In my previous blog post I talked about how I became intrigued by a particular style of wall art in Wijchen, and how I wanted to learn more. How old was it? Who was the artist? Where was it made?

Internet research: finding the right search term

I thought there must be a proper record somewhere of art on walls in the Netherlands, but it took me a long time to find the correct search term and I’m not at all sure there is a correct term in English, either. The word that came spontaneously to mind when I was surprised by the ‘bird man’ (see my last post) was gevelkunst, art for the sides of buildings. The Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, I have since discovered, is asking for help finding wandkunst, wall art, from the post-war recovery period (wederopbouwperiode) between 1945 and 1965, a time of great growth and building. They host a site called Help wandkunst opsporen, or Help find wall art. You can see what they already know about on their site and take your own photo to submit if you find anything they don’t know about. Even though the project has been going since 2006, new wall art in obvious places is still being added; one of the most recent is in the main market square in the city of Groningen. You would have thought they would have added that years ago, but if recording this art relies on volunteers, there are bound to be gaps.

In search of my domestic wall artist, I got lost on the internet myself for a considerable time. What did I discover? Many things, some of which I will save for another time!

  • intriguing stories about public wall art (a new topic to research)
  • finding out about a regional artist who could be the one
  • discovering a link to Nazi propaganda
  • inventing my own conspiracy theory
  • internet research didn’t bring me any still no closer to finding out where ‘my’ wall art came from

On the trail of the missing artist

One thing I knew when I started this quest was that there had been a public outcry a couple of years ago when two local schools were demolished. One of them, I seemed to remember, had an artwork that had been rescued, a bas relief, but I didn’t know what had happened to it. Luckily I managed to find an article from the local newspaper online and discovered that it had been given a new lease of life as a free-standing sculpture in the garden of the local parish priest, so of course I took a photo next time I was in de buurt (nearby). The artist who made it was Daan Wildschut, but most of his work was religious, so I discounted him. I also remembered visiting the Kapelberg in Bergharen a few kilometres away where there are bas reliefs of the 13 stations of the cross made by the artist Jac Maris. The style seemed similar, but there is a museum dedicated to Maris’ work in Heumen in his old workshop. Looking on their website, I couldn’t see anything that matched the birds.

Nevertheless, I decided I ought to visit the museum to show them my photos and ask them if they had any ideas. Also, there is a local history society that keeps archives in the basement of the town hall. I resolved to ask them too, if only I remembered to go there on a Wednesday afternoon. Surely somebody there would have an idea? If that failed, I could ask at the art museum in Arnhem or the Valkhof Museum in Nijmegen or I could post it on Facebook and ask one of the local artists I know if they had any ideas.

Wall art and sculptures are everywhere

Meanwhile, everywhere I go, I have started noticing wall art. I have started checking my phone is fully charged on every trip, just in case, and taking alternative routes in promising housing estates to find new examples. It’s amazing; sometimes I’ve cycled past a building hundreds of times without noticing that they had one of these sculptures, but now they jump out at me. And sometimes I take a slightly different route than usual, look up and – how wondrous! – another group of birds. At the weekend I cycled into Nijmegen and crossed over at a different junction than usual, glanced up, and there they were. It must have been fate!

The mystery is solved – another close encounter

Then I had a stroke of luck! As I was packing my cycle bag outside the chemist’s, I looked up at the side wall of the house next door. Now, if I hadn’t looked up from that particular spot, I could have cycled past it another 1,000 times on the way home from the gym but would never have seen it. And just as I was taking my photo, what should happen but the owners stepped out of the garage door. I explained that I had been taking photos of their wall art and the lady told me the story behind the birds. She had bought them for her husband about 15 years ago when their two children left home or ‘flew out’, as she put it (de kinderen zijn uitgevlogen), so the birds symbolised that for them. What’s more, she knew where the sculptures came from! According to her, they were made by a potter called Jansen in Haalderen, a small village (pop. 2,000-ish) just outside Bemmel, between Arnhem and Nijmegen. She had been for pottery lessons there, so it seemed like she knew what she was talking about. If she hadn’t have come out of her door at just that moment, I might never have found out. I couldn’t wait to get home and confirm it.

Back to the internet: the name of the artist

She was almost right. As soon as I googled ‘pottenbakker Jansen Haalderen’, I found a website that described the ceramics centre in Bemmel, Ambacht Haalderen, AMHA for short. It was a craft centre set up in 1947 as a work creation project after the war, subsidised by Volksherstel Gelderland (People’s Aid Gelderland). Originally there were going to be several departments, but in the end only the pottery got off the ground and it’s still running today. It started off with five potters and the designer Joop Puntman (1934 – 2013) who stayed there until 1969, first producing domestic pottery and later more decorative work, initially with mostly religious themes. During the post-war recovery period, the company became well-known and was commissioned to make wall sculptures for many schools and governmental buildings under the Kunst aan de Wand programme (Art on the Wall), just like Jac Maris and many other Dutch artists. At the time, there was a government-sponsored percentageregeling (percentage rule) whereby all government buildings, schools, churches, post offices and the like had to spend 1 % of the cost of the building project on art, hence the proliferation of wall art.

So what about the Mr Janssen (with a double S) who had given the lady pottery lessons? G.A. Janssen was one of the co-founders and took over as director in 1990 as co-owner with his son Bart. I also discovered that Jac Maris (mentioned above) also worked with AMHA. For example they made a series of statuettes of St Joseph (Heilig Jozef) for a house in Elst, on the corner of the Koningin Emmastraat and the Prins Hendrkstraat, with copies for the directors of the Sint-Josef housing association, plus some copies for the artist himself, one of which belongs to the Jac Maris museum.

Coincidence – Joop Puntman and new Dutch polders

When I was looking for images of art by Joop Puntman, what should I stumble across but a 1973 work in Emmeloord, commemorating Bernard Geurtzen. The style is unmistakable, but unlike the birds on the houses in Wijchen, the scale is enormous. Coincidentally, while I was investigating this, the book I was reading was Het Nieuwe Land (The New Land) by Eva Vriend, telling the tale of the selection and social engineering involved in picking the first people to live and work in the new polders created when parts of the Zuiderzee were drained to create the IJsselmeer, Flevoland and the Noord-Oost Polder. Everything had to be built up from scratch by pioneers, and one of the pioneers in Emmeloord was Bernard Geurtzen, the person commemorated in a huge wall sculpture in Emmeloord in the N-O Polder (visit the website for the picture).  I never would have come across this if I hadn’t been interested in the artist at the same time.

The artist Joop Puntman and AMHA

Josephus Theodorus Puntman, known as Joop, was born in Bemmel on 20 March 1934 and died in Nijmegen on 12 December 2013. He studied at the academy of fine arts in Arnhem and worked from 1949 to 1969 for AMHA in Haalderen, continuing to produce ceramics until 2005 for private individuals. Ceramics such as the birds that sparked my curiosity.

How are the ceramic wall art pieces made?

Fine clay (chamotte) is put into plaster moulds and fired, giving a red or black finish after firing. Sometimes coloured glazes with various surfaces are used as well and some pieces have a lightly decorated background. They can be marked with a stamp saying Het Ambacht Haalderen (in capital letters) or AMHA, scratched into the clay or painted on.

The pottery will definitely be added to my growing list of places to visit. It’s in one of those difficult-to-reach-by-public-transport villages, so I might have to mount an expedition on my bike. Address: Ambachtstraat 8, 6685 BH Haalderen, tel. 0481-461314. In 2015, it took part in Open Monument Day (bother, too late again!). The announcement in Hét Gemeentenieuws online newspaper is too good not to include.

Ambacht Haalderen AMHA
Het Ambacht Haalderen (AMHA) pottery. Source: Hét Gemeentenieuws

I found a close-up photo of one of the smaller sculptures for sale online, for a price of € 75, if you’re interested.

Why are these wall sculptures still there?

Looking at them from the ground, the birds don’t look very big, but I’ve just found one online that is 120 cm wide by 65 cm in height. That’s pretty big and, I should imagine, heavy. If those are going to stay up on a wall, they will have been stuck on pretty hard, permanently, and the wall would probably have a mark on it if you removed the wall sculpture. The matt glaze helps protect the clay against the elements, so they remain in good condition. Perhaps they have survived so well simply because they are well able to withstand the elements and for most people, they fade into the background, so to remove them would simply be too much hassle. That’s not to say they are not threatened; much post-war recovery period artwork, particularly larger-scale art on official buildings, is now under threat as buildings change hands, are given a different function or simply demolished.

More on that next time as well as some answers to the questions I didn’t answer in this blog post.