The sense of senselessness 

The sense of senselessness. The perfection in imperfection. The beauty of the fleeting. That is the essence of the work and the life of artist Herman van Bergen. Where society shuns confrontation, difficulty and existential pain, Van Bergen chooses to look that pain straight in the eye, using it to explore the naked beauty of our existence.

This philosophy is evident in all of his work. The artist, who resides on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao, invites the viewer to recognize the beauty in what is usually deemed ugly. Both his paintings and his installations are directed at finding the unfamiliar, the mystical in the ordinary. In 1989, Van Bergen painted a beautiful series named Chantdassongverwelkt, focusing on wilted flowers. By magnifying flower compositions using water color techniques and charcoal, Chantdassongverwelkt succeeds to bring out the absolute beauty of the perishable. 

Herman van Bergen

(Photo by Brian Inostroza, INOSTROZA PHOTOGRAPHY)

In an attempt to deal with the pain of his father¹s passing in 2001, Van Bergen made the series In Memoriam. Here the artist captures the issues of universal human pain derived from loss in beautifully impressive yet subtle artwork. An installation of sticks is part of the series. In the middle of the cage one finds a swing, symbolizing the inner power and freedom Van Bergen senior passed on to his son. ``My father's death is showing me the limitations of existence. But to let go of our attachment to life also creates a lot of personal freedom. In the past, my dad taught me what a swing was, now he's teaching me how to deal with death.''

The artist was born in the Dutch town of Nijmegen in 1953. His father helped Van Bergen develop from a young boy who loved to draw into the renowned artist he is today. When Van Bergen was discovered by the Famous Artist School as an ³exceptional talent² at age nine, his parents didn't have the means to cover the tuition. Yet his father made sure the artist was enrolled in the Free Academy downtown Nijmegen, where Van Bergen spent his afternoons drawing compositions for the next eight years. That was the start of an education that later made him win the originality prize at the Curaçao Museum exhibition of local art in 1998. Van Bergen's paintings have been featured at various exhibitions in the Netherlands, the Netherlands Antilles and Surinam since 1987.

After relocating to Curaçao, he has also been invited to show his work at group exhibitions, such as the prestigious Auto Retrato Nobo in Aruba (1999), the San Sebastion exposition in Maracaibo, Venezuela (2000), the Art Center in Delft, the Netherlands(2000) and the Watamula International Artist Workshop in Curaçao (2000). For the Auto Retrato Nobo in Aruba, Van Bergen drew on an important universal yet extremely personal theme. The work of art he entered in the exhibition is a wooden cabinet adorned with mirrors. The mirrors do not reflect the viewer, how ever, but are turned inwards toward each other; in effect reflecting each other. On the back of the outer mirror, facing the viewer, the artists has etched the text: The cold outside and the warmth inside made me contemplate.

For Van Bergen this installation represents autonomy, independence and critical thinking. He first came upon these universal values when he was only four years old. As a young boy he once went out to play in the cold Dutch snow. Even though the temperature was below zero, Van Bergen didn't get cold, a fire inside kept him going. He continued making snowmen for hours.

The next day, the young boy went out to play in the snow again. But this time, Van Bergen got cold within minutes. The toddler was quick to recognize that someone¹s state of mind is infinitely more important than the external factors battering a person from the outside. It is an insight that made a big impression and plays an important part through out his work.

The artist has experienced several crossroads in his life where the discrepancy between his personal state of mind and external factors proved essential. Such as his time at the Art Academy in Arnhem, the Netherlands in the 1970s or his cultural anthropology study at the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands in the early 1980s. While the education was useful, Van Bergen found out he rather cited his own mind, than reciting the work of others. In the end, Van Bergen will always stay true to his autonomy, his personal fire. "Our lives are short. We only get one go at it. We have to be aware of the habits we acquire, of what we internalize. For me the joy in life is very important. Freedom. But that includes trying to deal with pain, rather than suppressing it.''

In 1989, Van Bergen and his wife Daisy Casimiri relocated from the Netherlands to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao. The artist was greatly impressed. The Caribbean environment and culture triggered his artistic talents. His work, as well as his outlook on life, became more colorful. He started painting old colonial buildings, using contrasts and bright colors. Yet Van Bergen stayed true to his personal theme; the timeless versus the temporary. He therefore didn't paint the old colonial edifices in their former splendor, but chose to accentuate the affect of the rage of time, the rage of the elements on the buildings. That way, Van Bergen¹s art makes the monuments even more beautiful. He demonstrates that the affect of time creates a sense of depth, rather than imperfection or pollution. The paintings were published as post cards and calenders and became a huge commercial success.

This perfect imperfection, focusing on human limitations rather than on plastic completion, is the essence of Van Bergen's work. He intentionally mismatches color and form, deforming humans and their surroundings, but he is sure to provide a sense of recognition for the viewer. "That way the viewer's outlook, and therefore the viewer's awareness, is transformed. People are in search of recognition. I paint deformed and transformed recognizable signals.''

Twin Towers
One of his most recent paintings, Ground Zero, was inspired by the attacks on New York and Washington D.C. on September 11th, 2001. It depicts the two broken down Twin Tower structures, resembling the Roman Colosseum. On the sides, small mythological figurines fall from the sky. In between the Twin Tower structures, an ancient figure on horse-back, a lion hunter modeled after Rubens¹ work, charges forward. After completing Ground Zero, Van Bergen was astonished to find out that in Arabic, lion means Osama. For the painter, the use of Rubens lion hunter in a painting depicting the pain accompanying the September 11th attacks is no coincidence.

"I wasn't aware of the connection while painting. The painting passed through me, as an artistic and cosmic expression of the horror which hit the US and the rest of the world on the day of the attacks.''

Van Bergen paints modest yet expressive canvases. His installations are subtle yet penetrating. In a crafty manner, the artist translates his philosophy into art. It¹s the kind of art which inspires the viewer to think, an art which is challenging, without being shocking. As a fan of the Cobra school, Van Bergen tries to communicate with the basis of the human understanding. But the artist goes beyond, by making the perish-ability of all human thinking, producing and doing his central theme. This results in artworks of an astounding beauty.

For Van Bergen, art is a means to discover true human nature. An exploration into his own personal temporariness, which, as time passes, becomes a journey into letting go. But the exploration is also based on questioning the way humans function in the world. The inevitable doctrine of power games. The manner in which Van Bergen captures that process is remarkably personal and honest.

Miriam Sluis (journalist/author)
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