I have only recently become aware of the art of Albert Carel Willink (1900 – 1983), a Dutch artist who worked in a style that he called imaginary realism. Not all of it is to my taste, to be sure, as it has a decidedly surrealist bent. However, the imagery is interesting and his technique remarkable.
Willink was born in Amsterdam; his father was an amateur artist who indulged his son’s artistic interests. The younger Willink at first thought he would make a career in medicine, but in 1918-19 Willink went to the Technische Hogeschool in Delft to study architecture. He then moved on to Germany, where he tried to get an academic training in a Düsseldorf atelier, but was not admitted. Later he studied for a short time at the Staatliche Hochschule in Berlin.
It is a tragedy that a painter of Willink’s talent was imprisoned by his particular historical moment. For artists like Damien Hirst or Andy Warhol, it’s irrelevant that they are talentless, as Modernist expectations are naturally low. But for a man like Willink who could really paint, it’s depressing to watch him waste his talent on such shallow gamesmanship.
Willink initially marked time with expressionist and abstract painting, but by the mid-1920s he created his own style, imaginary realism. The best way of thinking about Willink is that he was an artist who could really paint intent on making some of the most inventive dreamscapes of the Twentieth Century – Dali, without the nonsense, pretention and bombast. He also seemed to be obsessed with beautiful, imposing buildings, and how they scaled against the human form.
Willink died in Amsterdam having lived through all of the significant artistic and historical events of the last century. Some of his canvases almost seem like an attic filled with mid-century triumphs and anxieties.
Today’s painting, View of the Town, painted in 1934, is by any critical yardstick a masterpiece. It’s not simply that Willink beautifully rendered the details of the building, the cobblestone street and the wall in the distance, but also that he was able to create an entire mood through the skill of his composition and the technique of his lighting.
The broad expanse of street, with its looming shadows, creates a sense of anxiety and unease. The absence of people adds to the overall menacing aspect, as does the fact that nothing is visible inside of any of these windows.
A sense of expectation is also created by the approaching storm, which he painted not just in the sky, but with his shades of gray upon the landscape itself. This muted palette, open composition and feeling of dread anticipation all result in a picture that is beautiful, ethereal and disquieting.