• Portrait of the Surinamese – Dutch writer Albert Helman?

Johan Dijkstra, Portret van een man

Johan Dijkstra 1896 –1978
Portrait of a negro / Portrait of a young man
Wax paint on canvas, 52 x 52 cm
Groninger Museum Collection,

A green face, a blue horse and a red sky had become part of western artists’ vocabulary since Vincent van Gogh  and Paul Gauguin. The man in this portrait by Johan Dijkstra has a greenish face and blue hair. He is also walking in a landscape with branching orange trees and a pink figure. This use of colour effectively shows how Dijkstra had fallen under the influence of the German Die Brücke artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, through the agency of his friend Jan Wiegers 1893 –1959.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner Zelfportret,
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Selfportrait, 1919-1920, location?

The painting was printed (in black-andwhite) in De Groene Amsterdammer of 24 January 1931, under the title Portrait of a young man. It is not clear at what point the work became known as Portrait of a negro, although the man in the painting does appear to be of African origin. There is no record of his identity.

He may have been someone in the circle of De Ploeg, the group to which Dijkstra belonged, for their artists tended to make portraits of each other and their close friends.

The man in the portrait does bear a passing resemblance to the writer Lou Lichtveld 1903 –1996, who published his first novel, Zuid-Zuid West, about Surinam, under the name Albert Helman in the same year in which the work was painted.

Zuid Zuid West

Lichtveld was also friends with the poet Hendrik Marsman 1899 –1940, who was associated with De Ploeg as a literary expressionist.

Marsman en Lichtveld
Lou Lichtveld en Hendrik Marsman coll. Letterkundig Museum The Hague / Geheugenvannederland

Although there is a fairly good chance that Dijkstra did indeed meet Lichtveld, the question still remains of whether the writer is actually the subject of this picture.

AlbertHelman jongb
Albert Helman http://michelconci.blogspot.nl/

Lichtveld, who came from Surinam, did not appear to have African features at first glance – he was of Indian origin – but called himself a negro when it suited him. So Dijkstra may have taken the liberty of incorporating this fact in the portrait; an exact likeness was, after all, not one of the expressionists’ objectives.

His contemporary Valentijn van Uytvanck 1896 –1950 wrote of painting portraits in Palet: ‘The portraitist treads the grey area between literature and painting, to put it in a not very literary fashion […] So there are two demands for a portraitist to fulfil: the psychological and painterly portrayal of the person.’

Expressionist artists allowed themselves every freedom in both the psychological and painterly treatment of the portrait.

Esther Schreuder in cat : Black is beautiful, Rubens tot Dumas (2008)

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