Peer Reviewed

From the Print Journal

Dutch Neorealism and Cinema Magic: The Case for a Filmic Modernism

© 2023 Johns Hopkins University Press

In May 1929, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam held an exhibition of German paintings under the banner of “Neue Sachlichkeit,” based on Gustav Hartlaub’s seminal 1925 show at the Kunsthalle Mannheim of the same title.[1] The Amsterdam leg of the tour exhibited many of the same artists included in the original program. Well-known painters such as George Grosz, Rudolf Schlichter, Carl Mense, and George Schrimpf hung alongside several other artists who did not appear in the Mannheim iteration, including Franz Radziwill, Christian Schad, and Carl Grossberg. Exhibition organizers capitalized on the Dutch art world’s growing appreciation for the return to figuration that was emerging among artists associated with the Onafhankelijken (Independents) group in Amsterdam who also happened to be on display at the Stedelijk that month.[2] By that time critics had begun to observe in the work of Pyke Koch, Carel Willink, Raoul Hynckes, Dick Ket, Charley Toorop, and Wim Schuhmacher, among others, echoes of “Magic Realism,” a figurative idiom sometimes synonymous with Neue Sachlichkeit, known for its cold visual sobriety and emphasis on banal subject matter.[3]

Often described as more of a broad stylistic tendency than a concise movement, Magic Realism was an idiom that transcended international boundaries, emerging simultaneously in Italy, Germany, France, and beyond, where it provided an aesthetic language to convey the experience of physical, psychological, and economic devastation that followed World War I, and the more generalized anxieties that accompanied the accelerating clip of modernization. Emerging nearly a decade after these other European variants, the major exemplars of Dutch Magic Realism expressed many of these same concerns as their stylistic predecessors but distinguished themselves in their pointed references to the temporal disjunctures and synthetic mediation of the film apparatus. These methods, I argue, allowed the aforementioned painters to visualize the rapid-paced, and sometimes dehumanizing, experience of modern life. A look into their production in the late 1920s and early 1930s will set the stage for a closer investigation into the understudied influence of film on interwar figurative painting in the rest of Europe and abroad.

First defined by the Munich-based art historian Franz Roh in an article from 1924, the term Magic Realism officially received an elaborated treatment in book-length form the following year when he published Nach-Expressionismus: Der magischer Realismus. Probleme der neuesten europäischen Malerei. Although Roh had developed the idea from an early collaboration with Gustav Hartlaub—at a moment when he and the museum director intended to co-curate the Neue Sachlichkeit show in Mannheim—Roh began to express in the 1925 manuscript his own independent interpretation of the modernist tendency that he referenced in his subtitle.[4] In the vague, expository prose of his book, Roh characterized the idiom as one evolved from Expressionism, a style known for embedding itself within the existing world, rather than escaping from it. Drawing inspiration from the elements of everyday reality, such as middle-class dwellings, factory settings, and mundane household objects, he argues that Magic Realist painters put into visual terms the tension that they observed between a loosely-defined “spiritual” entity and the solid objects that workaday, everyman spaces. By bringing into vivid conversation the aesthetic qualities of opposing textures or materials, such as the organic and the man-made, he asserts that the Magic Realists’ imagery offers a studied, critical perspective on the contingencies of modernity as opposed to the emotive and chaotic fervor of Expressionism.[5]

The version of Magic Realism that began to appear in The Netherlands at the turn of the 1930s—dubbed Neorealism by Dutch critics—was distinct from other European variants in the way it mimicked the transitory and artificial visual effects of silent-era film and combined them with references to native Dutch artistic traditions. This intermedial synthesis, rife with anachronisms, reflected the instability of the period by illustrating an estranged modern reality, wherein it was impossible to reconstruct the unadulterated ideal of the past. Neorealism’s crisp “objective” optical clarity and its emphasis on the highly mechanized processes of filmmaking could appropriately convey the turmoil of a period marked by rapid modernization as well as political tensions: from the economic effects of the Great Depression to the rise of totalitarian regimes in Germany and Italy.

Emphasis on material sameness—as it pertained to the painted subject or even the handling of the artistic medium—was central to the Magic Realist aesthetic, but took on a specific meaning within the version of this style that arose in The Netherlands. Many Dutch artists working in this idiom constructed visual parallels between inanimate objects and human beings, rendering everything in a sleek and uniform way that looked as if it were produced by state-of-the-art machinery. For a brief period in the early 1930s, critics used the label Nieuwe Zakelijkheid, the Dutch transliteration of the German Neue Sachlichkeit, to draw a closer connection between the Neorealists’ work and that of artists such as Otto Dix and George Grosz.[6] Zakelijkheid, like Sachlichkeit, loosely translates into English as having the properties of matter-of-factness, but this definition is inextricable from its root word zaak (the rough equivalent of Sache in German), which refers to both “fact” and “thing,” an open concept that may or may not suggest a quotidian object marked by inexpressive banality.[7] Part of the reality denoted in zakelijkheid’s complex definition includes the object’s suitability for an intended purpose, as well as its embodiment of the means of mass production that brought it into being. Such an aesthetic was not new to the history of art in The Netherlands, which had a long tradition of both exploiting and mimicking modern technology to produce visually tactile paintings, often aided by the use of optical instruments.[8] Indeed, the technique of verisimilitude in painting from the Low Countries originated with the work of the Flemish Primitives and had been held in esteem for centuries. In many instances the Early Netherlandish hyper-vigilance towards optical truth responded to—and sometimes even anticipated—the introduction of new technologies such as the microscope and the telescope in the seventeenth century, both of which happen to be Dutch inventions.

By approximating aesthetic qualities unique to cinema—from the editing process to artificial lighting to the relationship between the still frame and the reel—I argue that many painters associated with the Neorealist idiom discovered an artistic language ideally suited to communicating the artists’ individual experiences of modernity. While the mechanical essence of film induced a novel enunciation of the uncanny through its ability to capture life and movement through a cold, “objective” machine, that very same characteristic could also be intensified via the close-up, a darkened theater, as well as new tools designed to achieve heightened illumination. All of these forestated effects can be seen in the repertoires of the Neorealist painters under discussion, who comprise the artists most closely aligned with this aesthetic tendency. I would argue that the stealthy appropriation of mass culture and its techniques visible in their paintings express an experience of “reality” that had been altered by a host of political, cultural, and technological factors.

A “Filmisch” Aesthetics in Neorealist Paintings

Despite the ubiquity and broad popularity of film as a form of entertainment, the cultural import wielded by this still relatively new medium on modern artists has been largely overlooked by art historians. With few exceptions, the project of tracing a lineage connecting modernist painting and cinematic aesthetics has been left to media scholars, who have thus far only examined the impact of film on abstraction.[9] As Tom Gunning has argued, theories on the influence of cinema over early-twentieth-century painting—Cubists included—must take into consideration the novel ability of the film medium to render material the essential immateriality of time and space due to its capacity to cut, splice, and recombine ephemera derived from reality.[10] In a more recent example, Jennifer Wild proposed that modernists such as Picasso conceived of their canvases as painted versions of the apparatus in the way that they considered the position of the spectator standing before the work of art; she suggests that many early projection methods redefined concepts of space as it related to the screen, offering a new kind of “interspatial address.”[11] What distinguishes these Dutch artists from other practitioners of Magic Realism are the clear and documented ways in which painters demonstrating this tendency drew inspiration from the effects of film when realizing their canvases. Like Cubists or Futurists working in varying levels of abstraction, these Dutch figurative painters similarly reassembled chronological referents in their canvases while also visualizing the self-conscious nature of audience engagement within the cinema. It is no coincidence that while frequenting film houses in the 1920s and 1930s with a regularity typical of many interwar Europeans, the Neorealists’ compositional arrangements expressed a reality that looked as if it had been mechanically processed, and thus at a further remove from the original, organic subject. This aesthetic sensibility appeared prominently in the work of artists such as Dick Ket, whose canvases often suggest a subtle incongruency of competing planes and the combination of conflicting vantage points such as skewed table-tops that did not logically fit in the same space as the artist’s often frontal or three-quarter profile self-portraits. He frequently dislodged space from the Albertian grid and rearranged it in an anti-naturalistic, quasi-cubist manner, which he then edited seamlessly into a single image, smoothing over any compositional discord through his pristine and finished-looking surface treatments.

The influence of cinema on Ket’s work has been thus far completely ignored in the existing scholarship likely because the artist was bedridden for the last decade of his life with a terminal heart condition, which limited his film-watching ability.[12] He had little exposure to contemporary motion pictures other than the possibility of watching an “American film reel” brought over by his friend the filmmaker Johan Franco and played using the latter’s huis-kino (referring to a home projector).[13] Although Ket was unable to physically attend movie theaters during the most fertile period of his career, the painter’s earlier memories of the cinema had clearly impressed upon him the unique perceptual facility with which film recorded the world. A screening of Fritz Lang’s two-part epic The Nibelungs at some point following its release in 1924 embedded within Ket a deep psychological resonance that stayed with him over a decade later. In a letter to his good friend Agnes de Maas van de Moer from 1939 he recalled the experience of watching the movie in a theater during his younger years. Noting that he had missed the opportunity to view a sound film, Ket wondered if the introduction of speech would lose what had made filmgoing so special. Recounting his memory with awe, Ket remarks upon the way that Lang’s motion picture had so successfully “concentrated” the effects of the spectacle on an almost entirely optical level, creating the impression of spoken words that were not actually there. This reliance on the image, as Ket describes it, was also a result of the silent medium’s limitations, which channeled storytelling into fewer expressive outlets (picture with only orchestral accompaniment). He seemed to relish the fact that audience members could become psychologically absorbed by this primarily visual viewing experience while the music led them to different emotional depths.[14]

Ket simulated the unique visual experience of watching film in his paintings by collapsing two of characteristics essential to the medium: the ability to guide focused attention toward the filmed subject, while also gesturing to the concept of movement in relationship to real time. Working like a director whose edits are left on the cutting-room floor, Ket examined his subjects from a variety of perspectives and then combined the cumulative images or “shots” into a single image. Through his somewhat incongruous juxtapositions he captured the idea of movement—or more specifically the inability of the painting medium to embody the key attributes of time-based action. Bridging large jumps in time and perspective, Ket produced seamless transitions from one subject: the figure to the next: the still life. In one such example, his 1932 Self-Portrait with Red Geranium presents a clear disconnect between the frontality of Ket’s body and the vantage point from which the table is placed in relationship to him (fig. 1). The perspective indicated by the checkered pattern of the tablecloth suggests a view from above, which seems to exist in a different spatiotemporal dimension from both Ket and the vase of flowers that he is holding. Another detail in the bottom right corner further underscores the ways that film’s cultural ascendancy weighed on Ket’s paintings of this period. There he made a more pronounced nod to film with his addition of the letters “FIN,” just barely captured on the pages of an open book in the reverse reflection of the mirror—a reference to the end title card that was a standard convention of the silent era.

Painting of man with flower
Fig. 1. Dick Ket, Still Life with Geranium, 1932, oil on canvas, 80.5 x 54 cm, Museum 1929 Collection, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Photo: Studio Tromp.

Another aesthetic trait introduced with the advent of cinema and recognized by its early theorists was the ability of the new medium to breathe life into the inanimate subject, at times even bestowing inorganic consumer products with an anthropomorphic status. Consequently—and paradoxically—the bewildering quietude common to the Neorealists’ paintings still harbored the idea of movement by insisting on the absence, rather than the presence of motion. Self-conscious in its lack of mobility, the characteristic quality often used to define Neorealism as a style—particularly as exhibited by Ket, Koch, Hynckes, and Willink—was its aggressively static nature, resembling Weimar-era cinema and its extensive use of close-ups trained on immobile objects or the human face. The resulting effect could approximate the strange phenomenon that can take place during a long take on a fixed subject, when the flickering movement of celluloid intensifies its state of inertness. In such a take, microscopic movement can yield a disproportionate level of drama, one that results from the ability of film to direct audience attention in a manner unlike any other art form. The German director Georg Wilhelm Pabst made frequent use of these kinds of extended close-ups when filming still objects such as cacti or cigarettes, which he often included for their symbolic relevance within the scene as well as for their affective, tactile qualities (fig. 2).[15] Neorealist painter Raoul Hynckes brought a similar vitality to the still life for which he had become well-known. As a vanitas specialist, Hynckes’s pronounced scrutiny of his stationary—even paralyzed—subjects, which he bathed in a glowing, flickering light, projects an intensity that appears to emanate from within the object to such a degree that the depiction occasionally verges on personhood. Dutch art critic Simon Pierre Abas made this comparison to Hynckes’s work in 1935, claiming that the artist’s painting Snow from 1932 projected a “filmisch” (film-like) power (fig. 3). He recognized the heightened visual tension in the arrangement of surfaces created through their placement at contrasting angles, which brought the static image in conflict with dynamism of the moving planes.[16]

Black and white image of potted plants
Fig. 2. Still from G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, 1929. Photo: Kino International.
Painting of pot in front of window
Fig. 3. Raoul Hynckes, Snow, 1932, oil on canvas, 67 x 61.5 cm, Collection Arnhem Museum, Arnhem, The Netherlands. Photo: Arnhem Museum. 

Like many critics writing for the cultural sections of the Dutch local newspapers, Abas regularly published film reviews—a fact that may have influenced his aesthetic judgments when he transitioned to critiquing paintings. Steeped as he was in the unique visual particularities of cinema, it is perhaps unsurprising that he often made observations that drew an aesthetic link between the Neorealists’ stylistic choices and the experience of watching film. In fact, while Abas was writing in the early 1930s, better-known critics in Austria, Germany, and elsewhere were seeking to articulate an aesthetic that was essential to film. The Hungarian, Vienna-based critic Béla Balázs, for example, focused on the ability of the medium to enhance attention to surface qualities, which attributed a physiognomy to both performers and inanimate objects alike (Balázs, Early Film, 27–29, 46–47). Across the border in Germany in 1933 Berlin-born Rudolf Arnheim observed the way that the recording process exaggerated perspectival distortions and other visual flaws in such a way that further intensified the artificiality of the director’s alternative “reality.”[17]

In fact, evolving discourse surrounding film’s essential characteristics in The Netherlands even inspired the founding of the cinema society, the Nederlandsche Filmliga (1927–33), to debate the issue. Unlike similar organizations in other countries, the Liga operated on a national level with chapters in all the major urban areas in The Netherlands. Neorealist Charley Toorop was a member and cofounder as well as the only painter who signed the original manifesto.[18] While the documentary evidence linking Pyke Koch and Wim Schuhmacher to the Filmliga is not definitive, the membership of these artists, and their involvement in the organization of the club has long been suspected. Art historians Carel Blotkamp and Paul Kempers have both claimed that Pyke Koch helped establish the Utrecht club—one of the nation’s largest.[19] Yet another scholar Ida Boelema suspects that Wim Schuhmacher may have been affiliated with the Amsterdam chapter.[20]

Emerging in a moment of industry upheaval, the Filmliga originated as a venue for artists and intellectuals to discuss how best to preserve the status of film as a fine art form, and to protect it from the encroachment of commercial, “American” cinema, which had taken up a steadily increasing share of the market with the transition to sound technology. Dues-paying members debated the medium-specific qualities of film during scheduled meetings, a subject that critics in turn discussed in the pages of its eponymous journal. In one such example, Austrian critic Fritz Rosenfeld remarked that film can captivate viewer interest through the tempo of short and long takes.[21] Taking a different point of focus, the Dutchman Joris Ivens emphasized the optical distortion inherent to projection, wherein the speed of the frames transmitted in rapid succession onto the movie screen simulated movement.[22] Among these lines of inquiry, one common theme running through much of the criticism in the Filmliga journal considered the ability of film to provide an alternative rhythmic cadence to common real-life experiences.

In its essence, the above-described open dialogue addressed what exactly, if anything, constituted a truly filmic reality. I would contend that the ideas aired in the pages of the journal resonated in many of the canvases that the aforementioned Neorealist artists produced during those years, particularly among painters with close ties to the Filmliga. Wim Schuhmacher, for example, captured the stakes of the debate using a light-infused style that would earn him the nickname of the “master of grey.”[23] His cinematic technique was likely inspired by Vsevolod Pudovkin’s 1926 film Mother, which tells the story of a woman whose son is sentenced to work in a labor camp after being drawn into the conflicts surrounding a revolutionary strike in tsarist Russia.[24] Schuhmacher would later claim to have watched the film over seventy times in his life (van Geest, Wim Schuhmacher, 283).[25] Others in the Dutch artistic community also revered Mother as a masterpiece for its dramatic and effective editing, which was fluid in contrast to Sergei Eisenstein’s jarring montage effects. In his own writing, Pudovkin was concerned with the “plastic synthesis” that resulted from the editing together of unrelated shots, such as a babbling brook and a laughing child, to express the feeling of joy. It was the editing process, Pudovkin believed, that could impact the hearts of spectators better than the actors’ performances and was the key, in his opinion, to eliciting an empathic response.[26] Like the famous Soviet director, Schuhmacher began to remove from his painted compositions all unnecessary or superfluous elements that do not directly contribute to the reading of his work—retaining only those that he could use symbolically or metaphorically.

For his 1928 portrait of his wife, Melitta in White, Schuhmacher emulated the same “synthetic” visual effects that Pudovkin described in his writing (fig. 4). Natural forms and even perspectival space exist in a state of flux, while the subject, Melitta, is the only part of the painting fixed in place. The small plantlike growths and the large grey stone float in an ether that exists outside of time and space. Schuhmacher’s diffuse, gaseous, silver-toned application of paint smooths over the distinctions between unlike qualities: light and shadow, manmade and organic, sleek and soft, as well as pure plasticity and crisp detail. These dualities compete with one another, simultaneously flattening the natural surroundings in some areas, and sculpting them in others, confounding the viewer’s spatial understanding of the painting. Folds on the figure’s sleeves are reduced to planes rather than subject to the laws of gravity. Melitta, however, appears in crisp detail; her juxtaposition against the indistinct, amorphous background is conspicuous. As the “director” of this scene, Schuhmacher singled out for emphasis Melitta’s face, alongside other meaningful, potentially symbolic objects in less distinct detail, such as the stone and sprouting plants, while the least important elements fade into obscurity. Such film-derived aesthetic strategies were among the numerous methods that Schuhmacher—much like Ket, Hynckes, and others—used to depict modernity. Any dehumanizing experience that they sought to conjure up, in my view, was directly linked to, and in some cases even resulting from, the mechanical aesthetic of film.

Black and white painting of seated woman
Fig. 4. Wim Schuhmacher, Melitta in White (Sitting Woman in Landscape), 1928, oil on canvas, 101.2 x 77.8 cm, ING Collection and permission of Wilma Schuhmacher. Photo: Frans Hemelrijk, Co-Press Studio, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Film as Machine: Visualizing Dehumanization and the Mechanization of Life

Many intellectuals in The Netherlands and elsewhere also feared the potential of this novel technology whose popularity threatened to destabilize the greater cultural sphere. Renowned Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga, when detailing his observations on life in the United States for his 1918 book Mensch en menigte in Amerika (Man and the Masses in America), characterized the increasingly influential Hollywood film industry as another example of the machine’s encroachment into everyday life, and declared this takeover to be perilous to the spirit. He wrote about the cinema’s ability to shift all thought processes to the more superficial part of the mind, resulting in a new, artificial form of knowledge. Above all, Huizinga recognized how the commercial and the mechanical had become increasingly indistinguishable from one another. Anyone involved in the filmmaking process of the profit-driven American industry, according to Huizinga, was forced to adapt his or her talents and artistry to the ways of the machine, blunting and coarsening an actor’s style, for example, while in effect rendering it a commodifiable product.[27]

Such objectifying effects come across in Carel Willink’s paintings, which reveal the influence of film through the artist’s painted renderings of denaturalized social interactions between two or more figures. Willink’s human subjects often appear spatially isolated from one another and psychically disengaged; when they do signify verbal and non-verbal communication, the precise target of those cues often remains unclear. One of the best examples of this tendency is his 1931 canvas Late Visitors to Pompeii, which depicts four men dressed in formal attire—either tuxedos or wool suits, all standing in a rather unnatural arrangement that places them in opposing cardinal directions from one another, as a backdrop of ancient Roman ruins and Mount Vesuvius appears in the background (fig. 5). Each member of the foursome exists at a total psychological remove from the others, positioned in such a way as to make holding a conversation impossible. While three of the men have not been definitively identified, the leftmost figure is a self-portrait of the artist—he is the only one to directly engage the audience.

Painting of people standing among ruins
Fig. 5. Carel Willink, Late Visitors to Pompeii, 1931, oil on canvas, 92 x 142 cm, Collection, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / c/o Pictoright Amsterdam. Photo: Studio Tromp.

In a 1932 review that heavily emphasizes Willink’s characteristic style, Abas claims that the artist’s constructed realities look “more filmlike than real.” Singling out Late Visitors to Pompeii, in particular, the critic cites the painting as evidence of the artist’s uncanny ability to scrutinize the human form with the same objective clarity that one would give to a consumer product. When describing Willink’s self-portrait within the painting as resembling a “pseudo-American dandy,” Abas asserts that the artist rendered his own grey eyes in a hard, steely manner that corresponded with a sharp method of perception.[28] There is, I would argue, another cinematic aspect to this painting, one that Abas neglects to address in his exhibition review. In this work and in others, Willink visualized on a static surface a curiously disinterested, nonverbal, nongestural form of communication that marks this figural arrangement as a distinctly social—or in his case asocial—group. Each of the four men appears to exist in his own separately-defined, isolated performative space, more like ancient marble statues dredged from the ashes of Pompeii and brought to life than flesh-and-blood human beings primed for interaction. Locked into a denaturalized pattern of bodily relationships, their respective positions correspond with that of cinematic dialogue—more specifically the physical distance that each subject, or interlocutor takes from his partner(s) during filming, only to be reunited into a contrived social interaction through the editing process.

In contrast to stage acting, wherein two performers share the proscenium, the process of capturing the essence of back-and-forth discourse in film involves first recording two sequences independently and then editing them together in a shot-reverse-shot formation. This technique is what constructs the illusion that two characters are participating in a fluid, unbroken verbal exchange even though the director filmed each participant at discrete moments in time. Dutch film critic C. J. Graadt van Roggen wrote about precisely this kind of abstracted dialogue in 1931. Silent and sound film, he claims, has to perform a kind of visual dialectic between characters, which tended to deplete the “human value” of stage acting, due to its disassociation from human presence.[29] In 1935, Walter Benjamin would more pointedly put into words the process by which the human subject became objectified in his famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Although many of the Neorealists’ paintings discussed in this article predate the publication of his text, Benjamin’s reasoning can help explain the phenomenon that these artists explored in their paintings. As the German cultural critic notes, by placing him or herself before the film camera, the actor submits to being fragmented, decontextualized, and then reassembled in the editing room.[30] Just as the performer’s unique presence, or “aura,” becomes commodified by this process, any verbal or nonverbal dialogue taking place between two actors also becomes alienated from the original filmed event. To be sure, Willink was certainly not the first artist to paint such stoic characters engaged in oddly asocial conversation. His psychologically aloof human subjects call to mind the solitude of Anton Räderscheidt’s dummy-like figures standing against desolate urban backdrops or the Italian Antonio Donghi’s paintings of uncanny popular performers. In my view, Willink’s canvases put into visual terms a rather common experience of psychological adaptation to the increasingly rapid pace and mechanized experience of modernity, wherein social withdrawal became endemic. He found another way to illustrate this development by emphasizing the single frame and its relationship to the reel. Even by the artist’s own assessment even years after completing these canvases, movement—or lack thereof—was the organizing principle behind his compositions, even writing in 1973, “the figures on my paintings appear as if they are on a film that suddenly stopped while rolling.”[31] In many ways, Willink’s eerie compositions hold a key to understanding the film medium’s influence on what was by then a Magic Realist trope.

One of the better examples of the above-described effect can be seen in Willink’s 1932 painting Bad Tidings, an ominous urban scene between two lone figures that centers around the passing of a hand-delivered note (fig. 6).[32] To the left, a woman wearing a short-sleeved camisole appears frozen in mid gait. She runs across the street with a letter in hand, urgently reaching out to a man wearing a suit walking on the sidewalk on the other side of the street. Willink suspends the figures in the midst of the action, first suggesting the urgent nature of the message in the title and running action of the female figure with a letter in hand, and then arresting the transmission of that very message, leaving it in a limbo where it can never be received. Like many of Willink’s paintings, the mood is breathlessly silent; among the details foretelling a catastrophe to come are the foreboding sky and the total absence of other people in the streets. When writing about Bad Tidings in a review for a group show in The Hague in 1932, the Telegraaf critic Cornelis Veth observes the film-like character of Willink’s composition and is taken aback by the way that the artist communicated so much tension with such a limited amount of visual information. He writes: “Film has inspired him. He is, in his own way, a narrator. And his way is the way of film. . . . But here he aims to achieve the completeness of the film image, with the addition of color. There is no synthesis, no impression, only a random slice taken from reality.”[33] In this quotation Veth recognized the potential of cinema to construct a fully fleshed-out world on a moving reel, which when examined on the level of an individual film cell, can only provide an insufficient glimpse of that reality. Willink helped to emphasize this tension by placing his “actors” in a state of suspended crisis, and then never allowing the action to be resolved. Veth would again make a similar observation about the artist’s work in 1933. Without citing any specific painting in particular, he described the artist’s compositions as “film images in the wild,” due to their cold, mechanical (even cynical) visions of the world.[34] His remarks describe how Willink self-consciously drew attention to the stillness of his images, and brought into focus the manner in which the cine-camera objectifies everything in its line of sight by extracting real events, including even human figures from their original context, essentially reducing life to raw material.

Painting of woman running toward man with card
Fig. 6. Carel Willink, Bad Tidings, 1932, tempera on canvas, 61.5 x 92.5 cm, Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / c/o Pictoright Amsterdam. Photo: Collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.

The Commodified Glamour of Star Culture

In the same way that film managed to animate the inanimate, it also had the capacity to objectify the human form, an effect that Carel Willink accomplished in Portrait of a Lady from 1928 (fig. 7). For this painting based on a photograph of his first wife Mies van der Meulen, Willink draws together several visual correspondences that primarily relate to his treatment of texture. Mies’s glossy black leather gloves bear a similar sheen to the dewy skin of her chin, nose, and forehead. Smoothed of any lines or imperfections, her skin has the surface integrity of industrial polished chrome. Such correspondences between his machine-like painting technique and the “look” of film was not lost on his contemporary critics. In one review from 1929, for example, when assessing Willink’s work for a group show, Abas compares Portrait of a Lady to a “film-beeld” (film image), one that demonstrates, to cite Friedrich Nietzsche, the “revaluation of values that is characteristic of our time.” Elaborating further, Abas comments on the way the painting paradoxically captures the sensations of both motion and stillness acting in simultaneity. This effect, he argues, guides the intensity of the female figure, whose technical execution best embodies Willink’s ability to make nature look artificial at the same time as bringing life to dead matter.[35] By Abas’s own appraisal, the image must indeed be considered filmic by virtue of its artificiality, its appearance having derived from the consumer-oriented, and thus appearance-obsessed interests of mass media.

Portrait of woman in mountains
Fig. 7. Carel Willink, Mies with Cloche Hat (Portrait of a Lady), 1928, oil on canvas, 134 x 85.5 cm, Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, The Netherlands. Loan of the municipality of Leeuwarden. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / c/o Pictoright Amsterdam. Photo: Sylvia Willink-Quiël.

Willink would have become attuned to this kind of look at a formative moment in his life while training as an art student International Free Academy in Berlin under Hans Baluschek. During that period he attended the cinema as often as three times a day to watch Ufa films.[36] He also indulged in the star-culture that existed to support the film industry, such as collecting issues of the popular film trade magazine Filmkurier Illustrierte Zeitung and keeping them in his studio and apartment at Ruysdaelkade 15 in Amsterdam for the rest of his life.[37] The still images reproduced in the magazine’s pages provided its readership with new ways of consuming popular film stars. It features photographs of his favorite actors such as Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, and Asta Nielsen, often with significant additional retouching, emphasizing the manufactured disposition of these larger-than-life screen personas.

In the early 1930s some of Pyke Koch’s paintings, such as his 1931 work The Shooting Gallery, began to mimic the unnaturally bright lighting effects of early orthochromatic film stock, a practice requiring that performers wear heavy white makeup and be illuminated by an arc light (fig. 8). Koch modelled his subject in the latter painting after the famed Danish silent screen actress Asta Nielsen, whose likeness Koch would capture again and again over the course of his career.[38] She appears here as a carnival worker standing before a series of targets for a shooting game, her face lit by an artificial overhead source that renders her unnaturally, even ethereally white, as was typical in the days of black and white film. Bearing down with intensity, the brash light washes out the cheekbones of the female attendant, the tip of her nose, and her forehead, obscuring the enlarged sockets beneath her brow. The effect further accentuates the exaggerated saucer-like eyes that define her face, and which appear disproportionate to the size of her head to the point of shortening the bridge of her nose; the result resembles the same kind of perspectival distortion that can occur in film, wherein certain features become magnified at a close-focal length. Every one of Koch’s aesthetic choices for this painting denaturalizes Asta as a human subject, and instead reduces her physical body to a contrivance that reinforces her persona. She stands before a backdrop containing a number of mechanical elements ordinarily seen in motion that appear here as eerily still; the composition defies expectations, presenting a scene that is self-conscious in its inertness. Koch doubly dramatizes the sensation of stillness in the image through his tight facture, lending the figure an almost mechanical constitution. While such film-inspired visual effects could potentially provide a useful template for expressing the psychological withdrawal common to urban ennui, such an aim was not the only ambition of artists engaging cinematic aesthetics. The subjectivity inherent to the medium also allowed painters to convey a newfound sense of agency that in some cases corresponded with his or her political ideology.

Painting of woman at table
Fig. 8. Pyke Koch, The Shooting Gallery, 1931, 170 x 130 cm, Collection Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / c/o Pictoright Amsterdam. Photo: Studio Tromp.

Not all Neorealist painters used filmic aesthetic strategies in a way that foregrounded the disempowerment of the human subject. Charley Toorop’s group portraits, for example, attempted to bolster the agency of the viewing audience in her film-inspired references to the gaze while also asserting her own left-leaning political ideology.[39] Toorop’s most celebrated work, The Meal Among Friends (1932–33), is typical for its layered, overlapping figures (fig. 9). Fourteen guests sit at the table, comprising Toorop’s close circle of artist friends (including Gerrit Rietveld, poet Adriaan Roland Holst, sculptor John Rädecker, and painters Wim Oepts and Pyke Koch, among others) as well as members of her immediate family (her sons Edgar and John Fernhout, their wives, and her father the famed symbolist painter Jan, who appears in the top left corner in the form of a bronze sculpture). Recalling the sixteenth-century compositions of Dirck Jacobsz in the disjointed, collage-like character of the composition, some of the guests to this meal contort their faces into three-quarter views, while others maintain the flat frontality of a Byzantine icon. Nearly all of them stare intensely at the viewer.

Painting of faces of people at a table
Fig. 9. Charley Toorop, The Meal Among Friends, 1932–33, oil on canvas, 200 x 129.5 cm, Collection Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / c/o Pictoright Amsterdam. Photo: Studio Tromp.

Toorop’s preoccupation with questions of address, subjectivity, and the sense of confrontation imparted by the film medium tied directly into her political ideology in a way that was not necessarily true for other Neorealist painters. She was of the far political left and sympathized with the Communist Party, even making her membership official after the war. It was certainly true that her heightened attention to egalitarianism was not just of interest to the new socially-minded and utopian left that arose in the early twentieth century; it was also rooted in the Dutch tradition, as seen in the group portraiture genre, from Dirck Jacobsz to Frans Hals. I would venture to say that The Meal Among Friends also exposes the conflict between competing concepts of absorption and attention forwarded by Alois Riegl. According to the renowned Austrian philosopher and art historian, through the act of contemplation, the observer can experience a degree of intersubjective communication. For this reason, Riegl stressed that each figure in the group portrait should be viewed as an individual with his or her own autonomous identity. When considered as a collective, however, their psyches, and that of the onlooker, become unified.[40]


In her painting, Toorop reaffirmed the traditionally Dutch egalitarian relationship between viewer and viewed, further complicating this Golden Age convention with an allusion to film, specifically the point-of-view shot. In so doing, Toorop’s stylistic decisions enforced an active viewing position, the type favored by Soviet filmmakers, who warned against the dangers of complacency and passive film-watching. It is not a coincidence that Soviet films had been screened in Dutch theaters as early as 1926, beginning with Sergei Eisenstein’s Potemkin. In fact, Toorop may have become aware of the principles that guided the aesthetic choices made by Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov, Vsevelod Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov, and others from explanatory summaries of their theory and practice written in the pages of the Filmliga journal.[41] Dutch filmmaker and Paris correspondent Mannus Franken, for example, wrote in 1928 about Eisenstein’s ability to heighten emotional tension by dissecting his footage and then reassembling it like an “architect,” working only from materials derived from real life—such as the performers who were not actors, but rather “colleagues” making only natural movements that could then be synthesized in the editing process.[42] Similarly, the figures in The Meal Among Friends, appear to be of varying sizes and are positioned at a range of distances from the picture-plane (or camera lens). The resulting effect resembles both photo and film montage in the way that it brings together indexical recordings produced at different times and places, while layering them together in the same pictorial space to a degree that thwarts, or even undermines any clear understanding of a hierarchy.

When it came to depicting herself within the group portrait, Charley Toorop inserted her own image in the center far right of the canvas, her face half hidden by that of her daughter-in-law, photographer Eva Besnyö. Writing on this painting for a 1995 essay, Carel Blotkamp observes that Toorop had added herself late in the painting process, evidenced by photographs that show the painting in an earlier state (fig. 10). He also notes that a painter’s palette once stood in the place now inhabited by the platter of wine and fish in the foreground, implying that she was present and standing before the group. The original intent, Blotkamp claimed, was to depict a subjective point of view from the perspective that the artist took while she sat at the table and gazed at her friends and family members.[43] In the final version, the arrangement of the figures in the composition remains unaltered from the original; the artist added her face on the right-hand side of the canvas, in effect transferring the beholder’s position away from herself and onto the viewing audience. In this way, Toorop carried out a more inclusive composition that incorporated the observer and made a self-conscious point about who is doing the looking. Angling the food and drink toward the picture plane, she offers the meal to the beholder, alerting the intended recipient of the open invitation.

Black and white photo of people seated in studio
Fig. 10. Eva Besnyö, Photograph of Charley Toorop’s Studio in De Vlerken with Eduard Mesens, Charley Toorop, Pyke Koch, Annetje and John Fernhout, Bergen, 1932. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / c/o Pictoright Amsterdam. Photo: MAI Beeldbank.

By way of the procedures outlined above, Toorop allowed the viewer to enter the painting in a way that is similar to the filmgoer’s psychological penetration of a movie scene: through the camera’s perspective, in which the audience member becomes a central character. Blotkamp described The Meal Among Friends and its POV-inspired vantage-point in as an example of an Ik-schilderij (I-painting), the oil-on-canvas version of an Ik-film (I-film), a movie characterized by subjective shots, which critic Hans van Meerten and director Joris Ivens wrote about in the Filmliga journal (Blotkamp, “Verborgen,” 45–47). In his essay, Van Meerten described the way in which the camera lens acts as the eye of the character, producing a “union between spectator and performer.”[44] Although van Meerten viewed the early application of the Ik-film as primarily objective, he also saw its potential in creating more subjective films by taking into consideration both the scenic structure (referring to what is captured on film) as well as the placement of the lens (Van Meerten, “Ik-Film,” 10).


It is also possible that Toorop was influenced by the films—and possibly even the words—of Dziga Vertov, who came to visit Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and the Hague in late 1931, not long before Toorop began painting The Meal Among Friends. While there is no definitive evidence that she attended any of these events, she most certainly would have been aware of them, considering that they were well covered in the journals of the Filmliga and the Netherlands New Russia Society (where she was a member), as well as the left-wing press.[45] One of Vertov’s most famous experimental films, which Toorop likely would have seen, is Man with the Movie Camera, a documentary on the people, way of life, and modern machinery of the Soviet Union, edited in a rhythmic, rather than a narrative way.[46] In the film, Vertov reflexively referenced the filmmaking process by intermittently revealing the camera, director, and editing room. He also applied techniques such as eyeline matching to suggest visual continuity, such as a view of a mannequin looking into the camera followed by a landscape: the subject of her gaze. In another sequence he included a POV shot that gave the audience the perspective of a drunken bar patron walking through the streets in a disoriented daze in front of the Odessa worker’s club. These virtuosic film effects demonstrate in sum Vertov’s concept of the Kino-Eye, a cinematic corollary to the flesh-and-blood oculus. Capable of perceiving the world in a manner superior to human vision, Vertov theorized, the Kino-Eye could also reveal the underlying communist structure of the world by freeing all subjects—human and manmade objects from the illusionistic tradition of artmaking.[47]

Toorop’s efforts to replicate these processes in her painted compositions perform a similar kind of liberation. In The Meal Among Friends nearly all the figures stare intensely at the viewer (or beholder), who has taken on the perspective of the cameraperson. She carries out the effect of continuity editing—more specifically an eyeline match—between the subjects represented in the painting (with the exception of the three figures on the left) and again with the person standing before the canvas. The use of this common technique could help establish a psychological or social relationship between characters, and in the Soviet case, foster a shared consciousness. While undermining the establishment of a clear hierarchy, she and the rest of the group also invite the viewer to the table, visually “recruiting” them into this social space. At the same time, Toorop also released every one of these fourteen figures from an Albertian understanding of space, presenting all of them at relative distances from the picture plane, and of varying sizes. By conceptualizing each figure as a discrete individual—and reflexively including her own self-portrait—she realized the new kind of subjectivity theorized by Vertov, which emancipated each subject from the traditional pictorial (and by extension social) structure and in so doing created a new one.

For a variety of reasons, in the decades following World War II, the Dutch variant of Magic Realism—Neorealism—has been increasingly neglected outside of The Netherlands.[48] Figurative painting in general came to be seen as conservative, and sometimes even reactionary due to the ascendancy of Abstract Expressionism and the complicated history of figuration in the 1930s and 1940s.[49] This aesthetic shift similarly impacted the Neorealists’ legacy as did the cooption of a small selection of their work for political use during World War II, in some cases against the artists’ will.[50] Interpreted, and in some cases misinterpreted when scrutinized against the backdrop of those historical events, the Neorealists’ muted postwar reception stands as testament to the multivalent readings that are possible with figurative art.

Although the definitional parameters of the term remain contested, Magic Realism carried on in the postwar era as an idiom with the stylistic immediacy that could effectively communicate experiences of personal, and even communal alienation. Examples of the continued aesthetic reach enjoyed by this idiosyncratic tendency can be seen in the haunting images of heightened psychological tension in paintings of Balthus in France, or among postwar artists like Jared French and George Tooker in the United States. Looking beyond these instances, I would argue that the strategies laid bare in the interwar paintings of the Neorealists might allow us to reconsider the status of film—one of the most popular forms of entertainment at that time—as a new lens through which to re-examine the understudied aesthetic tendency of Magic Realism, as well as twentieth-century figuration more broadly. With its ability to modify expressions of time and space, yet base its imagery in reality, the cinema was uniquely qualified to capture modern man’s sense of dislocation in a rapidly-changing world.


The author would like to thank Dr. Emily Braun for her continued and invaluable suggestions from the earliest stages of this manuscript to the last. Carel Blotkamp and Sylvia Willink Quiël have also contributed important insights and resources in the initial stages of this research, while The Fulbright Association, the American Association for Netherlandic Studies, and the Council for European Studies must also be acknowledged for their financial support. I would also like to thank the reviewers and editors of Modernism/modernity for their helpful comments.

[1] See Neue Sachlichkeit, exhibition catalogue, May 1929, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam,  and Austellung “Neue Sachlichkeit”: deutsche Malerei seit dem Expressionismum: Städtische Kunsthalle Mannheim 14. Juni–13. September 1925 (Mannheim, Germany: Stadische Kunsthalle, 1925), exhibition catalogue.

[2] Theo van Doesburg began to introduce the Dutch art world to the return to figuration in Italy as early as 1925. See Theo van Doesburg, “De dood der modernismen,” De Stijl. Maandblad voor nieuwe kunst, wetenschap en kultuur 6, no. 9 (1924–25): 22–26.

[3] See A. M. Hammacher, “Charley Toorop,” Forum. Maandschrift voor Letteren en Kunst 1, no. 1 (1932): 53–57 and S. P. Abas, “Schilders van een andere werkelijkheid. Raoul Hynckes, Pijke Koch, Carel Willink,” De Vrije Bladen 14, no. 10 (1937): 1–22.

[4] Roh’s book was not published by the time of the Mannheim show but would be marketed for sale at the traveling version of the exhibition. See Christian Fuhrmeister, “Hartlaub and Roh: Cooperation and Competition in Popularising New Objectivity,” in New Objectivity Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919–1933 (Los Angeles, CA and New York: Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Del Monico Books/Prestel, 2015), 41–48, 44–46, exhibition catalogue.

[5] See Franz Roh, Nach-Expressionismus: Der magischer Realismus. Probleme der neuesten europäischen Malerei (Leipzig, Germany: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1925), especially “Die neuen Gegenstände,” 22–26.

[6] The term Neue Sachlichkeit was first introduced to the German public by Gustav Hartlaub in May of 1923 but came into wider use after the eponymous 1925 exhibition in Mannheim. Hartlaub used it to describe the artists emerging in Germany following World War I who exhibited a style that reflected a new vision of life in Weimar Germany after the war, referring to a direct engagement with the real world based in hard truths. The term Nieuwe Zakelijkheid was first recognized by the Rotterdam journal Forum (1932–35). Its use was short-lived, and was never adopted by the artists themselves, few of which embraced any single label when defining their work.

[7] Rose-Carol Washton Long has pointed out that Neue Sachlichkeit can be loosely translated to either New Tangibility or New Impartiality. See “The Critics and the ‘Demise’ of Expressionism,” in German Expressionism: Documents from the End of the Wilhelmine Empire to the Rise of National Socialism, ed. Rose-Carol Washton Long (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 279–80, 331n38. For further discussion of the meaning of Sachlichkeit, see Dennis Crockett, German Post-Expressionism: The Art of the Great Disorder 1918–1924 (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), xix.

[8] Robert Huerta, Giants of Delft: Johannes Vermeer and the Natural Philosophers: The Parallel Search for Knowledge during the Age of Discovery (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2003), 30.

[9] Marta Braun has shown how Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotographs provided modernist painters such as Marcel Duchamp with a model for depicting the passage of time in the way that his long exposures captured chronological continuity onto a single frame. See Marta Braun, Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904) (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 228–319.

[10] Tom Gunning, “Cinema and the New Spirit in Art Within a Culture of Movement,” in Picasso, Braque and Early Film in Cubism, (New York: Pace Gallery, 2007), 17–33. Marshall McLuhan also viewed Cubism as a reaction to the invention of the moving picture, and the sudden instantaneousness of the medium. See Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message,” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, ed. W. Terrence Gordon (Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press, 2003), 23–35.

[11] Wild claims that transparent projections of films that were often shown in working-class locations in Paris likely influenced Picasso and Braque’s use of transparent Cubist planes. See Jennifer Wild, “Seeing through Cinema,” in The Parisian Avant-Garde in the Age of Cinema, 1900–1923 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 32, 37.

[12] Art historians tend to emphasize the effect of Ket’s terminal illness on his work as well as his self-made dualistic philosophy. Willem Josiah de Gruyter and Alied Ottevanger have written the only two monographs on the artist. See Willem Josiah de Gruyter, Dick Ket: 1902–1940 (Arnhem, The Netherlands: Gemeentemuseum, 1968) and Alied Ottevanger, Dick Ket: over zijn leven, ideeën en kunst (Zwolle, The Netherlands and Arnhem, The Netherlands: Waanders/Gemeentemuseum, 1994).

[13] See Dick Ket to Agnes de Maas van de Moer, April 7, 1938, Dick Ket Collectie, box 1, inv. nr. 3, letter 90, Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie (The Netherlands Institute for Art History, or RKD), The Hague, The Netherlands.

[14] Dick Ket to Agnes de Maas van de Moer, December 3, 1939, Dick Ket Collectie, box 1, inv. nr. 4, letter 165, RKD, The Hague, The Netherlands.

[15] In 1930, Béla Balázs wrote about the physiognomy that film could bring out in inanimate objects. See Balázs, Early Film Theory: Visible Man and the Spirit of Film (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010), 46.

[16] S. P. Abas, “Raoul Hynckes’ Werk,” Elseviers geillustreerd maandschrift 45, no. 90 (1935): 156.

[17] See Rudolf Arnheim, “Film and Reality” (1933), in Film as Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 8–33.

[18] Two documents from what remain of the Filmliga files support the idea that Toorop was involved in the running of the organization. A letter from Toorop to Henrik Scholte dated September 14, 1927 asks when the matinee and “writer evenings” would be held for the movie Crainquebille (1922). In another letter from Toorop to Menno ter Braak dated September 20, 1927, she made a request to enroll Mr. and Mrs. Dr. Rimathé of Amstel 69 in Amsterdam. See Archief 52C, Filmliga Archivalia 1927–1933, Eye Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

[19] See Carel Blotkamp, “Pyke Koch,” Magisch Realisten en Tijdgenoten, ed. Jan Brand and Kees Boos (Zwolle, The Netherlands: Waanders Uitgevers/Museum Arnhem, 1992), 88–89, exhibition catalogue, and Paul Kempers, “Koch en de Filmliga,” in “Pyke Koch Issue,” special issue, Kunstschrift 54, no. 1 (2010): 30–32.

[20] See Ida Boelema, “Een verscherpte blik. Film en fotografie in de tijd van het neorealisme,” in de Schaduw van Morgen (Arnhem, The Netherlands: Musem voor Moderne Kunst Arnhem), 27–42, 30, exhibition catalogue. While the nature of Schuhmacher’s involvement with the Filmliga is not known, he was most certainly aware of it. In any case, the club sent him requests for help with design-related issues for the journal and Uitkijk movie theater and his wife, who was born in Riga and fluent in Russian, translated the writings for Soviet filmmakers. In a letter from Schuhmacher to the Filmliga dated October 13, 1928, the painter declines a request to design a magazine cover for the journal, claiming that his time was too limited. See Archief 52, Filmliga Archivalia 1927–1933, Eye Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. For discussion of Schuhmacher’s help with suggesting color advice for the Uitkijk Theater, see Jan van Geest, Wim Schuhmacher. De Meester van het Grijs (Arnhem, The Netherlands: Jan Brand Boeken, 1991), 164.

[21] Fritz Rosenfeld, “Tempo,” Filmliga 1, no. 4 (1927): 4–5.

[22] Joris Ivens, “Filmtechniek II: aantekening bij de twee afbeeldingen van filmstrooken,” Filmliga 1, no. 3 (1927–28): 8.

[23] This is the title of the only monograph written on Schuhmacher: Jan van Geest, Wim Schuhmacher. De Meester van het Grijs (Arnhem, The Netherlands: Jan Brand Boeken, 1991).

[24] Pudovkin’s film is based on a novel by Maxim Gorky.

[25] Wim Schuhmacher first screened Pudovkin’s Mother as a member of the Netherlands New Russia Society (Nederland-Nieuw Ruslandi; van Geest, Wim Schuhmacher, 23).

[26] Vsevolod Pudovkin, Film Technique and Film Acting: The Cinema Writings of V. I. Pudovkin (New York: Grove Press, 1954), xvii.

[27] See Johan Huizinga, Mensch en menigte in Amerika: vier essays over modern beschavingsgeschiedenis (Haarlem, The Netherlands: Tjeenk Willink, 1918), 105–6.

[28] S. P. Abas, “Kunst in Nederland,” De Indische Courant, November 12, 1932.

[29] C. J. Graadt van Roggen, “Dialogen,” Filmliga 4, no. 2 (1931): 22–26.

[30] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, 1935,” in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 19–55, 29–30.

[31] Sylvia Willink and Vincent Vlasblom, ed. Een Eeuw Willink 1900–1983 (Oss, The Netherlands: Kampert Drukwerk, 2000), 143.

[32] Alternatively titled The Letter.

[33] Cornelis Veth, “Moderne Schilders in Den Haag,” De Telegraaf, December 30, 1932, 5.

[34] Cornelis Veth, “Schilders en Beeldhouwers,” De Telegraaf, May 20, 1933, 6.

[35] S. P. Abas, “Schilderkunstkroniek,” De Indische Courant, December 28, 1929, 5.

[36] See Jouke Mulder, Willink’s Waarheid (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij De Fontein, 1983), 31.

[37] Willink’s issues of the Illustrierter Film-Kurier range from issue 6, 1920 to issue 83, 1922. They are still held in his archives in his former home at 15 Ruysdaelkade in Amsterdam.

[38] Koch owned a copy of two films starring Asta Nielsen: Nach dem Gesetz (Willy Grunwald, 1919) and Erdgeist (Leopold Jessner, 1923). For an analysis on Koch’s fetishization of Nielsen’s likeness, see Carel Blotkamp, “Der Fetisch des Malers Pyke Koch,” in Asta Nielsen (Vienna: Filmarchiv Austria, 2009), 269–80.

[39] Charley Toorop joined the Dutch Communist Party (Communistische Partij van Nederland) in 1947.

[40] Alois Riegl, The Group Portraiture of Holland, trans. Evelyn M. Kain and David Britt (Los Angeles, CA: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1999), 261.

[41] For a list of programs showing Soviet films in The Netherlands, visit

[42] See M. H. K. Franken, “Russische Filmregisseurs,” Filmliga 1, no. 11 (1928): 3–5.

[43] Carel Blotkamp, “Verborgen achter de maaltijd der vrienden,” Jong Holland 11, no. 1 (1995): 42–47.

[44] Hans van Meerten, “Ik-Film,” Filmliga 1, no. 5 (1928): 6–10, 7.

[45] See “De man met de filmcamera: Dziga Wertof, leider van een Russische filmschool, bezoekt ons land,” Voorwaarts, December 8, 1931, 9.

[46] The Corso Theater in Amsterdam held a screening of Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera (1929) on December 10, 1931, open to members of Filmliga and the Netherlands New Russia Society. See “Dziga Wertoff in Holland,” Orgaan van het Genootschap Nederland Nieuw Rusland (November–December 1931): 40.

[47] Dziga Vertov, “The Council of Three” (1923) and “The Essence of the Kino-Eye” (1925), in Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, trans. Kevin O’Brien, ed. Annette Michelson (London and Sydney: Pluto Press, 1984), 17–18, 50.

[48] The literature on Neorealism itself has become increasingly confined to Dutch-language publications in recent years, a fact that is perhaps unsurprising considering that the exposure of international audiences to the Neorealists has progressively narrowed with each decade since the postwar period could be said to have begun. International interest in Neorealism began with the exhibition De Bange Jaren ’30, Neorealisme in Het Nederland (The Fearful Thirties, Neorealism in The Netherlands), Museum Arnhem, Arnhem, 1960. It was such a success that it became well known abroad and its catalogue was translated into English, French, German, and Spanish.

[49] In the late 1970s and early 1980s, figurative painting, and Magic Realism in particular, came to be re-evaluated in major group shows such as Tendenzen der Zwanziger Jahre (Trends of the 1920), Europäische Kunstaustellung, Berlin, 1977 and Les Realismes, 1919–1939, Pompidou, Paris, 1980.

[50] Because of their popular and forward-looking style, which echoed the modern experience of the cinema, the work of Pyke Koch, Carel Willink, Raoul Hynckes, Dick Ket, and Wim Schuhmacher attracted the admiration of several prominent National Socialists following the German invasion of The Netherlands in 1940. This co-option took place despite their many stylistic and thematic references to alienation, and their varying degrees of complicity with the regime.