Monday, September 21, 2015



Piet van der Hem (1885-1961) started out as a gallery painter and ended up as a society portrait painter.  But in between, the maelstrom of World War I transformed him into a savage editorial cartoonist.


Van der Hem began his formal art training in Amsterdam and Paris.  Early in his career, he participated in a Stedelijk Museum fine art exhibition, working with Piet Mondrian, Leo Gestelother and other young painters in the Amsterdam luminism school, the Dutch modern art movement. 

He seemed launched on a career as a modernist.  However, as World War I approached, he gradually dropped out of the avant garde and instead began drawing political cartoons with biting social commentary.   

As the war ramped up, van der Hem caught his stride.  This cartoon appeared shortly after German U boats sank the Lusitania:  

 Van der Hem was fond of portraying military men as monkeys.  


His work appeared in The New Amsterdammer from 1914-1920 and the Haagsche Post from 1920-1935.


However, as the Nazis ascended to power, they gradually crushed the Dutch free press.  Van der Hem lost his forum and his artwork lost its bite.  He went back to being a respectable artist.  He spent the rest of his career doing society portraits which, while competent, in my view were undistinguished and not nearly as fun.


Li-An said...

I did not know the artist and his work. Thanks for the share !

chris bennett said...

I think the early big picture with the priest in it is very good indeed. It has something of William Russell Flint's early work about it.

Aleš said...

Never heard of him, thanks. I like the drawings and I sense some Toulouse Lautrec influence. Btw those monkeys have some weird mythological legs. And the shoes in that painting seem too small. Do those two gentlemen wear ballerina shoes (was that fashionable back then?) Sea woman lacks a toe on her foot. And on that skeleton's foot the shoe looks like it's about to fall off. I'm sorry for pointing out such silly things but somehow it all popped out to me, almost like a pattern.

Donald Pittenger said...

I dunno, David. Those Nieuwe Amsterdammer cover cartoons strike me as being standard-issue anti-war stuff in the spirit of The Masses and publications of that ilk.

Taste-deficient me, I rather liked the third image from the top. That prompted me to ransack Google for more of van der Hem's paintings and illustrations with the thought of doing an Art Contrarian post about them. From what I've seen of his work, I can't rate him top-drawer, but from time to time he did pretty well.

MORAN said...

Another new name, thanks. Like Donald I don't think he's top drawer but he's very interesting.

David Apatoff said...

Li-Ann-- I'm always happy to talk about-- and learn about from readers-- neglected talent.

Chris Bennett-- I see the similarity. Yes, van der Hem's modernist art wasn't bad. As his compatriots such as Mondrian became more and more abstract, van der Hem peeled back to figurative work such as this.

Ales-- Like Lautrec, van der Hem loved Parisian night life and spent a lot of time sketching on the streets and in the cabarets. It was probably the magnet that pulled him back from abstraction.

David Apatoff said...

Donald Pittenger-- I agree with you that van der Hem is not top drawer (depending of course on the size of your drawer). At the same time, I'd say ten of the top ten artists of the most popular graphic novels today are not "top drawer" either, and some of them are closer to "bottom drawer." The thing that interests me most about van der Hem is that he was on a clear career path until external circumstances intervened and introduced anger and despair into what was previous just an artful, pleasantly designed mix. He became more literal because he wanted to be more legible to a wider circle of people and affect public opinion. Sometimes it's good to play the role of Cassandra because it adds passion to your work. Sometimes it's bad because it makes you shrill and propagandistic.

MORAN wrote: "I don't think he's top drawer but he's very interesting."

That's all I'm saying.

Bruce Docker said...

To be very interesting is kind of a big deal. To be top drawer you need to maintain consistency over a career and that can be very difficult, especially during any type of turbulent times (personal or global). There are so few who have been able to do that. Everyone has up spikes in their career and sometimes those can be really special and worthy investigation. This would be a pretty boring forum if we only heard about the same 3 perfect artists.

Anonymous said...

thought i would pass along this documentary i came across on youtube.
THE SECRET TO DRAWING - ALL IN THE MIND - Discovery Art Artist (documentary)

David Apatoff said...

Bruce Docker-- I agree with you 100%.

Stanley Revis said...

Waww. An amazing art.
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