From working with Le Corbusier in the '50s to teaching in Sydney, then painting from a tin shed in the Adelaide Hills, artist Henny van den Wildenberg has had many lives. Now his work is getting a new life of its own online.
The art of Henny van den Wildenberg
The day we visit Henny van den Wildenberg’s studio – a tiny tin shed on his ten acre slice of the Fleurieu Peninsula – the wind howls and the rain beats down so strongly that it sometimes drowns out conversation.
Henny is unperturbed. The artist, who was born in Holland and lived through WWII, has always found the natural world to be a solace.
“Coming through the war had a real impact on me as a teenager. Everything becomes irrelevant, even life becomes irrelevant – it’s there, it’s gone,” he says. “But nature, nature is so fantastic – so I see the beauty of that.”
It was a search to be closer to nature that brought Henny to Australia, but only after he tried several other modes of existence in Holland.
He was originally an art student, but then became an industrial engineer when he realised art had little in the way of career prospects. It was working with Phillips in this capacity that brought Henny alongside modern architecture pioneer Le Corbusier and electronic music trailblazer Edgard Varèse. The pair were developing Poème électronique – the eight-minute art installation that screened insider the Le Corbusier-designed Phillips Pavillion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels – and Henny was seconded to help develop the lighting for the experience.
But even working closely with some of the era’s greatest creative minds couldn’t redeem the industrial design profession for Henny, who had come to perceive the field as “purely commercial”. So he packed that in, and decided to try something else – teaching.
“I thought ‘I want fresh air and I want to see the sun’ so I went to Australia,” says Henny.
That was in 1961, and he found a job at the National Art School of Sydney. His life took him back and forth between Holland and Australia several more times before he finally settled in South Australia. Despite all this change, Henny’s compulsive desire to make art has remained constant throughout his 87 years.
“There’s nothing else you can do but paint,” he says.
His long career has taken in a swathe of styles and mediums – from ink sketches on paper to stylised realism hewn in acrylic on canvas, and many things in between. His subjects are unlimited too – landscapes, still life, models, family members, and portraits – like that of author Mem Fox which was a finalist in the 2004 Archibald Prize.
Over the last two decades he has been developing a style which is new to him – an impressionistic and atmospheric aesthetic borne of both philosophical and physical changes in Henny’s life.
“It is since I was started getting blind, which was 20 years ago,” says Henny.
“But also – here,” he says – indicating to an illustrative painting of a colleague he created in the 1970s, “…Here I am the one who is feeding you and I start to become a little uneasy with that, because why should I superimpose my visions on you?
“So this newer painting here is called Good Morning. I go away from the imagery, and the title will give you an opportunity to come in with your own vision. I respect your vision and I invite you to feel uncomfortable or comfortable or whatever, but it is you – not me superimposing it on you. And that is the shift for me at the moment.”
Art from this section of Henny’s oeuvre, as well as some of his other eras, has found its way onto the internet – a platform that seems light years away from the tiny tin shed in which he creates.
“I think they’re gorgeous and if anybody wants to see them they are welcome,” he says. “I am not pushing anything but they are welcome to also see this.
“I’m not an entrepreneur… I just want to sell a painting so I can continue to paint, because it’s bloody expensive. If I can just hang on and support my own pleasure – that’s all I want.”
But with the deep insight and thought that goes into each work, and his considered approach to how his work affects its viewer, Henny is doing far more than supporting his own interests when he sends a painting out into the world.
His art, which he says will continue to evolve and develop in new directions “because life always changes”, is an act of two-way communication – a genuine attempt to encourage different perspectives. It is unusual and important in its ability to help everyone be comfortable with something about themselves that Henny accepted a long time ago.
“I am what I am,” he says.