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Achsa Vissel

(New Israelitic Weekly 30, 14 May 2010, p.18-19; translation Maarten van der Heijden)

Maarten van der Heijden (62), musician, psychologist and near-artist. This summer he completes his studies at the Rietveld Academy. With work inspired by the Shoah.


You seem to have developed quite allround ...

"You could say so, yes. As a young student I could not decide between the conservatory and the study of developmental psychology, so I did them both. Eventually I chose the social side and I stopped after three years at the conservatory, though I  continued playing passionately in ensembles. I earned a Ph.D in psychology: I investigated whether there was a difference between boys and girls in the way they do address arithmetic problems. Today I coach one day a week medical students in Utrecht  who during their internships meet with daunting situations in the medical practice. Otherwise I do'nt do psychological work. In retrospect I am glad I have a broad academic background..


You've been so engrossed in science and music. How did you even end up with visual art?

"There's a direct link to my Jewish background here. I come from a family where  'the war' was was not spoken about, while very close relatives did not survive the '40-'45-ies. My mother's father Martin Spanjaard was a well known orchestra-conductor  whose life ended in Auschwitz. Her brother has disappeared after an attempt to flee by boat to England. Despite the dark cloud  that hung over our family, the past was never discussed. I knew I was Jewish but officially we were 'nothing'. While we have an extended family with many international branches and since 150 years our own family association, ‘Berith Shalom’ and a journal ‘The Mishpagazette’.


Eh ... what does that have to do with art?

"Wait, I'm not done. When I was around forty-five I fell into a mid-life crisis. My relationship with the mother of my child had failed, everything went wrong. Until that time I found everything that is connected to second-generation problems, nonsense. The depressive episodes and problems  in relationships for which I followed many therapies I never connected to my personal history. In short, I lived in denial. When I looked at a list of complaints  that manifest in  the second generation, however, I scored positive on almost all items. I knew I had to take a big step. Instead of going to the Baghwan as one did in those days I turned to my own roots. I began to study Jewish spirituality with Carola de Vries Robles, followed by a course in Jewish history with Irma Dessauer, alias Andreas Burnier.


A search for your roots?

"Indeed, a classic quest. Though there was not much to search for; I immediately felt at home. Wherever I went, at the orthodox lern-days of Jarchei Kallo, the liberals, or in a support group for the second generation of the Jewish institute for Social Work, everywhere I fell into a warm bath of recognition. I still do not belong to an established group, but feel at home in all Jewish groupings. At those lern-days of Jarche Kallo a very old chassidic rabbi with a beard told the creation story according to Yitzhak Luria. According to Luria, God had made a mistake at the creation: a pair of bowls with Divine Light fell from his hands. Thus that light had lost its source and ended up everywhere. Divine sparks of light are in everything, and it is our duty as mankind to collect these sparks from everywhere; for example through contact with people but also in art. That is the essence of tikun olam, correction of the world. It made a big impression on me that in Judaism God is also evil; for the first time I received an answer to the question how God could have let the Holocaust happen. The contrast with religions as Christianity is great; I do not understand at all the idea that Jesus took the evil of the world upon him. You only need to open a newspaper and you know it's wrong. Also the fact that within Judaism one is encouraged to enjoy things like sexuality appeals to me."


I still see no link with art ...

"I saw on the one hand, the beauty, spirituality and the joy of Judaism, and on the other hand the heinness of the Shoah. For me it was clear that I 'had  somehow to do something with it'. To conclude my search for the Shoah, I made a trip to Auschwitz and back, along with the Auschwitz Comittee. Almost from the idea "then I am done with it ". And that was the last straw. What has happened overthere is so evil that you can not really let it be absorbed.  For me, in fact the only thing you can do is to jump in the canal. You have to repress it. I think therefore that it is okay that I have done this for such a long time. The other possibility is that you make art out of it and this is what I did."


Shoah-art, what should we envision for that.?

"When I was admitted at Rietveld Academy it was my plan to make art about the Shoah. My - excellent - teachers tried to talk me out of that, they encouraged me to develop myself in different ways. Eventually I pushed my plans through and early July I am graduating with work based on the Shoah. At first glance, my work is 'beautiful', colorful modern versions of 17th-century grotesques, a kind of rosettes formed of angel figures. Designed on the computer and implemented in a light box. But those who look closer see that the lovely angels in my work have been replaced by photographs made by the allied troops immediately after the liberation of the camps. Photos that you hardly see anymore nowadays because they are too horrible to watch. 'Beautiful' in this way becomes something very relative. People also react strongly to my work, my fiance bursts into tears when she sees it, even though she herself is not Jewish. The work seems to me too determinative to hang it on the wall in a home, it may fit better in a public place."


Why indeed these rather extreme pictures?

"Those images sit in my head since childhood. Carola de Vries Robles told me that working with those photos could stimulate my process. I started to manipulate them, using symmetrical shapes. During my time at Rietveld Academy they always came back in my work. But it never was the right form, only now I'm content. And luckily my teachers as well. What has played a role is that I now follow my intuition more. Instead of thinking I had to act, and then see what bubbles up. Not only in my work, but in other areas of my life as well."


In what way did making art affect your life?

"Before my Rietveld period I used to worry about all and sundry, not anymore. My problem has become: how do I make good art? I have no fixed working-method; I just start and the work arises spontaneously. I am oftentimes surprised myself. The beauty of art to me is that one works with imagery, words fail. One can not explain it all and it is unnecessary to do so. Words will never possibly cover the meaning.


Will we hear more from you in the future?

"For the future I have only one plan: to work. I like making work that touches others and makes people think. The subject of the Shoah will still continue some time to play a role here, but one never knows whether in the future something totally different. will follow Otherwise I am happy in the present: with my relationship, with my great daughter. And that's more important than all the arts put together, isn’t it?