Leben und Werk

Artistic Maturity and the War Years:
The Netherlands

In 1934 Herbert Fiedler turned his back on fascist Germany. In the Netherlands, he had to practically start from scratch. Until 1940 he lived in the artists' village of Laren close to Amsterdam, where Max Liebermann, William Singer, Piet Mondrian and many others had lived before him. Fiedler, however, had arrived at the wrong time and suffered considerably from the artistic isolation he now found himself in. He missed being in touch with the art of his time and discussions with like-minded people such as he had always known in Paris and Berlin. Holland was and remained a place of exile for him. He loved his own country very much, and regularly commented on its transformation into a fascist, totalitarian state by exclaiming "ma pauvre patrie!" in his diary.

Laren, though, was where he first developed his own individual style. Before his departure from Berlin he had, as a precaution, destroyed his diaries from about 1917 to 1933, and he now also seemed keen to make a clean sweep in his painting. The themes of this period, as a result of his situation, were mainly landscapes, self-portraits, portraits of his wife Amrey and groups outdoors. Like Otto Dix, the painter of people (also born in 1891 and a student at the Dresden Academy), Fiedler might also have said: "I have been banished to landscapes". For Fiedler, however, this was far from a punishment as there was much he could do with the Dutch landscape, with its barns, village streets and houses and vast skies. His pictures from this period are occasionally reminiscent of van Gogh: he draws his subject dynamically and forcefully, and fixes it with rough brushstrokes and shining coloured surfaces. The main precursors of this type of painting are French, with Cézanne, Degas, Daumier and Rouault coming to mind. It was Fiedler's goal to accomplish an ultimately "spontaneous" effect by means of a thorough mastery of composition: "Everything in a picture is about building forms with colour" (Diary, 25 April 1942). For him, the prerequisite for the ease and confidence he desired was the art of drawing, which he practised unceasingly. His extreme self-criticism was surely one reason why he had to wait so long for success: he was not able to "sell" himself with enough self-confidence, and repeatedly scratched his pictures off with a wire brush in order to repaint them. In his eyes, a picture was almost never finished. With his type of painting, he fundamentally bypassed all the artistic trends of his age, and even in the Berlin of the Twenties this had ensured a certain isolation. Fiedler's "realism" is also timeless in the sense that it is rooted in the great European tradition of representational painting. One of his characteristics is a constant search for a new visual idiom, for new means of expression. In the process, his themes are as varied as his painting techniques: on the one hand classical genres such as nudes, portraits, landscapes, still lives, on the other hand contemporary themes such as circus artistes, cafés, prostitutes, farmers' heads, and his family and groups outdoors, which Fiedler called "the small world".

Many of his pictures depict Amsterdam, the city where he lived from 1940 until his death in 1962. Initially his fortunes were still at a low ebb. During the War, Fiedler ended up in the strange position of being caught up with by the Third Reich which he had fled from, while at the same time many Dutch looked askance at him because he was German. But he also made friends during these first years in Amsterdam; these included a circle of (mainly younger) Dutch artists who looked up to Fiedler, together with other exiled Germans such as the poet Wolfgang Frommel, Max Beckmann with whom he had already become acquainted in Berlin in 1912, and Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart. In 1943, Beckmann painted a portrait of the four of them. During the War Fiedler became a member of "De Onafhankelijken" (The Independents), a group of Dutch artists, and in 1948 of the newly founded group, "De Realisten". Despite this, it was not always easy for him in the Netherlands: after the War he was forbidden to paint for a short while, and a fellow painter prevented him from taking part in an exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in 1946. The Fiedlers were poor and in despair. Not until the beginning of the Fifties did he gradually become successful, and in 1962 he was finally to have his retrospective in the Stedelijk Museum. But it came too late: when the first preparations for the exhibition had already been made, Fiedler unexpectedly died of a heart attack. What was to have been a retrospective became a commemorative exhibition.

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Amrey before a Mirror, 1936, oil on canvas, 78 x 59 cm, private collection, Amsterdam

Herbert Fiedler and Amrey Balsiger in the Thirties in Laren

People Fleeing ("Purge"), 1944 diary, pen drawing, 13.5 x 14.5 cm, private collection, Amsterdam