Local wall art on private houses sent me on a detective journey through the story of Dutch public and private art of the post-war recovery period (wederopbouw). Sparked by a chance thought, I followed the trail of wandkunst, gevelkunst, bas reliëf and other mysterious terms across the internet, but only a chance encounter gave me the clue that unravelled the mystery.
If you had an artwork on your house that you didn’t like, would you remove it, even if it might have a certain historical value? Would you keep it, even if you really disliked it? Would you take it down and throw it away or put it in the garage? Put it up for sale? Take it to a secondhand shop or an art dealer? Many houses have plaques or decorative objects on an outside wall. But are they art? Are they valuable, financially or artistically? Who made them? Where? How old are they? Questions, questions. I wanted answers!
Integrated Expat, private investigator, at your service! I’ve always enjoyed digging deeper into the background of questions where other people might just casually think to themselves, “I wonder…”, then promptly forget and move on to something more ‘important’ like the ironing or washing up. Not me! If I have a question, I want to know the answer, do some more research, do a little detective work. I always wanted to be a reference librarian. I was born for the age of the internet! But sometimes the internet is not enough. Either you get stuck or you need a personal tip to help you on the way. That’s what has been happening on a recent personal project of mine.
Wall art in Wijchen
It all started one day when I noticed a wall decoration on a house and commented that I was sure there used to be more of these wall plaques about when we first moved to Wijchen. I hadn’t noticed them elsewhere, either, so I wondered if they came from somewhere local. The larger wall decorations this particular one reminded me of were in a particular style that is quite distinctive, using a specific palette of muted blues, reds and greens on what looks like concrete. This was the only lead I had to go on and I didn’t even think they were particularly beautiful, just interesting. Still, I thought it was a shame they seemed to be disappearing, probably because they are old-fashioned and have gone out of style. If new owners don’t like them, they can simply replace them with something more modern.
In search of wall art
The first part of my detective work was simply to go for a cylce ride on a sunny day and take some photos with my phone. It turns out I was right; there are still lots of these wall plaques around. Sometimes there were streets and streets where I didn’t find any at all, then I would hit the wall art jackpot and there would be several in the same area. Did all the houses used to have them, or is there just a cluster because one person was inspired by another? There were many sorts of wall art, but the majority wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.
Most wall art shows birds
The first thing I discovered from my own photos was that almost all of this style of wall art on private houses had birds as the subject, and most came in a group of two or three birds. Some are more stylised than others, but I would say that they are very clearly the work of one designer. Another thing that surprised me was that there are almost no duplicates. Yes there are similarities, but they aren’t identical. You can see it quite clearly if you look at the gallery of photos (below). So it seems unlikely that these have all been bought from the local garden centre. It also makes it even more exciting to find one that it isn’t a bird and I was lucky to spot it because it wasn’t high on the front wall of the house like most of the wall reliefs I’ve seen. This one was low on the side wall of a house that had something else on the front. Interesting!
Close encounters of the local kind
Cycling around taking photos turns out to be a good way of getting into interesting conversations with people you never would have spoken to otherwise. I know this because I have been ‘caught’ on several occasions and asked what I was up to. Luckily, every time the person has been intrigued rather than angry or worried that I was planning on burgling their home. The first time this happened, I had spotted an intriguing metal wall sculpture next to a front door under a carport (below). Just as I aimed my phone camera at it, a head popped into the frame and I had to hurriedly explain what I was doing, feeling highly embarrassed. The owner of the head wasn’t in the least bit phased. He turned out to be an estate agent waiting to show somebody around the house and thought I was the prospective buyer.
A few doors away, I took a photo of three pottery birds on a house, then cycled on. As it happens, I doubled back and was just taking a photo of another house nearby when the owner of the birds called out to ask what I was doing, fortunately in a friendly voice. I told him about my project to take photos of the wall art that seemed to be disappearing and we struck up a conversation. He told me that he thought that he had put up his birds in the 1980s when they were renovating the house, so they weren’t so old, but his birds looked different, not like the birds I was really interested in (see below). He told me that he had worked in a blacksmith’s (smederij) making decorative metalwork to put on glass front doors as an anti-burgler device. He also used to make the metalwork names that you can see on some houses, but said that both the doors and the names have fallen out of favour now. I’ve been taking photos of those too, so I will share those in another blog post soon. For the time being, I had taken an interesting collection of photos, but I was no nearer to finding out any clues about where they came from. My phone battery was empty. Time to go home.
[To be continued]