Heldens’ Beautiful Human Drama
Wim Heldens is a Dutch portrait artist who creates flamboyant, highly expressive portraits set in intimate interiors, elevating ordinary people to actors staging his philosophical, often witty narratives. Inspired by the realist approach of the 17th Century Golden Age in the Low Countries, Heldens’ skillfully captures the distinctive northern European chiaroscuro, reminiscent of Dutch masters such as Johannes Vermeer and Gerard ter Borch. Heldens’ main focus is on the complexities and ambiguities of the human condition within daily life as it unfolds around him, using traditional methods to translate his concepts and insights into contemporary visuals.
Over the years, this accomplished autodidact has developed personal painting techniques to reach an incredible level of fine craftmanship. Heldens starts by translating his ideas into compositions, enhancing interior spaces with props, and positioning his models as if he’s directing a play, making sure the lighting is perfect, and then taking lots of photographs. He always starts with a grisaille—an underpainting executed in shades of grey—before adding color glazes to achieve spectacular results.
Making a living from portrait commissions, Heldens explains he’s selective whom he paints. Heldens’ depth of psychological perception helps him read people like a book. On the one hand this sixth sense proves invaluable for capturing people’s true personality traits, yet on the other hand this may prove painful for those who recognize something in themselves that they don’t want to see. Savvy collectors usually give Heldens full carte blanche when it comes to composition and expression, trusting his insights and artistic expertise completely. His most recent portrait commission, entitled Twenty Four, shows two young cousins engaged in their favorite activities while their proud grandfather watches them from a small portrait on the wall.
Heldens’ favorite portrait subject is Ariq Robinson (also known as Eric) whom he has painted twenty-three times to date and describes as, “my muse, my partner, my husband—even though we’re not married—he’s the love of my life.” Heldens also enjoys painting children and youngsters for many of whom he’s a surrogate father figure. Heldens thinks children are often portrayed too sweetly sentimental, so he aims to depict them as distinct, individual personalities. A signature item that appears in each of Heldens’ paintings is a framed mirror or image which metaphorically breaks through the wall of the interior space to offer an alternative symbolic view to complement the narrative.
Heldens’ interiors are often inspired by the 17th century Dutch genre painter Jan Steen, whose paintings are celebrated for their psychological insight, sense of humor, and flamboyant emphasis evocative of theater. The Dutch use an expression that refers to Steen’s work, “Het huishouden van Jan Steen” which translates to “A Jan Steen household” suggesting a messy, chaotic, and disorganized household.
In this piece, entitled School, we find a contemporary Jan-Steenish interior—a tumultuous classroom—where everybody is doing their own thing. Heldens’ muse is portrayed in the role of educator, revealing his plans to become a teacher in real life. Heldens comments, “Ariq will be a perfect teacher due to his natural authority, sense of humor, and no-nonsense attitude.” Several youngsters of varying ages are playing the role of pupils and from beyond the frame we see the hands of a mother, simultaneously reaching out and letting go, a gesture of care and protection towards her daughter about to depart on a school bus.
This painting is about the importance of education—for both boys and girls—a fundamental human right promoting individual freedom and empowerment. It is also about being open to learning throughout adult life, as suggested by the girl at the blackboard who seems to be instructing the teacher.
Heldens’ painting entitled Weltschmerz—from the German meaning world-pain or world-weariness—reflects a feeling of melancholy and pain for the state of the world that many intellectuals are deeply familiar with.
The main subject is Jelle, a recurring model and one of Heldens’ surrogate children, who is presently studying for a PhD in history in Florence, Italy. He’s holding a book on sociopolitical philosophy, Radical Priorities written by his hero the American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, and political activist Noam Chomsky. In the mirror we see Heldens’ muse Ariq together with artist friend Fakhri Bohang, who are demonstrating against the current political onslaught on social justice and the environment that primarily affects the weakest amongst us.
This painting reflects the kind of emotion experienced by Heldens—who describes himself as hypersensitive and empathetic—caused by his quest to find a balance between staying informed about current affairs and desperately needing to tune out the anguish of the world in order to create things of beauty.
Heldens’ most cherished painting The Muse is all about love—not only about warmth and shelter but also about acceptance and the give and take so essential for a long-term relationship. This portrait of Ariq—Heldens’ partner for 13 years—shows him gazing gently at the viewer, holding a little toy poodle he rescued from the streets of New Orleans. Heldens had a contentious relationship with the little dog, which he describes as, “very smart, manipulative, and dysfunctional due to her fear of abandonment.” Of course, Heldens accepted the difficult pooch, knowing full well how important she was to his partner, as shown by his tender gaze in the mirror. In turn, Ariq shares the small space with Heldens’ painting equipment, symbolizing the time, energy, and attention that Heldens pours into his creative work—time and attention his art takes away from his lover. Heldens says, “In a solid relationship you accept things from your partner. We share, tolerate, and support each other’s other loves.”
I recently saw Cats & Dogs in person at the MEAM booth during the 2017 Amsterdam realism fair—it’s truly exquisite on so many levels. In this portrait, Ariq is surrounded by all of his rescue pets, a placid domestic scene shown through the loving eyes of the artist. Although the tall and muscular Ariq is a retired military man, Heldens describes him as, “a gentle old soul who couldn’t hurt a fly.” Ariq could well be a modern version of Francis of Assisi, a Roman Catholic saint associated with the patronage of animals and the natural environment. We see the reflection of a much younger Saint Francis in the mirror, the type of caring youngster the world so desperately needs.
Bicycle is a portrait of a scientist, commissioned by his wife who requested a back view of her husband on a bicycle because, she explained, this is his most erotic side. Heldens says, “These are the kind of collectors I’m most happy to work with, as they provide the model and the theme but allow me complete freedom to express the contents of the painting. Clients like these are always extremely happy with the result; the ones that want to control you are the most difficult to please.”
In this surreal piece, we clearly see Heldens’ sense of humor in portraying a person without a narcissistic sense of vanity in a setting inspired by Joop Moesman’s 1937 painting Het Gerucht (Dutch for The Rumor). Oddly, the cycling scientist is about to hit the wall, yet the mirror on the wall somehow symbolically opens up the barrier to allow him to continue onward on a bicycle lane in a typical Dutch landscape. Inversely, Heldens added some leaves on the floor, bringing the outdoors into the interior.
Heldens’ painting The Mirror is one of his most interesting and controversial pieces, and his largest up to date. At first glance, the narrative seems to have a strong homosexual and racial theme, but looking beyond the gay couple tenderly embracing in the corner of a room undergoing restoration we find a lot of thought-provoking symbolism. Pointing a finger at the hugging pair, an archetypal adolescent giggles self-consciously while a transvestite indignantly reprimands him. Reflected in the ornate mirror we see a similar but age-inverted scene; a construction worker sniggering while being scolded by a youngster.
This playful yet profound painting is about developing open-mindedness and compassion. It’s about learning to accept others beyond their skin color, sexual orientation, and other perceived differences—we can and should encourage and embrace more tolerance and kindness no matter what age we are. Note the toy bulldozer mirrors the admonishing gestures and the unplugged electrical cord on the floor suggests a disconnect from the world, while the happily oblivious couple enjoy their perfect moment of affectionate intimacy.
Heldens is clear about his work. He says, “Art is not about the collector’s vanity, nor is it about them choosing or directing the contents or subject matter. Art is about allowing the artist the freedom to express his creative insight by trusting his skills and knowledge. Those who don’t, ultimately miss out on real art.”
Painting makes Heldens happy. For him substance is more important than making money. When he paints, he feels he’s a messenger being guided and directed by an external force, which makes him feel humble and grounded. He adds, “Even when the world is falling apart I still have my painting, I hope it brings beauty. My paintings are the best thing I have to give to the world.”
Written by Lorena Kloosterboer, realist artist & author © Antwerp, May 2017