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Hendrik Valk (1897-1986) wasn’t satisfied with common depictions of reality. Along with many other artists during the early twentieth century, he was looking for the ‘being’ inside the work of art. Life and art had to be harmoniously brought together; art and the artist would then be able to obtain a new, central position. An extensive donation by Else Valk in 2015 has inspired an exhibition of his work in Museum De Lakenhal: Hendrik Valk 1897-1986. Between the abstract and the figurative. Here you can find out more about the life of this artist and his roots in Leiden.

Growing up in Zoeterwoude

Hendrik Valk grew up in an artistic environment in Zoeterwoude: his father was the chief designer of silver and gold cutlery and crockery at the firm Van Kempen in Voorschoten. He believed his sons needed to devour books and absolutely required an artistic education. Hendrik Valk found one at the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in The Hague. Enrolling in 1912, he studied to become a teacher of hand- and linear drawing and graduated four years later.

Hendrik Valk as ‘ruffian’
Hendrik Valk as ‘ruffian’ At the age of seventeen, he ‘thus disguised himself with his fellow students to explore dark corners of The Hague.’ Hendrik Valk wrote this message on the back of the photo.
H.J. Valk Sr., ‘Before the retreat’ (1915)
H.J. Valk Sr., ‘Before the retreat’ (1915) Hendrik Valk at the age of 18, drawn by his father.
H.J. Valk sr.
H.J. Valk sr.

A summer in Stroe

The year 1917 marks a special point in the life of Hendrik Valk, as he spent its summer in a cottage in Stroe, on the Veluwe. Here, Valk developed a large number of works while experimenting with different methods for depicting nature. Increasingly, he dared to distance himself from the visible reality.

Interiors of the cottage in Stroe, 1917
Interiors of the cottage in Stroe, 1917

First exhibitions in The Hague

In 1917, Hendrik Valk began exhibiting works from his Stroe period at the art dealer d'Audretsch in The Hague. The reviews that followed were full of praise for the young artist. Newspaper De Telegraaf, for instance, wrote the following on 12 January 1918: “I have enough trust in Valk’s talent and in his serious work ethic, to give him this council.” With this remark, the reviewer was referring to the development of the – stylistically somewhat unsteady – hand of the artist. “If an industrious young mind, like Valk, focuses on the practical exercise of our techniques, he will quickly and easily find the concentration, the steadiness and the confidence he is still missing too much.”

“He thought that the reality we all see around us is just confusing and misleading. That’s just growing, blooming and moving, that’s just smiling. That is filled with details, and more details are found on those details, while those are reflections and shadows and distortions – and that isn’t the core of the reality. That reality is different and can be found beneath. That was his artistic conviction, which he based on philosophical developments from the early twentieth century.”

Journalist & art expert Pierre Janssen on Hendrik Valk.

Meeting Van Doesburg

Valk worked in an atelier on the Posthoflaantje in Leiden between 1918 and 1920. During this period, he became acquainted with the work of artist collective De Stijl, which had been founded by Theo van Doesburg in 1917. The two met each other by accident in 1920. Van Doesburg saw a kindred spirit in the younger Valk, and asked him to join De Stijl. Valk refused, not wanting to be tied down.

Read more in the story about

Theo van Doesburg & De Stijl

Valk and his contemporaries

Reviewers were especially interested in Valk’s graphical talent. His distinct style, featuring sharp divides and simplified depictions, regularly reminded them of designs for stained glass windows. However, the influence of contemporaries like Bart van der Leck (1876-1958) is also undeniable. As is the case in the works by Van der Leck, the visible reality is always recognisable in Valk’s paintings.

Hendrik Valk, Self-portrait, 1919
Hendrik Valk, Self-portrait, 1919 Collection Museum De Lakenhal. Donation Else Valk, 2015.
Hendrik Valk, Head, ca. 1918-20
Hendrik Valk, Head, ca. 1918-20 Collection Museum De Lakenhal. Donation Else Valk, 2015.
Hendrik Valk, The fleet in Katwijk, ca. 1920
Hendrik Valk, The fleet in Katwijk, ca. 1920 Private collection

Heading out with a caravan

After having lived in Wassenaar for a brief period, Valk started traveling through the Nederlands with a horse-drawn caravan in 1921. Groningen, where his brother and sculptor Willem Valk lived, was his ultimate goal. While travelling, he got by through the sale of drawings and the painting of advertisements and more. The cards sent to his family back in Leiden give us a good insight into this sometimes harsh journey.

Years spent teaching in Arnhem

Eventually, Valk wouldn’t reach Groningen during his journey in 1921. Ending up in Gelderland, he came into contact with the board of the Genootschap Kunst-Oefening (Society of Art Practitioners) in Arnhem, which would later become the Academy for Visual Arts. After an unhappy period in which Valk was desparately looking for his own style, Valk began teaching there in 1926, including courses in drawing heads and models. He would also establish the Graphic Department at the academy. His students in Arnhem, including Klaas Gubbles and Marc Brusse, were very grateful for his work. His teaching method focused on the development of the students themselves; he always avoided enforcing a certain – let alone his own – style on them.

Hendrik Valk, Designs for a picture book for children (1928)
Hendrik Valk, Designs for a picture book for children (1928) Private collection

Theatre

In Arnhem, Hendrik Valk also become very involved in the world of the theatre. As a result, he also designed various scenery pieces and costumes for groups such as the East Dutch Theatre, which was led by Albert van Dalsum.

Drawings of costumes for Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’(no date).
Drawings of costumes for Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’(no date). Premiered in 1922, with the cast including Louis Bouwmeester
Hendrik Valk, Scenery design (no date)
Hendrik Valk, Scenery design (no date)

An artist during the war

Little changed for Valk during the first years of the Second World War, as he just continued his work at the Academy. It was only after the Battle for Arnhem in 1944, when a large part of his oeuvre was destroyed by invading German soldiers and the devastating bombardment of the city, that his work was affected. His family was evacuated to Garderen on the Veluwe. His works on Eternit (a compressed, petrified mixture) were destroyed by the German soldiers and used for building barricades. Fortunately, The Breakfast was spared, as it was with Valk’s brother Willem in Groningen at the time. While staying in Garderen, Valk painted a realistic depiction and traded it for food. After the war, the family was able to return to Arnhem, where Valk continued teaching at the Academy and again became a prominent figure in the city’s cultural life.

Caricatures

For years, Hendrik Valk created the most diverse caricatures, especially for the weekly publication Groot-Arnhem (Greater Arnhem). Through them, he primarily criticized the lack of support and stimulation of artists in the region.

 Hendrik Valk, Caricature from 1936
Hendrik Valk, Caricature from 1936
Caricature ‘Holland on the citrus press’ (1937)
Caricature ‘Holland on the citrus press’ (1937)
Photo for Life Magazine (no date), of a celebration in Musis Sacrum in Arnhem. Valk and his students provided the decorations.
Photo for Life Magazine (no date), of a celebration in Musis Sacrum in Arnhem. Valk and his students provided the decorations. Hendrik Valk is standing to the left, wearing an Alpine hat. Photographer: Nat Farbman.

The later years

After retiring in 1973, exhibitions of Valk’s work followed each other in quick succession for several years, and interest in his oeuvre continued to exist for years after his death in 1986. Museum De Lakenhal exhibited his work in 1973, 1997 and now again in 2015.
His intractability has enabled Hendrik Valk to find a special place within Dutch art history, away from those clearly defined styles and artistic movements. Though the foundations of his philosophy are distant and diverse, from the Egyptian and Gothic visual cultures to medieval mystics such as Johannes Ruusbroec, his work remains remarkably clear and recognizable even today.

Design: Hendrik Valk
Design: Hendrik Valk

Interview with Hendrik Valk (revision 1997)

With thanks to

Else Valk and Stichting Valk

literature

  • Alex de Vries, Hendrik Valk 1897-1986, 2005. Verschenen bij uitgeverij Terra Lannoo, Warnsveld.
  • Doris Wintgens Hötte, Hendrik Valk, Leiden 1997