Bert Loerakker: Reflections between Nature and Geometry

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In many cases, the artist’s childhood is not interesting enough to merit close attention. Bert Loerakker’s case is different, as he himself has said. His childhood – and all his experiences, his emotions, and the choices he had to make – played a formative role in his artistic development as an adult. That’s what gives him the courage to speak so frankly about it. His openness was also prompted in part by his interview with Hans den Hartog Jager on the publication of a new book about his work, as well as by a recent article in the daily Eindhoven newspaper and his conversations with Leo Delfgaauw in connection with Delfgaauw’s doctoral research.

Bert was born in Breda in 1948. His mother was Catholic and his father Protestant. It later became apparent that the difference and contrast between their religions may have influenced his artistic sensibility from an early age. His mother had secretly hoped for a daughter, but instead she had Bert. His sister was born later. Bert grew into a young boy who liked to go his own way and spent a lot of time quietly drawing. Even as a small child, he made up his mind for himself. At the age of twelve, for instance, he was determined to become either a cowboy or a priest – already, adventure was calling him. He never became a cowboy, but the adventurous side of missionary work, along with his mother’s strong encouragement, tipped the scales in favor of that career. In Bert’s conversations with Den Hartog Jager and others, one idea that keeps coming to the fore is that he may always have remained a missionary, despite his eventual decision to pursue an artistic career. He is always holding out something to the viewer in his art.

His seminary studies did not go well. He realized after a few months that it was not the place for him, but under some pressure from his mother, he stayed there for three years. Two years of HBS followed. Meanwhile, his choice of occupation was strongly influenced by an instructor, his drawing teacher. This teacher demonstrated a casual approach to life and work that inspired young Bert to become an artist and continue his studies at an art academy. He ended up at the Academie voor Beeldende Vorming in Tilburg, where he was trained for teacher.

But formal education did not satisfy his deepest longings, and after two years of being a teacher, he decided to strike out on his own, as an independent artist. This was a very conscious choice, and he saw its consequences – hard work and a life without luxuries – as logical implications.

To get to know yourself better, you paint a self-portrait, so that was one element of his early career. But he soon left that path and embarked on a process of abstraction. A stay in Paris opened up a new world for him, and he discovered white, his paintings became white! And elsewhere he had already discovered the geometry, to which he would remain loyal for the rest of his life. From then on, all his work would have a geometric basis. He recalls an experience that made a deep impression on him: when he let his parents know that he wanted to become an artist, his father took him to a museum. There the two of them discovered Piet Mondrian and Dick Ket together. Ever since then, he has drawn inspiration from the contrast between these two artists, who present two visions of life. The choice between nature and geometry, the choice between emotion and reason, and the choice between the beauty of the world and its underlying order form the foundation of Bert Loerakker’s art. And his choice is principled and radical.

Rudi Fuchs offered him an exhibition in the Van Abbemuseum. In exhibiting his white paintings there, he ran the risk of being seen as part of the fundamental painting movement, a current closely related to minimalism. But fundamental painters based their thinking on the proces and their materials, a completely different approach from Loerakker’s. He refuses to be pigeonholed or join a movement. Instead, he strives to develop his own ideas and bring them to life in his painting. As he puts it, he is a movement of his own.

Jan Debbaut, the successor to Rudi Fuchs, understood Bert well and – during preparations for his second solo exhibition, this one in the Van Abbemuseum – offered him the freedom to go on developing his ideas. Over the years, Bert’s work gradually moved toward geometric abstraction. But nature slowly crept into his works when he began to paint diptychs. Another contributing factor in this shift was his discovery of the work of the Neue Wilden in Germany. The spontaneity and lightness of their art and their uninhibited approach to elements from nature came as an eye-opener. All this set him on the path to his expressive geometrical diptychs.

In 2008, his studio in Helmond was destroyed in a fire, and all his work was lost: his paintings, his documentation, and his photographs. Above all, his entire artistic life to that point came to a dramatic end. He decided to fight back by moving consistently forward from that time on. His work took on more of a momentary quality, especially on the left side of his diptychs, the part related to nature. In these pieces, his sense of nature became more spontaneous and poetic. He acknowledged the danger that his diptychs could become a kind of gimmick and took concrete steps to gain new perspectives on art. Just as years earlier he had gone to New York on a grant and realized that the geometry and effervescent activity of the metropolis could bring new energy to his work, he again sought out new sources of inspiration so that his art could go on evolving.

Thanks to this decision, his work has remained dynamic. The natural themes on the left have sometimes become more realistic and recognizable, and sometimes he zooms in on them, making them more abstract. This abstraction feels necessary to him because it gives him the opportunity to let himself go in the other part of the diptych. Bert continues to seek out contrast. In his life, he finds it in the peace and quiet of nature and the screeching guitar music he listens to in his studio. He combines contact with other artists and kindred spirits on boards and advisory committees, as well as temporary appointments as an instructor or exhibition organizer, with periods when he retreats into his studio and focuses on his own work – which is, in the end, the most important thing to him. His art encompasses both subjects from nature and total abstraction, the broadest possible spectrum open to a painter.

Bert relates to the world through the two parts of his character. This radical aspect of his personality looms large in his consciousness. By choosing nature and order, he has determined how he engages with reality. Alongside his obsession with intimacy in his work, he also wants to express what he believes in. It is important to him for his work to make people think. While his thinking process originally took place in the space between the two parts of his work, the different picture planes later began to work against each other and to merge into each other; the confrontation became more intense, but at the same time a more unified whole emerged. Here nature meets order. Their collision gives rise to reflection.

No one surveying the whole of Bert’s oeuvre would imagine he is limited to any one stylistic form. The line of development in his work is subtle and consistent. A sharp-eyed observer can learn from him that emotion and order always fluctuate, that intuition and reason constantly yield new images and realities. Nature alongside abstraction is essential to him, because one cannot exist without the other. Each is implicit in the other. And ultimately the geometrical plane, for instance, can become a horizon for him, over which nature and the artist himself can manifest to their fullest extent.

Bert Loerakker: an unconventional thinker, but above all a painter.

Based on a lecture about his work, given by Bert to the Vereniging Vrienden Van Abbemuseum on 7 December 2017.
By Piet van Bragt