Coppens, Martien (c.1935-45) View of Bakelse Heikant: fields on the edge of pine forest, separated by winding road. [Photograph] Dutch province Brabant; Lieshout.

 

Land of Silence

Martien Coppens View of Bakelse Heikant: fields on the edge of pine forest, separated by winding road is an overwhelming subdued, almost cliché Landscape in nuances of grey, never touching the extremes of black and white, never harsh. The flat land, fringed by a group of trees on the right. The flatness of the low land enhances the sky—clouds in their most stunning forms. The tones of the photograph are dim and deep, sometimes almost opaque but never funereal or mirthless. One cannot ignore the contagion with the Romantic or even The Haagse School style. Martien Coppens grew up in the small, poor, agricultural Lieshout, surrounded by forests, heather and peat. “But who in such a village was occupied with art?” Martien reflected in 1982, at the end of his life. At the age of twelve, with loaned, simple camera’s and the guest use of a provisional darkroom under the stairs of an older schoolmate, he started photographing the local world around him, always attracted by nature, land, the local farmers and workers. His photographs follow a Landscape tradition directly influenced by the genre conventions of masterly paintings such as Jan Vermeer or Jacob Ruysdael. As Graham Clake (2002) notes: these ‘tropes’ of pictorial landscapes “remains encoded within the language of academic painting and the traditions of landscape art which developed during the eighteenth and nineties century” (Clarke, 2002) accuracy, locale and when western cultures were establishing what John Ruskin called ‘a science and aspect of things’

Martien kept photographing and bought his first ‘real’ camera, an Ihagee Paff-reflex 4,5×6. Through self-education and with the assistance, persuasion and formative accompaniment of Adriaan Boer, a well-known photographer and the head editor of the Dutch photographic magazine “Focus”, Martien was accepted at the Bayerische Staatslehranstalt fur Lichrbildwesen in München. Boer already found, or perhaps influenced Coppens with that opinion, that photography was a form of art, not only to simply depict the outer beauty but also to reveal the inner. The lines in the photograph are again classical painterly. As with all the work of Coppens, chosen and composed with utmost patience and accuracy but never clinical; the horizon positioned low, the diagonal from the treetops right down, gently but inescapably, along a fluent winding trail, leading into the distance. The slight curving of the horizontal lines in the mowed grain fields seems to compliment the softness and amplify the depth. The pine trees on the right are typical for this province that combines fertile earth and clay with sandy grounds, scattered sparsely with small pine forests, together with peat grounds, an area called “De Peel”. (VVV De Peel, n.d.)A single lost birch with its silver bark, pierces itself between the dark wall of pines on the right, just to break the dullness into further nuance. The horizon is vague and soft, but with just enough detail to make it worth to inspect. The pointy church-tower on the far left, some trees to form a shapeless mass in the middle, complemented with traditional farmhouses with their typical white walls, barely recognisable on the right, dampened by the coarseness of the film and the water-pregnant low hanging clouds, possibly depleting in rain, just over there. The conventions of pictorial and topographical photography of the period. The clouds are prominently filling and attracting, following and repeating the lines and tones of the land: clouds and Dutch landscapes, an inexhaustible inspiration, signifying and perhaps even romanticising bygone times.

The (German) Academic art world was in the grip op the Neue Sachlichkeit and its absolute objective realism, and Coppens opposed cold modernities, experiments preferring the purely aestheticising pictorialist movements. The rural, harsh life in “de Peel”, especially around the peat excavations with its almost inhumane heavy working and living conditions, kept attracting him: “Behind the rawness and illiteracy of the rural population, conceals intuitive wisdom of life, based on simple faith and a sense related connection with nature. ” (Martien Coppens, Ernst Van Raaij and Nederlands Textielmuseum, 2002). The upcoming urbanisation and modernisation on the land made him and nostalgic and somewhat melancholic.  In Peelheads (Netherlands Fotomuseum, 2019) he portrays the life-warn and weathered faces of the people working in the peatlands. Not to denounce the abominable circumstances, but to “..register with a personal vision to reveal the soul of the subject, the other, and by this touch the inner” (Martien Coppens, Ernst Van Raaij and Nederlands Textielmuseum, 2002). Despite this almost romantic and empathic depiction of land and people, he was criticised for not having enough activistic empathy and fanatism with the crisis and war conditions together with widespread poverty during the thirties and forties of the twentieth century. Coppens comment was:

“There is poverty, and there is insurgence, they get all the attention. But that alone is not life, is it?” (Martien Coppens, Ernst Van Raaij and Nederlands Textielmuseum, 2002)

In this image, View of Bakelse Heikant, Coppens displays his calm, measured, nostalgic, idealistic eye. Accurately placed elements and tones form a stadium that breathes the great Dutch masters and love for the land, a land soon being swallowed by modern times, he knows, he sees, but he desperately holds on. Almost as antithesis in those extremely volatile times of the 1930s with its constant thrive on changing and renewing art, Coppens grabs, attempting to reveal the soul, with nostalgic feelings of recognition and subdued intensity of the faded local life and land. An undefinable and indescribable engagement and lasting imprint, as Barthes intended to explain its punctum, a fata morgana; when you are almost there to describe, it is gone.

“It does not have to be all high photography; it is all documentary. I find that much more important than making photographic art with God knows how many exclamation marks. That is all so thick and heavy. However, there is something of a contradiction when I say this because I fought tirelessly to make photography a form of art.” (Martien Coppens, Ernst Van Raaij and Nederlands Textielmuseum, 2002)

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