It is not clear what exactly happened. On a Friday in 1964, Harmen Meurs did something awkward on the stairs in his house. He tripped, fell, and died of his injuries later that weekend. He probably tried to reach the wall telephone in the hallway, but it was too high for the seriously injured man. When the baker found his body that Monday, the receiver was off the hook. But Meurs was no longer able to get to the turntable and dial a number.
The artist was 73 years old. His last work was on the easel: a self-portrait. Acquaintances say that at the end of his life he had become a lonely man. He only had a group of cats around him.
He was not poor. There were two cars at the door.
Things had all been very different in Meurs’s past. He had a busy social life, traveled a lot and was politically engaged. In addition, he had also experienced periods of great poverty. Especially in the 1930s during the great crisis.
But he had first made a flying start as an artist in the tens. And in the 1920s he was right at the center of the cultural world of Amsterdam and the Netherlands and traveled through Europe.
During those years he lived in a house on the Amstel in Amsterdam together with avant-garde artists such as the filmmaker Joris Ivens, the photographer Germaine Krull and dancer Florrie Rodrigo. The house was a meeting place for artists, writers, dancers, fascists, communists and other “revolutionaries”. The latest developments in Berlin and Paris were discussed together and indicated new directions for artists they wanted to follow or rather surpass.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Meurs’ paintings were shown annually at various exhibitions, including many solos, including an overview in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. His work evolved from expressionism to cubo expressionism, to new objectivity and back to social expressionism. Ample attention was given to his work in the written media. Reviewers often had to get used to the changes in his work.
In addition to his position as an artist, Harmen Meurs had a remarkable social and guiding role within the artists’ associations and federations. In 1928, for example, he became chairman of the leading, very internationally oriented artists ‘association De Onafhankelijken (The Independents) perhaps the largest artists’ association in the Netherlands at that time.
The exhibitions that he put together for De Onafhankelijken could be seen in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Around 1930 he also became chairman of the Amsterdam and Dutch federation of visual artists, making him the voice of painters in the Netherlands for media and others.
You couldn’t ignore Meurs, in the twenties and early thirties, it seems. Around 1932 his work began to become more political as the situation in Germany became more threatening
Meur’s fierce works were subject to heavy censorship in 1934 and ’36. Enraged by the weak attitude of many, he withdrew from Amsterdam around 1937 and from the Dutch organized artist circuit.
He had a house built near Putten, a village where more left-wing artist friends had settled. Shortly before the war he married his Jewish girlfriend the artist Berthe Edersheim. They got through the war well. Friends of theirs, the Jewish couple Else Berg and Mommie Schwarz, unfortunately not.
Meurs became embittered after the war. He did keep his pre-war friendships with Johan van Zweden and Hildo Krop.
These are just a few “points” in the life of Harmen Meurs.
In 1998 I wrote my masterpaper about him and wrote in the exhibition catalogue Magie en Zakelijkheid about his life and work.
After that I didn’t stop collecting material. I have now a large archive around him (literature, letters, images of works and more).
This autumn, the first exhibition after his death will be on display in a Dutch museum in Wageningen. https://www.casteelsepoort.nl/verwacht-tentoonstelling-meurs/
For more about this forgotten artist / activist / etc. firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2008 I was guest curator of the exhibition Black is beautiful. Rubens to Dumas. Important advisors Elizabeth McGrath (Rubens and colleagues, Warburg institute Image of the Black in Western Art collection), Carl Haarnack (slavery in books), Elmer Kolfin (slavery in prints and paintings) en Adi Martis (contemporary art). Gary Schwartz made his research for The Image of the Black in Western Art available to me.
In 2012 my Anniversary book: 100 years Schiller 1912-2012 was published. Initiative, idea, text and editing (ES). Design and photography Monica Schokkenbroek.
In 2013 my book Cobra aan de gracht / Cobra on the Canal was published by Samsara publications.
In 2014 my essay ‘Painted Blacks and Radical Imagery in the Netherlands (1900-1940)’ was published in The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume V (I). (ed. David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates jr.)
(About f.i. On the terras, by Nola Hatterman but also Jan Sluijters, Kees van Dongen, Irma Stern and more)
In 2017 I published a book about the black servants at the Court of the Royal Van Oranje family. More than a thousand documents have been found about their lives. (only in Dutch)
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