No Regrets

door Marlite Halbertsma, Professor of Cultural History at Erasmus University Rotterdam

It has been twenty years since I said goodbye to my position as lecturer in art and cultural history at the Minerva Academy in Groningen. I learned a great deal from my students and colleagues in Groningen. When you have just left the university, as I had at the time, you take a lot of book knowledge with you, but that knowledge is of limited use once you enter the world of color studies, model drawing, oil paint and evaluations.

In particular, the evaluation discussions and final exams, where I had the privilege of playing the role of clerk, were a real feast. All the instructors, students and their final exam products would find themselves together in one classroom, and it did not matter how long the process took or how much the grade book was going to weigh by the end of the day. Even the most miniscule of drawings that I might consider mediocre would occasion extensive discussions among other teachers who saw something more worthwhile in it.

Lieuwe Kingma’s work never needed to be discussed at length. Even a child could see that it was good. In the early eighties, many of Minerva’s students had developed a rather conservative style, somewhere between impressionism and expressionism, which they took over from their teachers. Lieuwe used this traditional approach early on as a springboard to develop a style of his own, which by no means represented a break with tradition, rather a very individual interpretation of it.

One of the perks of being a clerk at the evaluation discussions and final exams was that you saw everything before anyone else did. This was how I often managed to snatch the most beautiful items away before my colleagues, who also liked to buy works of art from their best students, had a chance to buy them. The best acquisition I ever made at a final exam was in 1985, when I bought Lieuwe’s Still Life with Yellow Vase. Lieuwe had just started using a new technique, making collages of painted pieces of paper cut into shapes.

Collages have a long tradition in the history of art. But in the case of Still Life with Yellow Vase you can’t speak of a collage in the style of any particular well-known artist. It has the colorfulness of a Matisse and the angularity of the cut-out shapes of Picasso, and at the same time it is much more than the sum of its parts. The shapes are recognizably cut out and pasted, giving a peculiar spatial dynamic to a composition that is otherwise flat as a pancake, due in particular to the broad stripes of the wallpaper and the rhythmical flowering sprigs that appear out of nowhere. The work is composed of countless pieces of paper set beside and on top of one another, each with its own, often decorative motifs. From a distance it looks like a harmoniously painted whole, but only from nearby do you see how ingenious its construction actually is. Usually a puzzle is a painting cut into pieces, but here the process is exactly the other way around.

Lieuwe’s still life has had a place of honor in our living room since 1985. Every time I look at it – and that happens often! – I think: ‘I should never have given up my job at the Minerva Academy. How many brilliant works of art I must have missed in those past twenty years!’ But then again, a student like Lieuwe only comes around once in a lifetime.