with the many Great Masters or the painters such as Willink, Pijke Koch, Raoul Hijnckes and Salvador Dali.

He suffered physically during the last 15 years of his life. A recurring debilitating ailment repeatedly brought this strong man to his knees whereby he was often unable to continue teaching at the Academy, sometimes for more than a year at a time. The deaths, during the latter years, of his live-in sisters Fien and Catrien were on these situations an even greater loss in the familiar never-changing seclusion of his home. His niece Sien with her relentless self-sacrificing devotion took care of him till the end.

While he lay in the hospital, approximately 15 years ago, taking enforced bed-rest, his imagination created the most beautiful paintings. He once said “I want to create something very precious, perhaps something such as a triptych (3 panels) of the Judgement Day”. Subsequently he created the beautiful visionary Apocalypse of 1955, with its white, red, black and pale horses. The horse was to him the embodiment of the ideal characteristics he wished to possess: strength, courage, nobility, self-esteem. He never avoided a difficult subject. What to some artists would appear to be insurmountable obstacles to create the perfect rendition of man or animal, was to him a challenge that excited him. Difficulties of an anatomical nature or a complicated shape or composition were a disciplinary matter of course to him.

He loved fierce and strong stories and when doing illustrations he often chose scenes depicting the most dramatic and violent action. Aided by his enormous knowledge he was able to paint animals and people from memory in all sorts of positions and situations. While doing wood engravings he did not depict life-like images. It seems unbelievable that the large engraving of St. Hubertus with the masterful pack of hounds in the foreground arose without any previous nature studies.

Reason and logic were his conditions for creating his works. And still with his deeply religious faith he believed in the Miracle but in such a way that he could understand and recreate in a recognizable form and using generally accepted symbols. Bach, his great teacher at the Minerva Academy, who thrived on taunting his pupils to make them think out of the box, once said to him: “You paint angels with wings – have you ever seen an angel with wings?” Whereupon his pupil answered in an off-handed way: “Have you ever seen an angel without wings?”

This rational level-headedness would have stood him in good stead during his years as a draughtsman on the Gideon shipyard in Groningen. He pursued this occupation until the age of 26.

His entire life was spent in Hoogezand and Groningen: up to the age of 29 he attended the Minerva Academy under the tutelage of Bach, de Vries Lam, Kort and De Wit. After his graduation in 1928, he became an art teacher at the Hommes Institution in Hoogezand. In 1944, he joined the Minerva Academy to teach drawing, etching, batiking, lithography and stained glass design. 

At barely 65 years of age his life came to an end. He had so many plans in preparation: a series of 12 Biblical episodes were not even half finished. His last drawing – Daniel in the Lion’s Den with the possibility of becoming an engraving – was on his drawing table when he died and under his magnifying glass was a nearly completed wooden block depicting the Good Samaritan. You can see them now in the display cabinets. And then there was the endless number of sketches waiting to be transformed.

This outwardly simple, but inwardly rich life was abruptly ended despite the many promises for the future – the time he desperately longed for during his years as a teacher, to devote himself to his art. It just was not meant to be. We were deprived of still so much more beauty but he left us enough of a legacy of his hard-working and well-spent life to present to you a portion thereof.

Our thanks to the director of this museum for his research of the art works, organisation and displays. It must be satisfying to him to know that through this exhibition he has shone a new light on the artist Nico Bulder and enabled many to revise their opinions of him. For many this exhibition will be a re-acquaintance with the familiar prints. But for almost everyone the paintings will prove to be a never-before-seen surprise.

It is worth taking the time to study the exhibits carefully so that the intimate character of the displayed objects can be appreciated. We hope that you, in the hubbub of present day superficiality, will find these works to be a breath of fresh air and a soothing and refreshing experience. Although I should now finalize my speech and declare this exhibition to be open, I have a special announcement to make. The family acting in the spirit of the artist has decided to take this opportunity to donate the entire collection of ± 150 original hand printed ex-libris to the museum, thereby making this a unique collection of Nico Bulder ex-libris in the country.

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