News — 18 Jun 2020
Helena van der Kraan began her working life as a graphic designer, but in the early 1970s she made the transition to photography. Born in Czechia, part of former Czechoslovakia, she fled her homeland following the Russian invasion and settled in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam she studied at the art and design school Ateliers ’63 , where she met the artist Axel van der Kraan, who became her partner. Initially she used the camera primarily to document the couple’s own sculptural work, but increasingly during the 1970s, photography became her true medium.
Van der Kraan’s oeuvre is at the same time classical, uniquely personal, and utterly immune to the influence of fashions and trends. At its essence it consists of portraits. Even her still lifes and photographs of animals ultimately fall into this category. Her final book, the recently published Portraits, comprises portraits of classic teddy bears: some proud, others endearing or grotesque; all of them of somewhat battered. ‘Cuddly’ is not the right adjective for these specimens. Van der Kraan treated her bears as individuals, as beings with their own character and life experience, and with respect for their history.
The people she photographed belonged to her immediate circle: her lovers and friends, artists and their children. Likewise, her still lifes are of objects from her own home and studio. But when it comes to meaning and significance, the great themes of love, friendship, family and memory take second place to the refined simplicity of her compositions, to the subtle gradations of tone and color, to the juxtaposition of fabrics and materials, and to the reflections of light in glass, metal and water.
Helena van der Kraan’s work centered on the act of looking. She once spoke of how as a teacher at the St. Joost academy of art and design in Breda, she would become exasperated by students who weighed down their work with detailed explanations and theories before she had even had a chance to look at it. She would send the student away, so that she could arrive at her own opinion in her own good time. What she found important, also in her own work, was defining what an image could or should be in terms of its visual aspect.
In a conversation with the artist, I once described her work as formal and tranquil. Van der Kraan responded that her background in graphic design had been crucial; to her, making an image was first and foremost about achieving a compelling composition on a flat surface. Her work is part of the bedrock of the Stedelijk collection: powerful and precise, timeless and touching.
Curator of Photography